(Preached at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, Morganton, NC 12-18-16)
A few years ago, I preached a sermon on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I had several people tell me afterwards that it was the first time that they had ever heard a message on Mary in a Southern Baptist church. Unfortunately, because some religions have over-emphasized Mary’s role, many Bible-believing churches have sometimes taken the pendulum too far and have undervalued it. But if that is true for Mary, it may be even more so for Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. There is not a lot about Joseph contained in scripture. Most of what is found in the Bible is right here in Matthew 1:18-25. But what we discover here is that Joseph was a man whom you & I would do well to imitate in many ways. And that just makes sense. The man whom God would choose to bring up His Son here on earth, in His formative years, would be vital to His plan. And even though there is not a lot of information contained here, what we do find is that Joseph serves as a great example to us in several areas:
I. His Example of Balancing Righteousness and Love.
First of all, the Bible tells us here in :19 that Joseph was “a righteous man.” To be “righteous” means to be in “right” standing; to do the right things towards both God and other people. And Joseph was a “righteous” man — that is, he wanted to do the right thing. In this case, that meant that his fiancé, Mary, was found to be with child — He didn’t know at the time that this was by the Holy Spirit — and for all of human history, there was only one explanation for this: that she had been unfaithful to him while she was engaged to him. In Jewish culture, when you were “betrothed” to someone, it was a strong bond; you basically had to be “divorced” from it — which was what Joseph was going to do. When :19 says “he planned to SEND HER AWAY” the word for “send her away” there in Greek is “apolusai”, which is the same word Jesus uses for “divorce” in Matthew 5. So Joseph was going to do the right thing. Mary was found (or so he thought) to be immoral, and so he was going to do the right thing and sever that relationship. He was a righteous man, who had godly, righteous standards.
But Joseph was not only an example of a man of righteousness and holiness, he was also an example of sensitivity and love. The second part of verse 19 says “and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.”
I think this is an important side for us to see of Joseph as well. Not only was he a righteous man, but he was also sensitive and caring towards Mary. He didn’t drag her out into the streets, like John 8 tells us that the scribes and the Pharisees did with the woman who was caught in the act of adultery. There was going to be nothing like that from him. He didn’t want to “disgrace” her. He “planned to send her away (or divorce her) secretly.” This says a lot about Joseph. He was indeed a righteous man. He did want to do the right thing, and uphold a holy, righteous standard for his family. But he also cared about Mary, and he was not going to just throw her out on the streets to be a public spectacle. He had a balance of both holiness, and of love; of godly standards, and yet sensitivity and concern for people.
Joseph is a great example for us in this, because it is often difficult to keep that balance: to both do the right thing; to keep the standards of holiness — and yet at the same time, to still be sensitive and care about people. It is far easier — and far more common — to either uphold your standards and not care about people; or to just go the other way and care about people, but let your standards slip to do it.
I think one of the hardest things in the world is to keep a balance of both of these things: to hold to the righteous standards that God has given us in His word, and yet not to hold them coldly, but to genuinely love and care about the people who are involved.
I feel like this is one of my own biggest challenges personally — and I also believe it is one of the biggest challenges facing our church (and all Christian churches) in our society in the days ahead:
— we must adhere to the standards of holiness that God has given us in His word. II Timothy 1:13 says “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me.” If we ignore the standards that God has given us in His word, then we cease to be a genuine church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our society is constantly try to drag the church down to its level morally. There is so much pressure today for churches to compromise with the times — and many pastors and churches are just caving into it.
Recently it made the news that Jen Hatmaker — who is a young pastor’s wife, and a pretty well-known blogger, who also just got an HGTV show — and her husband came out with an article that said that they had re-examined their views on homosexuality, and they now believe that a same-sex marriage can be “blessed” and “holy” before God. More and more pastors and churches are doing the same thing. But Rosaria Butterfield, another pastor’s wife, who had been a lesbian activist college professor before she was saved and began to follow Jesus Christ, said that Jen Hatmaker and these others are not doing people who are in the gay and lesbian lifestyle a favor by changing what they teach. She said “If I were still in the thick of the battle over the indwelling sin of lesbian desire, Jen’s words would have put a millstone around my neck” and would have kept her from facing the sin she was in, and the choice she needed to make to forsake that and follow Christ. She pleads with the church and its leaders today: don’t forsake the standard of God’s word and cave in to the compromised views of our world.
But here is the thing. We must seek to always hold to the clear teaching of the word of God, but at the same time, we must do it with sensitivity and love. Christians who adhere to the clear teaching of the word of God on homosexuality are regularly accused of “hate” towards those who practice it. We need to make sure that is a false accusation. We need to make sure that we do NOT hate them. We need to make sure that we do not make crude jokes about them; but seek to genuinely love them and want God’s best for them.
