Joseph Reflects God’s Character at Christmas

Title: Joseph Reflects God’s Character at Christmas


Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Date: November 30th, 2008

We’re officially into the Christmas season with today being the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving Day with plenty to eat this year. I think it’s great that at least everyone in the U.S. can have a nice big turkey dinner and eat well on one day of the year because of all the charity meals being served by volunteer organizations. Everyone can “give thanks” on thanksgiving this year, whether they cooked their own meal or someone else cooked it for them. Someday, maybe, we’ll be able to have a worldwide Thanksgiving Day where everyone around the world no matter where they are can have food to be thankful for on at least one day of the year. It could be called World Thanksgiving Day where thousands or millions of volunteers serve or give out enough food to feed every mouth on the planet earth on at least that one day. Wouldn’t that be exciting? Even more, we can hope and pray that one day everyone on the planet could have enough to eat every day of the year, not just one. But you have to start somewhere, so maybe our country, the U.S. could sponsor a World Thanksgiving Day, whereby we initiate and inspire other nations to feed the people of their own countries and give thanks to God for all blessings. That’s just a thought. But more important than feeding a person’s belly for a day is feeding a person’s soul for an eternity – that’s the hope of the Christmas season – that everyone, everywhere would come to trust and worship the Lord Jesus for salvation. What I’d like to teach today is how Joseph the earthly father of Jesus reflects the character of God himself and how important it is for us to understand and appreciate that point. Matthew 1:18-25 (read). Now this account, and the thinking and actions of Joseph are partially understandable and partially not understandable to our modern, secular way of thinking and acting today. Let me explain. Joseph’s actions are understandable to us in the sense that he was surprised and disappointed when he heard the news that his fiancé was pregnant with child. As a good Jew, he knew the baby wasn’t his, so he concluded that Mary was pregnant by another man, which must have been crushing and discouraging to him. That part our modern world understands. But then the account says that he didn’t want to expose her to public shame so “he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” That’s the part our contemporary world finds hard to understand. Here’s the problem for our secular, worldly thinking: if he was really upset, why didn’t he just divorce her and not worry about what happens to her? Serves her right. But if he was sympathetic to her, why not then just forgive Mary, marry her, accept the child and raise it as the father? But Joseph was wrestling with the issue of justice and love, truth and grace – something that many in our world today never wrestle with. Joseph was a man of character, and in this he was reflecting the character of God, in how God wrestles with issues of justice and love, truth and grace in knowing how to deal with us as fallen sinful humanity. God’s solution, and our salvation, is the product of his wrestling with justice and love. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is the thing that satisfies both justice and love and provides a way of salvation for us. What a great topic to be talking about as we enter the Christmas season. Let me explain.

First, Joseph reflected the justice and truth side of God’s character at Christmas time. Matthew 1:19, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” The Bible says that Joseph was a “righteous” man. Now the word here in the Greek language of the original New Testament can mean either “just” – Joseph was a just man, or it can mean “righteous” – Joseph was a righteous man. The one word conveys the idea of fairness or justice, the other communicates the idea of holy or righteousness. So Bible translators have to decide which English word to use. The KJV and RSV use “just.” The NIV uses “righteous.” Other translations try to combine the two words: the NEB says, “being a man of principle,” JB says, “being a man of honor,” Phillips says, “a good man,” LB says, “a man of stern principle,” TEV says, “a man who always did what was right,” etc. I like the way the NEB or New English Bible puts it, “Being a man of principle, and at the same time wanting to save her. . . .” We get the picture that Joseph was a man of strong principle, right was right, wrong was wrong. On the one hand, his beloved fiancé had supposedly sinned, broken the law of God, had been unfaithful to him and God, and even lied about it, claiming an angelic visitation or divine conception. That’s wrong, it’s sinful – or so he thought. But on the other hand, Mary was his beloved and he had genuine care and concern for her. That was the dilemma. Our modern world doesn’t feel the force of the dilemma Joseph faced because we aren’t people of much moral principle anymore. People have sex outside of marriage all the time, routinely. Women get pregnant before marriage all the time – in some major cities of our country most babies are born outside of wedlock. So to our modern, secular ears this is not all that shocking or surprising. But to the Jews, and especially to a good Jew, a Jew of stern principle like Joseph, the report was crushing. He also knew the law of Moses and the prophets with such verses as “the soul that sins shall die,” etc. He knew that for her situation the death penalty could be applied – not that it always was applied even by the Jews – but that it could be applied. Mary could die and it would even be justified. So Joseph wrestled with this tension, between applying the law and dealing with sin, and also his love for the woman he was supposed to marry. That’s the same struggle God experiences in dealing with us sinful people in respect to his own holy law and his own love for us as his children. On the one hand, we all deserve judgment and condemnation, but on the other hand, he truly loves us and doesn’t want to see anyone perish. 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That same tension is seen in the life of Joseph during that first Christmas season. I hope we can all appreciate that struggle, because it’s an important thing in understanding the meaning of the gospel and the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

