As he boarded the ship in Cyprus, Joseph felt a peculiar sense of destiny, though he had made this journey to Jerusalem so many times. He was a Levite, and as such he was expected at all the sacred feasts of his people. Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were drawing near, and he would stay in Jerusalem until Pentecost seven weeks later before returning home.
Somehow, the coming of Passover always got Joseph thinking deeply about the plight of his people. Although they enjoyed a reasonable degree of liberty to practice their religion under Roman rule, their destiny as a people could not have seemed more remote from the promise made to Abraham. They were scattered all over the Roman world, caught in the thickets of pagan cultures, like sheep without a shepherd. Had God not promised to plant them in their own land with all His heart and soul?1 Then when would He send them another Moses2 to lead them back to their desolate heritages?3
Maybe that was why Joseph sensed an almost troubling excitement welling up in his soul over the rumors of yet another would-be Messiah preaching in the land of Israel. It almost made him angry for the sake of his people, that they would have to suffer one more bitter disappointment. But what if he turned out to be the true Messiah? No, it couldn’t be. Whoever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee? There was that impostor, Judas the Galilean, who led hundreds of people astray before he was killed.4 But they say this Galilean called Yahshua is different. They say he works miracles. They say nobody ever spoke like him. They say the Pharisees don’t like him. He probably won’t last long.
Joseph resolved to ask Nicodemus about him when he arrived in Jerusalem. Nicodemus was a thoughtful, sincere man, a sort of a “black sheep” among the Pharisees.5 He could be trusted to have a different angle on things. At any rate, the ship would arrive in Tyre, and Joseph would have to travel through Galilee on his way to Jerusalem, so he would have ample time and opportunity to hear what people were saying about this Yahshua.
As usual for the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, the Roman roads were lively with travelers from every corner of the Empire. They were also lively this year with opinions about the itinerant preacher from Galilee. Joseph was struck by the dramatic differences in sentiment. The common people had been touched in their souls by the kindness of this man, and received comfort and hope from his words. Even among the rich and powerful there were those who spoke well of him. But the venomous remarks of the religious leaders, some of whom were his friends, made his blood run cold. With every step towards Jerusalem, Joseph sensed the rising tension in the air.
All his life, Joseph had hated conflict. His warm personality and natural optimism had been his principal means of lifting the spirits of the downcast or relieving tension in difficult encounters. It wasn’t that he always had something of substance to help each situation, but his gut-level loathing of negative emotions evoked an urgency in him to “fix” it. When he found himself lacking the wisdom necessary to resolve a conflict, he sometimes found himself also lacking the courage to be true to his own heart at the cost of rejection or emotional turmoil. So arriving in Jerusalem at this particular time was a great test of Joseph’s character.
From his youth, Joseph had been steeped in the messianic hopes of his people. He longed for the Coming One,6 not only to deliver them from Roman rule, but to lead them back into a life of righteousness and justice in their land. The prophecies were engraved in his heart, especially the hopeful words of the Psalms of Solomon:7
He will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Sovereign Messiah... And he will not weaken in his days, relying upon his God, for God made him powerful in the Holy Spirit and wise in the counsel of understanding, with strength and righteousness... This is the beauty of the king of Israel which God knew, to raise him over the house of Israel to discipline it... May God cleanse Israel for the day of mercy in blessing, for the appointed day when his Messiah will reign. Blessed are those born in these days, to see the good things of the Lord which he will do for the coming generation, under the rod of discipline of the Sovereign Messiah. (Psalms of Solomon 17:32,37,42; 18:5-7)
Joseph could not help but compare the stories he was hearing about Yahshua with the expectations that had been formed in him by years of training under the Pharisees. He looked forward to seeing and hearing this radical teacher in Jerusalem. He had to know whether he could really be their long-awaited Messiah. Surely Yahshua would be in Jerusalem for the Passover.
The city was swollen with pilgrims, staying on rooftops, in alleyways, and camping on the hillsides outside the city walls,8 assaulting the senses with the sounds and smells of the festival. Arriving just before the Sabbath, Joseph made his way to the relatively comfortable home of Mary, his aunt,9 with whom he would celebrate the Passover, along with his young cousin John Mark and other relatives. Normally it would have been a rather joyous family celebration, but this year they were all a bit apprehensive, sensing the brewing storm.
Exhausted from his long journey, Joseph overslept on the Sabbath, not arising until late in the morning. When he awoke, he found the house strangely quiet and empty. After refreshing himself and enjoying a lunch of fruit and bread that Mary had set out for him, Joseph took advantage of the quiet afternoon to pray and meditate on the Scriptures. As the evening shadows began to fall, he made his way slowly towards the temple.
Suddenly he encountered Mary, rushing toward him through the crowded streets. She excitedly told him of the intense drama she had just witnessed.10 She had started to walk back from the temple courts when she heard loud shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the son of David!” Rushing toward the sound, she encountered a jubilant crowd coming through the eastern gate waving palm branches and telling everyone, “This is the prophet Yahshua from Nazareth of Galilee!”11 And there he was, riding on a donkey amidst this lively procession.
Immediately, Joseph’s mind jumped to a prophecy in the book of Zachariah, “Behold, your king is coming to you... humble, and riding on a donkey...”12 He could sense his heart beating faster as Mary continued her story: Then Yahshua went straight to the temple courts and began overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the animals that were being sold for sacrifices, proclaiming, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves!”13 Again, Joseph recognized the words of the prophets, this time from Isaiah’s prophecies of the salvation to come to their people.14
Mary had looked to see how the chief priests and Pharisees would respond, and saw their countenances darken with indignation. The angry whispers they exchanged among themselves had sent chills up her spine, the tension only increasing as Yahshua turned abruptly and walked out the city gates, leaving them to their rage. Even the Roman soldiers were on edge, wary of any disturbance, lest it escalate into a riot.
