What the (Other) Father of Jesus Can Teach Us About Christian Mission in the Twenty-First Century
by Russell D. Moore
I played a cow in my first-grade school Christmas pageant. And I had more lines than the kid who played Joseph. The cattle were lowing and the baby was asleep, but Joseph never really had much to say. It seemed he was a prop for Mary and the doll in the manger. You could tell from his body language that he would stand by his Virgin when the innkeeper shrugged his shoulders at their request for a room, but there really wasn’t much else for him to do.
The way Joseph was portrayed in our play was not uncommon at all. There’s rarely much room in the inn of the contemporary Christian imagination for St. Joseph, especially among conservative Protestants like me. His only role in our typical conception is that of usher—to get the Blessed Virgin Mary to the stable in Bethlehem in the first place, and then to get her back to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to find the wandering Jesus twelve years later. He is, to many of us, a bit player in the biblical storyline.
Joseph looks quite different, though, in the Gospels, especially that of Matthew. Joseph is a central figure in a story. Yes, it is one brief story, but it is a story that has played out before, a story that is essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
From his very introduction, the Bible speaks of Joseph as a “just man” (Matt. 1:19); the Holy Spirit commends his life and faith. The “pure and undefiled religion” showcased in the birth narrative is explained further in the writing of one of his other kinsmen, James of Jerusalem, as the mandate of all Christians everywhere (James 1:27). The faith to which we’ve all been called is one that visits “orphans and widows in their affliction.”
Christians around the world face now, as in every age, tumult. We see, and too often tremble before, a death-loving culture all around us. I wonder if twenty-first-century Christians shouldn’t look to an unlikely source for wisdom as we consider our mission in times like these. Could it be that the walk of faith God commanded and commended in Joseph of Nazareth is precisely what we need to see and replicate today?
Herod & Pharaoh
Joseph is introduced to us, of course, against the backdrop of King Herod’s murderous tantrum. The Gospel tells us that Herod learns from some traveling stargazers that the foreseen birth of the royal son of David is here; the end of the ages has touched down in Bethlehem of Judea. Herod out-sources scholars to pore over ancient scrolls, not in order to submit to them in faith, but to see how to circumvent the new king.
When Herod hears of the Kingdom, he understands something of what that means. The king knows that these promises meant the Son of David would rule over a galactic empire, with no rivals to his throne.
Herod, then, is troubled—and all Jerusalem with him—and this trouble enacts itself in murderous rage. What Herod does not know, however, is that as he fumes before his consultants and commands that all the male children under two years old be executed, he is actually playing a role that has already been played. Herod here is a new Pharaoh.
The scenario is precisely what played out thousands of years before when another ruler had his power threatened by the offspring of Abraham.
When Pharaoh saw the people of Israel being fruitful and multiplying—experiencing exactly what God had promised, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring” (Gen. 22:17)—he sees it as a curse. Why is this? Because Pharaoh sees himself as a god, and the expansion of the people of God is a threat to his own kingship. This expansion threatens Pharaoh’s plans, and he murders infants to stop it. Herod does the same thing.
Herod didn’t first hear of the messianic promises from eastern Magi. He would have stood with others in his regal court praying for God to keep his ancient pledge to Israel. He would have called out with his countrymen for God to send the Promised One. But when the last days are actually upon him, Herod hates Jesus, if only by reputation.
Herod comes face to face with Jesus, and his response is murder. The Scriptures tell us that this is always the case. The Psalms speak of the nations that are in tumult, raging against the Anointed One (Psalm 2:1–3). The presence of Jesus brings about this kind of rage among those who are threatened by Jesus’ kingship.
Herod and Pharaoh rage not only against Jesus in particular, but also against babies in general. Throughout the whole panorama of Scripture, when it is the Christ versus the self, babies are always caught in the crossfire. The Egyptian Nile heaves with infant corpses, as do the garbage heaps of Judea. Moses warns against the giving of infants to Molech (Lev. 18:21). The prophets speak against those who come against the people with babies in their wombs (Hos. 13:16). History is riddled with the corpses of babies, again and again and again.
