Volume 35, Number 6
Sometimes in the rush of events at Christmas, some folks may be nearly forgotten. While we should focus on Jesus, who was born to die for our sins, there are others mentioned in the birth accounts of our Lord. They are not as prominent, but they are written about in order to instruct the faithful believer.
Shepherds are among those who came and worshipped Jesus (Luke 2:10-11). They were at the bottom of the social and economic scale, and were not a part of the outwardly religious crowd. Shepherds were so poorly thought of, that they could not testify in court, for it was assumed they were liars. But what amazement they must have had when the angels appeared and told them that they could see the Christ.
King Herod was a fearful, evil man. Caesar Augustus was reputed to have said, “l’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son,” for Herod killed anyone, even three of his sons, who presented even the merest of threats to his throne. While he had the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, he was a heathen in practice, and a monster in character. Herod feared the little boy in Bethlehem, for his own power and well-being were at stake. After years of being able to make important decisions, now someone else was on the scene who could diminish that ability. Herod stands in stark contrast to the King of Kings.
Around Herod were the indifferent religious leaders. They told Herod exactly where the Messiah would be born (Matthew 2:5-6). They were full of religious knowledge, but had no personal experience, nor did they desire to worship the Messiah themselves. They ignored the tremendous event which had occurred just a few miles away in Bethlehem.
Men from other lands came to worship the newborn King. The Magi are somewhat mysterious in the Bible. We don’t know how many there were, what their names were, what their hometown was, or even what was the star of Bethlehem. All we know is their purpose–”We have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2).
This BRF Witness tells of the obedient faithfulness of Joseph and Mary. They were hardly special individuals in themselves, but God graciously used them for His purpose to bring His Son into the world. Their response to God’s working in their lives was one of joyful and complete submission to His will. We do well to follow their example.
Lessons From The Lives of Joseph and Mary
By Harold S. Martin
As we approach the Christmas season, we especially remember the coming of Jesus as God in human flesh (the Incarnation of Christ). But there are other prominent persons involved in the Christmas account, and in this message we aim to learn some lessons from the lives of Joseph and Mary.
It is true that some make an idol out of Mary, the mother of the incarnate Son of God. In the city of Rome, there are many church buildings dedicated to Mary, while only a few buildings have been formally dedicated to Christ. And it Is true that some have built a long series of dogmas about Mary. They speak of her perpetual virginity (that is, that she had no other children beside Jesus). Some speak of her immaculate conception (that is, that she herself was born without any sin). Others believe in the assumption of Mary (that she ascended bodily into heaven like Jesus did). None of these concepts is taught in the New Testament, and the worship of Mary has no place in our Christian faith. In this study, we are not attempting to put a halo around the mother of our Lord, but there are some good things to be said for Mary. Because some of us refuse the worship of Mary, and rightly so, we have tendencies to swing to the other extreme and fail to give her any commendation at all.
Mary deserves proper recognition. The angel exclaimed, as recorded in Luke 1:28, “Blessed art thou among women” (KJV).
And as for Joseph–he seems to be an almost forgotten man at Christmastime. The carols that mention Joseph are not really too plentiful. We sing about “the virgin, the mother and child;” about “angels from the realms of glory;” about “shepherds in the fields abiding;” about “the town (named) Bethlehem;” about “the kings from the Orient;” and sometimes about Joseph–but not too much is said about Joseph.
True–the fact that he was the foster father (and not the real biological progenitor of Jesus)-may reduce his stature in the eyes of some. And the fact that he never uttered a word may cause him to fade into the background. (We have no record of any words that Joseph ever spoke.) But we can be certain that God carefully examined the character of the man who was chosen to become the foster father of Jesus, and that God providentially supervised the choice of a husband for Mary.
We look first at some lessons from the life of Joseph.
1. JOSEPH WAS A CONSIDERATE HUSBAND
Mary and Joseph both lived in the same town. They were brought up in the same community. They both lived in Nazareth (compare Luke 1:26 with Luke 2:4). Joseph had likely been born in Bethlehem (65 miles to the south), but his family moved to Nazareth sometime during his youth, and there he met Mary, and now they were engaged to be married.
