Mary and Joseph's role in the drama of Christmas teaches us a great deal about faith and obedience. So join Stephen as we learn from their unforgettable example.
“The Inside Story”
If you had been alive nearly 200 years ago, the spotlight of world concern and interest would have been centered on a man named Napoleon. He was the most powerful man in Europe and he was in the process of conquering the western world. One author tweaked my historical perspective when he wrote, “If Dan Rather had been living in 1809, he evening news broadcast would have concentrated on Austria . . . not America. Nothing else was half as significant on the international scene.”
Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong In The Seasons Of Life; Multnomah Press, Portland, OR) 1983, p. 34
He’s right. If you had been alive in 1809, you would have considered Napoleon’s battles in Austria as the most significant thing happening in the civilized world. The last place you would have ever think about as significant or important, would have been the back woods of Kentucky. Yet, in 1809, an poor, illiterate wandering laborer and his wife delivered a newborn boy named Abraham Lincoln.
But who would have cared about that in 1809, right? In fact, the destiny of the world was in the hands of a French dictator and emerging world ruler, named Napoleon . . . or was it?!
In that same year, the birth of a boy in Hardin County, Kentucky was insignificant in the shaping of world empires . . . or was it?
If you had been alive 2000 years ago, the news sensation of the day would have been the empire of Rome and the emerging world leader. After defeating Antony and Cleopatra’s bid for the throne of Rome, he solidified the Roman empire and became it’s first true Emperor.
His given name was Gaius Octavian. But after assuming the throne of his deceased great Uncle, Julius Caesar, he also assumed the title of Caesar. Caesar was simply a term like “emperor, or Pharaoh”: a generic title given to the Emperor.
Yet, for the first time in the 400 year old kingdom of Rome, the Roman senate voted to give Caesar Octavian the title Augustus. Augustus meant revered or holy and up to this time it was a title reserved exclusively for the gods.
2,000 years ago, the belief was established that the Roman Caesar was the son of the gods.
The sensation of the day, 2,000 years ago, was the ruler of the greatest empire known to man and his name was Caesar Augustus.
Historians have said that Caesar Augustus was probably Rome’s greatest leader – they say he came to lead Rome when it was made of bricks. When he died, Rome was made of marble.
So revered was he by his empire that an inscription in the Roman city of Halicarnassus has been discovered that referred to him as, “the Savior of the World.”
If you had been alive 2,000 years ago, the spotlight would have never shifted to the back hills of Nazareth. Nobody would have ever thought to look at a baby born to peasant parents in Bethlehem as having any significance or influence over the future of the world.
That birth would be ignored entirely by Rome.
And why not?
Compare the birth of this peasant boy, who would claim to be the Son of God, with Caesar Augustus of Rome who was also declared the son of god and who would you think had the better chance of being believed?
Which “Savior of the world” would you have followed?
The prophet Isaiah said of Christ, “He had no majesty that we should look upon Him . . . he was despised and we did not esteem Him.” (Isaiah 53:2,3) That’s another way of saying, “We looked at Him and never would have guessed in a million years that He was anything important.”
Caesar Augustus on the hand, looks like a son of God ought to look. And behind him is all the splendor and wealth of Rome!
And behind Jesus Christ? Poverty and lowliness of the lowest class. He doesn’t look anything like a Son of God!
Why would He come to earth the way He did – Why the poverty? I want to explore how and why over these next sessions together with you as we celebrate His birth during this Christmas season.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers these words about Jesus Christ, “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
“For your sakes He became poor.”
There were two predominant words translated “poor” in the Greek world. One word referred to someone who had just enough money to pay off his bills and buy his food. After he paid his debts and bought enough food to survive he was then out of money. He was poor until his next paycheck. Sounds like you doesn’t it?
Especially this time of the year. Christmas is expensive isn’t it? And anybody who says Christmas doesn’t last all year, just doesn’t have a credit card.
But there’s another word translated “poor”. It’s the word, ptwkoV and it referred to someone who never had money to begin with. This was the person who couldn’t pay his bills and didn’t have any money for food and was living in abject poverty – totally impoverished.
