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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

From “Four Beloved Christmas Carols and the True Stories Behind Them,” a article by Amy Green, Dec. 17, 2019:

“By the mid-1800s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a household name, and his poems, like ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ and ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ were memorized and quoted all over America. But in 1863, it had been many years since he’d written an original verse. Longfellow was weary after years of hardship. His beloved wife had died in a tragic fire, causing him to fall into a deep depression. That Christmas, he wrote in his journal: ‘How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.’

A few years later, despite his deep conviction against violence, his oldest son, Charley, left this note in his house after stealing away to join the Union Army: ‘I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.’

“Less than a year later, on December 1, 1863, Longfellow received a telegram that every parent during wartime dreaded: Charley had been injured in a skirmish with Confederate troops and was currently in a Virginia hospital. Knowing the poor conditions of battlefront medical stations, Longfellow immediately left his Boston home to search for his son.

“After arriving, he spent three days searching the incoming wounded arriving at the train station, passing up and down the line of bleeding, bandaged men, limp on pallets packed into boxcars, until he finally saw a familiar face: Charley, the prodigal son, alive, but barely breathing.

After being rushed to medical care and stabilized, Charley was eventually allowed to return home to Boston.

“On Christmas Day, with his son still shivering with fever, possibly never to recover, Longfellow struggled with the terrible reality of the war that had torn his country apart… and began to write a poem. With each line, he built a picture of darkness—and in the midst of it, hope.

And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

“Charley did eventually recover, and he and his father were reconciled, but this wartime Christmas poem-turned-song still rings out a story of the triumph of hope over despair even today.”

Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment. You made arrangements for a wife. The negotiation of terms is behind you and you anticipate having a wonderful wedding celebration with family and friends.

Then you find out your betrothed is pregnant. You know the child is not yours because you have been scrupulous to observe God’s commands and besides, the two of you have not had much time alone. All your plans are blown up by the scandal.

You have affection for Mary and trusted that affection would, over the course of married life, deepen into love. But now her only explanation is an impossible-sounding story of how God made her pregnant and the baby will be the Messiah. The thought of it is grotesque and unbiblical.

Still, you cannot bear the thought of Mary being killed for her indiscretion. You lie on your bed grieving what you’ve lost, angry at her betrayal, and afraid of what might happen. You have just decided on the least unpleasant course of action when exhaustion takes hold and you fall into a troubled sleep.

When we know what is “right” but is not God’s will, we must be redirected.

1. Joseph reacted righteously to the news of Mary’s pregnancy.


Joseph may not have believed Mary’s story about an “immaculate conception.” (18) In that culture, girls were commonly betrothed at age 12. The father of the bride and the husband-to-be agreed upon some contractual arrangements and a waiting period. When all the obligations were met and the agreed-upon period of time elapsed, a wedding would be held and the marriage consummated.

In that interim period, the bride continued to live with her family. This is apparently the stage of betrothal at which this event occurred. This explains Matthew’s statement in verse eighteen, SHE WAS STILL A VIRGIN. Paired with HE DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH HER (25) Matthew proved Jesus was NOT Joseph’s son. The miraculous conception of Jesus is a main point of this passage.

If Joseph had believed Mary, the drama of verses 19-21 would’ve been unnecessary. Verse eighteen is the first mention of the Holy Spirit in Matthew. From Luke’s account, we know Mary was aware that the Holy Spirit was the means of her conception. Matthew’s including that detail here makes me think Mary explained that to Joseph. In her dangerously compromised position, I can’t believe she would not have told Joseph that news. However, that explanation could’ve been easily dismissed as an excuse offered by a desperate adulterer.

Joseph was merciful and decided not to exercise his rights to avenge his humiliation, but deal with it QUIETLY. (19) The explanation for that choice of action is explained as Joseph being A RIGHTEOUS MAN. He resolved to act discreetly.

He serves us an example of the difference between “righteous” and “legalistic.” As the “injured party” in a legal contract, he had a right to break the contract. That would have excused a legalistic attitude. Further, under Old Testament Law, adultery was punishable by death by stoning. I believe that Joseph never considered the death penalty, as “public disgrace” is the only outcome mentioned, and it as the thing Joseph wanted to avoid.

A result of such DISGRACE might’ve been Mary never entering Joseph’s home and forced to leave her parent’s home. As an unwed mother, Mary’s life would’ve been incredibly hard and Jesus’ growing up years difficult to survive.

Though we use the term ENGAGEMENT to describe their legal relationship, we should not confuse their customs with ours. (“Betrothal” might be a better word.) According to their marriage customs, Joseph and Mary were legally husband and wife in every way except they were to have no conjugal relations and that the bride lived with her parents until the marriage was celebrated. This meant that to break the relationship at the point Joseph and Mary had reached required a writ of divorce, just as for a couple who’d lived together for years.

