What can we know about the man who was the human father to Jesus Christ? The Bible gives us surprisingly few details, but it demonstrates Joseph’s faith.
Joseph, the husband of Mary, is never mentioned by Paul or by the Gospel of Mark. In fact, there are few references to this important man, but from what we are given, we can create a picture of the character and heart of the man, even as we lack many details of his life.
When God the Father in all His wisdom planned out all the details of the Word coming to earth in human flesh, He no doubt would have taken great care in selecting the family into which His Son would be born.
It was known in advance that Jesus would be born into a family of the tribe of Judah and that He would be born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth (Matthew 2:5-6, 23). And God chose a family that was devout in their worship of Him—a man and woman of high moral character.
Joseph and Mary: A blissful couple
God selected a man named Joseph, a descendant of David, and a young woman named Mary (Luke 1:27). At this point they were betrothed, a custom rather foreign to the modern mind. To fully understand this, we need to take a brief look at this practice.
The betrothal period was similar to the current custom of being engaged, but it was a deeper and more serious commitment. William Barclay explains it this way: “Once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year, the couple were known as husband and wife, although they had not the rights of husband and wife” (New Daily Study Bible, 2001, Vol. 1, p. 22).
The year leading up to the wedding itself was one in which they were to be deeply committed to one another, yet were not allowed to enjoy the sexual relationship normal for a married couple. Barclay explains that if, for some reason, the couple decided not to proceed on to the wedding, the betrothal “could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce” (ibid.).
A heartrending challenge reveals a gentle man
It was during this one-year period that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her that she was about to conceive by the power of God and that her child would be the Son of God and was to be named Jesus (Luke 1:28-35). As stressful as this would have been for Mary, it did fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
The Father made sure His Son was born into a house of faith.But what would Joseph have thought? The answer teaches us something important about the man who was to help raise Jesus.
Joseph knew his bride-to-be was a woman of strong character and faith, and it is clear he loved her deeply. Whether Mary told him of the visit from Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38) is not stated. But even if she had, it would still have been a great shock to learn she was indeed pregnant! All of their family, friends and acquaintances would assume the worst, and the only socially acceptable option was to divorce Mary.
The character of Joseph is revealed in the way he responded to what would have been a very emotional circumstance.
Matthew tells us Joseph was a “just man” (Matthew 1:19). This is a description of his heart and character, meaning he was a kind and tenderhearted man, whose concern for others was exceeded only by his love and obedience to God. In fact, the word just is often used in connection with mildness and mercy to describe one’s character.
By law, Joseph was within his rights to end the betrothal period and divorce Mary. To do so publicly would expose her and her family to shame of the highest degree, as adultery was always considered one of the most heinous of crimes.
A hard or vengeful man might well have taken full advantage of this crime to seek vengeance on a treacherous woman! But this was not the nature of the man who was to help raise the Messiah. Because of his love and concern toward her, he decided to put her away quietly and privately, allowing her and the child to live, but apart from himself.
He demonstrated a tender, caring love for Mary. This is the kind of man God the Father wanted to help raise the young Jesus.
Joseph, a man of deep faith
God intervened by sending an angel to Joseph in a dream before he took the action he had decided was needful (Matthew 1:20). This is where another aspect of Joseph’s character is revealed—he was a man of faith.
As difficult as it would have been to face the accusing stares and whispered words of friends, neighbors and even family, Joseph decided without question to obey the wishes and instruction of his Creator (Matthew 1:24-25). This loving and kindhearted man went on in faith and married his bride.
Jesus was younger than 2 when an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to take his wife and the young Jesus and flee to Egypt for their safety (Matthew 2:13-14, 16). Upon receiving these instructions, this faithful man obediently left all he could not carry and led his family on the long and difficult journey down to Egypt as instructed.
There they stayed, with Joseph working to provide for his family in a strange land, until an angel of God appeared in another dream, telling him it was safe to return home (verses 19-21).
The role of a stepparent is often fraught with challenges, but many of those challenges are removed if the parent decides to love the child or children with an open and loving heart.
