“When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25 NIV).
Joseph is a hero of the Christmas story. Generally, at this time of year, we hear about Mary, angels, donkeys, etc. But we rarely talk about a real hero of the birth of Christ. Without Joseph, Mary would have been an outcast and unwed mother. Baby Jesus would have been a victim of a jealous king’s rage. It is not recorded that Joseph says anything, but he does a lot. He does not sing a magnificent. He does not preach or prophesy. He just immediately does what he is told to do. No questions or objections. He just does it.
In Matthew chapter 1 we read that Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. How he learns this news we are not told. From Jewish traditions, we learn that he would have had limited personal contact with Mary at this time of their engagement. So, he most likely would have learned from the village gossip machine. He did not want to embarrass Mary but probably in profound disappointment was going to divorce her.
Then he had a dream and heard an angel telling him the meaning of this pregnancy. This must have been quite a dream. Because Joseph did not hesitate, did not argue, did not ask for further clarification. He did not wait to see what else would happen. He did not put out a fleece. He did not ask for money. It says he woke up and “did” as the angel commanded. He just did it.
Joseph was a man of extraordinary self-discipline. He took Mary to his house and lived with her but did not have sexual relations with her. He was a man of inner strength. An example we desperately need in this day and age of promiscuity and weak men. He was not a man without normal sexual urges as Roman Catholic traditions have us believe. We read later that he and Mary had other children. In fact, we read in Matthew 13:56 there were 4 brothers and some sisters (all his sisters – plural) so this would make a minimum of 6 children besides Jesus (some traditions put the number at 10). After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had a normal husband/wife relationship, but not before Jesus was born. The text does not state why Joseph did this but evidently, he understood from the dream that he was to exercise this self-discipline. Joseph was a strong man, strong on the inside and strong on the outside.
Matthew 13 also states that Joseph was a carpenter. This was in the days before sawmills and power equipment. No chainsaws, no table saws, no electric planers, no square straight lumber from the store. Probably just an ax and a soot line. In those days if you made something of wood, you went to the woods with an ax and cut the tree down and hewed the object from a round log. I have lived with people that make boats, and boards from round logs with an ax from standing trees. I have gone with men that make lumber from round trees with just an ax. To hew with an ax all day long makes for tough men – rawhide tough men.
Then when the object has been “roughed out” in the woods, it has to be carried home – no trucks or tractors or forklifts. He put timbers on his shoulder and carried them home. I have known men and boys like this who carry their own weight for long distances – day after day. These are rawhide tough men and in my mind’s eye, I see Joseph as one of these men.
Some have written that the term used for carpenter actually could mean either carpenter and/or stonemason. Joseph was a builder. After the baby Jesus was born Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. It has been speculated that the couple stayed in Bethlehem and Joseph worked on some of the major construction projects that king Herod was engaged in at that time. One of which would have been the new temple.
Back to Matthew chapter 1. He named the baby Jesus or Joshua. Not Joseph as would have been the custom. This shows humility on Joseph’s part. Joseph was a man of strong character – obedience, humility, and self-discipline.
We read further about Joseph in Matthew 2:13. He was again told in a dream to go to Egypt with the baby and Mary. It says he got up that night and left – immediate obedience. He did not wait for morning. He just did it. They probably went to the huge Jewish community that lived in Alexandria at that period. History tells us that at that time there were more Jews living in Alexandria than living in the land of Israel.
Then again in Matthew 2:19, Joseph had another dream that led them back to the land of Israel, but not back to Bethlehem but to the north, to Nazareth. He had a 4th dream telling him to go to the area of Galilee.
In Luke 2 we read that Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. Joseph was a law-abiding man – even when it meant great sacrifice of time, effort, and money.
We read also in Luke that Joseph was careful to do all that the Jewish law required. (Luke 2:22,39). Joseph also led his family in worship. Luk 2:41 states that every year they would go to Jerusalem for the Passover. Joseph was a silent carpenter, but he led his family in worship. The world and the church need more men who lead their families in worship.
I deduct that Joseph also taught and disciplined his son. Because at 12 yrs of age Joseph and Mary trusted Jesus to be gone from their sight all day long. They had trained him, so they did not worry about him until it got dark. I think by the time Jesus was 12 Mary had several other toddlers and babies to tend to and was not concerned about Jesus until he did not show up at dark. But Mary and Joseph made the trek back to Jerusalem to look for Jesus. This was not easy for them. No cars or buses, just walking. We often see pictures of a donkey, but most likely they walked. Joseph took responsibility for his family. He just did it.
Then we do not hear anything more about Joseph. He most likely died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry. But Joseph did what had to be done, he took care of a vulnerable Mary. He guarded and protected the baby. He fed and clothed the child, Jesus. He taught and trained Jesus. He loved Jesus as his son even though both he and Mary knew he was not their son.
Joseph is a vital part of the Christmas story.
 For more on Mary see “What Made Mary Special.”