From his beginnings as a humble carpenter to his all-important role as the earthly father of Jesus Christ, Joseph's place in the nativity story is sometimes overlooked but contains valuable lessons for all of us. Join Adam Hamilton as he examines Christmas through the eyes of Joseph. Absent from much of the biblical narrative, Joseph never spoke a word, but his courageous actions were crucial to the birth of Christ and God's salvation plan for humanity.
As you read this book, you will understand how Joseph's story is much like our own. In life, we encounter circumstances that we would never have chosen for ourselves. At times it can be tempting just to walk away. Joseph provides us a great example of humbly obeying God even when we don't understand and faithfully moving forward in the strength that God provides.
Exchange your doubt for courage this Advent and Christmas season.The story of Joseph provide us a great example of humbly obeying God even when we don’t understand and faithfully moving forward in the strength that God provides.
Additional components for a four-week adult study include a comprehensive Leader Guide and a DVD featuring author and pastor Adam Hamilton. Chapter topics include:
- A Carpenter Named Joseph
- Whose Child Is This?
- Raising a Child Not Your Own
- The Journey to Bethlehem
- The Rest of the Story
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About the Author
Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country. The Church Report named Hamilton’s congregation the most influential mainline church in America, and he preached at the National Prayer Service as part of the presidential inauguration festivities in 2013 and was appointed to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.Hamilton is the best-selling and award-winning author of Creed, Half Truths, The Call, The Journey, The Way, 24 Hours That Changed the World, John, Revival, Not a Silent Night, Enough, When Christians Get It Wrong, and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, all published by Abingdon Press. Learn more about Adam Hamilton at AdamHamilton.org.
Read an Excerpt
A Carpenter Named Joseph
When he came to his hometown, he taught the people in their synagogue. They were surprised and said, "Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn't he the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother named Mary? Aren't James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren't they here with us? Where did this man get all this?"
Typically when Christians explore the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus — often during the Advent season — they focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and on Luke's account of the Christmas story, which is told from her vantage point. But in this little book our focus will be on Joseph, his life, and his role in the birth and life of Jesus. And that means our biblical focus will be on Matthew's account of Christmas, which is told from Joseph's vantage point.
No man played a more important role in Jesus' life than Joseph. Though not Jesus' biological father, Joseph adopted Jesus as his son. Joseph protected him, provided for him, taught and mentored him.
We don't often hear about Joseph because there is relatively little in the Gospels about him. They contain only a handful of stories about him around the time of Jesus' birth, and a couple of references to Jesus as "Joseph's son" later in the Gospels (the Gospel of Mark doesn't mention him at all). Nor will you find anything about him in the Acts of the Apostles or any of the Epistles.
So we have to read between the lines to fill in the picture of Joseph's life, and to some extent we must use our imagination to connect the bits of information we do find in the Gospels. As we do this, we will find that there's more than meets the eye in the New Testament accounts of Joseph's life.
Though the story of Joseph speaks to everyone, I believe it may speak in particularly important ways to fathers, husbands, stepfathers, grandfathers, and men who have the opportunity to mentor others.
As I've been writing this book, I've been asking some basic questions:
What can we learn about God from Joseph's story?
What can we learn about ourselves from Joseph's story?
How does Joseph shed light on the meaning of the Christmas story?
Joseph in the Early Church
Beginning in the second century, Christians found themselves longing for more information than we find in the Gospels about Jesus' childhood and parents. Some Christians sought to fill in the gaps by writing what scholars call the apocryphal gospels. Apocrypha is a Greek word that means obscure or hidden. When we describe a story today as apocryphal, we mean that we don't really know whether it is true.
While Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written in the second half of the first century — between AD 65 and 90 — the apocryphal gospels came much later; the earliest seem to have been written around AD 150, and some of them date as late as the fifth century. In other words, the earliest of these books were written approximately 150 years after Jesus was born. Authorship of these "hidden gospels" is usually attributed to a New Testament figure, James or Mary or Peter or Thomas, though the books were written long after these people had died.
Many stories in the apocryphal gospels are fanciful and completely out of character with the Jesus we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Still, it is possible that occasionally some of the apocryphal gospels preserved traditions that were historical, stories that had been passed down by the church but not included in the canonical gospels.
For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) is thought to have been written around AD 150. It is a collection of short stories purporting to be about Jesus' life from age five to age twelve, including the story also told in Luke about Jesus being accidentally left by his parents in Jerusalem. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains a much larger role for Joseph than we find in the New Testament Gospels. In it, we find Joseph sending Jesus to school to be educated, not common among the children of first-century woodworkers. Joseph attempts to discipline Jesus (grabbing him by the ear at one point!) and often attempts to help Jesus use his powers wisely.
The Infancy Gospel of James (sometimes known as the Protoevangelium of James or simply the Gospel of James) is also thought to have been written around AD 150. It claims to have been written by James, whom the Gospels refer to as one of the brothers of Christ. The book gives us the earliest account of Mary's birth, her childhood, and a particular account of Joseph's age when he married Mary. It suggests that Mary was raised by the priests in the temple courts from the age of three until she was twelve. According to this apocryphalgospel, the priests sought a husband for Mary among the older widowers from the House of David, with the intention that she be cared for by her husband as a father might care for his daughter or a grandfather for his granddaughter.
As the widowers gathered, each was given a rod or stick. Joseph, himself an elderly widower, took one of these rods, and from it a dove sprang forth and landed on Joseph's head. (Other versions have flowers bloom from the rod.) Hence the priests knew that Joseph was chosen by God to be Mary's husband. The account is legendary, as are many of the stories found in the apocryphal gospels. It is the earliest depiction of Joseph as an elderly widower when he became engaged to Mary. This depiction allowed Christians to read about Jesus' brothers and sisters in the New Testament Gospels as if they were Joseph's children by a previous wife, and hence Jesus' half-siblings.
If we had only the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke to go by, we would not necessarily think of Joseph as an elderly widower. The accounts don't preclude this, but they don't suggest it either. Instead, if this engagement were a typical engagement we would imagine that Mary was thirteen or fourteen when she got married (remember, in ancient Israel a girl became a woman with her first menstrual cycle and was married shortly after that) and that Joseph was only a little older. Boys were required to have apprenticed under their fathers and be able to support themselves and a family before they married. So, if Joseph were not an elderly widower, we would suppose he may have been fourteen, fifteen, or perhaps sixteen when he "took Mary as his wife" (Matthew 1:24).
Yet the story of Joseph as an elderly widower took hold in the church. Sometime around the sixth century, a document called The History of Joseph the Carpenter was compiled, consisting of traditions concerning the Holy Family. In the document, Joseph was said to be ninety years old when his first wife died, leaving him with six children to raise. Not only was Joseph described as a carpenter, but, because of his piety and wisdom, the legend had developed that he'd also been a priest. This apocryphal account said that a year after his first wife's death, Joseph was chosen to become the husband of Mary. Two years later, during a betrothal period when a couple was regarded as married but could not yet consummate their relationship (you'll learn more about that in chapter 2), Mary became pregnant. It was then that Joseph formally married her, which would have made him ninety-three when Jesus was born. According to this story, Joseph died at the age of one hundred eleven, when Jesus was eighteen.
Legends such as this built upon one another and shaped the view that many in the church had of Joseph. Whether this story is true or not, it supported an idea that began emerging with the church's deepening devotion to Mary — namely, that she was perpetually a virgin and never consummated her marriage to Joseph. By the fourth century this view was commonly held, and even today it is an official doctrine of the Catholic Church. But Catholics were far from the only Christians who believed it; Eastern Orthodox churches subscribed to it, as did Martin Luther and most of the Protestant Reformers. To my surprise, I discovered that even John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, held this view.
Today, many Protestants reject the idea that Mary remained a virgin for life, or that Joseph was an elderly widower. They view Joseph as a young man when he married Mary and believe that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels (see Matthew 12:47; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; and others) were the biological children of Mary and Joseph, Jesus' younger siblings. If we discount the early church traditions about Joseph's age and the need to insist that Mary was perpetually a virgin, a younger Joseph seems to make the most sense to me. As I pointed out, the Gospels can be read to support either of these views.
Joseph in Classical Art
We can see these two different views by looking at classical images of Joseph, particularly in Renaissance and later art. In the early 1600s, Italian artist Guido Reni painted several famous images of "St. Joseph and the Christ Child" that portrayed Joseph as an elderly man holding the infant Jesus in a loving embrace. The contrast in age can be seen clearly in two images from the Baroque era that are shown on the next page. In "The Holy Family with Dog," Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo showed Joseph as a young, vigorous father; whereas in "St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus," Italian painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani portrayed Joseph as an older man.
I've encouraged my congregation to look at their Nativity sets at home to see how Joseph is portrayed. Many portray Joseph as an elderly man, though some, particularly those created by Protestant artists, show him to be quite young.
So, Joseph was either an aged widower who had children by a previous wife, or he was a fourteen-to-eighteen-year-old youth who had other children with Mary after the birth of Jesus. If all we had were the New Testament Gospel accounts — absent the early church's conviction that Mary must have remained perpetually a virgin (built upon the idea, it seems, that sexual intimacy with Joseph in the years after Jesus' birth would have diminished her in some way) — I believe most would conclude that Joseph was a young man when Jesus was born. But again, the Gospel accounts of Joseph and Mary are not incompatible with the view that Joseph was an elderly widower. I leave it to the reader to decide.
Joseph the Carpenter
In Matthew 13:54-56, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and some were offended by his teaching. They asked, "Isn't he the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother named Mary? Aren't James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren't they here with us? Where did this man get all this?"