2. God redirected Joseph. (20-21)

He fell asleep while making these plans and an angel appeared to Joseph in a DREAM. (20) God speaking in dreams is fairly common in the Old Testament and in Matthew. For example, this is the first of three times in Matthew 1-2 where Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream.

The angel addressed Joseph as a SON OF DAVID, an important point of family history as OT prophecy pointed to the Messiah as perpetuating the dynasty of David. Jesus was a SON OF DAVID by means of Joseph adopting him. Jewish adoption laws gave adopted children the same rights as birth children. Jesus was a SON OF DAVID by means of His birth to Mary, a daughter of David (1:16) as well. Most importantly, Jesus’ divine-human nature and His miraculous conception also set Him up as a SON OF DAVID.

The angel delivered God’s message to Joseph: “Stick with the original plan.” (20-23) As angels always do, he led with “Don’t be afraid.” Although, in this case, it is not fear of the messenger that concerns the angel but concern about Joseph abandoning the plan and Mary. God’s will for the three of them was that Joseph provide a home for Mary and Jesus.

To begin with, the angel verified Mary’s explanation of the holy conception. He predicted the child would be a son and would save HIS PEOPLE from their sins. He commanded Joseph to name the boy Jesus. He explained the boy would fulfill prophecy. He told Joseph all those things so that he would be convinced the original play to be Mary’s husband and provide Jesus a home should not be abandoned, but followed-through.

3. Joseph was obedient, God was faithful. (22-25)

Joseph serves us as an example of obedience. He was obedient to God in three ways.

First, he TOOK MARY AS HIS WIFE. (24) He went ahead and married her. Whether this included a wedding service to celebrate/officiate their marriage or not, the text does not say. However, I think some kind of ceremony must have taken place for Joseph to be allowed to take Mary from her father and the two of them travel all that way together.

Second, he refrained from consummating their marriage until after Jesus’ birth. (25) The text does not state this was God’s command: Joseph went above and beyond his orders. Unlike the average man who would be eager for sex, Joseph volunteered to be chaste. That fact demonstrates the depth of Joseph’s righteousness and also explains the many New Testament references to Jesus’ siblings (i.e., Matthew 13:55-56); it implies that Joseph and Mary did enjoy normal sexual relations after Jesus’ birth. It does not allow for the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Third, he named Mary’s baby JESUS. (21+25) In that culture, naming the baby was the father’s privilege. By naming the baby, Joseph accepted Jesus as his own child; this was an aspect of the formal adoption procedure. Jesus is the Greek equivalent of Joshua/Yeshua, and it means “Yahweh saves.” Both Mary and Joseph were instructed to give the baby this name.

One other cost paid by Joseph was the pride every Jewish man took in siring his firstborn son. By accepting Jesus as his own, Joseph forever conferred the status of firstborn to Mary’s baby, denying himself that point of pride.

Interestingly, the name Jesus is used some 150 times in Matthew, but never on the lips of someone addressing Jesus. Only Matthew, as narrator, applies that name to Him.

God was faithful in keeping the prophecies made about the Messiah. (22-23) A Jew writing to Jews, Matthew considered it important to make plain various places where Jesus fulfilled prophecy. Here he quotes from the prophet Isaiah to show two things.

One, Mary is the VIRGIN mother to which Isaiah referred.

Two, Jesus is IMMANUEL, which supports Mary’s claim that He will be the Messiah, God Himself being with us, the divine wrapped up in flesh.

Since Jesus is a King, He has a “throne name” in addition to His given name. Thus, “Emmanuel” is more of a title than a name and verse 23 does not contradict verse 21.

When we know what is “right” but is not God’s will, we must be redirected.

As we learned from its origin story, the carol “I Heard the Bells” is an anthem for folks who have been profoundly challenged by life. They find themselves at a crossroads, forced to choose the lesser of two evils, dreading the choice and its consequences. Like Joseph, we find ourselves in a difficult place, stuck between what seems right and what God says is necessary.

The way out of that moment of indecision and dread is simply to trust God. Ask Him to guide you, be sensitive to His leading, and trust Him by following His direction. To go against familiar things, to head in a new direction can be intimidating. Courage is needed when we’re called to act in faith. God gives us both courage and faith when we rely upon Him. He might not appear to us in a dream, but He will guide all who seek Him.

Have you ever had someone advise you to say a prayer and bury a statue of Joseph in the yard of a home you want to sell? That’s a fairly new superstition, no older than 1979. You may wonder, why Joseph? The association is that Joseph the carpenter provided a home for Jesus. If you’re a seller, you want to provide a home for a buyer. I don’t advocate this activity but appreciate the association. Joseph set an example for us to follow. He’d made up his mind how to resolve a moral dilemma but allowed God to change his mind. He was obedient to the revealed will of God.

RESOURCES:, retrieved on 22 December 2022.

Smith and Helwys Bible Commentary, Matthew, 2006, Ben Witherington

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11, The Gospel of Matthew, 2005, David L. Turner, retrieved on 22 December 2022.

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