My favorite Bible character from the Old Testament is Joseph, the son of Jacob and his beloved Rachel. He proved himself to be a man of great faith, even though he was hated and sold into slavery by his brothers, even though he was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, and even though he was thrown into prison and then forgotten by the cupbearer of Pharaoh after he had done the man a great service. Joseph never did give up and blame God for his predicament. Instead, he remained faithful, and God blessed him greatly.
However, this article is not about that Joseph, as important as he is to the Bible narrative. Instead, I want to consider another Joseph, one who is much less well-known, but who nevertheless also showed himself to be a man of great faith. At this time of year, we think of Mary and Joseph, the newborn Jesus, and all that goes with the Nativity scene. Much attention is paid to Mary, the Christ-child, the shepherds, and even the wise men who showed up many months later. The one individual who tends to be somewhat and sometimes totally ignored is Joseph, who, although not the biological father of Jesus, assumed all the legal responsibilities of fatherhood.
Joseph revealed himself as a man of great faith from the time he first heard his wife-to-be, Mary, was pregnant. This was no minor situation. The period of engagement was certainly different in that time and culture than it is today. Engagement (“betrothal” or “espousal”) was a binding commitment that could only be broken by a bill of divorcement, and unfaithfulness during that time was no less of an issue than unfaithfulness during marriage. The penalty for the guilty party could be death by stoning. Clearly Joseph at first believed Mary had been unfaithful, because he knew he had not had a physical relationship with her, and he knew she was pregnant. Without a doubt, his heart was broken, but he still loved her and opted for a private bill of divorcement rather than exposing her to public disgrace and having her stoned. His faith is shown by his response to the message the angel brought to him.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25, NASB).
The angel told Joseph that the child to which Mary would give birth would be the very Son of God. Many men might have doubted this and would have gone through with the divorce. Joseph, however, quite obviously believed what the angel said, because he acted on the message. Obedience is the best evidence of faith. It is quite easy to say, “I believe,” but it is another thing entirely to act on a message that seems difficult or even impossible. Joseph was asked to believe and act on the reality of a virgin birth. This is clearly impossible with man, but not with God.
A virgin birth is not like a “married bachelor” or a “square circle.” These things are logical absurdities. A virgin birth is not a logical absurdity; it is merely an impossibility. God is powerful to accomplish the impossible, and Joseph both believed and acted on this fact. He “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” There is no indication that Joseph wavered or doubted. He believed the message from God and acted on it. He knew Mary was still a virgin, and he kept her so until after the birth of Jesus. His actions were likely illogical to others around him, but he acted in obedience to the Lord, so the opinions of his friends and acquaintances were irrelevant.
Some time after His birth, King Herod heard from the wise men that one had been born who would be the new king. Of course, Herod being the paranoid scoundrel he was, immediately came up with a plan to kill this threat to his throne. Many young children were slaughtered in the carrying out of Herod’s evil plan, but of course Jesus escaped. Joseph was warned to take Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt. Once again, Joseph acted in faith and immediately obeyed.
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON” (Matthew 2:13-15, NASB).
Many men might have replied with skepticism and questioned the wisdom of the angel’s message. It was surely a scary prospect to move to a different country with no notice ahead of time and no time to plan, yet Joseph, in another display of great faith, immediately “got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.” He did not delay, nor did he express doubt. He simply obeyed the Lord’s command and did something that would have seemed illogical to many, but Joseph obviously knew that the only place of safety was in the center of God’s will.
After a period of time, an angel again came to Joseph and told him to return to Israel.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2, 19-23, NASB).
By this time, the little family was certainly settled in Egypt, and again, it would have been easy for Joseph to second-guess the angel’s message. He could have considered Egypt to be the best place to safely raise Jesus, since it was away from the place where His life had been in jeopardy. However, just like in the other situations, Joseph acted in faith, believing the message and acting on it. He “got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the Land of Israel.” After coming back to Israel, Joseph was warned by God in a dream and again responded in faith and “left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth.”
Every step of the way, Joseph responded in faith by acting on what God told him. We know very little more about this man other than what we can assume from his godly character. We assume he died some time between the visit to the temple when Jesus was twelve years old and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. We can also assume that he was faithful to the responsibility of being the earthly, adoptive father of the Son of God, teaching Him many things, including the carpenter trade.
The Scripture tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man,” and there is no reason to believe he did not operate in the rest of his life in the same manner in which we observe him operating in the parts of his life we know about. He is frequently overlooked among biblical heroes, but what we do know of him makes Joseph a great hero of the faith.