The Role of Joseph
Please turn in your Bible to Matthew’s Gospel. We want to read passages from Chapters 1-2. We will begin at Verse 18 of Chapter 1. Hear now the Word of God.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-25
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
We look at Joseph standing in our manger scenes and think of him as having a bit part at best. When we read the Gospel accounts we see that Joseph never said a word. Basically, he is depicted as merely standing silently next to Mary by the manger, sometimes holding a lantern or lamp. Though he had no speaking part in the drama, he was very important in Jesus’ life.
Though quiet throughout the story of Jesus, Joseph exemplified faith and bravery. He was a hero in many ways. His courage was certainly made possible by his birth in Bethlehem. We see him navigating over those hills as he traveled by donkey with a woman who was great with child. He protected Jesus and Mary when Herod went crazy and decided to kill all the newborn boys under the age of two in Bethlehem. God selected Joseph, this common and ordinary man, to serve as the foster-father of Jesus, the adopted father of an infant. He certainly worked hard to provide for his family. I Timothy 5:8 says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially those of his own household, he has denied the faith and worse than an unbeliever,” worse than an infidel who has disowned the faith. He was called righteous, which means that he lived a morally upright life. I look at a man like Joseph and think of the funerals we have had this week for Guy Harvley and Bill Cantrell.
When we first meet Joseph, he is presented with a very perplexing dilemma. He was to be married to a woman he loved very much, Mary, but found out that she was pregnant. Of course anyone would assume immediately that Mary had been unfaithful to him, that she had, in essence committed adultery. Joseph loved Mary so much and he was so intent on protecting her that he decided not to disgrace her. He chose, instead, to divorce her quietly. I know this situation could have been a major scandal in the first century. Joseph could have made many unkind comments about Mary. Who would have blamed him? All the evidence pointed to the fact that she had been unfaithful to him.
The Gospel of Matthew at Chapter 13, Verse 55, identifies Jesus as the son of a carpenter. After the incident in the temple in which Jesus, at the age of twelve, spoke with the elders, Joseph disappeared from the scene. The only mention of him after that occurred when the people of Nazareth reflected on the fact that Jesus was indeed the son of Joseph. Carpenter is the usual translation of the Greek word tekton. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus was himself a carpenter or tekton. Translated into English, tekton means carpenter on almost every occasion. We get words like technology and technician from tekton. The word can actually mean any person who has a craft, especially in the construction industry, even a person who is a builder. The association is ordinarily with woodworking, and some early church fathers like Justin Martyr, for example, say that Joseph was especially known for making yokes and plows.
At the time of Joseph, Nazareth was an obscure village in Galilee with a population of no more than about 400. Only a mile or a mile and a half away was another town named Sepphoris, which may have been the hometown of Mary. The Romans destroyed the town but then determined to rebuild it extensively. You can go there now and see the ruins from their rebuilding. Tourists are shown a beautiful mosaic sometimes called the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. You can find little pieces of Roman glass scattered on the ground.
Where did the Romans get the workmen to reconstruct this village known as Sepphoris? They probably secured the manpower from surrounding villages such as Nazareth. Many scholars say that Joseph and Jesus had a hand in the work because craftsmen from all around the area assisted. They would have done some woodwork, but most of the town was constructed of stonemasonry.
The word tekton can certainly mean stonemason just as easily as it can mean carpenter. When we read the sayings of Jesus we can see references that let us know that he was familiar with a carpenter’s shop. He talks about having sawdust in the eye. He was concerned about taking a special sawdust out of another person’s eye when you a 2×4 is sticking out of your own eye. Jesus talked about making yokes, giving credence to Justin Martyr. Jesus said, “My yokes are well-fitting. My yokes are easy” (Matthew 11:30). Likewise, you can see evidence that Jesus knew a lot about stonemasonry. He said, “Tear this temple down and in three days I will rebuild it” (John 2:19). Of course, people misunderstood his meaning. He was speaking of his own life, not necessarily the temple that Herod had built. Jesus himself is called the cornerstone. He clearly knew a good bit about both carpentry and stonemasonry. Joseph, whatever his craft or crafts, was a hard-working man, a blue-collar worker, an ordinary person.
God could trust Joseph to be strong, even in a crisis. Carpenters have a wise old saying: “Measure twice and saw once.” It is simply a way of saying, “Take your time. Be sure. Then act.” You see Joseph doing exactly that in his reaction to Mary’s pregnancy. How must he have felt when he first received word that Mary had conceived a child? Surely he must have been shocked to the core. He knew Mary to be a pure woman, a woman who was saving herself for marriage. He certainly must have also been disappointed. He had dreamed about this woman, dreamed about being married to her. Now those dreams seem shattered. Joseph could have been angry. He certainly felt betrayed. No one would have blamed him if he had caused some sort of terrible scene. Joseph knew that he himself would have been publicly shamed if Mary’s pregnancy became obvious to this town of 400 people. “Measure twice. Saw once.” Even under these difficult circumstances, Joseph’s love for Mary came to the fore. He was determined to protect her even if she had sinned. It is true that love covers a multitude of sins. He decided to divorce her privately.
Then just in the nick of time an angel came to Joseph in a dream. That appearance must be more like Joseph’s namesake from the Old Testament. In that dream the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,” the name Joshua, which means Savior, because “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). When Joseph awakened, he showed no sign of wavering. He did not question the message from the angel. He simply believed.
Some years ago when I was at Harvard Divinity School, my classmates questioned me pretty seriously about why I believed in the virgin birth. They had good arguments, saying, “The story is not included in any of the earliest accounts.” “It does not appear in Mark or in any of the letters of Paul.” “The account appears only in Matthew and Luke.” This issue was not a theological proposition to Joseph. It was not a matter for doctrinal discussion to Joseph. This was his wife, and he had more at stake than anyone. My answer, “The reason I believe in the virgin birth is because Joseph did,” silenced them.
