Much of the Bible is about Jesus Christ. Only a small portion of the New Testament discusses His parents - Joseph and Mary Yet the details about their lives help enhance our understanding of these two honored parents.
God directed the archangel Gabriel to deliver two messages to two married couples: Zacharias and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph. Elizabeth and Mary were cousins.
To Zacharias Gabriel said: "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John ... [He will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:13, 17).
To Mary Gabriel relayed this message directly from God: "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! ... Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David" (verses 28, 31-32).
Much of the Bible is about Jesus Christ. Only a small portion of the New Testament discusses His parents—Joseph, His stepfather, and Mary, His mother. Yet the New Testament's details about their lives help enhance our understanding of these two honored parents.
Joseph: Jesus' Stepfather
James Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible clarifies Joseph's lineage: "Every Jew kept a record of his lineage, and was proud if he could claim royal or priestly descent; Joseph was 'a son of David' (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:4). His family belonged to Bethlehem, David's city, but he had moved to Nazareth (1988, p. 529).
Some Bible readers wonder why the Gospels give two genealogies for Jesus. The simple answer is that Matthew records Joseph's ancestors, and Luke records Mary's. Both could trace their ancestry back to David and from him back to Abraham, fulfilling the prophecies that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:16) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-13).
Joseph was a carpenter. The Greek word is tekton, which was used of a versatile and skilled builder or craftsman who worked with various materials including wood and stone. Jesus, having learned the trade from Joseph, later used analogies based on His experiences at Joseph's side to explain man's relationship to God and His coming kingdom.
Note one such example: "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it" (Matthew 7:24-27; RSV). Friends and acquaintances of Jesus knew He understood exactly what He was talking about.
Some months after Joseph's betrothal to Mary, he discovered she was pregnant. Joseph erroneously assumed Mary had been unfaithful to him, but Joseph's subsequent actions tell us much about his character and nature.
"... When [Jesus'] mother Mary was going to be married to Joseph, before they came together the discovery was made that she was with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph, her husband, being an upright man, and not desiring to make her a public example, had a mind to put her away [break their engagement] privately" (Matthew 1:18-19, Bible in Basic English).
As an honorable and humble man, as well as faithful in his observance of the Israelitish ordinances and feasts (Luke 2:21-24, 41), Joseph thought it best to quietly spare Mary and her family disgrace by giving her a bill of divorce, breaking their betrothal.
However, after he had been informed of the truth by an angel (Matthew 1:18-25), he treated Mary kindly. "On being summoned to Bethlehem by the requirements of the census, he would not leave her at home to suffer the slanders of misjudging neighbors, but took her with him and treated her very gently in her time of need" (Hastings, p. 529; compare Luke 2:1-7).
Little Mention of Joseph
Joseph is mentioned only a few times in the four Gospels. Only one incident of Jesus' childhood is preserved in Scripture. Luke 2:41-50 records that, when Jesus was 12, His family attended the Passover feast in Jerusalem, as was customary (Leviticus 23:1-2, 4-8). However, at the end of the Feast, as Joseph and Mary journeyed back to Nazareth, they realized Jesus wasn't among their group.
Jesus had lingered in Jerusalem, although they had assumed He was traveling safely with relatives and acquaintances. After a full day of travel they began to look in earnest for their son, not finding Him anywhere.
Reflect for a moment on the trust that both Joseph and Mary placed in their 12-year-old boy. How many of us would feel comfortable leaving a son or daughter of that age alone on a long trip home, assuming he would travel safely among faithful family and friends? Yet Joseph and Mary showed great confidence in their firstborn. This incident shows how times have changed as well as the confidence of two faithful parents in their teaching and training.
The worried parents returned to Jerusalem, where eventually "they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions" (Luke 2:46).
The men who listened as young Jesus discussed God's law with the teachers "were astonished at His understanding and answers" (verse 47), as were Joseph and Mary when they came upon the sight of some of the nation's most respected religious authorities listening intently to their 12-year-old son.
Mary's reaction was likely a mixture of worry and relief: "Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously" (verse 47). From this we see Joseph was obviously a concerned father.
What Happened to Joseph?
James Hastings discusses why no mention of Joseph is made after that Passover feast in Jerusalem: "Joseph never appears in the Gospel story after the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus had attained the age of twelve years and become 'a son of the Law' (Luke 2:41-51); and since Mary always appears alone in the narratives of the public ministry, it is a reasonable inference that he had died during the interval."
This seems the most likely scenario. Although the Gospels do not give Joseph's age, Joseph was probably older than Mary. Perhaps he died before Jesus began His ministry.
Although the Scriptures give us only a few glimpses of Joseph, they tell us he was a kind man and a loving father. Perhaps no greater compliment can be paid to him than that of Jesus Himself: When He tried to give mankind a better conception of the love and character of God, He used the term Father to express our Creator's loving relationship toward us.
Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ
Although more is said of Mary than of Joseph, not many scriptures are dedicated to the mother of Jesus.
Mary was of the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David, hence of the royal line. Somewhere around circa 4 B.C. Mary was living in Nazareth. She was unmarried, betrothed to Joseph.
At the appropriate time in God's plan (Galatians 4:4), He began fulfilling His promise of the ages: "At this time the angel Gabriel came to her with a message from God, and announced to her that she was to be the mother of the long-expected Messiah—that by the power of the Holy Spirit the everlasting Son of the Father should be born of her (Luke 1:26-35; comp. Rom. 1:3)" (Unger's Bible Dictionary, p. 702).