Joseph took a deep breath and willed his heart to stop pounding. Politely excusing himself, he walked into the fading light of the early evening, toward the eastern gate, knowing it would be closed. The cool evening air helped clear his head and calm his emotions. Tomorrow he would see Nicodemus. Surely he would know whether this man Yahshua was the Messiah, or just another misguided zealot.
Nicodemus was at the temple when Yahshua returned from Bethany early the next morning.15 Many of the priests and Pharisees had gathered to question him, and Nicodemus listened intently, trying to appear neutral, but secretly longing for his brothers’ hearts to soften towards this sincere and truthful man. Yet when he sensed where Yahshua was leading them with his parables, he knew they would not be willing to go there. The parable of the vineyard was the last straw:
But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?
They said to him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.”
Yahshua said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’ ” His penetrating eyes bored right into their souls as he spoke with the irrefutable authority of God:
Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.16
Nicodemus saw the look in their eyes, and although they managed to veil their seething anger for fear of the crowds, he knew they had crossed a line in their hearts. Yahshua was too great a threat to their spiritual authority over the people. They would find a way to silence him, and as a fellow Pharisee and member of the Council,17 Nicodemus knew that he himself was in a very precarious place, since he found it impossible to conceal his great respect for this teacher from Galilee.
So when Joseph approached him at the edge of the crowd, Nicodemus was feeling very alone and vulnerable — not the paragon of wisdom and insight that Joseph expected him to be. Joseph got right to the point: “Nicodemus, what do you make of this Yahshua?”
Nicodemus felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. “Why do you ask?”
Sensing his hesitation, Joseph felt instantly insecure and found himself nervously explaining why Yahshua couldn’t be the Messiah. “Well, he’s from Galilee, of all places, but we know that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, and from David’s seed. And why wouldn’t the Pharisees recognize the Messiah after all they’ve written about him? But they despise this Yahshua...”
“When has Israel ever received its prophets?” was the cynical reply, and nothing more. After an awkward moment of silence, Joseph realized the conversation was over, and apologized for disturbing him. Perplexed and disappointed, he turned his attention back toward Yahshua.
A large crowd surrounded the lone figure, who was speaking with an intensity that seemed to tie Joseph’s stomach in knots:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”18
With that, Yahshua strode toward the eastern gate, the crowd parting like the Red Sea before him, and his disciples scurrying behind him. As they disappeared from sight, Joseph’s eyes caught the scowl on the face of the high priest, who had been listening from a doorway into the temple itself. An involuntary shiver focused Joseph’s attention on his own conflicting emotions.
In spite of Yahshua’s scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, most of the Jews held them in high regard, and Joseph was no exception. He found himself rather offended by the tirade, having been educated by these men whose careful observance of the Law he admired. Yet he could not deny the truth of Yahshua’s words concerning his people’s stubborn refusal to heed the voice of their prophets. And there was something about the man’s presence and fearless audacity that excited him. He’d never heard anyone speak that way before.
Joseph wondered what the next days would hold. Sure enough, Yahshua came into the temple courts the next morning to teach, and huge crowds gathered to hear him. Joseph kept toward the edge of the crowd so as to keep an eye on the Pharisees, especially Nicodemus, while still hearing this radical teacher. If he were honest with himself, he would have to confess that something kept him from drawing too near. The implications of Yahshua’s simple but profound parables were deeply disturbing, striking at the very foundations of his comfortable religion — his grasp of what his God required of him personally, and his people generally.
The emotional struggle was torturous for Joseph, and at some point a door closed in his heart. He wouldn’t let himself embrace the radical message he was hearing. He began to persuade himself that it was unreasonable, even divisive. That was another reason Yahshua could not be the Messiah, for the people would have to be united behind the Messiah in order for him to become their king and deliver them from Roman rule. As it was, this firebrand was upsetting the people, undermining their respect for the Pharisees, and jeopardizing the fragile liberties granted them by the Romans to practice their religion. Yet in spite of his reasoning, his soul was not comforted.
On the second day of the week,19 as the sun was setting, Joseph heard that the Council would meet that night to consider how to deal with this teacher who threatened the peace of Israel — or so they put it.20 If he had lingered around the temple courts after darkness fell, he might have seen a nervous figure slinking up to the door leading to the council chambers, and being let in hesitantly by a priest after a brief conversation, and then being let out a few minutes later, tucking a small leather bag into his belt as he disappeared into the night.21 Joseph wasn’t there to see it, but his sleep that night was fitful, as if he sensed the terrible decision of the Council, and of Judas.
Yahshua did not teach in the temple courts the next morning, which only added to the growing apprehension concerning him. But later in the day Joseph heard that some of Yahshua’s disciples had been seen in that part of the city where the sect of the Essenes lived, going in and out of an upper room as if preparing it for a Passover meal.22 This troubled Joseph. Why would they be preparing to celebrate the Passover on the wrong day unless they were tangled up with that sect? The Essenes followed a different calendar from the rest of the Jews, and on this particular year, their Passover date was one day earlier than the Jews’ Passover. And the Essenes didn’t make animal sacrifices, so they wouldn’t be eating a Passover lamb. What kind of Passover was that? How could Yahshua be the Messiah if he didn’t even keep the Law regarding this most important feast of his people?23
The matter was settled in Joseph’s mind, if not in his heart. As another evening settled on Jerusalem, he hoped to distract himself with a pleasant dinner with his relatives, trying in vain to steer the conversation away from the preacher from Nazareth. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Yahshua was pouring out his heart to his disciples as they celebrated a very unusual Passover, “This is my body, which is broken for you... This is my blood... Do this in remembrance of me.”
