Joseph, descendant of Abraham and David, was “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16). This is how the earthly father of our Lord is introduced in the New Testament. Notice how careful and specific the wording is? Jesus was indeed born “of Mary” but not by her betrothed Joseph. The Holy Spirit wants all His readers to know that Jesus was born of Mary when she was still a virgin, thus ensuring His freedom from original sin. From this very first reference, Joseph’s life history remains curiously obscured. Who was this man who figured in so largely in the events of our Lord’s incarnation, and yet of whom the Bible says so little?
Joseph was the son of one Jacob (Matt. 1:16), a descendant of Israel’s King David (Luke 1:27; 2:4), from Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 1:26, 2:4). Joseph was likely apprenticed to his father in the carpentry trade throughout the young years of his life.
Nazareth was a small village perched hundreds of feet above the north edge of the Valley of Megiddo. In the first century it was eclipsed socially, economically, and politically by the nearby Roman town of Sepphoris. Humanly speaking, Nazareth was of little consequence when Joseph was growing up there.
Jacob and Joseph probably made yokes, ploughs, and a wide assortment of household furnishings for local residents. Joseph would have lived a humble life. Even in later life, when Joseph and Mary made their offering in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:24), presenting Jesus as their firstborn to the Lord, they offered the offering of the poor—a pair of turtledoves. He probably received a solid religious education in Judaism, since he is called “a just man” (Matt. 1:19). Joseph had a living faith in the God of his father Abraham, and he grew into a man of genuine moral and spiritual integrity.
Aside from this heritage, the first fact we are given about Joseph is that he was “espoused” to Mary (Matt. 1:18). This refers to the betrothal or engagement of the couple. However, it is not like western engagements. You will notice that Joseph is called Mary’s husband (Matt. 1:19) and even the angel refers to Mary as Joseph’s wife (Matt. 1:20) even though they were not living as man and wife yet (Matt. 1:18). The only way to break this kind of engagement was by divorce (Matt. 1:19). This is what the term “put away” signifies. This espousal was a serious premarital attachment, viewed as the precursor to the consummated married state. Such betrothals usually lasted at least a year.
Then Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant before their marriage. He assumed Mary has been unfaithful to him, but he was nevertheless “not willing to make her a public example” by divorce (Matt. 1:19). That is, he did not wish to shame her at all. Matthew 1:19 tells us that what motivated Joseph’s decisions was not his emotion or his embarrassment, but his regard for God’s Word. He was concerned to obey, as best he knew, the revelation of God’s will in the Scriptures. He had made up his mind to divorce her quietly and privately, so as few as possible would have to know. He wanted to make Mary’s transition into motherhood as easy as possible under such circumstances.
We should not miss the angel’s words in Matthew 1:20: “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Why might Joseph have been afraid? If his decision to divorce Mary were motivated by his righteous regard for God’s law, then we can be certain that his fear here was a fear of God, and not of man. No, he had no fear for the shame that would be associated with taking to wife a pregnant woman. Joseph was afraid of doing wrong.
The angel told Joseph to do two things: marry Mary and name her Son Jesus. Dutifully, Joseph did both. Did family and friends understand? Was there village gossip about their marriage? This time was, no doubt, a great trial to Joseph’s faith. But God had graciously given him an angel’s witness to strengthen him.
The couple had been together some months when word came that all were to return to their hereditary home for the Roman taxation. This was most inconvenient (not to mention expensive) for Joseph and especially for Mary. Travel was not easy, and this was a trip of several days. But there was an additional burden to this. They were traveling to be taxed, and a family of humble means was further burdened by Rome’s greed.
When they arrived, Bethlehem was gorged with people. Joseph and Mary came too late with too little to secure a room at the inn, and so they set up house in a nearby stable and settled into a routine as best they could. While they were there, Mary came to full term. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
Why should we suppose they made room for themselves in a stable, since it is not explicitly mentioned here? Because this was the normal location of feeding troughs (i.e., “mangers”), into which the humble family laid their Child. Justin Martyr (about A.D. 150) states that the stable was in a nearby cave. Modern representations portray a quaint wooden barn. Whatever the exact picture, we can be sure that their situation was difficult.
