Now we're turning in our Bibles to Matthew's Gospel chapter 1. I have been announcing over the last few meetings in the Hall, that I want to take up the beginning of a three-part series this morning on the Nativity theme, and I've entitled the whole series - though it be only three weeks - 'The 'Fear Nots' of the First Nativity'. It will comprise of three texts that you find throughout two of the Gospels, Matthew's gospel that we're looking at this morning, and two other texts in Luke's gospel, where we hear these words 'Fear not, Fear not'. We will look this morning at the first 'Fear not' which is spoken to Joseph, and we'll entitle this message this morning: 'Fear Not, Joseph' - Fear not, Joseph!
We'll read the whole of what is familiar to us in chapter 1 at least of the Nativity theme in Matthew's gospel. Verse 18 is the first verse, in verses 1 to 17 you have the genealogy of the Lord Jesus, proving without a shadow of a doubt that He has the right to the throne of David, that He has the right to be the King of the Jews. Then in verse 18: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused", or had been betrothed, "to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man", or a righteous man, "and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS".
If you're familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, and particularly the Nativity story, you will know that for centuries devout Jews - such as Simeon - looked skyward, heavenward, waiting for the consolation of Israel. When Simeon saw the consolation of Israel he was free, as far as he was concerned, to die and to go to heaven, because the Lord had answered his prayer - he had seen Messiah. That is what the consolation of Israel was, it was Messiah who was coming to console them, coming to deliver them, coming to be the fulfilment of all their prophecies, deliver them from Gentile rule, and bring them into the kingdom of God on the earth. Simeon looked for it, Anna looked for it, many godly old saints looked for it; and all of a sudden now we see in Matthew's gospel the fulfilment of all of God's promises found in a little baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.
Paul put it like this in Galatians 4 verses 4 and 5: 'But when the fulness of the time was come, God brought forth his Son, born of a woman, to deliver them that were under the law'. Now I want you to note, and I took this up in a study - if you remember - last Christmas (you probably don't!), about four weeks of study looking at Matthew's particular nativity scene, under the title 'The Fulfilment of Truth in the Fullness of Time' - the fulfilment of truth in the fullness of time, because that is Matthew's theme. God promised that He would send a deliverer, God had foretold in the prophecies of the Old Testament that Messiah would come. What we find in Matthew's gospel is that no matter how long it takes, no matter how many generations pass by, God always fulfils His word.
Do you know that today? What Matthew's telling us, throughout all of his gospel but at the beginning in the Nativity scene is: God fulfils His promises, God never fails in what He has said to man. Isaiah echoed that in Isaiah 55 in the Old Testament: 'So shall my word', the Lord said, 'be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it'. What we have here in Matthew 1 and 2 is Matthew's account, which traces the fulfilment of God's plan revealed in scripture. That's why you have in verses 1 to 7 the ancestry of Jesus, the Messiah King. Now you might think, as you're reading through all these names, 'and so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so-and-so begat so-and-so', 'This is a very dull way to begin a book! He wouldn't sell too many of his novels of Matthew's gospel according to him, if he started the first chapter in this way'. But the fact of the matter is, although it may be dull to you, for a Jewish reader this was the fulfilment of all they had waited on. The one who would be in the line of David, who would come and be their Messiah, this was a new beginning, this was the fulfilment of all of Israel's history - because this was His-story: the lineage, the genealogy of their Messiah, the one they had been waiting so long for.
In fact, in verse 1 this statement 'The book of the generation of Jesus Christ' in the literal Greek could be translated 'The Book of Genesis'. We get 'genealogy' from 'Genesis', 'beginnings'. This is a new beginning, Genesis is the book of beginnings of the universe telling us how God made the heavens and the earth; and now Matthew is bringing to this Jewish people the new beginning. All of a sudden the light dawns on their spirit that Messiah has come. This list begins with Abraham, and takes us down all through the generations finally to King David; and Matthew's desire is to show that this Christ is indeed the true King of Israel in the line of David, who was designed to show us God's purpose. He has come! He has been eagerly awaited, and He is now here!
