Joseph of Bethlehem

As we hear the Christmas story over and over and over again, we sometimes become numb to what it really says. Why? Because we’ve heard it all before… But, have we? When many of us think of the town of Nazareth, that we talked about extensively last week, we tend to think that Nazareth is the town where Joseph & Mary are from—where Jesus was raised from his youth into adulthood. But, is that right?


Last week, we listened to the start of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1. This was primarily the story of Mary and of the annunciation—the announcement of the birth of Jesus in Mary’s life by the angel Gabriel. Do you remember?

This week, however, we’re going to be moving to the Gospel of Matthew—to hear Matthew’s version of the start of the Christmas story. Written to two very different audiences, these versions are not exactly the same—two different perspectives of the same story. Let me explain it this way…


If you and I both had witnessed a very exciting event … and were then telling other people about it, do you think our stories would be exactly the same? Because, after all, we did witness the exact same exciting event! The answer, of course, is ‘no!’ Why? Because, even though it was the same event that was witnessed, we would both have our very different perspectives of that event—very individual … and maybe shadowed by a variety of previous experiences in our lives. (It happens between Jane and I all the time; she’ll stop me and say, “No, Rom. That’s not how it went….”)


Today, we’re going to hear from the Apostle Matthew, writing his account of this story. He’s concerned more with the ‘dad’ of the story. That’s where the heritage comes from, at least in their culture. Here’s the start of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew…


This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. 20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. ‘Joseph, son of David,’ the angel said, ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: 23 ‘Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.” – Matthew 1:18-24 (NLT)


Folks, let me set up how things probably took place, based on these two Gospel accounts… Though we love to blend the Gospel narratives, if we do a careful study of these two Gospel accounts, we’ll find that Nazareth was Mary’s hometown … and I’m pretty sure Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. (Joseph living in Nazareth is not mentioned until later on in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus would have been a young boy.)


Well, Joseph & Mary were engaged at this time; they’d gone through a legally binding ceremony. In a Middle-Eastern sense, they were already married. All that was left was the official ceremony, the consummation of the marriage, the honeymoon, and the move to Joseph’s home, which typically happened one year after the betrothal. It was during this in-between time that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant… 

If you remember, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Ein Karem), who she’d found out (from the angel) was 6 months pregnant. While staying with Elizabeth (a short distance from Bethlehem), Joseph would have come there to visit Mary … and that’s when he would’ve found out she was pregnant... Folks, here’s what you need to know about Joseph, the “dad” in the Christmas story: Joseph was…


A CARPENTER (from Bethlehem)... Joseph was a craftsman; since there was little wood in Israel, he probably made specialty items like furniture, farm tools, or doors or roofs for houses. (The language also lends itself to the possibility of Joseph being a stonemason, since that was the primary building material of this area…)

In the language of the day, Joseph was a tekton. He was not an arch-tekton (architect), but only a tekton—not a master-builder, but a humble woodworker. Joseph, folks, was blue-collar. He was more than likely a man with a great work ethic—a hardworking man of great humility. That’s who I think of when I think of Joseph. And …


Joseph was also from Bethlehem… Unlike Nazareth, this little town of Bethlehem (though about the same size) was very well known! This was the birthplace of King David—also known, along with Jerusalem, as the City of David. This was the burial place of Old Testament (Jacob’s) Rachel—just outside of Bethlehem. And it was also a place known because of the prophets, like Micah (5:2, NLT), who said: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.” They were famous because of prophecy…


And, very much like Nazareth, Bethlehem was a place of special meaning! Bethlehem = House of Bread; in other words, as its name suggests, it was known for its bakers—their bread sold in Jerusalem; Joseph was also…

A RIGHTEOUS MAN... When we meet Joseph in Matthew’s story, he has just found out that his fiancé is pregnant!   Apparently, Joseph didn’t believe her story about the angel, a baby from God, and so on; the first thing he did was try to break off the engagement. The only logical explanation was that Mary’d been unfaithful to him…


