Joseph: A Model of Faithfulness
American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
“The Carpenters of Galilee,” that’s how we would be known, or at least, that was our dream. Mary, my beautiful Mary, would come to my carpenter shop and we would talk of how we would have sons, sons who would work with me to build a business worthy of a Son of David, building with me a life that would finally take us out of this dusty little no-account village of Nazareth once and for all. As I walk down the roads of Galilee, people would say, “There goes Joseph, the Carpenter.” When people would build new houses they would get their doors and windows from me. They would sit on my benches and eat at my tables. When farmers needed new implements, my sons and I could fill their orders. Mary and I would, well, …
I guess that dream is gone. What am I to do now? My Mary is carrying a child, and that child is not mine, and now nothing will ever be the same again. She tells me that she has not been with a man, but how can I believe such a story. Never before had I ever known her to lie to me, but maybe I have simply been the fool. Maybe she has been lying to me all along. All the time we were sharing our dreams, did she have other plans? I really want to believe her, but even if I choose to do so, the people of Judea never will. If I take her as my wife, I will never again be able to stand tall as a Son of David, as I will be despised for having been intimate with Mary before our wedding. If I turn her away, she will always be despised as an adulteress, as I am certain that she is. Her child will be fatherless… landless… homeless.
Since my youth I have always tried to be obedient to you, LORD. I have studied your word and placed it in my heart. It is your Word that guides my hands as I carve the wood you gave me. Your law gave me guidance and comfort, but now it brings only pain, for it says that I am to take Mary to the house of her father and have her stoned at its entrance. I love Mary so deeply. I cannot bring myself to do anything like that. Mary is in serious trouble, and who does she have to turn to but me? How can I cast her out? Yes, we can go through a quiet and private divorce from our betrothal, and that may be the answer, but still she will lose everything. With no brothers, her inheritance will be lost, and with no redeemer there will be no person to care for her. Is there any hope at all for either of us? God, you have always been faithful to me. I will do whatever you ask, just tell me.
Are you positioned in such a way that God can work through you in order to accomplish His kingdom purposes? Or, have you positioned yourself in such a way that you exercise all or most of your God-given talents, skills and resources to accomplish purposes that bring your own personal gain? Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes, leaning toward one end or the other.
The one character trait that best establishes our position on this spectrum is that of faithfulness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To what are we truly faithful? Christians refer to themselves as “people of faith,” and we speak of Christianity, not as a religion, but as a faith. God’s promise of eternal salvation, the promise of complete forgiveness for sin, is offered to all who place their faith in Him. Consequently, this idea of faith and faithfulness is of critical importance to a “person of faith.”
“Faithfulness” is the spontaneous and irrepressible fruit of one who is truly faithful, one who truly lives out their faith in submission to the LORD, Jesus Christ in their choices, their attitudes, and their behavior. Often we may become discouraged when we judge our own faithfulness by what we think we observe in others. We observe some Christians who seem to be at the front of the crowd, receiving much attention and accolade for their good works, and we somehow think less of ourselves. We might think that we have few special talents or gifts that God can use, so we do not make an effort to give to Him from what He has given us.
Faithfulness is simply accomplished through consistent, uncompromised, submission of our hearts and lives to the LORD. He has given all of us a variety of unique interests, gifts, and talents that we can dedicate to Him and use to demonstrate His love for us, our love for others, and allow Him to use them for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.
When we study the biblical text we find many spiritual giants who overcome great barriers and do great and wonderful works for God. However, the true expression of faithfulness has little to do with being a spiritual giant, and more to do with being an obedient child of God. All Christians can be found faithful to God, and when their innate abilities seem small, God can often better use them to accomplish great things.
The following Bible passage describes some of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ as observed through the life of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We will find Joseph to be a simple man of faith through whom God was able to accomplish some seemingly impossible things. Joseph can be an example to us of someone who might be considered lowly and plain, but one whom God used for God-sized tasks, simply because Joseph, by his faithfulness, placed himself into a position where God could use him.
When we think of the birth of Christ, what are some of the important events that come to mind? We might envision
· the angels appearing to the shepherds to bring them the news of the Savior’s birth,
· the star of Bethlehem,
· the baby in the stable,
· the coming of the “wise men.”
One of the most important participants in this true drama is also the one most often overlooked: Joseph. Mary, the mother of Christ, is venerated to the point of highest sainthood by many Christians, and Joseph is treated as an obligatory ornament in the nativity scene. Such a view of the nativity robs us of some very important lessons that are an integral part of the event.
