Date: 27 Dec 2015
Text: Luke 1:26-38 & Matthew 1:18-25
There are no bit part players in the Christmas story; everyone who is mentioned in the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, mainly in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, has an important role to play. It’s true that some play a more important role than others but even so everyone mentioned is involved and is important.
Mary very obviously was important because she was the teenage maiden chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. The shepherds were important because they were the first people to whom the birth was announced. The Magi were important because even though they were from the East, and therefore not Jewish, they believed something big was about to happen when they decided to follow that star. Angels appear so often in the story playing a very active role that they almost seem to be narrators of events. Even Herod played a part since because of his murderous pledge to kill the baby Messiah, and if not Him then all baby boys under the age of two, Jesus and His family fled to Egypt. When the family did eventually return to Nazareth they fulfilled the prophecy in Hosea 11:1; where the prophet wrote, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” That prophecy is most definitely referring to Jesus.
The one person who I believe we sometimes forget in all this though is Joseph, the man betrothed to Mary. In some ways he almost blends into the background and yet he had a truly important part to play. I’m not suggesting that without Joseph there would be no Christmas story although I am suggesting that without him it could well have been quite a different story!
We first meet Joseph in Matthew 1:18 where the Apostle tells us that “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph”. A better word for their relationship would be the far stronger word “betrothed” which is used by the ESV. In our culture a couple tend to get engaged to be married and the man gives the woman a ring as a symbol of their engagement and commitment. However, in the Jewish culture of the time there were 3 steps towards a couple becoming man and wife. Firstly, the two families would agree to the arrangements; secondly, a public announcement would be made and the couple would be pledged to one another. This pledge or betrothal was far stronger than our engagement arrangements since it could only be broken by death or divorce. This arrangement was similar to marriage in that we see Joseph referred to in 1:19 as “her husband” even though they were yet to be married. The relationship would, however, remain unconsummated until after the wedding. Thirdly, the couple would get married and then live together as man and wife.
Matthew helpfully tells us in 1:18b that “before they came together, she [that is Mary] was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit”. Whilst Mary obviously knew how she had become pregnant, the community most certainly didn’t. Since their relationship had not been consummated Joseph would have been perfectly within his rights to divorce Mary on the grounds of adultery since he knew that the baby she was carrying was definitely not his. However, because of the cause of such a divorce there was every likelihood that Mary would have been stoned to death in accordance with the Jewish civil law outlined in Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Just imagine what that would have meant for the wonderful Christmas story!
Joseph was faced with a huge dilemma and was torn both ways; he didn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace” and yet he knew that he wasn’t the father of the expected baby. In our society of course we read all too often of girls who become pregnant and whose boyfriend, the father, then disappears leaving the girl to deal with the pregnancy and birth without him. Thankfully, in Western society stoning girls for adultery died out centuries ago although we do know that it still continues in Islamic society.
Joseph, though, was a man of integrity and didn’t want to do anything that would harm Mary. As he considered his options “an angel of the Lord appeared to him” and told him what was happening. The angel even told him that Mary was going to give birth to a boy and they should name Him Jesus. Joseph suddenly had a lot to deal with in a very short space of time; he had become betrothed to be married, learned that his prospective wife was pregnant but not by him, and then had an angel appear to him in a dream. His mind must have been in a complete whirl!
As soon as he awoke from this dream Joseph did exactly what the angel had told him to do and married Mary, although quite when that happened we don’t know. He didn’t, though, consummate their relationship until after Jesus had been born.
Joseph as Father
I think that many fathers would agree that they have very little to do in the very early years of their baby’s life; mother does most of what needs to be done while fathers work to pay the bills! That doesn’t stop fathers caring and worrying about their children though, and Joseph was no different as we are given regular glimpses of how he cared for Jesus as the Lord grew.
In his version of the story Matthew tells us of the visit of the Magi, those wise men who had followed that bright star for quite a long time and who were determined to find the baby born to be the Messiah. Following their encounter with the evil Herod, the Magi were told by an angel to return to their homeland by a different route, something they gladly did.
It is at this point that the chronology of the story as reported in the Gospels seems to go slightly adrift. We always assume that the Wise Men appeared whilst Jesus and His parents were in the stable in Bethlehem. However, many scholars believe that this was not the case and that they actually turned up quite a while later and not in Bethlehem! The account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew mentions that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then talks about the Magi and their long trek to find “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Interestingly enough that title is not used again until the crucifixion of Jesus! Matthew’s account contains no mention of the stable or the shepherds or indeed, of the angels.
However, when we look at Luke’s version of the story we see a much more detailed account of the events surrounding the birth which includes the stable, the shepherds and the angels but not the Magi. Luke’s account does though include mention of Jesus being presented in the Temple when He was 8 days old. The Jewish custom was to present an 8 day old boy to be circumcised and Joseph, being an obedient Jewish father, would have taken Jesus to the Temple for the ceremony. Mary & Joseph would also have taken with them an offering of either “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24b). When Jesus and His family were at the Temple they had an interesting encounter with Anna and Simeon, although I don’t propose to go into the full story of that encounter right now. Neither Luke nor Matthew mentions a further presentation that may well have taken place. It was a further Jewish custom for the firstborn of any family to be presented in the Temple when they were 40 days old. As I’ve just mentioned I believe Joseph to have been a good and faithful Jewish father and so I’m sure that he would have presented Jesus in accordance with the existing Jewish laws.