If Joseph had been looking out his window at the right time, he might have seen a lone figure with a very dark countenance making his way toward the temple, or a short while later, he might have seen twelve very good friends walking together towards the eastern gate, heading for the Mount of Olives. But he wasn’t looking.
Joseph awoke the next morning to the sound of shouting in the streets, “The teacher, Yahshua, has been arrested!” Jumping into his clothes, Joseph bounded out the door and into the crowded streets, following the obvious flow toward the Praetorium, where Pilate, the Roman governor, was interrogating Yahshua. What he found there put him in a whirlwind of turmoil. The crowd was immense and getting larger by the minute, pressing towards the porch of the governor’s headquarters, where they expected Pilate to emerge with a judgment concerning Yahshua. The chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees were at the front, feeding the people with charges against the troublesome teacher from Galilee, which rippled through the multitudes like waves crashing on a rocky shore: He’s a blasphemer! He says he’s the son of God! He breaks the Sabbath! He sets aside the Law of Moses! He teaches the people not to respect their leaders! He speaks of destroying the temple! He breaks up marriages and families! He says God has rejected His people!
Like a pot of water set on a fire, the crowd began to bubble with the rising heat of animosity until it broke into a rolling boil. Joseph found himself being carried along with the rest, voicing the judgments he’d come to in his own mind, over the objections of his heart. Suddenly, a hush settled over the people as the door opened and Pilate stepped out. A soldier followed, leading Yahshua, hands bound behind his back, his countenance pensive but not anxious. Glaring at the religious leaders, Pilate announced, “I find no guilt in this man. I will have him flogged and release him.”
An angry cry erupted from the religious leaders and echoed through the crowd, “No! Away with this man! Release to us Barabbas!” The thought was jarring to Joseph, knowing Barabbas to be a notorious criminal, imprisoned for insurrection and murder. He was frightened by the passions sweeping through the crowd, and by the struggle in Pilate’s seasoned eyes as he measured the danger of the moment.
“Then what shall I do with Yahshua, who is called the Messiah?” asked Pilate.
“CRUCIFY HIM!” shrieked the chief priests.
The words jolted Joseph like an electric shock, making him gasp for breath as he felt himself being swept along by an overpowering current of emotions. Pilate’s final appeal fell on deaf ears as the whole multitude joined in the bloodthirsty chant, “CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!” Some, like Joseph, did so only against the goad of their conscience, knowing deep inside that he was an innocent man.
Joseph could see but not hear Pilate give a command to his attendant, who soon brought him a basin full of water, quieting the people by mere curiosity. As the governor ceremonially washed his hands before the crowd, he loudly proclaimed, “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood. See to it yourselves.”
The chief priests led all the people in a final, chilling oath: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Numb with fear, sweat dripping from his forehead, and his hands trembling, Joseph could not believe the words that had just come out of his own mouth. As the soldiers led Yahshua away to be crucified, Joseph walked off in a daze, trying to justify himself in his own mind. After all, there was nothing he could have done to save the man, considering that the whole multitude and all the religious leaders were against him. If he had raised his voice in objection, it would only have turned the wrath of the crowd upon him, and he would be marked as a troublemaker in the eyes of the Pharisees. Yahshua would still have been condemned. Anyway, if he had been their long-awaited Messiah, surely his God would have delivered him. Maybe He would yet deliver him, and not allow him to die on a cross. Yet all his reasoning failed to soothe his troubled conscience.
Joseph had no stomach for watching a crucifixion, and besides, part of his duty as a Levite was to serve in the temple during the slaughtering of the Passover lambs. That was still several hours off, but he hoped to quiet his soul before then, rather than plunge himself into even more turmoil by watching a good man die a slow and excruciating death. He walked out the eastern gate and down into the rugged Kidron valley, but the solitude did nothing to silence the raging storm in his soul.
It seemed as if he had only been walking an hour or two when suddenly an eerie darkness settled over the land.24 Rushing back to the city, he stumbled breathless through the eastern gate to hear the frantic bleating of thousands of Passover lambs waiting in the temple courts with their frightened owners, unnerved by the misplaced mantle of night.
Obviously he was not late as he had feared. The shofar had not yet signaled the appointed time for sacrificing the Passover lambs. Joseph went into the temple chambers where the Levites were gathering to prepare to sing the Hallel,25 none of them being much inclined toward conversation. As the ninth hour26 drew near, they silently took their positions, and at the sounding of the shofar their deep voices resonated throughout the inner court as the gates were opened and the first wave of Israelites rushed in with their innocent lambs. Lines of priests with silver basins sprung into position to catch the blood as each man slit the throat of his own lamb.
At that very moment, the earth shook and priests came running out of the sanctuary screaming, “The curtain was just torn in two from top to bottom!” Men held on to their dying animals and trembled with fear, unaware of the cause of this unexpected and terrifying climax to their annual ritual. Some wondered, though, whether it had something to do with that teacher from Nazareth, hanging on a cross just outside the western wall of the city.
