the shape of leadership

Joseph: A Righteous Man

A closer look at the husband of Mary

Chris Colvin on December 7, 2017

Of all the people in the Christmas story, Joseph may be one of the most misunder- stood. People often assume Joseph became angry when he found out Mary was pregnant and hurried to end the relationship to spare himself embarrassment. However, the Bible presents a different picture of this man of God:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:18-19).

Matthew is careful to portray Joseph as “faithful to the law.” The ESV translates this phrase as simply “a just man,” while the NASB and NRSV both use “righteous man.” The NLT’s “a good man” really misses much of the nuance here. It appears the NIV’s translation gets to the heart of the matter best. Joseph, being a righteous Jew, was careful to keep the Law of Moses, which allowed separation for infidelity (Deuteronomy 24:1).

But righteousness is not selfish or vengeful; it is compassionate. When God appeared to Moses, He revealed himself as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

Righteousness is not selfish or vengeful; it is compassionate.

By the first century, Jewish tradition called for divorce to take place in a very public way. As Mishnah Sotah 1:1-5 describes it, Mary would have stood in the public square to face questions about her faithfulness to Joseph. All the townspeople would be watching, and likely judging.

Joseph wanted no part in this. He decided instead to “divorce her quietly” and spare Mary the public spectacle.

The text never says explicitly that Joseph was angry with Mary. He may have been. But Matthew’s point is to show the compassion of Joseph. As a righteous man, he would have been compelled to pursue this public action. And yet, Matthew 1:19 tells us Joseph did not want to expose Mary to this public trial. Compassion wins out over the letter of the law.

Matthew is not contrasting the righteousness of following the Law against the righteousness of grace. It is true that the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life (2 Corinthians 3:6). Yet the same Holy Spirit who inspired both the Old Testament and the New Testament is full of compassion, and Matthew is presenting us a picture of human compassion in action through the story of Jesus’ earthly father.

Joseph was a righteous man. And Mary was “the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38). Both are a great example for us today. Of course, they were imperfect humans, just as we are. But they were faithful. And because of their faithfulness, God chose Joseph and Mary to play a role in His glorious story of salvation.

God wants each person who hears the story to become a part of it as well — by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

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