Joseph was engaged to be married to Mary, when she told him that she was pregnant. She told him something that didn't make sense. She told him that she had not had another man in her life, but that she was visited by an angel, who told her that God would cause her to be pregnant, in a miraculous way.
We do not know how Joseph judged Mary's account of how she became pregnant. What we do know is how he responded to this crisis. He responded with mercy and honor in a righteous way.
Joseph's betrothal to Mary was a more serious matter than engagements of couples today. In today's language, Joseph was already Mary's husband, while Mary remained at her father's household.
It would be hard enough to find out that your fiance, today, was pregnant with someone else's baby; but Joseph's responsibilities were heavier in his day, because he was legally bound to Mary and had to decide what to do. In this kind of situation, a man could have his betrothed branded as an adulteress. But that is not what Joseph had in mind to do.
Joseph was righteous, kind, and merciful with Mary. He was going to annul the marriage quietly and let Mary have her baby. We do not know whether he believed Mary or not. What we do know is that he treated her with dignity and respect. Joseph acted with benevolence, charitability and kindness.
Adultery was punishable by stoning under the law, although there is no evidence that it was practiced during Jesus lifetime(1). Joseph reminds us of how Jesus treated the woman brought to him who was caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). The men who brought her were asking Jesus to endorse the stoning of her. They brought her to Jesus, saying that the law demands that she be punished by death. Jesus, the embodiment of God's righteousness, did something else.
Joseph, who was living out an authentic, righteous life; had to decide what to do in response to Mary's news that she was pregnant. Joseph's righteousness was tempered with kindness, honor, and mercy; just like Jesus. Joseph did not want to punish Mary. He also did not want to go ahead and marry her, because that would be unrighteous as well, in his mind. The righteous thing to do was to not humiliate her and quietly divorce her.
Joseph shows us what righteousness is. He desired to live within God's laws, but also to have God's heart. God's heart says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice"(Hosea 6:6, Matt. 9:13).
Joseph seems insignificant compared to Mary. After Jesus' childhood, we don't see him. But Joseph is very significant. How he treated Mary is very important. God inspired Matthew to tell us in a matter of fact way that Joseph was a righteous man and illustrates this. Joseph was interested in following God's heart. He was kind, merciful, and benevolent.
This is the man who got to hold baby Jesus. This is the man who got to raise him. This is the man who taught Jesus a trade. He taught him how to live. He taught him how to treat a woman.
If you are a man and specifically a father or will be a father, you need to understand that this is your second most important function, role, or assignment in your life. Your most important thing is being God's child.
Joseph and Mary's lives were not a charade. They were real people trying to live out normal, godly lives. God selected Mary to do a one time thing that people have not stopped talking about. Joseph has something in common with God, in that he saw something in Mary and selected her also.
While Joseph was making his selection of Mary, God was also selecting Joseph to be Jesus father. Joseph would be the man that Almighty God would trust with raising Jesus. Joseph watched over Jesus and protected him and gave him a home to grow up in. Joseph provided one of the greatest services in history. This man is the servant of God, literally.
All of this might not get our attention as important, in our culture that bashes fatherhood.
When the Bible introduces us to Joseph, it shows us the kind of man, the kind of husband, and the kind of father that we men want to be. These traits apply to ladies as well.
True righteousness covers the faults of others. True righteousness is honorable, humane, and benevolent. The truly righteous person is merciful. They see sin and weep over it. They want to connect sinners with God's forgiveness. They want to see redemption. Sin is not ok with them, but they know it's destructiveness and want to lead people out from and away from it, through God's forgiveness.
The truly righteous one sees themself as a sinner saved by God or a beggar leading other beggars to the bread of life. The truly righteous one is not self-righteous, but humble. Humble means that your God is big and you are small, but you know that God is your all in all.
Joseph shows us that the righteous person is concerned with doing right before God in justice, with humility before God and man; while living out the kindness of God's character in mercifulness and benevolence.
1. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, p. 18