Joseph was one of them. Leaving the temple as soon as the slaughtering of the lambs was finished, he quickly made his way to the place called Golgotha, arriving just in time to see the Roman soldiers lowering the cross on which hung the lifeless body of Yahshua. The sight sent an involuntary shudder of horror through Joseph as he struggled to come to terms with the meaning of it all. Yahshua was dead, so that settled the matter of his being the Messiah.
But who are those two men approaching the body, their arms full of something...? Why, it’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea! Joseph watched in consternation as with great care they anointed the body of Yahshua with burial spices, wrapped him in a clean linen shroud, and placed him in an empty tomb in the garden nearby.27 But they were both respected members of the Council, and they were defiling themselves with a dead body! They would be unclean for the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread! Had they secretly been disciples of Yahshua? Well, the secret was out now, and they would surely be expelled from the Council for identifying themselves with this false Messiah, whom the chief priests hated! Why would they do such an outlandish thing?
The sun set on a mystery that was just too great for Joseph: the earthquake, the torn curtain exposing the Holy of Holies, the defection of such men as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. What could it all mean? That night he went through the motions of celebrating the Passover, barely able to keep his attention on what would normally have been an intimate gathering of his relatives and closest friends. Mary, his aunt, sensing his struggle, admitted her own grief over the death of this man she had earnestly hoped would be the Messiah. But as the next few days went by, they settled into their familiar routines for the Days of Unleavened Bread, relieved over the relative peace in the city since the radical teacher from Galilee was safely in the tomb.
Oddly, a rumor began to circulate that Pilate had ordered the grave secured by a guard of soldiers, since the chief priests were afraid that Yahshua’s disciples would steal the body and claim that he had risen from the dead. Joseph didn’t give it much thought, or even exert the effort to see for himself, so absurd did it seem. Truly, he was weary of thinking about Yahshua, and preferred to focus his mind on the festival. Soon it would be time for the waving of the first sheaf of the barley harvest.
Ever since he was a boy, Joseph had enjoyed the lively procession out to the barley fields with the priests to put the sickle to the first heads of ripe barley. So as the Sabbath was ending, Joseph joined in the festive throng and responded enthusiastically with the rest as the priests asked the ritual questions:28
“Has the sun gone down?” YES!
“With this sickle?” YES!
“Into this basket?” YES!
“On this Sabbath?” YES!
“Shall I cut?” YES!
Little did Joseph know that shortly before their joyful procession had burst forth from the gates of Jerusalem to harvest the first fruits of the barley harvest, Yahshua had burst forth from the gates of Hades, as the first fruits from death.29 No one saw him, however, until early the next morning.30 That was when the priests in the temple were preparing the sheaf of barley to present with great ceremony as a wave offering. Joseph, with the other assembled Levites, were again singing the Hallel, and again the earth trembled violently. Again, the priests and Levites cast worried glances at each other, and Joseph earnestly wished that life would get back to normal.
But it was not to be. When he arrived back at the home of his aunt, she was eagerly awaiting his return.
“The tomb is empty, Joseph!”
“The tomb you told me about! The one in the garden where they buried Yahshua... It’s empty! Some of those women who followed Yahshua are saying that he rose from the dead!”
Joseph sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. “They did it... It’s just as the chief priests feared. His disciples came and stole his body...”
Perplexed at his reaction, Mary objected, “No, didn’t you feel it? There was an earthquake, and the angels moved the stone covering the entrance to the tomb, but it was empty! And the women said they actually saw Yahshua, and he spoke to them, but they said his disciples don’t believe it.”
“Emotional women... overcome with grief... Someone stole the body, just to make trouble for us...” Joseph’s words trailed off, and Mary, deflated by his negativity, thought it best to revisit the subject later. Perhaps he was right, as she did tend to be gullible.
As the days went by, Yahshua’s disciples were no longer seen in the city, and the chief priests confirmed the report that they had stolen the body, and that the supposed resurrection was a hoax. Mary thought it would encourage Joseph that he had been right after all, but he did not seem encouraged. In fact, ever since he had arrived for the Passover, he had been uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn. She missed his old, familiar upbeat and encouraging manner, and felt powerless to help him.
The festival behind him, Joseph buried himself in his business pursuits. Each year he had these fifty or so days between Passover and Pentecost during which to buy and sell, strengthening the market for the goods produced by the Jews in Cyprus. But try as he might, he could not escape the gruesome picture in his mind of the crucified teacher from Galilee, the tender care that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had lavished on his dead body, and the clinging sense of his own uncleanness.
Day after laborious day passed as Joseph vacillated between comforting himself that it was best for the nation that Yahshua had been silenced, and condemning himself for his lack of courage in having been carried along with the merciless and unjust sentence of crucifixion. He did not allow himself to reconsider the possibility that Yahshua could have been the “Coming One” that the prophecies foretold. In Joseph’s mind, the fact of his death eliminated that possibility from consideration. His people would just have to wait a little longer for their Deliverer.
About ten days before Pentecost, Mary excitedly told him that Yahshua’s disciples had been seen coming into the city from the direction of the Mount of Olives, and seemed to be staying in an upper room in the Essene Quarter.31 “Why can’t they just stay in Galilee?” Joseph muttered to himself, but a curious mixture of anticipation and dread began to grip his soul. At least they are keeping to themselves, and not stirring up trouble as Yahshua had done every time he came into the city.
