Joseph stands centre stage in nativity plays. He is right at the heart of the drama that unfolds in Bethlehem, but in the biblical account of the first Christmas, Joseph has a non-speaking part.
Mary sings, angels speak, shepherds talk, the Magi (wise men) inquire, and Herod rages, but Joseph remains silent. None of his speech is recorded; he is the quiet man of Christmas.
Joseph, the husband of Mary, only appears in person in the record of the birth and childhood of Jesus, which suggests that Joseph died before Jesus commenced his public ministry. One of the few things we know about Joseph is that he was a carpenter, as was Jesus.
Jesus inherited nothing genetically from Joseph, but, in the family home at Nazareth, Jesus lived as a child under the influence of a human father with noble character.
Joseph lived in a village in the remote north of Israel. He didn’t rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in the capital city of Jerusalem.
If Joseph had been richer, room for his heavily pregnant wife would have been found in the inns of Bethlehem, and Jesus would not have been born in a stable. Yet Joseph had royal heritage; he was descended from David, Israel’s great king. That’s why Joseph went to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census because he belonged to the house and line of David (Luke 2:4). Joseph was a humble man who had royal blood.
Joseph was diligent in matters of faith. He ensured that Jesus was circumcised and that the sacrifice of purification was offered as the law of Moses required.
Also, Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Feast of Passover. But the description of Joseph as a righteous man (Matthew 1:19) suggests more than mere outward adherence to Jewish ritual; rather, that Joseph was known for the rightness of his speech and actions.
Engaged to be married to a woman who was now pregnant, and not by him, was scandalous. Loudly and publicly, Joseph could have condemned Mary’s seeming immorality and asserted his own innocence, to salvage his good reputation.
But even before the angel appeared to him, Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly, because he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph loved Mary and wanted to protect her from shame and disgrace.
He was willing to be associated with a woman inevitably condemned as a terrible sinner.
What is most striking about Joseph is his readiness to submit to the will of God and his prompt and full obedience to the messages received from angels and in a dream.
In response to divine instruction, Joseph took Mary as his wife, gave the baby the name ‘Jesus’, took Mary and the infant Jesus to safety in Egypt, and, when it was safe, returned to Israel and settled in Nazareth.
Joseph says nothing in the Bible, but his actions speak loudly. He is obedient to the Word of the Lord.
Like father like son
Joseph was the human father to whom the heavenly Father entrusted his much-loved Son. God the Father knew that the Son would be well cared for in his Nazareth home and be well prepared for his future ministry, because Joseph was a man of humility, righteousness, compassion, and obedience.
To an even greater degree, indeed perfectly, these are the characteristics of Jesus. Like Joseph, Jesus is humble. He too was poor and yet had royal blood. But, unlike Joseph, Jesus is not only the son of David; he is also the eternal and glorious Son of God, who humbled himself to be born as a helpless baby in a stable, and grow up in the modest surroundings of a carpenter’s home in Nazareth.
Like Joseph, Jesus is righteous. But, unlike Joseph, Jesus is completely without sin. Jesus is the most righteous man who has ever lived. Joseph’s righteousness may be commendable, but he was not perfect. Joseph had sins that needed forgiving for him to be reconciled to God. Joseph needed a Saviour just as much as the worst of sinners.
Like Joseph, Jesus exhibited great compassion. But, unlike Joseph, Jesus put his reputation on the line, time and again, by associating with outcasts and obvious ‘sinners’ — people with whom he had no family connection. Jesus brought comfort and gave help to many needy people experiencing shame and disgrace.
Listen to Jesus
Like Joseph, Jesus was obedient to the will of God. But the obedience of Jesus took him not only to the stable in Bethlehem, but also to the cross outside Jerusalem, there willingly to suffer and die for others. He bore the punishment their sins deserved, that they might be forgiven.
So, applaud the noble character of Joseph this Christmas, but look at Jesus, who is nobler and greater. And listen to Jesus.
No words of Joseph are recorded, but there are many words of Jesus in the Bible — words that offer hope and peace and joy and love and forgiveness and everlasting life; words that invite you to trust him as your Saviour.
The author is pastor of Carey Baptist Church, Reading