The Courage of Joseph

 

Week of December 22, 2013

 

Focal Verses:  Matthew 1:18-25; 2:19-23

 

The Point:  Don’t be afraid because God is with you.

 

Courage is Tested and Developed in the Midst of Crisis:  Matthew 1:18-19.

 

[18]  Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. [19]  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  [ESV]

 

[18-19]  Matthew begins with: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. But his account describes more than a birth; it includes the story of the virgin conception of Jesus, as the eternal Son of God becomes a man. Matthew wrote his account so all may know the origin and conception of this virgin-born child named Jesus. The story is told from the perspective of Joseph and that makes sense. Through Joseph, his adopting father, Jesus received credentials for His mission. Through Joseph, he is counted the Son of David. This fulfills the promise made long ago that Israel would have a David-like king, to rule the people with justice [2 Sam. 7:11-16]. The Lord promised this to Jeremiah: Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely [Jer. 23:5-6]. The Israelites endured many an evil king while awaiting this Davidic deliverer. Sadly, they could have endured a thousand generations of disappointment unless something changed. But there were hints that God was orchestrating events, leading them to a climax. By the time of Mary and Joseph, the line of David had shown its sinfulness. Indeed, in its calling to rule Israel, it was exhausted and all but invisible. For this reason, Matthew reveals that Jesus is from the line of David, but not from the flesh of David. The promises to David’s line showed that Israel needed a mighty deliverer, a great and fearless king, a warrior to battle foes, and a man who loved God and His people more than life itself. Yet the history of Israel had been a sad tale of failed king following failed king. Human flesh could not deliver God’s people. they needed something different. This lesson is universal: no king or prophet can deliver us, for flesh and blood, by itself, cannot save. Mary and Joseph are betrothed, not married, when the account of Jesus’ birth begins. Mary and Joseph did not live in the same home. They were, Matthew says, sexually chaste; they had not yet came together. They were betrothed and pure, yet pregnant. In Israel, betrothal was much weightier than engagement in Western societies today. It was so binding that Matthew already calls Joseph her husband [19]. The couple did not sleep together during their betrothal, yet Mary’s body was swelling. Her body declared that she was pregnant. What a crushing blow to Joseph! He had never been with Mary but, so it seemed, someone else had. His bride-to-be was pregnant but was not carrying his child. He was a righteous man and wanted a righteous wife. If Mary had been unfaithful to him before they even married, what kind of woman was she? What kind of marriage could they have? In every moral, emotional, and legal way, he was right to plan to end the betrothal. Since betrothal was so binding, its termination amounted to a divorce. However miserable the thought, Joseph had to consider divorce: her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly [19]. This determination indicates that Joseph was just and upright and wanted no part of a corrupt marriage. As a just man, he had every right to cancel the marriage. Joseph had never been with Mary, but she was pregnant. Given these apparent facts, it was sensible to put her aside. But Joseph was merciful too. He could have exposed Mary, as an unwed mother, to public disgrace and to severe penalties. A quiet divorce, however, would preserve some of her dignity. She would bear the consequences of her action, but would not suffer the most public humiliation. So Joseph settled upon a quiet divorce before just two or three witnesses.

 

Courage is Developed in Difficult Decisions:  Matthew 1:20-23.

 

[20]  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. [21]  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [22]  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: [23]  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  [ESV]

 

[20-23]  The Lord let Joseph struggle to solve his problem for a season before He revealed a better plan. He often works this way. He lets us make plans, then reveals a better way. When this happens, we must change our plans, as Joseph did. We must test our plans and purposes against God’s will, as revealed in scripture and in the counsel of the wise. Sometimes, circumstances unfold in ways that suggest what God’s will may be. Even plans that look sound must be open to revision. God wanted Joseph to proceed with the marriage and sent an angelic messenger to tell him why. Here we must purge our popular images of angels. In the Bible, angels are not cute and do not specialize in romance. They are as likely to say something frightening as to say something comforting. Their appearance in our realm is a rare, weighty, and awesome event. Angels are God’s mighty messengers. There is a cluster of angel appearances near the birth of Jesus because it is such a weighty event. Here God’s angel intervenes for the sake of Joseph so he will know what this virgin conception means: an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” [20]. Every phrase counts. The address Joseph, son of David links the virgin conception to the Davidic genealogy. The Holy Spirit is the author of this life, yet Joseph has a role to play. Do not fear to take Mary as your wife addresses his sad resolution to divorce the woman he loves. The angel assures Joseph that things are not as they seem. Because the child was conceived not by a man but by the Holy Spirit, Joseph can marry his beloved. She is as pure and godly as he had hoped. Into his new marriage, Joseph must adopt this child as his son. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God, but Joseph must adopt Him into the line of David. From that line, the deliverer of Israel had to come; therefore Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of David. Because of the adoption, Jesus will grow up in a normal home, with both father and mother to love and nurture Him. That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. The church traditionally speaks of the virgin birth, but the Gospels stress the miraculous conception, the virgin conception, of Christ. The miracle lay in the manner of Jesus’ conception. So far as we know, the process of birth itself was normal. God tells Joseph the child is a boy and that His name must be Jesus. The name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The Lord saves and delivers His people in many ways: He gives food to the hungry, He heals the sick, He comforts the brokenhearted. Many hoped the Messiah would save Israel from their Roman oppressors. But the angel declares God’s agenda. Jesus will not save His people from physical enemies; He will save his people from their sins [21]. Sin is the root of all other calamities. Yes, calamity comes from many sources; accidents, forgetfulness, disease. But the root cause of disorder is sin, and the greatest disorder is to be at odds with God. Jesus will save His people from that. This birth of Jesus begins the unfolding of God’s salvation; it also fulfills Scripture, the precise words are instructive: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet. These are God’s very words, spoken by the prophet Isaiah, to prepare the way for God’s salvation. The birth of Jesus shows that God is with us. In important ways, God is always with us. We can never flee from His presence. He is in the heavens and the depths, on land and at sea [Ps. 139:7-9]. We can ignore God, we can deny God, we can curse God. But He never disappears. His reign extends over all creation, even, in a way, over hell itself. God is omnipresent. Nevertheless, Matthew says that with Jesus’ birth, God entered human history in a new way. He is with us, in power, for blessing. Three times in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that Jesus is God with us: in the beginning, at its midpoint, and at the end. It is a crucial moment each time. In the beginning, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to save His people from their sins [21]. In the middle, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to purify His church. Jesus promises, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them [18:20]. We often use this verse to find assurance that God hears when we gather for prayer, and rightly so. But in its original context, Jesus had a specific prayer in mind. In the agony of church discipline, when a Christian persists in sin and will not repent, when the leaders deal with such rebellion, Jesus is there to purify His church. At the end of Matthew, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to expand the church. Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus directed His disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations. It is a vast task, therefore Jesus declares, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age [28:20]. What a comfort to know that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

