What Would Christmas Be without Mary and Joseph? - Part 2

Fredy Peter

Luke’s Gospel reveals Mary’s extraordinary character, and Matthew’s Gospel reveals Joseph’s. Still, Galatians 4:4 and Micah 5:2 suggest that the “holy couple” wasn’t without fault. Their example shows us that Christmas is about every person’s need for a Savior. A biblical exploration.

A quiet, simple carpenter (Matt 13:55)—possibly a builder or stonemason. A Bethlehem native, he was also a descendant of David and a migrant worker in Nazareth. This is where he found Mary. The evangelist Matthew, who focuses more on Joseph, shows us that:

Joseph was betrothed.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph…” (Matt 1:18). As mentioned earlier, an engagement had a completely different significance at that time. It consisted of three phases: First, the parents of the pair would reach an agreement and draw up a binding contract. After that, a portion of the bride price was paid. And finally, after a year of “probation” and preparation, the man brought his wife home.

Joseph was pure.
Despite being engaged, Joseph had neither lived with Mary nor slept with her. “…Before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). Apparently, Mary kept her blessed knowledge to herself. Joseph only learned of his fiancée’s condition when it became obvious, not when she told him herself. The moment Joseph’s suspicions were confirmed must have been so startling to him: “My bride is pregnant … she was having an affair!” A huge field of conflict opened up because:

Joseph was just.
“And her husband Joseph, being a just man...” (Matt 1:19). The expression “just” means that Joseph lived in a way that pleased God and obeyed the Law of Moses. It would have required him to take action in such a case. Adultery was punishable by stoning. But Joseph’s doctrine was consistent with his life:

Joseph was fair.
“…And unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19). What a fair, merciful, and unbelievably noble character! He didn’t at all wish to make a public example of Mary. How deeply he must have loved her! And just as Mary didn’t tell him about her pregnancy, Joseph didn’t tell her what his next step would be. However, he didn’t allow himself to be guided by unrestrained vengeance. 

Joseph was level-headed.
“…Resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19). He reflected on ways out and found one. In such a case, the law also provided for the possibility of giving the woman a certificate of divorce, privately in the presence of two witnesses (cf. Deut 24:1-4). This would have kept everything discreet so she could marry the person she truly loved.

Joseph was ordinary.
How does an ordinary man react to his beloved’s betrayal? Does he remain very still and contemplative? That is the image many have of good, pleasant Joseph: “But as he considered these things…” (Matt 1:20). This wasn’t unburdened reflection, but the brooding of an upset heart. The same Greek root of this word appears 18 times in the New Testament, and is often translated to express anger or even fury. Therefore, the quote from Matthew 1:20 could also mean that Joseph was upset or beside himself. That is a man’s normal reaction when his wife has betrayed him. But God causes the upright to succeed, and always comes through at the right time. He sent an angel like He did for Mary: “…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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt 1:20-23). What an about-face! What relief and tremendous joy this must have been for Joseph. His Mary hadn’t been unfaithful to him after all. She would even be the mother of the Messiah. 

His understandable reaction came immediately: 

Joseph was obedient.
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…” (Matt 1:24). This unique revelation moved the righteous Joseph—as Mary’s revelation had moved her three months earlier—to immediate obedience from faith. Not one objection. But that had consequences for him, and shows that:

Joseph was reliable.
“…He took his wife” (Matt 1:24). He took responsibility for Mary by immediately bringing her into his home. In doing so, he was violating the customary one-year engagement period. What he must have had to hear about it! From now on, he would protect her and the unborn child from every attack, hostility, and insult. To the people of Nazareth, it definitely appeared that he had slept with Mary prematurely, when in fact the complete opposite was true.

Joseph was self-controlled.
“But [he] knew her not until she had given birth to a son…” (Matt 1:25). Out of respect and reverence for God and the unborn child, he abstained from sexual relations. He had his physical desires under control. He was a self-possessed, exemplary man. Joseph later fathered four sons with Mary, and at least two daughters (Matt 12:46; 13:55-56).

Joseph was dependable.
“…And he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1:25). Joseph also carried out the angel’s last instruction. By naming Him, he was recognizing the child as his son before the whole world, becoming His legal father.

Had it not been for Mary and Joseph’s determination, the manger would have remained empty; there would have been no angels singing over the fields; the shepherds would never have hurried to Bethlehem; and the Magi would not have set out from the east. Without Mary and Joseph’s determination, Jesus, the Son of God, would not have come to mankind. There would not have been a Savior. Without Mary and Joseph’s determination, there would have been no Christmas.

The holy couple
The trio of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are often referred to as the “holy family,” which means that Mary and Joseph should be the “holy couple.” But is that really the case? They both showed extraordinary obedience to the faith, although not in everything. They were neither perfect nor sinless. We can see this from two passages of Scripture. In the first, Galatians 4:4, we read, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.”

