I recently spent some time driving around our community in order to see the way in which Joseph was portrayed in the various nativity scenes that people set up in their front yards. There was everything from cartoon bug eyed Joseph to haloed Joseph to–and this was most interesting–a nativity scene in which Joseph was noticeably absent. The reason why the latter captured my attention is because Joseph is often the most overlooked of all the figures mentioned in the Gospel records. Mary, the Angels, the shepherds, the wise men and Elizabeth all seem to get more airtime than Joseph. All of that, in turn, raises the question, “Why was it necessary for Jesus to have an earthly father if He didn’t need a biological father?” Isn’t it conceivable that Mary could have, with the help of family members, raised Jesus without a husband? It was necessary for Joseph to be Jesus’ adopted father for the following reasons:
1. To give Jesus a legal right to the divine throne. Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 and that which is found in Luke 3 are different genealogies. They are the same when they move from Abraham to David; but, then they diverge. Simply explained, Matthew is giving us Joseph’s genealogy and Luke is giving us Mary’s. While Jesus was biologically Mary’s son, He was the adopted son of Joseph. Joseph was in the royal line of the Kings of Judah. After David, Joseph was in the line of Solomon. It was necessary that Jesus be adopted into the regal line so that He might have a real and legal right to the throne of David. As the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, it was necessary that one from the royal line serve as His adopted human father.
2. To help Jesus fulfill prophecy. Joseph was commanded by an Angel from God to take the baby Jesus down into Egypt and out of Egypt to fulfill prophecy (Matt. 2:15). While the immediate context reveals that it was to protect the child Savior, Matthew’s allusion to Hosea 11:1 reveals that there was a theological fulfillment purpose to what Matthew was doing. Jesus is the true Israel, who would have to go down into Egypt and come back up as a part of the work that He came to do as the covenant keeping redeemer. Jesus came to recapitulate Israel’s history. In order to do so, He would have parents who would obey God’s calling in order to help secure His fulfillment of His divine destiny. Additionally, Christ was being protected as an infant from Herod because it was the divine purpose that His body would be broken in judgment for sinners on the cross.
3. To model godly character for Jesus.
The only thing that we are explicitly told about Joseph is that he was devout. This means that he was a man who feared God, loved the truth, hoped in redemption, was committed to worship and godly living in accord with God’s word and commands. We don’t know a lot about Joseph but if that’s all we know about him that tells us everything that we need to know.
Sinclair Ferguson, meditating on Joseph’s character in relation to his circumstances, wrote:
“What has God done in this man’s life? He is obviously a man who is able to take pain. He’s also a man who is willing to absorb shame. And those two things are especially significant if he is going to tutor and nurture the son of God in our humanity—as the baby Jesus grows, as the child Jesus learns, as father and son work together at the carpenter’s bench, as Jesus speaks to Joseph about some of the Old Testament Scriptures he had been reading. Jesus was going to experience immense personal pain long before the crucifixion. Jesus was going to experience awful shame and would absorb that shame throughout his ministry. And, Joseph is a man who doesn’t panic simply because he’s been hurt. God wants to shape a man who he can trust with his Son.”
The hurt that Joseph felt was the hurt of initially believing that Mary had been unfaithful. Martin Luther, in one of his Tabletalks, said the following about the hurt that Joseph would have experience:
“He must have had strange thoughts about his bride. With the permission of her fiance she had gone to the mountains, had stayed there a full quarter of a year, and had now returned pregnant. It’s as if she had gone on a pilgrimage to Eicha. He took her to be an adulteress. This was a serious suspicion, and the Scriptures can’t hold this against him. An angel compelled him to put off any action against her and to postpone judgment. Dear God, with what difficulty these things happen! They’re like fables, except that they’ve been confirmed by great miracles.”
In order for Jesus to learn what it looked like to absorb hurt and cover shame, God deemed it necessary to give him a godly earthly father in Joseph to model it for Him.