Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/21/1997
18 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 Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. 20 But 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 that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bear a Son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins." 22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which translated means "God with us." 24 And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife. 25 And he kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called his name Jesus.
The Christmas story has had its every conceivable angle looked at, poked into, and covered with commentary. One point that seems to me to get less attention than it deserves is the unsung hero of the Incarnation: Joseph, the husband of Mary and human step-father of Jesus.
The incarnation of our Lord is a great mystery, and hence so is the divine-human Person of Christ. Scripture teaches us that he was both fully human and fully God. How one person could have both of these two natures I will not even attempt to explain. But I would note that if Jesus was indeed really human, then his human personality was shaped at least in part by experience. Luke tells us that "the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him" (Lk. 2:40). He also tells us that he "kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (2:52). Pay careful attention to the words "grow" and "increase," particularly the fact that Jesus had to increase in wisdom. As God, Jesus was omniscient; but as man, he had to grow up and figure things out. His wisdom had to develop in response to more experience of life, just like ours does. Because he was sinless, he responded differently to his upbringing than we do, making the best use of it and not rebelling against it. But his human side was still shaped by it and had to learn from it. Therefore, part of God's plan to insure that his Son would develop into the man he was meant to be was to plan just the right influences to be part of his childhood years. I think part of that providential plan was choosing the perfect earthly father to raise the Son of Man.
There is in this passage an almost uncanny foreshadowing of the later personality of Jesus in the hints we get about the character of Joseph, his human father. Joseph shows in fact three specific character traits that made him the perfect role model and influence for the developing Son of God.
The first of these character traits is Grace. Think how betrayed Joseph must have felt when his fiancÚ, Mary, turned up pregnant. He knew he was not the father. And instead of admitting her guilt, instead of showing any remorse for her sin, she then brazenly came up with this cock-and-bull story about being made pregnant by God! Yeah, right. Let's have no pious nonsense about how he should have believed her story before it was confirmed by the Angel. There's not a man in this room, no matter how much he trusted his intended, who would have swallowed a story like that just on her say-so. How blasphemous can you get? How could she? If ever a man was justified in feeling righteous anger, it was Joseph. He would have been well within his rights to have had Mary publicly denounced, shamed, and stoned to death as an adulteress. And it was adultery, worse than fornication, for Jewish betrothals were considered binding--that's why, even though they were not yet formally married, a divorce was necessary to end the relationship. Public shaming and stoning would have been the normal result of this situation, even without the added provocation of the lame story blaming God for it.
Just imagine what Joseph's emotions must have been! Yet he decided to divorce Mary as quietly as he could, to "put her away privily" as the King James so quaintly puts it. And I submit to you that this is one of the most kind, tender, and merciful acts on record in the history of mankind. And it must stand here as the expression of a deep-rooted trait in Joseph's heart, one that Jesus would have ample opportunity to observe in action, not to mention the impact that this family story would have had on him. Is it surprising then how Joseph's son treats the woman taken in adultery? When everyone around was ready to stone her, Jesus invites the one without sin to cast the first stone. And then when they have all departed in shame, he utters those astoundingly joyful, life and destiny-changing words, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." Matthew would summarize Jesus' character with the interesting imagery that he was not one to "quench the smoking flax" (Mat. 12:20). Even his last words to Judas were delivered privately, so cryptically that only Judas could really understand them. No public shaming even there. And then from the Cross itself: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Looks like a chip off the old block to me.
Now, do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to minimize the fact that Jesus did these things, showed this grace, as the Son of God, and because he was the Son of God. I am not trying to allow Joseph to share the credit or to share any of the glory that accrues rightly to Jesus because he was the definitive expression into this world of the Father's gracious attitude toward us, shown most profoundly on the Cross. I am simply pointing out an aspect of the unsearchable wisdom of God that is often missed: because God wanted his Son to show us divine grace, he gave him an earthly father who would show him that grace expressed in human terms while he was increasing in wisdom. The same is true of the other traits we will look at. And if the Text brings these three traits in Joseph's personality into focus for us as the key to Jesus' development, then how important is it for us to emulate them too, as we see them in both Jesus and his earthly father? Joseph is then a portrait of Christlike character most useful both for pointing us to what we should look for in Christ himself, and in giving us one more portrait of those things to help us understand them and follow them ourselves.
