When we are not consumed with shopping, decorations, and other holiday preparations, the focus of our attention during the Christmas season usually lands on Jesus (hopefully) and to a lesser extent, his mother, Mary. This is right and good. But often overlooked is Joseph, a mysterious character who played a significant role in the birth narrative and then essentially disappeared from the narrator’s view. But what we are told of Joseph is thought-provoking.
In contrast to Luke 1-2 (the more typical Christmas passage, especially if you are a Peanuts fan!), Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective (1:18-25) and the details are wonderfully sparse. Joseph was betrothed to Mary. Before the marriage was consummated, Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18). No conversation is recorded of how Mary broke the news, but her implausible announcement must have been devastating to Joseph. I have always found it interesting that Mary was visited by an angel before the pregnancy began (Luke 1:26-38), a divine aid in preparing her for what was to come. But Joseph received no such help, at least not at first. Mary had to face him and break the news.
It is in the breaking of the news that we are introduced to what sort of man Joseph was. Though he surely doubted her story, Scripture’s testimony is that Joseph was “just,” or “righteous.” He was unwilling to publicly humiliate his betrothed, instead desiring to terminate the formal relationship quietly (1:19). This was certainly a man fit to fulfill the role God had in store for him. Surely not just anyone can parent the very Son of God. Joseph was left to consider his plan of action for an unrevealed period of time – a period that had to be full of disappointment and embarrassment. And it was only at night, when Joseph slept, that divine proof of Mary’s story came – in the form of a dream. Mary was telling the truth, the angel of the Lord explained. She will bear a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid to take her as your wife. She will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will save his people from their sins.
“She will bear a son” (1:21). But it won’t be your son, Joseph. He will look like Mary. But He won’t look like you, Joseph. He won’t be your son. But He must become your son. You must father Him. You must love His mother. You must protect both of them and provide for both of them. Save that child Joseph, so that one day He can save you.
And Joseph obeyed. He took Mary to be his wife. He took a pregnant Mary to be his wife. The public humiliation must have been profound. I don’t know when, if ever, the public stigma disappeared. But at the time, he had more difficult troubles. Joseph, again in a dream, learned that it was Herod’s design to kill the child. So Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth, was forced to flee from a murdering King and his soldiers down to Egypt, a country not his own. Jesus would grow up and warn his people to count the cost in following him. Joseph learned that obedience to the redemptive purposes of God is costly before Jesus was even born.
I find myself thinking of Joseph often during this season. Like Mary, the burden placed on him was enormous. In the words of one of my favorite Michael Card songs, “How can a man be father to the Son of God?” I cannot imagine what that must have been like. But I do know what it is like to be a father to children who are not biologically related to me. My wife and I have three adopted children, all boys. Of course, my experience is very much unlike that of Joseph. Whereas he bore the stigma of being a father to a child not his own, I am given credit and respect by the public (none of which is really warranted). But I do know what it is like to look at “your son” and not see your own face staring back at you.
Adoption has been the most difficult thing that my wife and I have ever done. It has exposed the fickleness of our hearts in a manner heretofore not ever experienced. We have invited strangers into our home, into our family. They do not look like us. But they bear our name. They do not act, talk, laugh, play, or smell like us – not like our three biological children do, and not always to our liking. These children are called my sons – they are my sons, but they do not carry my DNA, they do not bear my image. And the Lord has exposed the idolatry in my heart, an idol all-too-common to parents, of seeking to see my own image perpetuated through my children.
While adoption is the most difficult thing that my wife and I have ever done, it is also easily the most Christ-like thing we’ve done (hence the difficult part). The Scriptures are clear that God has always had a special place in his heart for orphans (e.g., Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5; James 1:27). And adoption by God is one of the most profound benefits of the salvation that Jesus Christ has won for his followers. I wonder if the reason that the imagery of adoption is so prominent is because Jesus was himself, in a sense, adopted. Mary was very much his biological mother. But Joseph was not his biological father. And yet, Joseph was a father to Jesus. We do not know how long Joseph lived to fulfill that role, but long enough to fulfill the purposes of God. And for that time, Joseph was faithful.
Joseph was asked to be father to a child not his own. He would not see his own image perpetuated through his son. But this is where it gets good. Joseph did not transfer his own image to Jesus, but his son would grow up to transform all who follow Him into His own image. And Joseph played a part in that. I am slowly coming to realize that my part in parenting (of both my adopted and biological children) is to be the same. It ought not to be my desire to see my own image perpetuated in my children, but to see my children transformed into the image of Jesus, the adopted son of Joseph.
“When Joseph woke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).