One day a year we honor the place and work of fathers, yet all year long many of us have learned to appreciate the work they are called to do. I am a father, and now a grandfather – and I have been reflecting in the early morning hours during the feeding of “McGoo” (my nickname for my grandson Malachi) on the work God called men to do. It was fortuitous that the next page in our study of the”Life and Ministry of Jesus” as told by the four evangelists was about the stand-in man God chose to play the father’s role in the life of Jesus as he was born in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt and later raised in Nazareth. It didn’t escape my notice that not much was said about Joe…. It was my experience with my own dad that fathering was sometimes like that.
You see, my dad wasn’t the “center stage” guy – but rather the quiet guy that dropped me off to the meeting and picked me up after it was over. He paid for my doctor and dentist visits, made sure they had purchased the necessary number of gym shorts for class, and took care of a tuition payment in a private, Christian school that could have easily made the payments for a new car every year. He did not stand on any stage, anywhere, and take a bow for what he did. He just did it, day in and day out…whether it was convenient or not, whether he felt like it or not. He never believed the modern myth that one can “have it all” – be a parent and still live for self.
In fact, it wasn’t until my graduation from high school that I learned how dad provided for more than a dozen kids. I applied to join the labor pool of the oil refinery my dad worked at his whole career… and I discovered a place that was filled with vulgarity, pornography and cynicism. It wasn’t that I didn’t meet some really good guys there – it was the fact that I was, perhaps for the first time, exposed overtly to the world my father worked to provide me with something different – something better – something where God would be honored and not maligned daily. In many ways, my father was a quiet discipler and provider that no one else ever would be. My point is that like my dad, Joe didn’t get a big stage and rousing applause from the crowd. He got the job of listening to God’s direction and then leading based on what God revealed – which the real job of any man. Joe is listed in the earliest pages of the Gospels, and then, like many fathers, he fades to the background as the son or daughter pushes ahead, not recalling until later the platform from which they launched.
In some ways Joe’s work was like any father – they were given a child by God, and they were to provide, protect and prepare them for the world they would face. Every dad has dreams for their child! In the case of sons in a godly home, they want them to be men of God, bold about their witness and loving and caring in their deportment. I cannot imagine that Joe’s heart was any different… God chose the right man for the tough job ahead!
It’s true that in SOME ways Joe’s job was similar to other men… but in other ways, Joe’s job was unique – beginning with the first public act a dad had in his time… naming their son. Joe didn’t choose the name – God revealed what it was to be. From the time of the first revelation of God to Joe through a dream… Joe knew the truth: his job wasn’t to live out his dreams through his son – but he would be a “stand in” for his Father in Heaven. The longer I parent, the more I see that as my role as well. We are stewards, not owners of our children.
In this lesson, I want to share a story about four dreams. The first one was in the heart of Joe before he ever knew Mary at all. Joe wanted to be significant, and he wanted to leave a legacy that mattered – like every man who ever held their son in their arms. His next four dreams required that he surrender his first dream to the Lord, so that God could do MORE with his life than he could have ever understood at the time – and answer his deepest longings through a Son that would change the world forever! The key principle for Matthew’s story of the beginning of Jesus’ earth walk is derived from watching Joe:
Key Principle: God will lead you if you surrender to His story and not make your life about your story! (Mt. 1:18-25).
To delve into the Joseph story, we have to look into the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Both Matthew and Luke record genealogies, but that isn’t the only feature of the beginning stories of the “Pre-ministry” they disclose…in fact, the two Gospel writers offered details on several events before explaining the launch of Jesus’ earth ministry at His baptism by John in the Jordan River.
• Matthew focused on how God directed Joseph.
• Luke focused more on right responses to the wondrous message that God sent Messiah.
These are our next two lessons…one on Joe, and one on responses to God’s gift of Jesus…Traveling through the Holy Land, year after year, I have often wondered what Joseph and Mary would say if, as they reflected back to the birth of Jesus, they sat and listened to our Christmas carols and watched our Christmas plays. Do you really think Mary thought it was a “Silent night, Holy night?” I don’t know, but having been in the delivery room with each of my children…I am thinking she was just relieved the child was born and healthy… and she was probably exhausted.
Revealing Dream Number One:
Look at Matthew’s account of what Joe went through, and let’s see if we can pick out what he learned from the text…
Mt. 1:18 “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. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 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 the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 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.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”
Before drawing conclusions, look at the details of the text of Matthew 1:18-25:
• First, the story was given to tell you the CONTEXT of the birth of Jesus (1:18a).
• Second, the TIMING of the pregnancy was clear – Joe had not “been with” her, and was unaware at first of who the father of the baby could be (1:18b).
• Third, the TROUBLES of Joseph show he was contending with many decisions (1:19-20a).
He was a “righteous man”, which may be a translation of the Hebrew idea of “tsaddik” – an elder in a congregation. If that was the case, the reputational troubles were not his alone, but would be shared by his congregation.
