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The Central Character in the Nativity Story


Christmas is fast approaching, and many churches, ours and others, are busy preparing their annual Christmas pageant. Whether the show is a grandiose one with live characters or a simple one with a toy manger and dressed up dolls, the person in importance next to Jesus is Mary. Joseph stands somewhere in the background and looks benignly down at the infant. The accompanying reading for the Christmas pageant is always taken from Luke’s detailed account of the birth story in which one significant mention is made of Joseph.

So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Luke 2:4

Why significant? Is it too preposterous to argue that without Joseph, Jesus would have had no claim to the title of Messiah? Let us spend some time thinking about the importance of the man in the nativity event.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Today, men and women fall in love and then, eventually, talk to their parents. Things were different two thousand years ago. Joseph was most certainly quite older than Mary who may have only been in her early teens. He first talked to her father and, after some negotiation, settled for an agreed upon dowry.  A date was decided for the marriage, and then whatever preparation was necessary got under way. Mary did not have anything or much to say in the matter.

Then came the bombshell—that Mary was pregnant. Infamy and shame fell on Joseph and on both families. The readers are left to wonder how and when Mary broke the news to him. We can only guess that it must have been an extremely difficult conversation. The Bible tells another story when the main character did not mention a word to his wife about what God asked him to do because of the possible emotional backlash. “Take your son, your only son whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:1, 2). Mary did talk to Joseph, starting a significant chain of events.

The conversation created a huge struggle in Joseph’s mind. Being very discreet, Matthew simply said that Joseph spent time considering this unexpected turn of events. Here was this mature man, a righteous man with high moral values, now faced with three choices, all three fraught with pain. Also, how traumatic must have been the waiting for Mary as she faced the possibility of a violent death for her and the fetus that she carried. Three choices:

(1) Disclosure to the Elders, then to the father, break off the engagement, recuperate the dowry, stand with the crowd to watch the execution of the girl by stoning in front of her father’s house (Deuteronomy 22:20). He certainly knew that the offended party was required to cast the first stone.  

(2) A quiet divorce that would possibly protect the families from disgrace, at least for a while, until the pregnancy became obvious or a discrete early abortion removed the stigma. Joseph was a good man. He took time to consider. One can only surmise the emotional roller coaster that would carry him into unchartered territory. He chose to withdraw quietly, that is until God intervened and changed his mind with a dream. One wonders why God would place a teenager in such a frightening situation unless . . . God knew Joseph.

(3) The third choice was to go ahead with the marriage. That would certainly start unending ripples of slander, gossip, half-veiled allusions about an older man getting conned by a teenage wayward lass, not to mention the sly smiles or open laughter.

Joseph considered. No doubt he knew about Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will be with child.”

Was it possible that Mary’s story was the beginning of the fulfilment of the prophecy? He also knew the promise made to his forefather David about his royal house standing forever (2 Samuel 7:29). Would the baby be the ultimate fulfilment of those prophecies?

As Joseph considered, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream. The words of the angel were extremely important in that they were loaded with significance for God’s plan of redemption. The angel addressed the man as “Joseph, son of David.” What Joseph would decide to do would establish or disrupt the divine plan. Like his ancestor David, Joseph was a man according to God’s own heart. I would suggest that because God knew the man, God felt safe to entrust the life of his Son (i.e., his plan to save the world) to that man.

One must now take a good look at the genealogy that Matthew constructed artificially as a preamble to his record of the birth of Jesus. Today, unless one is royalty or the heir of a long history of accumulated wealth, genealogies are not foremost in people’s minds. Not so back then.

The life of a man had no intrinsic meaningfulness independently of his origins and his roots. This was even more important for Jesus who would later refer to himself as the Messiah. In a very important way, the earthly birth narrated by Matthew was undergirded by a history the stages of which were anchored in carefully recorded past events and long-gone significant ancestors. Jesus was the last offspring in a long line of individuals going back to Abraham. Their individual story was not what counted so much as the fact that together they gave an identity to a chosen people, a nation created by God himself. A nation with whom God had made a covenant by his Promise and by his Law and whose secular and temporal royalty was but the sign and announcement of a future divine and eternal royalty.

Matthew gathered the names of the ancestors of Jesus in three segments of fourteen. The number was significant in that the numerical value of the name David was fourteen, which was Matthew’s way of implying that Jesus was linked to David’s house. Three was the number of the divine which, therefore, linked Jesus with deity.

One commentary of the Gospel of Matthew sees the period that extended from Abraham to David as the time of the promise during which time the chosen people were given an identity and a mission. From David to the Babylonian Captivity was the time of the judgment and chastisement of the nation for having failed to understand and activate the purpose set by God (see the messages of the Old Testament prophets). Finally, from the Captivity to the Messiah was the time of hope and consolation. In Jesus, each of these was to find its ultimate fulfilment (Roux, Herbert, L’Evangile du Royaume, Labor et Fides, p. 25). Matthew’s genealogy was indeed much more theological in purpose than historical.

In the cultural context of the day, Mary was just a woman whose only recognized status when of age would be that of wife and mother, hopefully of many sons. It was by becoming the wife of Joseph that Mary got entrance into the Messiah’s lineage. And in the story of redemption, she became the final link in the human ascendancy of Jesus.

Mary was first and foremost an Israelite woman and wife. As such, like all the women in the Bible, she was dependent of the men in her life; first her father, then her husband. Mary conceived by the virtue of the Holy Spirit, but had Joseph decided not to marry her — which he was legally entitled to decide — her child would have been a nobody unless God acted in ways totally foreign to the cultural boundaries of the time, boundaries established by Moses on God’s express command.

By taking Mary as his wife, Joseph gave a legal paternity to the child. As the adoptive father, he legally passed on to the boy his ascendancy line that went all the way back to David and Abraham. In the eyes of Israel, Jesus was the son of Joseph, the acknowledged link that connected Jesus with the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). In the eyes of the people and the Law, this would remain so throughout the life of Jesus.  

Taking a glance behind the heavenly curtain, I can imagine the angels waiting, holding their breaths. First, would a young maid in her early teens, still living under her father’s roof, give credence to the words of an angel? Loaded words that could potentially take her straight to a painful and ignominious death. An angelic sigh of relief came when she simply uttered the incredible words “May it be to me as you have said.”

The plan now faced a larger hurdle. What would the husband-to-be decide? Another huge celestial sigh of relief. I can imagine a jubilant angel of the Lord hastening back to the heavenly courts shouting “He said “YESSSS!” No wonder the angelic choir sang. The last time the anthem was heard was at the creation (Job 38:7). Then came the day of darkest gloom. “The news of man’s fall spread through heaven. Every harp was hushed. The angels cast their crowns from their heads in sorrow” (Ellen White, Desire of the Ages).

But now glorious strains resounded throughout the heavenly vault again.

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to men of good will.”

Jesus was the last element of a one-thousand-year history. His history gave meaning to his life and mission; at the same time, his life and mission gave a glorious new dimension to that history. Remove Joseph from the nativity narrative, and the story becomes a non-event.


Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.

Image Credit: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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