Joseph, first-time dad

When we are in seasons of not-knowing, may we receive enough light to walk ahead anyway, by faith.

“The angels explained things to Joseph after he’d talked to Mary, not before. Be patient when you don’t understand.” 

– Bob Goff, Live in Grace, Walk in Love (389) 

He’s usually in the background. If the kids in your church are putting on a nativity play, it’s one of the minor roles. He might lead the donkey; maybe he asks the innkeeper a question or two, but he’s a supporting character at best. This guy is never front and centre in the Christmas story. Most of the time, it seems like he’s just along for the ride.

I’m talking about Joseph, of course. The father of Jesus. The Prince of Peace’s foster dad, who doesn’t even get to name his firstborn son. I have so many questions about their relationship, and Jesus’ growing-up years. Did Joseph love wrinkled newborn Jesus right away? Or did his love grow slowly, over time, as Jesus learned to say Abba and reached out his arms to be picked up? How close in age were all the siblings? Did the other kids know his birth story? 

We don’t know whether Joseph was still alive when Jesus began his ministry. Where was Joseph when his nephew John was arrested and imprisoned? When crowds started following his son, begging for healing? When Jesus made a connection to a group of kids (and annoyed the disciples), were there echoes of his own happy childhood – a good memory of being taken care of, of feeling loved by his dad? 

We don’t know. None of the gospel writers tells us. But we do have clues that speak to Joseph’s character and to his ability to parent the son of God. Was he ready for that task? Probably not. I’m not sure any young couple is – even with every Diaper Genie and Babywise sleep schedule in the world! But Bob Goff points out one really interesting thing about Joseph’s timeline: the angel’s explanation came later. After Joseph had already made some pretty tough decisions.


“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” Matthew writes (1:18). “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” 

The footnote in my NIV Bible says that a Jewish betrothal was a binding relationship that could only be broken by divorce. Joseph, “chagrined but noble” in The Message’s translation, “determined to take care of things quietly so that Mary would not be disgraced.”

If Joseph had followed the law of the prophets as laid out in Deuteronomy 22, he could have had Mary stoned. Instead, he saves her life and the life of her unborn child by separating quietly. Think about that for a minute. If his feelings were hurt, if his heart was broken by what must have seemed like a betrayal, we are not told. There’s no drama mentioned in this part of the story – Joseph acts honourably and in Mary’s best interests. A Jewish mensch, even in a complicated, unwelcome set of circumstances. Before he understands the miracle. 

“But after he had considered this” – the divorce, that is – “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus’” (Matt. 1:20-21). 

Can you imagine how Joseph felt then? The God in whom he had put his trust said that he could marry after all. And there were clear directions on what to do next. Well, on the immediate future, anyway – the baby’s gender, and a pretty firm name recommendation. All those meanings of his baby son’s name – God saves, God with us – I wonder how much of that Joseph absorbed then. Maybe an inkling came later, after losing teenage Jesus in Jerusalem. 

For now, in his first act as a dad, Joseph does as the angel commanded: he marries Mary and names the baby Jesus. And because he seems to make a habit of listening for the voice of God in his life, he gets another angelic message later on, which saves the young family’s life (for Mary and Jesus, a second time). 

Joseph is usually in the background. In a Christmas pageant, he’s a supporting character at best. Most of the time, it seems like he’s just along for the ride. He doesn’t even get a mention in Hebrews 11, that litany of the faithful. 

But Joseph trusted in God as completely as Enoch, as Noah, as Sarah, as Moses. He makes a series of remarkable decisions without much information. By faith, he chose to save the life of his wife rather than condemn her to judgment and death. By faith, he trusted in a God he could not see. By faith, he raised a son that he did not beget. 

It would be so much easier to know. But when we, like Joseph, are in seasons of not-knowing, may we receive enough light to walk ahead anyway, by faith. Trusting in a God that we cannot see. And, if we’re lucky, holy explanation will come later. 

This editorial appeared at New Leaf Network.


  • Angela Reitsma Bick

    Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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One Comment

  1. “Saint Joseph. One cannot love Jesus and Mary without loving the Holy Patriarch.” – St. Josemaría Escrivá

    What can we learn from Saint Joseph?
    We can learn about the importance of faith when we see how deeply he believed the message of the angel:

    Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

    “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and his name shall be called Emmanuel”

    (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

    We understand courage when we hear about the flight into Egypt:

    Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2:13-15)

    We also learn about obedience. St. Joseph was obedient to Our Lord, even in the midst of great trials and danger.


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