He never ran out of money simply because he didn’t have any to run out of – he had none to spend or save or even lose.
This was the word Paul used here. This was the kind of poor person Jesus Christ became.
When Paul wrote that verse, he was thinking of the entirety of the incarnation as one act. In other words, Paul was saying, “For your sakes, the totality of the event of Christ becoming man, was impoverishment. It was choosing abject poverty.
Now that’s going from riches to rags.
Why did He do it? Paul answered in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “He became impoverished so that we could become enriched.” In other words, He went from riches to rags so that we could go from rags to riches.”
He came from heaven to earth so that we could go from earth to heaven.
I want you to travel back with me to the days just before the Son of God was born on planet earth. Just before He became Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”
We’re given the inside story It begins in Matthew chapter 1. Turn there and notice with me, verse 18. Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
You need to understand the shocking significance of what you just read. The Jewish marriage had several parts to it. The betrothal period, or the kidusheem was the engagement period followed by the marriage ceremony.
The betrothal period was a time when the young couple went before the priest and declared their vows. They would then live apart for one year as the young man prepared his home for the bride. According to the custom of their day, you couldn’t break the betrothal period without a written divorce. In fact, the law of this day held that if the man died before the wedding ceremony, his betrothed would be considered a widow.
At this point in the story, this one verse is filled with tragedy for young Joseph. Can you imagine the shock these words brought - in verse 18, “before they came together she was found to be with child”
In other words, she informed Joseph that she was carrying a child – and it wasn’t his! No doubt she told him about the angel – no doubt she tried to explain that there wasn’t another man. But Joseph didn’t buy it. Notice the next verse – 19. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.
The law declared in Deuteronomy, that Mary could be stoned to death. She had violated the marriage covenant – she could be tried publicly and found guilty.
Undoubtedly, by this time, the Jews weren’t carrying out the penalty of the law, but we do know that during the time of Christ, a woman like Mary, could have been cast off by her family and ostracized from ever entering the temple again. The fact that we never really hear about Mary’s parents may mean that this was exactly what happened.
The text tells us that Joseph was a righteous man – he valued the law – he lived a moral life. He upheld the laws of God and respected holy living. Mary had obviously sinned. Oh, but he loved her.
So, while Joseph chose not to publicly humiliate her, he chose not to marry her either.”
(vv. 20-23) 20. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” 22. Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23. “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, “God with us.”
By the way, to spell the name Immanuel with an “I” is to transliterate the name from the Hebrew. To spell it with an “E” is to transliterate it from the Greek. And you will need to know that for the test!
Can you imagine Joseph’s surprise by this angelic visitor. Poor guy – he’s gone through an awful lot in the last few hours. Now he discovers that Mary’s story is true. This thing about God and angels and Holy Spirit conception was not some fabrication by Mary. It was all true! But who would believe it?!
Truth is, hardly no one! But Joseph would. Notice verse 24. And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
By the way, by obeying God, Joseph was giving his righteous reputation away for good.
What I mean is, his only chance for clearing his name of fornication would have been to prove that Mary had been unfaithful to the betrothal vows - but now, to marry her would imply to everyone that he was the child’s father. That he and Mary had violated their betrothal covenant of purity before God.
Did you know that 30 years later, Jesus will be confronted by Jewish leaders who challenge him by saying, “We were not born in fornication.” (John 8:41) That rumor never did die down! And one of the accusations against Christ was that He had been an illegitimate child.
And for the rest of their lives Joseph and Mary lived under the penalty and discomfort of obedience.
What are you willing to suffer in order to be obedient? Are you willing to accept the penalty of Christianity? He discomforts of obeying God?
With that, Matthew jumps ahead nearly 2 years in the story. It is Luke, the doctor, that fills in all the details of the labor and delivery room in Bethlehem.
Luke chapter 2 and verse 1 picks up the story of Emmanuel – notice verse 1.
