The conversation isn’t recorded in Scripture, but by all indications, it did not go well.
“An angel visited you? You’re telling me your pregnancy is the work of God, and you’re going to give birth to the Messiah?”
Mary had received an angelic visitor announcing that she would be the mother of the coming Christ. Almost immediately she traveled to consult with her older, wiser cousin who was also miraculously pregnant. She returned three months pregnant and had the undesirable duty of explaining the situation to her fiancé.
Joseph didn’t accept the explanation, and began making arrangements to terminate their engagement. Because he was a just man—a righteous man—he did not want to bring unnecessary shame upon Mary or her family.1 According to Mosaic law, an adulterer was to be stoned. Although this was impossible under Roman occupation, her unplanned pregnancy still carried a vicious stigma. Joseph knew this would be catastrophic for the young woman, so to avoid public humiliation, he moved quietly. In the process, he received his own angelic visitation in a dream.
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20, 21, ESV).
When Joseph roused from his sleep, he chose to surrender to God’s will in the same way that Mary did. But it was not without cost.
Perhaps you have been tempted to think that Joseph was a simple bystander, an incidental accessory in the story. Matthew’s genealogy mentions, after listing a long line of successive forefathers, that Joseph was simply “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (verse 16, ESV). The Bible makes it clear in multiple ways. Joseph was not Jesus’ father. There was no biological connection. But he was not incidental. Joseph was the reason for Jesus’ identification as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55). Jesus was just as entrusted to an earthly father as He was to an earthly mother.
Joseph had three more encounters when the angel of the Lord spoke directly to him. He was given the divine warning that the family must flee to Egypt under cover of darkness to avoid the wrath of jealous King Herod. After the wicked king’s death, the angel again appeared, directing Joseph to take his family home. When Joseph learned that Herod’s son reigned over Judea, he was concerned for their safety. Mercifully, the angel returned a final time, directing them to Nazareth, where they could live peacefully.
Four times in total, the angel of the Lord presented himself to Joseph, and the surrogate father willingly submitted to the divine directive, even though it dramatically disrupted his life. Each time he obeyed he participated with God in fulfilling a series of key messianic prophecies that unmistakably pointed to Jesus as the long-anticipated Saviour.
But Joseph carried his responsibility on still a deeper level.
If you hail from somewhere in the Western world, you likely operate predominantly on a paradigm of guilt and innocence. Sin is an individual affair, and we acknowledge it as such in many of our popular hymns. We sing, “Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole....NowwashmeandIshallbewhiterthan snow.” The gospel that elicits our Sabbath morning amens proclaims freedom from guilt for the one willing to receive Christ, and this is certainly true.
But the Semitic world—the society that the Son of God chose to step into—operates on a more complex system, predominantly of shame and honor. While guilt says, “I did something bad,” the voice of shame says, “I am bad.” And that shame, like a virus, touches the family, the community, even the city and nation. You may have heard of situations in which families from these cultures have actually removed the shameful person from the family system, either by shunning or even killing them to preserve the family honor.
Joseph likely sensed the coming storm. He knew people could count, and count they would. When Joseph wed Mary and she gave birth just six months later, it didn’t take a scholar to realize that something didn’t quite add up.
Would it all blow over? Not a chance.
Much later, when Jesus was a grown man, working miracles, healing people, and teaching with authority, the Pharisees still called out the questionable circumstances of His birth. Where is Your father, Jesus? You know, we were not born of sexual immorality (see John 8:19, 41)—implying, of course, that He was. The scandal was inescapable.
When Joseph chose to remain with Mary, he knowingly took the shame associated with the Incarnation upon himself and bore it for the rest of his life, along with his wife. In an ironic twist he willfully became the bearer of the very shame from which he initially sought to separate himself. He began to have a sense of the cost of salvation, even as the infant Jesus lay innocent and unaware in a manger, then toted along the long road to Egypt, safely swaddled in His mother’s arms.
What an incredible man of integrity and character, willing to take responsibility for a problem that wasn’t his doing, dutifully executing his part of the story until he was no longer needed!
In the hustle and bustle of Passover at Jerusalem, the 12-year-old Jesus turned up missing. When Joseph and Mary found Him, deep in theological conversation, the frantic mother attempted to admonish her Son. “My child, why have you behaved thus to us? Your father and I have been searching for you in anguish” (Luke 2:48, Weymouth).2
His response must have stung. “I must be about my Father’s business” (verse 49). No, not Joseph, but His heavenly Father. After all the family sacrifices, the unexpected upheaval of his quiet, blue-collar life, enduring gossip and scorn, it was becoming clear that Joseph’s role was changing. Jesus now understood He was not simply “the carpenter’s son.”
Joseph knew it was time. He faded into the background so that the Father of Jesus, the Father of us all, might be fully glorified.
1 This story is taken from Matthew 1 and 2.
2 Texts credited to Weymouth are from Richard Francis Weymouth, The New Testament in Modern Speech (London: James Clarke & Co., 1903).