And this should be true no matter what the sin is. We need to learn to follow the example of Joseph and try to do everything that we do, with sensitivity and love. No “holier than thou” attitudes that we are too often found guilty of. How often is there an article in the news about something that someone did, and then all over Facebook people start posting things like: “I know I wasn’t brought up that way” or “How could they do that?” Folks, we need to be careful about that. What do you mean “How could they do that?” Because you aren’t a sinner too? Because you have never been tempted to do evil? Because you have never fallen short in your ow life? Listen, if you are a Christian, that means that you have already admitted that you have sinned against God, and that you are saved only by God’s grace through Jesus’ death on the cross, and not your own righteousness. There’s no room for a Christian to look down our noses on any else’s sin, as if we could not have sinned. We know we already have! Now that doesn’t mean that their sin’s not wrong; it is. But we should also have a sensitivity and a sympathy towards them because we know that we are sinners too!
We need to pray that God would give us this balance of holiness and love that Joseph exemplifies here in Matthew 1. This balance is demonstrated in an episode from the life of J.P. Boyce, who was the president of our Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1800’s. He had a professor at the seminary by the name of C.H.Toy. Toy was a brilliant scholar, and a “rising star” among Southern Baptists at the time. For a while, C.H. Toy and Lottie Moon actually courted, but she broke up with him and went to China on mission — and the offering we give that supports our Southern Baptist missionaries has come to be named after her. But many speculate that one of the reasons that Lottie Moon broke up with C.H. Toy is that he unfortunately began to follow some of the liberal German theologians, and began disbelieving some parts of the Bible. As seminary president, J.P. Boyce found out about it, and he talked to Toy. Toy admitted his beliefs, and Boyce found that he was going to have to ask Toy to step down from his position as a professor at the seminary. But he didn’t do it cold-heartedly. In fact, Boyce was the one who took C.H. Toy to the train station as he left. As the professor got on the train, Boyce wept and said to him, “Oh, Toy, Toy; I would give my right arm if you would believe as you did yesterday.” Boyce did what he had to do: he upheld the Biblical standard; He did not compromise the teaching of the pure word of God at the seminary. But he didn’t do it cold-heartedly; he did it with sensitivity to the person he loved; he did it with a broken heart.
There’s every indication here that this is what Joseph was doing here with Mary as well. He was going to do what he thought needed to be done. As far as he knew at that time, it was the holy and righteous thing to do. But he wasn’t going to do it in a mean way; he didn’t want to disgrace her. He would send her away secretly.
A lot of us have much to learn from Joseph’s example here:
— some of us need to learn that we must uphold godly standards, no matter who the person is. God’s word must not be compromised. Our standards of leadership, our church membership; our adherence to Bible doctrines, must not be compromised no matter who the person is — or we will soon find ourselves to be no church at all, with the Bible tossed out the window!
— But others of us need to learn to uphold godly standards, but to do it with a broken heart, instead of with a self-righteous attitude, lest we become a 20th-century group of Pharisees that God despises because we don’t really love people like He does.
Each one of us has our own leanings; our own temptations in this area. We need to recognize what they are:
— Do you lean more towards godly standards? Then watch out for the temptation to criticism of others, self-righteousness, and cold-hearted action.
— Do you lean more towards caring for people? Then watch out, lest you take your love for people so far that it compromises your love for God which He said is evidenced by obedience to His word, which must never be compromised.
Keeping love and truth in balance is one of the most difficult tasks of the individual Christian life, and of the Christian church. We need to pray fervently that God would help us to do that; and we can learn better how to keep that balance from following the example of Joseph here in Matthew 1.
II. His Example of Obedience.
:24 “and Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him …”.
Joseph demonstrated his obedience to God in a number of ways:
— first in :19 he determined that he was going to obey the Law by sending Mary away, just as he should have as a righteous man.
— then when the angel told him to take Mary as his wife, despite every objection any natural person might have had, :24 says he awoke “and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
— :25 says “He called His name Jesus”, just like he was told.
— and then if you read farther, into Matthew chapter 2, you see that he is still obeying God, when after the visit of the magi in :13, an angel told him to get up and take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, because King Herod was going to attempt to kill the child — and :14 says that “Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.”
— then after Herod died, Joseph was told by God to take Jesus back to Israel, and :21 tells us “So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.”
— And when :22 says that he was warned by God in a dream not to go to Judea, it says: “He left for the regions of Galilee” — which ended up fulfilling the scripture that the Christ would be called a Nazarene.
