Joseph, the earthy father of Jesus, has an extraordinary role in the Christmas story. In many ways, however, he was just an average Joe like you and me.
What we know
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Joseph, but here is what we can piece together.
Joseph had some royal blood running through his veins. That’s why he and Mary made that trip to Bethlehem late in the pregnancy.
Because the census required men to register in their ancestral towns, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he was “of the house of David,” King David. That was a big deal because the Messiah was to reclaim God’s promise that David’s reign would last forever.
Israel had not had a king for more than 500 years, however, so his royal lineage wasn’t worth much. Joseph is not said to have any position, power, or possessions.
Instead, he is a tradesman, sometimes translated carpenter, but the Greek word (tekton) is broader than that. Suffice it to say that Joseph was a blue collar guy eking out a living.
We also read that Joseph was righteous, a man of integrity. That’s why when he finds out Mary is pregnant, he decides to break up with her quietly, before God tells him not to. I guess that was the noble thing to do at the time.
What we assume
Because he is there at the manger, we might assume that Joseph was a holy guy. Maybe he was the wise handyman to whom everyone in town would go for advice and a godly proverb. The Bible, however, doesn’t support that.
There’s a scene later in Jesus’ life that sheds some light on Joseph.
After doing ministry for a little while, Jesus decides to do some teaching in his hometown. The people of Nazareth don’t find this endearing. Instead, they become indignant.
“Isn’t he the tradesman’s son?” they ask no one in particular. “Who does he think he is?”
Joseph had lived there for maybe 20 years raising his family and running his business. Yet the people don’t ascribe anything special to him. He doesn’t have a reputation as the wise craftsman with a special connection to God.
He’s just a tradesman, and Jesus just a tradesman’s son (Matthew 13:53-57).
To be fair though, they didn’t know the Joseph we know.
In many tellings of the Christmas story Joseph gets little more than a cameo. He is often portrayed as silently supporting Mary and Jesus, blending into the background. The angels, shepherds, and wise men don’t come to see him. He just happens to be there.
This is not the whole story.
In Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story, Joseph has a starring role. Angels come to him in a series of dreams to tell him to marry Mary, to name the baby Jesus, to flee to Egypt when Herod threatens his young family, to return when the time is right, and ultimately to settle in Nazareth. Every time Joseph does exactly as he is told without uttering a word.
I would like to pretend that he was able to do all these things because he was extraordinary, cut from special cloth. That would certainly take me off the hook from trying to emulate his obedience.
The Bible, however, repeatedly says he was more like me than not. He didn’t have a large bank account, a powerful job, or much influence in town. He was just an average Joe trying to take care of his family and do the right thing.
Yet God called him for this special role. God often uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
If you are feeling that this Christmas story isn’t for you, remember Joseph. He was an average Joe, like you and me, whom we place near the center of our nativities every Christmas.
Note: Christmas is for you is a series of edited versions of a much larger piece intended to help us understand that Jesus came for people who have flawed, messy, imperfect lives just like you and me.