Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I offer some thoughts about Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus, as a model for Christian fathers today. I’m reposting the article here with permission.
One of my favorite memories growing up was playing basketball with my dad. He’d get home from work, and we’d head to the nearby park to shoot hoops. When I was little, he’d let me win the game, but as I got older, the games became more truly competitive.
I still remember the first time I beat my dad for real. I felt great, and he celebrated my win. Only now, as a father myself, can I understand how genuinely proud he must’ve felt that his boy was growing up.
This Father’s Day, many will celebrate their dads with affection. I certainly will. Some who have lost their dads will shed a tear because they miss him. Others, however, didn’t have good relationships with their dads, so they will honor them begrudgingly, if they do so at all.
America’s Crisis of Fatherlessness
Fathers make a difference in the lives of their children, whether they are present or absent. Present fathers help their children flourish. Absent fathers leave a hole in their children’s hearts that they can spend a lifetime trying to fill.
For several decades now, America has experienced a crisis of absent dads. Statistics collected by the National Fatherhood Initiative reveal the problems that result. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 24 million children — 1 in 3 — live without a biological father in the home. Children in father-absent homes experience a greater risk for these ills:
- Behavioral problems
- Criminal behavior
- Dropping out of high school
- Substance abuse
- Teen pregnancy
Children are resilient, of course, and single moms do heroic work. But God designed families to have moms and dads. Together, they create a home environment where children can thrive.
Joseph as a Model Father
Fatherhood needs to be about more than mere presence in the home, however. Dads need to be actively engaged with their sons and daughters. As the father of one boy and two girls, I am drawn increasingly to the Bible’s portrait of Joseph — husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus — as a picture of the kind of father I myself want to be.
The Gospels say little about Joseph. Only Matthew and Luke describe him at any length. He seems to have died by the time Jesus began His public ministry. What they do say about Joseph, however, is enlightening. Matthew 1:19 describes him succinctly as a righteous man, my translation of the Greek word dikaios. The parallel Hebrew term for dikaios is tzadik, which Jews in Jesus’ day reserved to describe someone who was especially close to God.
I hope to be a righteous man who does the right thing kindly and who remains always open to God, assuming whatever responsibilities He sends my way.
What did Joseph’s righteousness look like? Notice four things.
First, as a righteous man, Joseph did the right thing. Matthew says that Joseph and Mary were engaged and chaste (1:18). However, Mary became pregnant. Knowing that he wasn’t the father, Joseph resolved to divorce her. (For Jews of that period, an engagement was as binding a covenant as marriage, which was why divorce was Joseph’s only legal recourse.) He couldn’t condone her perceived adultery, and her son was some other man’s responsibility.
Righteousness is more than doing the right thing, however. In Jesus’ day, the word “righteousness” — dikaiosoune in Greek, tzedekah in Hebrew — was the word used to describe charity. For example, when Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them,” He was talking about giving to “the needy” (Matthew 6:1–2). If you go to Israel even to this day, a beggar requesting tzedekah is asking for charity.
When we understand that righteousness is charity, we understand why Matthew says Joseph resolved to divorce Mary “quietly.” As a charitable man, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” (1:19). For him, righteousness meant doing the kind thing.
I cannot help but wonder whether Joseph’s quiet resolution about Mary — whom he no doubt thought had been sexually immoral — shaped Jesus’ own compassion for sexually immoral women. Consider these three examples:
- Jesus revealed himself privately as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well, who was cohabiting with a sixth man after five failed marriages (John 4:1–26).
- When Jesus’ religious opponents caught a woman in the act of adultery, He sent her accusers away before He told her privately to sin no more (John 7:53 through 8:11).
- At a dinner in Simon the Pharisee’s house, a sinful woman — perhaps a prostitute — anointed Jesus’ feet. When Simon mumbled about the impropriety of this, Jesus publicly praised the woman’s devotion, favorably contrasting it with Simon’s own inhospitality (Luke 7:36–50).
Contrary to Joseph’s perception of the circumstances, however, Mary had not in fact been sexually immoral. The Gospels emphasize that she was a virgin when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in her womb (Matthew 1:18, 22–23; Luke 1:27; cf. Isaiah 7:14). Joseph didn’t know that; however, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” and set him straight, saying, “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
This reveals a third dimension of Joseph’s righteousness: openness to God. A tzadik, as I said above, was someone especially close to God. This certainly describes Joseph, to whom God revealed himself even in Joseph’s dreams. According to Matthew 2:13, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph a second time, urging him to “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt … for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Joseph’s openness to God in his dreams was the result, it seems to me, of his openness to God in the details of his life. Luke shows us what both Joseph and Mary’s mundane righteousness looked like. They circumcised Jesus on the eighth day and then performed “purification rites,” both required by “the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:21–22; cf. Leviticus 12:2–8). Similarly, they participated annually in the Passover Festival in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41; cf. Deuteronomy 16:1–8). They were people who, as Luke puts it, did “everything required by the Law of the Lord” (2:39).
The last time we see Joseph alive in the Gospels, it was Passover, Jesus was 12 years old, and the family was at the Temple. The boy Jesus engaged in a discussion with religious teachers. Perhaps it was His bar mitzvah. “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). Preachers often attribute Jesus’ wisdom at this young age to Jesus’ divinity, and that no doubt played a part. But I can’t help but wonder whether Joseph’s openness to God — and Mary’s too, of course — played the greater role at this stage. Luke says, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52). Thankfully, God had provided Him a good dad (and mom) in the growing years.
And this reminds us of one more thing about Joseph’s righteousness: it involved the assumption of responsibility. Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ conception, but he assumed responsibility for Jesus’ life nonetheless. He adopted Jesus into his family, and in doing so, conferred a heritage as heir of King David (Matthew 1:16–17).
This aspect of Joseph’s fatherhood has struck me with particular force over the last four years, in the course of which my wife, Tiffany, and I first fostered and then adopted two little girls. (We have a biological son as well.) I am not my girls’ dad, in a biological sense, but I am my girls’ in every other sense. When they think of their dad, it’s my face they see.
So, happy Father’s Day! And father well!
To me has fallen the awesome responsibility — and privilege — of not only housing, feeding and educating these girls, but also loving, disciplining and preparing them for adulthood. Someday, I’ll walk them down the aisle at their weddings, and their children — though not related to me biologically at all — will be my grandchildren. They are, together with my wife and son, my forever family.
I know what kind of thoughts Joseph must have asked himself when that angel of the Lord set him straight in a dream. I’ve asked them myself. But I hope that, like Joseph, I too will father all my children in such a way that they grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
In other words, I hope to be a righteous man who does the right thing kindly and who remains always open to God, assuming whatever responsibilities He sends my way. My children need me to be that man. And, men — whether you’re fathers or not — our nation needs you to be a righteous man as well.
So, happy Father’s Day! And father well!