The Lookout | 6.19.11
By Alan Dowd

It’s odd that the Bible doesn’t tell us much about Joseph, the husband of Mary. After all, Jesus spent many—perhaps most—of his formative years with Joseph. In a patriarchal, male-dominated society like that of first-century Judea, we might expect more detail on this fill-in father figure. But the Joseph of the Gospels is more of a supporting actor than a leading man. Perhaps that’s all by God’s design, since Joseph was not Jesus’ father.

Even so, what we do know about Joseph tells us a lot about what it takes to be a good man and a good dad. While the mentions of him in the Gospels are few, they paint a picture of a man of faith, a man who trusted God, a man who believed in his wife, a man who protected and sacrificed for his family, a man of duty, “a righteous man,” in the words of Matthew.

The latest NIV translation of Matthew 1 tells us that Joseph “was faithful to the law.” Another translation describes him as “righteous.” The Gospel accounts provide plenty of evidence to support Joseph’s faithfulness and righteousness.

In Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary did “everything required by the law of the Lord” in relation to Jesus. Everything.

For example, Joseph understood that the law required “every firstborn male to be consecrated to the Lord.” And so Luke 2 reports that “when the time came for the purification rites required by the law of Moses,” Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Jerusalem to present the baby to the Lord.

Every year, they went to Jerusalem for Passover. Luke’s account also pointedly tells us that they took Jesus, “according to the custom” outlined by the law and forefathers of their faith, to special ceremonies related to a boy’s passage into manhood.

In short, Joseph walked the walk. Even before he became part of the most famous blended family in history, he lived a life, like his wife, that caught the attention of heaven.

Honor and Trust
The Message translation of Matthew 1 calls Joseph “noble.” And he certainly was. Think about it: When confronted with news that his fiancée was pregnant, he didn’t ridicule her or dump her or subject her to public humiliation. Instead, the gentlemanly Joseph tried to do the very opposite.

Matthew 1 tells us that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” and planned “to divorce her quietly.”

That’s an honorable, noble thing to do. But God had other ideas, and God knew that Joseph, unlike most men of his day or ours, would be open to those ideas.

That brings us to another of Joseph’s good-dad/good-man traits, perhaps the most important Joseph trait of all. Joseph was in tune with God. He listened for God. And just as important, he accepted God’s answers.

For Joseph, like his Old Testament namesake, those answers often came in the form of dreams.

As Joseph wrestled with how to end his engagement to Mary, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.”

When Joseph woke up, Matthew explains, “He did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” That’s no small matter. After the angel explained all that God was putting on his shoulders—an instant family, a wife with a special connection to God, a child with a world-changing mission—Joseph said yes. He didn’t have to, but he did.

It wouldn’t be the last time God spoke to Joseph through dreams. Matthew 2 recounts another time when “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” It was just after the Magi had visited Jesus, and the angel brought word of great danger. “Get up,” the angel said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

Joseph followed the angel’s instructions, “got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.”

Some time later, God communicate to Joseph in another dream to Leave Egypt. “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,” the angel said, “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” And Joseph dutifully “got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” In yet another dream, he was warned about where to settle the family. He finally chose a town called Nazareth, in Galilee. (Matthew 2:19-21)

Because he was in tune with God and willing to accept what he heard from God, Joseph played a part in the fulfillment of the greatest prophecy God ever revealed to man: “Out of Egypt I called my son” and “he would be called a Nazarene.” And because Joseph followed his dreams, dreams shaped by God, he kept his family safe and found the strength to be the most important foster father in history.

Strength and Support
Along the way, he found the strength to believe in his wife and stand by her. Again, that’s no small matter.

Mary comes to Joseph with news that she is pregnant and then tells him that the child is, quite literally, heaven-sent. It takes a special man to accept that. It takes a special man to stand by the woman he loves when her world falls apart, when her future is turned upside down, when her past comes back to haunt her, when the promise of love is put to the test of life. But that’s what Joseph did. That’s what good men do.

When a husband stands by his wife, when she knows he is on her side no matter what, when she feels loved and supported, when he lifts her up instead of putting her down, he is giving her a precious gift and showing her a powerful expression of God’s faithfulness.

It may not come naturally. It may even be a sacrifice. But Joseph shows us how a husband supports his wife.

Like all good dads, like all good husbands, Joseph put his family—and their safety and their needs—first. He sacrificed for them in big and small ways.

For one thing, it would have been a lot easier on Joseph to quietly end the betrothal than to start a family with all the baggage and questions that surely came with Mary. It’s not hard to imagine the whispers and gossip that floated around the neighborhood when Mary arrived, with child but without a husband.   

It would have been a lot easier on Joseph to travel to Bethlehem alone for the census than with a pregnant woman in tow. I love how the film “The Nativity Story” depicts this. In one scene, as Joseph, a donkey and Mary are limping their way to Bethlehem, Joseph pretends that he has already eaten so that the very-pregnant Mary and the donkey have enough food.

Good dads do this in literal and figurative ways—I know because mine did—skipping lunches so their kids can get new shoes, going without seconds at dinnertime so that a growing family can get its fill, taking on a second job to make sure there’s something under the Christmas tree, making do with bald tires so the family car can have new ones, putting away the golf clubs and putting the savings toward the kids’ college account. Good dads, like Joseph, sacrifice.

Finally, it would have been a lot easier on Joseph to start a marriage under—shall we say, less constraining—circumstances. Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth” to Jesus. In other words, Joseph really waited for his wife. That’s a sacrifice few men—even good men—are willing to make. But Joseph did it for Mary and for God.

Luke 2 tells us that under Joseph’s care, Jesus “grew and became strong.” Sure, heaven kept a close eye on Jesus as he grew up, but I have a suspicion that the Father and the Spirit were comfortable with entrusting the Son to this humble carpenter.  

Not enough dads, not enough husbands, not enough men, are like Joseph. Not enough of us are faithful to God’s law. Not enough of us are gentle and noble. Not enough of us listen for God and then trust His answers. Not enough of us stand by our families or sacrifice for them. Not enough of us accept the role of supporting actor. Not enough of us make room for Jesus.

The good news is we can change. We can become what God wants us to be. And Joseph shows us how.