Why do we tend to overlook Joseph? It might be that Joseph did not seem to slay any giants, defeat any great armies, raise the dead from the grave, etc. It might be because of the silence of the scriptures when it comes to Joseph’s status during the ministry of Jesus. Most scholars presume that Joseph had died naturally during Jesus’ early teens.
We know very little about Joseph. The genealogy that starts the gospel of Matthew is a list of Joseph’s ancestors, and is brought through the line of David, fulfilling the prophesy that the Messiah would be a son of David. The recording of this genealogy for Joseph does not affect the genealogy of Christ, but does serve to bring honor upon this poor and simple carpenter. A similar genealogy is listed in Luke’s gospel, describing a quite divergent path from David to Joseph. When reading scriptural genealogies, we must understand that those names that are listed are the patriarchs of family groups and may represent several generations, only one of which is named in the list. It is not possible to count generations between specific people from the data in the biblical text: the documentation is simply not there.
1. JOSEPH, FAITHFUL IN MARRIAGE.
We know that Joseph was a man who was very faithful to God. God chose Joseph and Mary to be the parents of Jesus, parents who would raise the child in an environment that could be used of God to nurture the Messiah in a world that would seek to destroy Him. With this understood, we can start to develop a better understanding of who Joseph of Nazareth was.
Matthew 1:18. This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
Mary was pledged, or betrothed, to Joseph. This betrothal was similar to what we consider engagement, but the Ancient Israelites held a much deeper import in it than is the current practice. We consider engagement simply as an announcement of the intent to marry, usually initiated by the two to be married, and signified only by the giving of a ring to the future bride. Also, a modern engagement can be easily broken off at a whim, and such a break is often encouraged if it looks like there could be problems making the marriage successful.
In the first-century Jewish society a betrothal was often determined by the family, without regard for the relationship between the two to be married, and often formed by inter-family agreements over land or business. Sometimes this betrothal would be established when the female is a young child. The initial act of betrothal usually took place in the presence of witnesses, and was often accompanied by a feast or celebration commemorating the event. The commitment of the betrothal was considered as binding and absolute as the bond of marriage, and to end a betrothal required the same process as that to end a marriage.
So, we find Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph, to be with child prior to the consummation of their marriage, prior to her having any intimate relationship with Joseph or any other man. What impact would such a discovery have as it relates her relationship to those around her? She would be despised as an adulteress.
How would their society expect Joseph to respond to this news? He would be expected to give her a letter of divorce, identifying the reason to be adultery. According to their laws, she should be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house, but there is little evidence that this punishment for adultery was ever used during the New Testament era, and stoning was illegal under Roman law. Mary would certainly lose all of the rights of inheritance, and that loss would be passed on to her illegitimate child. We start to see the faithfulness of Joseph in his immediate response to this dilemma.
The biblical narrative gives us a good idea of what Joseph was thinking when Mary told him of her condition.
Though the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah describes this conception as immaculate, there would be no reason for Joseph to believe it, or even think of those prophecies and their application to this situation. Joseph’s response clearly indicates that he did not equate this situation with the messianic prophecies. He was in a terrible situation. What would happen if he married Mary? He would be publicly admitting that he was the father of this child, that he had had inappropriate relations with Mary prior to marriage, exposing him to a litany of degrading responses from the two families involved and from their society. The alternatives under Jewish law were devastating.
Matthew 1:19. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Here, the scripture describes Joseph as righteous. This word refers to sincere righteousness in the sight of God, a righteousness that comes only, yet fully, by Joseph's faith in God, and on that faith alone. Joseph desired in his heart to be obedient to God and live his life within the context of that obedience. It is that faithfulness that shaped who Joseph was, and would motivate his response to what would become a profoundly tragic situation.
We do not have sufficient evidence to determine whether this betrothal was arranged, or one based upon their love for one another, though traditionally such betrothals were arranged by the fathers long before the couple were formally introduced. We do see that Joseph cared for Mary very much. Rather than expose her to the consequences of the public knowledge of her adultery, he was considering how to give her the certificate of divorce without public disclosure. It may be instructive to realize that Joseph fully believes that Mary has committed adultery, has been intimate with another man, and has become pregnant as a result of that most grievous sin, a sin against him, her family, herself, and her Lord. How would Joseph feel? It is evident that he cared for her, so he must have been tragically hurt. In this one announcement he sees his whole future radically changed. The peace and joy of his immediate world is shattered. Most likely the woman he loves appears to have been playing him for a fool. Yet still, he cares enough for her to try to find a way to divorce her without hurting her in any way. What does this say about this man?
