Make no mistake, Joseph’s importance to us far outweighs the amount of ink he receives in the Gospels. He’s not mentioned in Mark, and even in Matthew, Luke, and John, his character is somewhat flat. We learn very little about Joseph; perhaps curiosity over this led to the many traditions about him in later Christian apocrypha. Though Joseph never speaks in the gospel stories, his actions speak louder than words.
If the gospels were movies, Joseph would not have been the star of the show whose name appeared above the title. He would have been just a supporting actor—you’d only see his name if you stuck around to see the credits roll by in fine print after the show was over. Despite this, we’d better pay attention to this just man. His life of obedient service is exemplary for us and shows us what his son will be like.
I recommend you read and reflect on a section of this rather long post each day this week as we approach Christmas. I’d like to know what you think about Joseph, so please comment below.
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You’ll find the complete archive of our Advent-related posts here.
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Joseph in Matthew
Many have noticed that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Joseph’s role in the birth and infancy of Jesus. By the time we get to Joseph in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:2-17), we have read “x was the father of y” 39 times. But everything suddenly changes in 1:16. After we read “Jacob was the father of Joseph,” we expect to read (for the 40th time!) “Joseph was the father of Jesus.” Instead we read “Joseph was the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.” In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “Something is afoot here.”
Matthew 1:18-25 explains what is afoot. Before their marriage is consummated, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. As a just man, he is of a mind to quietly divorce her (1:18-19), apparently because be believes she has been unfaithful to him. Or maybe he seeks to set Mary free because he believes her story of the astonishing news she has received from Gabriel about her miraculously conceiving the king of Israel. In this view Joseph is yielding the right-of-way—getting out of the way of God’s plan.
In either view Joseph has received life-altering news. His plans for a family are shattered, but as Calvin put it, “recognizing the will of God, he set himself immediately to obey it” (Commentary on Matthew 1:24). He does exactly what the angel tells him to do—He takes Mary in as his wife and names her baby Jesus, becoming his legal father (Matt 1:24-25). And that’s just the beginning. After the magi leave, an angel warns Joseph of Herod’s murderous plot and tells him to take Jesus to Egypt. Joseph immediately obeys, caring for Mary and Jesus in Egypt until another angelic message tells Joseph to bring Mary and Jesus back to Israel. Joseph does as he is told and settles the family in Nazareth. And that’s the end of what we know about Joseph in Matthew, except for one important detail.
Decades after the holy family settles in Nazareth, Jesus’ Galilean ministry has begun and things aren’t going so well. Some go so far as to attribute his miracles to Satan’s power (Matt 12:22-32). Jesus tells a series of parables that reflect this mixed reception of the kingdom message (Matt 13:1-52). Then he goes home to Nazareth, where the residents can’t reconcile his humble family and upbringing there with his miraculous works (13:53-58). They do not mention Joseph by name, but refer to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son” (13:55). Here we learn about Joseph’s occupation. According to Mark 6:3, it’s Jesus’ occupation also. “Carpenter” renders the Greek word tekton (τέκτων) in most English translations, but the word could refer to other skilled building trades, such as masonry. And so we have the saying “my boss is a Jewish carpenter.” Turns out he is the son of a Jewish carpenter too, one who is a descendant of David, the King of Israel.
Joseph in Luke
In Luke’s Gospel we have something of a prequel to Matthew. The focus is on Mary, and there is additional information about Joseph. The angel Gabriel brings the astounding news of the miraculous birth of the Messiah to the blessed virgin, who is engaged to Joseph, a descendant of King David (Luke 1:26-38). Joseph is not mentioned again until he travels to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary. As a descendant of David, Joseph had to register for a census in David’s ancient home town. There in Bethlehem Joseph cares for Mary when she gives birth to Jesus in some sort of outdoor shelter (Luke 2:6-7). He observes as shepherds arrive and tell of a glorious visit by an angel who has announced the birth of the Lord Messiah (Luke 2:16-20).
Joseph soon oversees the circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21; Leviticus 12). Roughly a month later he presents Jesus at the Temple for the purification ritual (Exodus 13) and meets the prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38). Joseph hears Anna’s praises and Simeon’s words about Jesus as the glorious Messiah who will reveal God to the nations (Luke 2:32; Isaiah 42:6-7). One wonders what Joseph thought when he heard Simeon’s word to Mary, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (2:35). He must have shared to a great degree the deep anguish Mary felt about her son.
