Over the years volumes have been written about the young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, whom God chose to be the one to give birth to his Son. Much is said about her in scripture, and we can learn much from her humility and acceptance of God’s will for her life. But sometimes we forget that God also chose Joseph of Nazareth to serve as the step father of Jesus and gave him the awesome task of raising that Son to manhood. Just as God had chosen a godly young woman to give birth to the child, He certainly wanted a godly man to be his father.
Fathers play a vital role in the raising of a child. Not only do they provide a home, food and clothing, they also are responsible for the education and spiritual training of their children. Though Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus, he had the legal responsibility for the child, and he must have done an outstanding job as the Bible notes Jesus grew in stature and favor with God and men.
Little has been written about this very special man who acted just as humbly as his espoused wife when God revealed the plan for his life. That’s probably because little is said about him in the Bible. We have no record of any words spoken by Joseph (perhaps so we can consider his actions more than his words). However, there are some interesting tidbits here and there which give us a brief picture of the man.
Joseph was a skilled craftsman–middle class, not poor.
The gospels describe Joseph as a "tekton." Traditionally this word has been translated "carpenter," but in truth the Greek term could be a description of either an artisan in wood or an artisan in iron or stone. He could have been a mason and may have had several different skills which he applied in his business.
There is certainly an indication in the Bible that Joseph taught Jesus his trade since, in those days, it was customary for a son to follow his father into the same job. Later gospel verses tell us that Jesus was sometimes called a carpenter (or "tekton").
We know Joseph practiced his trade in Nazareth, but he probably worked in larger towns nearby as well. Zippori (Sepphoris in Greek) was completely restored by Herod Antipas during the years that Joseph worked, so it's likely Joseph made the hour long trip to work in that reconstruction.
Joseph was a descendant of King David
When Joseph accepted the role of step father to Jesus, he made Jesus a legal descendant of David, since Joseph was descended from David’s stock. Matthew placed the genealogy of Jesus at the very beginning of his Gospel (Matt 1:1-17) in order to make this point exceedingly clear from the start. One of the major Jewish expectations about Messiah was that he would be David’s descendant.
Joseph was a kind and sensitive man
We see this, first, in his relationship with, and attitude toward, Mary. Matthew 1:19 tells us what happened when Joseph first discovered Mary was pregnant. At that point, no angel had appeared to him to explain the pregnancy. Joseph doubtless reacted as any man who discovers his future spouse has been unfaithful (or so he thinks).
In those days, marriage contracts were made between families, and the engaged couple lived with their parents until the formal wedding ceremony was held (usually a year or more). When Mary was found to be pregnant, the townspeople would think the couple hadn’t waited till their wedding to sleep together. Joseph had paid a dowry for Mary, and now she was no longer a virgin. And... he had no idea who the father was, though he knew it wasn’t him! He must have considered this a total betrayal!
The Old Testament penalty for adultery was death by stoning – and this included infidelity during the engagement period. It was a grave offense, and Mary would pay a stiff penalty if Joseph did not come to her defense. In order to break their betrothal, a devout Jewish man would have been obliged to divorce her.
So, even before the angel explained things to Joseph, he didn’t seem bitter or angry with Mary. Instead, scripture tells us he, "was minded to put her away secretly." All Joseph had to do was write his intention to divorce Mary in a letter. Once it was witnessed by 2 people, he would be quietly divorced; no authorities needed to be involved. So even in this initial decision Joseph demonstrated real concern for Mary.
After he had the full story, Joseph continued to protect Mary by sticking by her. God then intervened by orchestrating a census which took them far away from Nazareth and the neighbors’ questions.
Joseph was a loving man
So, obviously, Joseph demonstrated genuine love in his treatment of Mary. But he also showed love for Jesus, his step-son. Joseph didn’t treat him differently from his own flesh and blood children. He made sure there was a safe place for Jesus to be born, then protected him from Herod’s wrath. When Jesus was accidently left in the Temple at age 12, Joseph was just as alarmed as Mary. As the child grew, Joseph taught Jesus his own trade, as Jewish fathers of that day traditionally did.
Joseph was a righteous man
The Bible tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:19-20 ) that Joseph was a righteous man or, in some translations, "a just man." As the town carpenter, most people would have used his services over the years, and he must have had a good reputation with his neighbors to be given this title.
The last reference to Joseph in the Bible (Luke 2:41) confirms that he continued to be a devout Jew, evidenced by his careful observance of Passover.
Joseph was a humble man who obeyed God in all things
Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly and willingly obeyed God, in spite of the public humiliation it would bring. Perhaps this humility and obedience was the reason God chose him as Messiah's earthly father.
After hearing confirmation of Mary's incredible story from an angel, Joseph obediently accepted his role as surrogate father for the baby (Matthew 1:24-25). There is no record of him questioning the angel or balking at the assignment.
While he took Mary home as his wife, he didn’t consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born. He named the child Jesus, as God had directed. In all his actions, "He did what the Lord had commanded him." (Mat 1:24)
Guided by dreams, Joseph took his little family to Egypt and home again. In every action, he apparently sought God’s direction and then immediately obeyed – without question. What faith he typified!
It is widely thought that Joseph was much older than Mary, though nothing in scripture confirms this. He may have been her age or very close to it.
Christian tradition says Mary was a widow during the adult ministry of her son. It is supposed that Joseph died during the quiet years of Jesus' life. Luke lets us know Joseph was still alive when Jesus was about 12 years old. That account states that "both parents" were worried (Luke 2:41-42). The lack of any mention of Joseph in the biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry seems to imply that, at that point, he had already died. This can also be concluded from the fact that only Mary was present at the marriage feast in Cana (John 2), and the fact that, from the cross, Jesus told John to care for Mary.
We know Joseph and Mary had children together after Jesus was born. The Bible lists at least James, Joses and Simon, as well as some daughters. James became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, and both he and his brother, Jude, were used by God to write books of the Bible. This is yet another testament to Joseph’s important role as father/priest for his family.
In all, a careful study of scripture helps us learn a lot more about Joseph and his unique role in the life of Jesus, the Messiah.