Joseph was trying to figure out a way to deal with this tragic situation. Surely, as a righteous man, he was praying to God for an answer. Meeting Joseph at his point of need, God provided an answer, and certainly, it was one Joseph did not expect.
Matthew 1:20-21. 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. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
An angel came to Joseph as he slept. The Lord chose to use this angel to assure Joseph that Mary was being truthful in her testimony concerning the conception of the child. The manner of the betrothal was not compromised and it was appropriate that he would marry Mary because this child is indeed from God. Furthermore, he is to call Mary’s son by the name of Jesus (Greek), or Joshua (Hebrew), more closely Y’shua because this child is indeed the Messiah of Isaiah’s prophecy.
JOSEPH, FAITHFUL TO THE HOLY SPIRIT.
Put yourself in Joseph’s position. What would you think when you woke up from a dream such as this? Would you believe the angel, or attribute the experience to a wildly vivid, but meaningless and powerless dream? Most of us would probably have wakened with sufficient doubts to discount the message.
Matthew 1:22-25. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23”The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” - which means, “God with us.” 24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
The prophecies concerning the virgin birth of the Messiah were common knowledge among those Jews who were interested in their history and heritage. The belief in the prophecy was widespread enough that many young girls would wonder if they were the one who would be the mother of the Messiah. Consequently, the repetition of this prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 would be quickly understood by Joseph. His belief in the message would be predicated upon his belief of the prophecies and his trust in God’s Word and his trust in the LORD.
Again, we see the faithfulness of Joseph by his immediate and unquestioned response. He confidently believed the angel, and all of his anxieties and doubts were completely dispelled. Joseph immediately went to Mary, told her of the visitation by the angel, and told her of his belief in the truth of what she had told him. He most likely apologized for his distrust of her, and quickly married her. Joseph did not spend time questioning God. Joseph did not spend time analyzing the impact that this decision would have on his personal future. Joseph acted immediately on the word that He had heard from the Holy Spirit. Joseph did not let anything distract him from serving God. This is faithfulness.
Furthermore, Joseph showed his respect for the sensitivity of Mary’s (and his own) position, and his reverence for God by his abstinence from intimacy with Mary while she was pregnant with the Christ child.
JOSEPH, FAITHFUL AMIDST CONFLICT
We see here evidence of Joseph’s unquestioning obedience of God’s call on Joseph’s life. The consequences of his taking Mary as his wife were very great. From the ancient world’s standpoint, Mary was, and always would be unquestionably considered an adulteress. It does not take a lot of research to reveal that Joseph was not recognized or respected by the general community as Jesus’ father. Throughout scripture, a man is referred to as the son of his father, without regard to whether the father is alive or dead: David, the son of Jesse; Joshua, the son of Nun, Joseph, the son of Israel; etc. When Jesus is described by those who do not know him, He is was often referred to, not the Son of Joseph, but the “Son of Mary.” Two exceptions are recorded in John’s gospel. Today's modern culture may understand this reference to Mary, Jesus’ mother as a beautiful and poetic description of the nativity. In reality this form of reference is a grievous insult in ancient near-eastern culture, a constant reminder to Joseph, to Mary, and to the community that Jesus is an illegitimate child, a child without any true right of inheritance, a reminder that the man who calls himself his father is, in reality, only an illegitimate step-father. Today's Western culture is characterized by illicit relationships, broken homes, fatherless children, and mixed marriages, and there is very little distain for children born out of wedlock. However, these ancient children and their parents were despised in the legalistic, hypocritical, and highly charged traditional, religious society of the Jews.
It must have required a great amount of courage that was found in His trust in the LORD for Joseph to take Mary as his wife. We understand that he will be resigning the rest of his days to the whispers of the hypocritical and self-righteous, and a future with little opportunity for attaining any position of social respect if he remains in or near his ancestral home. He would not be able to pursue any career that would be significantly respected by the people. Even as a lowly carpenter, he would now be the last one to be considered for a job by many of his potential customers. Though carpentry was a respectable trade, it was not a particularly profitable one. He knew he would never be wealthy. He would certainly never be eligible to serve as an elder in the community or attain to any ministry in the temple or synagogues.
