Advent: Who was Joseph?

Joseph

George de la Tour‘s St. Joseph the Carpenter (Wikipedia Commons)

As we enter the third week of Advent, my Bible study has turned to Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, who was this man and how did he find himself in an impossible situation orchestrated by God?

The book of Matthew gives us a genealogy and several interesting points about him.

A descendant, like Mary, of the great King David, Joseph was a carpenter–which could be interpreted as mason or builder. He made things with his hands, which would be typical of the time!

He lived in Nazareth, a fairly insignificant town not far from a trade route, in the hills southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeological research suggests Joseph may have worked in the nearby city of Sepporis which was being rebuilt at the time.

The text does not tell us how old Joseph was, but certainly he would have been much older than his devout bride. He could support himself and a family. He probably had memorized the first five books of the Bible–the Torah–and undoubtedly was a devout Jew.

He entered into a betrothal with Mary–who was a devout young woman.

At that time, Jewish marriage had several stages. The family agreed to the union; the couple announced their betrothal (similar to an engagement, but the relationship could only be broken through death or divorce. No physical relationship allowed). This stage usually lasted a year, some thought to ensure the bride was not pregnant. Finally, they were married and lived together with all rights and privileges.

Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as being a “just” or “righteous man.”

We do not know when Mary approached him to reveal her pregnancy. Some believe Mary’s trip to Elizabeth was an attempt to avoid an “honor” killing because of the pregnancy. We have no record of who told Joseph–Mary or a member of her family. The Scriptures say only “before they came together, she was found with child by the Holy Spirit.”

What would “she was found with child by the Holy Spirit” mean to Joseph?

“Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things . . .”

Because of his character and undoubtedly because he wanted to marry Mary, he thought–prayed?–about what to do with this pregnancy. He probably had chosen the young woman because of her chastity and her devotion to God, but now circumstances suggested he might have misjudged her character. Who was she really?

Imagine how Joseph must have weighed what he thought he knew with evidence that called his understanding into question.

Would Mary have used the term “Holy Spirit?”

Joseph was within his rights to divorce her or call for her stoning. He decided to bestow grace, to not add to her shame, by “putting her away secretly.” Perhaps the pregnancy would not last, perhaps the child would be stillborne. Joseph was trying to shelter Mary from shame.

Joseph and his dream

Rembrandt: Joseph’s Dream

But he was a devout man, still turning things over in his mind when the supernatural happened to him.

“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Don’t you think it’s interesting that the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream?

Zacharias and Mary met the Angel Gabriel, but this godly man only dreamed about the angel. (Note Elizabeth never saw an angel, but did have the experience of her babe in utero being filled with the Holy Spirit!)

How did Joseph know this was true?

The angel knew his name and his lineage. He spoke to Joseph’s fear. He corroborated what Mary must have said about the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps most significantly, the angel used the name “God will save,” and explained what he would save “His people from their sins.”

The angel just told Joseph Mary carried the Messiah–the one Jews had been waiting for, so full of anticipation that they always set a place for the Messiah at the Passover meal.

The Angel Gabriel did not tell Mary the baby she carried would save God’s people from sin.

She probably knew that’s why the Messiah was promised, but the angel-in-a-dream spelled out the baby’s significance to a devout man who needed reassurance of the value of his personal sacrifice.

He finished off the explanation by sending this Jew back to the Isaiah passage he would have known:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

Not only would that baby save the world, his presence was a definitive sign the God Joseph worshiped, would be with him.

Joseph and shame

The decision to embrace Mary and wed her despite this pregnancy would have reflected poorly on Joseph’s character in the small village.

The assumption would have been that Joseph and Mary violated their betrothal when Mary became pregnant. (Remember? That’s why the year between betrothal and marriage).

Joseph sacrificed his personal integrity when he married Mary. But he did so knowing the end: God’s glory.

Truly, he was a man of God and a worthy sinner in need of that step-son.

By all accounts further in Scripture, the people of Nazareth never suspected Jesus was anyone but Joseph’s son. God placed him in that family to shelter him, to nurture him in humanity, so that when he did arrive on the Israeli stage 33 year years later, he came as fully man and fully God.

In part because of the obedience, grace and humility of a carpenter from a small town in the hills.

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