With this, Joseph passes entirely from the scene in Matthew. We never hear from him again. We read something about him at the end of Luke 2, where it says that Jesus was 12, and his family had gone to Jerusalem to the Passover, and it tells us that “His parents” were traveling with Him, and at the end it says “He continued in subjection to them” — so evidently Joseph lived for some amount of time after that, that it could say that Jesus continued in subjection to him. But we really hear nothing else specifically about Joseph after this — and most Bible students assume that some time after Jesus was 12, he experienced the death of His earthly father as one of His trials in taking on our nature.
So basically we hear nothing substantial about Joseph after Matthew chapter 2. But what we find of him here give us a great example of obedience:
— He obeyed the revelation God gave him through the angel and in the dreams
— He obeyed when it was difficult — or maybe even humanly impossible to understand
— He obeyed instantly when it was very important to do so, and delayed obedience could have cost the life of his family.
— Every instance we read of him here is of obedience to God.
We need to learn to obey like he did:
— Just like like Joseph obeyed the revelation God gave him in the angel and the dreams; so we need to learn to obey the revelation that God has given to US, in His word. We need to make sure that we don’t just come to Sunday School and church to LISTEN to God’s word, but that we come prepared to OBEY it!
— Just like Joseph, we need to obey even when it is difficult for us; when we don’t understand why. Joseph didn’t understand everything about the virgin birth — but he accepted it and obeyed. In the same way, there are going to be things we do not understand about God’s word today. But our commitment needs to be like his: if God’s word says it, then we will do it.
— And again like him, we need to learn to obey immediately. Had Joseph delayed in obeying God by going that night to Egypt, it might have cost the lives of Mary & Jesus. How many times do WE pay the price, for not obeying God immediately? When God shows you something in His word, you should obey it immediately, not later. My pastor in Norman, Ronnie Rogers, wrote this week an article entitled, “Faithfulness Tomorrow Is to Fail Today” — the point of which was that obeying God is not just a matter of thinking you are going to obey Him tomorrow; you need to be faithful and obey Him TODAY! TODAY is the only day you have. “Today” is actually the only time we ever have. It is always today. It is always the present. Don’t say, “pretty soon I am going to do what God told me to do.” No. The Bible says “NOW is the appointed time. TODAY is the day.” Do you know something God wants you to do? “Delayed obedience is disobedience.” Like Joseph, do it now!
The truth is, many of us Baptists here in America today really need the example of Joseph’s obedience. Many of us have been brought up in the Baptist Church, where we have heard all of our lives that salvation is not based upon our goodness, or our obedience, but it is only based on God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. And that’s true. It is. We are not saved by our obedience, but by Jesus’ death on the cross — and thank God it is so, or none of us would have ever been saved!
But at the same time, a negative result of our Baptist emphasis on salvation by grace through faith has been that it has led many Baptists to de-emphasize the importance of obedience, as if it doesn’t matter whether we obey God or not — because after all, we aren’t saved by our obedience, but by grace. And we ARE saved by grace — but that does not negate the importance of obedience to God. In fact, if you really are saved, you have all the more motivation to obey.
See, God made us to know and love Him, and He gave us His commands, which are good, and which help keep us on the right path. But we chose to sin — to depart from God’s commands in disobedience. God the Son came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, and died on the cross to pay for our sins, so that we could come back to Him through repentance and faith. But repentance means that you “change your mind” and come BACK to Him, as your Lord & God. It means that you repent of your disobedience and that you are coming back to obey Him as your Lord & Master. So if you really come to know Him, you don’t see it as an excuse to disobey; rather you will obey Him more than ever before, because:
you realize that His commands were best for you all along;
because you are grateful to Him because He has bought you with His death on the cross, and you would do anything He wants you to out of love,
because you want to show by your obedience that you really are His; and
because you know that sin always puts a cloud of separation between you and God, and you don’t want anything to come between you — you love Him! So you WANT to obey Him.
Obedience is one of the most important signs that you really are a Christian, and that you love the Lord. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) He also said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) No, you aren’t saved by your obedience. But if you are really saved, you are going to obey. And if you consistently disobey God, it is one of the surest signs that you have never really come to know Him at all.
So Joseph is a great example to us, of how to live a life of holiness and obedience towards God, and love towards other people. But don’t fool yourself; if we knew more about him, we’d know all about his failures too. Joseph wasn’t perfect. There were times when he didn’t love, and didn’t obey. Just like us. Joseph needed a Savior. Just like us. And he had every reason to celebrate just like us, that God was sending us this Child named Jesus “who will save His people from their sins.”