Love is so much more than just an emotion—it is actions that unselfishly spring from a deep desire to do what is best for another. So Joseph, acting out of love and faith, accepted the infant Son of God into his home to love, nurture, raise and teach Him as his own flesh and blood.
An important part of raising children is the instruction given to them about God and the worship of their Creator. Being a devout man of faith, Joseph would have taught, by example first and foremost, the principles of honesty, integrity, faithfulness and obedience. The Sabbaths and holy days would have been honored in their home as holy times established by God. Faithfulness in tithing, caring for the poor and looking after widows would have been taught, as would the importance of daily prayer and a focus on the written Word of God.
The Father made sure His Son was born into a house of faith.
Joseph, a hard-working craftsman and mentor
The Bible reveals that Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). A carpenter was a craftsman in an ancient trade that goes back at least as far as the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. A carpenter’s tools have changed little over the centuries and would have included hammers, an adze, various saws, drills, awls, planes, chisels and more.
Joseph was a man carefully selected by the Creator to be given the distinct honor of serving as the human father for the Son of God!Carpenters were typically engaged to build and perhaps repair household furniture (tables, chairs, bed frames and more). They would make doors, windows, staircases and banisters for new constructions or for repairs and remodels of existing buildings.
Fishermen used carpenters to fashion oars and masts—and even decking and hull construction and repairs—for their fishing vessels. Farmers might have hired a carpenter for building or fixing carts, wagons or yokes for oxen.
For larger projects, a carpenter may also have built with stone and adobe brick in addition to wood. Some carpenters were known to be skilled artisans who could create beautiful and intricate carved pieces in wood, bone and ivory. Archaeologists have uncovered many such pieces that reveal the skill and care of the craftsman.
It was natural for a son to follow in the steps of his father, and so it seems to have been with Jesus. After His public ministry began, Jesus was disregarded by those who lived nearby, who dismissed Him with, “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?” (Mark 6:3). The fact that He was called a carpenter shows He worked in that trade until the time His ministry began.
Joseph would have been the one who took the time to teach and mentor his young Son as He grew. As a mentor, Joseph would have taught and demonstrated skills and techniques for working with wood, stone, adobe and plaster. He would have taught how to measure and plan a project, the importance of having a good relationship with suppliers and, of course, how to charge a fair price for the work to be done.
A carpenter must have an attention to detail, so Joseph would have taught and modeled excellence in what he made, in proper care for his tools and shop, and in treating all his customers with dignity and respect.
The death of Joseph
The timing of the death of Joseph is not recorded in Scripture. The last mention we have of him was when Jesus was 12 years old. This incident, recorded in Luke 2:41-51, shows the family going to Jerusalem for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. After the family began the return trip home, they were a full day’s travel away when they discovered their young Son was not with any of the family!
In verse 48 Mary rebuked Him, no doubt sick with worry and fear, by saying, “Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”
Given the loving character of Joseph that we’ve already discovered, we can imagine how this devout and kindly man would have responded with relief and love toward a boy who caused them distress, although entirely without malice!
It was not unusual at that time for a man to marry a woman quite a bit younger than himself. The time it may have taken to build a business with an income stream and savings that would allow him to support a wife and children might have been a few years, so it would not be unreasonable to assume Joseph was a decade—or even more—older than his wife. And so, it is not unreasonable to conclude he died a number of years before Mary.
It seems certain that by the time of Jesus’ ministry, Joseph was no longer alive. John notes how at the time of His crucifixion Jesus made sure His mother would be provided for after His death (John 19:26-27). This would not have been necessary had Joseph still been alive. But if Mary was a widow, it would have been the responsibility of her oldest Son to make sure she was taken care of.
Joseph was a man carefully selected by the Creator to be given the distinct honor of serving as the human father for the Son of God! In a manner consistent with his gentle and humble character, we know very little of the details of his life. But we do know he was a man of great compassion and love, great faith and endurance, and a man well suited to help raise Jesus Christ.