I had always thought of Joseph…when I bothered to think about him at all…as the strong, silent type, playing a supporting role for the stars of the Christmas show, Jesus and Mary. In the cast of Christmas, his role seemed rather minor, more of a passenger than a driver. But then one year, God stopped me there in Matthew 1. I slowed down and really considered all the challenges Joseph faced, all the moments when he could have acted differently, and all the faithfulness he demonstrated in just two chapters of the Bible. He is the human driver of this story and a man who deserves our attention.
Joseph had at least
four angelic dreams.
Notice the sequence of events here in Matthew 1 and 2. (I had it backward until just the other day, so don’t be embarrased.) First, he learns that Mary is pregnant, then there’s a time of indecision, then the dream with an angel, then officially taking pregnant Mary as his wife. Even after the Baby is born, we’re only part-way through the story. In another dream, he gets another command—this time to run away to Egypt so that Jesus doesn’t get killed. A couple of years later, the same angel appears again to tell him it’s safe to go back to Israel, but on the way, he learns (in yet another dream) that Judea isn’t safe enough, so he relocates his family to Nazareth, in Galilee. By the way, all these moves fulfill all kinds of prophecies. Check your notes in you study Bible if you want to dig into that aspect of the story.
Let’s take a few minutes to step into Joseph’s sandals back there in Nazareth at the very beginning of this story…
The News that Wrecks a Life
Joseph doesn’t get the benefit of a pre-conception angelic announcement. He hears about Mary’s pregnancy the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. I want to think that Mary told him. (See last week’s post for more about Mary.) I hope it wasn’t the town gossip, the guys at the barber shop, or a nosy aunt.
Think about all the emotions he must have experienced after he heard the news…
- Skepticism: Was Mary telling the truth about the Immaculate Conception? (You don’t get to use that phrase every day…) As wonderful as she was, what was the likelihood?
Joseph was more interested
in doing the right thing
than in saving his reputation.
Compassion: He liked, maybe even loved, Mary and he didn’t want her to be exposed, judged, and stoned according to the Mosaic law (Deut 22:22-24). He needed to find another solution for their dilemma. Note that he has already taken ownership in the situation. He could have simply rejected Mary the moment he heard the news, but he was more interested in doing the right thing than in saving his reputation.
- Anxiety: If he didn’t expose Mary, people would think poorly of him because either (a) he was a push-over for taking a ‘tainted’ woman or (b) he lacked the self-control to wait for their wedding night.
- Shame: Having already entered into a marriage contract with Mary and her family, Mary’s action reflected poorly on him regardless of what he decided.
- Fear of the future: No matter what he did now, his carefully-planned-out life was about to crumble at his feet.
From the moment Joseph heard the news about Mary, I think he was praying. Maybe he called in a couple of trusted friends to pray with him; maybe he went to his rabbi.
Joseph’s faithfulness to the law and his years of studying the Scriptures
prepared him for this situation—whether he knew it or not.
How long did he pray? We don’t know. At some point, Mary went to Elizabeth’s for three months, so it could have been as long as that. Or it might have been less than one day. Finally, he decided to divorce Mary quietly (1:19). But then he fell asleep one night…
The Dream that Changes Everything
That first dream must have been the most welcome event EVER (1:20-23). I’m sure there was a radical shift in Joseph’s emotions afterward!
- Relief: Mary hadn’t lied or been unfaithful. In fact, she was the top choice of God Himself! He had chosen a wife well.
- Confidence: God not only saw his situation, but actively orchestrated it. Even though life still wouldn’t go back to normal, he knew God was sovereign (in that experiential way, not just because he’d read it in a book).
- Fear of the Lord: Such sovereignty wasn’t to be taken lightly. In the future, he would pay careful attention to God’s workings and follow Him even more closely. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
- Heredity: For forty-two generations (Matthew 1:17), the Hebrew people had been watching for the One who would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2). Even before that, God foretold of the One who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Like the author of Hebrews talked about such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), perhaps Joseph felt those generations looking now to him.
- Responsibility: Joseph knew his Scriptures. He knew all the Messianic prophecies. He knew how long his people had been waiting. Now God had chosen him to be the earthly father of the Messiah…to teach him how to live in the world, how to be a Jewish man, how to honor God through following the law. That’s pretty significant.
- Acceptance: I think Joseph released that carefully-planned-out life, exchanging it for the exhilaration of true obedience.
I’ve never had a dream in which an angel appeared to me and told me what to do. I wish I had. Some of the decisions I’ve had to make would have been much easier! You probably feel the same way. These days, we have the Holy Spirit, so God doesn’t often resort to dream appearances. We still go through the same emotions though, as we pray and search for His answer. Joseph woke up from the dream and obeyed. That’s our model.
Joseph to Mary: “Let me
share your shame.”
There’s something else here that’s really beautiful and encouraging for us. God provided Joseph as a partner for Mary. Yes, in the marital sense, but also in the spiritual sense. Throughout the Scriptures, He rarely asks individuals to “go it alone” (except for the prophets). I think of Daniel and his friends, David and Jonathan, Mary and Martha, the disciples going two-by-two. In Joseph, Mary had the firm pillar she needed to support her…even if he wasn’t much help with the childbirth.
I hope you’ve seen something fresh in Joseph today. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!