Joseph: a Portrait of Mercy

Study No. 6

  It was growing dark outside as Joseph hurriedly cleaned his small apartment. Mary would be arriving soon. They were recently engaged and he was sincerely trying to set a good example. He operated his own construction business. The hours were long and the work hard, but Joseph was skilled and enjoyed the challenge.

Walking the narrow street, Mary knew what she had to do. She did not notice the two dogs fighting over some scraps nearby. To tell Joseph she was pregnant would be the most difficult thing she had ever done in her young life. And he would know that he was not the father. Mary was worried; what would he do? "Oh God, please help me to explain this so Joseph will believe me," she prayed.

He heard the knock on the door and instantly moved to open it; then pausing, briefly glanced around the room to make sure everything was in its place, and opened the door.

The first light striking her face told him something was wrong. "Whatís the matter? Mary, did someone bother you coming here?" Mary stepped past the archway, her eyes beginning to fill with tears . . . .

What followed was one of the most heart-rending conversations in history. You know the story. Put yourself in that conversation, as either Mary or Joseph. Try to feel the range of emotions that they felt. Meditate for a minute what it must have been like for Mary. Imagine the weight of the cross she was given to bear.

And we can only guess the questions that exploded in the mind of Joseph. "Does she think I am a fool?" "Is Mary having a nervous breakdown?" "Or is she demon-possessed?" "She knows I love her, why canít she just admit her mistake?" "This lie is so unnatural and absurd . . . but what should I do about it?"

Joseph really only had two choices ó believe the story about an angel and some kind of a supernatural pregnancy, or donít believe it. We do not know how long they talked, or what was said. However, the Bible records that Joseph reached a very logical and pragmatic conclusion. He did not believe her. And although he decided against marriage he became a portrait of mercy.

First, Joseph got control of his emotions, and began reasoning out the problem, Matthew 1:20. It would have been easy to hurt Mary, for the pain he felt. Just think of all the names he could have called her! But he did not yield to that temptation.

Joseph felt a greater stress because he was a religious man. He knew the teachings of the law and the sanctity of marriage.

"Thou shalt not commit adultery," God had commanded His people at Mt. Sinai. In fact, didnít Levitical law state that Mary could be put to death, Leviticus 20:10, or forced to take a public test to prove her innocence? Numbers 5:12. But why waste time on a test for innocence when she was already pregnant? Should Joseph have her killed? A "bill of divorcement" was possible, but that would require her to be a public spectacle, Deuteronomy 22:12-21, 24:1-4. Joseph was more concerned about protecting Mary than getting even for his hurt feelings.

Letís make a few assumptions about what might have been going on in Josephís mind. Perhaps he knew of many men and women in the community who had committed sexual sins. He may have recognized the hypocrisy of those who openly profess the law, but secretly practice sin. He may have fasted, prayed or studied the scriptures for hours, we just donít know. What we do know is that Joseph loved Mary, but he also had to be her judge.

During this crisis, Joseph became a type of Christ. He could have demanded justice, and brought the full force of the law against Mary. He might have reasoned that justice would have helped the community. A public example of obedience to the Law of God would cause others to avoid the penalty of sin.

Perhaps he had to fight his own pride. Joseph may have never committed any type of sexual sin in his life. Seeing others guilty of such evil caused him to judge them ó "Why isnít the law carried out, and destroy this sin from Godís church?" He may have quickly labeled as dirt, those who were pregnant out of marriage in the past ó but now ó this was his own Mary, that he was judging.

Did Joseph only have two choices, justice or mercy?

He could judge her with legal judgment and have Mary publicly condemned. Or, he could grant her mercy. And not just mercy ó but unmerited mercy! Joseph believed Mary was guilty of adultery and that she was refusing to confess her guilt. She continued to justify her sin with this unbelievable excuse.

Which would it be, justice or mercy? We learn so much about the character of Joseph in one short verse, Matthew 1:19, "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily."

Joseph had reasoned a way to accomplish both justice and mercy. He had decided to divorce Mary. He would obey God and not compromise with sin in his personal life. However, he was determined to protect her.

By reading the scriptures, Joseph would have known of the mercy Joshua had given to Rahab the harlot, Joshua 6:25. And Joseph was trying to live the principle in Proverbs 3:3-4. "Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: So shalt thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man."

When Joseph reached his final decision, God miraculously intervened in Josephís life. God normally may have allowed most men to live by their decisions, but this was too important to His plan of salvation. So God instructed Joseph concerning the truth.

We can learn much about Josephís attitude toward Godís Word. "And Joseph arose from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin (to fulfill prophecy) until she gave birth to a Son, and he (Joseph) called His name Jesus," Matthew 1:24-25 (NAS).

What a beautiful portrait of mercy. And a reminder for us to practice mercy in our daily lives. Our Creator could legally require the full force of His Law in judgment against each of us. But instead, Christ leads us to repentance and teaches us to follow His example. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," is His promise to us, Matthew 5:7.

We should be thankful that our judgment comes from a throne called the mercy seat.

ó written by John Dunkin W

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