When the Christmas story is told, we aim the spotlight on the Christ child, on the virgin birth, on the angels and the shepherds and the Magi. We talk about the donkey and the sheep and the star. We draw lessons from the journey and the census and the evil plotting of King Herod.
We rarely talk about Joseph.
Sure, there are occasional sermons narrating the story from Joseph’s perspective. His shock. His disbelief. His ultimate surrender. But we don’t give him much air time in the grand scheme of things, and I am convinced that’s a mistake.
We all know Mary was specially chosen to bear and raise the Savior of the world. Every Jehovah-worshipping woman since Eve had secretly hoped she might become the mother of Messiah. (Arguably, this desire for Messiah might be the oldest source of cultural priority placed on the birth of baby boys.)
Mary was undoubtedly of unblemished character and morality. God would select nothing less to be the primary attachment figure for the human experience of Jesus Christ. (We also see God respecting Mary’s freedom of choice by sending the angel Gabriel and receiving her informed consent to become the mother of the Messiah, but I digress.)
She schooled the boy Jesus at home, well enough that He could hold his own against the patriarchs of the Temple by age 12, which means she was neither uneducated nor illiterate.
But if God took such purposeful care in choosing a faithful mother, why would we assume no divine thought was invested in choosing Joseph as well? After all, Joseph was the man who would live out a daily example of godly manhood for the growing Savior. Is that not also a vital role?
When I think about Joseph’s actions, I can’t help but feel that we’ve culturally neutered the powerful impact of Joseph as a man, a husband, and a father. Joseph was loving like Christ, before the Christ was even born, in four very important ways…
1 – Joseph is Morally Pure
Joseph is a mature man, already the father of children. We assume he may be a widower, although it isn’t specified. He’s engaged to Mary, who is known in the village as a moral, kind, respectable young woman. He would have already paid the bride pride for her, been preparing his house to become her wifely domain, fulfilled all the culturally appropriate arrangements to make her his spouse.
Before the wedding, she takes an extended trip to visit her cousin, and when she comes back… it’s visibly obvious that everything has changed.
Naturally he assumes she must have cheated on him, because Joseph knows he is not the father. There is no way it could be HIS baby, because he has been restraining himself sexually.
2 – Joseph is Teachable
Mary could not have been particularly excited about the disclosure that awaited her when she returned from visiting Elizabeth. She knew what the social assumptions would be. She knew her story would sound ludicrous.
She also knew Joseph’s character, however, and he knew hers. Joseph was the kind of man who let Mary speak. He listened to what she had to say, in an era where women were treated as voiceless. He didn’t merely listen… he pondered her perspective. He gave her words weight as he decided what to do.
Joseph was neither rash nor impulsive. He delayed decision-making until he’d had time to consider. In doing so, he gave God time to speak to him through the angel in a dream. Taking time to ponder allowed him to choose a course of action based on listening to the Holy Spirit rather than reacting based on hurt feelings, social shame, or a misplaced sense of betrayal.
3 – Joseph is Counter-Cultural
He’s facing a long list of perceived betrayals:
- social betrayal (the gossips who blame him for her condition).
- emotional betrayal (she is promised to me!!!!)
- financial betrayal (that dowry is wasted now, right?)
- mental betrayal (how DARE she humiliate me like this?!)
- sexual betrayal (I’ve been waiting for her and she didn’t wait for me!?)
And yet — despite all these onslaughts to his masculinity…
Even before the angel spoke to him…
Joseph’s instinct was to sacrifice his pride in exchange for her safety.
Mary’s shunning was Joseph’s shame — but his protective and kind-hearted response is to divorce her quietly.
Joseph’s desire is to keep Mary from harm. He’s immediately willing to sacrifice his pride, walk away quietly at his own loss, to avoid adding to her hurt.
If Joseph had been primarily worried about his own reputation, his social status, or his wasted financial investment in Mary’s dowry — his course of action would have been vastly different.
4 – Joseph Uses His Power to Protect
He disregards his entitlement to take power over Mary, to use his strength and status and sex to punish or persecute her. Instead of acting in the privilege accorded him by both culture and law — he loved her as Christ says husbands should love their wives, as Christ loved the church, by setting himself aside for her. (See Ephesians 5:25.)
What does this tell us about Joseph’s masculine heart? What do we learn about his priorities? How does this show us God’s character in the man chosen to stand beside Mary during the human parenting of Jesus?
He cares more about protecting Mary than protecting (or avenging) his manly pride. Mary’s swelling unwed belly was a public declaration of shame not only to her own family but to Joseph as well. Mary knew the law.
As her fiancé, Joseph could have called the village elders together to have her stoned for infidelity. Publicly executing Mary was perfectly within his “rights”. No woman would have blamed him. No man would have stopped him or discouraged him from prosecuting her to the full extent of the law.
By law, Joseph was free to lash out.
Condemn Mary to death and be legally justified in doing so.
Murder the unborn Savior while clearing his name and restoring his pride.
Jesus’ sacred prenatal life was in Joseph’s hands at that moment. It was the risk God took on his character.
He rejected any action of pride or self-preservation. He was focused on what was best for Mary and protecting her, even while assuming she had been unfaithful. This is the quality of man God had chosen to be the human father of Christ on earth.
No doubt there was great dissonance and conflict and tension in the heart of Joseph. If this were merely about flouting Mosaic law, it might not be a big deal. But when we look at it through the filter of the man chosen by God to be the male parent who contributed to Christ’s training through childhood, his masculine mentor and role model — then it takes on a whole different impact.
This… is the human who showed Jesus how to become a man.
This is how he responded to conflict and a sense of betrayal.
This is the kind of heart displayed by Jesus’ human father on earth.
Joseph was betrayed in perhaps the deepest possible way known to manhood. And at every step, he responded with an instinct to protect, to place Mary’s welfare ahead of his own, to sacrifice himself and surrender to the apparent impossibility of God’s instructions.
At Christmas, the character of Joseph offers a compelling picture of the tender heart of God. Even while angry, he was still loving Mary like Christ loves the church. Giving up himself to avoid the worst punishment for her.
If we pay attention, Joseph shows every modern man how to love like Christ — and he was doing it before the Christ was even born.
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