by Rex Rouis
Joseph, the earthly stepfather of Jesus, is a misunderstood and unappreciated hero of the New Testament. He was the earthly father of God’s heavenly Son. Let that sink in. It could not have been easy.
Jesus was the offspring of Mary and the Holy Spirit. Male humanity was not involved. That was unprecedented. How do you respond to that as a father? How do you manage that as a family? As we revisit this story, let us remember that they lived this. They were people with weaknesses and passions like us (James 5:17).
It had to be a crazy adventure for Joseph, and it all started off with a bang. One day, he hears from his betrothed, Mary, that she has become pregnant by a miraculous work of God. You want to believe her, but you cannot. As he is trying to figure out what to do, an angel shows up to comfort him. The angel tells him it is all true and what he is supposed to do. Fortunately, for all of us, he obeys.
The next couple of years are a whirlwind of intrigue and near catastrophe. Faced with the societal consequences of a pregnancy outside of marriage, they secretly slip out of Nazareth. Any public knowledge would jeopardize Jesus’ future involvement in the synagogue and the temple. Before going to Bethlehem, they probably stayed a good while with Zacharias and Elizabeth (the father and mother of John the Baptist). They lived only three miles from Bethlehem. In their old age, they had also experienced a miraculous birth.
Their home was Mary’s safe place. The angel had previously recommended that she go there, and she ended up staying for three months. Zacharias and Elizabeth knew her pregnancy was a miracle. They also realized from the Old Testament prophecies that the baby must be born in Bethlehem. The census would be a perfect cover.
After Jesus’ birth and after fulfilling the Temple requirements, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth. The Magi, guided by a divine hand, miraculously find them. They honor the child with lavish gifts. After the Magi leave, God intervenes once again, waking Joseph in the night with a dire warning: “Get up and leave immediately. Herod’s men are coming for Mary and the child.” (Matthew 2:13). The family packs up and leaves, barely making it out in time. They probably went to Sepphoris, a bustling nearby Roman city, where they could get lost in the crowds. From there, they travel on to the safety of Egypt. They use the gifts from the Magi as money to live on until Herod is dead and they can return.
The adventure continues. Now, Joseph must raise the child. What father comes prepared to raise the sinless Son of God? Jesus was fully human, but His desires and motivations had to sometimes be at odds with their expectations. Joseph essentially had joint custody of Jesus with the God of the universe. How does that work? Jesus may not even have looked like His half-brothers and half-sisters. Jesus, as the oldest son, would have been expected to take over the family business. He had no desire for that. He spent most of His time in the synagogue reading the scriptures and alone in prayer with His heavenly Father. Being away so much must have caused tension within the family.
Joseph was the stepfather of Jesus. He was the earthly father of God’s heavenly Son.They knew that something was different and significant about Jesus. He, after all, was the Messiah to come. The angel told them that much, but what exactly does that look like? Tradition expected the Messiah to be a great leader like King David, who would unite the people and throw out the Romans. Everybody was waiting for that, but that was not what the family got. His family would later become deeply concerned that His teachings would get Him into grave trouble (Mark 3:21). No one understood that Jesus, as the Messiah, must first come as a suffering servant and die for the sins of all humanity on the Cross. And they surely didn’t grasp that He was the human-born Son of God. Who thinks of that?
There was an instance when Jesus was 12 when His family traveled to Jerusalem. It was something they did every year. But this year, Jesus decided to stay in Jerusalem, and He didn’t feel He needed to tell anybody. A day later, while on the road, Joseph and Mary realized He was missing. After frantically searching through their extended family, they rush back to Jerusalem. After three more days, they finally find Him in the temple, casually conversing with the priests. Astonished, Mary asks that age-old parental question, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been beside ourselves looking for you.” I’ve been there as a father, and probably so have you.
Jesus responds flatly, “Why have you been looking for me? Wouldn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) Think about that. He’s telling His earthly father that He should’ve known He would be in His heavenly Father’s house. Wow! Joint custody is a tricky thing, especially when the other Father is God. Even Jesus had to be a teenager once.
Jesus goes back with them to Nazareth, and this is the last we hear of Joseph. He dies and fades off into history. By the time Jesus started His ministry, if Joseph were still alive, he would be around 50. Most men didn’t live that long.
Jesus, of course, never took over the family business, and His ministry and teachings ultimately did get Him killed. It wasn’t till after the resurrection that the family fully understood Jesus’ heavenly identity as the one true Son of God. Fortunately for them, they were all in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost, waiting for the promise of the Father – Jesus’ Heavenly Father. God Himself was the birth Father of Jesus, but none of this could have happened without Joseph as the steady faithful stepfather. There is no way he could have comprehended his prominent place in eternal history.
“And these were all commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. For God had provided something better for us so that they would be made perfect together with us.” Hebrews 11:39-40
When you hear his story this Christmas, realize these were ordinary people, walking out their small part within God’s big picture. None of them understood it all, and we are just like them. You, too, have a role in God’s plan. You may not see or understand it, but God and you are working on a beautiful story.
The Nativity is the story of the birth of Jesus. It is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. The whole story is far more involved than you may think. Read it here.