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Joseph — unsung hero of Christmas?

December 2018 | by Timothy Cross

Joseph — the legal guardian and earthly father of the Lord Jesus — is often overlooked in the Christmas story. Matthew’s Gospel however relates the account of the birth of Christ more from Joseph’s perspective than Mary’s.

Matthew tells us: ‘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 of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly’ (Matthew 1:18-19).

From the above, if we could picture an interview with Joseph, the conversation would surely have gone something like this:

Interviewer: ‘Tell me about the birth of Jesus then, Joseph’.

Joseph: ‘I was engaged to Mary. The marriage was arranged, as our marriages always are. I was both delighted and excited. I was a fair bit older than Mary but struck by her beauty.

‘She came across as being devout and godly. She loved the Scriptures and was devoted to the Lord God of our fathers. I was looking forward to our wedding day and, in the will of the Lord, living out our lives together’.

Interviewer: ‘So life could not have been better then?’

Joseph: ‘Yes, but then I was stopped in my tracks. To my horror and devastation, I found out that Mary was expectant. This was nothing to do with me. I had not been near her and would not do so until after Jesus was born.

‘I thought the worst. Mary had surely been unfaithful. It could have been one of those feckless Roman soldiers.

‘My marriage was over before it had begun; divorce was my only option, since the engagement was legally binding. Yet I still loved Mary. I didn’t want to compound her shame and difficulty, so I sought to divorce her as quietly and painlessly as possible’.

Interviewer: ‘But you didn’t’.

Joseph: ‘No indeed. Angelic visitations are rare in our Scriptures, but I had one. An angel actually came to me! He addressed me personally and authoritatively. I had no doubt that this messenger was from the Lord God himself.

‘He said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). My sorrow turned to ecstatic joy. I realised that of all the women in Israel, my future spouse had been chosen to give birth to the longed-for Messiah.

‘God had fulfilled his promise spoken centuries ago by his prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Far from being unfaithful or immoral, Mary was merely submitting to and being obedient to the will of God.

‘It was this heavenly visitation which carried me through the days ahead. I could cope with the stigma and cruel gossip of our neighbours in Nazareth. I resolved to be the best support to Mary that I could be.

‘I travelled with Mary all the way back to my home town in Bethlehem, to undertake my enrolment there, knowing that the God who had foreordained all this would protect us. Of course, it was while we were in Bethlehem that Jesus was born — again in fulfilment of ancient prophecy. God always keeps his word and God always accomplishes his will’.

Interviewer: ‘Did you have any difficulty in deciding what to call Mary’s firstborn?’

Joseph: ‘No. We actually had no choice. The angel commanded me, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”.’

Interviewer: ‘Thank you Joseph. I think I’ll leave it there’.

Saviour

It’s here that we must stop our imaginary interview with Joseph. Scripture does not actually tell us much more about him. It’s likely that he died before Jesus reached adulthood, as he doesn’t feature in the Gospel accounts during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Matthew though concludes his account of the nativity with the words, ‘He [Joseph] called his name Jesus’ (Matthew 1:25).

We can say though that we now know more than Joseph did then. He knew that the name Jesus meant ‘Saviour’. But he did not live to see the procurement of the salvation that Jesus came to bring.

Jesus wrought the sinner’s salvation, not by his birth but by his death — by his cross, not his cradle. Jesus was born to die. His birth at Bethlehem was with a view to his death at Calvary.

On Calvary’s cross, he offered his sinless life as an atoning sacrifice ‘that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). He died in the place of sinners. ‘He died to save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). He died to save us from the wrath of God. He died to reconcile us to God.

Wonder of Christmas

We are all sinners; we are all thus liable to the wrath of God. We all have need of a Saviour. In the Christ who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born at Bethlehem and died on the cross of Calvary, we meet the Saviour we so desperately need.

This is the wonder of Christmas: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). It’s wonderful, and it’s exclusive, for the Bible says, ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Timothy Cross has written many Christian books and articles and has an honorary doctorate from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC