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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:A Foster Father for the Lord Jesus
Text:Matthew 1:18-21 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:The Incarnation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Suggested songs:

Hymn 17:1-6

Hymn 7:9 (after the law)

Hymn 12:1-4

Hymn 16:1-4

Psalm 130:1-4

Reading: Matthew 1

Text: Matthew 1:18-21

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus,

A December issue of Time magazine once had a lengthy feature on Joseph. David Van Biema introduced his article with these words, “Scripture downplays even his Christmas role, but Joseph’s relationship with Jesus has inspired generations to explore his hidden virtues.” The article goes on to survey how Joseph has been viewed down through the ages. At certain points he was regarded as “the Chaste Caretaker,” at others, “the Alienated Cuckold,” and at other times, as “the Adoring Protector.” And today there is a renewed fascination with Joseph. Three recent books give a lot of attention to Joseph, including one by Jerry Jenkins, a co-author of the Left Behind series. Jenkins describes himself as Joseph’s cheerleader. Like the other books about Joseph, he doesn’t hesitate to fill in the gaps left by Scripture. This article in Time was interesting, but more than that, it reveals a way of thinking.

Time magazine acknowledged that the Bible doesn’t say a lot about Joseph. Jerry Jenkins and the other authors mentioned also acknowledge that the Bible is relatively quiet about him. But the strange thing is that no one really asks the question, “Why?” Is there a reason that Matthew and Luke, under the inspiration of the Spirit, decided to put Joseph in the background, in a supporting role?

Yes, there is a good reason. The reason is that Joseph is not the hero of the story. The reason is that Joseph is not the main character in the events surrounding the conception and birth of the Lord Jesus. This is God’s story, not Joseph’s. We read the verses of our text, for instance, and we have to ask the right questions. We don’t ask: “What can we learn about Joseph from these words?” Instead, we ask: “What can we learn about our God and how he works?” After all, the Bible is not about giving us character studies of different people. The Bible is God’s story, the story of how God redeems fallen man through Jesus Christ.

Of course, there is a human side to that, and we’ll look at that in a minute. But even the human side comes with a knowledge that God is at work in it and through it. It’s this perspective that we need when we consider what Matthew writes about in our text for this morning, on this special day when we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. So, I preach to you God’s Word this morning with this theme:

By his mighty hand God provides a foster-father for the Lord Jesus.

We will see:

  1. Joseph’s hesitation.
  2. God’s mandate.

1. Joseph’s hesitation.

Verse 18 of our text right away lays before us the fact that this is the story of the birth of the Saviour. But there is a human element that naturally comes into the picture as well. This human element has already been emphasized with the lengthy genealogy in the first part of chapter 1. There can be no question that human beings are deeply involved with the birth of Jesus Christ – in fact, verse 1 describes him as being “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” And Joseph too was mentioned, along with Mary in verse 16. He’s described there as being Mary’s husband.

But then we have verse 18 and we might have some confusion. Here we read that “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph…” Some people have explained this to mean that they were engaged. But this idea of being pledged to marry someone was more than engagement. In fact, this was almost the same as getting married, except that Joseph and Mary didn’t live together yet. They didn’t have sexual relations. Those things would happen later on, typically after a year of being pledged or betrothed to one another. But during this time of betrothal, if one of the couple was to make advances on someone else, this would be considered adulterous. In fact, betrothals were so binding that if a woman’s fiancé passed away, she was considered to be a widow. Otherwise, the only way a betrothal could be ended was with a divorce. So, this whole system is something completely different from what we know in our culture. That custom is the reason why Matthew adds those words, “before they came together.”

Before they came to live as husband and wife, Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. In a mysterious way, through the power of the Spirit working in her body, Mary had conceived a child. We needn’t try to understand how this happened. The important thing is that it did happen. Mary knew it happened, because we read in Luke that the angel Gabriel had told her. But then there’s the question of whether or not Joseph knew. The text itself is ambiguous. It says, “she was found to be with child.” That way of putting it could mean that Joseph knew. But there is no way of knowing for sure from the text. We do know that Mary and Joseph could have spent time together privately before their living together as a married couple. This wasn’t uncommon in Palestine at that time, though it was more rare in the local area of Galilee. So, while we cannot say for sure that Joseph knew that Mary was pregnant with a child conceived through the Holy Spirit, there is a good possibility.

Now, at any rate, there was a problem. As it became more and more evident that Mary was pregnant, she would be increasingly looked down upon. People might think that she had been fooling around behind Joseph’s back, particularly if they hadn’t spent any time alone as a couple. It was for this reason that Joseph hesitated about becoming her husband in the full sense. He didn’t want to have shame heaped upon Mary. Rather than having that happen, Joseph decided that he would divorce her quietly. There would be no big scene, no big commotion. Very few people would know what had happened – there would have to be two witnesses for a legal divorce, but Joseph probably had something in mind to make sure that this would be all done quietly. Sure, Mary would still be pregnant, but at least she would not have to be subjected to a public trial for adultery. That’s what verse 19 is telling us when it says that Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace. That means that Joseph was a man who was loyal in his commitment to God. Joseph was a man who wanted to do the right thing for Mary.

