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Joseph – Man in the shadows

[This article was originally posted on December 19, 2014. Additional posts on “Revival” will resume in January 2018. Have a blessed Christmas.]

During my lifetime I have probably looked at dozens of nativity sets and observed many Christmas plays depicting the night of Christ’s birth. The cast of characters includes baby Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men (who actually appeared much later in time), assorted cows, chickens, sheep, and other animals typically found in a stable. Oh yes, we must not forget Joseph. In arranging our nativity scene, Jesus is always placed at the center with Mary hovering nearby or holding the child. Inconspicuous Joseph is standing there, seemingly as an afterthought, merely because of his status as the husband of Mary. In modern parlance, Joseph was the typical wallflower, a fifth wheel, the original invisible man. Never in the spotlight, Joseph was a man who always seemed to be in the shadows.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, Joseph is mentioned only once in Luke’s first chapter, “To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of house of David…” [Luke 1:27. RSV] In Chapter 2, Joseph is mentioned a second time when he traveled with his pregnant wife (but “who knew not a man” in the quaint phrasing of King James) from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus. [v. 4] Joseph’s unimportance in the events surrounding Christ’s birth appears to be confirmed by the sparse mention of his name in Luke’s record of that first Christmas. He receives far less discussion than the lowly shepherds who had a remarkable encounter with an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host telling of Christ’s birth. The shepherds then hurry from the fields where they tended their flocks to the stable to find “Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” [v. 16] When the days of Mary’s purification were completed according to the Mosaic law, Joseph and Mary traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present the babe to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice as commanded by the law of the Lord. When Joseph and Mary presented the child to Simeon and to receive a blessing as was the custom of the law, they marveled at Simeon’s prophecy with regard to the Christ child. [v. 22-35]

We must look to Matthew’s gospel to learn a little more of Joseph. Matthew tells us that after finding Mary was pregnant, “…her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” [Matthew 1:19. RSV] But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him he should keep Mary as his wife because the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that His name would be called Emanuel (God with us), and that He will save His people from their sins. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” [v. 24-25]

Some period of time after their return to Nazareth, wise men from the east hoping to find Him who was born king of the Jews followed his star. They found the child residing with His parents and presented their treasures to the child king. [Matthew 2:1-12. RSV] Soon thereafter an angel of the Lord appeared unto Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph was obedient to the Lord and fled with Mary and Jesus because Herod sought to kill the baby. They stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death. [v. 13-15]

We have only one more reference to Joseph twelve years after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph experienced every parent’s nightmare—a missing child. After a day’s journey on the way back to Nazareth following their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they attended the feast of the Passover, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus was missing. They had presumed Jesus was with their kinsfolk and acquaintances traveling with them. Returning to Jerusalem, they sought him for three days before they “…found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” [Luke 2:46-47. RSV]

It appears we have not discovered a lot of material in the scriptures to flesh-out the caricature of Joseph that most of us see as we look at our nativity sets. Yet, after a closer reading of the scriptures we gain new insights into the real flesh and blood Joseph who was far different than we have imagined. We see a man who was compassionate. He did not want to make a public spectacle of Mary because of the skepticism as to her explanation of her pregnancy. He favored a quiet divorce. But, he changed his mind after hearing from an angel from the Lord who told him not to divorce his wife. Therefore, he was obedient to God. Unlike many modern-day absent fathers, current live-in boyfriends, or uncaring stepfathers, Joseph loved and cared for his family as shown by a day’s journey back to Jerusalem and a three-day search for the missing twelve-year-old Jesus. Joseph was also a man who obeyed the laws of the land (he paid his taxes) as well as the laws of God (he took his child to the temple and presented him unto the Lord). Joseph protected his family as evidenced by their sojourn in Egypt.

Humble, compassionate, obedient to God, law-abiding, honest, concerned parent, protector, provider—all paint a picture of Joseph as a righteous (virtuous) man and loving husband and parent. What better set of adjectives could a man ask for when describing his life? However, for most people in this self-obsessed modern world, Joseph does appear to be a man whose life was lived in the shadows. But in God’s account book, a man’s worth is not measured by his popularity, bank balance, worldly success, or fame as evidenced by a pile of press clippings. When God looked at Joseph the shadows disappeared because the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” [Matthew 13:43. RSV]

Larry G. Johnson

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