Returning to Luke’s account we see that after the wise men had departed “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” (2:13). Once again God communicated with Joseph via an angel, and once again Joseph did exactly as he was told. The original version of the NIV tells us that Joseph “was a righteous man” (1:19), he was faithful to God and willing to obey Him at all times hence once again heeding the instructions given to him by the angel. On this occasion he gathered his family together and hurried off to Egypt. God was in control and it was God, through an angel, Who had told Joseph to go to Egypt and because Joseph was faithful, honourable and obedient, he did exactly as God told him. How many of us can honestly say that we do that, or that we would do that? In these modern times so few people appear to involve God in their lives that it seems almost inconceivable that they would listen to God and obey His bidding. Joseph was different and he was more than happy to trust God and do as God told him.
Because Herod decreed that all baby boys under the age of two should be murdered, we can deduce that Mary, Joseph and Jesus must have stayed in Egypt for a little over two years. Notice though in Luke 2:19-20, that it wasn’t Joseph who made the decision to return to Nazareth but an angel who told him to do so. Joseph didn’t hesitate, and we get the impression from 2:21 that he responded almost immediately and once more gathered his family together to take them on another long trek. Once again Joseph was obedient to God’s command and trusted Him to care for them all.
Jesus Aged 12
Unfortunately scripture doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus between the ages of 2 and 12 and so we can only imagine what He got up to. We do know that Joseph was a carpenter and hopefully we can see that he was a very concerned father. I think, therefore, that it is reasonable to suggest that Joseph would have taken the young Jesus into his workshop and taught Him the skills associated with carpentry. Not only that but as a young Jewish boy, albeit the Messiah, Jesus would also have attended the Jewish school at the local synagogue.
We next read about Jesus and His parents in Luke 2:42 when Jesus was about 12. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents travelled to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. Whether or not Jesus went with them is difficult to determine but we do know that “when he was 12 years old, they went up to the festival, according to custom” (Luke 2:42). Jewish boys would normally have their Jewish initiation ceremony, their bar mitzvah, when they are 13 years old and so perhaps there was a connection with that. Whatever the reason though, on this occasion Jesus accompanied His parents on their annual pilgrimage. However, as can frequently happen with 12 year olds, He disappeared and His parents couldn’t find Him.
In Luke’s narrative of this event, Joseph isn’t mentioned directly; rather, Luke only talks of “his parents”. On their way home, Mary & Joseph both assumed that Jesus was with other members of their party and so didn’t worry. It was only when they had been travelling for a day that they realised that Jesus wasn’t with them. Consequently they returned to Jerusalem to search for Him; a search that lasted for 3 days. Joseph may not have been Jesus’ biological father but I doubt that that stopped him from worrying about what may have happened to Jesus. Joseph would have been like any other parent and would have been extremely worried, especially after what amounts to 4 days without having seen his ‘son’. Just think about the Television & Radio news bulletins and newspaper headlines that are generated in this country when a child goes missing. Hundreds of Police and volunteers tend to be mustered to conduct searches until the child is found one way or another. On this occasion though we get the feeling that only Mary & Joseph were involved in searching for the missing boy.
Luke doesn’t tell us any more once Jesus had been found. We know that Mary was cross with Him and told Him, no doubt quite sternly, that “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You” (Luke 2:48). We see no mention of anger or strong rebuke as Mary & Joseph were no doubt simply relieved at having found Him safe and well, especially given Jesus’ comments when they did find Him.
Following that story we read nothing more of Joseph. We do know that he continued in his trade as a carpenter and that he had a number of other children with Mary. But as for any further involvement with Jesus: nothing.
Throughout this story we can see that Joseph always behaved as an honourable man. He was devout, faithful and obedient to God and he very obviously cared greatly for Mary. If he didn’t care for her then he could very easily have ignored the angel and divorced Mary leaving her to her own fate. He didn’t do that though; he trusted God and did as God told him. I believe that that took great courage and integrity; there are very few men who would go ahead with a proposed marriage knowing that their intended was pregnant by someone else. And yet, that is exactly what Joseph did, he trusted Mary and more importantly he trusted God.
Joseph comes across to me as a wonderful man, faithful and obedient to God, trusting of his wife, and happy to be the earthly father of the Saviour of the world. If there were more fathers like him the world would undoubtedly be a better place.
We can all learn from Joseph whether we are fathers or parents or not. He was caring, trusting and obedient. He lovingly cared for Jesus and raised Him as an ordinary child which is probably exactly what God wanted. God knows everything that happens and everything that is going to happen and I’ve no doubt that He was more than happy to have Joseph be Jesus’ earthly father. Let’s give thanks to God for His amazing and wisdom filled plan, and for Joseph being such an obedient and loving father.