As Herod rages against the babies, he is not the central actor in this drama. Years later, Jesus will show his disciple John what the story behind the story is. It’s the picture of a woman giving birth to “a male child, one who will rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5). Crouching before the woman’s birth canal is a dragon—the Serpent of old—who seeks to “devour” the baby (Rev. 12:4). Ever since, Jesus shows us, the dragon is furiously making war on the woman and her offspring (Rev. 12:17). The ancient beast wants that baby.
Isn’t this obvious, not only in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church, but also in the history of the world around us? Isn’t there a persistent hostility towards life, and particularly towards children? This is not accidental.
The rebel angels, after all, see in the birth of children what we too often fail to see: blessing and life. In children, the principalities and powers see the kind of dependent faith that Jesus says images the Kingdom of God. Most of all, the reptilian powers see among “the least of these” the brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus.
The so-called culture of death around us now is no different from that of the past. The hostility to human babies is happening in exactly the same way. The Prince of the Power of the Air excites evil passions. Satan uses Pharaoh’s lust for military stability that says, “I don’t want another king,” in exactly the same way he uses a Southern Baptist deacon’s lust for maintaining his reputation to get him to load his teenage daughter into a car and drive her under the cover of night to a clinic in a nearby city so no one will ever know she was pregnant. The blood of children flows, but the problem is spiritual to the core.
In the warfare of the Nativity narrative, the Bible gives us an unlikely demon-wrestler: a day laborer from the hick town of Nazareth in Galilee. Joseph doesn’t see the full scope of the cosmic import of what’s happening: One rarely does. He simply does what he’s told. He stands against the dark rage against life. He cares for his child.
Is the tumult around Joseph really all that unique to him? As you read these words, there are the bones of babies being ground to unrecognizable bits—perhaps just a few short miles from where you’re sitting right now. There are infant corpses, labeled “medical waste,” waiting to be carried away. There are little girls waiting in Asia for a knock at the door from an American businessman who has paid money to sodomize them. He might be your banker, your neighbor, your boss. There are children standing in a social worker’s office—maybe just down the street from you—looking at the bruises all over their arms as they hear their mother or father explaining to the social worker why this “will never happen again.”
This is not incidental. It is part of a strategy from before recorded history began. It’s about God’s purposes in Christ.
The last presidential election uncovered just how flimsily some American Evangelicals and Catholics hold to their advocacy for the life of infants. I left the room, nauseous, when I heard a major Evangelical biblical scholar telling an audience that abortion is “not a transcendent issue” on the same day he announced he was endorsing the candidacy of an abortion supporter for President of the United States. That same week I was told of several Evangelical churches sponsoring a forum on Christian political ethics, at which they assured their hearers that they weren’t “single issue Evangelicals” and that political decisions could be made apart from whether the candidate is “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
These Evangelicals—and their Roman Catholic colleagues—tell us we ought to be willing to support and vote for candidates who will support legalized abortion, who will deny the personhood of children who are still in the womb, because we resonate with these candidates on other issues. “After all,” many of them say, “abortion has been going on so long, and it still hasn’t been stopped.” Some of them even seem to see this attitude as “missional”—as a way of signaling to the culture, “We’re not Jerry Falwell.”
Some believe it is evangelistic to speak to people while silencing or blunting a witness about the life of children so that they can reach them with the gospel first and bring them in line with all these other issues later. We’ve heard this before, in the late 1960s and early 1970s from a pastor with (then) cool hair in a powder-blue leisure suit. Just replace the word “abortion” with the word “divorce.”
Joseph the Demon-Fighter
And how is that working for the advance of the gospel? Did it lead to revival? Instead, it led to a generation often unable to see the mystery of the union of Christ and his Church because they had seen the icon of that mystery—the marriage union of man and wife—severed before them repeatedly.
The stakes here are quite high, and the stakes are not, at root, political. The sword given the state in Romans 13 is to be wielded, to be sure, but wielded against “evildoers.” What are we doing when we vote to wield that sword, as many did in the last election, through the taxpayer-funded assault on the innocent?
There are other issues, we’re told. And there are. Economic issues, environmental concerns, and foreign policy considerations are all quite important. But haven’t we learned anything from the generations that came before us?
