• The Bible Studies for Life lesson for Dec. 22 focuses on Matthew 1:18-25; 2:19-23.
It’s easy to make the mistake of seeing Joseph as peripheral to the Christmas story. While Mary sings a joyful song and even the shepherds and wise men have a few lines of dialogue,
Scripture records none of Joseph’s words. In the nativity scene, we focus on the angels, shepherds, Mary and the manger. Joseph doesn’t even get a candle on the advent wreath. We’re careful to emphasize that although Joseph raised Jesus, he wasn’t Jesus’ real father. Yet Joseph had an important role to play in preparing the way for Jesus’ coming.
Joseph was a righteous man
The Gospel of Matthew begins the story of Jesus’ birth with Joseph. Joseph was a righteous man who was faithful to the law (Matthew 1:19). When he learned his betrothed bride, Mary, was pregnant, Joseph came to the only natural conclusion about what had happened. He didn’t have many options.
In the New Testament world, betrothal was a binding legal commitment dissolved only by death or divorce. Unfaithfulness during the betrothal period was considered adultery. Old Testament law prescribed death as the punishment for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).
Roman law did not permit subject peoples to carry out capital punishment, so by the New Testament era, adultery was not commonly punished with death. Still, there seem to have been cases where mobs took the law into their own hands (John 8:1-11).
As a man who followed the law, most people would have expected Joseph to divorce Mary and publicly make an example of her. Joseph’s decision to divorce her quietly can be seen as an act of compassion, perhaps hoping to spare her the indignity of a public spectacle.
Joseph made up his mind, but then an angel changed everything. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying: “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” (Matthew 1:20-21).
Joseph obeyed promptly. As soon as he woke up, Joseph brought Mary home as his wife (Matthew 1:24-25).
Joseph’s role was important. When God chose a man to be Jesus’ earthly father, surely the Lord wanted someone who followed the law with a compassionate heart. Surely, he also looked for a man who would be obedient even when the Lord called him to do something that seemed to defy common sense.
The infant Messiah would need someone to provide for him and keep him safe. Yet Joseph’s role went beyond provider and protector. Joseph also had a part to play in fulfilling biblical prophecy.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, different groups had differing expectations of the Messiah. Most expected a political ruler who would help Israel overthrow Roman rule. God’s plans were much wider in scope.
In sending Jesus, God would not be satisfied with mere political victory. God wanted nothing less than the salvation of our souls. Jesus didn’t come to restore Jewish sovereignty; he came to save us from our sins. Only Immanuel—God with us—could complete the mission.
Most people living at the time of Jesus’ birth didn’t understand that. The one thing everyone knew was the Messiah was supposed to be a “son of David.” The Messiah was to be a descendant from the line of David, born in the city of Bethlehem. Everyone knew it. His lineage as a son of David was what Joseph brought to the table.
The Bible never explicitly mentions Mary’s family background. Based on Luke’s genealogy, many scholars believe Mary was from the line of David, and this most likely is an accurate assumption (Luke 3:23). But for the Jews of first-century Israel, family heritage always passed from father to son. Regardless of his mother’s ancestry, the Messiah had to be born into the household of a male descendant of David.
Joseph, “son of David,” was such a man. Even though Joseph was not Jesus’ physical father, Joseph claimed Jesus as his son and heir by taking Mary as his wife and naming her child. In the eyes of the community, Jesus was Joseph’s son and heir to his legacy. Because Joseph accepted Jesus as his own, Jesus was considered a son of David. The prophecy was fulfilled through Joseph’s obedience (Matthew 1:22).
When God begins to move, he always looks for a willing heart. It is not that God needs us, but he chooses to use us for his glory. Redemption of men and women is God’s goal; and by his grace, we get to be part of the story.
Joseph is remembered because of his part in the story. There was no room for Jesus in the inn, but Joseph made room for Jesus in his life and in his home. Joseph’s actions helped prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. His obedience mattered.
What role will our obedience play in the story of redemption?