I played a cow in my first-grade Christmas pageant, and I had more lines than the kid who played Joseph. He was a prop, or so it seemed, for Mary, the plastic doll in the manger, and the rest of us. We were just following the script. There’s rarely much room in the inn of the contemporary Christian imagination for Joseph, especially among conservative Protestants like me. His only role, it seems, is an usher—to get Mary to the stable in Bethlehem in the first place and then to get her back to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to find the wandering 12-year-old Jesus.
But there’s much more to the Joseph figure.
When we talk about Joseph at all, we spend most of our time talking about what he was not. We believe (rightly) with the apostles that Jesus was conceived in a virgin’s womb. Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father; not a trace of Joseph’s sperm was involved in the formation of the embryo Christ. No amount of Joseph’s DNA could be found in the dried blood of Jesus peeled from the wood of Golgotha’s cross. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit completely apart from the will or exertion of any man.
That noted, though, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce Joseph simply to a truthful first-century Bill Clinton: “He did not have sexual relations with that woman.” There’s much more to be said. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, but he is his real father. In his adoption of Jesus, Joseph is rightly identified by the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures as Jesus’ father (Luke 2:41, Luke 2:48).
Jesus would have said “Abba” first to Joseph. Jesus’ obedience to his father and mother, obedience essential to his law-keeping on our behalf, is directed toward Joseph (Luke 2:51). Jesus does not share Joseph’s bloodline, but he claims him as his father, obeying Joseph perfectly and even following in his vocation. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he cites the words of Deuteronomy to counter “the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). Think about it for a moment—Jesus almost certainly learned those Hebrew Scriptures from Joseph as he listened to him at the woodworking table or stood beside him in the synagogue.
Our contemporary cartoonish, two-dimensional picture of Joseph too easily ignores how difficult it was for him to do what he did. Imagine for a minute that one of the teenagers in your church were to stand up behind the pulpit to give her testimony. She’s eight months pregnant and unmarried. After a few minutes of talking about God’s working in her life and about how excited she is to be a mother, she starts talking about how thankful she is that she’s remained sexually pure, kept all the “True Love Waits” commitments she made in her youth group Bible study. You’d immediately conclude that the girl’s either delusional or lying.
When contemporary biblical revisionists scoff at the virgin birth of Jesus and other miracles, they often tell us we’re now beyond such “myths” since we live in a post-Enlightenment, scientifically progressive information age. What such critics miss is the fact that virgin conceptions have always seemed ridiculous. People in first-century Palestine knew how babies were conceived. The implausibility of the whole thing is evident in the biblical text itself. When Mary tells Joseph she is pregnant, his first reaction isn’t a cheery “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” No, he assumes what any of us would conclude was going on, and he sets out to end their betrothal.
But then God enters the scene.
When God speaks in a dream to Joseph about the identity of Jesus, Joseph, like everyone else who follows Christ, recognizes the voice and goes forward (Matthew 1:21). Joseph’s adoption and protection of Jesus is simply the outworking of that belief.
In believing God, Joseph probably walked away from his reputation. The wags in his hometown would probably always whisper about how “poor Joseph was hoodwinked by that girl” or how “old Joseph got himself in trouble with that girl.” As the stakes grew higher, Joseph certainly sacrificed his economic security. In first-century Galilee, after all, one doesn’t simply move to Egypt, the way one might today decide to move to New York or London. Joseph surrendered a household economy, a vocation probably built up over generations, handed down to him, one would suppose, by his father.
Again, Joseph was unique in one sense. None of us will ever be called to be father to God. But in another very real sense, Joseph’s faith was exactly the same as ours. The letter of James, for instance, speaks of the definition of faith in this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). James is the one who tells us further that faith is not mere intellectual belief, the faith of demons (James 2:19), but is instead a faith that works.
James shows us that Abraham’s belief is seen in his offering up Isaac, knowing God would keep his promise and raise him from the dead (James 2:21). We know Rahab has faith not simply because she raises her hand in agreement with the Hebrew spies but because in hiding them from the enemy she is showing she trusts God to save her (James 2:25). James tells us that genuine faith shelters the orphan.
What gives even more weight to these words is the identity of the human author. This letter is written by James of the Jerusalem church, the brother of our Lord Jesus. How much of this “pure and undefiled religion” did James see first in the life of his own earthly father? Did the image of Joseph linger in James’s mind as he inscribed the words of an orphan-protecting, living faith?
It’s a shame that Joseph is so neglected in our thoughts and affections, even at Christmastime. If we pay attention to him, though, we just might see a model for a new generation of Christians. We might see how to live as the presence of Christ in a culture of death. We might see how to image a protective Father, how to preach a life-affirming gospel, even in a culture captivated by the spirit of Herod.