Joseph, the Unsung Hero of Christmas

Daniel Darling
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When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
Matthew 1:24

As I write this I am about to go with my family to the wedding of one of my former interns. Weddings are beautiful events. The groom stands tall, beaming with joy as his bride walks down the aisle escorted by her father. They grasp hands, they light candles, and they make vows, some with difficult words envisioning faithfulness through difficult times:

For better or for worse
In sickness and in health
As long as we both shall live

I remember my own wedding, standing there as a young, nervous twenty-four-year-old. I couldn’t have envisioned then what I know now: a union that will bring us untold joy will also test us in ways we cannot see. I repeated the words “in sickness and in health,” but let’s be honest. I wasn’t thinking of the full implications of that vow. I didn’t quite envision emergency room trips, expensive medical bills, and caring for a spouse when they are very sick. And very few who stand and say “for better or for worse” picture bouts of depression, lingering addiction, and aging.

So I watch my young intern tie the knot, I imagine the big dreams he has for his future life with his new bride. It all seems so upwardly mobile, a glide path to success and happiness. Careers, children, houses, vacations, ministry.

And so it was with Joseph in the Christmas story. His longings were probably quite different than the American dream, but as a young man betrothed but not yet married to his bride, he surely had plans. And it was in the midst of this dreaming that his life, his future, and his faith would be tested.

Joseph’s Bad News

We don’t know exactly how Joseph found out that his fiancée was pregnant, but we can imagine the difficult conversations he must have had with Mary. I love how Matthew sums up all of this awkwardness with the understated phrase “it was discovered” (Matt. 1:18 CSB). How was it discovered? Joseph hadn’t yet had the benefit of the angelic visit. He only had the word of Mary, whom he likely hardly knew. Even though they were engaged to be married, the custom of those days was that in the year between the engagement and the consummation of their marriage, the bride and groom spent little time together.

Imagine Joseph’s shock when Mary told him that she was pregnant. Unlike today, where sexual activity is assumed among couples in serious relationships, Joseph and Mary had not been intimate. Joseph likely responded with stunned silence. She told him that she was not only pregnant, but that her baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit! Mary believed she saw an angel and may have even written a song of celebration, but Joseph was likely in no mood to party. Mary, are you serious? How could you do this to me? What do you mean you are still a virgin? That’s impossible! Who did this to you? Where is he?

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” – Matthew 1:24

We read Matthew’s account with the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight. We’re going through our Advent readings and planning our Christmas calendar. We’re putting up cute little nativity scenes and having our kids dress up like Joseph and Mary.

But in this moment, when the shock of his situation hit him, Joseph couldn’t see ahead toward what God was doing in the world through his seemingly inconsequential life. This child inside his fiancée may be the Son of God. This child may be the true and better David. This child may save people from their sins and renew and restore the world, but for Joseph, this was his worst nightmare. One commentator says that the breaking of a betrothal like this was considered worse than breaking a business contract.[1] Joseph felt betrayed. He felt alone. He felt stuck.

Put yourself in his sandals. He hadn’t seen any angels. He was just faithfully living his life, working as a carpenter, doing his best to build a life for his future family. He trusted Mary to be faithful and devout and had pledged his life to her. And yet, it seemed she had betrayed him.

Matthew says in 1:20 that he “considered these things.” Joseph had some serious thinking to do. We don’t know how long God waited between Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the subsequent visit to Joseph. Was it weeks? Was it days? We know he likely didn’t get any sleep in this time of uncertainty and confusion. We can imagine Joseph’s fitful nights, pacing, restless, considering these things.

Joseph really only had two choices. In those days, if a betrothed bride were found to have committed adultery, there were two options. The plan of action most men would have taken is quite drastic. Joseph could publicly shame her by bringing her before the religious authorities, resulting in the forfeiture of the dowry he paid to her father and possibly even her death by stoning. Consider the case of the adulterous woman in John 8, whom Jesus rescues from public execution.

The alternative would be to divorce her privately. He would still endure embarrassment in his community and would face questions of his peers and family for what went wrong, but he’d also be obeying his conscience and doing what is best for Mary. Douglas O’Donnell envisions this agonizing decision:

On one shoulder Joseph has the righteous requirements of God’s Law whispering in his ear, “You have to expose her error. This sin cannot go unpunished.” On the other shoulder is the compassion and mercy of God’s Law.[2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was righteous, and he tells us this before Joseph was told of Jesus’ supernatural birth. He was righteous because he was both committed to following the law—divorcing an unfaithful spouse—and doing it in the most selfless, compassionate way. We don’t know much about Joseph, but we do know this: he was a faithful follower of God who would do right when it cost him the most. He would be, then, a faithful steward of the Son of God.

There is much to stop and commend, even in this seeming footnote to the Christmas story. Joseph didn’t make a decision out of immediate anger. He wasn’t irrational and unstable. For a young man who had just seen his life turn upside down, he demonstrated remarkable grace and poise. He took time and assessed the situation and, seeing the humanity of Mary, made the choice that would be best for her.

God’s Good News

We know the reason Joseph didn’t go through with a divorce was because God would send a heavenly messenger to visit Joseph—just as an angel had visited Mary. This time, God spoke to Joseph through a dream, recalling a heavenly word spoken to another Joseph. Just as Jacob’s son in Genesis would be asked by God to endure a difficult life he didn’t envision and to bear the shame of sins he didn’t commit, so too would this Joseph.

And see how the angel addresses his subject. He refers to Joseph as a “son of David.” God didn’t pick just any first-century Jewish man to steward the life of His Son. He picked a faithful son of David. The only other person in the New Testament to be referred to as a son of David is Jesus. This title came with authority, reminding Joseph of his royal lineage and preparing him for the task ahead. This is also Matthew telling his readers that Jesus was a rightful son of David, something Paul later affirmed when he said in Romans that Jesus is a son of David “according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3).

Then the angel assured Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb was not the fruit of sin, but was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit. She had been chosen by God as the mother of Jesus. We don’t know how this made Joseph feel. We don’t know if he recalled the Scriptures read in the temple and the words of the prophet that described the future Messiah coming from a young virgin (Isa. 7), but just in case, the angel reminded him of the Scripture. Perhaps this reality overwhelmed him, that this “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4–7) had arrived. The march of salvation history, the fulfillment of prophecy, the long-awaited promise was on his doorstep and in his life. What a holy moment this must have been for Joseph. What a time to celebrate with holy awe and kneel in humble adoration!

[1] Craig S. Keener, Matthew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 61.

[2] Douglas Sean O’Donnell and R. Kent Hughes, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 41.

For Further Reading:

The Characters of Christmas

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