By Tim Sullivan


Each year at Christmastime, the birth of Jesus is reenacted on stages around the world. So familiar are we with the Nativity story, we scarcely need reminding of the key roles needed for such a dramatization: the angels of the Lord, the wise men from the east, the shepherds, the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, the animals – the sheep, the cattle, the donkey – and finally Joseph.

Many Christmas hymns are sung about those who shared in the glorious events surrounding Christ’s birth. The angels are found in such songs as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.” The wise men are sung of in “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “The March of the Kings.” The shepherds are remembered in “While Shepherds Watched Their Fields” and “The First Noel.” And of course, the Virgin Mary and Jesus are the subject of countless songs, including “Away In A Manger” and “Silent Night.” Why, even the animals are remembered in “What Child is This,” and sometimes, imaginary characters as well, such as “The Little Drummer Boy.”

As if to emphasize the validity of this message, in my favorite book of Carols, I found only two songs that mention Joseph. He is mentioned in the last verse of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and in the whimsical “Cherry-Tree Carol” that begins,“When Joseph was an old man, An old man was he: He married sweet Mary, The Queen of Galilee.”

Clearly, Joseph has not received the “honour to whom honour” is due. To begin to appreciate the significance of Joseph, one must look no further than the sixteenth verse in Matthew:

Matthew 1:16:
And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Matthew, “The Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ” begins with the genealogy of none other than Joseph. For the second time in the history of God’s dealings with his people, a man named Joseph, born of a man named Jacob, played a critical role in the fulfilling of God’s plan.

The genealogies of the Bible are linked by seed, fathers to sons. But Jesus was not the son of Joseph by seed. Joseph was his father by divine appointment, hence the peculiar language of Luke:

Luke 3:23:
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

Luke’s account is the natural genealogy of Christ. In order to emphasize that this is an unusual genealogy, this family tree is stated backwards, son to father rather than father to son. The closest patriarch in Jesus’ heritage was his grandfather Heli, the father of Mary and father-in-law to Joseph. (Jesus, of course, did not have two sets of grandparents like the rest of us!)

It is in the line of Joseph that Jesus is connected to the Throne of David. God had made a specific covenant concerning Solomon.

1 Kings 2:45-46b:
And king Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord for ever.
46 ... And the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.

In order for Jesus to reign as king, he had to rightfully inherit the throne. This is not a privilege that he inherited from Mary, but from Joseph. Joseph was a descendent of Solomon, Mary was not (compare Matt. 1:6 and Lk. 3:31). This fact alone brings new understanding to why Joseph was chosen to be the earthly father to God’s Son.

Joseph was a carpenter by trade, a man who worked with his hands. It is evident that Joseph taught his adopted son the skills of carpentry, for people not only called Jesus “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55a), but also “the carpenter” (Mk. 6:3a). As Joseph tutored Jesus in the skills of carpentry, he would most assuredly teach Him these valuable lessons as well:

Ecclesiastes 2:24:
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.

We can further appreciate the man hand-picked by God to raise his Son by looking at the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Matthew 1:18:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Joseph and Mary were espoused to be married. Considering the times they lived in, it is more likely that this agreement was made by their parents rather than the result of a budding romance. Suddenly, Joseph’s life plan took an unexpected turn when he learned that Mary was pregnant. Since he obviously did not at first believe her story of a heavenly visitation, there was only one remedy in his mind. Joseph well knew what Levitical Law had to say concerning such matters.

Leviticus 20:10:
And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

We see Joseph’s compassion in that he would not allow Mary or her family to be scandalized.

Matthew 1:19:
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

Other men in the Bible heard the unexpected news that their wives would become pregnant. Abraham, the father of Isaac, and Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, are two who come to mind. Their initial reaction is quite revealing:

Genesis 17:17:
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?

Luke 1:18:
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.

These two men were told by angels that their wives would bear them a son. As hard as this was for them to fathom, the fact remained that these were their wives, and the son would be the result of their seed! Now consider the predicament of Joseph. Not only was Mary not yet officially his wife, this birth would not be the result of his seed! Yet upon the declaration of the angel, the Bible records no protesting, no unbelief, only obedience. One might ask, “Where did God find such a man as this man Joseph?”

Matthew 1:24-25:
Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

Joseph’s unquestioning obedience to God saved the life of God’s Son on more than one occasion. After the visit of the wise men of the east, the angel of the Lord brought more news to Joseph.

Matthew 2:13:
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

Until God’s people learn to take responsibility of heeding God’s warnings, they will find no one but themselves to blame for falling into predicaments that could have been avoided. Thank God for a man like Joseph who heeded God’s warnings, and for a woman like Mary who stood with him. After all, there is no record of Mary sharing this angelic visitation.

Matthew 2:14-15:
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Later, the angel appeared to Joseph again.

Matthew 2:19-21:
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

The next biblical reference to Joseph occurs when Jesus was twelve years old. Joseph led his family on their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When the feast concluded, Joseph and Mary began their trek home. They must have traveled in a large caravan, because a full day passed before they realized that Jesus was not with them.

Luke 2:46-51:
And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
48 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?
49 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.
50 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

Yes, Joseph and Mary were amazed by this young boy. And here, with Jesus being subject unto Mary and her husband, the record of Joseph ends. Except for disparaging remarks made by scoffers about “the carpenter’s son,” he is not again mentioned. Yet to minimize Joseph’s importance in the life of Jesus is to clearly miss the mark. His gift to Jesus was access to the throne of David via Solomon. In Joseph, the husband of Mary, we see a sterling example of faith, love, obedience, and courage under the most trying of circumstances. Certainly we can see that Joseph is the Unappreciated Man of the Nativity.



From the December 2003 issue of The Vine & Branches