Summary of Biblical Testimony
The New Testament books of Matthew and Luke are our primary source of knowledge about Joseph. While Joseph is a relatively obscure individual, we do know some things about him - some stated and some implied.
In Matthew 1:1-16, we learn his genealogy, which is traced through Israel's patriarch Abraham and also through King David's line (particularly, the kings of Judah), as well as through Zerubbabel (governor of Israel after their return to the land) and then through some obscure individuals. (It is also interesting to note the "outlaws" and women who are named in the genealogy, but that is beyond the scope of this somewhat brief meditation.) The wording of Matthew 1:16 does not name Joseph as the father of Jesus, but as "the husband of Mary." Regarding Mary, it says "of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."
In introducing the birth of Christ, Matthew 1:18 begins by telling us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph (cf. Luke 1:27), which, in that day, was a commitment as binding as marriage, dissoluble only by divorce. Yet Mary was "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before they ever came together. Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as a "just man" (that is, a righteous man), who did not want to make Mary a public example, and so considered divorcing her privately. The angel of the Lord interrupted his thoughts, coming to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife. The child Mary bore was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. Joseph awoke, obeyed, and took Mary as his wife, but did not know her intimately until she had brought forth Jesus, her firstborn son.
Before Jesus' birth, Joseph took Mary, "being great with child," to Bethlehem (since he was descended from David) to be counted in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). When the shepherds went to see the newborn babe, Joseph was there with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:16).
God communicated with Joseph in another dream, probably when Jesus was about two years old, when King Herod was seeking to have him killed. In this dream, he was instructed to take Jesus and Mary and go to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Later, he was instructed in a dream to return to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20). He then dwelt in Nazareth, to fulfill prophecy (Matthew 2:21-23).
Joseph, along with Mary, was diligent in observing the Mosaic ordinances, including having Jesus circumcised (Luke 2:21). They went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for Mary's purification and to present Jesus (Luke 2:22). The offering of two birds instead of a lamb suggests that Joseph was not a rich man (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:6-8).
Joseph "and his [Jesus'] mother" were in wonder by the things spoken about Jesus by Simeon (Luke 2:33).
Joseph is referred to as a "carpenter" (Matthew 13:55), which could also be translated as "woodworker" or "mason." John MacArthur writes: "It may have been that he did both. If he built houses he would need to be able to lay bricks and frame windows and doors too. At any rate, he worked hard for a living and probably was anything but rich." (The Miracle of Christmas, pg. 56)
Lessons from His Character
God certainly knew what He was doing when He chose Joseph to be the earthly guardian of Jesus, but it is also true that Joseph's calling was not an easy one. The difficulties that Joseph faced show us several things about his character.
His thinking about how to deal with Mary (before he knew the truth of the conception), showed Joseph to be a righteous and caring man. According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, Mary could have been executed by stoning under the Mosaic law if she had lied about her virginity to her betrothed husband. The Roman rule over Israel would not allow this in Joseph's time, yet she could still be publicly shamed. He showed a graciousness and concern that went above and beyond what some would have done, in his inclination to divorce her privately.
Joseph was a man of reflection. He thought about the situation. He wasn't hasty. He considered the situation and the implications of a course of action. He was given a difficult set of circumstances to process, but he did not despair, but rather took his time to try to think through the matter.
Joseph was a listening man. When God communicated with Joseph, he paid attention. He listened to what he was told. He was open to more information and wisdom than he had on his own!
Joseph was a man of faith and obedience. He not only listened, but believed and obeyed. When God told him to do a particular thing, he did it. And he apparently obeyed without question or hesitation, as we never read of him raising objections to God's directions. (We never see, "But Lord, this is too embarrassing to be married to a woman with a child I didn't father; it's really a long trip to Egypt; etc.") Because of his faith and obedience, he married Mary, named her son Jesus, left for Egypt, and returned to Israel.
Joseph was a working man. Probably a carpenter by trade, he worked diligently to support his family.
From all indications, Joseph was a man of humility who listened to God, and thought of others, believing God and obeying Him. Although we do not know what became of Joseph in Jesus' later years, we have a picture of him in Jesus' early years that shows us a man worthy of respect and honor, with traits worthy of emulation.
Following these traits in and of themselves do not make us right with God. But if we have turned from our rebellion and put our trust in this Jesus, who was born to save His people from their sins, and therefore died on the cross in place of sinners and rose again, these character qualities will help us walk worthy of the good news of Jesus Christ.