My forebears among the Southern Baptists used a very similar argument. They preached against card-playing, movie-going, smoking, drinking, and a thousand other things—many of them real issues of personal Christian ethics. But too many of them would speak to everything but the fact that outside their churches’ windows the corpses of African-American brothers and sisters in Christ were swinging from tree branches. The judgment of God lies upon that.
Joseph sees the darkness and, in the midst of it all, carries out the mission given to him, a mission that subverts the strategies of Satan. Joseph is an unlikely demon-fighter. He is not celebrated. He is simply told, “Take this child. Protect him from Herod’s sword. Go into Egypt,” and, in faith, Joseph walks.
A Father’s Care
Part of the reason Joseph is such a mystery to us is that we spend so much time emphasizing what he was not. We believe (rightly) with the apostles in the virginal conception of our Lord. Not a trace of Joseph’s sperm was involved in the formation of the embryo Christ. No amount of Joseph’s DNA could be found in the dried blood of Jesus peeled from the wood of Golgotha’s stake.
Yes, Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, but there is much more to be said. He takes Jesus into his life and home. He takes Mary as his wife and this child with her, as his own.
Joseph is the one who names Jesus, at the instruction of the angel. Joseph almost certainly was the one who first taught Jesus the Hebrew Scriptures our Lord recites back to the Evil One during his temptation in the wilderness.
Joseph is the first human face to which our Lord would have said, “Abba.”
Further, Jesus’ identity as part of the house and lineage of David is witnessed by Matthew as coming through Joseph. So if Joseph isn’t in a true sense the father of Jesus, then Jesus can’t be the Messiah, “David’s greater Son.”
In the Nativity narrative, God shows us in Joseph what it means to image the Fatherhood of God. Through divine revelation, Joseph is called to provide for and protect Mary and the child, by taking them for a while into Egypt, away from Herod’s sword. Once again, Joseph steps into a story that has played out before.
Two Josephs & Deliverance
Matthew says that Joseph’s flight to Egypt is to fulfill the ancient word, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt. 2:15; Hos. 11:1). Some have noted with puzzlement that the text referenced from Hosea is not about a future event at all, but about something long past. It speaks of Israel being brought to Egypt and then being delivered from there during the Exodus.
And that’s exactly right. This, too, is precisely Matthew’s point.
Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt is a copy in advance of what God is doing with Jesus Christ. Israel—the one that has been promised to be the light of the nations—is in danger of starving to death. And God provides for Israel by putting them in a sojourn for a time in Egypt, where they can be fed and provided for. God puts one of their brothers in a position from which he is able to look out for his people, saying that he will care for them and their little ones (Gen. 47:23–24).
And this man’s name is Joseph.
Hundreds of years later, God uses another Joseph to take this child into Egypt until the threat of the sword is over. God then compares Joseph’s protection to his own fatherly protection and deliverance of Israel.
Yes, we must insist that a just government recognize the personhood of unborn children, but that is not enough. We must insist on a just economic system that does not crush abandoned mothers beneath it, but that’s not enough. The protection and provision Joseph images is personal and familial.
This is the kind of fatherhood our Father God displays—a fighting fatherhood. This fatherhood rips open seas, drowns armies, and feeds children.
When Joseph becomes the father of Jesus, he does so in a counter-cultural act that, again, is easy for us to miss. Joseph must have seemed insane, and must have wondered if he was. When his betrothed comes to him and says, “I am pregnant,” Joseph’s response is not, “Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” He is humiliated publicly and privately. But he obeys, and believes the incredible.
It is also true that we miss just what was involved in the flight into Egypt. One doesn’t “move” to Egypt from first-century Galilee the way someone today might move with his company to London or Little Rock. Joseph is sacrificing all of his familial ties and a carpentry business that had been handed down, perhaps, from generations back. Joseph is facing relational isolation and economic collapse.
Had Joseph done what he wanted to do initially, quietly divorce this woman, everything could have been different for him. He could have married a kind, virginal girl, and had a family of his own. He could have lived to an old age as a father of his village, revered by everyone. He might have wondered every now and then what happened to the woman he put away. He might have mourned the fact that her baby was executed by Herod’s marauders.
He would have lived a good life, died a good death—and he would have gone to hell. We all would have, without the salvation of the world in Christ, a salvation story in which Joseph plays a critical part.
