There is comparatively little that Scripture tells us about the man who raised our Lord Jesus as his own son. He leaves the stage almost as soon as he entered it. We have no dialogue from him. But while he is a silent character of Scripture, he still speaks volumes.
And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations. […]Matthew 1:16-21
Summary of the Text
The “begats” of Matthew run along as expected until it runs into the most unexpected thing that ever happened: Jesus born of Mary, not by natural conception but by the Holy Ghost (vv16, 18). Joseph is reckoned as Jesus father, and thus Jesus shares the Royal lineage back to David, and the covenantal lineage back the Abraham (v17). Matthew tells us that Joseph was espoused to Mary, but before they had consummated their marriage, Mary was found to be with child, and this by the work of the Holy Ghost (v18, Cf. Lk 1:26).
This put Joseph, a righteous son of Kings, in a quandary (v19). While Joseph pondered what to do, the angel of the Lord came to him in a dream to reveal God’s mighty deeds and glorious purposes to him (v20). Joseph is given his marching orders: fearlessly take Mary as his wife, and name the son which would be born Jesus (v21). This all is what Isaiah prophesied to King Ahaz (Cf. Mt. 1:22-23, Is. 7:14), and Joseph did as he was told (Mt. 1:24-25). Though Joseph has no recorded dialogue, the one word we know he spoke was Jesus, when he named the firstborn son of Mary.
The professional trade of Joseph was that of carpentry, and of course Jesus would later be Joseph’s apprentice in this trade. There’s a wide range of skills which this likely encompassed; it wasn’t just wood-work, but also stone-work; might even mean as much as an architect. Herod built his palace just outside of Bethlehem. The Magi arrived within the first two years after Christ was born; meaning, Joseph probably was employed in the construction of Herod’s vanity project. David’s heir was right under the imposter king’s nose, in other words. Their trek to Bethlehem (Lk. 2:4), and however long their stay in Bethlehem was a rather dangerous one. Especially given how deranged and paranoid King Herod was.
Jesus came to be known as “the carpenter” (Mk. 6:3) as well as being referred to as Joseph’s son (Lk. 4:22, Jn.6:42). Joseph clearly took seriously his role to raise this divinely begotten son of God as his own son. Through the few glimpses at Christ’s early days, we see that Joseph was present & active.
Though David’s royal line was humbled and obscured, the Angel of the Lord greets Joseph as a son of David. To paraphrase one commentator, by greeting him with a great title, great deeds were expected from this humble carpenter.
A Just Man
Perhaps the most significant thing we learn from Scripture about Joseph is that he is called “a just man.” This is the same language that is used of OT heroes of the faith, like Noah, Abraham, Job, and David. Joseph stands in the ranks of just men made perfect.
This declaration of his being a righteous man is in the same breath as describing his contemplation of divorce from Mary his betrothed (Deu. 22:23-29). Hardliners on divorce and no-fault divorce advocates both are confronted with a rebuke in Joseph’s action. His desire was to be faithful to the ordinances of God as respecting adultery, but also desiring to show mercy to Mary. It would seem that Joseph was deeply puzzled that Mary (who he knew only as a virtuous woman) was pregnant out of wedlock. At last, he determined to divorce her as privately as was possible, laying no charge of unfaithfulness upon her. It would become known eventually, but she would be spared the worst of any scandal.
His righteousness is, like all the righteous, by faith alone. His faith is seen in his swift obedience in response to the four times an angel came to him in his dreams. It is worth pointing out that Joseph is given a prophetic ministry, he is taken up into the counsels God, and let in on the divine deliberations.
Our text gives the first instance of this swift, obedient faith, he is told of the divine conception and does as the angel instructs. There is no dilly in Joseph’s dally. The next instance is when the angel warns Joseph of Herod’s wicked design to massacre Bethlehem’s infant boys (Mt. 2:13-14). The third dream takes place after Herod died, the angel informs Joseph that it is now safe to return from Egypt (Mt. 2:18-21). But in the final dream Joseph is warned not to dwell in proximity to Archelaus, but to go and dwell in Galilee, and it would seem that Joseph had the fulfillment of prophecy in mind (Cf. Is. 11:1) and selected Nazareth as the hometown of his son (Mt. 2:22-23). Joseph walked by faith. This was no blind faith either, it was a faith informed by God’s revealed Word.
Joseph also demonstrates this life of faith in at least three other episodes. Even under the Roman oppression, Joseph is a dutiful citizen (Lk. 2:4-6). He brought Jesus to be circumcised according to Moses’ Law, along with the proper sacrifice for their poor (or at least refugee) estate (Lk. 2:22-24). Joseph also took his family to Jerusalem for the customary feasts (Lk. 2:42). It could also be added to this that Joseph had other children by Mary (at least four sons, and some daughters, for at least six siblings for Jesus); these children eventually became followers & martyrs of the Lord Jesus.
Another Dreaming Joseph
Looking back at the genealogy, there is something which might easily escape our notice, but which Matthew uses to spark our remembrance. A Jacob begets a Joseph who fathers a Joshua. Remember that Joshua was descended from Joseph (by Ephraim, Cf. Num. 13:8). Here again is a dreaming Joseph, used to bring about the salvation of the world. Here again is a Joshua, raised up to save God’s people, this time from their sin.
It is easy to see Joseph as a prince of David’s line. This fulfills one aspect of the anticipated Messianic reign. But we also see another thread, and Joseph ben-Jacob is the typological link. Ironically, when Israel was split into two Kingdoms, Judah is how the Southern Kingdom came to be known, but Israel was sometimes called Ephraim. In other words, in this son of Joseph, all Messianic types and shadows terminate.
Here is David’s heir. Here is a conquering Joshua. Here is the Scepter rising out of Judah. Here is the multitude of Ephraim. Here is Joseph’s fruitful bough and the crown on his brow (Gen.49:22-26). Here is the shepherd and stone of Israel. Here is the reunification of Israel. And Joseph called his name Jesus, by faith.
Two applications should be drawn out of the example of Joseph. We walk by faith, not by sight. You must not try to demand of God more explanation than His Word plainly declares to you. Do not be merely a hearer of the Word revealed to you, but do it. Secondly, you are not the main character of the story, just as Joseph was not. But you must, in the same faithful humility, do your duty. Believe the revealed Word, and proclaim the name of Jesus.
The charge is this, as we celebrate the Incarnation of the Word, we ought to want that understanding to be shaped by the Word; rather than having it shaped by Christmas Cards, Precious Moments nativity figurines, or Hallmark Movies. Be shaped by the Word, just as Joseph evidently was: a just and merciful man who humbly followed God’s Word.