During the Christmas period we usually focus on Jesus being born in a stable in Bethlehem, and rightly so, but a much ignored character from the nativity story is Joseph. While we do not know a great deal about this man who would become Jesus’ father, “as it was supposed” (Luke 3:23), we do find enough to tell us something of his nature.
Joseph was “the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23) of the Tribe of Judah. He was of royal decent since he was “a son of David”, but Luke takes his family tree all the way back to Adam. The fact that Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4) is important information, because it tells us more than the fact that he descended from David, that is, royal blood was in his veins. It is interesting to note that New Testament writers reserve the title “Son of David” for Jesus, except in this occurrence. Therefore since Mary could trace her lineage to David also, Jesus could legitimately use the title. Because he was such noble birth, Joseph had to travel to the family town of Bethlehem to register for the census.
We are told that he was a righteous man. “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily” (Matthew 1:19). The word “just” indicates that he was both devout and righteous, that is, he walked in holiness, and it is certain that his carpentry business was founded upon the same principles. The phrase “just man” was used in that day to describe a God-fearing man who followed the Law of Moses. It is believed that Joseph belonged to a Jewish sect called ‘The Anawim’ or ‘poor one’ who were committed to living a life of righteousness. This is why he had such mental anguish when he found out that his bride to be was already pregnant. Because he loved Mary and wanted to be obedient to God, he thought up a plan to break the betrothal without making a public example of her, which in all likelihood would have seen her being stoned to death for adultery. No doubt Mary explained to Joseph what the angel Gabriel had told her (Luke 1:26-35), but how could he believe such an incredible thing as that?
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 1:18). The concept of espousal or betrothal is alien to our western thinking, but it is similar to what we call engagement, except it was a binding contract between the man and woman. In the eyes of the law and their families, they were already married, but could not as yet live together as husband and wife. All that remained was the final part of the wedding ceremony when they would publicly be declared joined together in marriage and she could then be taken to the home he had prepared for her. Mary was still considered to be his wife before then, “Mary thy wife” (Matthew 1:20). By the time Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy she would only be a few weeks from giving birth. “Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:5). Therefore he could have simply had her put to death.
All this must have been a shock to Joseph and thus causing him much grief. God intervened and revealed to him what was actually happening. “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:20-23). People may mock the story of Christ’s birth, but if it was a made up story the wording would not be so precise. For instance Joseph is told that he should not fear taking his “wife” who is of child by the power of the Holy Spirit because she is still a “virgin”. Then there is the ancient prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 about the coming of the Messiah. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”. Lastly, Joseph is asked to accept that this child is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world and literally the manifestation of God in the flesh.
Being traumatised by the announcement from Mary, now he is amazed by the revelation from God. How would he respond to this extraordinary dream and stunning message? “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (Matthew 1:24-25). God could not chosen a better man for the job of raising His Son, for Joseph being a “just man” and devoted to the Lord did exactly what was requested of him. He fully understood the implications of the revelation and was prepared to carry them through. A lesser man would not have taken on something like this, especially not in that region of the world at the time. The child Jesus honoured and obeyed this guardian that God the Father had anointed (Luke 2:51), and never objected to being called “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55).
Joseph is almost a forgotten character from the nativity story, yet it would not be complete without him. Here is a man who suffered great mental pain as he thought he would lose the woman he loved and pledged his life to. He struggled in his attempt to obey God and do the honourable thing. While we focus on Mary’s commitment to the Lord, let us remember that Joseph was appointed and anointed to play his part to in bringing the Messiah into the world. He reminds us that God’s plans and purposes do not always make sense to the flesh, but the end result is always perfection itself. Our faith is not determined by what we believe alone, but by how much we are willing to suffer for it. Joseph was of a man of strong faith and was prepared to obey God despite knowing what it would cause. He was a man who was sensitive to God’s guidance and willing obeyed him no matter the consequences. God is looking for people of integrity like Joseph to follow His Son today.