The account may not have been mentioned in the earliest accounts because it is doubtful that anyone would have believed it. Consider this scenario. When a young woman has a child at Spartanburg Regional or Mary Black, the nurse asks, “Who is the father of this child?”
The mother answers, “The Holy Spirit.”
Who is going to believe that response? Not many people. Mary and Joseph probably kept this marital secret between the two of them as something they pondered in their heart for a long, long time. Only after Joseph had long since died and Jesus had been crucified and resurrected would the virgin birth make sense. Then Mary could tell the account to the early church.
Then the next day according to the Scriptures, the angel again warned Joseph in a dream that he was to take the child and flee to Egypt. The wise men reported that Herod was searching for them, and the angel knew that Herod was up to no good.
All of us have been consumed by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School this week. That anyone would want to kill little children is a horror almost beyond imagination. It is into this kind of world that Jesus came. In Jesus’ day and time the ruler named Herod wanted to kill young children out of complete jealousy. He had heard that a new king was to be born in Bethlehem. He knew that if he could eradicate every male child under the age of two, he would get rid of this future king. The horror of that scene – Herod’s soldiers coming into the little town of Bethlehem and killing those children – is such a poignant reminder of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.
Clare and I have often watched together the film Jesus of Nazareth by Zeffirelli. It is actually one of our favorites when trying to understand the story of Jesus. One scene in that film involves the Holy Family, moving as dark shadows away from Bethlehem into the desert on their way to Egypt. Joseph is walking, and Mary is riding a donkey holding the baby. Clare says that she loves that scene because it is such a vivid reminder of how God wants to protect families. That scene has come to mind to us in these last days. The Scripture quotes Jeremiah: “This is what the LORD says: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more’” (Jeremiah 31:15). This week the voices and tears of Newtown, Connecticut, mingle with those of the women of Bethlehem who wept for their children.
Joseph escaped with his child and mother out of that land. Then in another dream Joseph learned that those seeking to take the life of Jesus had died. He knew not to return to the region of Judea though because King Archelaus has replaced his father, Herod. Instead, Joseph returned to the little town of Nazareth in Galilee. We do not know much about the life of this family there, but every bit of evidence suggests that Joseph was a wonderful foster-father who was determined that Jesus know his heavenly Father. By age twelve, Jesus could say, “I am about my Father’s business.” No mention is made of Joseph being a part of Jesus’ life after that incident in the temple.
I can imagine a young Jesus playing with blocks on the floor of Joseph’s shop. I can imagine Jesus getting a splinter in his hand and Joseph removing it for him. I can imagine Jesus flying a kite on the hills of Galilee or kicking a goatskin ball with other children. I can imagine Joseph working at a carpenter’s bench. I can imagine that as Jesus grew older, the two of them traveled to Sepphoris, maybe to lay stones for a building, maybe to do woodworking trim. Joseph never uttered a word. He was a quiet man, but a man who made a profound impact on the Son of God.
You can hear his influence when Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14). Where did he learn that kind of respect for children in a culture where children were regarded as half-people? He probably learned it by emulating the way Joseph treated him and his siblings. Jesus could stop and speak to a woman at a well in Samaria, to a woman who had had five husbands and whose reputation was pockmarked with sin, to a woman who came in from the streets, and to a woman caught in adultery. Where did Jesus find the compassion for these women? He certainly found compassion from God. In addition, hearing the stories of how Joseph treated his mother with such respect surely had an effect on him.
Go home today and look at your manger scene. Look at Mary and the baby. We concentrate on Mary and talk about how hard the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been for her. Notice the shepherds and wise men. We know from the Gospel of Matthew that the wise men reached the family sometime after the birth of Jesus, maybe as much as two years. Of course we position the wise men next to the shepherds in our nativity though they actually arrived there later. The Scripture says that they visited Mary and the baby in their house, not the stable.
Observe that guy just standing there silently. You look at Joseph and the most important thing about him is that he is right there next to Mary and that child. He returned to Bethlehem in order to pay taxes, to be counted like so many cattle. He made this humiliating trip even under difficult circumstances because he was obedient to the government just as he was obedient to God.
When he arrived in Bethlehem, no room was available for his family. You wonder what kind of conversation he must have had with the innkeeper to negotiate lodging in a stable. There in that stable was this woman that he loved so much giving birth to a child he would also cherish and love. He was a carpenter and/or a stonemason, yet he was expected to serve as a midwife and help this woman deliver a child. He is like Prissy in Gone with the Wind. He did not know “nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.” Joseph was a remarkable man.
Joseph was a good father who made a profound difference in the life of Jesus, this boy, this Son of God. He helped Jesus grow up and become the person that God wanted him to be. He taught his son with no fanfare. He was never voted Father of the Year. He was never afforded any kind of recognition other than just a few verses in the Scripture. I would suggest to you that Joseph’s role in the nativity drama is far more than just a bit part. It symbolizes courage and above all, faith.
That is exactly the way we need to come to the manger. We must come with courage, especially in days like this that require courage. I do not mean the courage associated with a Purple Heart although that type is perfectly good. I mean the quiet courage to stand fast, to stand firm, to keep the faith, and to be obedient to God. Joseph was that kind of man. God expects of every one of us to be like Joseph.
Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? Many of you do. We talk about presents at Christmas, those gifts underneath a tree. The other kind of presence is Immanuel, which means God with us. If you have not accepted Jesus Christ, could I invite you to acknowledge him as the Savior of your life? Make him your Lord. God works in a variety of ways in our hearts. It may be that He has been working in your life. If you have a decision to make that you would like us to know about, you respond.
Kirk H. Neely © December 2012