Updated: Dec 8, 2020
It seems Joseph is often perceived as a one-dimensional character in the Christmas story. There is little information about him in the New Testament. He was present at the birth of Christ and is referenced again in Luke 2:41-52 when Jesus was found listening to teachers in the temple as a young boy. After this event, however, Joseph fades away. By the time Jesus was arrested and crucified, there is no mention of him. Surely he had passed away by the time the events of the cross took place.
Although the earthly father of Jesus played a less dramatic role, he wasn’t just there to guide the donkey to Bethlehem. We would be remiss to ignore the worthy qualities of this exceptional man. Most people associate Joseph as nothing more than a bearded man who appears in the nativity scene in a disconnected sort of way. While much is made of Mary, Joseph remains little known and mostly forgotten. Yet he steadfastly stood with Mary as a model to believers of a compassionate and obedient man.
In Matthew 1, we read that Joseph was just and righteous. He cared deeply about doing things the right and honorable way. In fact, it is this very strength of character that creates so much angst in his heart. He is torn between the social expectations he faces and the compassion he feels deeply for his betrothed. Because he was righteous, he knew he could not go through with his planned marriage to Mary if she had been unfaithful to him. Although he had every legal right to rid himself of her, he had no desire to shame or humiliate her. In kindness to her, he chose to treat her with compassion.
Joseph had every reason to believe Mary had been unfaithful to him. While her life and character had given him no reason to suspect she would do such a thing, the evidence of a pregnant fiancée would soon be obvious to all. Knowing he had not consummated their union, he was left to conclude that she had been untrue. What a devastating situation for such a good man!
Joseph had the law and logic on his side. While Mary had a wild tale of dreams, angels, and spirits, he certainly could not be blamed for harboring skepticism towards her, if not an outright concern for her mental state. As the evidence of Mary’s condition became increasingly obvious, Joseph had a decision to make. Even before the angel appeared to Joseph, he had already resolved to treat her with kindness. He did not give in to the fleshly desire for revenge but instead made the decision to divorce her quietly. It would seem that Joseph cared for Mary despite her alleged offense, and so, having no desire to add unnecessary shame to her, he continued on with what he felt was the right thing to do. Yet he did so with compassion.
Of course, as the modern-day reader, we know the story from beginning to end. We know that Mary was innocent, but at that moment, Joseph did not. All he knew for sure was that Mary had told him she was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. There did not seem to be many options to consider. His gracious character shines as he desires to ease the difficult journey that Mary finds herself on. He, the offended party -- or so he assumed -- chose gentleness over retribution and mercy over vengeance. It is little wonder he was chosen to be the earthly father of the Messiah.
Joseph’s actions demonstrate one of the best aspects of the Christmas season for us today. Something about the holidays inspires people to put the well-being of others above themselves. It doesn’t seem to last throughout the year, but for a short period of time, it is lovely to see. People tend to be more gracious and compassionate at Christmas. It seems that forgiveness and kindness come more easily during the season, allowing relationships to be reconciled. Undoubtedly everyone knows someone who needs compassion. Oh, that we would treat others with grace, thereby emulating Joseph's example! What could be better at Christmastime than to pour out your compassion on those who may not deserve it? And like Joseph, it may just be that you do not fully understand all someone else is going through at the moment. Choose to be gracious!
Perhaps because of Joseph’s just behavior towards Mary, God graciously put his doubts to rest by sending His angel to reassure Joseph of His plan. Certainty can be a precious gift to a mind that is riddled with doubt. Having received an angelic message of his own, Joseph was obedient to God in every way possible. First, "he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him" (Matthew 1:24). As Mary did, Joseph believed the word from God and responded in clear and immediate obedience. He did not push her away but solidified his allegiance to Mary, and even more so, to God’s plan.
Understand that, like Mary, his obedience would come at a high price. He undoubtedly heard the sneers and taunts from people who would never believe their story. Joseph dealt with the skeptics who questioned Mary’s character. He most likely endured unsolicited advice from people regarding what he should have done and how he should have handled the situation. Yes, obedience was costly, but the assurance of God’s plan held greater value.
Joseph faced an even greater test of his obedience as Scripture records, "he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son" (Matthew 1:25). Joseph’s behavior towards Mary was holy and pure from the time of the angelic announcement until it was proper to consummate their marriage. It would have been tempting, and without any earthly consequence, to disobey. Yet Joseph again chose to live in submission to God’s plan. Joseph faced public condemnation as well as private temptation. Yet obedience prevailed as his confidence in God’s plan strengthened him until the birth of Jesus. Would you choose to live like Joseph this Christmas season and obey the Lord no matter the consequences?
Believers must have a godly response to temptation even when no one is looking. Even when there is seemingly no earthly consequence for our sin, we must remain faithful. We would do well to follow Joseph's example and live in obedience to the will of the Lord, even if God is the only One who sees. His approval alone is sufficient motivation as we follow His direction.
(this is an excerpt from Christmas: God's Greatest Gift by Michael)
"Christmas: God's Greatest Gift" is a new book Michael has written that walks through the Christmas story and the hope of the gospel. To purchase a copy, click here and mention how many copies you'd like and where you'd like them shipped. To request prayer, please click here.