Furthermore, there was another difficulty associated with his acceptance of Mary. Joseph had been told by God that the son, Jesus, is the long-awaited Messiah. Scripture described the Messiah as one who would be born of a virgin, and if he did not yet have a clear understanding that this was the fulfillment of that specific prophecy, it would not have taken him long to hear from Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah enough to complete his understanding of the situation. Joseph was under tremendous pressure from both sides of social opinion: he would be despised by the world, and he would be responsible for being the father of the Messiah.
What is it that motivates courage in a person? One of the greatest sources of true courage is found in a sincere determination to defend what one believes is right and what is true, particularly when expressed in the defense of one who is loved. Such courage can be a part of any person’s character, and when inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Christian has a resource for courage that far surpasses any other. Even one who, by all appearances, may be meek and mild can demonstrate tremendous courage, confidence, and strength when pressed to defend what he/she firmly believes in. All Christians have the capacity for the expression of such courage. All that is lacking to inspire courageous behavior in many is the sincere determination to stand with Christ, without compromise, in a world that has no interest in Him.
JOSEPH, FAITHFUL IN WORSHIP
We find another indication of Joseph’s lifestyle of obedience when he led his family in the traditional and ceremonial circumcision of the child, offered the required sacrifice of redemption for the child in the temple: a sacrifice that was typical of those who were poor. He also demonstrates his faithfulness in the LORD by his consistent attendance at the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. Virtually every biblical narrative that concerns any action by Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, describes a man of uncompromising faith and obedience to the LORD. Such obedience starts with a heart of true worship.
JOSEPH, FAITHFULNESS IN RESPONSE TO THE LORD
The next biblical reference concerning the life of Joseph occurs about two years later. Jesus is between one and two years old when the Star of Bethlehem appears to those who are referred to as “wise men” or “Magi,” and serves to lead them to Bethlehem. This event would set in motion a sequence of events that would fulfill a well-known and problematic prophetic “Messianic Paradox:”
· In Micah 5:2, the Messiah is prophesied to come from Bethlehem.
· In Hosea 11:1, the Messiah is prophesied to come from Egypt.
· In several references the prophets spoke of him as being a Nazarene, which in Matthew’s time was the same as saying he was the despised object of disgrace.
How could the Messiah come from three different places? This paradox was never fully understood by Hebrew scholars, and even today when considering this paradox, they cannot proffer an answer to it without facing the reality of the identity of the Messiah, an identity they reject.
Joseph’s obedience to God, and his obedience alone, would prove to be the one key component in completely fulfilling these three conflicting prophecies. The “wise men” came to Bethlehem after visiting a very evil King Herod, the Tetrarch over Judah who tenuously served at the will of Rome. The Christmas story we most commonly recall focuses in on the three gifts the Magi brought: gold for a King, myrrh for a martyr, and incense for a God. We may tend to forget that these men had just told King Herod that the birth of the new King of Israel had recently taken place in Bethlehem of Judea.
Matthew 2:13-15. 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.” 14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where 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.” Hosea 11:1
Joseph had met an angel of the Lord in a dream before. Tradition holds that this is the archangel Gabriel. Joseph was told by this messenger from the LORD to leave his home and his place of business that he had established since coming to Bethlehem. In what way did Joseph respond to the angel’s message? He did not even wait for the rising of the sun to get out of town. He woke up, took the child and Mary, and left for a place in Egypt, a place that the angel had told him to go where he would be safe. Again, tragedy enters Joseph’s life as he witnesses the consequences of his being married to Mary. Herod sent his soldiers to the region of Bethlehem to kill every male child less than two years of age in an effort to destroy any challenge to his throne. The consequences of this event were great. What the angel had prophesied immediately took place.
Many of us demonstrate faithfulness to God's call upon our lives, but may not be quite as responsive as Joseph. Had Joseph delayed in his response to God's call, Jesus would most likely have been subject to the danger of being discovered by Herod's soldiers. Often we respond to God's call with delay. We may need assurance that the call is real. We may prefer to take care of other business before we go about the business of the LORD. How many opportunities and blessings do we miss when we fail to respond promptly to God's call?