 

Courage does what is Right and then Keeps Moving Forward:  Matthew 1:24-25; 2:19-23.

 

[24]  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, [25]  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

[2:19]  But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, [20]  saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” [21]  And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. [22]  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. [23]  And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”  [ESV]

 

[24-25]  When the angel had finished speaking, Joseph awoke, believed, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. That is, he took Mary home as his wife. His submission to God was as powerful and complete as that of Mary, who also offered herself as the servant of the Lord. Joseph refused to be led by shame or anger. He laid aside the plausible plan of divorce and took Mary as his wife. To make the supernatural conception of Jesus perfectly clear, Matthew says Joseph knew her not until she had given birth to a son. Then Joseph took her newborn baby and gave Him the name Jesus just as the angel had said. What a tender picture of living faith! Mary and Joseph listened to God. They silenced their emotions of fear and shame and obeyed the Lord. Why? Because they understood that God is with His people to save. Because they were willing to listen to their Lord, whatever people might think or say, they show us how to listen and how to obey the voice of God rather than our impulses. This portion of Matthew offers a picture of faith, but more than that it is an account of the acts of the triune God. The Father’s plan of redemption has come to the beginning of its climactic phase. The Spirit fashioned life in the womb of Mary and moved the hearts of Mary and Joseph to accept their role in the divine drama. Finally, the eternal Son has entered the world of humanity. May the Spirit work in us to receive what God began to accomplish in the birth of Jesus. May we also submit our plans and our emotions to Him, as Joseph did. May we give our hearts and minds to him as Mary and Joseph did. May we know that God is with us, to bless us, in every season of life. In every distress, let us turn to God for comfort. In joy and in blessing, let us not ascribe it to good fortune or hard work, but to Immanuel, who is present to bless. God is with us in the person of Jesus. May we have the faith, trust, love, and obedience to receive the blessings of Immanuel.

[2:19-23]  Matthew goes on to tell his readers of the holy family’s return to Palestine and how they came to settle in Nazareth. It was not until Herod had died that there was any change in the situation. As long as the tyrant lived, there was danger in Palestine, but his death removed the threat. Matthew records a divine message conveyed in a dream and is making clear that God’s power and God’s oversight extended to Egypt. His angel appeared there and gave Joseph directions. The return, like the flight, was undertaken at divine direction. An explanation is added, characteristically introduced by for; Matthew loves to give reasons. He does not name Herod, but refers to the death of those who sought the child’s life. The angel is saying that there is nothing to fear, no barrier to their going back to their own country. For the fourth time we have a reference to Joseph rising and taking the young child and his mother [13,14,20]. Joseph was obedient. He had received the divine instruction, so he entered the land of Israel. The return to Israel was due to the divine direction, but the precise location arose from Joseph’s fear, together with another dream. Matthew says nothing about where Joseph and Mary’s home was previously, but Luke tells us that they had lived in Nazareth before going to Bethlehem [Luke 1:26; 2:4]. Perhaps they would have liked to make their home in the city of David, especially in view of the circumstances attending Jesus’ birth. But there was a difficulty arising from the fact that that area was now ruled by Archelaus. This son of Herod was made ruler of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria when Herod died, but it did not take long for his incompetence to become apparent, and the Romans deposed him in A.D. 6. He was noted for his cruelty even in an age when cruel men were not scarce, so it is not surprising that Joseph feared to settle in this man’s dominions. His fear was reinforced by further divine direction in a dream, though on this occasion we are not told what precise instructions he was given. But the upshot of it all was that he went to the district of Galilee, the city of Nazareth to live. We should not read too much into city; the Greek language does not have a word equivalent to our “town. “We should understand that Nazareth was more than a hamlet, but not that it was a bustling metropolis. It was apparently not an important place. Matthew finds another fulfillment of prophecy in this choice of domicile. They lived there so that prophecy might be fulfilled:  He shall be called a Nazarene.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Matthew tells the story of Mary’s pregnancy from the viewpoint of Joseph. Imagine what Joseph was thinking and feeling when he discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. What do we learn about Joseph’s character in these verses? What role did Joseph play in the birth and early years of Jesus [see 1:24-25; 2:13-15, 19-23]?

 

2.         In this passage there are two names given to the child that answer two questions. The names are Jesus and Immanuel. The questions are: Who is this child? Why did he come? The name Immanuel answers the first question, while Jesus answers the second question. Explain what these two names mean and how they answer the questions. This Christmas focus your individual thoughts and the thoughts of your family on these two names and these two questions.

 

References:

Matthew, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.

Matthew, volume 1, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.