Finally, the day had come. Joseph loved the festival of first fruits, when the farmers all around Jerusalem would bring their baskets of the first fruits of their wheat harvest into the gates of the city, joyfully singing, “Arise! Let us go up to Zion, unto the Lord our God!” accompanied by flutes and merrymakers. They would be met with cheers at the gates by the populace, and by the songs of the Levites as they approached the temple courts.32
Joseph wouldn’t admit to himself why he was drawn to meet the procession coming up from the south of Jerusalem toward the Gate of the Essenes. Early in the morning a crowd began to gather in eager anticipation near that gate, at the southern edge of the Essene Quarter, straining their ears to hear the sound of the flutes. Their eager expressions changed to bewilderment, however, when rather than hearing flutes coming from the south, their ears were filled with the sound of a mighty wind, and then by the jumbled sounds of excited voices coming from a few blocks to the north. Drawn like moths to a flame, the whole populace headed toward the sound, which was emanating from the rooftop of a large house on the edge of an open square.
Somehow the sight of Yahshua’s disciples prophesying from the rooftop did not surprise Joseph, but brought back that peculiar sense of destiny he had felt when he first left Cyprus two months before. But what did surprise him was their radiant faces, almost as if they were on fire, and the fact that they were speaking in many different languages, most of which he couldn’t understand. All around him people were astonished as they recognized their own native tongues being spoken by these uneducated men from Galilee. Some scoffed and said they were drunk with new wine, but most listened with rapt attention as the one called Peter motioned for the crowd to be quiet and began to speak with disarming authority:
Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy...”33
Joseph could not comprehend how a fisherman from Galilee could speak the way this man was speaking. How did he know the Scriptures? Could it actually be true that this bunch of misfits were being empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy? Otherwise, it would have to be the work of demons, since it was obviously supernatural. But it couldn’t be evil spirits, for their faces were all so radiant, so warm and alive, so urgent and sincere... A door opened in Joseph’s heart as he sensed that God was speaking to him through this humble man.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved...”34
Saved? His people needed to be saved. He needed to be saved... from a power to strong for him...
Men of Israel, hear these words: Yahshua of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Yahshua, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men...35
Joseph winced. It was true. They had used the unwilling Roman governor to do their dirty work, killing a man who had done nothing deserving of death. But what did he mean by “according to the definite plan of God”? Had they unwittingly fulfilled a prophecy he didn’t know about?
God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it...36
No, how could that be?! Surely they just took his body somewhere. Having studied under the Pharisees, Joseph believed in a resurrection, but not until Judgment Day...
For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your holy one see corruption...”37
Joseph had noticed that in Psalm 16, and it had always puzzled him...
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption…38
But … was Yahshua really a descendant of David? Joseph knew that the Messiah would be descended from David, but he never imagined that this Galilean could have been of David’s lineage. A feeling of panic began to creep into Joseph’s soul, like a storm cloud appearing on the horizon. But if Yahshua rose from the dead, where is he now? Why is he not with his disciples?
This Yahshua God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.39
Joseph had known many liars, but as he looked into the earnest eyes of Peter and the other disciples, he knew they were not liars. He said they were all witnesses. So they had actually seen Yahshua risen from the dead... And then he was taken up to heaven... And these men had received his Spirit, just as Elisha had received Elijah’s mantle. Joseph’s heart was pounding in his chest as if it would burst, and storm clouds swirled around his beleaguered mind as it frantically looked for shelter from the terrible truth...
For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “Yahweh said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”40
Could it be true? Did David really prophesy of the Messiah ascending and sitting at the right hand of God? The dark, menacing thunderhead hovered right over his head...
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Yahshua whom you crucified!41
OH, NOOOOO!!! The desperate scream burst forth involuntarily from depths of his soul as the unthinkable realization of his guilt gripped him like the thunderclap of a lethal lightning strike. We killed our long-awaited Messiah! What a fool I was not to recognize him! Why did I not listen to my whispering heart, and my nagging conscience, instead of my reasoning mind? What a coward I was to lift my voice with his accusers! How can I get free of the guilt of his innocent blood? Such were Joseph’s thoughts as the apostle’s words pierced his heart, and his pleading eyes reached out to Peter and the other apostles as he cried out with many in the crowd, “Brothers, what shall we do?!”
Peter’s eyes were filled with excitement and compassion as he responded:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Yahshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit...
Can I really repent? Joseph wondered...
...for the promise is for you and for your children...
My children! I went along with the crowd that called for the innocent blood of our long-awaited Messiah to be on us and our children!42 How can a man take back his words? Yet forgiveness is being extended to me, and hope for my children instead of bloodguilt. But what do I have to do to gain this forgiveness? Can the muddy water of the Jordan River wash away my guilt? There must be more to it than that...
...and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.43
Indeed, Joseph now saw himself as one of those “far off” ones, not because he was from Cyprus, but because he had strayed so far in his heart from the heart of his God. That is why he wasn’t offended when Peter spoke on and on about their desperate need to be saved from that perverse generation of religious hypocrites which his people had become. Instead, he listened with rapt attention to every word Peter spoke.44
Everything he heard resonated deeply in his soul and began to untangle the contradictions he had lived with for so long. He had been raised to respect the Pharisees for their careful observance of the Law, but how often had he pushed aside the nagging truth that their fastidious obedience was selective? They were strangely silent about the laws concerning economics, for example. Deuteronomy 15 called for radical measures to ensure that there would be no poor in the land, by the canceling of debts every seven years, and a willingness to give freely and sacrificially to meet the needs of those who had come on hard times.45 But instead there was grinding poverty in the land, and the religious leaders typically despised the poor and gave alms more for recognition than out of compassion. There was no thought of Israel actually being a commonwealth.
