In this article, we are going to look at a man who is almost certainly the most underestimated man in the whole of scripture: Joseph, the earthly father of the Lord Jesus. He is a man about whom we know very little, and yet Joseph is one of the greatest men who ever lived; it was to him that God gave two immense, unique tasks. First, he had the responsibility of being a husband to the greatest woman in human history – the woman who was to bring the Son of God into the world. Second, he was the one whose duty it would be to lead the family in which the Lord Jesus Himself would grow up – it would be in his home that the long-promised Messiah would spend His childhood and youth. Of course, Joseph was not the biological father of the Lord Jesus, as is clearly taught in Matthew chapter 1 verses 18 to 25 and Luke chapter 1 verses 30 to 35, but he, nevertheless, had the position of father in the family in which the Lord grew up. These unparalleled privileges given to him indicate to us that Joseph was a remarkable man, and worthy of our consideration. In fact, we could go so far as to say that he is the pattern husband and father – the sort of man God wants every Christian husband and father to be, and the sort of husband that every Christian woman ought to wish for.
When we turn to the account in Matthew chapter 1 we begin to learn something of the greatness of character that this man of God had. First of all, we are told that he was a just man, v. 19 – one of only eight so called in scripture. This is the fundamental principle that will govern his conduct – he is a man who will do what is right. This is a challenge to us all – how much righteousness is there in our character and behaviour? As followers of the One who described Himself as ‘the truth’, we ought to be marked by justice in all that we do. Notice, however, that righteousness is not the only thing that is seen in Joseph. He is also a kind man. Think of the situation in which he finds himself – there is seemingly irrefutable evidence of Mary’s unfaithfulness, and he has the right to bring the full weight of the law to bear upon her. However, he does not subject her to the shame of public exposure but is minded to put her away discreetly. Again, this is something we can learn from: what degree of grace and kindness do we show when dealing with those who have fallen? Let us always remember two principles of scripture that govern such situations – ‘love covereth all sins’, Prov. 10. 12, and, ‘ye which are spiritual, restore’, Gal. 6. 1. Sin must not be condoned or overlooked, but the failings of any of the people of God should be dealt with as quietly and gently as possible – this was what Joseph did. Notice also that his kindness was not weakness – he was a strong man. What Mary seemed to have done could not be ignored, and so, at great cost to himself (and to her!), he would do the right thing and put her away. Let us never forget that God expects men to be strong, and that the cost of doing what is right should not be a deterrent to doing it.
In a situation like the one that Joseph faced, it might seem extremely hard to balance the competing requirements of righteousness and kindness, and yet there is another aspect of Joseph’s character that is revealed in this – he was a thoughtful man. Conscious of the fact that he had a difficult decision to make, he made no rash move, but ‘thought on these things’, Matt. 1. 20. This quality is most commendable, and when Mary’s innocence was revealed to him he must have been very glad that he had not been hasty in his actions towards her. Observe, however, that when the will of God is made clear to him, v. 24, then thoughtfulness gives way to action and obedience. How good it would be if all of us were similar in character! Also, his eagerness to obey when God speaks, marks him out as a most courageous man. Think of what it was going to cost him – Mary was expecting a child, and Joseph was going to stand by her. The world at large would put only one explanation on this, that the child was Joseph’s, and that he had been responsible for Mary’s condition. It must have been a heavy burden for this godly man to endure the false suspicion of his fellow men, and yet scripture records neither hesitation nor complaint on his part. Truly, he was a man of great moral courage! Then, in verse 25, we learn that he was a self-controlled man – he ‘knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn’. In a world that places no value on moral purity, let us not forget that the intention of God is that both men and women should be celibate before, and faithful during, marriage.
Thus, we see that Joseph was a man of great moral nobility, willing to sacrifice himself so that the purposes of God might be advanced through his behaviour. As a consequence of this, God gave him a remarkable reward, something that he shared with God alone; he knew what it was to have a father-son relationship with the Lord Jesus. Let us remind ourselves immediately that in a physical sense he was not the Lord’s father; let us also note that in Luke chapter 2 verse 49 the Lord, on entering into His early manhood, distances Himself from Mary’s use of that title in reference to Joseph. Nonetheless, it is true that, in the context of the family home in Nazareth, Joseph was the father, and the Lord Jesus, as the perfect son in the family, would have given him all the love and honour that his position was due. What must it have meant to Joseph to be the recipient of more loving service, more sincere honour, more holy obedience, than any other earthly father had ever known! God had seen to it that the man who was prepared to take on a uniquely great responsibility was given a uniquely great reward.
When we move from Matthew chapter 1 into Matthew chapter 2, we see Joseph in a slightly broader sphere – not so much what he is as a husband, but how he behaves as a family man and a father. First, we see that he leads a home where the Lord Jesus is honoured, and where His worshippers are welcomed – when the wise men arrive in Matthew chapter 2 verse 11 they worship Him. Is this true of my house? If I am the head of a household, is my home the sort of place where people find it easy (as these wise men did) to express their value of the Lord? May God help us to do so! Secondly, he is a man whose movements (and therefore the movements of his family) are determined by the Divine will – he leaves his homeland, and later returns to it, in direct response to a command of God. Would I be willing to do so?
Turning to Luke chapter 2 we see more of Joseph as a family man. Note, by the way, that in Matthew the emphasis is on Joseph in particular, acting as the head of the family; in Luke, we see husband and wife moving in harmony for the glory of God1 In verse 22 we find that he comes to present his child to God, in fulfilment of the principle of Exodus chapter 13 verse 2. It would be well for us to grasp this important lesson – God has first claim on our children. No doubt Joseph looked forward to having a son who would follow in the family business, who would grow to take a role in the family, who would be a comfort to him in his old age, but he recognized that God’s claims on his family came before his own ambitions and desires. Could the same be said of us?
Then in verses 41 and 42 we are told that it was the custom of Joseph and Mary to attend the feast of Passover together. As the head of the house, Joseph was responsible for setting the spiritual tone for the family, and, again, there is a practical lesson here – if I am the head of a house, do I see to it that my family makes a habit of attending the occasions when the Lord’s people gather together? It is not a spiritually beneficial thing if I allow a spirit of indifference towards the meetings of the assembly to permeate my home. The Lord Himself is present in the gatherings, and the principle of scripture is that we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Heb. 10. 25.
In closing, notice that the last reference to Joseph is in Luke chapter 2 verse 48, after which he disappears from the Gospel records. In this passage, the Lord Jesus stands on the brink of adulthood, and the role of Joseph as his earthly father is coming to an end. How beautiful to see the quiet way in which Joseph fades into the background – having discharged the responsibility given to him in Matthew chapter 1, having raised a family for God in which the firstborn son is devoted to the things of His Father in a way that no other son ever was, Joseph steps back so that the focus can rest now on the Lord Jesus Himself. He has carried out one of the most important tasks in the earthly purposes of God, and having done so he seeks no earthly reward, but recedes from view so that ‘in all things he [the Lord] might have the pre-eminence’. May God give us the grace to emulate him as a man, a husband and a father!
It is interesting, incidentally, to look at Mary and Joseph as a couple and see in them the answer to Adam and Eve’s failure – their obedience to the will of God, the way they honour the word of God, the maintenance of the proper roles of husband and wife, etc.