My childhood view of Christmas was colorful, clean, and pleasant. I remember Daddy marching down the church aisle at Christmas, singing, “We Three Kings.” I had a sanitized view of camels, too — until I visited one that was filthy, by his own choice. He sometimes projected that filth of his in the direction of onlookers. My romantic view of a stable and the three wise men’s journey vanished.
Gone also is the childhood notion that the first Christmas was all joy and peace for the main characters. Mary and Joseph experienced a bevy of emotions and challenges that included betrayal, fear, and loneliness. In other words, the first Christmas offers a lot of hope for real people in a fallen world whose holiday celebrations fall short of the mythical ideal.
Most of us are familiar with Mary. But Joseph is also worth a deeper look. Let’s consider five lessons from Joseph’s faith that first Christmas.
1. By Faith Joseph Displayed Kindness under Pressure
“This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly” (Matt. 1:18-19).
Kindness and godliness go together. In fact, Proverbs tells us the righteous show regard even for their animals (Pro. 12:10). Our culture suffers from a dearth of kindness. Hateful comments on social media show even believers tearing down fellow believers. Joseph’s example of kindness can teach us a lot about faith in the midst of disappointment.
From a human viewpoint, Joseph had every right to be angry. His fiancé unexpectedly left town for three months and returned three months pregnant! Her story about an angel’s visit and still being a virgin—but pregnant—must have sent him reeling.
How could he have been so deceived about Mary’s character? And why would she make up such a ridiculous story about an angel’s visit to cover her betrayal?
The stigma of illegitimacy followed Jesus throughout his life (John 8:41). In our morally lax society, we can’t fully appreciate the shame this label carried in Mary’s culture. Books written less than a century ago provide an idea of the stigma and consequence a moral lapse brought. A compromising letter was enough to ostracize a woman from polite society and prevent a respectable marriage.
Under Mosaic law, anyone guilty of adultery would be stoned (Lev. 20:10). In “The Indescribable Gift,” Richard Exley explains the three steps in a Jewish marriage and the binding commitment of a betrothal. First there was the engagement, a contract arranged by family members. Next came the betrothal, “a public ratification of the engagement.” According to Exley, “during this period the couple is considered husband and wife, though the marriage has not been consummated. The only way a betrothal could be terminated was by death or divorce…’
“The last stage is the marriage proper, when the groom takes his bride into the bridal chamber and consummates the marriage. This is followed by a wedding party.”
There’d never been a virgin birth before. It was natural for Joseph to doubt Mary’s explanation. Yet Joseph’s faith guided him to be kind even when his emotions whirled within him. He chose to quietly divorce her and protect her from public shame.
Joseph models a Christ-like response to betrayal. Kindness and grace leave the door open for the wrongdoer to repent and be restored to God and his people. In Joseph’s case, when Mary’s reputation was cleared, he had to deal only with having doubted her story. He had no regrets about how he had handled the matter.
Joseph’s kindness with Mary — when he believed she’d betrayed him — shows the kindness faith produces even under pressure (Galatians 5:22).
2. By Faith Joseph Showed Courage
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him 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’” (Matt. 1:20).
Why was Joseph afraid? The obvious answer is that he feared Mary was involved or had been with another man, that she was immoral and not the person he’d believed her to be. Since he hadn’t heard from God at this time, how could he believe Mary? How could he ever trust her? How could he raise another man’s child?
The angel quieted this fear. There was no other man. Mary had told him the truth. She was carrying the Son of God.
I imagine other fears also taunted Joseph. Mary was three months pregnant at this point. To take her as his wife made him look immoral. What would this do to his standing in the Jewish community? Would his carpentry business suffer? Would they be thrown out of the synagogue and shunned by family and friends?
But when Joseph heard that this was God’s plan for him, all other concerns melted. He put aside his fears and followed God in faith. Joseph didn’t deny the challenges involved, but he accepted God’s plan with courageous faith.
When we know and trust God, we too find the courage to face our fears and follow Him.
3. By Faith Joseph Received Guidance and Revelation
“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” (Matt. 1:21).
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him’” (Matt. 2:13).
When I feel panic because I’m not sure of the next step, remembering how God dealt with Joseph reassures me. Throughout this story, God warned and directed Joseph step by step. The Bible says God still shares insights with those who walk with Him (John 16:13), and He directs our path (Pro. 16:9).
God’s ways often baffle me. If I’d been directing the events of the first Christmas, I would have preempted the tension and misunderstanding between Mary and Joseph by sending the angel to Joseph before he met with Mary. I would have warned him about their need to flee before the middle of the night they had to leave. But God’s ways are not my ways—they are better (Is. 55:9). And so is His timing. God sent Joseph the direction he needed when he needed it, not before. He’ll do the same for me.
4. By Faith Joseph Obeyed God
“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matt. 1:24).
Joseph demonstrates the obedience of faith. Three times when an angel spoke to him in a dream he immediately obeyed. His quick response meant fleeing, perhaps on foot, leaving behind what they couldn’t carry and starting over in a new location (Luke 2:13). One of lesser faith might have waited to finish and get paid for the carpentry project he was working on.
Joseph’s obedience showed his trust in God’s wisdom and provision for the unknown.
5. By Faith Joseph Lived Within His Means
“But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean” (Leviticus 12:8).
“They also offered a sacrifice as required by the Lord’s Teachings: ‘a pair of mourning doves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:24).
At Christmas, we — especially parents and grandparents — don’t want our loved ones to feel disappointed or less than their friends. This can pressure us to spend more than we should. I appreciate that the Christmas story shows the humility of Joseph. At the circumcision of Jesus — God’s very Son — Mary and Joseph didn’t offer a lamb, but the lesser offering of a pair of doves or pigeons. Charles Ryrie says in the Ryrie Study Bible that this shows the family’s poverty.
When we’re tempted to react, feel sorry for ourselves, delay obedience, or overindulge this season, may Joseph’s example bolster our faith to live courageously and in step with our Savior.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Nankimstudio
Drawing from her walk with Christ, and decades as a Christian counselor, coach, and Bible teacher, Debbie W. Wilson helps people give themselves a break so they can enjoy the fruitful and satisfying lives found only in God’s grace. She is the author of Little Women, Big God and Give Yourself a Break. Her latest book, Little Faith, Big God, releases February 2020. She and her husband Larry founded and run Lighthouse Ministries, a nonprofit counseling, coaching, and Bible study ministry. She is an AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers Association) certified speaking and writing coach. Debbie enjoys a good mystery, dark chocolate, and the antics of her two standard poodles. Refresh your faith with free resources at debbieWwilson.com.