It’s in this way that we see God at work, even in Joseph’s hesitation. Though this is several decades before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was actively working in the hearts and lives of God’s people. The Holy Spirit was in Joseph’s life giving him the desire and strength to live righteously. By the power of the Spirit, Joseph desired to do good for Mary. He loved his bride. God was going to use this love in his way to keep a family together for the sake of the Lord Jesus, and ultimately, for our sakes. God was going to use this love to crush the head of the serpent, fulfilling the promise. Let’s see how this unfolds in our second point this morning…

2. God’s mandate.

Joseph’s hesitation came from good motives. But God was not going to let him carry out his plan. Joseph had been thinking long and hard about what he was going to do when God sent an angel to him. Matthew tells us that it was an angel of the Lord – and when he tells us this our thoughts go back to the Old Testament when an angel of the Lord would also appear on important occasions. This time an angel of the Lord appears in a dream. The angel tells Joseph that he shouldn’t be afraid to take Mary into his home and complete the marriage. Now the NIV says, “do not be afraid.” But actually we could also translate this as “Do not hesitate.” Yes, there may have been an element of fear in Joseph’s decision-making: he was afraid that Mary would be publicly humiliated. But this fear led him to hesitate. So, there are those two elements working together and the angel tells Joseph that God wants him to put both those things aside. Joseph wants to get out of the way, but God won’t let him.

Then the angel assures or reassures Joseph that the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. As a result, there is nothing to worry about! There is no reason for fear! No reason for hesitation! In fact, the angel says, everything will work out wonderfully because the baby inside Mary is the Saviour – he is Jesus – the one who will save his people from their sins. As you may remember, the Greek name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew name Joshua. Joshua means the Lord saves and when God’s people heard this name, they were reminded of how Joshua brought the people into the Promised Land. Through Joshua, God brought salvation to Israel. Now, through this baby, God is going to bring the ultimate fulfillment of salvation, the culmination of all the Old Testament prophecies, promises, and pictures. Matthew himself points to that with the mention of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 in verse 23 following our text.

This baby is to be the Saviour. He is the one who saves us from our sins. He saves us from feeling guilty about our sins. He saves us from the filthiness of our sins, from sin’s pollution. He saves us from the power of our sins. And he saves us from the punishment of sin, from an eternity spent in hell under God’s wrath. Our text talks only about the negative side – that we’re saved from something. But the positive is also implied here. You cannot be saved from something without also being saved for something. And here we’re saved for true happiness, the peace of God that surpassed all understanding, freedom, unspeakable joy, answered prayers, assurance of salvation and so much more. Jesus is truly and in every way the Saviour from sin!

And when Joseph heard this good news, then he knew the right thing to do and he did it. We read about that in verses 24 and 25 at the end of the chapter. He did what was mandated by God and became the foster-father for the Lord Jesus. In this, we see God’s mighty hand leading the direction of history. We see God’s mighty hand fulfilling all his promises about the salvation of his people – about our salvation!

For, you see, it was commonly thought that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Luke 3:23 tells us that, “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.” And even though he really was not the biological father, he was Jesus’ adoptive father. That legally put Jesus in the family of David. That’s why the angel addresses Joseph as a “son of David.” The genealogy in the first part of the chapter also is there to emphasize Christ’s royal descent. The Saviour has a royal history, a royal family tree. He is a King!

But God used Joseph for more than just securing Christ’s royal lineage on earth. He also used Joseph to protect the Lord Jesus from being labelled as an illegitimate child. If people had thought that about the Saviour, they might never have listened to him when he was older. For this reason, God led Joseph to become the foster-father for Christ. Joseph was going to be the one who would name this baby. That act of naming established his legal status as the earthly father of Jesus. That protected the Lord Jesus’ reputation and gave him a standing for his later ministry. What we see here is God’s wise control over all that happens. In all of this, we see God’s providence at work for the good of his people, also for our good. He controls everything for us because he loves us and cares for us deeply! Here too, we can see the good news in this text.

This text also teaches us about the origin of the Lord Jesus. On the one hand, he was and is true God. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This was entirely necessary for our salvation. If he had been conceived by an earthly father, he would have inherited our sinful nature. He would be a sinner. And so, his holy conception in the Virgin Mary shows us that apart from God’s work in us, we are ugly sinners who are repulsive to a holy God. What happened with the conception of Christ points to our lost condition. God had to do a mysterious miracle to bring Christ into the world. He couldn’t do it any other way, for only the Son of God could bear the wrath of God against our sins. Only a perfect sinless man could pay for our sins. Of course, there are no sinless men. So, God came in the flesh to do what no mere man could do: bring us salvation. There was no other way.

So, on the one hand true God. But on the other hand, we also know that our Saviour was and is true man. He took our human flesh from his mother. His humiliation began from the moment he was conceived. God the Son became one of us. He took on our human flesh with all its weaknesses. He took on a human existence with all its complexities and problems. His incarnation and birth, his becoming true man, assures us that the same sinful human nature which has sinned has paid for sin.

Brothers and sisters, this is the good news for today, the day on which we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. This day is not about a cute little baby in a manger. This day is not about a man named Joseph who we can make into a hero through some creative writing. This day is about how ugly we are in our sins. This day is about how badly we need to be saved from our sins and the wrath these sins incur. This day is about how God has saved us from sins by sending the Lord Jesus to be conceived and born on this earth. It’s all about who God is and what he’s done for us. Why did he do it? So that his people would more and more praise him until the second coming of his Son. May that day come quickly! AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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