After obeying the Torah’s commands related to Jesus’ infancy, Joseph takes his family back to Nazareth. Jesus has a healthy childhood and exhibits wisdom beyond his years (Luke 2:40). When Jesus is twelve years old, the family makes the pilgrimage to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem (Exodus 12:24-27; Deuteronomy 16:1-8). Here Joseph and Mary experience every parent’s worst nightmare—Jesus turns up missing as the family begins their trip home. They can’t find him among their family and friends, so they rush back to Jerusalem After three agonizing days of searching, they are amazed to find Jesus in the temple carrying on learned dialogue with the teachers there. When Mary reproaches Jesus for making her and his father frantic, he simply responds that they should have known he would be in his Father’s house. They don’t get it (2:50), but he submits to his them, returns to Nazareth with them, and continues growing up under God’s special favor.
There is one more reference to Joseph in Luke, an incident that occurs roughly 20 years later during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. This is the sad story of Jesus not being acknowledged in his own home town (Luke 4:16-30; compare Matt 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6). Jesus is familiar to the residents of Nazareth. They know him simply as Joseph’s son, and they can’t reconcile his messianic claims (Luke 4:17-21; Isaiah 61:1-2) with what they know of his humble origins.
Luke’s portrayal of Joseph (along with Mary) may lead us to wonder why he and Mary were so slow to pick up on Jesus’ identity. Certainly Mary told Joseph about Gabriel’s astonishing announcement of her son’s identity. Joseph was right there when the shepherds arrived soon after Jesus’ birth. Like Mary (2:19), he must have pondered the shepherd’s words. He saw Simeon take Jesus in his arms in the Temple and proclaim that his little boy would grow up to fulfill God’s promises of salvation to the entire world, Jews and Gentiles alike. Like Mary, he marveled at Simeon’s prophecy (2:33). He was there every day as Jesus grew up and grew in the favor of God and people alike. Why didn’t he understand that Jesus must be in his [heavenly] Father’s house (2:50)? We’ll never fully understand the answer to these questions, but we can look into our own hearts and ponder why we are so slow to understand and act on the lordship of Jesus in our own lives. Despite lacking full understanding of God’s plan for his adopted son, Joseph explicitly obeyed everything he was told to do for Jesus.
The Fourth Gospel refers to Joseph twice. In John Philip was the third disciple called by Jesus (John 1:43). Philip soon told Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, was the Messiah written about in Moses and the prophets (1:45). Nathanael’s notorious reply, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” simply reflected a common view of the obscure Galilean village, and Jesus acknowledged Nathanael had told the truth (1:47). In John’s “spiritual gospel” we read a great deal about Jesus’ divinity and heavenly origins. Yet by identifying Jesus’ hometown and father, Philip shows us that Jesus was truly human, and that he had a humble heritage.
The second mention of Joseph in John comes during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. He has just fed the multitudes (6:1-15) and walked on water (6:16-21). His teaching after these miracles is often called the Bread of Life Discourse (6:22-59). In this discourse Jesus pointed his audience beyond the miraculous bread they had just eaten to himself as bread that must be “eaten” to receive eternal life. Most of the audience did not understand Jesus’ analogy of eating physical bread as pointing to him as the bread of life. They thought he was “tripping,” taking way too much on himself. They asked “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Like Nathanael in John 1 and the residents of Nazareth we have previously spoken about, they could not reconcile Jesus’ messianic identity with his humble origins. They could not believe a carpenter’s son could be the Son of God. They knew Joseph was his father so they thought it impossible that God was his Father. May God help us not to make the same mistake today.
This encounter at Nazareth is the last time Joseph is mentioned in the gospels. This is notable, because he would likely have been with Mary as several subsequent events. He is not mentioned with Mary and Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-12). He is not at Mary’s side at the crucifixion, where Jesus commits Mary to the care of the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27). A different Joseph cares for the burial of Jesus’ body (John 21:38-42). Joseph is not present in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, where Jesus’ brothers appear along with Mary (Acts 1:14). His conspicuous absence indicates that he had likely died between Jesus twelfth birthday (Luke 2:41-51) and the beginning of Jesus public ministry.
Joseph in Ancient Church Tradition
Matthew, Luke, and John are very selective in what they tell us about Joseph. That didn’t stop early Christians from filling in some of the blanks in the Gospel stories. The second century CE Gospel of James (also known as the Protevangelium of James) portrays Joseph as an old man with children from a previous marriage who cares for Mary and Jesus. The fifth century CE History of Joseph the Carpenter purports to be a biography of Joseph dictated by Jesus. In it Joseph says he began to care for Mary when he was 90 and she was 12 years old. They marry when she is 14 1/2. He dies at 111, testifying to Mary’s perpetual virginity. The fourth century CE church author Epiphanius writes along the same lines in his Panarion. Jerome (Against Helvidius, c. 380 CE) took the contrary position that Joseph was a young man who vowed to be a perpetual virgin when he married Mary. In this view Jesus’ brothers were apparently his cousins. Both of these views of Joseph seem to be calculated to protect the perpetual virginity of Mary and provide an explanation for the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. Go here for a more detailed assessment of the ancient church tradition on Joseph.