So what I want you to see, before we go on any further, is that Matthew's account of the nativity is not simply an account of Jesus' birth and childhood so that we should be able to re-enact it in primary school plays today; but what it is is a series of scenes designed to show how God's purpose that was declared in the Old Testament was coming to literal, actual, specific, 100% perfect fulfilment in the birth of Jesus Christ. That's why each of the subsequent quotations that we find here from the Old Testament are given with a formula - the Old Testament verse is quoted: 'He shall be born of a virgin', found in Isaiah; and then we have the fulfilment, Mary is told, without knowing a man in the sexual sense, that she was with child of the Holy Ghost - the virgin conceived. We find also in Isaiah chapter 7 that it was prophesied that He would be called Immanuel - you have that verse quoted here, and then you have the fulfilment. What Matthew is showing in Matthew chapter 1 and chapter 2 is that all that the Old Testament prophet said is fulfilled in Christ!
Isn't that wonderful? Now there are many other themes that run under the surface of Matthew's gospel in the Nativity scene, but the overwhelming theme that I want you to understand today is this: God fulfils His word. Did you hear that? God always fulfils His word. Now that is the context where we find the verse that takes up our attention today, and it is verse 20: 'But while he thought on these things', Joseph, that is, 'behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost'. This is not just the story of the fulfilment of God's promises in national Israelite history, and we could fall short there and just deal with it as a theological piece of Scripture that tells us about Israel's fulfilment, and not realise that it's also a personal history of the individuals that were involved. There are biographical details given to us of Joseph, of Mary, of the baby Jesus, of the shepherds, of the wise men and others.
This is what chiefly I want you to see this morning and then in the following two weeks or so: the three 'Fear nots' that are in the Nativity scene, first spoken to Joseph here, second spoken to Mary in Luke 1:30, and the third spoken to the shepherds in Luke 2:10. Let's deal first of all with 'Fear Not, Joseph', Matthew chapter 1 verse 20. The first thing that I want you to see is that this 'Fear not' was given to Joseph, who was in what we could consider an impossible situation. Do you hear that? Joseph was in what we would consider was an impossible situation. That's why I believe Matthew's account is told from Joseph's standpoint while, when you look at Luke's account, it's told from Mary's standpoint. Joseph's ends with verse 18: 'The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child'. Now, as far as Joseph was concerned, he didn't know it was of the Holy Ghost. He didn't know this was an immaculate conception. He didn't know this was the fulfilment of Isaiah 7, no one had let him in on the secret!
When we look at Luke's gospel 1 and 2, we find that Mary knew because Gabriel the angel had appeared to her and told her - but Joseph did not know, he was in the dark. We know, Matthew tells us, that this child was of the Holy Ghost, but as far as Joseph was concerned: he didn't know where this child had come from. He didn't know this woman in a sexual sense, as far as he was concerned no one else knew her, she was espoused to him to be his wife and his wife alone - how could this thing be? As far as we are concerned, I think if you put yourself in Joseph's shoes, he was in an impossible situation.
I believe here the great lesson is to be found in Joseph's reaction to what had taken place in his life, because in all likelihood the first thought that came into Joseph's mind was the first thought that would come into your mind - what would it be? 'She has been unfaithful to me'. Let's be real, I know we respect the Scriptures, but it's about human beings, this story. It's biographical: what would you think if you heard that your espoused engaged partner was with child? What would be the first thought that would come into your mind? What would you do? How would you feel? How would you cope with a situation like this?
If we just think about it for a moment, regarding Joseph, this situation could have resulted in the stoning of Mary. If you cast your mind back, if you know this Scripture, in John 8 you will remember there was a woman caught in adultery, and she was pulled out before religious people - and they all lifted stones ready to stone her, to destroy her. Joseph could have very well been justified, it says 'he being a just man', to do away with her, and to make this sin known, and the law would have condemned her to death. Joseph, it says, was a righteous man, and that means that Joseph knew that he couldn't sweep this sin under the carpet. He knew that it had to be dealt with in a right way; but Joseph, being a righteous man, was not a cruel arrogant man. He was not a legalistic man, he was also a kind man, and we read here that he was righteous - though he didn't want to make a public example of her - and he was thinking about this thing. He knew it was right for him to put her away publicly, in other words to divorce her - but being a kind man, being a loving and a sympathetic man, he didn't want to bring public disgrace upon her.
Can I just pause for a moment: because I think Joseph is one of the most underrated characters in the whole of the New Testament, indeed the Bible. Here you see a balance in the personality of Joseph that is seen in the personality of his adopted Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth - full of grace and truth. Of course, he couldn't come to the epitome that was in Christ of grace and truth, but nevertheless we see here that he was a righteous man who knew what was right - yet even though he was in the dark regarding what God was doing in the womb of his loved one, he was loving and kind and compassionate toward her - and there's a lesson for us all in that. Many of us here know all too well what it is to be right, but do we know what it is to be right in a gracious way?
