Joseph, the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:19), is one of the great unsung heroes of the New Testament. He is one of only a handful of men identified in the Bible as a “just man”.
The phrase “just man” occurs only 10 times in the Bible. Noah is the first person in the Bible described as a just man (Genesis 6:9).
In the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes the phrase “just man” is used on five occasions to describe a person who is faithful to God, with a strong devotional life and who is a good parent.
Turning to the New Testament, in Mark 6, John the Baptist is described as a just man. Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (that we are aware of), is described in the same manner (Acts 10:22). Above every other person to whom the descriptor is ascribed, we read this in Matthew 27:19: “While [Pilate] was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.’”
Pilate’s wife is referring to Jesus Christ. Of the 10 texts in the entire Bible referring to a just man, only five are linked to a particular individual. Joseph, the husband of Mary, stands in good company.
From this we can surmise that Joseph is a God-fearing man, a man of prayer and faith, whose commitment to the Hebrew Scriptures may have been seen as outdated and anachronistic, considering the corrupting influences the Alexandrian Schools of philosophy were having upon Jewish religion, as witnessed by the teachings espoused by the Sadducees and Pharisees. Nevertheless, in this period of religious turmoil and syncretism, Joseph is one of five inspiration ascribes as “just”.
So when this just man found out his intended was pregnant, there was only one course of action he could take: to divorce her quietly—separate himself from the sin and the sinner.
Remember, Joseph’s dreams have been shattered, his plans ruined, yet he was unwilling to bring public disgrace upon Mary, which would have resulted in public punishment. The only other means at his disposal legally was to hand her a letter of divorce in the presence of two witnesses. In this method he was not required to give reasons for the divorce.
In Matthew 1:20 we read:
But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
Here lies the puzzling fragment of this episode. Why wasn’t Joseph warned earlier or told immediately? We don’t know how long it was before the angel came to Joseph. Was it a day? Was it a week or even a month?
The angel could have appeared to Joseph when Mary was telling him her story for the first time, vindicating everything said, but no, that did not happen. If it did, it would have saved both Mary and Joseph a lot of anger, sorrow and heartache.
Instead, God allowed Joseph to “think on it”. He permitted him to be immersed with emotions of isolation and crushing disappointment. Does this mean that God had forsaken Joseph? No. Does it mean that God enjoyed putting Joseph to the test? No. However, God wanted to fit Joseph for the work He had planned for him because it would take a unique man to be the earthly father of the world’s Saviour.
“Joseph was prepared to sacrifice his good name to obey God.”
The darkest part of the night is just before dawn. Joseph was tested. He had to wait for the answer that didn’t come immediately but when it came he was told to trust in God, because the One who holds the universe in the palm of His hand knows His children well. Joseph would play a pivotal role in the salvation of the human race. Has any man ever had a greater responsibility?
Joseph’s role is unique, for it was he who saw the Saviour born into the world. It was Joseph who cradled Jesus in his arms. It was Joseph who saw the first steps of the toddler Jesus. Joseph felt Jesus’ arms wrap around his own waist when they were playing together and felt that little hand nestle itself in his as they walked together. It was Joseph who first taught Jesus how to bridle a donkey and to hold the wooden handle of a saw in the carpenter’s shop. Joseph’s experience is unique among men, yet his prayer during this testing time may have been, “Why me God, why have You allowed this to happen to me?”
Joseph was judged a just man, which directly describes his spiritual standing before God. As is the case today, true spirituality encompasses the whole person in whatever activity and setting one finds oneself. For Joseph, being a just man from an earthly perspective meant he had a good reputation, he was a competent tradesman, people respected him, and why not? He was from the tribe of Judah and a descendant from the house of David. Young people looked up to him, his peers saw him as successful and the older people viewed Joseph as a man with great potential.
Nevertheless, when Joseph made the decision to marry Mary it cost him everything. His reputation was ruined, his good name soiled. If the Child was his it meant he had acted immorally. It meant he was a fornicator. If the Child was another man’s and Joseph was simply being chivalrous, in effect he was a fool who was marrying a shameless Jewish minx, and he was not the man people thought him to be.
Whatever conclusion was cast upon Joseph’s situation by his peers, the end result was the same—Joseph was at fault. His name would become an epithet for foolishness or impropriety. His trade and financial situation would suffer. He would be ostracised by his family and likely have been cast out of the synagogue.
Yet Joseph was prepared to sacrifice his good name to obey God. We know that to be the case as we turn to Matthew 13:53-56 and read of Jesus’ second rejection in His hometown, Nazareth:
Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these parables, that He departed from there. When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?” So they were offended at Him.
Notice the words “is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” You see it was customary for people when speaking of a son in the second person to also name the father as a sign of respect. In other words, when speaking of Jesus the grammar should have been, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son and isn’t this His mother called Mary?” But no, 30 and some years later, in Nazareth itself, they simple refer to Joseph as “the carpenter”. Joseph’s good name was lost. In those times, as it is today, a good name, a good reputation, means everything. When Joseph decided to marry Mary and be obedient to the will of God, he knew his name would be slandered for the rest of his life and cost him his standing in the community, but he did it anyway!
During the three and-a-half years of Jesus’ ministry, He was continually confronted by those who paraded their righteous acts before men. Displaying them as a badge of honour, boasting of their good works (Matthew 6:1,2) with long elaborate prayers (Matthew 6:7), paying tithe of mint and cumin (Matthew 23:23), and feigning holy offence (Matthew 26:65). Yet, as Jesus reflected on the good works to be seen of men (Matthew 23:5), He could say He had seen a better type of righteousness, firsthand in the person of His earthly father, His guardian, His protector Joseph, the great unsung hero of the New Testament, the man inspiration describes as just (Matthew 1:19)
Rod Anderson is pastor of Orchard Melbourne Central City Church and Greenvale Church in Victoria.