Many people today like a good mystery, and with a heritage of stories like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and the Agatha Christie stories, etc., is it any wonder that a good mystery has become part of our popular culture.
Of course these days we are spoiled with choice to keep our little grey cells active. Nevertheless the sheer number of police shows, detective stories, and other programmes on television alone, is an indication of the popularity of mysteries. And there are those who like the challenge of solving the puzzle, before the mystery is resolved, and there are others who are quite happy to wait and let all the facts be laid out before them.
B. THE MYSTERY OF JOSEPH
Now mysteries are not just a modern phenomenon, nor are the restricted to the world of fiction and we can find mysteries even in the pages of the bible. And there’s one such mystery that I would like to deal with today, and that is, “What happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, the adoptive father of Jesus?” After all, once Jesus turned 12, and they were on the way home from the Passover festival in Jerusalem, we never hear from him again. So what happened to Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary?
a). JOSEPH’S PHYSICAL RECORD
Well what we know about Joseph is not much. We know that he was engaged to Mary (Matthew 1:18). We know that when Mary told him she was pregnant, he decided to call the wedding off (Matthew 1:19). We know that an angel visited him, telling him why Mary was pregnant, and that he should go ahead with his marriage anyway (Matthew 1:24). We know that Joseph, being a descendant of King David, was required to go to Bethlehem for the purpose of a census, and that he took Mary with him (Luke 2:4). We know that 40 days after the baby Jesus was born, he took Jesus and Mary to the temple, so that Mary could perform the rite of Purification (Luke 2:22). We know that Joseph had a second visit from an angel – within 2 years of the first – telling him to escape to Egypt, because Herod was after the baby’s life (Matthew 2:13). We know that when in Egypt, Joseph had a third visit from an angel, telling him it was OK to go back to Israel because Herod had died (Matthew 2:20). And we know that every year Joseph (with Mary) took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (Luke 2:41), until Jesus was at least 12 years of age (Luke 2:42). But once Jesus turned 12, Joseph is conspicuous by his absence.
b). KNOWLEDGE OF JOSEPH
Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that he wasn’t around. He was. And we know that because there are some other clues to this puzzle.
Indeed in Jesus’s ministry years we pick up the idea that some people knew that Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55); that some people knew Jesus’ father and mother (John 6:42); and that some people knew that Mary had other children (sons and daughters), including four sons – James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Matthew 13:55). Indeed all good indications that at least at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that Joseph was still around, But having said that, as the story of Jesus’s ministry progresses the only members of Jesus’s family recorded to have any interaction with Jesus were his mother, and his brothers (Matthew 12:48). And Joseph is still very conspicuous by his absence.
So the question, the mystery is, still, “What happened to Joseph? Where was Joseph when Mary and their other sons visited Jesus? And where was Joseph when Jesus was crucified?”
Well, I’m sorry to say, there is no definitive answer to this question – no one can be sure what happened to Joseph. But I’m going to suggest that if we switch from the actual events in Joseph’s life – to which we seem to have come to a dead halt – to concentrate more on his character, then maybe we can have a better idea of what really happened to him. And in order to purse the character of Joseph – the kind of person that he was – we probably need go no further than the passage from Matthew chapter 1. Because in it what we can get is a character study of our man of mystery. And it makes some very interesting reading indeed.
c). JOSEPH’S CHARACTER
1. DILIGENT IN KEEPING GOD’S LAW (Matthew 1:19)
Because the first thing we can learn about Joseph from the passage is that he was very diligent in keeping God’s law. As far as Joseph was concerned the rules that God had given his people were not rules to be applied only when suited, but rather they were rules to be taken when the situation applied. In other words, he took seriously the need to apply God’s rules. And if God’s rules were kept, then God would be honoured.
Consequently, when Mary told him that she was pregnant, and that she had agreed to carry the child outside of their own marriage, Joseph’s first reaction was that the law as recorded in Deuteronomy (22:23-27) would need to be applied. And that law would have meant that Mary would need to be taken to the town gate, and stoned to death (with the father of the child who would be stoned with her). That was the penalty for those who willingly flouted the law in such manner.
2. REFLECTING GOD’S COMPASSION (Matthew 1:19)
However, the second thing we learn about Joseph is that despite his understanding of the need to keep the law, he wasn’t someone who applied the rules without thinking, and by only taking one rule in isolation. No, he had a much greater understating of God than that. And instead, and this was before the first angel had even come to him, Joseph decided to apply other aspects of God’s law, like love and compassion, to the situation too. And in doing so, he indicated a greater commitment to God, than just a superficial keeping of the rules.
So instead of Mary being hauled into a very public place, and being stoned to death. Instead Joseph decided that he needed to break off the engagement quietly. And that would have meant giving her a bill of divorce in front of two witnesses. And that would have been the end of their relationship.
Now that would not have made Mary’s future life easy. But it was much more compassionate than allowing her to be stoned to death.
3. OBEDIENT TO GOD (Matthew 1:24)
The third thing we learn about Joseph Is that not only did he take God’s law seriously, and that he understood how to apply God’s rules in their entirety, but that Joseph was a man of God too. And he was willing to do God’s will no matter what.
Because when the angel first came to Joseph in a dream, and explained what was going on, and that Mary’s baby was a result of God’s intervention and not another man, and that Joseph should remain engaged to her, and take her as his wife anyway, Joseph’s response, when he woke up, was that he immediately did what God had asked; he took Mary for his wife. And the extent of Joseph’s commitment to God in this one act cannot be underestimated.
What Joseph was asked to do was to go against the grain of everything that he was brought up to believe, and everything that he held dear. And yet he did it anyway. And he did it because he was truly committed to his God.
4. HE ADOPTED JESUS (Matthew 1:25)
And the fourth thing we learn about Joseph from this passage is that not only did he take Mary as his wife, but he formally adopted Jesus as if he was his own natural son too.
This whole passage in Matthew’s Gospel is the nativity story from Joseph’s point of view, not Mary’s (that’s recorded in Luke). And for any man to give a child a name in those days, indicated a formal recognition of the acceptance of a father-son relationship, regardless of whether that child was the father’s natural offspring or not. And of course Jesus being treated as the eldest son, had ramifications regarding position in the family, and inheritance.
In other words, despite the supernatural beginning to this episode in the life of Mary and Joseph,
the depth of Joseph’s faith in God was demonstrated to be exceedingly strong. He married a woman who would normally have been stoned to death. And he adopted a child, which wasn’t his, to be his eldest son.
So, if that is the kind of person Joseph was, what happened to Joseph? Why did a man like Joseph simply disappear from sight? Joseph was a man who took his faith, and his family responsibilities, seriously. And that is demonstrated in the fact that every year, for at least 12 years, he (with Mary) took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.
Now Joseph doesn’t sound like a man who would stay at home, whilst sending Mary and his other children out to visit his adopted, but eldest son. Indeed the very idea would have been quite hostile to his beliefs, as well as to the culture of the day. So what could possibly have happened to Joseph?
e). THE ROLE OF THE ELDEST SON
Well, we do have one further clue. And the clue is some words that Jesus spoke whilst he was dying on the cross. Because a short distance away from the cross, his mother, Mary, and his disciple, John, were both standing together (John 19:26-27). And these are the words that Jesus said: His words to Mary were “Dear woman, here is your son.” And his words to his disciple were “Here is your mother.”
In other words, in all likelihood, by the time of the crucifixion Joseph was dead. He had probably died sometime between Jesus’s commencement of his ministry and his crucifixion. As a consequence Jesus, as the eldest son, was now responsible to care for his widowed mother. But now dying himself, Jesus was no longer in a position to carry out his duties as the eldest son. So he was trying to make sure that his mother would be cared for after his death. And who better to do that, but to ask one of his closest disciples to take on that role.
So, does that solve the mystery? Well not really, because there is no guarantee that the answer is right. However it is a solution which fits all the facts.
Whatever happened to Joseph, though, we are left with a legacy of the kind of person Joseph was.
And perhaps a good illustration of the kind of person we should strive to be.
Now I know that we are people who live under grace, not law, but nevertheless Gods laws do give us clues about how God thinks, and how we should live. So as a consequence, what can we learn from Joseph for ourselves?
a). DILIGENT IN KEEPING GOD’S LAW
Well if Joseph was a man who took God’s laws seriously, is that something that we can we say too?
Joseph understood that God’s rules were given to his people, as a community, to protect them from harm, to keep them on the right track, to show them that they needed to depend upon God, and to point others to God. But is that what God’s laws mean for us today?
In other words if God’s laws are there for our benefit, do our lives reflect their teaching? Or are they just things that we keep when we feel like it, and we ignore when they doesn’t suit?
b). REFLECTING GOD’S COMPASSION
In Joseph we have an example of a man who saw beyond the letter of the law, to include the love and compassion of God. But is that something that we can admit to too?
Joseph saw that there were principles in God’s laws which go beyond their literal meaning. He wasn’t happy to just apply the letter of the law, but he wanted to embrace the spirit of the law. But is that something that we are happy to embrace too?
c). OBEDIENT TO GOD
In Joseph we have an example of a man who was willing to do God’s will no matter what the price. So much so, that he was prepared to put aside all the things that he found precious, and had meaning, in order to follow God’s will. Joseph was willing to do things which were not culturally acceptable, and went against the grain of many of the things that he held dear. He was willing to get well and truly out of his comfort zone. But is that something that we are prepared to do too?
d). HE ADOPTED JESUS
And, finally in Joseph we have an example of someone who was willing to give up everything, including the rights of his own children to inherit position and property, for the priority of Jesus. The commitment that God required of Joseph was total. And the commitment that God requires of us, today, is total too.
Joseph gave his total commitment – he adopted God’s son. But have we adopted God’s son? Is Jesus the number one person in our lives, after whom everything else is secondary? Or do we have other priorities?
In today’s world there is perhaps nothing quite like a good mystery. One that taxes the brain, and one that is a challenge to solve. And the mystery about what happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and the adoptive father of Jesus, is one such challenge.
However, what isn’t a mystery is what made Joseph tick. He was a man of God; he was a man of compassion and love; he took God’s rules very seriously; and he took the idea of obedience to God even more seriously. Even to the point of abandoning all that he held dear.
Now even though there is a mystery surrounding Joseph that we can only guess at, Joseph was a great man of faith. The life of Joseph should be an inspiration to us all. But it should also challenge us regarding our own beliefs, and regarding the level of our willingness to respond to God’s call too.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis