What an incredible man, Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, must have been!
To be sure, we know precious little about him. He was, for all practical purposes, just a bit player in the story of Jesus’ birth. He appeared on the scene suddenly, remained only briefly, and then just as quickly disappeared, never to be heard from again. Yet I believe that from what little we are told about him, we can draw some rather remarkable conclusions and some equally remarkable lessons.
Look, first, at what we are told about Joseph.
We are told that he was a “just man.” That’s the phrase the Bible uses to describe him. When he was put in the potentially embarrassing situation of having the woman he was scheduled to marry suddenly carrying a child not his own, he responded with both dignity and devotion, with both restraint and sensitivity.
We know that he was not a wealthy man. In fact, he was probably rather poor. We are told that when Jesus was dedicated in the temple, eight days after His birth, Joseph offered two pigeons as a sacrifice to the Lord. That was the equivalent of about two pennies. It was the smallest offering you could make. That little incident inserted onto the pages of Scripture is like being given a look at Joseph’s financial statement. You see, any good Hebrew, at the time of the dedication of a child, would make an offering to God in keeping with his financial position. Clearly, Joseph didn’t have much money.
We know that he was a man of courage. When his family was threatened by the murderous King Herod, he gathered up his wife and child, braved a long and hazardous crossing of the desert into Egypt; and there in a land not his own, he provided care and protection during what may well have been an exile of several years.
We know that he was a man of deep faith. We are told that when Jesus was 12 years old, Joseph took his son to Jerusalem to spend time being instructed by the leading rabbis at the temple. Only a man of great faith, desiring for his child to share that faith, would have undertaken such a spiritual pilgrimage on limited financial resources.
And we know that Joseph was a loving father. We catch only glimpses of that, but glimpses are enough. For example, during the trip to Jerusalem, Jesus became separated from His parents. When at last Mary found Him, she said—and notice the wording—she said: “Your father and I have been anxious and worried about you.” I submit to you that only a loving father can be a worried father.
Well, that’s all that we are told about Joseph. It’s not much, but don’t let that fool you. He is incredibly important to our understanding of our Savior Jesus Christ. Let me express it like this. When you see a footprint in the sand, you assume someone has been there. I want to suggest to you that we can see the footprint of Joseph on the life of Jesus. It is not blatant or pronounced. It is not emblazoned across the sky. It is very subtle, but it is there. Therefore, I believe that we can learn about Joseph just by looking at Jesus.
So look with me now at what we can learn from Joseph.
We learn from Joseph that a father ought to set an example of respect. Jesus’ respect for His earthly father, Joseph, was so overpowering that when Jesus searched about for a word to describe God, He chose to use the word “father.”
Think about that for a moment. When Jesus was a baby it would not have meant anything for God to have come to Him and said: “I am Your Father.” Jesus, at that point, wouldn’t have known the meaning of the word. Vocabulary has to come out of experience. The world “hot” means nothing until you touch the stove. So as Jesus grew up in that home in Nazareth, with the passing of the years, he came to know and love Joseph. Joseph taught Him to be a carpenter. It was the profession Jesus followed for most of His life. The impact that Joseph had on Jesus is obvious. Joseph must have been a man of great respect in order to have inspired such respect from his son. After all, when Jesus was about 30 years of age, He began to teach about God proclaiming the revolutionary idea that God is “our Father.” That tells us a lot about God, all right, but I think it also tells us a lot about Joseph. He was a father who set an example of respect.
Not long ago, I was standing in a line at the grocery store. There was a family in front of me who got into a rather heated argument. I was amazed at the way the father verbally attacked his little boy. I thought to myself that under other circumstances, he wouldn’t talk to a roach like that. Yet he poured out verbal venom over this tired little boy who just wanted a piece of bubble gum. Maybe he didn’t need the bubble gum, but by golly, when we say “No,” we can say it with respect, can’t we? We need to remember that every child is a child of God, a human being, a person of worth and value, a person for whom Christ came and died. Therefore, fathers put a reign on your emotions and your anger. Be firm when you must, but always be respectful in your firmness.
Have you seen that little piece called “How Fathers Mature”? It’s actually about the transitions children go through over the years as they assess their fathers. Listen:
4 years: My Daddy can do anything.
7 years: My Dad knows a whole lot.
9 years: Dad doesn’t know quite everything.
12 years: Dad just doesn’t understand.
14 years: Dad is so old-fashioned.
17 years: The man is out of touch and out to lunch.
25 years: Dad’s okay.
30 years: I wonder what Dad would think about this.
35 years: I must get Dad’s input first.
50 years: What would Dad have thought about that?
60 years: I sure wish I could talk it over with Dad once more.
Children will go through stages and they may go off on tangents, but if we respect our children and if they see us treating the people around us with dignity and respect, with kindness and with courtesy, then they will “go to school on us”. They will learn from us. And most often, they will work through the stages, the fads, the peer pressure, the transitions, and eventually they will return to the values of their parents and to the principles and standards of their home.
I have been privileged to have my father for 48 years. I echo what Adlai Stevenson once said about his father. “The extraordinary thing about my father is that his public face and his private face have been the same. He has been the same man to the world as he has been to his family. That’s success at home and away, it seems to me.” My Dad’s success has been that his objective of pleasing God has not failed to stimulate my own response to life. If I have not reached his stature, I will still strive to follow his principle, being always of good courage, making it my aim, as it has been his, to please the Lord.
I know that not all of us are blessed with good fathers who teach us respect and earn it from us. However, all of us are blessed with a heavenly Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. My guess is that Joseph would have had no idea in the world that when Jesus started talking about God, He would call God “Father.” We learn from Joseph that a father ought to set an example of respect.
And we learn from Joseph that a father ought to set an example of love. Jesus was the strongest man who ever lived because He was strong enough to be tender. Today we tend to equate masculine strength with Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” or “Rambo”—someone who goes about uttering monosyllabic words and beating the devil out of people. That’s a caricature of true masculine strength. Only when you are strong enough to be tender are you truly strong. That’s the way Jesus was—and I think He learned it from Joseph.
Remember the time when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus and they were expecting Him to deliver the sentence of death for her sins? Astonishingly, Jesus forgave the woman. But where did He learn that kind of tenderness and forgiveness? I would imagine that in His growing up years, he heard again and again about that time when His mother was carrying Him in her womb and a marvelous man named Joseph, loved his mother, protected her and came to be with her. There was no stoning of Mary. Let the townspeople do all the gossiping they wished. That man stood with His mother, strongly and tenderly, in her time of need. I think it was in the love Joseph had for Mary that Jesus learned how to love God and love other people. I think He always carried in His heart this thought: “There was a time before I was born when my father, Joseph, stood by my mother.” Joseph set an example of love.
When our children see us reaching out to others in love and standing by them in time of need, that touches and shapes and inspires them more than we can imagine.
Richard was the youngest of nine children in a family and when he was about seven years of age, he was asked one Saturday night by his mother to polish his dad’s good shoes for church the next day. Dad was busy at work and wouldn’t get home until late that night and this would help him greatly. So Richard got busy and made his dad’s shoes shine brightly. When his father came home, he was so pleased that he gave Richard a crisp dollar bill. Richard accepted the gift but with a puzzled look on his face. The next morning as the father was getting ready for church and putting on his shoes, he felt a lump in the toe of his right shoe. It was a wad of paper. He took it out, unfolded it, and out fell a dollar bill. He smoothed out the page and there was a note scrawled by a seven-year-old hand that read: “Dear Dad, I done it for love, (signed) Richard”. Now Richard’s English needs a little work, but not his theology—and I suspect that he learned that spirit of love from the very man to whom he had written the note. We learn from Joseph, the father of Jesus, that a father ought to set an example of love.
I suppose I continue to be so fascinated by Joseph because in a small way my own experience mingles with his. He was you see, the “Designated father” of Jesus. The term “designated father” is my own, and you will recognize that it is drawn from the baseball term “designated hitter.” I, too, am a “designated father.” Because our three children are adopted, I have long been sensitive to the fact that there are two ways in which you can be a father. You can be a father of someone, and you can be a father to someone. To be a father of someone is simply a biological function. It has no great significance in and of itself. However, to be a father to someone means to care for them, to love them, to teach them, to provide for them, to be tolerant when intolerance would be easier, to be patient when impatience would be more natural. It is infinitely more difficult to be a father to someone than to be a father of someone.
I had nothing to do with the biological process which brought my children into the world. Yet God designated me to be father to them. I have not fulfilled the role perfectly, not by a longshot, but I have tried my best. Perhaps that is why I so trained my thoughts upon Joseph, the designated father of Jesus. He had nothing to do with the miraculous biological process which resulted in the birth of Jesus, but he was a father to Jesus, giving Jesus both his home and his heart.
My friends, if you are now, or ever shall be, a father or a grandfather, then give to your children both your home and your heart. I learned that from Joseph. We dare not forget that God had all the men in this world from whom to pick one to be the father to Jesus. God picked Joseph.
What an incredible man this carpenter of Nazareth must have been!