Every Christmas we hear messages on Christ, the incarnation of God, and so we should, He is the centre of the story! We hear about how we should be more like Mary and how humble she was and how blessed she was, we hear about the wise men and how we need to be wise today and give gifts to Jesus. This Boxing Day, I am preaching on what we can learn from the shepherds. All of that is important and correct, but it seems to me that the unsung hero of the Christmas story is Joseph. Without Joseph, Mary would never have got safely to Bethlehem, without Joseph, Herod would have been successful in murdering Jesus as a baby, without Joseph, Jesus would have been raised in a broken family, shunned from the religious Jewish community. He truly is a hero in the Christmas narrative – a godly man, a great husband and a great father. He was the foster father of Jesus – not just anyone could do that, but Joseph did it and did it well. Let’s have a look at what he did.
Firstly, let’s correct a misconception about Joseph. He was not a poor carpenter. Now, he was a carpenter – Matthew 13.55 tells us Jesus was “the carpenter’s son”, but he was not poor. The idea that Joseph was a poor man does not fit with what we know of history, or the Greek word tekton, translated carpenter.
The word tekton means someone who is an artisan, an advanced carpenter, someone capable of making excellent furniture, doing stone work and who could build a whole house from nothing. A tekton would be able to make mosaics and on the side often made jewelry as well.
Joseph was a very skilled man, a highly paid professional. Although he lived in Nazareth, he would have probably worked in Sepphoris, the nearest city. A lot of people lived in the small, peaceful Nazareth and worked in what was a very wealthy city. Mary’s father worked in Sepphoris, and ran a library of religious books in the synagogue. Maybe that is where Joseph met Mary. In those days, the parents arranged marriages, maybe they saw this hard-working professional and thought let’s get him to agree to marry our daughter.
Sepphoris is an amazing city, built by one of the sons of Herod the Great, called Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas wanted to build a city that would be the greatest city in Galilee, and he poured a huge amount of money into building it. It become the most important financial city in the entire Middle East, wealthy people flocked there from all over the world to work. It was a city full of culture and life and international residents.
Most of the work force lived in Nazareth, about four miles away, maybe an hour’s walk, or thirty minutes on a donkey, not an unreasonable commute at all. Most likely Joseph worked in Sepphoris, and Jesus would have from a young age come with him to work, learning from him, being his apprentice, his disciple in the art of wood and metal work and construction.
He would have seen a huge city with great wealth, a place with a theatre, with all sorts of international residents and cultures – a lot of the images and parables Jesus uses about life, about money, about different things, He would never have realized just growing up in Nazareth. Nazareth was where you went home to, but people worked in the city.
So, what we know is that Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she became pregnant – as a virgin to the Christ! That story is hard enough to believe knowing what we know about the life and death and resurrection of her son, but at the time, I doubt anyone would believe their fiancee who they know they have never slept with making such a claim! The King James Bible says that Mary was espoused to Joseph, a difficult word to translate into English as we do not have a similar process of getting married. An espoused couple were engaged for one year exactly, and in that year they would prepare for married life, prepare for the wedding, and they would not have sex until they were in fact married. However, this espousal was considered as binding as marriage and to escape an espousal you would need a divorce as if you were married. During this time, Mary would have moved to Nazareth, and lived near Joseph.
Many Jews during this time would ignore their religion and sleep together anyway, the fact that Joseph did not do this shows him to be a man of deep faith and integrity. Remaining pure was a way that both Joseph and Mary are shown to be taking their faith in God very seriously indeed. However, during the espousal year, Mary got pregnant.
Even before he finds out the truth, we find Joseph being a man full of great mercy and kindness towards Mary. Believing her to have cheated on both God and him, Joseph does not want to expose her or mistreat her, but rather wants to put her away “privily” (another great King James word, this is all in Matthew 1.19 if you want to look it up). When Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, I think he would have been really hurt and maybe angry, but his choice of action was to end the espousal privately, saving Mary any embarassment! He loved her more than he loved his reputation and what people thought about him. That shows a man of great kindness.
And Joseph had other options, he could have had Mary stoned for what was effectively adultery. The courts of the day would have accepted his testimony over hers and Jesus would have been killed before He was even born! He could have exposed the whole thing, and kept his reputation. He was a man of mercy! He was not mean or cruel. He would have been a great dad to Jesus I reckon!
Then as Joseph was deciding how best to show mercy to Mary, an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him the whole story. I know we can all hear God as Christians, but it is my experience as a pastor, that it is hard to hear God when you are in emotional turmoil. Your fiancee getting pregnant without your help would cause that kind of turmoil that makes it hard to hear God. You have to be a spiritual person to still be open to hear God when stuff happens, and Joseph was that kind of man.
When Joseph heard God, he just did it. I love that, I love instant obedience – nothing else reveals spirituality and faith like instantly doing what God says to do. He went home, kept the rest of the espousal year, kept sexually pure even though Mary was pregnant. He just lived for God in every area of his life. Can you see why I am calling him a hero. Being a hero for God starts at home – it starts with being kind to your spouse, it starts with caring for your child, it starts with listening to God no matter what your personal pain is, it starts with putting others above yourself. Joseph made Christmas happen because he was a hero where it mattered most – at home.
In Matthew 2, Joseph has another dream telling him to relocate his family to Egypt as Herod is trying to kill Jesus. He went immediately, did not even wait until the morning. That instant obedience saved the life of Jesus from the jealous rage of Herod. Egypt is not like Israel culturally, and Joseph had contacts in the greatest city of the middle East, his own business and was a man of great success – a professional in high demand. Leaving all that behind must have been terrible, it must have been hard work starting over with nothing from nothing. But Joseph did not waste a second arguing with God, He just went. Obeying God meant more to him than any early thing. That is what living by faith looks like. Joseph trusted God – if I obey you, and it looks like I will be in a worse state, it doesn’t matter – God will always be faithful to me. If God wants to bring me gold and frankincense and myrrh in Egypt, He did it before and can do it again.
This Christmas, I want to challenge all of you reading this to be more Joseph. Obey God as soon as He speaks. Trust His provision and stop dragging your heels and arguing with God – do what He says. Be merciful to those around you, be sensitive to the things of God. Maybe you can think of something God has been asking you to do for a while – it’s time to get it done!
The only other time we read about Joseph was in Luke 2, where he takes Jesus to Jersualem to celebrate the Passover, and it says that was his custom. It was Joseph’s custom to take his family to the Passover festival in Jerusalem every single year without fail. He was a spiritual leader. If he was around today, Joseph would already have his hotel booked in Guildford and reserved a place at Heal the Nations 2022! He would be taking all his children and saying you need to travel with me to be here and put God first in your life. Today you can drive to Jerusalem from Nazareth in under three hours, but back then it was a three day walk. Joseph didn’t care – what he cared about was getting his family to see how important God was. He led his family and led by example.
Men, husbands – be more Joseph. Make a commitment in 2022 to take your children to church every week and take them to Heal the Nations. Don’t phone me up and ask for less sessions, ask for more! Don’t drop your children off at church, don’t send them – take them! Be the spiritual leader of your family, care for your family, train them to put God first.
Just like Joseph, God has something that He wants you to nurture, raise and release. It may be a child, a business, a ministry, a team of people. This year, we can learn a lot from the unsung hero of Christmas. You can walk in your purpose and do what you are called to do. Dream big, be kind and be sensitive to the Spirit. Be more Joseph!