At Christmas time, Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, is often forgotten. However, in studying his life we find many remarkable characteristics. He was a true man of God.
When I was first asked to lead a Bible study on “Joseph”—I wondered, “Which Joseph?” There are thirteen Josephs named in the Bible. Joseph was a very common name in Israel.
We look today at Joseph the husband of Mary, the foster father of Jesus. The common people around Nazareth identified Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (Luke 4:22; John 1:45; and 6:42). Twice Jesus is referred to as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). The work of a carpenter differed somewhat from that of carpenters in the twenty-first century. Israeli houses were built mostly of stone and earth. Joseph was an artificer in wood, and most likely worked with furniture and with agricultural implements.
Our study is taken primarily from the first chapter of Matthew and the second chapter of Luke. Matthew 1:1-17 gives the human ancestry of Jesus. Sometimes we are tempted to pass over the long list of names rather quickly, yet these verses are included in the Bible for a purpose. We can tell from the account in Matthew that Jesus was descended from Abraham (1:2) through the royal house of David (1:6). This information helps identify Jesus as the true Messiah, and makes Him the legal son of one who had descended from the line of Israel’s kings, and thus Jesus was eligible to be King over Israel.
The words in Matthew 1:16 make it clear that the conception and birth of Jesus were different from that of any other Jewish boy named in the genealogy. Joseph did not “beget” Jesus, as was the case in the 40-some ancestors of Jesus who are named in the earlier part of Matthew 1. Matthew does not say that Joseph “begot” Jesus; instead, Matthew says, “Joseph (was) the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus” (Matthew 1:16).
Joseph was not the human progenitor of Jesus. Luke’s account explains that by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38). We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit could usher the life of the eternal Christ into the body of Mary, but with chaste language, Matthew explains more about the events that took place.
There are six major parts in this lesson:
1) Joseph: An upright man (Matthew 1:18-19)
2) Joseph: A considerate husband (Matthew 1:20-23)
3) Joseph: An obedient servant of God (Matthew 1:24-25)
4) Joseph: A good citizen of his country (Luke 2:1-5)
5) Joseph: A protector of his family (Matthew 2:13-23)
6) Joseph: A concerned father (Luke 2:41-50)
Joseph sometimes seems to be an almost forgotten man at Christmas time. The carols that mention Joseph are not really too plentiful.
We sing about “the virgin, the mother and child;” about “angels from the realms of glory;” about “shepherds in the fields abiding;” about “the town (named) Bethlehem;” about “the kings from the Orient;” and sometimes about Joseph, but not as much is said about Joseph.
True—the fact that Joseph was the foster father (and not the real biological ancestor of Jesus)—may reduce his stature in the eyes of some. And the fact that he never uttered a word which is recorded—may cause him to fade into the background. We have no record of any words that Joseph ever spoke, but we can be certain that God carefully examined the character of the man who was chosen to become the foster father of Jesus, and that God providentially supervised the choice of a husband for Mary.
Mary and Joseph both lived in the same town. They were brought up in the same community. When we compare Luke 1:26 with Luke 2:4, we learn that both lived in Nazareth. Joseph had likely been born in Bethlehem (65 miles to the south). But his family moved to Nazareth some time during his youth, and there he met Mary, and now they were a young couple engaged to be married.
Engagement in those days was a binding contract. It was nearly as binding as marriage is in our day. That is why Joseph is called Mary’s “husband” (and Mary is called his “wife”), even before their marriage was consummated (Matthew 1:19-20). An engagement was so binding that it could only be dissolved by divorce. And so these two young people were engaged to be married—when one day suddenly an angel told Mary that she was to have a child, not by normal human generation, but by the overwhelming of the Holy Spirit. Mary was looking forward to her wedding day. What would Joseph say when she broke the news that she was expecting a child? Joseph didn’t know anything about it. Even though they were engaged to be married, there was no dabbling with premarital sex.