Let's face it: Joseph was in the dark regarding what was going on the womb of Mary. As far as you are concerned and I am concerned, in the circumstances that we go through - some of them that we reckon impossible situations - we're in the dark as well. Is that not the case? You don't know what's going on, you don't know what God's doing! You ask the question: 'Why did this happen? Why did it happen when it happened? Why did it have to happen the way that it happened?'. We want to know the ins and outs of the background to the story of our lives, and if we're honest with ourselves and honest with God, we find it very difficult having faith in Him without knowing all the facts in the story. We won't trust God until we know everything, we have to know that it's going to turn out alright, we have to know everything is going to work together for our good without just taking God at His word and trusting Him even though things seem to be absolutely impossible.
Now I'm sure Joseph had his struggles, and we'll see in a moment or two that I believe he did, but nevertheless Joseph was a man who trusted God according to what God said. Harold Wilmington, a Bible commentator, said this of Joseph: 'Joseph must be considered by all standards of measurement as a truly just man with the spiritual maturity of a David, Moses, Peter or Paul. In fact, had it not been for Judah's sin, Joseph would have been ruling from Jerusalem as the rightful King. It was he, not Herod, who had the proper credentials to sit on the throne'. He should have been sitting on the throne - Joseph - in the lineage of the King, not Herod; but we see, at least in his personality and his characteristics, the character and the personality of a King.
However, he still felt - even though he was merciful, even though he was compassionate - as a just man he still felt that his hand was forced, and he had to do something with Mary. That's why we find in verse 20, when he thought on these things - what things? Verse 19, he didn't want to make her a public example, but he was minded to put her away privately. He wasn't going to do what the Pharisees did in John 8, and bring her out into the square and make a public example, but he was going to do what he thought was the righteous thing, and divorce her privately. No one, as far as the family was concerned, or the wider family, outside the family, would know about it - but he had to do what was right. So we find this statement, 'Fear not', in the midst of Joseph feeling that he was in an impossible situation, he was going to have to do something if he was going to be right. So, while he thought on these things...
Before I go on to expound that verse in more detail, what is usually the result when we think upon impossible things? This was an impossible situation as far as Joseph was concerned. You know what it's like: your back is to the wall, everybody seems to be against you, you don't know how this situation is going to be resolved - what do you do about it? You do what Joseph does: we think about these things. I believe we do more than think about them, the Greek word 'think' is also found in Matthew's gospel 9:4: 'Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?'. So this word 'think' can also be used of evil things, not just righteous things - and how many of us, when trouble comes along our way, we really think about it! The sense is 'meditate', we reflect on evil, we ponder our problems, we consider our crises, and the result is all of the mulling over of these things in our minds produces what? What does it produce? Fear! 'How am I going to get out of this fix?'.
That's why, you don't need to turn to it, but that's one of the reasons why Paul in Philippians 4 verses 6-8 said: 'Be anxious for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds', guard your hearts and minds, 'through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest', honourable, 'whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure...if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things'. That is intrinsically linked with not being worried about things, not being fearful, don't mull bad things over in your mind, and meditate and ponder and consider them - but commit all those bad things to the Lord in prayer, and you'll be delivered of your care.
Now I know that's very simplistic for many of us, and if you've tried it you will know that - but the fact of the matter is, we have to declare things as they really are, and it's simply this: when you leave God out of your impossible situations, they get worse. The fear gets worse, the anxiety gets worse, the nervous thoughts get worse, because God is not in the picture of your situation, you've left God out. I know it seems impossible, but the God that we are dealing with is the God of the impossible, as Joseph would come to see. But our hearts fill with fear, and I believe Joseph's heart was filled with fear. He knew he wanted to marry Mary, but now he felt that he couldn't righteously marry her - he was afraid to marry her, so he was going to put her away privately.
The tense suggests that he was thinking about the determination to which he had come, verse 19, he was determined to put her away. As he was thinking about these things - now mark this - as he was thinking 'I'm going to put her away, I have to put her away': behold! Like lightning! Unexpectedly! Immediately, at that moment of fear: the angel of the Lord appeared, and said unto Joseph 'Fear not!, Fear not'. All of a sudden, because of the word of the Lord in this man's life, what happened? His plans were redirected, his life was interrupted, his fears had been confronted, and how often that happens in our own lives, doesn't it? Our plans are stalled, our schemes are maybe even stopped, because of God's divine sovereignty. Things may seem to be at an end for us, but the fact of the matter is this, as Proverbs says: 'A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps'.
