I can’t think of any character more mysterious than the man who became the earthly father of the heavenly son. Of all the people in and surrounding the story of Jesus’ birth Joseph stands alone as the most awkward and underscored entity. He does not appear to have a role or a proper place in the story. Even the writers of the Gospels dismiss him and don’t even include him except for Matthews passing acknowledgement that he was informed of the coming of the birth and that he should not so quickly discard his betrothed.
At first glance we do not have a flattering picture of Jesus step-father. We are almost left with the impression that Joseph played an insignificant role in the grand scheme of things. This view of Joseph, however, would be terribly short-sighted and tragically uninformed. What we have in the limited information provided is the picture of a man who possessed attributes suited to nurture the young Jesus. (Even that last statement feels “wrong” somehow, but we have to maintain realness of the Jesus human nature.)
As I have read and looked at what Matthew says about Joseph there are four identifiable attributes that emerge. Let’s look at Matthews retelling of Jesus’ birth narrative.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew lets us into the mystery of Joseph’s personality by revealing that Joseph was well suited to be Jesus’ step-father. In the gospel we find Joseph to be a Just, Honorable, Faithful and Gracious man. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
…a Just man
The idea here is that a just man knows right from wrong. It is interesting how this is the word that Matthew uses to begin describing Joseph as he finds out that his soon-to-be wife is pregnant. This must have been horrible news. I do not know how he took it, but it would be safe to assume Joseph did not take it well. Being a just man his moral compass was properly calibrated. Joseph knew that he had been “wronged” and he made up his mind to do something about it.
The reality of this situation is that Joseph was doing all the right things for the right reasons. Given the predicament that he found himself in he did what any just man would do, he sought to rectify the situation by the means available to him. What we will see is he was not only just, he was also willing to do something unthinkable due to his love for Mary. This leads us to the second attribute in Joseph.
…an Honorable man.
Of all the actions that Joseph could have taken or should have taken, he probably picked the least likely and most perplexing. When we consider that in divorcing Mary while she was pregnant, after they were betrothed to him, Joseph was leaving the community with only one conclusion. Everyone in town would see Joseph in a negative light. They would think that Joseph had taken advantage of Mary. To “divorce her quietly” would be to assume all of the shame and guilt of the pregnancy even though he knew that the child was not his.
Consider the selflessness of this action. In the same way that Mary modeled and possibly spoke to Jesus about how to accept God’s will, Joseph modeled what it was like to take the shame of another out of a deep love for them. Joseph was a living example of propitiation. He took the shame of another and bore in upon himself. By doing this Joseph spared Mary the penalty of her alleged infidelity. Honor is something that emerges from within and sustains us through difficult circumstances. Joseph was an honorable man. He could have allowed the laws of the land to destroy Mary and the child that was growing in her womb. However, Joseph chose a different path. A difficult path. Joseph chose honor.
… a Faithful man.
Faith should be the defining characteristic of those who love God and obey his commands. Here we see the third attribute of Joseph’s life. He had so many competing and conflicting thoughts and emotions. I simply do not have the ability to understand what must have been going on in his heart, or what thoughts were running across his mind. How many tears must he have shed? How many longs walks to clear his head? How many nights lying awake in bed? There was only one truth that sustained him, it was his faith in God.
Only a faithful man would take the word of the Angel of the Lord and fulfill his vow to marry and live in peace with Mary. Only a faithful man could pick up the pieces of his broken heart and entrust them to God to mend. Only a faithful man could look into the eyes of his future wife and stay by her side as she gave birth to another’s child. Joseph was a faithful man. He heard the message and in the midst of his own sorrow and pain believed the word of the Lord. Faith will not always be easy, but it will always be the best path to choose.
… a Gracious man.
The final attribute that is demonstrated by Joseph is the one that we know the least about. However, it is there. Joseph was a gracious man. What does this mean, Joseph was gracious? It means that Joseph understood how to extend to others what was in their best interest. And, he did this out a genuine heart. I have drawn this conclusion from the fact of the previous three attributes that we have seen demonstrated. Joseph could have picked another path. he could have chosen another way, but he did not. Joseph married Mary and did not obligate Mary to consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born. This is just one example. The second is even more poignant.
Joseph did for Jesus what many men would not do. Joseph raised and loved Jesus as his own son. I think it would be foolish to think that the home life of Mary and Joseph was difficult or turbulent because of Jesus presence. God picked a man who had the capacity to love the son of another as his own. Jesus learned his “father’s” trade and became a carpenter as well. Of the many questions I would love to ask Jesus one of them will have to be about Joseph. “How was Joseph as a father as you walked on earth?” I just have this feeling that there will not be a negative recollection.
What About You?
As we continue our journey toward Advent allow me to ask you one question: What about you? Would God have considered you? The responsibility of representing the love the Heavenly Father to the Heavenly Son could have been overwhelming. I just don’t think that Joseph even worried about it. He had a young family to tend to. He lived out his faith each and everyday, trusting in God to get them through. What about you? Who are you trusting in?
Joseph’s life is largely veiled in mystery. What we know about him is limited. However, what we know about him reveals a man who was well equipped to raise Jesus and teach us about the kind of people we ought to be.
Praying that you have a blessed and happy Advent!
This is one of the few musical examples considering Joseph role in the life of Jesus. If you have others I would love to know. Enjoy!