Matthew 2:16-23. When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18”A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”Jeremiah 31:15
Herod did kill all of the male babies in the region. And, as far as he ever knew, he had succeeded in destroying what he perceived as a threat to his throne. Herod was an extremely wicked and evil man, and the depths of his depravity were exceeded only by his son, Archelaus who succeeded the throne when Herod died in 4 B.C. We have no idea of how long Joseph was in Egypt, but it is interesting that God provided for them while they were there. How did they afford to live in Egypt, having left everything behind in Bethlehem? Mary would be given the opportunity to use all of the gifts that the Magi brought, including the gold to sustain them, the incense to worship with, and ultimately the myrrh that would be taken by Mary to an empty tomb.
Matthew 2:19-21. After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20and 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.” 21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Like the children of Israel, who followed the Pillar of Fire, Joseph is again following the instructions of the angel of his dreams. Joseph is informed that the immediate danger to Jesus has passed, and they can now return home. From all appearances, Joseph may have set his path towards Bethlehem. He had established his carpentry business there when the child was too young to travel, and it would be reasonable to return to his own property, to the place where people knew him and knew of his trade. Even still, his plans would be subject to God’s protection of the Christ child:
Matthew 2:22a. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
Joseph heard that Herod’s son, who was worse than Herod himself, had risen to the throne. What was Joseph’s response to that knowledge? He found himself in a position not dissimilar to that which he experienced when he heard of Mary’s condition prior to their marriage. He had some deciding to do. Would it be too dangerous to go back to Bethlehem where he would be assured of success in his carpentry career? If not Bethlehem, where should he go? Again, because of his faithful nature Joseph would seek God for the answer, and God is always faithful.
Matthew 2:22b-23. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Again, Joseph would listen to the message from God that came in a dream, and this time the angel would lead his family to the region of Galilee to a very small town of Nazareth. Nazareth was considered a very poor place to live, a place that prompted Nathaniel to say, “Nazareth! Can any good ever come out of there?” Even the name “Nazareth” was used as an adjective to describe someone of no worth. Such a non-descript community would be the perfect place to hide the Christ child from the eyes of this Herod. Joseph would move to Nazareth and stay there. Of the few times that Jesus is referred to as the Son of Joseph, it is in reference to his coming from Nazareth, the home of Joseph. Nazareth became Jesus’ home, and as “Jesus of Nazareth” He would be known in the region as the Teacher, the Rabbi, and ultimately, the Messiah.
Joseph’s obedience and faithfulness to God resulted in a miraculous fulfillment of the prophetic paradox. He displayed faithfulness in his acceptance of this profound responsibility, doing so without regard to the tremendous negative impact it would have on his personal future. He demonstrated courage when he faced the consequences of the decision to be faithful to the call that God had placed upon his life. He displayed discernment as he continually listened to God’s message as he guided and protected the Christ child from the Jerusalem leadership that would ultimately put Him to death as Herod had wanted to do. “Joseph was a good father, and a faithful husband. Jesus’ earthly life bears witness that this carpenter from Nazareth was faithful in all God gave him to do.
How can we develop such faithfulness, righteousness, courage, and discernment? Peter wrote,
2 Peter 3-4. “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
God will produce in us those traits when we are faithful to Him. Through our yielding to the Holy Spirit in the circumstances we experience, God can shape in us a character that can be used of Him in his Kingdom on Earth. Let us not forget the example of righteousness that is set by Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. At the same time let us remember that we have the same resource for faithfulness to God.
 It is the opinion of this writer that the star of Bethlehem is simply the return of the Shekinah Glory of God, the Pillar of Fire witnessed by Israel for 1,200 years.
 Isaiah 11:10; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-16.
 Malina, Bruce. p. 29.
 Stewart, Don H. p. 29.
 Fowler, R.D. p. 64.
 Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
 McCoy, Glenn. p. 53.
 1 Samuel 20:27, et. al.
 Exodus 33:11.
 1 Chronicles 5:1; 7:29.
 Mark 6:3, et. al.
 John 1:45, 6:42.
 McArthur, Harvey K. pp. 38-39.
 Fowler, R.D. p. 64.
 Kerr, M. (1939). Joseph. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. P. 1740.
 Luke 2:21.
 Luke 2:21-24.
 Leviticus 12:1-8.
 Luke 2:41.
 Psalm 22:6-8; 69:8, 20, 21; Isaiah 11:1; 49:7; 53:1-3; Daniel 9:26.
 John 1:45.
 Fowler, R.D. p. 66.