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The Forgotten Figure in the Nativity Scene

As a kid I remember a hierarchy of characters in the Sunday-school Nativity play. All the girls wanted to be Mary and hold baby Jesus. It was fun to dress up like a shepherd or make sheep and cow noises.

But I don’t remember any kids asking to be Mary’s husband. Joseph is often the forgotten figure in the Nativity scene, but he shouldn’t be. The heavenly Father deliberately chose him to be the earthly father of Jesus. Let’s see what Matthew tells us about him.

Joseph’s Family

Matthew 1:1–17 gives us Jesus’s family line, from Abraham to Joseph. Two figures stand out in this list: Abraham and David.

Two thousand years before Jesus, God made a promise to Abraham: all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through your nation of offspring (Gen. 12:3). In Jesus, God kept that promise.

One thousand years before Jesus, God made a promise to David. When David became king of Abraham’s nation, God promised to raise up one of David’s descendants to rule over an eternal kingdom (2 Sam. 7:11–16). Jesus was the fulfillment of that promise: the anointed one, the Messiah, who would rescue the people and establish an eternal kingdom.

A descendant of Abraham and David, Joseph was qualified to be the earthly father of Jesus because of his family. But it’s more than just his family that makes Joseph a character worth remembering. It’s also his faith.

It’s more than just his family that makes Joseph a character worth remembering. It’s also his faith.

Joseph’s Faith

In Matthew 1:18–25, Joseph displays God-pleasing character and imitable faith, expressed in three ways.

1. He sacrificed his reputation by marrying Mary.

While Joseph was pledged to be married to Mary, he discovered his bride-to-be was pregnant with a child not his own (Matt. 1:18–19). Nevertheless, Joseph displayed compassion by wanting to spare Mary’s reputation through quietly dismissing the marriage pledge. But an angel appeared to him in a dream: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–22).

But if he was going to wed Mary, Joseph had his own reputation to consider. Can you imagine the whispering and gossip swirling around a wedding with a pregnant bride? Joseph knew people would condemn him for getting Mary pregnant before their marriage, but he married her anyway (1:24). Through this he demonstrated trust in the angel’s message. Even though Joseph would endure shame and stigma, he obeyed God.

2. Mary was a virgin until after Jesus’s birth.

Don’t miss this. Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was born: “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 given birth to a son” (Matt. 1:24–25).

This took a measure of self-control for Joseph. Even though Joseph was married to Mary for part of the pregnancy, they didn’t consummate the marriage during that time.

Matthew reminds us of Isaiah’s important prophecy about Jesus: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:22–23; cf. Isa. 7:14).

In order for Joseph to keep himself from having sexual relations with his wife, he had to trust the angel’s word that the child inside Mary was the One they’d long been waiting for: the Messiah.

3. Joseph named the baby.

If we read too quickly, we can miss a tiny sentence: “And he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:25).

In naming the child, Joseph took on the role of father, effectively adopting Jesus as his own. He trusted the angel’s message: this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by another man. Joseph embraced the role of adoptive father.

In addition, Joseph didn’t choose a family name for the child, but named him Jesus. This was the name provided by the angel, meaning “the Lord saves.” Jesus, the angel declared, would save the people from their sins (v. 21)—and Joseph believed it. He demonstrated his faith in God by naming the child Jesus.

Faith Hero

Joseph took responsibility, sacrificed his reputation, wedded a vulnerable Mary, and raised a child not biologically his own. He did this because he trusted that Jesus was who the angel said he was.

Sure, Joseph’s family made him qualified to be the earthly father of Jesus. But what stands out about Joseph, the man whom the heavenly Father chose to be Jesus’s earthly father? His faith.

More young boys should hope to be Joseph in the Nativity play. He believed in Jesus and, at tremendous cost to himself, he bravely acted on his faith, putting himself second and God first. Joseph may stand quietly in the background of the Christmas story, but that’s precisely what makes him a hero of the faith.

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