You can just imagine how Joseph felt upon learning of Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness. He would have felt ‘betrayed.’He would have been devastated by this news! How could Mary do this? Betrayed? Yes! And dishonored … and humiliated … and hurt by Mary and ‘the other man.’ As Mary tried to explain how she came to be pregnant, I can just see Joseph rolling his eyes, hurt giving way to anger! Joseph’s whole world would’ve been shaken by this news. His trust had been violated. Scripture doesn’t tell us this, but you could just imagine that in his anger, he might’ve reminded Mary of what the law says about women who were adulterous and how they were to be put to death—by stoning…

But, folks, I want you to notice something: At the very moment Joseph felt at his lowest, God was at work in Mary’s womb, doing the greatest thing he’d done since the creation of the world! When it comes to following God, sometimes we need to take a breath … and take the time to look beyond the pain! Because that’s usually where God is! And, also know this (from Joseph)…

When we open up our hearts to God—truly allowing God to be in control of our lives, we will always choose relationships over law! That’s exactly what Joseph did; once the anger subsided, he listened to God and chose Mary for his wife. He was a righteous man—a man who would follow God’s lead, no matter what … and do it humbly! But, also, let’s not forget this Joseph of Bethlehem became…


AN EARTHLY FATHER (and there’s a lesson here, too)... When my kids were younger, even though I feel sometimes that I failed more often than I succeeded, my prayer was always that my kids—through my life and my actions as their earthly father—would come to know the Heavenly Father in a personal way in their own lives. Again, I feel many times that I failed more often than I succeeded, but that was my prayer—always! In other words, through my very life, I wanted them to know what God the Heavenly Father was like…

While we don’t see this explicitly in the Gospel narratives, we can infer from the life and teachings of Jesus what a profound impact Joseph had on Jesus’ life and faith…

  • When Jesus looked for a metaphor to describe his relationship to God, his primary way of addressing God was Abba, which literally means ‘daddy’—more than likely how he referred to Joseph, too…
  • In Jesus’ teachings (Prodigal Son), he likened God to a father who showed mercy to a son who was rebellious, while showing patience to an older son who had judged the younger; could this be a reflection of Jesus’ life with Joseph?

Assuming Joseph was a younger man when he married and Jesus was born, he would have lived his life under one ruler—Herod the Great. If we look to Herod’s activity around Bethlehem, during Joseph’s life, we can see quite a contrast between Herod the King and Joseph the carpenter…

                        Herod                                                 Joseph


Desperately wanted praise,                       He got no lines! He was a humble man…

admiration, and love of

others…


Hoped to be seen as the Messiah            Content with being the earthly father of the

the prophets foretold (even if he               Messiah…

didn’t meet the criteria)…


Hoped to restore the greatness of             No ego; a humble carpenter who worked

the Jewish kingdom through                     with his own hands…

massive building projects…


Loved the wealth & power that                  Lived a life of simplicity and humility, seeking

came with being ‘king’…                            primarily to please God (not self)…


Constantly working to prove his                Left no monuments, except for his righteous

own greatness to others                             influence on Jesus and rest of family…

(left monuments: Herodium)…


No servant’s heart!                                      A total servant’s heart!


Herod’s palace, folks, was located adjacent to Bethlehem—seen from nearly anywhere in Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown (see screen)… Whether they like it or not, their lives were a daily contrast! So, let’s end here with this part of the Christmas story: Who will you choose to be: a Herod or a Joseph?

  • Will you be Herod, who spent his life seeking to win the praise of others and pursuing wealth, power, and material possessions, and who by his actions seemed to say, “Here I am, notice me!”?
  • Or, will you be Joseph, who was a humble servant of God, who never sought the limelight, and who was willing to say, “Here I am, God. Use me.”


It is true that God favors the humble over the proud. God’s greatest work in our lives may be difficult and challenging, and we may never get recognition or praise from others, but is that the point? We are called to serve anyway, seeking nothing more than God’s approval. The only glory we should be concerned about … is the kind that God gets…


About the author

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I am a second career United Methodist minister (first career being in management/sales in the air express industry). I am currently the lead pastor at the Dodgeville & Ridgeway: Grace United Methodist Churches. We have a paid/volunteer staff of approximately 6 persons, with a total membership of about 350.