As the story of the birth of Jesus is told and retold, there are many characters whom we frequently hear mentioned: the Virgin Mary, the Magi (wise men), the Shepherds in the field. But one person who is represented in every manger scene, but rarely even mentioned, is Jesus’ earthly father Joseph.

This is not entirely surprising since the Bible actually only gives us a few small snippets of biographical information on Joseph. We are told relatively little about Joseph’s role in the overall story of Jesus. Interestingly, however, Matthew sets Joseph, not Mary, in the forefront as he relates the story of Jesus’ divine conception.

A Scandalous Conception

In order to emphasize that Jesus is indeed “Abraham’s offspring” and “the Son of David,” Matthew begins by tracing Joseph’s ancestry. This lengthy genealogy with which Matthew opens his gospel culminates with, ” and Jacob, the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).

On the heels of this information, Matthew immediately relates the story of Jesus’ conception, in verse 18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Jewish culture, betrothal was considered as socially binding as marriage itself. Although a couple who was betrothed were not yet living together or physically intimate with each other, each of them were already called “husband” and “wife,” and it was necessary to obtain a legal divorce to break off an engagement.

If a betrothed woman became pregnant by another man, it was considered to be an act of adultery. So it is hard to exaggerate the shame, and hurt, that are squeezed into this single verse, between the announcement that “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph” and the admission that, “before they came together she was found with child.”

The very language “she was found” suggests a sudden, unpleasant disclosure of her pregnancy. And it seems clear that, initially, Joseph believed Mary to be pregnant by another man (as anyone would assume); this is why he was considering some private action as a remedy to the potentially devastating realization that she was expecting a baby (Matthew 1:19).

A Meek Response

While Joseph could have shamed her publicly, or even perhaps had her put to death by Hebrew law (Deuteronomy 22:23,24), Matthew emphasizes that Joseph was “a just man” who did not want to publicly shame Mary, even when he thought she had betrayed him.

It is hard to imagine all the tossing and turning, all the heart-sinking, stomach-churning agony Joseph experienced when it was found that his betrothed wife was pregnant.

It was “as he considered these things,” seeking a gracious and just solution to this very difficult situation, that an angel finally appeared to him in order to inform him of the supernatural nature of this conception. Even then, Joseph did not receive the news of the Messiah’s arrival in a glorious moment of angelic praise (as the shepherds did), or as an announcement of great blessing (as Mary did); rather Joseph gets the news on an almost practical, need-to-know basis: “Don’t divorce her, because…” And he doesn’t even get to name the baby! The angel informs him that a name has already been chosen for this child.

Yet, with the instruction to name the child “Jesus” comes this wonderful pronouncement: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

After the initial wave of relief that Joseph must have felt at the angel’s exoneration of Mary, no doubt came the awesome sinking in of this new reality: “God is in her! The Messiah has come, and Mary is carrying him in her womb!” And so, Matthew tells us, “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).

It is easy for many of us to hear the Christmas story as a familiar fairytale rather than the earth-shaping event that it is. As a result, we often make the characters in the story more like 2-dimensional, cardboard cutouts than the living, breathing people they were. This man Joseph sacrificed everything he had, and all that he knew, in order to play well whatever small and humiliating role God had for him in the advent of the Messiah.

Are you likewise willing to melt into the background in order for Jesus to be better displayed? Are you willing to sacrifice for the gospel’s sake, whether history records your greatest efforts in detail or not?

A Godly Example

Besides this narrative, nothing else is known of Joseph’s life — other than that he took his infant son Jesus to the temple to have him consecrated (Luke 2:22-24), that he and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23); and that Joseph took his family to Passover when Jesus twelve years old (Luke 2:42-52). It seems likely that Joseph died at a relatively young age, perhaps before Jesus’ public ministry began (in Matthew 12:48, only Jesus’ “mother and brothers” come to him), and almost certainly before Jesus’ crucifixion (in Luke 2:35 Simeon prophecies only of Mary that “a sword will pierce through your own soul”, and in John 19:29, at the cross John is entrusted with Mary’s care because she has no husband).

From the little biblical information we have, a tender picture of a very godly man named Joseph arises.

He was a loving husband, who did not want to publicly shame his wife, even when it seems she had betrayed him. He cared for his family, doing whatever it took to provide for their needs (accompanying them to Bethlehem, leading them to Egypt). He was an obedient man of God. By faith, Joseph believed the angel’s announcement and “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

So we learn of this man Joseph that, in the service of his son and his Savior, he was just and loving and brave and obedient. He sets for each father, and for each Christian, a wonderful example of willingness to serve humbly and faithfully in the background in order to fulfill God’s marvelous purposes — in our own lives, and in the lives of others, for the glory of Jesus Christ.

It is appropriate, then, that very little is said about Joseph when the story of Jesus is told — it seems Joseph himself would have wanted it that way. May we follow this meek man’s example, and serve our Lord faithfully, even in obscurity.

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