Instead, Joseph ended his life with his neighbors saying, “Joseph, he’s the one who got into trouble with that young woman way back when. What a shame.” But instead of seeking praise at his funeral, Joseph does something unusual: he protects the orphans and the widows; he sees the task of fatherhood as more important than the self.
This is about human parenting, to be sure. Scripture speaks repeatedly to the ways in which human fathers picture—or distort—the image of the Father in the eyes of their children. But this walk of faith is not only for those who are parents.
After all, there is a fatherhood within the Church, too. If we are to walk in Joseph’s path, this will mean pastors who see themselves as fathers of a household. They don’t, therefore, simply leave when trouble comes. This will mean older generations who are less concerned about the church or parish programs or the “Young at Heart” group’s next trip to Branson, and are more concerned about evangelizing and catechizing the children of the congregation.
There must be evident in the people of God a demonstration of the same thing that Joseph is asked to do—to walk in the kind of faith that protects and provides, that nourishes and cherishes.
Comfort for Ramah
Matthew tells us that the slaughter of the innocents fulfills what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, “a voice was heard in Ramah” (Matt. 2:18; Jer. 31:15). Ramah was the exit station for the people of Israel as they were being taken out into captivity in Babylon. The imagery of this text calls forward the sound of the wails of women who have lost their children.
But this is not a word of despair. Even the quoted prophecy from Jeremiah comes from a passage that says, “There is hope for your future,” for “the time is coming . . . when I will make a new covenant . . . not like the covenant I made with your forefathers” (Jer. 31:17,31–32).
Even in the midst of all this tragedy and murderous rage, in the midst of all these corpses, there is a light that is coming out of Galilee. Joseph returns home, and God directs him toward Nazareth so that it will be fulfilled that he, Jesus, will be a Nazarene (Matt. 2:23). Out of Galilee, a light breaks forth for the nations.
Our blindness to the darkness is saddest because it makes us blind to the light. The most tragic part of the embarrassment some professing Christians feel about speaking against hostility to children is that we are thereby losing the opportunity to preach the gospel to those who are despairing.
There are women in our congregations who have faced the guilt and agony of abortion. The Scriptures do not allow us to remain silent. Indeed, the gospel sends us to say to that woman, or to the man who has paid for the abortion, or to the parents or friends who have encouraged it: “If you are in Christ, if you are crucified and raised with him, there is now no condemnation for you.”
The moaning and anguish present in Ramah is comforted in Nazareth. The question for us, then, of whether we are truly pro-life or not, has very little to do with how many signs are in our yards or what bumper stickers we put on our cars. Indeed, it may be the case that, quite soon, the abortion debate will be over in this country politically, and that we will have lost.
The Oddest Sound
But even if that’s the case, it’s not over.
Our churches are to follow in the walk of faith, which means that—like Joseph walking away from stability and comfort—our churches must be bizarre. Our churches must be the kinds of places where the teenaged mother is welcomed and loved, where abandoned children are received. A culture in love with death must hear from us a word of hope, that life is better than death precisely because we worship a Man who is an ex-corpse, a former fetus, who is now standing as the ruler of the entire universe. And he’s not dead anymore.
What we must have is a church in which the gospel we give is the kind of gospel that leads people out of death and despair and toward the kind of life that is found in confessing a name—a name that was first spoken with human lips by a day laborer in Nazareth, “Jesus is Lord.”
If we follow this kind of pure and undefiled religion, it doesn’t mean we will be shrill. It doesn’t mean we will be culture-warriors. It doesn’t mean we’ll be belligerent. It will mean that we will have churches that are so strikingly different that, maybe in ten or fifteen years, the most odd and counter-cultural thing a lost person may hear in your church is not “Amen,” but is instead the sound of babies crying in the nursery.
And hearing the oddness of that sound, when he looks around at the place in which all of the Lord Jesus’ brothers and sisters are welcomed, protected, and loved, the place in which the lies of a murderous and appetite-driven dragon are denied, the stranger in our midst might say, “What is the sound of all these cries?”
And maybe we’ll be able to say with our forefather Joseph, “That’s the sound of life. That’s the sound of hope. That’s the sound of change.”
You might even say it’s “change you can believe in.”
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