The Christmas Story reminds me of a central, though silent character in the drama of Christ’s birth - Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. He made choices. He could have turned and walked away. Instead, he undertook willingly and obediently what could arguably have been the most impossible task in the universe - to be the stepfather for the Son of God. He was obedient, at great personal cost, choosing to be what he didn’t have to be. And it all began with an angelic visitor, as was the case with Mary and with the shepherds.
Tradition has held that Joseph was significantly older than Mary, an assumption based on the likelihood that he was dead when Jesus began His public ministry. Perhaps Joseph had waited many years to marry. And now he anticipated the consummation of his marriage to his young bride. Their betrothal meant that they were legally bound to each other, though not yet living together as husband and wife.
Imagine Joseph’s heartache, then, when he heard that Mary, his pure young fiancée, was pregnant! Her apparent betrayal must have rocked his world.
We are not told that Joseph had any contact with Mary personally about the matter. Very likely her father ashamedly approached Joseph with the news. What was he going to do? Mathew fills in the blanks for us, giving us a window into the quiet character of Joseph’s heart.
|Joseph’s dream. Pic courtesy lib-art.com
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Sprit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her planned to send her away secretly” (Mt. 1:18-19).
If word of Mary’s pregnancy got out, he would be publicly humiliated, an object of pity and ridicule. Although there were no sexual relations between bride and groom during the betrothal period, the arrangement was legally binding and could be ended only by a divorce. But instead of revenge or retribution, Joseph looked for ways to protect Mary while still obeying the law of Moses.
As Joseph was wrestling with this dilemma, and apparently deciding to end the betrothal quietly, he received a special message from the same messenger who had previously visited Mary:
“When he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:20-23)
The word considered in verse 20 is significant. It speaks of deep meditation and intense thought, and shows the degree to which Joseph wrestled with the dilemma. It is also a word whose meaning is synonymous with the “pondering” Mary did after her own visit from the angel Gabriel!
An angelic messenger with a heavenly message is no small thing. And the elements of the message are overwhelmingly significant.
- Joseph’s position as a descendant of the great King David, hero of Israel’s past, places his stepson in the line of the royal family.
- The Holy Spirit is the source of Mary’s pregnancy: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
- The child’s name Jesus, will describe His mission (“He will save His people from their sins”).
- The child’s birth will be a fulfillment of prophecy from the Jewish Scriptures, explaining not just why the child was coming, but who He was (“God with us”).
The message of the angel was both good news and bad.The good news was that Mary had not been unfaithful to him after all. He could marry her without doubts about her purity or her commitment to him. The bad news? Who would ever believe it? How could he explain to friends and family the true nature of Mary’s pregnancy? Surely such as story would be seen as absurd, and he would be branded a fool for believing such nonsense.
Once again, Joseph stood at a crossroads of choice, a choice between self-protection and obedience.
“Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin. She gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” (Mt. 1:24-25). Obedience was Joseph’s response to a deeply difficult life situation. It was not an easy or painless obedience, and it did not come without cost. It was, however, not the only time that obedience would be the hallmark of his life.
For two millennia, the beginning of the Christmas story has been heralded by the familiar words. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (LK. 2:1kjv). This passage concisely and clearly describes the reality of the world in which Joseph lived. Rome ruled with absolute authority, and either you submitted to that power or you were crushed under its weight.
The events surrounding Christ’s birth, however, also serve as an impressive reminder that human government does not operate independently or in a vacuum. In Galatians 4:4 we are told that “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law.” Part of the “fullness of time” was a divine orchestration of the events of human history to prepare the stage for the arrival of the Christ.
Bible scholars differ in their opinions about whether or not Mary could have been excused from the difficult (and dangerous) journey to Bethlehem for the census because of her advanced pregnancy. But whatever the legal case might have been at the time, Joseph followed the edict to the letter by going to Bethlehem to be counted in the imperial census.
This may seem a small thing, but I don’t think so. I think it reveals the heart of this man and his complete obedience to the One who instructed His followers (and us) about our relationship with the “powers that be.” It’s an indication of a heart that recognizes the function of authority and accepts it.