Joseph remembered his youthful zeal when he had first read for himself about the Sabbath years and the canceling of debts, and the year of Jubilee when all the land would be restored to its original owner. How wonderful that would be! “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” the prophet Amos had cried, and it had stirred Joseph’s heart. But his zeal had been quenched by the patronizing grins of his rabbis, and their insistence that only the Messiah could bring about that prophetic vision of Israel as a light to the surrounding nations.
So what had they done when the Messiah actually came, proclaiming good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who were oppressed, and the favorable year of the Lord?46 They killed him. (Or we killed him, Joseph winced.) Their comfortable religion and lifestyle was threatened by the radical demands of the “good news to the poor,” which was bad news to most of the rich. But killing Yahshua didn’t silence his voice. On the contrary, it actually multiplied his voice, for now all of his disciples were speaking the same message!
“You must forsake everything to follow our Master Yahshua,” Peter explained. “Houses and lands, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, wives and children47 — all must be surrendered and laid at his feet. No one can be his disciple who does not forsake all that he has.48 Anyone who loves father or mother or son or daughter more than him is not worthy of him.49 Just as the Levites of old, you must cut off any of your family or friends who would hinder you from following our Master. He did not come to bring peace to this perverse generation, but a sword!”50
Joseph’s heart began to pound as he recognized in Peter’s words an echo of the story of his own tribe, the Levites, responding to Moses’ call to forsake the idolatrous worship of their fellow Israelites and follow Yahweh as His holy priesthood. Not all of the Levites had responded, and those who did respond were commanded to literally take the sword to all their rebellious kinfolk, and 3,000 died that day. Moses then told them, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of Yahweh, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.”51
Wow! thought Joseph, it is as if our God is calling a new priesthood to separate ourselves from the idolatrous nation that our people has again become. It was getting all too clear what it would take to get out from under the bloodguilt he had brought upon himself. Of course, he knew that Peter did not mean a literal sword, but he also understood that it did mean a literal severing of family ties.
But Peter continued with a thought that had never occurred to Joseph, and caught him quite by surprise: “But to you who consider our Master worthy of your whole life, our Father will grant a hundred houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, along with persecution, and in the age to come, eternal life!52 Our Father is gathering to Himself a new family of all those who will do all His will.53 They will love Him with all their heart, soul, and strength, and they will love one another just as our Master loved us54 these past three and a half years, which was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Together they will be the light of the world, like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.55 That is how all that is in the Law and the Prophets will be fulfilled!”56
Together... like a city... The realization that dawned in Joseph’s heart gave him goosebumps. As a Levite, he had always wondered why his people did not live together in priestly cities as the Scriptures had so clearly prescribed for them:
Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. (Numbers 35:2-3)
These priestly “cities” were not as one would think of a city today. They were actually small walled villages about two-thirds of a mile in diameter, with a narrow band of shared pasture land around them.57 Within those walls the Levites lived together as a close-knit community, working together on their shared lands for their common good. Each of the men had allotted times when he would serve in the temple in Jerusalem,58 confident that his wife and children would be well cared for back home in his priestly community.
The Levites of old were to have no possession in the land, but Yahweh Himself was to be their only possession,59 and He had promised to provide for all their needs if they would devote themselves completely to His service.60 But in Joseph’s day, the Levites lived just like everyone else, anxiously seeking after their own material needs and wants, and doing their token service at the local synagogue on the Sabbath and in the temple during the high holy days. Why, he himself stood to inherit the lands of his father, and was adding to them by his own business pursuits, in contempt of the original radical calling of the Levites! Then could he also claim to have Yahweh as his possession?
The perverse nature of his religion was unmasked by the compelling simplicity of Peter’s words as he brought back the teachings of the radical preacher from Galilee, for that was the very reason the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the disciples that day.61 Joseph understood how twisted and destructive was the selective obedience of the priests and the Pharisees, upholding the laws and traditions that preserved their elevated status as a clergy, while ignoring the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.62
Joseph felt his heart beating faster as the truth filled his soul. Our God has rejected our vain worship! We have not borne the fruit of the kingdom. There is no righteousness and justice among those who claim to see, but only pretense and wickedness, and I am no exception. And God has chosen to reveal Himself to these simple Galileans... and He is making them the nucleus of a new priesthood, a new Israel...
As his eyes brightened with this heart-stirring hope, Joseph scanned the faces of the other disciples, anticipating becoming one of them. No! Could it be? Yes, it is! It’s Nicodemus... and Joseph of Arimathea! As their eyes connected, Nicodemus smiled and nodded his head, as if to confirm all that had dawned in Joseph’s heart.
A solemn conviction solidified in the depths of Joseph’s soul. He would be a true priest, no matter what the cost. Yet even as his resolve strengthened into action, moving his lips to express his desire to be saved, and his feet to follow the disciples as they led the way toward the city gates, the looming specter of his old enemy threatened to overtake him: fear of conflict. What would his wife say? How would his children respond? And what about his aged father who was increasingly in need of his help? How would he find the courage and the words to express to him the struggle of these past two months and pass on the faith and the vision that now filled his heart? No! I will not give way to fear! Our God has revealed Himself to me and called me to serve Him with my whole heart, and I will follow Him!
