The Side Characters of Christmas

This post is part of a short series I’m doing on the first four chapters of the gospel of Matthew. You can read the previous post here.

When we think on the Christmas story, we tend to focus on the events more than the people involved. Of course, you can’t avoid thinking about Jesus (it is Christmas, after all), but the “side characters” of the accounts are also important. They show us the kind of people whom God chose to raise and honor the Christ-child. The integrity and devotion of these people can also inspire us to strive for greater commitment in our walk with God. In Matthew 1:18-2:12, we see two different stories of people reacting to the coming of the Messiah and can learn from their example.

The Integrity of Joseph

In Matthew 1:18-25, we encounter Joseph, the man to be the earthly father for Jesus. If one thing stands out from this little story it’s that Joseph was a man of integrity.

  1. An awkward engagement (vs. 18-19): Before Joseph and Mary are officially and legally married, the blushing bride-to-be is found to be with child. That Child is due to the Holy Spirit, but, let’s be honest, who would believe her when she’d say such a thing? Assumptions would be made that she’s delusional or trying to ham-fistedly cover for the guilty man. This puts Joseph in an awkward position. He knows he’s not the father, but surely others in their community might suspect otherwise. The Bible regards Joseph as a just man–he knows what’s right and he acts with wisdom. His solution is to quietly divorce Mary (think break off the engagement) instead of broadcasting the scandal even more. We see his integrity in this action. He is probably hurt and feeling betrayed. No one would blame him if he drug her into the streets and stoned her. But he reacts measuredly and with kindness.
  2. An angelic explanation (vs. 20-23): God doesn’t want Joseph out of the picture, however, and this is proved by the sending of an angel. This heavenly being appears in a dream and lays out the truth: Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this Child must be named Jesus (which means “God saves”) because He will save His people from their sins. Matthew elaborates more by citing this event as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, which prophesies a virgin birth. Here will be the test of Joseph’s integrity and faithfulness to God. Will he believe this angel? Will he take Mary as his wife?
  3. An answer extreme (vs. 24-25): The very next morning when Joseph awakes he has made up his mind: he will not divorce Mary but will go through with the marriage. He will share the shame that Mary will face for the rest of her life. Though they have no reason for shame, the mysterious pregnancy will follow them around even when Jesus is an adult (see John 8:41, where the Jews lobby a veiled insult at Jesus). A further sign of his integrity is that he doesn’t consummate the marriage until after Jesus is born. At every step we see the proof of Joseph being a just man.

The kind of calm, quiet self-control that Joseph exerts is stunning. We could all learn from his example and, in measuring ourselves to him, see how we lack in these qualities. Am I patient in difficult circumstances? Am I willing to follow God even if those around me think false and hurtful things? Joseph was focused on and dedicated to God, willing to sacrifice everything for Him. Maybe he didn’t completely understand what was going on, but that was no matter to him. He obeyed and stands as an example of integrity to us centuries later.

The Worship of the Wise Men

The story of the wise men as seen in Matthew 2:1-12 is a famous and well-known aspect of the Christmas narrative. We tend to think of these individuals as faceless bodies that arrived on a perplexing errand and gave out lavish gifts. Though we may not know the identities of these men, we can learn about worship from their high level of devotion.

  1. Eager to worship (vs. 1-8): Some time after Jesus is born a group of wise men arrive in Jerusalem (we don’t know how many there were. Sorry, fans of “We Three Kings”). These illustrious-looking individuals are asking a surprising question: “Where is your new King who was just born?” They mention seeing a star (His star, in fact) and have come to worship Him. Everyone is troubled at this news, possibly because they are unsure of the ruler Herod’s response. At first, he is cool and calculating. Without the wise men present, he gathers the chief priests and scribes who reference Micah 5:2 as prophesying Bethlehem to be the birth place of the Messiah. Herod passes this information along to the wise men with the stipulation that he wants them to come back and inform him of the Child’s whereabouts. He claims he wants to worship this Messiah too (his actions later show he’s lying).
    Given the man they’re dealing with, one could question the wisdom behind showing up in a major city where there is already a king ruling and asking for where the new king was born. Their actions unwittingly cause a stir that eventually leads to tragedy. But what is apparent is their eagerness to worship the newborn King. That is their whole motive in traveling so far. They are willing to go great distances and upset political structures in order to see and honor this King.
  2. Effusive in worship (vs. 9-12): Off the wise men go, overjoyed to see the star reappear and lead them directly to the Messiah. They fall down and worship Him, presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Such things were very expensive in those days (they would be surprised at the soap options today) and giving them to the Child shows a great devotion. Before heading out, they’re warned in a dream to avoid going back to Herod and they are obedient even to this. They gave much in their worship of the Christ.

Christians can read the wise men’s part of the story and ask themselves if they are as devoted to Jesus. The wise men were eager to honor and worship the King and heaped as much glory on Him as they could. Are we as eager and effusive? Perhaps this Advent season you can ponder this and strive to worship the Messiah with as much fervor as these wise men.

Much more could be said about these two small stories, but what is here is enough to set our minds to wondering. What kind of personal integrity do we exhibit? How devoted are we to Christ? Consider these things over the following season and strive to reach an answer. If you find yourself lacking, challenge yourself to improve. Joseph and the wise men were human too. We also can have similar integrity and devotion.

2 thoughts on “The Side Characters of Christmas

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