What About Joseph in the Christmas Story? His Life and Legacy

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During Christmas season, we wonder in the stories about Jesus’ birth—recounting the star, the magi, the manger, and the shepherds. We sing songs praising the mystery of the Incarnation. We wonder at the angelic visions and pronouncements. The consolation of Israel is celebrated; Mary’s faith is upheld; Jesus’ purpose in coming and presence as Immanuel is exalted. This is good, right, and fitting.

But what about Joseph?

The answer we often give is there is not much about Joseph in the Bible. Compared to Mary, or even Elizabeth and Zechariah, this is true. We aren’t told an intricate story about Joseph alone. Yet we are given some details. Yes, there isn’t much; but it isn’t none. Every word in the Word is placed by God. There’s more to Joseph biblically than many initially think.

A Righteous Man

We learn that Jospeh was a tekton (Mark 6:3)a carpenter, craftsman, or most literally, a handyman. We know he was a descendent of king David (Matthew 1:16)—which was important to Jesus’ suitableness to be the Christ. We’re told, after the birth of Christ, Mary and he had other children (Mark 6:3). And we’re informed that he and his family would take trips “to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41).

Yet most of the description of this man—who he was deep down, not merely on the surface—is told is one verse.

Joseph discovers his betrothed is pregnant. She must have been showing. He knows he is not the father. Then the Bible gives us sight into his thoughts: “And he husband Jospeh, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Following this, “as he considered these things,” an angel appears to him, explains the situation, and the rest is known history. How long did he live? We don’t know. Why is he rarely discussed in the Gospels after this? We aren’t sure. But we mustn’t let these unanswerable questions cloud the clarity we have in the verse above.

We see there a man who unabashedly is called “just” (or “righteous”) on the first page of the New Testament. Remember the situation. His “justness” is not him merely avoiding overcharging for his craftwork. This is a man who finds out his soon to be wife is pregnant. And the baby is not from him. What would we do? We do well to not rush into verse 20 and the rest of the story too quickly. Yes, Joseph is later told what is going on. But there was a waiting period. There was a time when he found out and had to consider what to do. The Bible says that in that moment, in that situation, he acted rightly because he was a “righteous man.” He does not lash out in anger. He does not throw his seemingly adulterous betrothed out in the streets to be humiliated. He righteously considered what to do. Why? “Being a just man.”

On page one of the New Testament, I think we’re supposed to notice this. What a unique, faithful display of righteous grace and compassion. This is the man Jospeh.

4 Ways This Affected His Life and Family

His legacy is a corollary from this reality: This man was righteous; he had a right standing with his God, which affected his life and family in at least four ways.

(1) As discovered in the verse quoted above, his righteousness led him to be able to respond righteously in difficult situations. He did not lash out in anger; he took time to consider what to do. But not only that, after considering he resolved to divorce to quietly because he was “unwilling to put her to shame.” He loved her. Like his soon-to-be (not physical, but familial) son, he was able to have compassion on her. His righteousness affected his reactions, decisions, and compassion. Because “the righteous shall live by faith”—which remember, is an Old Testament text used by the apostles (Habakkuk 2:4)—we can assume that this ability to act righteously compassionate was due to his faith in his God. He didn’t know what was going on. But he knew the Lord. He trusted the Lord. This righteous faithfulness affect his life in this trying situation—and assumedly many others.

(2) His righteousness spurred his obedience, especially and even when obeying was difficult and involved stepping into the unknown. He is commanded to “not fear to take Mary as [his] wife” (Matthew 1:20). He obeys and marries her—even with all the social stigma he knew he’d receive by marrying a woman with a bump. He heeds to the command of the angel to flee al the way to Egypt and remain for an unknown time (Matthew 2:13), and then obeys once again by returning to Israel when commanded (Matthew 2:19-21). And then complies once more when he’s told to withdraw his family to Galilee (Matthew 2:22)! These were difficult life-changes. They involved much unknown. Yet, being a righteous man who trusted in his God, Joseph obeyed.

(3) His righteousness made him a good leader and father. This might become overly speculative. But it is significant—after all the disobedience with the Passover with the Old Testament Israelites—that he and he family made a trip to Jerusalem every year to attend the Passover (Luke 2:41). He was thus leading his family. Moreover, it might be notable that, although Jesus’ brothers did not at first believe in him (John 7:5), at least a few did seem to worship Jesus eventually: James and Jude became key leaders in the church; and might Acts 1:14 refer to his physical brothers since “Mary Jesus’ mother” is listed right before? This pertains to Joseph because he was their father. He led the family. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Jospeh no doubt clung to this promise; and it seemed to be true of his children. But to his surprise, “the way” ended up being one his sons (John 14:6; Acts 9:2).

Joseph’s Greatest Legacy

This brings us to the final and largest result of Joseph’s righteousness. This point we all—especially men—would be most privileged to emulate. More than any of the details listed above, this would define Joseph’s life, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want it any other way: (4) Joseph’s righteousness made him a mostly forgotten person who points to Jesus.

He was a man of God. He was a righteous husband, father, craftsman, and leader. Would we all be able to be called such! But his greatest characteristic was how he paved the way for the Son of God. This explains some of the silence surrounding him in the Gospel texts. He is not mentioned much in the Gospels because it is not about him. He’s not the point; he’s a pointer. He was righteous. He obeyed. But a boy he would watch be born, a boy he would even raise (oh, the mystery!), would be revealed to be his Lord, Savior, and God. Joseph’s legacy consists mainly in his place in this moment in history, in this gospel, in this Story.

May it be so for us as well. Especially men, may we seek to be righteous men of God—by faith alone—and may our trust in our God affect our reactions, plans, compassion, obedience, leadership. But in and through it all, like Joseph, the goal is to pave the way for the Righteous One. Here is our greatest purpose, our greatest legacy. May our lives, therefore, this Christmas be more Joseph-like, for the glory of the Son.