We can debate whether these additional sources on Joseph were making stuff up from their sanctified (?) imaginations or from genuine historical tradition. As a Sola Scriptura guy, I’m not impressed with such traditions, although some may be plausible if they are at least consistent with the New Testament. It should be noted that many of the early reformers believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and that she is described as “ever virgin” in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566).
In my experience, low-church evangelical protestants typically neglect Mary, not to mention Joseph. Lutherans and Anglicans commemorate Joseph with a feast day on March 19. Roman Catholics have an additional celebration known as the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Orthodoxy celebrates Joseph on the Sunday after Christmas. Today both Mariology and Josephology are serious theological disciplines in Roman Catholicism.
What of invoking Joseph or other notable Christians as special patrons and intercessors with God? Joseph has been singled out for special honor as nutritor domini (guardian of the Lord) since at least the ninth century CE. In medieval times devotion to Joseph grew—he was viewed as the patron saint of carpenters, among other things. In 1889 Pope Leo XII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries noted Saint Joseph’s devotion to Mary and Jesus and named him Patron of the Catholic Church to whom all Christians should pray. One hundred years later Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer) spoke of Saint Joseph as a figure who countered paternal domination of families, one who modeled loving fatherhood. As such the pope urged the faithful to venerate Saint Joseph along with the blessed virgin Mary and to pray to him for intercession with God in these words “”Most beloved father, dispel the evil of falsehood and sin…graciously assist us from heaven in our struggle with the powers of darkness…and just as once you saved the Child Jesus from mortal danger, so now defend God’s holy Church from the snares of her enemies and from all adversity.”
Honoring and imitating exemplary Christians is a commendable practice according to the apostle Paul (Phil 2:29; 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7, 9; Heb 13:7; 1 Tim 4:12; 5:3, 17). In the New Testament every follower of Jesus is a saint—someone who has been set apart for salvation by the Spirit of God on the basis of Christ’s cross (Acts 9:13, 32; Rom 1:7; 8:27; 1 Cor 14:33; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; 4:21; Col 1:2). The Old Testament use of the word is similar (Ps 34:9; 37:28; 97:10; 116:15). It is wise to model one’s life after others who have run the race well.
No doubt the Bible teaches the communion of all the saints, those departed and those still on earth. Perhaps those who have departed pray for us (Revelation 6:9-11), but there is no biblical reason to think that they can hear our prayers, let alone intercede for us with God. Accordingly, the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church (1530, Article 21), and the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church (1562, Article 22), both deny the validity of invoking the intercession of the saints.
Why would we need the saints’ intercession? Isn’t Jesus enough? To the extent that we focus our minds on invoking the intercession of the saints, we diminish the glory and full sufficiency of our great High Priest, Intercessor, and Advocate Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 John 2:1-2). He is the sole Patron of the church which he purchased with his own blood. He alone sits at the right hand of he Father as the only Advocate we will ever need. May he be the only Advocate we ever want.
A Saint for the Rest of Us
Perhaps your experience differs from mine, but I hear little about Mary, let alone Joseph, in evangelical churches. Evangelical teaching typically (and appropriately) emphasizes Jesus, but the saints who served as God’s agents in making Jesus’ miraculous birth possible are often overlooked. We need to study and imitate their lives as we seek to follow the Lord they loved and served.
It seems to me that Joseph is a saint for the rest of us, for faithful followers of Jesus who wonder if anybody is paying attention, and if anyone cares about their life and service to Christ. I think of faithful pastors in obscure places, of missionaries who sow the gospel-seed on shallow, thorny soil with minimal harvest, of persecuted Christians around the world that we in the west know nothing about, and of widows who pray night and day for the families and churches who pay little attention to them. If you feel I am describing you, you are not alone. You can be sure that the God who has led you to serve in obscurity will one day reward you openly. Stay true to him.
One more thing about Joseph. We often hear the expression, “like father, like son.” In the case of Joseph I think we should reverse it: “Like Son, like father.” Joseph’s humble obedience to God in caring for Jesus anticipates Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father all the way to the cross.
Joseph points us to Jesus, and he shows us how to follow Jesus.
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O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Anglican Collect for March 19)
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