Engagement in those days was a binding contract. It was nearly as binding as marriage is in our day. That is why Joseph Is called Mary’s ‘husband” (and Mary is called his “wife”), even before their marriage was consummated (Mat thew 1:19-20). An engagement was so binding that it could only be dissolved by divorce. And so these two young people were living in Nazareth, and were engaged to be married-and then one day suddenly an angel told Mary that she was to have a child–not by normal human generation, but by the overwhelming of the Holy Spirit. Mary was looking forward to her wedding day. What would Joseph say when she broke the news that she was expecting a child? Joseph didn’t know anything about it.
The first three months following the angel’s announcement to Mary were spent at Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth lived far away in the hill country of Judea. Luke 1.56 says, “And Mary remained with her (Elizabeth) about three months and then returned to her home. When Mary came back to Nazareth, and had to tell Joseph of her condition-it must have filled him with some strange feelings. Put yourself in Joseph’s place. He thought that Mary had always told the truth. Her previous character had always been blameless. But now her story seemed unreal and strange.
Joseph wondered whether she may have been unfaithful during those three months in the hill country with Elizabeth. He was sure that she had not been, yet the conflict raged on in his soul, and probably the normal thing to do would have been to expose her and make her a public disgrace. And Joseph considered doing that very thing, but his love and his compassion for Mary would not permit that kind of severe treatment. Matthew 1:19-20 says that Joseph was a righteous man, and while he was pondering what he ought to do, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and explained how Mary’s being with child came about.
Joseph could have been very cruel toward Mary. He could have stoned her, or divorced her–but he was a man of compassion and kindness–and he did not take those actions. If Mary had been espoused to a cruel, passionate man, she would have died in disgrace.
Joseph was a man of godly wisdom. He pondered these things. He thought before he acted. He dealt with Mary thoughtfully and with courtesy. That is the way every husband should treat his wife. It is easy to forget this and take things for granted when we are occupied with earning a living for the family and facing stiff competition in business–but a husband can never tell his wife too often that he loves her, nor can he ever be too understanding of her concerns and problems.
Several decades ago there was a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad whose wife was taken seriously ill with cancer. He took a leave of absence from his work in order to care for his sick wife. He never left her, except for short intervals to pick up groceries or to get a haircut, etc. He treated her with utmost tenderness. When others would visit in their home, they could sometimes hear him say to his wife, whose body was wasting away rapidly, “Mother, you’re still my sweetheart.” That is the kind of spirit that should prevail in every home.
Too many husbands are short and snappy and quick with their speech. They speak with an irritated tone of voice. Some husbands think that because a woman is his wife, that she just ought to know that he loves her. But God has constructed the wife in such a way that she needs to hear her husband say, “I love you.” Joseph was a considerate husband. We can learn from his example.
2. JOSEPH WAS AN OBEDIENT SERVANT
Joseph was willing at every turn to do God’s bidding. He was obedient when the angel had explained to him how Mary had come to be with child. Joseph was minded to put her away, but Matthew 1.24 says that after the angel had spoken to him, “When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Joseph did precisely as the angel had instructed.
Joseph did not understand the how and the why of this whole thing, but he acted in simple faith on the word of God’s messenger. He believed that the word from God was true, and he complied with what God had said. Joseph obeyed the Lord. He was an obedient servant of God.
We must remember that our faith in Christ becomes a real faith (a saving faith) only when it is validated by obedience. It is not merely he who attends church services each Sunday and says “Lord, Lord,” who shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of the heavenly Father (Matthew 7:21). All of us need a frame of mind that is set to do the will of God, and that is determined to carry out the instructions of the Scriptures.
When Joseph awakened from his dream and knew that Mary was expecting the child as a result of a divine miracle, he hurried off to Mary’s house, and shortly thereafter they were married (as the Lord had told him to do)-and Joseph gave Mary the protection of a husband and he gave the child the dignity of a foster father. Joseph was an obedient servant of God.
3. JOSEPH WAS A GOOD CITIZEN OF HIS COUNTRY
Joseph was submissive to Caesar Augustus (the Roman Emperor), when he decreed that a census should be taken. The word “taxed” (in the KJV) refers really to a “registration”–a compiling of information which later could be used for the purposes of taxation. But Joseph was obedient to the law of the land. He returned to his native town, as he was expected to do, and did as the authorities said that he should.
Joseph was not one who took the attitude that if a certain law (such as the wearing of seat belts) did not suit him, he wasn’t going to obey it. Joseph was a law-abiding citizen of his country. When Caesar Augustus called for a census, Joseph dropped the work that he was doing and took his family to Bethlehem to be registered. But to take that step of obedience was not easy. In Joseph’s day, the Romans controlled the country of Israel. And many Jews, all over the land, resented the idea of Roman control, and the idea of a census. They planned to resist with violence. The Jewish historian Josephus tells how the Zealots (political extremists) made life hard for the people who did go to their hometowns and register. The Zealots often plundered their property and drove away their cattle and set fire to their houses while they were gone. But Joseph was an obedient servant of God, and this involves being a good citizen of the land.
God’s people should be good citizens, and obey the laws, unless those laws conflict with the clear teachings of the New Testament.
We need to honor Joseph because he was a considerate husband, an obedient servant, and a good citizen.
The paragraphs which follow, highlight some lessons from the life of Mary.
4. MARY WAS CHASTE AND PURE
Nazareth was located along the main highway that was traveled by caravans going from Damascus to the Mediterranean seaports. Some young girls courted affairs with traveling merchants, as they traveled the main road through Nazareth. They fixed ribbons in their hair and flirted with wealthy men as they traveled through the city–but it was not so with Mary. When Mary refused to participate, the other girls surely told her that she was old-fashioned and that she was missing out on the fun. But Mary stuck to her ideals, and God blessed her for her purity.
When the angel announced that Mary was to be the mother of our Lord, as recorded in Luke 1:34, she said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary knew that intimate sex relationships were created by God to occur only within the context of marriage, and so even though she was engaged to be married, she had kept herself pure.
Mary was a pure and chaste virgin. Her body was the temple of God, not a fleshly plaything. In our day, promiscuity and prostitution and premarital intercourse are reaching proportions that are almost unbelievable. Thousands of people in America have moral standards about like those of an alley cat. But regardless of what the world about us practices, God’s standard has always been (and still is today), chastity before marriage and loyalty after marriage. First Thessalonians 4:3-5 says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.
Virginity is still a virtue, and fornication is still an abominable sin. One teenage girl made this covenant with God: She says, “My kisses are worth more than a hamburger, or a ride in a sporty car, or a night of carousing around. My body is the temple of God. The way I dress and act and speak may be a temptation to my boyfriend, and so, with the help of God, I will be careful about these things and observe modesty-for his good and for my protection.
She continues, “My parents have done so much for me, that I wish always to be a credit to them. I will do nothing on my dates that I would be ashamed to tell them. I will some day likely become a wife and a mother. I will therefore reserve my purity and affection for my husband and my children. Mary, the mother of Jesus is my example.
No one will ever regret having lived a morally clean life. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was chaste and pure.
5. MARY WAS SATURATED WITH THE SCRIPTURES
Mary was a girl who knew the Scriptures. In the “Magnificat, we have recorded one of the greatest hymns of the church. It is a song of joy, found in Luke 1:46-55, a song which burst forth from Mary’s heart. In the song, Mary quotes Scripture after Scripture. It is a wonderful commentary on her life.
When Mary arrived at the house of Elizabeth, the two of them exchanged greetings, and then after the greetings were exchanged, Mary began the song of praise. She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” The entire song occupies ten verses in the first chapter of Luke, and in the song Mary quoted from at least five Old Testament books, including the Psalms, Samuel, Isaiah, Micah, and Exodus. Every phrase of Mary’s hymn is filled with quotes from the Scriptures. Mary was thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures of her day.