Now it came about in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Caesar ordered this census for two reasons; first, historians inform us, to determine the number of potential military age men there were in the kingdom. This allowed him to draft any number of men, whenever he chose.
Secondly, and more importantly to Caesar, was the purpose, not only for military purposes but financial purposes. This was a registration for the purpose of taxation.
All the inhabitants of Rome, whether Jew or Gentile, were to go to the town of their lineage and register their name, their occupation, their children’s names and so on.
These were the days when it seemed like Caesar Augustus was in control of the events of the world.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Augustus was God’s errand boy – delivering a decree at precisely the right moment. 3 months earlier or 3 months later and Mary’s delivery would have taken place in Nazareth.
God was orchestrating everything to fulfill His sovereign will and His eternal word.
The word of God had prophesied that:
In Genesis 3:15 that the redeemer would be a human being;
That the Savior would be a Jew, not a Gentile – Genesis 12:1-3
That the Savior would come from the tribe of Judah – Genesis 49:10
That the Messiah would be a descendant of David – 2 Samuel 7:1-17
That the Messiah would be born of a virgin – Isaiah 7:14
That the Redeemer would be crucified and his clothing divided among the soldiers (Psalm 22);
And hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah declared that the Savior of the world would be born in the town of Bethlehem.
“But as for you Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah (in other words, “too insignificant to get on the map), from you [Bethlehem] One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel; His goings forth are from long ago, [even] from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
It might look like Caesar is calling the shots. It might look like Mary and Joseph are helpless pawns caught up in the movements of world history, but in reality every move was perfectly timed and directed by the hand of God.
And so Luke records for us in verse 3. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5. in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. (she wasn’t about to stay behind . . . he wasn’t about to say as one author wrote, “Listen, I have a business trip to make, you might have the Son of God while I’m away, I’ll hurry home . . .)
By the way, the name “Bethlehem” literally means “the house of bread.” In John 6:35, Jesus is called the bread of life. Can you imagine a better town for the bread of life to be born than in a town whose name means “house of bread?”
In addition to that, Bethlehem was the same town where the patriarch Jacob buried his wife Rachel after she died in childbirth. And those fields that Mary and Joseph passed by were the same fields where Ruth had once gathered wheat until she was noticed by Boaz. This is the same little village where that shepherd boy named David tended the family sheep before he was chosen to be the next king of Israel.
These were the relatives of Joseph and Mary. Had their been a throne in Jerusalem – had their been a king and queen in the land of Israel – it would have been Joseph and Mary – they were the descendants of both lines – from David through Solomon and from David through Nathan. Joseph and Mary were the rightful successors to the throne.
Which means that their son would be the rightful prince of David!
But the world didn’t even notice. It was enraptured with the significance of mighty Rome – not the insignificance of little Bethlehem.
In a recent book, author Philip Yancey contrasted the humility that characterized Jesus’ coming to earth with the typical visit by the royal family to another country.
In London, looking toward the auditorium’s royal box where the queen sat, I caught glimpses of the way rulers stride through the world: with bodyguards, and a trumpet fanfare and a flourish of bright clothes and flashing jewelry. Queen Elizabeth II recently visited the United States, and reporters revealed all the behind the scenes details and logistics for such a visit to take place. Four thousand pounds of luggage contained more than you’d ever think imaginable; Her luggage contained 2 outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died and she needed to attend the funeral; she brought along her own hairdresser, two valets and dozens of other attendants. Carefully kept within her luggage were forty pints of plasma in case of a medical emergency. Even a brief visit of royalty to a foreign country can cost upwards of 20 million dollars.
In contrast, the Son of God – true royalty, traveled to earth without any of the amenities of first class – landing in an animal shelter, with no attendants present, nowhere to lay the King without borrowing the feed trough from the indifferent animals that shared their hay that night with their creator.
Why did he give up His royal rights? Why did he give all of His privileges away – so he could give you the greatest privilege of all – “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)
Emmanuel – “God with us” – so that we one day could be with God.
Though He was rich, yet He became totally impoverished, so that through His poverty, you might become rich.