He is something of a shadowy figure. He is there but almost invisible. He is silent. Joseph never speaks in the scriptures. Clearly he was part of the story of Jesus’ birth but later in Jesus’ life there are references to Mary but none to Joseph. In fact, there are no references to Joseph after the visit to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12. Joseph possibly died in the eighteen years between that event and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus was 30. Who knows? Joseph just disappears out of the picture.
He wasn’t even really Jesus’ father. Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3) says that Jesus was the son “so it was thought” of Joseph. In other words, Luke traces Jesus legal lineage through Joseph but adds that little comment just to remind us that Jesus wasn’t actually Joseph’s son. Legally He was; actually He wasn’t.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus simply refers to Joseph as the husband of Mary who was the mother of Jesus. He was Jesus’ mother’s husband but not Jesus’ father.
In the public mind though, Joseph was the father of Jesus. John’s gospel quotes first Philip (1:45) and then the crowd of Jews (6:42) referring to Jesus as the son of Joseph.
Sometimes Joseph simply isn’t mentioned. For example, the magi (the wise men) found “the child with his mother Mary”. Maybe Joseph wasn’t home that day.
Joseph is referred to in passing when there are references to Jesus’ parents. But passing references don’t tell us much about him. What sort of person was Joseph? There are only really two passages that give us any insight into this man.
Read Matthew 1:18-25.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. He was betrothed to Mary. Betrothal was more than what we understand by an engagement. It was a contract but not yet a marriage. Sometimes the betrothed couple were called husband and wife. In this passage, Joseph was described as Mary’s husband. But clearly they were not living together. It was a bit later that Joseph was instructed to take Mary home as his wife. And they were not in a sexual relationship. Mary questioned how she could possibly bear a child when she was a virgin.
Betrothal was a formal relationship. It require fidelity just as a marriage would and if the betrothal was broken, that was a formal breaking of the covenant. You will notice here that the ending of this betrothal is called a divorce. In this instance, it was discovered that Mary had been unfaithful. At least, any reasonable person would conclude that she had been unfaithful. She was pregnant and Joseph knew that the child was not his. Mary’s story that she had been visited by an angel and the Holy Spirit had come on her, was probably a little hard to believe. All of the evidence was that she had been unfaithful.
What was Joseph to do? Look at v.19. Two reasons are given for Joseph’s decision. Because he was a righteous man… There is our first clue as to the character of Joseph. He was a righteous man. He would do what was right. Righteousness implies submission to God. A righteous person listens to God and acts accordingly. Joseph wanted to honour God by doing what was right.
His conclusion was that he would divorce Mary. He would end the betrothal. That was the right thing to do. She had committed adultery. That is serious. He wanted his marriage to be right before God. The right thing would be to end this relationship.
But v.19 gives us a second reason for Joseph’s response: he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. Divorce was still the right thing to do but he would do it quietly. He could have exposed Mary to public disgrace. He had every reason to. She had betrayed him in the most hurtful way. His response could have been bitter and hurtful. He could have had her stoned to death.
But that wasn’t Joseph. He did not want to expose her to public disgrace. He did not want to shame her. To the word “righteous” we might add “merciful, gentle, loving”. He extended to her what she did not deserve. She had hurt him but he would not hurt her, and so we might also call him “gracious”.
And so he chose divorce but no publicity. The reasons: he was righteous and he was merciful.
He was also wrong. She hadn’t been unfaithful. She hadn’t hurt him. But he didn’t know that. God could have relieved him of his misery sooner but for some reason God waited. V.20 says “after he had considered this”. God waited until Joseph made his decision. I wonder if God was waiting to see how Joseph would react; if God was testing Joseph’s righteousness.
Whatever, God didn’t leave him stewing for too long. An unnamed angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife. Then he gave the reason: because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Remember this was only a dream and dreams aren’t always rational. No doubt Mary had also said that her pregnancy was a result of the Holy Spirit. Maybe his sub conscience was playing tricks on him. Maybe this was just the power of suggestion.
But the angel said more. Mary would have a son and Joseph was to call him Jesus.
Why that name? Because He would save His people from their sins. That would be the core of Jesus’ mission. That is the gospel. Christians always moan at this time of the year about the commercialism and the lack of understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. That moaning is justified. Absolutely! It is true. But what would we say is the true meaning of Christmas?
He would save His people from their sins. Jesus came that sinful people might be reconciled to a holy God. That is fantastically good news. I am a sinner. I would be lost but for the fact that Jesus came to save people like me. Talking about sin is not popular. It is not all that PC. If we were explain the true meaning of Christmas, would we say that it is about the saving of sinful people?
