"Joseph - A Christmas Hero of Faith"
(Delivered Christmas Sunday Service, December 19, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
Christmas is when we celebrate the most important event in history. I don't believe I'm exaggerating things when I say that, or that I'm simply making a bold statement for effect. I truly believe that what we celebrate on Christmas is a genuine, historic event; and that this particular event is the single most important event in all of human history.
When I say that, I often think of something I heard a famous talk-show personality say. Many people have grown to look up to this particular man the best interviewer in the business; and he was once asked, if he could go back in time and interview any person from history, who it would be he would choose to interview. Immediately, he said he would choose to interview Jesus Christ. When asked what one question he would most want to ask Jesus, the interviewer said that he'd ask, "Are you virgin born?" When asked why, he gave this reason: "Because all of history hinges on the answer."
I believe that interviewer was absolutely right. Why would all of history hinge on that question? It's because the proposition of the Christian faith is that the Son of God has condescended to be born into the human family in order to become the Savior of the world. That's what Christmas is all about. If that is not true, then it makes absolutely no sense at all to worship Jesus or celebrate His birth; but if it is true, then everything else the Bible says about Him is true, and it makes absolute sense to place our faith in Him for our salvation. To put it another way: if the virgin conception of Jesus is not true, nothing in the world really matters; but if it is true, nothing else in the world really matters!
Now as believers, we all know this, don't we? We know that we truly have good news to pass on to the world. But in the midst of all the other things that have grown to accompany the Christmas season, it's easy to forget what's important. That's one reason why I'm very glad that we're all together this morning. It's a good thing to set aside a Sunday just before the Christmas holiday, so we can remember what it's all about and to get ourselves rightly oriented to what's truly important.
And to help us do that, I'd like for us to look together in the Bible at someone who is - as I see it - one of the great heroes of Christmas: Joseph. We don't very often give much thought to him; and that's sad. But he would be very good to think about today, because there are some important lessons for us to learn from Joseph on how to respond to the great proposition of Christmas.
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There are only a few pieces of background information we have about Joseph. He apparently lived the city of Nazareth (Luke 1:26-27); but had his family roots in Bethlehem (2:4). He also know that he was a Jew of the tribe of Judah (Luke 3:33); and was of royal blood, being of the linage of King David through David's son Solomon. And of course, we know that he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55).
But those mere facts don't really give us insight into the man himself. the Bible also gives a wonderful description of him that really says one of the most important things we can know about him: that he was "a just man" - or, as it is in the New International Version, "a righteous man". That was God's verdict of him. What a wonderful thing it would be to have that as the permanent testimony about you in the record of scripture - that you were "a just man"! And the fact is that when we read about him in the pages of the Bible, we don't read anything bad or negative about him. He is presented as a man characterized by tender kindness and mercy (Matthew 1:19), faithful conformity to God's law (Luke 2:22-24, 41-42), sensitivity and obedience to God's unique leading in his life (Matthew 1:24; 2:13-14, 19-20, 22), and a devotion to the care and protection of his family. He seems to be a devoted husband and adopted father - a truly good man. He was as fallen in Adam as the rest of us, to be sure; but clearly, he was a fallen man who had faith in God's grace, and who lived a righteous life in the light of that grace.
And what's more, it's clear that God had a very unique call on Joseph's life. He was to be the man who would pass on his royal heritage to Jesus as the Son of King David. Jesus was the Son of Joseph only through adoption, not through physical descendency. It was through Mary that the physical linage of David was passed on to Jesus; so that Jesus truly was the physical Son of David. But it was through Joseph that God's covenant promise to King David was passed on to Jesus by inheritance. So, because He was not only born of the virgin Mary but also the legal heir of David's throne through Joseph, He was in every respect the promised King - the descendent of David. And just think of this: Joseph was given by God the great privilege of living on earth with the Son of God for a very long period of time; providing the physical protection and nurture our Savior needed during His growing up years. Joseph lived in the physical presence of Jesus Christ longer than any other man that we know of. What a honor to have been entrusted with!
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Of course, we're not here today to turn the spotlight on Joseph. Jesus is the focus of our attention this Christmas. But that's why we can learn so much from Joseph. His example teaches us how to respond to the truth about Jesus this Christmas season.
The great proposition of Christmas is that the Son of God has been born into the human family to be our Savior. What can we learn from Joseph's response to the great proposition? The first thing that we learn is . . .
