Quiet Leadership: A Profile of Joseph, Father of Jesus

Lesson 2005
Joseph (NT); Leadership; Character

In years gone by I have tended to neglect Joseph, the biblical character who, along with Mary, was responsible for the upbringing of Jesus. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it has been some strange sort of backlash against modernist and Catholic views of Jesus’ birth.

In any case, as I began to reread the accounts of Jesus’ nativity a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to find the gospels referring overtly to Joseph as Jesus’ father—not implying a biological relationship, but clearly affirming his legal and familial role (Luke 2:33; 2:48; John 6:42).

As a historical character, Joseph will always remain somewhat of a mystery. The gospels—not biographies in the modern sense of the term—have relatively little to say concerning Jesus’ family life. References to Joseph are limited primarily to three chapters found within just two gospels: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 2.

Joseph apparently died before the Lord’s death, as attested by the fact that, while he was on the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother’s care to John, his beloved disciple (John 19:26-27). Though Joseph possibly survived long enough to see the early part of Jesus’ ministry (John 6:42), the gospel writers say nothing substantial about him after Jesus reached the age of twelve.

In addition, no words spoken by Joseph are recorded in Scripture. All of this might suggest that Joseph was not very significant in the scheme of New Testament history, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though he was presumably a quiet man, his actions spoke volumes about his character. He was a leader whose example is worthy of imitation.

What sort of man was Joseph? How can we characterize the man whom God chose to parent His own Son? First, he was spiritually sensitive. His response to Mary’s pregnancy—rejection of apparent sin combined with compassion for his betrothed—illustrates his godly character. D. A. Carson notes that

Because he was a righteous man, Joseph therefore could not in conscience marry Mary who was now thought to be unfaithful. And because such a marriage would have been a tacit admission of his own guilt, and also because he was unwilling to expose her to the disgrace of public divorce, Joseph therefore chose a quieter way, permitted by the law itself. . . . It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, commentary on Matt. 1:19).

Other evidences of Joseph’s spiritual sensitivity include the fact that he heard and obeyed angelic revelation repeatedly (Matt. 1:20-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23); his observance of the rituals prescribed by the Law following the birth of a male child (Luke 2:21-24, 27, 39); and his annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem in celebration of the Passover (Luke 2:41ff).

Second, he was unselfish, assuming fully the role of a father toward a child that wasn’t his own. He offered Jesus physical protection during his infancy and childhood (Matt 2:13-15, 21-23; Luke 2:44-48). He trained him in the carpenter’s trade (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). And he imparted spiritual direction to Jesus both by example (Luke 2:41ff) and instruction (Luke 2:51).

Third, he was capable of handling adversity. Joseph’s decision to wed in the face of Mary’s apparent infidelity doubtless sparked criticism from those around him. He endured the difficult circumstances of traveling during Mary’s pregnancy, and later had to flee to Egypt out of fear for Jesus’ safety.

Finally, he was a good decision-maker. When faced with the fact of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, he didn’t react in bitter emotion and disgrace her publicly. He was objective, reflective, and, ultimately, resolute in his decision-making.

Given the limited biblical data available, what lessons can we learn from Joseph’s life? First, parenting is a critically important activity. When God the Father intended to prepare his Son for earthly ministry, he placed him under the tutelage of a godly man, one who would lead his family in a spirit of humility and submission.

Second, obedience to God necessarily involves risk-taking. The angel’s directive to Joseph, to proceed with his marriage plans, contradicted common sense and thus required deep trust in God. The path Joseph was called to follow wasn’t “safe,” but it fulfilled God’s design.

Third, we must come to terms with God’s authority. Joseph thought that holiness required him to spurn Mary, but the opposite was true. As we grow in the Lord, we often find that our preconceived notions—even those pertaining to our Christian beliefs and lifestyle—are challenged.

Fourth, poverty is no barrier to Christian service. Joseph was a carpenter—a trade that was apparently valued little in first-century Palestine. Joseph and Mary’s condition was such that they offered two birds as a sacrifice—protocol specified for those unable to afford a lamb. Since God didn’t choose a well-to-do man to father Jesus, we can rest assured that our financial limitations won’t bar us from impacting our world for Christ.

Fifth, obedience is the basis for leadership. Nothing in the biblical record suggests that Joseph was charismatic or flamboyant. His overarching traits were obedience and humility. He obeyed civil decrees, Old Testament laws, and angelic direction. Because he was willing to submit to every legitimate authority, God entrusted him with a significant leadership role.

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