What’s so important about Joseph? The “Quiet Righteousness” of Joseph

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If you pay attention to the story of Christmas, Joseph seems fairly insignificant, if not altogether unimportant. To me, at least, he seemed like a necessary character to tell the story of Christmas; but the real focus is on the birth of Christ.

If you read the gospel accounts, Joseph never says a word. And the “main” characters are Mary (of course, being the mother of God) and Jesus (being the incarnate son of God).

However, Frederick Dale Bruner, commentator on Matthew, sees Joseph as having a significant role in the account, especially considering the later teaching of Jesus.

Bruner says,

In the NT Joseph never speaks. In Matthew’s gospel, where Joseph appears more than anywhere else, he does a number of important things. In the first chapter he overcomes the initial hesitation and obeys the divine summons to marry a questionable Mary; in the second chapter he is commanded to flee to Egypt with child and his mother; still later in that chapter, counseled again by a dream, he is instructed to return with the family to the land of Israel and then to settle with them in the north of Galilee. In every scene Joseph simply acts without speaking. His speech is to do the will of God.

We may call him “Quiet Joseph”. His hallmark is obedience — prompt, simple, and unspectacular obedience. And in this sense Joseph prefigures one important feature in this gospel’s understanding of righteousness: to be righteous is simply to obey the Word of God; righteousness is just to do (a favorite word in the this gospel) what God says… The unostentatiousness of Joseph’s obedience here prefigures Jesus’ later description of righteousness’s unique way (in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, chap. 6) of not seeking to be noticed by people. Righteousness, in Matthew, is — simply obeying. The “more” that Jesus requires for entrance into the kingdom (5:20) turns out, in some cases in the gospel (as now with Joseph), to involve a simply “less” of show. In Jesus’ teaching it is sometimes the devout Serious who are “too much”. Thus, Joseph, the divinely chosen adopting father of Jesus, lives out for us in his noiseless way an exemplary preliminary definition of righteousness in the gospel.

Matthew presents Joseph as the picturesque righteousness required for the kingdom. In this way, Joseph actually prefigures the greater, “quiet righteousness” of Christ. Christ quietly obeyed the will of his Father. And his righteousness was for the redemption of his people.

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Judicial Abandonment: What we all Deserve

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RC Sproul, in his commentary on Romans, speaks on what he calls “judicial abandonment” from Romans 1:18-32. It is an explanation of just exactly how God justly judges people. 

Sproul says, 

Three times in this section [of Romans 1:18-32] we read about human beings being given up by God. They are given up to their vile passions, the lust of the flesh, and their reprobate mind. When God judges people according to the standard of his righteousness, he is declaring that he will not strive with mankind forever. We hear all the time about God’s infinite mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to sin. 

The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, “If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.” This is what theologians call “judicial abandonment”. God, in dispensing judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever. 

Here in Romans… since by nature we repress the truth, God delivers us to our sin…

Romans is unapologetic about this concept of judicial abandonment, arguing that it is right and just for God to abandon sinners to the desires and lusts of their sin, thus allowing them to run, not walk, to hell. God’s grace is removed, and the flood gates are opened, so to speak. Without this divine restraint, as Sproul tells it, we as sinners will forever love our sin more than God, and choose hell without exception. And Paul tells us in Romans, it is right for God to do this. It is God’s righteous judgment on wicked. 

Given this context, grace is a special gift of God, above and apart from what we actually deserve. When God saves sinners in Christ, he is bypassing what we actually deserve, and instead gives Christ the abandonment. He gives Christ the wrath. And he turns our hearts to him. This is the context of the gospel. And Paul wants us to make sure that although hell should be and would be something we all go to, God chooses to save some. 

For more on this, you can read more on the nature of hell and condemnation here.

Horatius Bonar on the Great Exchange

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Bonar’s Everlasting Righteousness is by far one of my favorite books. In it is a wealth of gospel truths that will cause the soul well up in joy. Below is one of my favorite quotes from the book:

The man who believes in Jesus Christ, from the moment that he so believes, not only receives divine absolution from all guilt, but is so made legally possessor of His infinite righteousness, that all to which that righteousness entitles becomes his, and he is henceforth treated by God according to the perfection of the perfect One, as if that perfection had been his own. “As He is, so are we [even] in this world” (1 Jn 4:17), that is, even now, in our state of imperfection, though men of unclean lips, and though dwelling among a people of unclean lips. As it is elsewhere written, “There is therefore now [even now] no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Not only are we “delivered from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1:10); not only shall we “not come into condemnation” (Jn 5:24); not only are we “justified from all things” (Acts 13:39); but we are “made [literally, ‘we become’] the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21).

The transaction [of Christ’s righteousness] is not one of borrowing. The perfection made over to us is given, not lent, by God. It becomes ours in law, ours for all legal ends, ours as efficaciously as if it had been from first to last our very own in deed.

Horatius Bonar, from Everlasting Righteousness

You can read another post here with insights from Bonar on the vicarious (as he puts it) sin-bearing life of Christ, and another here on Bonar’s take on the book of Revelation.