Second, Joseph reflected the love and mercy side of God’s character at Christmas time. Matthew 1:19, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” As a man of principle and character Joseph believed that Mary had broken the law of God and deserved the penalty of death. Remember, at this point he hadn’t been convinced that she really had experienced a miracle conception. We must remember that we are so used to hearing about the virgin birth of Jesus Christ that it hardly seems strange to our ears, but back then, this was a ridiculous notion, especially to the Jews. There were Roman and Greek Myths of the gods fathering children, but to the Jewish mind these were only mythology, as they are to us. Any reasonable person would not have believed Mary upon first hearing her story, which is why Joseph didn’t believe it. So if it wasn’t true, then Mary was lying, she was covering up for her sin of immorality. Now to our modern mindset, where love is mostly feeling and sentimentality many people would say, “O go ahead and marry her, if you love her, overlook her mistake, forgive her unfaithfulness, it happens sometimes.” Sin is treated casually, lightly, brushed over like in the popular movie Sleepless in Seattle where the heroine tells her mother before the wedding, “I’m sleeping with him (the boy friend) already,” and her mother replies, “O Fiddle Dee Dee.” It’s nothing. The moral law of God is broken – O well! Disobedience to God — so what! Things like this happen, it’s no big thing. That’s today’s attitude towards sin, but that’s not God’s attitude towards sin, that’s not the Bible’s attitude towards sin, and that wasn’t Joseph’s attitude towards sin either. That’s why he wrestled with what to do. Our culture can’t appreciate the dilemma because we have lost so much moral character and live in a population of unprincipled people. “It’s the principle of the thing,” is hardly ever spoken any more, because we’ve almost entirely lost all principle. So today people might urge Joseph to just forgive Mary and get on with marrying her. But sin can’t just be forgiven. That’s God’s dilemma in dealing with us as sinners too. God, even God, can’t just forgive sin. Sin must be paid for, it must be accounted for, it must be atoned for. If a law is broken, someone must pay for that offense. Justice demands payment. The books must be balanced. God can’t just fudge with the numbers the way some business accountants a few years back did in “cooking the books” at Enron and Tyco and other companies. The balance sheet of justice must be balanced. In the case of Joseph, he couldn’t forgive Mary and cleanse her of her sins because it was against God primarily that she supposedly sinned. God would have to forgive her, but even God himself can’t forgive without a payment. So we see that Joseph’s dilemma in respect to Mary is a little sample of God’s dilemma in respect to all of us lawbreakers and sinners on earth. There is love, but there is also justice that must be satisfied. There had to be a third way, but Joseph needed God to show him the way. And God had a third way, for Joseph, for us, and for himself at Christmas time.

Third, God provides the solution to the problem of justice and love, truth and grace at Christmas time. Matthew 1:19-21, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” God gave Joseph the solution to his problem – he was to marry Mary because her story about the angel and the divine conception was true. The Baby is special and will become the Savior of the world. Now Joseph’s plan to quietly divorce Mary was scraped because it was based on false assumptions and was more of a cover-up than a solution. Now when we look back at the Old Testament and how the Jews dealt with sin and God’s temporary instructions to sacrifice animals as substitute payments for sin – all of that was really only a cover-up too. The blood of animals in the Old Testament was only a temporary covering of sin, it wasn’t a real long-term solution to the problem of sin in every person’s life. The New Testament Book of Hebrews explains how the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament never cleansed for sins but only covered over sins until the ultimate and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ came to deal with sin once for all. Just as God provided Joseph with a solution for the problem of justice and love he was facing in respect to Mary, so too, God provides a solution in respect to us for our sins. We are all sinners, we all deserve to die and perish forever in damnation for our crimes against God and God’s law, but just as 2 Peter 3:9 says, God is not willing that any perish, but for all to repent and believe and be saved. So out of love God sent Jesus to die on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin so that justice might be satisfied and also that the love of God might also be satisfied. The dilemma God faced was that he loved us, yet he also had to carry out his justice. He had to balance the books of right and wrong, yet he didn’t want to do that in a way that called for the death of his children. So God the Father sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place on the cross, to be punished for the guilty, in order to satisfy justice, to make the payment for sin, and then on that basis he could forgive us as guilty sinners. Christmas is a time when we remember the entrance of Jesus into the world as a baby – God’s solution to the divine dilemma of justice and love. I hope you appreciate God’s situation and God’s solution in Jesus Christ for your salvation. I hope this Christmas isn’t merely about presents and twinkling lights and everything else, but I hope you take the time to appreciate the greater things and deeper things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at Christmas. And if you haven’t committed your life to God through Jesus Christ I hope you make that firm commitment this year. All you have to do is be honest to God about your sins, turn away from sin as best you can, come humbly to God and beg forgiveness and trust that Christ upon the cross satisfied the justice of God as payment for your sins. Turn your life over to God to trust and obey him with the rest of your life.


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