Joseph – The Stepfather of Jesus

St Joseph and the Christ Child in the Carpentry Workshop, by Pietro Annigoni 1963 at Church of San Lorenzo, Firenze © Christian Art Today

Joseph, the earthly stepfather of Jesus, is a misunderstood and unappreciated hero of the New Testament and the earthly father of God’s heavenly Son. Let that sink in; it could not have been easy. 

Jesus was the true offspring of Mary and the Holy Spirit. Male humanity was not involved. That is unprecedented. How do you respond to that as a father? How do you manage that as a family? As we revisit this story, let’s remember that they lived this. They were people with passions just like us (James 5:17).

It had to be a crazy adventure for Joseph, and it all started with a bang. One day, he hears from his betrothed, Mary, that she has become pregnant by a miraculous work of God. His life and future now appear ruined. As he is trying to figure out what to do, an angel shows up to comfort him. He tells him it’s true and what he must do. He obeys. 

The next couple of years are a whirlwind of intrigue and near catastrophes. Faced with the societal consequences of a pregnancy outside of marriage, they quietly slip out of Nazareth. Any public knowledge would jeopardize Jesus’ future involvement in the synagogue. They probably stayed with Zacharias and Elizabeth before going on to Bethlehem – only three miles further down the road. Guided by Old Testament prophecies predicting the birth in Bethlehem, the census serves as a perfect cover for their discreet relocation.

After Jesus’ birth and after fulfilling the Temple requirements, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth. The Magi, guided by a divine hand, miraculously find them. They honor the child with lavish gifts. After the Magi leave, God intervenes once again, waking Joseph in the night with a dire warning: “Get up and leave immediately, Herod’s men are coming for you and the child.” (Matthew 2:13). The family barely makes it out of town in time. They go to Sepphoris, a bustling nearby Roman city, and then travel to Egypt. They use the gifts from the Magi as money to live on until Herod is dead, and they can return to Nazareth.

The adventure continues. What father comes prepared to raise the sinless Son of God? Even though Jesus was fully human, aspects of His desires and motivations had to be at odds with their lifestyle and expectations. Joseph essentially had joint custody of Jesus with the God of the universe. How does that work? Jesus may not even have looked like His half-brothers and half-sisters. Jesus, as the oldest son, would have been expected to take over the family business. But, He had no desire for that. He spent most of His time in the synagogue reading the scriptures or alone in prayer with His heavenly Father. This had to cause tension within the family.

They knew Jesus’ significance as the Messiah but struggled to understand His path. Tradition anticipated a great leader like King David. No one realized that the Messiah should first come as a Suffering Servant and die for their sins on the Cross. How could they grasp that He was the human-born Son of God? Who thinks of that as a possibility? 

There was an instance when Jesus was 12 when His family traveled to Jerusalem. Something they did every year. But this year, Jesus decided to stay and didn’t feel the need to tell anybody. A day later, while on the road, Joseph and Mary realized He was missing. After frantically searching through their extended family, they traveled back to Jerusalem. Three more days, and they finally found Him in the temple, casually conversing with the priests. Astonished, Mary asks the standard parent question, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been beside ourselves looking for you.” I’ve been there as a father, and probably so have you. 

Jesus responds flatly, “Why have you been looking for me, wouldn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) Think about that. He’s telling His earthly father that he should’ve known he would be in his heavenly Father’s house. Wow! Joint custody is a difficult thing. Especially when the other father is God. Even Jesus had to be a teenager once.

Jesus goes back with them to Nazareth, and this is the last we hear of Joseph. By the time Jesus started His ministry, if Joseph were still alive, he would be around 50 years old. Most men didn’t live that long. 

Jesus, of course, never took over the family business, and His ministry and teachings ultimately got Him killed. The family only fully grasped Jesus’ identity as the Son of God after His resurrection. However, none of this would’ve happened without Joseph and his thankless efforts. He never fully comprehended his prominent place in eternal history. 

“And these all were commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us.” Hebrews 11:39-40 

When you hear his story this Christmas, realize these were real people. Ordinary people, walking out their part within the big picture of God. They didn’t understand it all. We are just like them.

 Take time to reflect on these people. Allow this meditation to deepen your appreciation of the profound journey they undertook. Then consider that you, too, have a role in God’s plan. You may not see it or understand it, but God and you are at work on one beautiful story.