And yet God was gracious to give to both Joseph and Mary confirmations of His presence and blessing. The very night Jesus was born, shepherds arrived telling of an amazing angelic announcement, causing all who hear to wonder at the Child (Luke 2:8–20). Eight days later when they traveled to Jerusalem to dedicate their Son according to the Law, Simeon and Anna both confirmed that their Child was the long-expected fulfillment of the Word of God (Luke 2:21–38). After both of these incidents, Joseph marveled at God’s work (Luke 2:18, 19, 33). As if this were not encouragement and confirmation enough, wise men later traveled to the village of Bethlehem “from the East” in order to worship Jesus. Each of these events confirmed the truth that this Child Jesus was indeed Israel’s Messiah. Joseph knew God was in control.
After the wise men departed, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream for the second time, warning him to take the family and flee from Herod into Egypt (Matt. 2:13–15). How did Joseph respond? Once again he obeyed, even departing from Bethlehem in the middle of the night (v. 14). They came to Egypt, in those days the home of many Jews, and there they stayed until Herod was dead. Before long, an angel of the Lord again appeared to Joseph in a dream, commanding him to return to Israel (Matt. 2:19, 20). Matthew 2:21 tells us, “And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.” Directed by God again in a dream, Joseph took his family north to Nazareth (Matt. 2:22, 23).
Settling in familiar country, Joseph and Mary had children of their own. Jesus was by this time about two or three years old. And so ordinary family life was experienced by the world’s most extraordinary family. In fact, it was a commonness so conspicuous that Jesus’ future uniqueness would cause great resentment (Luke 4:22, 23; Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:2, 3; John 6:42). To support his family, Joseph established himself in his father’s old business of carpentry, and even apprenticed Jesus (Mark 6:3).
Joseph continued to be “a just man,” raising all his family in the Lord’s nurture and admonition. They would have been regular at synagogue, in Torah classes, and in family worship. The worship of God according to Moses was a vital part of Joseph’s family (Luke 2:41).
During these years Joseph was commonly regarded as Jesus’ father (John 1:45), and Jesus was commonly regarded as one of his children (Matt. 15:55, 56). Indeed, even within the family circle there was no unusual qualification of Jesus. Joseph regarded Him with the same genuine concern and affection a good father would regard any of his children (Luke 2:48). However, as Jesus grew into manhood, even from the age of 12, there was a sense of detachment from the family, and especially from Joseph, that distinguished Him (Luke 2:49, 50). Jesus continued to be subject to both His parents, as every good son should be, but the difference had been detected, declared, and was increasingly demonstrated.
Sometime between the age of 12 and 30, Jesus lost His legal father. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry there is a conspicuous absence of references to Joseph when other family members are mentioned in the Gospel records. And at the crucifixion, Jesus entrusts the care of His mother to the apostle John (John 19:27), presumably because Joseph was no longer there to provide such care.
There are, I think, two lessons to be learned from the life of this godly man. First, we can learn from Joseph’s humility. In the grand design of God, Joseph served a vital function of which the Scripture says very little. And he seemed perfectly content to occupy that humble position with a godly attitude. It is God’s will, not our own, which ought to be supreme in our lives, even when our own ambitions of Christian service are wholly noble. Second, Joseph was a faithful man, dedicated to obeying the God of his fathers at all personal costs. His own desires and emotions were subservient to God’s will. To him was committed earth’s grandest Treasure, and he faithfully kept that trust. His greatest legacy is that he did as the Lord commanded Him.
Bud Talbert is president of Foundation Baptist College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- One of the difficulties with the Matthew and Luke genealogies is that Luke 3:23 seems to name Heli as Joseph’s father, whereas Matthew 1:16 makes Joseph’s father Jacob. There are three possible solutions to this apparent discrepancy. (1) Jacob and Heli were brothers. When Heli died, Jacob—the younger—married Heli’s widow according to the Levirate law. Jacob is Joseph’s physical father and Heli is his legal father. (2) Luke 3:23 means that Joseph became the “heir” of Heli by his marriage to Mary (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, pp. 203–4). (3) The parenthesis in Luke 3:23 should include the entire phrase “(as was supposed the son of Joseph)” and leaving Jesus to be “of Heli” by real descent on the maternal side (Robert G. Gromacki, The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity, pp. 152–55). [↩]
- Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, p. 129. [↩]