Joseph: (Un)Planned Detours

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

As Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, discovered in Matthew 1-2, that’s just another way of saying that when your plans are detoured and redirected, you find out who’s really charting the course.

Nazareth. It felt good to Joseph to be back home. The same old market and the same old merchants. The same old neighbors with the same old complaints. The same old synagogue and the same old rabbi. 

Oddly, though, the normalcy felt a bit strange after the unexpected adventures of the past couple of years. What an odyssey this simple Galilean carpenter had been on.

It had all started with Mary’s world-shaking pregnancy announcement that took an angel to help him believe. He had hardly stopped reeling from that news when he was hit with the census decree from Rome.

Joseph recalled the anger he had felt. Some vain emperor a world away was ordering people to go to their ancestral cities to register. As a descendent of King David, this meant for Joseph a royal 100-mile walk to Bethlehem. It seemed outrageously unjust. Not only would this disrupt his business and incur travel expenses they could not afford, but Mary would be in advanced pregnancy!

He remembered venting his exasperation to a friend who had replied, “Surely the Messiah will come soon and deliver us from these tyrants!” And then to cheer Joseph had added, “Hey, maybe you’ll see the Messiah there! You know what the prophet said,

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)

His friend might as well have hit Joseph on the head with a plank. All at once he saw it! Augustus in all his imperial pomp was merely a tool in the hand of God to fulfill Scripture. His anger melted into awe-filled joy. Yes, Joseph most certainly would see the Messiah in Bethlehem.

In fact, after Jesus’ incredible birth, Joseph had fully expected to make Bethlehem their new permanent home. Surely that’s what Micah meant. And he had just started to get his business going when the angel of his dreams came again, shortly after the Persian magi visited. “Flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you.” Herod wanted to murder their baby!

Joseph had felt anger rise against Herod. And he felt a stab of fear. The Egyptian border was another 100-mile foot journey for his wife and child, mostly through desert.

But he quickly remembered. If Augustus was God’s tool, what was Herod? God had his reasons to send his Son to Egypt. So Joseph snuck his family out of town in the cover of night.

Egypt. That was one place Joseph had never expected to see, much less live in. He hadn’t had any idea how he would feed and house his family there. But he need not have worried. God provided wonderfully for them like he had all along. 

And then after a few months another dream and another commission: Herod had died and he was to take the child back to Israel. Joseph assumed this meant returning to Bethlehem.

But he soon learned that Herod’s son, Archelaus, was ruling over Judea. Archelaus was a sharp chip off the cruel block. If he got wind of a Messiah in Bethlehem, no doubt another assassination would be attempted. One more angelic dream visit and it was back to Nazareth.

And who knew how long that would last…

The Holy Family’s first few years were not tranquil. They were filled with grueling travel during the hardest part of pregnancy, a birth in worse than a barn, no steady income, an assassination attempt, two desert crossings on foot with an infant, living in a foreign country, waiting on God for guidance and provisions just in the nick of time. It was difficult, expensive, time-consuming, career-delaying and full of uncertainty.

And it was God’s will.

The unplanned, inefficient detours of our lives are planned by God. They are common for disciples, and they commonly don’t make sense in the moment. But God’s ways are not our ways because our lives are about him, not about us. He is orchestrating far more than we know in every unexpected event and delay.

So when you find yourself suddenly moving in a direction you had not planned, take heart, hold tight, and trust God’s navigation.

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.