The first three months following the angel’s announcement to Mary were spent at Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth lived far away in the hill country of Judea. Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home. When Mary came back to Nazareth, and had to tell Joseph of her condition, it must have filled him with some strange feelings.
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. He thought that Mary had always told the truth. Her previous character had always been blameless. But now her story seemed unreal and strange. Joseph wondered whether she may have been unfaithful during those three months in the hill country with Elizabeth. He was sure that she had not been, yet the conflict raged on in his soul, and probably the normal thing to do would have been to expose her and make her a public disgrace. And Joseph considered doing that very thing, but his love and compassion for Mary would not permit that kind of severe treatment. Matthew 1:19-20 says that Joseph was a righteous man, and while he was pondering what he ought to do, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and explained how Mary’s being with child came about.
Joseph could have been very cruel toward Mary. He could have stoned her, or divorced her—but he was a man of compassion and kindness, and he did not take those actions. If Mary had been espoused to a cruel, passionate man, she would have died in disgrace. But Joseph was a man of godly wisdom. He thought before he acted. He dealt thoughtfully and gracefully with Mary and treated her with courtesy. And that’s the way every husband should treat his wife. It is easy to forget this and take things for granted when we are occupied with earning a living for the family, and facing stiff competition in business—but a husband can never be too understanding of his wife’s concerns and problems.
Several decades ago there was an older man whose wife had become seriously ill with cancer. He took a leave of absence from his work in order to care for his sick wife. He never left her, except for short intervals to pick up groceries or get a haircut, etc. He treated her with utmost tenderness. When others would visit in their home, they could sometimes hear him say to his wife, whose body was wasting away rapidly, “Mother, you’re still my sweetheart.” That is the kind of spirit that should prevail in every home.
Sometimes husbands are short and snappy and quick with their speech. They speak with an irritated tone of voice. The husband must remember to speak with kindness and patience to his wife. After all, she left the love and security of her family and home to come and live with you; she took your name; she agreed to spend the rest of her life with you. It is the height of cruelty to speak to one’s wife with an irritated tone of voice.
Joseph was a righteous man. His life was marked by godly conduct. He was a considerate husband. We can learn from his example.
Joseph was willing at every turn to do God’s bidding. He was obedient when the angel explained to him how Mary had come to be with child. Joseph was minded to put her away, but Matthew 1:24-25 says that after the angel had spoken to him, Joseph awoke from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, “and he called his name Jesus.” Joseph did precisely as the angel had instructed.
Joseph did not understand the how and the why of this whole thing, but he acted in simple faith on the word of God’s messenger. He believed that the word from God was true, and he complied with what God had said. Joseph obeyed the Lord. He was an obedient servant of God. We should also be willing to obey the teachings of the New Testament even though we may not always know the reasons why God issues certain commands.
We must remember that our faith in Christ becomes a real faith (a saving faith) only when it is validated by obedience. It is not merely he who attends church services each Sunday and says “Lord, Lord,” that shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of the heavenly Father (Matthew 7:21). All of us need a frame of mind that is set to do the will of God, and that is determined to carry out the instructions of the Scriptures.
When Joseph awakened from his dream and knew that Mary was expecting the child as a result of a divine miracle, he hurried off to Mary’s house, and shortly thereafter they were married (as the Lord had told him to do)—and Joseph gave Mary the protection of a husband, and he gave the child the dignity of a foster father. Joseph was an obedient servant of God.
The first five verses of the second chapter of Luke explain an important aspect of Joseph’s life. Joseph was submissive to Caesar Augustus (the Roman Emperor), who had decreed that a census should be taken. The word “taxed” (in the KJV) refers really to a “registration”—a compiling of information which later could be used for the purposes of taxation. But Joseph was obedient to the law of the land. He returned to his native town, as he was expected to do, and did as the authorities said that he should.
Joseph was not one who took the attitude that if a certain law (such as the wearing of seat belts) did not suit him, he was not going to obey it. Joseph was a law-abiding citizen of his country. When Caesar Augustus called for a census, Joseph dropped the work that he was doing and took his family to Bethlehem to be registered. But to take that step of obedience was not an easy task in Israel in New Testament times.