1. DON'T FEAR TO BE IDENTIFIED WITH CHRIST.
Joseph's story really begins with the announcement of Jesus' birth first being given to his intended bride Mary. You know the story very well, don't you? The angel Gabriel came suddenly to her and told her, "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women" (Luke 1:28). She was afraid when she heard this; and the Bible tells us that this saying "troubled" her as she tried to understand it. So the angel told her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (vv. 30-33).
Mary, of course, asked how such a thing could be, since she was a virgin. She was promised to Joseph and would soon become his wife; but she had not yet known a man. How could it be that she could bear such a Son? And the angel explained the miracle to her: ""The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (v. 35). And after telling her this, the angel sent her away to be with her cousin Elizabeth; and there she stayed for three months (v. 56)
Now you need to know all of that to appreciate Joseph's situation. We're given many of the details of his situation in Matthew 1:18-25. After three months time, his intended bride comes back to Nazareth - and lo and behold, he discovers that she's pregnant! It's hard to imagine how broken-hearted poor Joseph must have been, because it's clear that he truly loved Mary. I'm sure that Mary told him what the angel had said to her; but it would be hard to blame Joseph if he responded skeptically.
It was a very serious matter for a betrothed woman to be discovered unfaithful to her intended husband. In ancient times, it was considered almost as serious as adultery. And so, being an honorable man, it became clear to Joseph that he had no choice but to "put her away" and terminate their plans for marriage. But being also a just and gentle man - and because he loved her - he intended to do so privately, and not make a public spectacle of her.
But it was then that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. He told him; "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). And when the dream was over - and it must have been a very convincing dream! - Joseph woke up from his sleep and did as the angel had commanded him. He took Mary - in her first trimester of pregnancy - to be his wife. And the Bible tells us that he protected the testimony to the miracle of the virgin conception in that he "did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS" (v. 25).
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When Joseph took Mary to be his wife - and thus took Jesus under his care as his own child by adoption - he embraced to himself the one that, by God's own testimony, was born of a virgin. But I say this with the utmost reverence: Joseph also embraced to himself what would be considered, in the eyes of many around him, a scandal when he embraced the Son of Mary. We can see hints that this scandal even continued into the adult years of our Lord. The Jews who were in opposition to Jesus once insulted Him by saying, "Where is Your Father?" (John 8:19). Later on, they said to Him, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father - God" (v. 41). They were, of course, responding to some of the things that Jesus asserted about Himself and His unique relationship to His heavenly Father; and yet, it's hard not to sense that they were insinuating something contemptible in those words.
That, I believe, is part of the reason that Joseph was "afraid" to take Mary to be his wife. He was a just man. What would others think of the situation if he took Mary and the Child under his care? How would others view him and his relationship with her? But after God had spoken, Joseph no longer worried about what others would think. Instead, he trusted completely in what God had said. He believed God's testimony; and nothing else mattered to him.
And there is a sense in which this illustrates something that is true of you and me today. When we embrace Christmas as a mere thing in and of itself, no one really raises an eyebrow. No one bothers us, because we're just embracing an abstract 'holiday' that few people really believe means anything in particular. But when we treat the word of God seriously, and embrace the Child born on Christmas as the Bible truly presents Him - that is, as the Son of God, born in human flesh to save us from our sins by dying on a cross - then we have just embraced a scandal in the eyes of the world.
The apostle Paul said, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18). It's a scandal - a "stumbling block". The unbelieving world hates Christ as He is presented to us in the pages of the Bible; and if you embrace Him and identify yourself with Him, they will hate you and mock you too. But here's where the example of Joseph is such an encouraging one for us. His example teaches us not to be afraid to be identified with Jesus as God presents Him to be. It teaches us to become identified with Him, no matter what the world thinks of Him.
Would you like for Christmas to become meaningful to you this year? More meaningful, in fact, than it perhaps ever has been? Then celebrate Christmas by embracing wholeheartedly the truth of Christmas; scandal and all - that is, that we are all guilty sinners in the sight of a holy God, sinners who desperately need a Savior. Don't simply celebrate "the holiday seaons"; because that's too vague and avoids the scandal of Christ. Instead, make it clear to all that you celebrate the birth of the Son of God in human flesh who came to be the Savior of sinners. Embrace the fact that God has provided a Savior from sins in the person of His one and only Son Jesus; and that there is no salvation in anyone else but Him. Become personally identified with the fact that your only hope is to trust in the sacrifice this Savior made on your behalf on the cross; and then run to Him and trust in Him as if your eternal destiny depended upon Him - because it does.