That is what the angel said to Joseph. And it is what the rest of the Bible talks about. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners. Praise God! When the angel announced a Saviour Joseph must have immediately thought of the ancient prophecies of the Messiah. Indeed, Matthew adds the comment that all this happened to fulfil the words of the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel”, which, he explains, means “God with us.” This is God’s centuries-old plan to save sinners coming to reality.
V.24: when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. “When he woke up” implies immediate action. Dreams. Wakes. Acts. Despite any doubts he might have had. Despite the gravity of the situation. Despite what he was getting himself into with a child not his own on the way…he did exactly what the angel had told him to do. No questions. Obedience. Immediately.
But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Joseph married her. That immediate action may have saved her from disgrace. If this was early in the pregnancy, no one might have known that the baby was not his. Maybe Joseph acted to protect her. I don’t know. Of course people might still have wondered about the sudden marriage and the immediate pregnancy (although even that might have been blurred by Mary’s three-month visit to Elizabeth.) But maybe Joseph acted to protect his wife’s reputation despite knowing it might ruin his own.
He married her but they didn’t have sex. Why not? Was it simply an honouring of the miracle that was developing within her? In any case, it doubly emphasises that the child was not the result of the normal process.
He gave him the name Jesus – another act of obedience. Each time Joseph does what he is told, immediately and to the letter.
Sometime later, and after Jesus’ birth, Joseph had another angelic visit in a dream. Read Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23. [Stay on last slide of reading}
“The king wants to kill your baby.” Maybe they had received some warning about this from the magi but, even so, what on earth had they got themselves into that the king, in far off Jerusalem, is determined to kill their baby? But the angel had given them specific commands: get up; take the baby and His mother; escape to Egypt; stay there until I tell you.”
Look at the first word in v.14. So… God spoke, so… When God speaks, what do you do? For Joseph, there would again be immediate obedience. Notice how Matthew emphasises the precise obedience. We are even told that he got up. That is hardly necessary, is it? It is pretty difficult escaping to Egypt lying in your bed. But Matthew is showing us that Joseph’s action mirror precisely what he had been told to do.
Again, we are told that this fulfilled prophecy: Out of Egypt I called my son.
Then, sometime later, after Herod had died, God again, graciously, spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream. It was safe to return home. So… What do you do when God speaks? I probably wouldn’t be as responsive as Joseph. But, God spoke, so Joseph got up, took the child and his mother and returned to Israel. Despite the threat to their lives, Joseph led them back. All wasn’t quite well. Herod’s son was on the throne. Joseph was afraid. So God graciously again spoke in a dream and Joseph again obeyed, taking his family to Nazareth in Galilee. And again we are told that this fulfilled what the prophets had said.
We don’t have a lot of information but Joseph’s obedience is emphasised. He walked humble with his God; he heard the voice of God and he responded, doing all that was asked of him – including being merciful and loving and gentle. Obedience.
As we come to Communion, we think of another man who walked the path of obedience all the way to the Cross – Joseph’s son, Jesus. Jesus did not want to be crucified. He prayed fervently that He would not have to drink from that cup. But He also prayed “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” He would do what was right even when it was costly. He would do what God was asking Him to do.
How much of that did He learn from his father? How often, as they talked or worked together in the carpenter’s workshop, did Jesus simply observe Joseph, this devout, godly man, choose to do what was right even when there was a cost? How often did He observe integrity and humility in the life of his earthly father so that when Jesus faced tough decisions, He already understood what it meant to be steadfastly obedient to God?
We also can learn from Joseph and, indeed, from Jesus. We can learn that openness to hearing God speak and that responsiveness that immediately does what God has commanded?
Likewise, may it be that people looking at us see these qualities just as Jesus saw them in Joseph. May we to be that sort of influence. Many people in society are not concerned about hearing God’s voice or even taking seriously what God has said already through the scriptures but may we stand out as being different.
If we are conscious of our disobedience or our weakness even when we want to be obedient then we need the grace of God. Jesus came to save sinners. Godliness in our lives is not the fruit of great effort (although some effort is needed). Godliness is the fruit of the work of God; the fruit of the Spirit of God. Let us come back to God as He invites us to this table. Let us come back in repentance and receive forgiveness and in need and receive God’s grace.
Christmas is about people being saved from their sins. We all need that on an ongoing basis and God invites us to come to Him to receive.