Back in the summer time, in the season of thunderstorms, there was a warning in the newspaper about lightning. It said that if you felt a tingling sensation and the hairs of your body standing on end, to crouch low because you were probably a target for a lightning bolt out of the heavens.
Just before Christ’s birth there were a few people who were targets for messages out of the heavens. There was a fair amount of spine tingling and maybe some hair flying as angels made their visits and communicated God’s revelation: Mary, Zechariah, shepherds and the wise men. But no one received more heavenly messages than Joseph. Like his namesake in the Old Testament, Joseph had some amazing dreams.
We don’t think very much about Joseph when we read the Christmas story. Joseph is the silent character of the nativity scene. Not a word is recorded spoken from his mouth in any of the four Gospels. Even though he never performed any great miracles or wonders or preached mighty sermons the church has referred to him as St. Joseph for many centuries because of his character. Some translations call him “good;” others say he was “upright.” This is the same label Luke applies to devout, righteous people who carefully observed the Jewish law: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea, even the Roman Centurion. Matthew applies the same word to describe Christ himself. In the incident of Jesus’ trial before Pilate the governor’s wife came running to him with advice based on a disturbing dream: “Don’t have anything to do with that righteous man…” (
While at Christmas time we often remind ourselves of the fact that God chose Mary because she was highly favored and blessed among women, Joseph, too, received a divine appointment because of a similar life of piety and devotion to God.
This can be seen in the way he responded to the crisis when he learned that his fiancée, with whom he had never been intimate, was pregnant. He sought to avoid the extreme. He was not willing to make a public example of her or bring the judgment of the law against her.
He would seek to divorce her as quietly and privately as possible, without creating a big scene.
Matthew refers to him as a “righteous man.” There are at least four character qualities that combine to make this a fitting label.
1. Radical Submission
Over the years Joseph must have cultivated a reverence for God and a sensitivity to hearing His voice. Perhaps he had started at an early age, like the boy Samuel, or, maybe it was only now in his adult life that, for the first time, God spoke so plainly and clearly. This could only come through a lifestyle of spiritual discipline, cultivation of silence and creating space for God. In Joseph, we find a life of one who has made his heart ready and developed a precious sense of God’s presence and an ability to hear His word coming to Him.
When that word came, he did not hesitate to act upon it and obey: “You, Joseph, have been commissioned! You will name him Jesus, Savior! You will raise him, care for him, protect him and his mother! Immanuel will live under your roof and sit upon your lap – you will change his diapers, teach him how to walk, paddle a boat, use a saw and hammer!”
He sought God’s direction, listened to His voice and his whole life was turned around! He became a father God could mightily use for his purposes.
2. Risky Faith
When you think about it, who had to demonstrate the greater faith in the angel’s message – Mary or Joseph? As the child grew within Mary’s womb, she had little reason to doubt the promise made to her; she knew she was a virgin. For Joseph, there must have been those periods when he felt torn between doubt and belief, when he wrestled with all that nature and the laws of reason and science stood for on the one hand and the word of the Lord and the testimony of his fiancée on the other. Still he trusted, though he could not see the outcome clearly. Some of it plainly did not make sense. He must have shared with Mary the conviction that “nothing is impossible with God” (
After the birth of the child Joseph was instructed to seek refuge in Egypt. We do not find him objecting. He and his young family set out for Egypt, as a step of faith, like Abraham, not knowing exactly where to go. He faced a difficult journey, with meager provisions and an uncertain welcome. Though Joseph believed this to be the Son of God, he sees no miracle performed for his preservation, no manna from heaven or water gushing out of rocks. The truth sinks in that he is to be God’s instrument, for this very purpose.
3. Remarkable Devotion
The word of the Lord came and turned Joseph’s life upside-down. His marriage to Mary and the responsibility of raising the Christ-child became the number one priority of his life. All other pursuits, dreams, goals took back seat to this one purpose of being the shepherd of this holy family.
Note that as soon as the word of the Lord came he took Mary home as his wife. He acted immediately. His devotion to Mary and the Child were demonstrated in at least three ways:
A. His devotion to Mary and the Child within her took priority over his own needs or desires. “But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (
B. His devotion to Mary and the Child within her took priority over his own security. The pathway of faith and obedience was one of risk and vulnerability for Joseph. It would have been so much easier to remain disengaged, to not get involved in this dangerous drama. It was a pathway strewn with obstacles and trials: the journey to Bethlehem, the lack of accommodations, the need to flee from a wicked, demented king, the journey to Egypt, living as refugees in a strange land . . . all the while seeking to care and provide for the family.
The fear of vulnerability, of losing one’s independence and sense of security keeps many from taking that step of commitment we call marriage. The angel’s word to Joseph was “fear not!” Joseph entered matrimony with a sense of abandon, putting everything on the line for the good of someone he cared for and loved.
C. His devotion to Mary and the Child within her took priority over his own career advancement. Part of Joseph’s sense of security must have been derived from his trade. He was a carpenter. In all likelihood this was a family business, a source of income and a place where he could achieve and feel proud of his skills and accomplishments. The mission God called Joseph to required him to surrender all his dreams and aspirations and to subject them to the higher calling of being husband and father.
4. Role Model Father
A good question for us to ponder is how and when did Jesus’ understanding of God and his role as the Son of God develop in his life? It was certainly a process over a period of years of developing intimacy with God the Father, pondering the prophecies of the Old Testament, the story of his own unique birth retold by Mary and Joseph, the affirmation received from the voice in heaven at his baptism. It was a growing process, much as it is for you and me. Jesus’ first concepts of God as Father must have been impressed upon him by his relationship with Joseph.
Joseph was chosen for this special mission to raise Jesus because he was a righteous man, a man who radically submitted to the will of God, a man who risked everything to say yes to God’s command, a man who wholeheartedly devoted himself to his wife and children. He was a role model man, a godly man, whose conduct and example would have a part in forming the life of the greatest man who ever walked on the face of this earth.
Allan Effa teaches Spiritual Formation and Intercultural Studies at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Canada