Mary is named in this passage, as are the brothers. The sisters are not named, but it is mentioned that they were living in Nazareth. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is not named, likely indicating that by the time Jesus was pursuing his ministry, Joseph had died. Nevertheless, Joseph's occupation was remembered and mentioned: he was the carpenter.
The people expressed surprise at Jesus, and not in a good way. You can almost hear the snide tone when they asked: "Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn't he the carpenter's son?" (vv. 54-55). The mention of his father's profession seems clearly aimed at discrediting Jesus, saying in effect, "How can a lowly carpenter's son have such wisdom and power?"
In Mark's Gospel, by the way, the people described Jesus not as a carpenter's son but as a carpenter himself. That tells us that Jesus was trained by Joseph to follow in his trade. It seems likely that Jesus worked as a carpenter, first in his father's shop and then on his own, from the time he was a small boy until his baptism at age thirty.
If Joseph was a carpenter (and in turn Jesus as well), let's consider what that tells us about him. The Greek word translated as carpenter is tekton. The word can mean a variety of things, but it seems most often to have meant someone who worked with wood. Because wood was in short supply in Galilee, the area where Jesus grew up and conducted most of his ministry, most houses there were built of stone or mud brick. Though a tekton could be a house builder, there was a different word in Greek specifically for stonemasons. Someone who worked with wood would have made the doors and shutters for a house. But it is likely that much of the work of a tekton involved building furniture, chests, and tables along with farm implements, tools, and yokes for oxen.
Greek also had a word for master builders — architekton — from which we get the word architect. An architekton was a master craftsman and usually had others working for him. But Joseph was described in Matthew not as an architekton, a master builder, merely as a tekton.
At home I have an old toolbox filled with tools that belonged to my great-grandfather. He was named Joseph, after Joseph the earthly father of Jesus, and he was also a carpenter. I love these old woodworking tools. Some of them, like his plane and chisel, are not very different from the tools used in the time of Jesus. Every once in a while, I take one of those old tools out of that toolbox and use it, just to feel connected with my great-grandfather. He was a giant of a man. Though I was a boy when he died, I can picture his huge hands and white hair, and I can still see him sitting in a rocking chair at my grandmother's house. When I picture him in my mind, I can also picture Joseph.
Not long ago, I went to Unruh Furniture in Kansas City, where about twenty men and women, most in their twenties and thirties, build beautiful handcrafted furniture. They are modern-day tektons. I sat down and talked with a couple of them, wondering what insight they might have about Joseph, given that Joseph, like them, had built furniture and other things.
One told me, "I would say Joseph was a man's man. He was probably way tougher than anyone that works here. I don't think he would have taken any shortcuts. I think he would have been patient. I think he would have been kind." Another noted, "He was likely smart, diligent, a good teacher, just striving to do something well. ... All of those things that he needed in order to be a carpenter, you know, translate well into actually being a father."
A document written about AD 150 by an early church leader we know as Justin Martyr says that Jesus "was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes." Unlike the writers of the apocryphal gospels, Justin Martyr is a very trustworthy source. Martyr's description of Jesus, pointing also to Joseph's work, gives added meaning to Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV):
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Joseph, Jesus, and You
What does it tell us about God that he chose Joseph to serve as Jesus' earthly father and raise Jesus as his own son? Why didn't God choose a priest, an educated scribe or lawyer, a physician or successful businessman, or even an architekton? Why did he entrust the job to a humble carpenter?
You may remember the wonderful story (1 Samuel 16:1-13) in which, a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse's sons to be Israel's next king. Jesse brought out the oldest, tallest, strongest, and most handsome of his sons and Samuel thought, He must be the one! Yet God said, "Not that one." Jesse brought forth his second-oldest son, and once more God said, "Not that one." Jesse did this with all but one of his sons. Finally, when God had rejected all the other sons, Samuel asked, "Do you have any more sons?" Jesse said there was one more, his youngest son, David, who was out tending the sheep.
Samuel demanded to see David, and when David was brought in, God said to Samuel, "He's the one!" God said to Samuel, "The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (v. 7 NRSV). In the end, the one chosen was, by outward appearances, the least impressive of Jesse's sons — the youngest and scrawniest. With Joseph, God continued that pattern, looking at the heart and choosing an unlikely hero for the important mission of raising the Messiah.
How Have Your Father, Stepfather, or Other Men in Your Life Shaped You?
Only sixteen verses in the Bible (NRSV) mention Joseph by name, but I believe his influence was much stronger and wider than you might guess from those few passages. I would argue that almost everything you read in the Gospels about what Jesus said and did was shaped at least in part by Joseph.
Excerpted from "Faithful"
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Table of Contents
1 A Carpenter Named Joseph 9
2 Whose Child Is This? 35
3 Raising a Child Not Your Own 59
4 The Journey to Bethlehem 85
The Rest of the Story 113