That's not a message that the world appreciates hearing during the "holidays". In fact, the people of this world consider it to be insulting. It strikes a blow to our pride and our sense of self-righteousness. It makes us all sound so "needy". The truth the Bible tells us about the Baby born on Christmas day is a scandal in the eyes of the world; but the same message is salvation to those who believe it and trust in it. So let's not be ashamed or afraid this Christmas to be indentified with Jesus Christ as God presents Him to be in the pages of the Bible.
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Another "Christmas" lesson we can learn from the example of Joseph is this; to . . .
2. WONDER AT GOD'S TESTIMONY OF CHRIST (Luke 2:8-40).
I'm sure that there was a sense of awe in Joseph during the time when the baby Jesus was growing in the womb of Mary. When he would put his hand on his wife and feel the baby move within her, he would have been feeling the gentle moving of God in human flesh! Beyond that though, there was nothing eventful about the Baby in the womb. He grew in the womb just as any other baby would. But Joseph always kept in mind who this Baby truly was.
Imagine how frustrated he must have been, then, when the Baby came at a time when he had to travel with his pregnant wife to the city of Bethlehem in order to be registered in a Roman census. He wasn't able to give his adopted royal Son a birth in a nice, safe, warm, sanitary place. It was during a time when many were travelling; and since there was no room in the inn, Jesus was born in a place where His only cradle would be a manger. I suppose that, by today's standards, it would have been like having his wife give birth in a road-side gas station. I'm sure that it wasn't what he would have expected the Son of God's birth to have been like.
But God nevertheless confirmed the wonder. Luke's Gospel tells us about the shepherds that were in a fields in that country. He tells us of how an angel of the Lord appeared to them in heavenly glory - frightening them out of their wits! - and told them, "Do no be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:10-12). And then, as if to confirm the wonder even further, a multitude of heavenly angels suddenly burst the heavens open with praise to God!
The shepherds ran to Bethlehem to see this Child that God had just announced to them. And we're told that when they found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in the manger as they had been told, "they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (vv. 17-18). Certainly among all those people who marveled was Joseph himself. What sort of Child is this that the angels of heaven would come to announce His birth to the world?
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Then, eight days later, another confirmation came. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord as Mary's first-born Son, and to make sacrifice - in obedience to the law of Moses. And an old man named Simeon was there at the temple - "a just and devout" man who was waiting for something that the Holy Spirit had told him he would see before his life on earth was over.
The Holy Spirit had told old Simeon that he would not die before he had seen, with his own eyes, the long awaited Messiah - the Christ. By the leading of God, he came into the temple at the same time as Joseph and Mary were there with Jesus. And we're not told exactly how; but somehow, the Spirit of God spoke to Simeon and said, "Simeon; do you see that man and woman, and their tiny Baby? That Baby is the Hope of Israel. He is My Christ. I have answered your hearts longing; and I have allowed you to see Him for whom you have longed all these years."
Now imagine what Joseph must have thought when this saintly old man stood trembling before them with tears in his eyes - holding out quivering hands and asking if he could hold the Child in his arms. And imagine the wonder that grew in Joseph as Simeon blessed God and said: "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel" (vv. 29-32).
And then, no sooner does Simeon complete his speech to them than another elderly saint comes into the temple. She was a prophet named Anna, who lived at the temple - never having departed from it, but serving God in it day and night with fastings and prayers. I suspect that she had a reputation in the temple - when she spoke, everyone listened! She too burst onto the scene and immediately gave thanks to God for the Baby; speaking about Him to everyone who was hoping for and waiting for the Messiah to come (vv. 36-38).
Joseph saw all these things happening concerning Mary's Baby; and we're told in verse 33 that both Joseph and Mary "marveled at those things which were spoken of Him."
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Can you see another practical lesson we learn from Joseph? He greeted the birth of Jesus with a sense of wonder. But it wasn't a sentimental, subjective "wonder". It was an objective "wonder" - a wonder based on God's own testimony concerning the Child. If anyone would have gotten "used to" Jesus at that point, it would have been Joseph; but twice it's indicated that he was among those who "marveled" at the authoritative testimony of God that was being spoken concerning Him. Joseph marveled that he was told that this Child was the cause of 'good tidings of great joy which will be to all people'. He marveled that he was told that this was the 'Savior, who is Christ the Lord'. He marveled that the angels announced His birth by crying out, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" He marveled that this Baby was being referred to as 'God's salvation'; "destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (v. 34). He believed the testimony that was being spoken of Jesus as words of divine truth; and he "marveled" in response.