While a festive throng of natural Israelites brought the first fruits of their wheat harvest to the temple, a greater, purer joy filled the hearts of the 120 disciples and about 3,000 soon-to-be disciples as they made their way out the Gate of the Essenes to the nearest source of water. But even the grateful tears of those sincere and humble men would have been enough to wash them of their guilt as they cried out to Yahshua to forgive them and save them from their sins. As they came out of the waters in groups of twenty or more, the apostles laid hands on them and prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit. With each group their rejoicing became greater, leaping and dancing and praising their heavenly Father. Truly, they were the first fruits of a brand new Israel, free of guilt, and full of faith and love for one another.
But what would they do now? Having utterly surrendered their lives in obedience to the clear gospel they had heard that day, they could not just return to their homes and go on with life as usual. They were forever bonded to the apostles and to one another in a lifelong covenant of love.
So when the earnest multitude of new disciples arrived back at the open square near the place where the 120 had been gathered, they were all eagerly seeking direction from the apostles as to how to disentangle themselves from their old lives. Joseph was amazed at the peace and simple wisdom of the apostles as they organized all the disciples in clusters of households around the city, according to who had homes to share and who needed a place to live with his brothers, for all who had believed clung together and shared all things in common.63 One of those households was formed in the home of Mary, Joseph’s aunt, who had also become a disciple, and it became a gathering place for the leaders, since it was large and centrally located.
The apostles and the rest of the 120 original disciples spread out among all the clusters in order to shepherd all the new disciples and their families. In the beginning, to establish the whole community on a good foundation, they all gathered together every day in the temple courts. There the apostles taught them, diligent to pass on what had been poured into their hearts those past three years. Joseph was captivated by the apostles’ teachings, and found it difficult to tear himself away in order to begin his long journey back to Cyprus.
It was not that he didn’t miss his family, but he couldn’t bear to miss anything that was being spoken, or the miraculous things that were daily taking place in their midst. Of course, there was also the emotional turmoil he was sure to face when he arrived home, which made it easy to find cause to delay his departure. But the apostles strengthened him with their encouragement and wise counsel, laid hands on him, and prayed for his safe travel. They assured him that their God was with him and would give him all the grace and wisdom he would need.
Joseph’s journey to his homeland of Cyprus was dramatically different from his journey to Jerusalem two months earlier. Just as before, Joseph was paying close attention to what people were saying about the Teacher from Galilee, but this time he was not just quietly gathering impressions. Instead, each conversation about the rumored resurrection of Yahshua and the explosive beginning of the Jerusalem community gave him an opportunity to speak about his new-found faith. The satisfaction of speaking from deep conviction, even in the face of cynicism or outright hostility, helped keep Joseph’s mind off of his insecurities about the imminent reunion with his family.
As the ship approached Salamis on the east coast of Cyprus, Joseph scanned the docks for his beloved wife and children, his heart fluttering with a mixture of eager anticipation and dread. He was sure they had been counting the days and had begun scanning the eastern horizon a week or so after the day of Pentecost, anticipating his return. Sure enough, there she was, baby in one arm, waving excitedly with the other, and three little children jumping up and down tirelessly as the ship was made fast to the dock and the boarding ramps were put in place to unload the cargo.
Sensitive woman that she was, Joseph’s wife could quickly sense that something had changed. Joseph was different, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She knew him so well, but as she looked into his warm brown eyes, there was something in his soul that was beyond her reach. She could only compare it to the time her father had come back from the war and it had been immediately obvious that his soul had been touched by something she knew she would never fully comprehend. She had been so happy and thankful for his return, yet there was a distance that had not been there before, and wouldn’t go away. It frightened her to sense this same thing in Joseph.
New-found zeal has a way of putting people on edge, especially one’s family and friends. The apostles had cautioned Joseph not to expect them to quickly abandon their comfortable religious traditions in response to the radical demands of the gospel, especially coming from him, but just to tell the story of what had happened to him in Jerusalem. So that is what he did.
Yet Joseph could not contain his excitement as the story unfolded, and it was not long before a shadow smothered the twinkle in his father’s eyes. He sensed where the tale would end long before Joseph arrived there. His father’s darkening countenance triggered that deep loathing of conflict that was Joseph’s greatest weakness. Here was the test. Would he soften the blow, suggesting perhaps that he had not yet reached a decision regarding his future? Or would he overcome the wrenching emotions welling up inside him and tell the simple truth of the darkness he had discovered within his own soul and the light that had set him free? Yes, it would hurt his father, and no, his father would not understand his decision, but wisdom entered Joseph’s heart as he silently cried out to the Almighty to strengthen him. Knowing that above all else his father respected honesty and despised cowardice, he received courage to be true to his own heart.
When he reached the end of his story, his wife was sobbing and his father’s face seemed to have aged a decade. After a long and painful silence, Joseph heard the words he dreaded most: “Son, you are my first born, and the best of all I have would have been yours, but as I live, not a shekel nor a blade of grass from my land will I leave to you to give away to that band of Galileans.”
Joseph and his family were still living on his father’s estate, in full expectation of it being his some day. Now he had to choose between his earthly inheritance and a spiritual one. But there was no wavering in Joseph’s heart.
“Yes, Abba. That is very clear. I am sad to bring you sorrow in your old age, but I must do what is on my heart. We will pack our things.”
What happened next was something he never expected, even though the apostles had tried to prepare him for the possibility. Getting her breath with some difficulty, his wife stood and faced her husband, and said warmly but firmly, “My husband, I will not go with you.”