“But when the fullness of time had come”; that is, at a very special time (when religious, cultural, and political circumstances were just right), God sent His Son. At that time, the important trade routes from Africa to Asia and Europe, ran through Israel. As a result, travelers were naturally introduced to the Jews’ belief in the one living God, and took that message with them. For example, the queen of Sheba (modern-day Yemen) learned of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom. So, God had founded Israel in a highly strategic place. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, and with it, the Jewish land and Jerusalem. What were the consequences? A single language prevailed from northern Africa to India: Greek. Between 280 and 130 BC, the Hebrew Old Testament (which was already complete) was translated into Greek in Egypt. The so-called Septuagint was born. Now the entire known world could read and understand the Old Testament. Additionally, the Gentiles learned that the Messiah was becoming more and more urgently anticipated by many Mediterranean Jewish communities. In 63 BC the Romans came, and Pompey conquered Jerusalem. What did the Romans bring to the table? A huge empire, political stability, and above all, good roads. The legions had to be able to be dispatched quickly to various flashpoints. And then around 2 BC, the time was fulfilled: The world was ready for God’s incarnation and the rapid spread of the Gospel that would follow—perfectly prepared by God, down to the smallest detail. But shortly before this most significant event in redemptive history, the mother-to-be found herself with her husband totally in the wrong place!

Sweet holy couple? Mary and Joseph didn’t know everything there was to know about their baby. But they knew their unborn Son was the promised Redeemer, the Messiah, the Son of God. And they knew with great certainty that the time of His birth was near. As a devout couple, they knew the Old Testament—Mary demonstrated this impressively in her song of praise and thanksgiving. And what is written in it about the Messiah’s birthplace? This brings us to the second Bible passage:

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2).

This very specific statement could only apply to the Messiah. It wasn’t just the priests and scribes (Matt 2:4-6), but the crowds in John 7:42 also knew exactly where the Messiah would come from: the city of David, Bethlehem, and the tribe of Judah. And since biblical prophecy is always clear and unambiguous, the prophet also disclosed the name of the place as Bethlehem Ephrathah. Why? Because there are two towns named Bethlehem in Israel. When the tribe of Zebulun occupied its allotted territory in the Promised Land (Josh 19:15-16), it was given twelve named cities and their villages. The twelfth town was called Bethlehem. So, there was a second Bethlehem in Galilee, and it was also very close to Nazareth (about 15 km/9 miles by foot)—the distance that a pregnant woman could walk in 5-6 hours.

The Bible doesn’t reveal the reason that Mary and Joseph remained in Nazareth for so long. Perhaps the existence of a second Bethlehem caused them to mistakenly believe that their destination could be reached quickly. In any case, the Word of God was clear, and had to be fulfilled with absolute precision. However, the fact was that Mary and Joseph were 170 km/105 miles from their actual destination.

How did God arrange for His Word to come true? Did He have an angel messenger drop by with a friendly reminder? It would hardly have been a problem for God to use angels to transport the two to Bethlehem (as He did for Philip in Acts 8:39, for example). But God didn’t do that, because His will had already been made known. When we know that we’re able to do something for ourselves, we must.

God moved the whole known world so Mary and Joseph could be at the center of His will. But it played out in an utterly unspectacular way for the couple, and with unpleasant consequences. Caesar Augustus wanted to know how many people lived in his empire—probably so he could precisely tax them. He wanted cash so he held a census, plain and simple. Everyone had to register in their hometown, including Joseph. God didn’t spare him and Mary the journey. They had to go themselves and do what they could (and should have done sometime earlier).

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was undoubtedly an extremely difficult one: 170 km/105 miles on rocky roads, without any rest stops at service plazas. They were probably on a dusty, smelly donkey for days—maybe more than a week—on the road. Add to that the weather, the heat of the day, overnight stays, Mary being very pregnant and riding at the same time. Then there’s the fear of going into labor on the way, when sudden movements or impacts could trigger contractions. And when they finally arrived, there was nowhere to stay! Instead, the disgrace of a stinking, dirty place with the animals. No hallowed, sacred atmosphere, but misery, hardship, and perhaps a few tears as well. This whole dreadful journey could have been much easier if Mary and Joseph had been heeding God’s Word closely, had obeyed promptly, and set out early. But they eventually had to follow the path that God had laid out for them—either way, God’s Word will be precisely fulfilled.

The same is true for us today. If we know God’s will in a matter, we need to be obedient today, and not postpone it until tomorrow. God has plans for us, and he wants us to achieve these purposes. But we’d be wrong to think, “Oh, I’ll wait for a while longer. This path looks too difficult for me.” Because we’re going to have to follow it anyway, if we wait to begin, it will be much more difficult, and possibly also involve suffering, hardship, and tears. What does the Lord have to do and move in our lives to bring us into the center of His will, considering that He intervened powerfully in world politics for Mary and Joseph?

Mary and Joseph experienced hardships and needed the Savior’s forgiveness, because they weren’t a holy couple. Their example shows that all of us—from the humblest to the noblest—need a Savior.

The Savior
God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). When Christmas came, He had only one purpose: for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be born for us in Bethlehem, and die for us on the Cross at Calvary. Because our sins separate us from God forever, we’re lost without Him.

What would that Christmas infant be without the man crucified on Good Friday? The days of the Christmas season would be meaningless free time, with endless strings of lights, maxing out our credit cards, and sentimental—yet lonely and empty—hearts. It would be a complete waste of time, energy, and money.

Salvation is the major theme of Christmas. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Our biggest problem is our sins, which separate us from God and lead the unredeemed to eternal damnation. So, God sent a Savior to connect us back to God and bring us to heaven. Since man is unable to reach God through his own efforts, God came to us. This is what Christmas is all about.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

Midnight Call - 12/2023

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