Not a word he spoke was ever recorded. Our picture of him is of someone in the supporting cast while the main stars shine. He is Joseph, the foster father of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. That was certainly no small part to play in history, yet it leaves more questions about him than answers.
Joseph is introduced as the one betrothed to Mary, the mother of Christ. Scholars tell us that though their engagement was an arranged marriage by their two families, Joseph had ratified it by the betrothal, his adult ascent to his parents’ wishes. The idea of falling in love and then marrying was largely foreign in Palestine. Love would come, a choice first of the head and then the heart.
Although the couple did not live together or have intimate relations during betrothal, their relationship was still serious enough that it could only have ended by a formal divorce. That rarely happened except in the case of infidelity.
So it was that during their betrothal, Joseph was convinced he was dealing with betrayal. Mary told him she was pregnant, but her story was so implausible, so utterly impossible, to likely have made him doubt not only her purity but her sanity as well. Supposedly God had made her pregnant! Of all the outlandish excuses! The poor man was left with a decision. The Bible records, “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19).
Joseph never shied away from personal sacrifice or discomfort. He was willing to set aside his own interests, to go when told to go, to obey when the command was given. Besides obedience, what else did Joseph have to give? He was a carpenter, not a worker in wood. His was not the fine craftmanship that made furniture that adorned palaces or the homes of wealth. His work was sawing the beams for houses, laying the bricks for walls. It was common labor. Joseph was a plain man, the commonest of commoners. And here in the great story of Christ is the first indication that God has an estimate of a person far different than the people with whom that person lived. Had the prophet not said centuries earlier, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7)?
After hearing the news, this most tragic news, Joseph no doubt settled into a night of troubled sleep. It was the tossing and turning that curses anyone who has seen a cherished relationship reduced to ashes. Emotions ranged from anger to sorrow while thoughts bounded from hopelessness to resignation. Somehow he fell asleep and dreamed a dream that changed everything.
The Lord spoke to Joseph’s troubled heart. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 20–21).
If the events of that day were incredible, how can you top that dream? In a moment every question of Joseph’s was answered. Mary was telling the truth. God had visited her and come upon her. This was a virgin conception for a baby unlike any that had ever or would ever walk the earth! She had not been unfaithful; she was not insane. There would be no divorce, no public disgrace or private agony. More than that, Joseph now entered into the redemption drama. How, he wondered, could such a simple man be drawn into something so sacred, so holy as to be almost unspeakable?
The Bible next tells us, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave Him the name of Jesus” (vs. 24–25). It was the expectation of a man, then as now, that when he married, love would be consummated in sexual union. But Joseph understood the sacredness of the moment. That time of intimacy would come, but for now he was the caretaker of the one who would give flesh to the incarnate Son of God. He had waited this long. He could wait longer, especially given what was at stake.
Joseph continued to obey God. In doing so he went along roads he never intended and experienced things he could not have imagined. At the height of her pregnancy, Joseph would saddle her on a donkey while they trudged to Bethlehem to pay a tax levied by the cursed occupiers of their land. The trip was further complicated by a village that had no room for the couple, leaving them vying for space among farm animals. Yet in the still of the night, that promised baby boy came. And Joseph with calloused hands would be the first to touch, to hold, to hug the baby Jesus. Here in the featherweight of a baby’s body was the Savior of the world entrusted to a man who daily heaved bricks and beams.
The drama was scarcely over. That night shepherds as crude as Joseph broke the silence of that night with excited tales of angels singing to proclaim the baby’s birth (Luke 2:8–18). Joseph knew better than to consider them delusional after what he had already experienced. As the days passed the couple was visited by foreign royalty who not only brought gifts of tremendous value but knelt before this child (Matt. 2:11).
Dreams were not over for Joseph. The murderous King Herod would allow no rival, infant though He might be. In a rage he ordered that all baby boys under two years old in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. Jesus was spared because Joseph heeded the dream that warned him to flee to Egypt with Jesus and Mary (2: 13–18). The little family stayed in Egypt until again in a dream, God spoke to Joseph to tell him to go back home to Nazareth (2:19-23).
After this Joseph made only a brief appearance in Scripture when Jesus was 12 years old. After that he was not seen again. It is assumed that he died before Jesus began His public ministry, early death being a common fate in ancient Palestine. He never saw Jesus when He healed the sick or raised the dead, nor did he hear Him speak or watch as the common people, people just like him, heard Him gladly. He missed the moment of triumph as Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” from the crowds. He did not stand with Mary at the foot of the cross a few days later to hold her as her heart broke in woeful anguish. Joseph never heard the breathless tales of excitement that this Jesus had risen from the dead, nor did he watch as the Roman Empire shuddered under the wave of believers who turned to Him for salvation.
But Joseph’s faith was rewarded by being the first to touch Him, the first to hold Him and with Mary the first to love Him. And he was the first man to hear that this child was born to be the Savior of the world. He was the first man to experience that knowing Jesus changed a commoner into something uncommon, the very thing Jesus will do for you today.
By Major Allen Satterlee