He was a “tender man”, and though he no doubt felt disrespected by her, he didn’t want her to be subject to public derision.
The angel’s word to him in 1:20 shows that he was also a “fearful man” – unsure of what kind of woman Mary truly was, and how much he could even trust his own feelings and measures of what he thought she was. Whenever we are betrayed, some part of us blames ourselves for not perceiving more accurately the people that drew us into deception.
Now step back and look at REVEALING DREAM NUMBER ONE:
• Mary was cleared of any guilt or wrong against Joe – the “guilty party” was God Himself (1:20).
• God’s plan was made clear – a Boy was coming to save His people (1:21). This fit what God had already revealed in His Word (1:22-23).
• Joe was thoroughly convinced the dream was from God, and he did exactly what the messenger told him to do – despite what ANYONE in his life could have counseled him to do (1:24-25).
Joe might offer the lesson learned this way: “God works in ways I never would have imagined. One day you are just moving through life, living within the boundaries, and following God’s Word, and the next thing you know… there is a whole new set of issues in your life! Here’s the thing I took away from those early days… do what God says even when the outcome isn’t clear. If it squares with His Word, it is truth no matter what all my friends think. If I obey what He has told me, He will direct my next steps into His will!”
In just a few verses, God offered a great thumbnail sketch of a man used by God in a powerful way! He lived inside the boundaries of sexual purity and obedience. He learned the Scriptures and led a community with a careful, circumspect life. He sheltered the reputation of people in the story, and he was pliable when God spoke into his life. His path changed when God ordered it to change and verified that word by Scripture. In the end, Joe was a good man because he was a willing follower of God’s direction!
• Can you see in Joe a faithful leader without a vindictive spirit when hurt. Can you imagine his initial confusion, his embarrassment – maybe even anger?
• Can you identify that although he lived within the law, he understood authority but still wanted to show mercy. Joe was no Pharisee – just a guy trying to follow God and not wound people in the process.
Here is an important lesson that we cannot miss in his life: Joe’s fervent walk with God did NOT protect him from misunderstanding God’s program.
He responded to what God had revealed to him, and needed more revelation to alter course. Joe was told to abandon his plans to send her away – an overt call to surrender control of the situation based on experience and trust God’s Word. Joe was called to stop leading and FOLLOW. Remember: some men won’t take directions even when they are lost!
Joe was told to drop his mistrust and open his heart to raising a child given from the Spirit (1:20). Joseph should not fear taking this woman as his wife, for she had not been unfaithful to him – no matter what it would look like to friends and family (1:20). Marriage is a serious commitment, and faithfulness to that covenant is something God takes seriously. Without this revelation, Joseph should have feared. People who can’t make it faithfully through an engagement are a ticking bomb in a marriage, unless God transforms their heart!
Joe was told to reign in his emotions and ego and be obedient to the revealed Word. He could not shape this story – he was to FOLLOW. He was to give up the right to choose the name of the baby – a very great privilege that was well illustrated by Zecharias and John’s birth. The future of these sons was NOT in their earthly father’s hands – and they needed to surrender that in the beginning of the venture. At the same time, both Joseph and Zecharias got to fill the physical role of naming their sons. Joseph received the privilege of naming the boy according to God’s direction (1:21). Even though his role was diminished, he had a role. God didn’t cut him out, but loved him enough to include him.
The greatest lesson in the first dream was this: You cannot PREDICT LIFE, you cannot always UNDERSTAND LIFE – but you are called to FOLLOW GOD.
Don’t overlook the fact that God gave His Son to a man that He could trust to follow instructions! That makes me pause and wonder: What would God entrust to me if He KNEW He could count on me to follow Him through ANYTHING?
In order for Joe to be used by God, he had to “get over” himself. He had to face that God’s leading meant that his momentary feelings had to be subservient to God’s plan. God was working a plan through the misunderstanding and pain… because God was doing something far bigger than Joe could have imagined.
• Joe was thinking of his family and his leadership in a congregation – both important issues. God was planning to SAVE THE WORLD – a bit more significant.
• Joe was concerned that his role in God’s work might be damaged by things said in relation to this pregnancy – but God was going to give HIM the unique privilege of handling His Son, caring for Him in a way Adam didn’t so long ago. Joseph was going to be the first to look at the baby and utter the name “Yeshua” – Savior!
What is God calling on YOU to do that is HARD? What habit is hindering your walk? What ego-driven pursuit is clogging up your walk with God? When you lay your head on your pillow at night, can you see what is keeping you from surrendering your heart to God and following His Word? Are friends telling you, “It’s really ok!” – but you KNOW it isn’t! It is time to hear from the ancient lesson of Joseph.