As a result of Joseph’s obedience, the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, as Micah 5:2 had prophesied.
We see Joseph’s next involvement in the story in an event that was without doubt his responsibility, though he is not named in the text. It was very important to a faithful Jewish man that the requirements of the law regarding the birth of a child be honoured. The Mosaic law demanded certain sacrificial rituals, set forth in these Old Testament mandates:
= Every Jewish male child had to be circumcised. This marked them as sons of Abraham (Gen. 17). First practised at the direct command of the voice of God, circumcision became incorporated into Jewish law through Moses as a way of keeping of God distinct and separate from the pagan cultures that surrounded them.
= A sacrifice had to be made for the purification of the new mother (Lev. 12). This would have taken place 40 days after the birth of the child, male or female. The fact that Joseph and Mary offered turtledoves or pigeons as a sacrifice shows that they were not wealthy, as those of means were required to offer a lamb.
It would have been the father’s task to fulfil the requirements of the law. And though he is not named in this passage, we can safely assume that Joseph fulfilled the expectations of the law after Christ’s birth, preparing the way for the One who would later say: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil” (Mt. 5:17).
The Christ who would bring all the law to its true and complete fulfillment followed in the footsteps of an earthly stepfather who took obedience to God seriously. In all he did, Joseph exemplified the spirit of submission that God expects and deserves from His children.
Before Joseph’s final appearance in the pages of the Bible, where we find him visiting the temple at Jerusalem with Mary and 12 year old Jesus (LK. 2), we see him faced with two more opportunities to obey or disobey.
The magi’s visit alarmed Herod, who viewed the birth of a new king as a clear and present danger to the stability and longevity of his own kingdom. The repercussions of the magi’s visit to Bethlehem must have been equally troubling for Joseph, albeit in an entirely different way. After these mysterious strangers showed up on the doorstep, another angelic messenger alerted Joseph to the danger hanging over their head.
When Joseph received the warning from the angel, he didn’t hesitate. The journey to Egypt would be long, and even dangerous in itself. But with Herod’s threats, they could not stay in Bethlehem. Joseph’s willingness to obey the angel’s warning provided the first of many escapes from peril that Jesus experienced. The One who was often heard to say, “My hour has not yet come”, would survive this and other threats until the moment arrived for His death on the cross-a death that would fulfil the law, remove the need for further sacrifice, and redeem a sin-filled world.
Joseph’s obedience was part of the preparation for the ministry and accomplishment of the Son who “learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb 5:8).
When we look at the Christmas story through the window of Joseph’s experience, we clearly see his constant heart of obedience. Facing choice after choice after choice, he responded obediently to each challenge set before him.
The beauty of obedience has been somewhat tarnished in our “have it your way” world where “doing your own thing” has become the rallying cry. Yet, there is still a simple, quiet beauty to the obedient heart. It speaks against the rebellious nature of our fallenness and points us to a better way. It shows us the wisdom of taking God seriously and the folly of self-determination. It reminds us that God is sovereign and we are not-and that this is the way it is supposed to be.
In his excellent book ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’, Eugene Peterson says this:
Friedrich Nietzsch wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth is…. That there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living” it is this “long obedience in the same direction” which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.
The “long run”. A “long obedience”. Joseph chose to live such a life of obedient trust in a world that discourages long-term commitment in favour of instant gratification. And as we face the challenge to ignore or obey, to follow the Master or go our own path, Joseph left us an example well worth following.
The Scripture doesn’t record the words of Joseph. He’s not seen as someone who initiates; he responds.
He doesn’t take centre stage; he works behind the scenes. But the abiding characteristic of his consistent example is his willingness to obey God. Apparently, he had long before learned to trust God. In fact, Joseph’s obedience teaches us that trust and obedience are inseparable. If we do not first trust God, we will never surrender our choice and destinies to His purposes. And if we do not obey God, we will never see the great and humbling things He wishes to accomplish in and through our lives. No wonder one of the most beloved hymns of the church echoes this simple truth:
Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.