Thoughts from Doug Knox.
JOSEPH, CHRISTMAS'S FORGOTTEN FATHER
The Eclipse of Joseph
The book of Luke is usually the go-to Gospel on Jesus’ birth. This is the book where we see the angel Gabriel make his announcement to Mary that she will have a miraculous son. Mary visits Elizabeth and pronounces her Magnificat. Mary gives birth to Jesus and places her son in a manger, Mary contemplates the news that she hears from the shepherds. When she and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem for his circumcision, Mary receives prophetic news from Simeon the prophet. Because Luke’s account is so powerful, it tends to dominate the season, and that puts Mary in the spotlight. Joseph resides in the background. In most of the Christmas stories, he looks like the passive father. Actually, he is anything but. Matthew’s account puts him in the spotlight. There, he is a principled man who acts on his beliefs. He listens to God’s word, and he is a man of action who acts without hesitation to protect his family.
A Man of Principle
Matthew opens Jesus’ birth account from Joseph’s point of view when he first learns that his fiancée is pregnant. Matthew writes,
Matthew 1:18-19 (ESV)18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
In the Hebrew culture, a marriage betrothal was as binding as marriage itself. This is the reason why Matthew refers to “her husband Joseph.” Matthew gives us a glimpse into his character. He is “a just man and unwilling to put her to shame.” The combination of his sense of justice and tempered with compassion is significant. Many men believe in justice, but their practice is cold. A “just” man could have counted his reputation more highly than anything else. Such a man might have shamed his fiancée publicly to bolster himself. Joseph is unwilling to do this and resolves to put Mary away quietly. We must admire the sense of mercy that prevents him from using rage to masquerade as principle. We do not know whether Mary told Joseph about Gabriel’s visit to announce her miraculous pregnancy. If she did, her words alone would have sounded blasphemous. If she did not, he still would have realized the fact. Regardless of what occurred, his only logical recourse is to assume that she has been unfaithful and has broken their marriage vow.
A Teachable Man
This is where Matthew shows us Joseph’s willingness to listen to his God.
Matthew 1:20-21 (ESV)20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The angel’s instructions to Joseph, “Do not fear…,” refer to a calling. They do not eliminate all fear. Rather, they direct him to one issue. Mary is God’s chosen servant. Do not be afraid to commit to her. Joseph also receives instructions to call the child’s name Jesus, the equivalent of the Old Testament name Joshua. The name means “God has saved.” During Israel’s conquest of Canaan, God had used Joshua to lead his redeemed people through the land that he had promised Abraham. Now Jesus will demonstrate God’s salvation in a deeper light than anyone could have anticipated during Joshua’s time. He will save his people from their sins. Joseph’s command to name the child Jesus shows more than just God’s intent to bring salvation to his people. It illustrates Joseph’s acceptance of the child as his own and his commitment to protect his family. His call to faith is just as deep as Mary’s.
A Man of Action
At this point in the narrative, Matthew turns to the Maji from the East. Their story is familiar. King Herod tells them to return with word of the child’s whereabouts so he can go to worship him as well. This, of course, is a ruse, and God directs the Maji to return another way.
Joseph is the unsung hero in the account, however. After the Maji leave, God tells him in a dream, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). Joseph again obeys. Matthew relates that Joseph leaves “by night” with his wife and child for Egypt (Matthew 2:14). I suspect that Matthew’s words refer to a middle-of-the-night evacuation. When Joseph is called to protect his family, he acts immediately. Matthew records one more incident in which Joseph acts on his family’s behalf. After Herod dies, God tells him that he may return to Israel safely. On the return, he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus rules in his place, and he realizes the continuing danger. Listening to the angel in a dream again, he takes his family to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew2:22). He is not just a man who follows instructions blindly. He thinks on his feet.
A Humble Man
Joseph understands from the beginning that God has chosen to work through Mary to bring his Son into the world. When Mary takes center stage during Jesus’ early years, he accepts his role as guardian. He never complains. He never seeks recognition. He remains content to serve his family. His genuine humility makes him almost invisible, and that is his glory.