Do you find yourself today in an impossible situation? Joseph was in a situation, I would say, more impossible than yours - for in a rational, reasonable sense, there was no other conclusion than that Mary had been unfaithful to him. But all of a sudden, what he had restricted God in, God broke through! God declared Himself as the God of the impossible, and Joseph took God at His word and believed Him, and had faith! Now you might say: 'That's OK for Joseph, sure an angel told him in a dream'. Well, I'll grant you that point, but remember what the angel told him, the angel told him that the explanation was one that had never ever been seen in all of human history: that that child had come there from the Holy Spirit - it never had been heard of before.
When people saw an unmarried woman, there was only one possible explanation, and that was unfaithfulness - or that he was telling a lie, and it was his child, he could be accused of fathering the child. A sword was in his heart, just as a sword would pierce Mary's heart one day - but you still say, 'But an angel told him, if an angel told me that my situation would be OK, that God was going to deliver me in a miraculous way, well then I would believe it!'. Let's be realistic today: the angel told him in a dream. I'll be honest with you: if you came into the church tonight and said: 'David, I had a wee doze this afternoon, and an angel told me in a dream that my situation was going to be alright', I wouldn't believe you! Maybe that's little faith on my part, but that's the way we are, we're sceptical, aren't we? I would probably say: 'Did you have cheese for your tea? Or have you been hitting the drink?' - that's what people would say to you, isn't it? 'Did you have a party last night? Are you hallucinating, are you imagining? Is senile dementia entering in prematurely?'. Was the angel going to go and tell Joseph's family? Was the angel going to tell Joseph's Rabbi, and Joseph's town? What do you think they would think? Is that not enough reason for Joseph to be afraid? Sure, when the angel told Zacharias that his wife Elizabeth was going to bear a son, he said: 'Whereby shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife is well stricken in years?' - he doubted even though an angel told him. Angel or no angel, miracle or no miracle, we tend to doubt God's word, don't we? We have God's word for a lot of things, but we don't believe it.
What I want you to see this morning is this: God told him to fear not, and that is God's word to you today - fear not! Fear not, little flock, whatever your lot. I am told, I haven't counted them - you can do it for me - that there are 366 'Fear nots' in the whole of the Bible, one for every day of the year, and one for a leap year when you need it. 'Fear not', yet we still live in our fears - and I'm asking you, coming up to Christmas, which can be a very very difficult time for many I know: what are the fears that you are pondering, the fears that you're analysing, that you're running over again and again like playback in your mind as we run up to Christmas?
This Greek word 'fear' is the word 'phobos' (sp?) - if you listen carefully to the pronunciation you will hear that we derive our English word 'phobia' from it. To name a couple of phobias: claustrophobia, fear of closed in spaces; arachnophobia, fear of spiders; photophobia, fear of light; xenophobia, fear of strangers - we could go on and on and on, but that suffix 'phobia', could be put onto your fear, and my fear, and every fear that is conceivable - that which is robbing us of the peace of God in our heart. Now Joseph's was a social phobia: 'What would people think of me in my impossible situation?', yet he didn't question, he didn't argue with God. You've got questions, you've got problems, but he just had faith - an angel gave him one command to marry Mary, and he obeyed. That's faith.
Can I take you on a bit further as we close? Joseph was in what we would consider an impossible situation, but what I want you to see is: the reason why Joseph overcame that impossible situation was that Joseph had the God of the impossible, who providentially ordered his circumstances and was behind them all. Now please note that there were no more miracles here - God didn't say, 'I get your point now Joseph, I realise that people are going to misunderstand what's going on here, so I'll just give everybody in your family, everybody in your district and village, the same dream that you had, so that they will know that this child is of the Holy Spirit' - is that what God did? No!
Sometimes we're looking for the miracle, we're looking for the flashing light, and the Red Sea to be parted in our situation - and that miracle may not come! Nevertheless, we still have the God of the impossible. You know, this wasn't a unique situation - it was in the sense that this was a conception where no man was involved - but if you remember Genesis 18, the angel appeared also to Sarah and told her in old age that she would bear a son. What did she do? She went into her tent and she had a good belly laugh! 'At my age? In my nineties - and my husband, he's not 21! How are we going to bear a child at this stage in our life?' - and what did God say to Sarah? 'Why do you laugh Sarah? Why do you laugh? For nothing is impossible with God!'.
In Luke 1 verse 34, in the same nativity story, we find the same words spoken: 'Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?'; verse 37: 'For with God nothing shall be impossible' - or, as the Revised Version says, 'For no word from God shall be void of power'. This is God's word! Now here's God's word to you today: 'Fear not' - that is not just that you, like Vincent Peel, decide 'Well, this is the power of positive thinking. I have to look at the mirror in the morning and say 'Fear not, Fear not, Fear not', when I'm shaking like a leaf' - this is God's word, which is not void of power. There is intrinsic power in what God says to all of us today: 'Fear not'.
I know it's easy to say it, but what God's word is saying in this situation is: when it seems most improbable, even impossible, for God to fulfil His word; then is when it is most expected. God loves to do the impossible, that's why William Cowper wrote that hymn:
'Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take:
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace,
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes shall ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour,
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower'.
Now that's all very nice poetic prose and all that, but when you read Cowper's life and you realise that he struggled with depression, with despair most of his life, before salvation, after salvation, even struggling with suicide - then we realise that out of that he found that he was able to embrace God's word and trust.
Can I leave you with a verse today? It's from the Psalm that Peter read to us, Psalm 46, turn with me to it please - a minute or two will suffice. Psalm 46 verses 1 and 2, we know the words are familiar: 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea'. The Amplified Version translates the second part of verse 1, 'a very present help in trouble', this way: 'a well-proved help in trouble'. Does it not encourage you today that Joseph, and many other of the saints of God in impossible situations, found God to prove His word faithful? A literal translation of that second part of the verse is this: 'very much found to be a help in distresses', and verse 2, 'on account of this, we will not fear when the earth changes', seismic change, 'and the mountains are slipping into the heart of the seas'. The permanent things that we thought were going to last forever in our lives go into oblivion!
Can I leave you with one translation of the second part of verse 1 that has been precious to me? It's the New American Standard Bible's marginal rendering, and it says this: 'God is our refuge and strength, abundantly available for help in tight places' - abundantly available for help in tight places, isn't that beautiful? What tight place are you in? I'll tell you: 'Fear not' - do you know why? Because Immanuel is your portion - 'God with us', us in our nature, incarnate in flesh, God condescending to be with us - with us at our side! I know everything seems to be going wrong for you at this moment, and you're saying 'It's not meant to be like this, how can God sort out a mess like mine?'. 'Fear not!', God says, 'This too is of the Holy Ghost, and in the fullness of My time your new beginning will be born'. In the meantime, keep looking to Jesus.
When the businessman Alan Emery was in the wool business, he spent one evening with a shepherd on the Texas prairie. During the night in the long wait he heard coyotes wailing, and it just pierced the air with such fear - you can imagine the situation. The shepherd dog's growled and peered into the darkness, not knowing where the noise was coming from. The sheep, which had been sleeping, lumbered all of a sudden to their feet, alarmed, fearful, and bleating pitifully. The shepherd began tossing more logs unto the fire, and the flames shot up. In the glow, Alan said that he looked and he saw thousands of little lights all around the prairie - and those little lights were the reflection of the fire in the eyes of the sheep. When he realised that, he said that in the midst of the danger 'I observed that the sheep were not looking into the darkness like the dogs, but the sheep were keeping their eyes set in the direction of safety, they were looking to the shepherd'. He said that at that point he couldn't help thinking of Hebrews 12: 'Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith' - and that is why, Matthew says in 4 and 16: 'The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light has sprung up'. Fear not, Immanuel is with you.
Let's all bow our heads: Lord, we remember that David could say that his own familiar friend had deserted him. In another place he could say, 'When father and mother forsake me...' - Lord, we read in the scripture of the widow, of the orphan, we read of those who have been deserted by husband and wife; yet, our Father, we thank Thee that we also read the Saviour saying: 'I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. I will be with thee, even unto the end'. Lord, may we all take this with us today, especially if there are those not saved, and they have been fearful - they feel it is impossible that God should be made real to them. Lord, may they reach out and embrace by faith the compassion of the same God that tells all of us to fear not. In the Saviour's name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the first tape in his "The 'Fear Nots' of the First Nativity" study series, titled "Fear Not, Joseph" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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