Would you like for Christmas to mean to you what God intends for it to mean? Then go back to the Scriptures and study the testimony God Himself has given concerning Jesus. Don't let yourself be taught about Christmas by all the ads on television, or by the decorations on the stores, or even by all the holiday traditions that the rest of the world enjoys. Those things aren't necessarily wrong; but they are harmful if they distract us from the truth, or if they become a subtitute for God's own testimony about Christ. Go to the source this Christmas! Marvel at the truth from God about Jesus!
As the apostle John has said, the things that have been written to us concerning Jesus in the scriptures "are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). I exhort you, then, to study the truth about Jesus as God has revealed it to us in the pages of His holy Book - and let your sense of wonder at Jesus be restored and raised higher!
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Let me close with one more lesson we can learn from the experience of Joseph; and that is to . . .
3. OBEY GOD FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST (Matthew 2:13-23).
As I read about him, I can't help but notice that Joseph was like another famous "Joseph" in the Bible. God spoke to both of them through dreams. They must have been remarkable dreams, and not at all like the dreams that you and I often have; because Joseph clearly understood them to be revelations from God. For example, God told Joseph through a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and to thus become identified with the Child she bore; and he did as he was commanded - even though it would cost him to do so.
But God also spoke to Joseph in dreams after the Baby was born. And when God spoke to him through these other dreams, he likewise immediately rose up and did what God said to do. His swift obedience was important; because God was using Joseph to protect the Child from the plots of the devil to destroy Him and keep Him from dying on the cross as our Savior.
Personally, I have no doubt at all that the devil was at work in the wicked heart of King Herod. He was a demented man - paranoid of anyone who might even slightly be a threat to his sovereignty. When the wise men from the east had come to ask where the new-born "King of the Jews" could be found, it troubled Herod. It also troubled all of Jerusalem; and I suspect that this was because there was no telling what this vile man might do.
And it was then that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him" (Matthew 2:13). I don't believe Joseph had to ask why Herod would want to seek out and kill a tiny baby. By this point Joseph was filled with such wonder over this particular Baby that nothing else came as a surprise.
The Bible tells us that Joseph did as he was told. He arose, took the Baby and His mother by night, and immediately departed to Egypt - staying there until Herod was dead. Joseph may not have known it at the time, but he was fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea 11:1 in obeying God in this way; "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt I called My Son'" (v. 15).
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It couldn't have been easy for Joseph to move his family so abruptly to Egypt; and to stay there for an undetermined amount of time. But his having done so surely protected the life of Jesus; because the brutal madman Herod did indeed try to kill Him. In the process of trying to destroy Him, Herod killed many innocent children. It's one of the most grievous stories in the Bible. But thanks to Joseph's obedience to God's call, our Savior lived.
And Herod died. And it was then that an angel again spoke to Joseph and told him, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead" (v. 20). It wasn't fitting for the King of Israel to live for long in the land of their slavery; and so, Joseph was commanded to bring Him back. Once again, God spoke concerning His Son, and Joseph obeyed.
But when Joseph heard the news of who would be replacing Herod, he feared to return. It was Herod's son Archelaus; and he was known for being more brutal than his wicked father. But once again, an angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph in a dream, and warned him not to go to Judah - which is where Bethlehem is found; but to go instead to the region of Galilee - which is where Nazareth is found. And so Joseph, in obedience to God, raised Jesus in the city of Nazareth - once again fulfilling a prophetic promise that the Christ would be called "a Nazarene" (possibly from Judges 13:5).
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Joseph's response to the great proposition of Christmas was an active one. He responded to the truth with obedience to God. He didn't just become identified with Christ; and he didn't just marvel at the truth about Christ; but he also obeyed God's commands to him concerning Christ. He did what God told him to do; and he did it faithfully. We can be very glad he did; because through his obedience, God preserved the life of the Savior for us so that He could eventually take our sins on Himself and die on our place on His cross as our Redeemer.
And again, this teaches us how we should respond to Jesus this Christmas. Do you want Christmas to mean for you what God intends for it to mean? Then don't just allow yourself to be identified with Christ this Christmas. And don't just read about Him in the Bible and allow your sense of wonder about Him to be restored. By all means, do those things; but don't stop there! Carry it all the way through; and obey God for Christ's sake. Jesus said, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10).
Joseph was a true Christmas hero of faith. Let's follow his example in these things, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. If we do so, I'm confident we will be grasping hold of the true significance of Christmas as we should.
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