The Romans controlled the country of Israel, and many Jews all over the land resented the idea of Roman control. They despised the idea of more taxation. They planned to resist with violence. The Jewish historian Josephus tells how the Zealots (political extremists) made life hard for the people who did go to their home towns and register. The Zealots often plundered their property and drove away their cattle and set fire to their houses while they were gone. But Joseph was an obedient servant of God, and this involves being a good citizen of the land.
God’s people should be good citizens and obey the laws, unless those laws conflict with the clear teachings of the New Testament.
When Herod pretended that he wanted to worship the newborn Baby in Bethlehem, God warned Joseph in a dream to take the Child and Mary, and flee to Egypt.
Under the cover of darkness (Matthew 2:14), they departed “by night.” Perhaps the moon was bright and thus helped to make the travel easier. At any rate, Joseph obeyed the Lord, and took his family, and left Bethlehem. They journeyed south to Egypt.
Colonies of Jews lived in most cities of Egypt, and thus Joseph and Mary could find associations among their own people when once they were down in Egypt. But did you ever try to picture what the trip from Bethlehem to Egypt really involved?
The journey involved traveling more than 150 miles across a desert. It was blistering hot by day and chilling cold by night. The area was infested with robbers and bandits. Joseph and Mary traveled mainly by foot. Mary likely rode a donkey at times. There were no sanitation facilities, and the land-surface was marked by high hills and deep valleys and steep cliffs. It was a dangerous journey (Matthew 2:14).
Suppose the donkey would have stumbled on a rocky path at the crest of a ridge, and spilled Mary and the Child onto the rocks below! Or suppose sickness would have engulfed the Child, and the extremes of temperature would have brought Him to the point of death. Or suppose Herod’s executioners would have overtaken Joseph and Mary, and extinguished the Child’s life. God’s plan to save the human family through the gift of His Son would have failed. God used Joseph to protect the little family from unseen harm, and from dangerous attack.
After a stay in Egypt, Matthew 2:22 tells about the return of the family to the land of Israel. Herod had died, and because Herod’s son was ruling over Judea, Joseph chose to take the family north to Galilee and settle in their home town of Nazareth. Joseph and Mary and Jesus made their home in the town of Nazareth.
Jesus went to the temple with Joseph and Mary for the first time (after His circumcision) when He was twelve years old. They attended the Passover festival in Jerusalem—and when the events were completed, the caravan of people began moving toward their homes in the towns and the countryside. At one point in the journey, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus was missing.
Joseph is sometimes accused of careless neglect, but there is no indication of neglect or carelessness on the part of either Joseph or Mary. It was a common practice for families to travel together, and the families were so well acquainted that the children of one family were like the children of another. The families were so preoccupied with what they had heard in the Temple, and with the joys of returning home again—that they had not discovered immediately that Jesus was missing.
When it was learned that Jesus was not with the group, Joseph and Mary retraced their steps and returned to Jerusalem and found Jesus talking with the learned scribes in the Temple. Their surprise (at what seems like a thoughtless act on the part of Jesus) teaches us two lessons:
1) It shows how obedient to His parents Jesus had previously been. He had been so obedient and so loyal in the days of childhood that Joseph and Mary had confidence in His dependability. They were startled and confused on this occasion when He was not with them.
2) It proves that the childhood of Jesus had been normal and natural—and not marked by certain supernatural abilities such as those described in some of the Apocryphal writings. Those books tell some strange things about Jesus—for example, a teacher was about to whip Him with a paddle, but the paddle turned into a serpent.
This account at the end of the second chapter of Luke is the last recorded event that involves Joseph. He is not mentioned there by name, but Mary told Jesus that she and His father had been looking for Him anxiously (Luke 2:48).
We need to honor Joseph because he was a righteous man, a considerate husband, an obedient servant, a good citizen, a protector of his family, and a concerned father. These are goals which all of us should seek to embrace.
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