A Baby Born in Bethlehem: Joseph


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This is part-six in a series, read about Simeon’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem, the response of King Herod & the Sanhedrin, the response of the wise men, the shepherds who heard the angels’ message and the message of the angels themselves.

I am not a father, but it strikes me that it must be terribly difficult for a man to raise a child that is not his own – either through infidelity, infertility, or something else. It must be difficult to be in the delivery room when your wife or partner is giving birth to a child that is not genetically yours. This does not preclude that a father’s love will develop and outshine any and all doubts, but there must be a period of terrible adjustment.

The Road to Bethlehem, by Joseph Brickey

The Road to Bethlehem, by Joseph Brickey

I imagine that Joseph must have been in a similar state when he was helping his wife, Mary, deliver a child that was not his own. Despite God’s promise and his love for Mary, the child that he was helping into this world was not genetically his, though he would nevertheless raise the boy as if He was his own.

In fact, we don’t know much about Joseph as a father. He exits the Biblical narrative soon after Jesus’ birth. The Biblical account is more concerned with Jesus’ mother, Mary, but what we do know of Joseph paints an important picture for us at Christmas.

“The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.” Matthew 1:18-19

Joseph would have been fully within his right as a man under Jewish law to divorce Mary – which, in this instance, refers to calling off a betrothal. There is no precedent for the situation Joseph and Mary find themselves in, and it is unclear exactly how Joseph may have discovered Mary was pregnant – did Mary tell him, or did he notice the obvious signs? Regardless, how would anyone react to someone trying to explain that they had not had sex with another man, but that they were pregnant by God?

“Now we may well imagine, what a perplexity this might justly occasion to the blessed virgin. She herself knew the divine original of this conception; but how could she prove it? She would be dealt with as a harlot.”[1]

Yet, even now, with no evidence to the contrary, Joseph nevertheless is described as “a righteous man” and, not wanting to make a mockery of Mary in front of the whole town, plans to divorce her in secret so as to minimise the shame Mary would have to endure. What happens next must have singularly tested Joseph’s resolve, for “an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream” and told Joseph that he should not “be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)

Look what happens next:

“When Joseph got up from sleeping, He did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a Son. And he named Him Jesus.”Matthew 1:24-25

I love the immediacy with which everything happens in the nativity story – everyone is in such a rush; King Herod wants the child dead immediately, the wise men must have dropped everything to arrive when they did, the shepherds hurried off after the angels’ pronouncement, and here Joseph, bleary eyed and hair dishevelled immediately gets up and takes Mary as his wife.

What a wedding that must have been!

And what courage it must have taken for Joseph to do as he was instructed by the angel. As Timothy Keller explains;

“But if Joseph marries her, everybody in that shame-and-honour society will know that this child was not born nine or ten months after they got married; they will know [Mary] was already pregnant. That would mean either Joseph and Mary had sex before marriage or she was unfaithful to him, and as a result, they are going to be shamed, socially excluded, and rejected. They are going to be second-class citizens forever.”[2]

Joseph knew all of this. None of this took Joseph by surprise – that’s why he had planned to call of his betrothal to Mary in the first place. And yet, at the instruction of the angel of the Lord, Joseph backpedalled and committed to a lifetime of shame and societal rejection.

Why? Why would Joseph do all of this?

She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

“Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

See, the virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will name Him Immanuel,

which is translated “God is with us.”Matthew 1:21-23

It is highly likely that Joseph would have known of this prophecy (Micah 5:2) and would therefore have had at least some knowledge of the importance of what was happening.

“We may not see the connection between the name Jesus and the phrase ‘save his people from their sins,’ but Joseph would have. He was familiar with the Hebrew language. The English name Jesus traces its origin to the Hebrew word Yeshua. Yeshua is a shortening of Yehoshuah, which means ‘Yahweh saves.’”[3]

Joseph would similarly have heard many of the Old Testament scriptures and prophecies as a child growing up from his parents, or at the local synagogue. The importance of what Joseph heard from the angel that night would have been simultaneously blatant and shocking.

Nevertheless, Joseph puts everything that a Jewish man of his time held dear on the line to obey God. For not only was Joseph to risk his public standing – and maybe his position and respect in his own family – but he gave up the right to name the child that would soon be his. This child that was to be born to his wife was to be his legally, in all respects of the law, but he was not allowed to name the child. Instead, the child came with a name built in – a message in a name; “you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

Before there was even a child to hold in his arms, before Mary had gone through the pain of childbirth, Joseph had committed to raise this child despite the costs. Joseph’s response to the baby to be born in Bethlehem was to wholeheartedly obey: He obeyed the angel’s instructions, for these instructions had come from God. Joseph also sacrificed his own public standing, honour, and the rights inherent for a Jewish male, for the child that would save His people from their sins.

“Throughout chs. 1 – 2, the pattern of God’s sovereign intervention followed by Joseph’s or the Magi’s response is repeated. While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s”[4].

What sacrifices have we made in response to the baby born in Bethlehem? How obedient have we been to God? As we step ever closer to the birth of Jesus, can any of us lay claim to the courage and obedience that Joseph exhibited?

[1] Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew Henry
[2] Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller, p. 56
[3] Because of Bethlehem, Max Lucado, p. 27
[4] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Matthew, D.A. Carson, p. 106 (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)

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