The angel also informed Mary her cousin Elizabeth was within three months of delivering a son (Luke 1:36), whom the Bible identifies as John the Baptist.
Mary decided to visit her cousin. As Mary entered her house, Elizabeth confirmed God's revelation that Mary was to give birth to the Messiah: "Then she [Elizabeth] spoke out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord'..." (Luke 1:42-45).
Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months, then returned home (verse 56). After this, Joseph discovered Mary was with child and, having been assured that her conception was of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25), he took her as his wife. The time for tax enrollment came shortly thereafter.
Bethlehem, Birth and Blessings
Mary accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem to be enrolled for taxation purposes. It was during this time that Jesus was born and lay in a manger (Luke 2:1, 7). As instructed by Scripture, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21; Genesis 17:12).
Mary and Joseph were faithful to God and His Word. On the 40th day after the birth of Jesus, Mary presented herself with Jesus for their purification in the temple (Luke 2:22-24). "The poverty of Joseph and Mary is alluded to in the mention of their offering, 'a pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons' " (Unger's, p. 702; compare Leviticus 12:8).
During Joseph's and Mary's visit to the temple in Jerusalem, Mary met Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon thanked God for His promise that "he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke 2:26). Simeon took the infant in his arms, thanked God and declared the prophecy that through Christ salvation would come also to the gentiles and glory to God's people Israel (verse 32).
The aged prophetess Anna (probably more than 100 years old) also "gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (verse 38).
Herod's Murderous Plot
Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem, where an angel warned them Herod planned to kill Jesus. "Wise men" from the East had seen the star marking Jesus' birth and came to worship Him. When Herod heard these things, he and the people of Jerusalem were troubled.
Herod gathered the chief priests and scribes to determine the place of Jesus' birth. They told him Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. Privately, Herod asked the wise men when the star had appeared. He then deceptively instructed the wise men to find the newborn Messiah "that I may come and worship Him also" (Matthew 2:8). But the wise men were divinely warned in a dream that they shouldn't return to Herod. Instead, they should return to their native land by a different route (verse 12).
At that time an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him" (verse 13). Joseph obeyed God and took Mary and Jesus to Egypt until the death of Herod so the Scripture would be fulfilled that stated: "Out of Egypt I called My Son" (verse 15; compare Hosea 11:1).
When Herod realized the wise men would not return to him, he responded brutally to the threat to his power. Herod put to death the male children in and around Bethlehem, from 2 years old and younger (verse 16). The prophet Jeremiah, writing hundreds of years earlier, had predicted this calamity: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:18; Jeremiah 31:15).
After Herod's death an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph while he was still in Egypt: "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead" (Matthew 2:20).
When Joseph and Mary returned with Jesus, God again warned Joseph in a dream not to go to Bethlehem and the surrounding area, but to move to the region of Galilee (verse 22). "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene' " (verse 23).
Luke summarizes the childhood of Jesus: "And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40). Joseph and Mary continued to exhibit their humble, faithful approach to God.
After the mention at the time of the Passover feast in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12, Joseph isn't mentioned again in the Gospels. Mary is mentioned four subsequent times.
Portrait of a Believing Mother
In the first subsequent mention of Mary, she was in the nearby Galilean town of Cana, where Jesus and His disciples were invited to a wedding feast. When the wedding celebrants ran out of wine, Mary mentioned the embarrassing predicament to Jesus (John 2:3).
Jesus replied that this wasn't a matter He should be concerned with. Nevertheless He responded to her unspoken request. Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. He replied by turning 150 gallons of water into fine wine. Mary learned faith and patience from this miracle.
The second mention of Mary was when she and Jesus' brothers were with Him in Capernaum at a public gathering (verse 12). While He was talking to a large group of people, someone informed Him His mother and brothers wanted to speak with Him.
Jesus responded with a great spiritual truth: " 'Who is My mother and who are My brothers?' And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, 'Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother' " (Matthew 12:48-50). Doing the will of God makes us part of God's family, a brother or sister to Jesus Christ.
Incidentally, this passage demonstrates that Mary went on to have additional children after Jesus was born. Mark 6:3 names four half-brothers—James, Joses, Judas and Simon—plus an unspecified number of "sisters." Jesus obviously grew up in a family with at least six siblings, the natural children of Joseph and Mary. Two, James and Jude (Judas), later came to accept that their elder half-brother was indeed the Messiah and went on to write the biblical books that bear their names.
The third later mention of Mary was when she and John were standing near the feet of Jesus as He was crucified. In spite of the pain and anguish Jesus was enduring, He thought of his mother's welfare: "When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple [John] whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son!' Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!' And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27). Mary's firstborn son never slighted His responsibilities, as this touching example illustrates.
Finally, after Christ's death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, we find Mary, with other faithful followers of the Lord, praying together. His disciples "all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers" (Acts 1:14).
We are introduced to Mary when an angel tells her she would miraculously conceive and give birth to the promised Messiah. At the Bible's last mention of her, Mary is left to our memories in faithful prayer to God, awaiting her son's return.
Although God entrusted Joseph and Mary with the responsibility and blessing of overseeing the childhood of His own Son, the family relationship doesn't stop there. Jesus Christ has included others—you and me—in His spiritual family as His brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:48-50; compare Hebrews 2:11). Through Him many more will share in God's promise: "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty" (2 Corinthians 6:18). GN