Joseph felt as if his chest were being crushed, and his face paled as he stared incredulously at his beloved wife. How can it be? She has been my loyal wife and my closest friend for ten years. She has given birth to my four children in great pain. Never before has she been rebellious. Surely this is just an emotional reaction. She will come to her senses... Tenderly, he responded to his wife, “Dear, don’t speak rashly. You are just being emotional. I will tell you more about my people, and you will love them. They are the most wonderful friends you could ask for. Just wait until you meet them...”
“I will not go!” she interrupted with uncharacteristic strength.
Joseph sensed that it would not help to argue with her. Instead, he took her home and spent the next week enjoying his children and settling his business affairs. He sold the one tract of land that was in his name, happy with the thought of all the needs it would meet in the community in Jerusalem. And continually he prayed for his wife, begging his God to change her heart, and for wisdom to know how to win her.
Finally the time had come. A ship would be leaving for Tyre that evening, and Joseph knew he must be on it. He commanded his wife to get herself and the children ready to leave, hoping his authority as her husband would have more weight than whatever fears were behind her stubborn refusal to be faithful to her marriage vows, but she remained unmovable. He considered taking the children, but thought it better to wait and get the counsel of the apostles. Perhaps her heart would turn toward him in time. With his father’s assurance that he would take care of her and the children, Joseph left Cyprus, alone and confused, with a gnawing ache in his heart. Yet he took comfort in the knowledge that he had been obedient, like Abraham, to leave his father’s house and follow the call of his God.
It seemed as if he had been away for a year, though it had been scarcely a month since the apostles had sent him off with their prayers and encouragement. The journey back was difficult at first, his heart heavy with the rejection of his wife, and the bitterness of his father’s disapproval. But as he walked by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, thinking about the wonderful words Yahshua had spoken there, and the terrible price he had paid to save him from his comfortable but impotent religion, Joseph overcame the downward pull of his emotions and began to praise his God.
Soon he found himself noticing people again, and finding many opportunities to talk about the amazing things he had witnessed in Jerusalem. He found himself telling anyone who would listen about the new and vibrant spiritual Israel that had been born in the midst of the stale, hypocritical religious system they had known all their lives. By the time he arrived in Jerusalem he had several companions who were eager to see for themselves the life he had described. Joseph’s excitement was contagious, and increased as they approached Jerusalem.
Entering the gates with anticipation just before noon, they went straight to Mary’s house, hoping to find many of the disciples gathered there. They were not disappointed. Most of the apostles and the first disciples who had walked with Yahshua were there, praying together with very sober expressions. But when they noticed Joseph, their faces lit up and they surrounded him with great excitement, hugging him and kissing his cheeks. It was rather overwhelming for Joseph’s companions, and even more so when the disciples noticed them also, and began to greet them warmly.
Of course, Joseph was dying to know what grave matter they had been praying about so seriously, and the disciples were just as eager to hear about Joseph’s journey. Not seeing Peter and John, Joseph prevailed in putting off the telling of his own story, and the other apostles told him their grave news. Peter and John had been arrested the night before, and that morning they were being interrogated by the elders and scribes, in the presence of Annas, the high priest.64 They had healed a man at the gate of the temple, who had been lame from birth, and the whole city was astir. Just when the religious leaders had hoped they had put an end to the disquieting effects of the Teacher from Galilee, here was more trouble!
On their part, the disciples could only imagine that Peter and John would suffer the same treatment as their Master, and what would they do without them? The physical and spiritual needs of the thousands of new disciples were almost overwhelming, and they desperately needed the faith, vision, and wisdom of Peter and John. That had been the cause of the troubled looks on the faces of the apostles when Joseph first arrived. But how great was their surprise and delight when Peter and John walked in the door, beaming with excitement!
As all the disciples gathered around to hear their report, Joseph tried to keep himself out of view, not wanting to distract the apostles from telling their story. Motioning all the eager disciples to sit, Peter opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped abruptly as he caught sight of Joseph, who hadn’t sat down quickly enough to stay concealed. “Joseph! Joseph! Come up here, my precious brother! But are you alone, Joseph? Come and tell me what happened.”
Tears streaming down his face, Joseph came forward and was swallowed up in the Galilean fisherman’s strong embrace. It was the moment he had longed for ever since he had left Cyprus. But soon the sad story of Joseph’s encounter with his family brought sighs and sympathetic expressions to the faces of the apostles and all the gathered disciples, and Joseph found himself feeling very uncomfortable being the cause of their concern. He quickly moved on to tell them the story of his journey home, and all the people he had met who were eager to hear about Yahshua and the vibrant community that had begun in Jerusalem. With great excitement he introduced the men he had brought home with him, telling of their willingness to leave everything behind and come to learn of the Messiah.
Finally, and a bit awkwardly, Joseph reached inside his cloak and unfastened a small leather bag from his belt, and laid it at the feet of the apostles, saying, “Here is the price of the only property that I had liberty to sell. I hope it will help meet the needs of my new brothers and sisters.”
His face filled with wonder and appreciation, Peter exclaimed, “Joseph! Our dear brother Joseph! In the midst of your own sorrows, you have brought us so much encouragement! You didn’t let your dread of conflict overpower you, and you didn’t let your own personal sufferings keep you from caring about everyone you encountered on your way home, not to mention all of us here. You passed the test, Joseph! From now on, we will call you Barnabas,65 the Son of Encouragement.”
Barnabas went on to become an apostle himself, being sent out with Paul to take the good news of the Messiah and His kingdom throughout the Mediterranean world, including his own native land of Cyprus...