The second character trait that stands out in Joseph is his Faith. It is important to see that Joseph was not a gullible man. He did not believe Mary's story at first, any more than we would have if we had been in his position. And Matthew's narrative implies no blame for that. But I would submit to you that even with seeing an angel in a dream telling you that it was really true, this story would take some believing. I think even the angel's confirmation would not have been enough unless it had fit with Joseph's experience of Mary's character before the revelation of her pregnancy. I can imagine him saying, "I can't believe she would do such a thing!" In spite of the clear evidence that she had, there must have been some serious cognitive dissonance in his mind. And the angel's message cleared it up. Part of him was probably saying, "I knew she must have been telling the truth after all!"
My point is that faith is not gullibility, though it is often confused with gullibility by the gullible. But that is a trait we do not see in Joseph at all. Faith is not believing contrary to the evidence (though often the evidence seems to speak with a divided voice, as here). Faith is doing what we have good reason to do: trust God. But it is more than that. Faith is having the courage to trust God even when it is difficult. Faith is the courage to trust God even when it is difficult, and to follow through on that trust. Joseph knew that difficulty. Even a dream about an angel hardly counts as proof; he was still walking by faith and not by sight when he decided to trust. And the difficulty was not just that of believing the story. The timing of the birth meant that there were going to be uncomfortable questions that Joseph would have do deal with for the rest of his life. By accepting Mary he was accepting a lifetime of defending both his decision and her, a life of having his own reputation as clouded as hers would be. His faith was not a cheap acceptance of a certain opinion about Mary. It was shown in the fact that he obeyed the angel's command and married her. That is biblical faith.
Jesus as a human boy would need to see that kind of trust in God modeled for him as well. His whole ministry was founded on trust in the Father. His temptation in the wilderness was framed precisely in those terms: "If you're really the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." It was an issue of trust. If you want to see faith in action, look into the Garden of Gethsemane: "Yet not my will but thine be done." And think of Jesus on the Cross. As a human being, I do not think he could see the Resurrection, walking toward it by sight. I don't see him going to his death saying, "It will be OK, because I know I'm going to rise again." If he was tempted in all points like as we are, then he had to die on the Cross trusting that the Father would not reject him forever or let his soul see corruption. Once again, God knew what he was doing when he arranged for Jesus' upbringing. Do we have faith like that?
The third character trait that we see in Joseph is an unusual capacity for self sacrifice and devotion. Some of us know what it is to keep ourselves pure throughout those horrible, hormone-ridden teenage years and early twenties. And we know what it is to anticipate the wedding night, when that long period of heroic self discipline will finally come to an end and two people in love will be able to enjoy one another without restrictions. But Joseph came to his wedding night, and a goodly number of nights afterward too, anticipating only the first-century equivalent of a cold shower. And yet we see in him no outward signs of frustration, only tenderness and loving care toward Mary. The text implies that after Jesus was born Joseph and Mary enjoyed a normal married life. But for a while, Joseph gladly laid down his own "rights" for the sake of what God was doing, and so there could be no confusion about Jesus' divine parentage. Jesus would show a like devotion to the will of God--it was his "meat and drink" to do it--and toward his people, healing the multitudes when he needed rest and time alone, washing the disciples' feet. And he calls upon us to live in like manner--something we can learn not only from Jesus himself, but also from the man who showed it to him when he was growing in wisdom.
Here are three traits prominent in the Son of God who was also the Son of Man, and prominent first in the man that God chose to raise him. They should be prominent in us as well. From now on, when we think of the Christmas story, let us be reminded of them, and of the man who modeled them so well for his foster Son--and for us.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams