By Dr. Michael A. Milton, Crosswalk.com
"Be merciful to me, O Lord, For I cry to You all day long. Rejoice the soul of Your servant, For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You" (Psalm 86:3-5 ESV).
"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 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. 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’” (Matthew 1:18-21).
Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you 6disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:33-35).
Advent is not only a time to recall the first coming of Christ and to recommit to our vocation of faithfully waiting for the Lord to return. The Scriptures of Advent and Christmas call us to stir up faith in each other to live for Christ in this often-toxic time. One way to encourage one another is to look at the lives of those used by God in the greatest story ever told—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and even the anonymous shepherds, and the mysterious seers from the East. We must be careful. The idea of studying a Biblical person is not the same as saying, “Just be like Joseph,” or “Just be like Mary.” Our earthly models in Scripture are revealed to encourage us to go to the very Person of Jesus Christ, to find the virtues for faithful Christian living that we observe in the Biblical characters. This is the message of Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
We are studying Joseph this Advent. How does Joseph model the virtues we need to live a faithful life for our Lord Jesus and, by His life within us, for others?
The Main Virtue in Uncle John and My Friend Kent
My Uncle John reminded me of Joseph. When I was orphaned, my Uncle John, husband of my late father’s sister—my Aunt Georgia—drove a considerable distance each Sunday afternoon to visit us. While Aunt Georgie, had coffee with my Aunt Eva, my father’s eldest sister, who reared me, Uncle John headed to the back yard to throw the football or baseball with me. A successful business owner, Uncle John was as comfortable with an orphaned child as he was with a major supplier or million-dollar customer. My dear Uncle John was always fully present, whether encouraging a struggling alcoholic in a state hospital or bolstering the spirits of the governor of his state. Indeed, he served both men with equal respect and, doubtlessly, with absolutely no thought of reciprocity. Uncle John held the gift of quiet, selfless service to others as comfortably and unpretentiously as when he wore his Sunday charcoal gray suit, starched white shirt, and regimental tie, while hitting hot grounders in my backyard.
I have a friend, Kent, who, also, reminds me of the earthly, adoptive father of the Lord Jesus. When we lived in Kansas we cared for my Aunt Eva, in her nineties. Aunt Eva tried to come to church as often as she could. When we pulled up to the church parking lot, I used to watch how Kent would take care of her wheelchair, unloading, and later putting it in the car, helping Aunt Eva out of the vehicle, then gently placing her into her seat after the service. Kent served (and serves) others without anyone asking or making a fuss. He seemed to be always on guard, always prepared to help. He was the picture of the virtuous servant, prepared to spring to assist at any moment. Some folks are a “fly off the handle” (i.e., rashly, unpredictably given to angry outbursts). Kent is the “sure and steady hand on the helm,” always on duty to steer the ship through stormy seas or fair winds. I recall times after worship, and secretly observing my friend as he looked across the fellowship hall gathering, ready to spring into action, rushing over with towels or a mop to clean up accidents, coffee or punch spilled on the floor. No, he wasn’t a ”neat freak.” He was concerned that someone could slip. He was concerned that the poor soul who caused the common might feel self-conscious. “Oh, no big deal,” he would assure an embarrassed mother of a fidgety little one. Small things? Unworthy mentions of everyday servanthood? To the contrary: For the integrity shown in the small, unnoticed, and common things of life, is the same virtue that will unfailingly appear in times of great crisis. Nobility of spirit cannot be measured by degrees. Servanthood transcends both anonymity and publicity. As with all the virtues, selfless duty to serving others is equally royal when no one sees as when everyone sees.
Uncle John, now with the Lord, and Kent, still very much alive and serving, possess, and effortlessly demonstrate, this unmistakable spiritual depth, a beautiful place in their souls, where God deposited a reflection of His character to bring help and hope to others. One thing about such humble service: There is no Tiffany blue fine wrapping paper crumpled up when they bring their gift into your life. Their divinely placed talent is usually presented in plain brown paper, perhaps secured with a twig from a dogwood, tied with a hay bail string. Such a presentation becomes a magnificent contrast to the priceless gift that is inside the wrapping. A diamond ring always appears more brilliant when presented against the backdrop of a plain package.
I suspect you have known an Uncle John or a Kent in your life. If so, blessed art thou. However, this Advent devotional is not merely about virtue fêted —as rare and desired as such recognition is—but about cultivating this virtue in your life and mine.
Like Uncle John and my friend, Kent, Joseph was a man you could count on. God used Joseph, one of those quiet, strength-in-the-service-of-others servants to husband Mary and father Jesus (not as in a noun to describe a biological progenitor, but rather as a verb, “to guard and guide by loving male tenderness in strength, and in the immediate family relationship”). Joseph was called by God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, to lead the event of the Incarnation of our Lord. This is the man of God who would rear Jesus. Joseph was head of the household that nurtured the man Christ Jesus, fully God and still fully Human. We rightly think of Mary as that most blessed young woman called to birth the Messiah. Yet, Joseph should also be remembered as God’s choice to reflect the Fatherly heart of God Almighty to Jesus. Joseph’s role is unrepeatable. However, Joseph’s virtue of servanthood is not only repeatable but commanded: “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” ( Galatians 5:13 NKJV). Likewise, the Lord Jesus, who knew servanthood from his spiritual God-appointed earthly father, told His disciples:
"For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:15-17 NKJV).
For our devotional, let us consider but two virtues of selfless servanthood in Joseph and virtues possible for every one of us to obtain. The first virtue comes from Joseph’s call to care for Mary and Jesus.
1. The Virtue of Unquestioned Obedience
In some ways, Joseph remains a mysterious figure. The Westminster Bible Dictionary says of Jesus’ adopted father,
Joseph: Son of Heli and [earthly] father of our Lord. All that is told us of Joseph in the New Testament may be summed up in few words. He was a just man, and of the house and lineage of David.
The man who would live out the role relationship of father to our Savior was a man of stalwart faith—a faith that trusts God even to all natural testimony to the contrary, and even in the tension of the inexplicable.
When the angel visited Joseph, the first of several key visitations that would help Joseph to guide the heavens miracle of Incarnation through the labyrinth of mortal minefields, the celestial being called Joseph to see that Mary was with child. Joseph was not the pater to the mysterious pregnancy. The Child, the Messiah, was conceived as a miracle, necessary to fulfill Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” ), and anticipated by the Old Testament prophets; e.g., “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and you will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). By law, given the honorable chastity of Joseph with Mary, and yet Mary being with child, Joseph was not bound to marry Mary. In fact, he could have made quite a public scandal that would have hurt Mary for life, and brought shame upon her family. Joseph did not acquiesce to his “rights,” but was determined to end the betrothal quietly, sparing Mary shame. That act in itself is why he is just. Justice is not established by compliance but by mercy.
There are times when what is legal must yield to what is right. Joseph, like Jesus, did not look down from the cross of pain to cry, “Sinner!” Rather, his actions were a precursor to the utterance of our Lord from Calvary’s cross: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The second virtue of Advent demonstrated by Joseph is priceless.
2. The Virtue of Unquestioned Faith
When the angel told Joseph that the child in Mary was of God, not of man, and is the promised Savior in the Abrahamic covenant, Joseph responded with . . .what? “Okay, Lord, that is a bit too far-fetched for me! I am out of here!” No, of course not. Nor did Joseph respond, “I am sorry. I am just a man. I cannot understand conception outside of an act that, well, frankly, an act that breaks my heart. O Mary, how could you?” Instead, Joseph’s response is unquestioned trust:
"When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Mark 1:23-24).
I have heard a rabbi state, “The one who has not questioned God, does not know God.” I understand. The Psalms of lament come to mind. So, too, the prophets questioned God: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?" So, God can handle our questions—the mortal mind seeking to comprehend the divine. Yet, Joseph’s faith is expressed by following God though the untraveled path before him is obscured by the impossible. To my reading, this distinguishes Joseph’s faith over Job’s faith. The Lord was patient with the man who had it all, and lost it all. So, God recalibrated Job’s faith with hard-hitting questions: “Where were you when I flung the stars of creation into their places?” To the angelic announcement of eternal glory alive within the womb of his virginal, sweet betrothed, the tradesman from Nazareth, Joseph would just say, “Yes, Lord.” There is an inconceivable grandeur in the one who says, “Aye,” to the Lord and “Nay,” to the natural world. Some call it crazy. Some call it the “faith like a child:” “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 KJV).
Our Response to God
We live our lives in the inexorable tension of “now and then,” the famous “already and not yet.” We are called, son,” and “daughter” yet we might feel quite far from the Lord, We have been engrafted by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, but a harsh word, a critical spirit makes us feel like outcasts. Jesus promises abundant life, but the pancreatic cancer treatments feel more like the afflicted life. Paul was faith. Paul was executed. Tell the truth to your employer. Say goodbye to your career.
So much of life seems to mock the promises of God. Yet, we read of Joseph—unquestioned obedience and unqualified faith—and we wonder: “How can this be?” The answer is in the manger and at the cross. The things that come against us become in hands of a loving and sovereign God, the very things that bring us to God, that lead us to glory, that finish our stories. This is so because this is the life of Christ. The cross of shame became the sign of salvation. Look to Jesus Christ, our loving Savior who died and rose again. In Him, you will find power for believing, and the strength for obeying. This is the glorious faith of Advent. This is the lesson of an ordinary man: Joseph.
“In the Fullness of Time,” ©️2021 Words and Music Michael Anthony Milton (Bethesda Music, BMI).
1. Thomas James Shepherd. The Westminster Bible Dictionary: Prepared for the Board. United States: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1880, 293.
2. See Job 9:9: “He made all the stars—the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the southern sky” (NLT); and Job 38:4: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding” (KJV)?
3. The “already and not yet” articulation of Pauline eschatology is introduced by Geerhardus Vos. Eldon Ladd will popularize this essential paradigm in Biblical theology. See, e.g., Geerhardus Vos, "The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit." In Redemptive History And Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (ed. R. B. Gaffin, Jr.). Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990, p. 115.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/bkkm
MICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]