All of us should be aware that the entire Bible can be read completely through by an average reader in just 77 hours. Every disciple of Jesus Christ ought to aim to know the Bible like he knows his job. One who works in a factory and operates a machine, knows exactly how to push the buttons and what to do next. Truck drivers know just about when to shift the gears as they approach a grade on the highway. Those who sew on a sewing machine know how to thread the machine. Workers have everything at their fingertips and know what needs to be done next. If we don’t know our Bibles as well as we know our jobs, we will be letting a poor testimony.
Mary was saturated with the Scriptures, and it was she whom God chose to be the mother of our Saviour. If each member of our congregations would become a regular and devoted and careful reader of the Bible, it would revolutionize our churches.
6. MARY WAS A KEEPER OF SECRETS
Mary had the unusual ability of being able to keep things to herself. After the visit of the shepherds, she could have bragged to her neighbors, and said, “Why even angels sang on the night when my baby was born. She could have said, “l’m sure my little son is going to grow up and be an important man some day. And although Mary knew that all this was true, she did not say a word. Luke says, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
After the episode at the age of twelve, when Jesus amazed the teachers of the law by His questions and answers, Mary could have boasted again, and said, “My boy is only twelve years old, and mind you, he carried on an intelligent conversation (on theological subjects) with the learned scribes of the Temple. But instead, Luke says she kept all these sayings in her heart (Luke 2:51). Twice in the second chapter of Luke, the writer says that Mary possessed the ability of keeping things to herself.
The Bible says that we should be “slow to speak” (James 1:19). In another place it says that we should “study to be quiet. And in still another place we learn that “in a multitude of words, there wanteth not sin” (Proverbs 10:19/
KJV). Most of us at some time or another, talk too lightly, too carelessly, too critically, too boastfully, and too jokingly. If we want power with God, we have to learn to be slow to speak. One poet says, “If all that we say in a single day, with never a word left out, were painted each night in clear black and white, it would prove queer reading no doubt. He continues,
“And then just suppose, ere our eyes we would close, we must read the whole record through. Then wouldn’t we sigh, and wouldn’t we try, a great deal less talking to do?” The conclusion follows: “And I more than half think that many a kink, would be smoother in life’s tangled thread, if half that we say in a single day, were left forever unsaid.
Mary possessed the rare grace of being able to control her tongue, and we should profit from her example. God help us to strive for this same kind of mastery.
The coming of Jesus in human flesh was a miracle. It is a staggering thought to think that God was dwelling in the frail body of a little child. As we read the Christmas account again this year, it will be helpful to think about the lives of Joseph and Mary. As we think of Joseph, we should:
–remember his consideration and thoughtfulness toward Mary.
–remember his detailed obedience to the will of God.
–remember his practice of good citizenship.
As we think of Mary, we should:
–remember her chastity and purity.
–remember her knowledge of the Scriptures.
–remember her ability to keep things quiet.
Mary’s enthusiastic acceptance of God’s will, in spite of the scandal she knew it would cause, stands in sharp contrast to the cynical laughter of Sarah in the Old Testament. Mary said, “I am a mere servant girl; nevertheless, be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). In beautiful submission, Mary yielded herself to the Lord for the accomplishing of His purposes–and so it should be with us.
Imagine Mary and Joseph stressed from the arduous journey, confronted with the distress of this sign: No Vacancy! They were far from home. There was no “Motel 6″ to let the light on for them. No “McDonalds” to provide instant refreshment. No “Mennonite Your Way” book full of welcome addresses of Bethlehem Anabaptists. In the midst of political and commercial bustle there was no room. No room for Jesus, the Christ.
Is it different now? Two thousand years later we as Christians celebrate this event. But today our distress is caused by too much rather than too little. Too much “stuff,” that is. Stuff like business, social and religious bustle can put the No Vacancy sign on our lives. No room for the only One who is the source of peace and joy. This Christmas take down the sign, make room for the Lord Jesus.
–Frank L. Reed