The dream matched what God had long before promised. God had shared that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He told through Daniel the timing of the coming (173,880 days after the command to rebuild Jerusalem in Daniel 9:26ff). He said that He would send one who was “God with us” in Isaiah 7:14. He promised He would bring light to the Galilee highway used by Gentiles in their international travels (Isaiah 9:6). He promised the Messiah as a child, born to His people and that child would be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) as He was when Thomas saw Him after the resurrection and cried out to Jesus in John 20:28, “My Lord and My God!” or when Paul called Jesus both God and Savior (in Titus 2 and 3).
Joseph awoke and followed what the angel told him to do, agreeing to abide to the covenant marriage but not consummating the marriage (1:24-26). Soon a Roman census was announced and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem (his ancestral home, Lk. 2:1-4) with Mary. The child was born… in the event that Joe wasn’t “going to make a big deal about it” – God announced it over the hillside to some noisy nighttime shepherds. I’m sure the birth of Jesus was the worst kept secret in Bethlehem that night!
Time for a SECOND DREAM
Joe stayed on in Bethlehem for the duration of the census. In Rome, Censors were chosen from former Consuls of Rome (Consul was the highest office at the time beside the Emperor). Censors were selected every fifth year and given “Imperium” (the right of command by the Senate of Rome) to conduct a census, then follow it with the giving of contracts for bridges, roads and public works projects. As a result, it appears people in Provinces had their lives routinely disrupted at intervals. Joe was still in Bethlehem well after the baby Jesus became the toddler Jesus – and was visited by some eastern Magi (2:1-12). This “secret” was getting harder to hide – and now Herod the King was involved.
Joseph had a second revelatory dream – and this one was not to settle something INSIDE HIM, but rather to help him perceive an oncoming peril. Joe’s family was in danger, and he needed to move them to Egypt (outside the jurisdiction of Herod the Great) for a time (Matthew 2:13-15). Let’s examine the record:
Mt. 2:13 “Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.”
This – a second time God stepped in to work on behalf of Joe’s family – and to protect Jesus and the Redemption Mission. For Joe, the lesson of trust was deepened. The fact is that Joe was a dad, a husband, and a provider. His living was as a builder, and that work was not helped by all the interruption of forced moves. Rome moved him for a census – and now Herod moved him out of anger and jealousy… but in actuality GOD moved him. The “forced moves” of our lives are often God’s repositioning to get us to the right place for His plan.
From Joe’s perspective, it would be easy for him to conclude that he could not protect his family apart from God’s work on his behalf. He couldn’t choose to order where they would live. He was called to FOLLOW the One Who knew what he could not know.
The big lesson of the second dream was you CANNOT PROTECT people from life’s hardships – even yourself. You are called to FOLLOW GOD and let His protection be your only covering.
THE THIRD AND FOURTH DREAMS CAME
Joe knew that he couldn’t PREDICT LIFE, nor could he PROTECT PEOPLE HE LOVED FROM LIFE – he was just following God’s direction as God offered it. He moved with the family…Some time passed, and Joe waited as God held his little family in Egypt. The language was strange. The customs were pagan. The place was hotter and more uncomfortable than you can imagine. He probably lived off the gifts of the Magi and waited as his saving sunk lower and lower. His male desire to LEAD had been trimmed – but this was getting old. His male ego based on accomplishment was being badly eroded. The surrender process is never easy on leader types – and many men find following God a difficult thing.
Sometime after the death of Herod the Great, Joseph dreamed a third time. The angel of the Lord told him to bring the baby back to Israel’s homeland, and he moved the family back up to Nazareth in the land of Zebulon (Matthew 2:19-23):
Mt. 2:19 “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Did you hear those verses? There were ANOTHER TWO DREAMS mentioned…Joe came back to Israel, heard who was on the throne and was afraid again. The continuing theme of his life is that he gets afraid – and that fear was matched, step by step with the direction of God’s Word. Joseph learned that God didn’t need him to be particularly COURAGEOUS… just carefully obedient to God’s revealed Word. When Joe followed, that was all the boldness God demanded to use His life for God’s glory.
The fact is, that Joe learned that he cannot become IMMUNE to fear and pain – but he could carefully follow God’s Word.
Joseph was reported to have died when Jesus was young. He apparently did not live to see Jesus become well known. Yet, his name and character are the stuff of legend.
These were HARD lessons: I cannot PREDICT LIFE, I cannot PROTECT PEOPLE FROM LIFE, and I cannot become IMMUNE TO LIFE’S FEARS – but I can follow God’s Word.
Let me ask you something: “Do you think he will say in Heaven, ‘It was worth it! I obeyed the Lord and it was truly worth it!’” I think Joe will be an eternal testimony to this truth: God will lead you if you surrender to His story and not make your life about your story!
Jesus said it best: John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. 26 “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
Joe gave up HIS DREAM for GOD’S DIRECTIONS – but what did he truly LOSE? Nothing… nothing at all. He WAS SIGNIFICANT. He DID make a difference! He played his role for God… and that is all a man could ever DREAM of doing!