The description of Joseph as a “just man” in Matthew 1:19 gives us insight into his character and provides context for his actions. Let’s explore the meaning behind this phrase.
1. The word “just” refers to righteousness and integrity
In the original Greek, the word translated as “just” is δίκαιος (dikaios). This word means righteous, upright, virtuous, keeping the commands of God. It is more than simply being law-abiding – it implies integrity of heart and action. Describing Joseph as “just” indicates he consistently sought to live according to God’s standards, not merely human ideals. He pursued justice, morality, and ethical behavior in his daily life.
2. It emphasizes Joseph’s obedience to the law
Specifically, Joseph’s righteousness related to his obedience to the law of God. As an observant Jew, he would have been careful to follow the teachings of Scripture in his day-to-day life. His actions reveal his knowledge of the law and his commitment to obeying it. For example, in his response to Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph seeks to follow the law’s teaching on handling suspected adultery (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) by planning to divorce her quietly rather than exposing her to public disgrace or stoning.
3. It shows Joseph’s faithfulness in difficult circumstances
Joseph’s obedience to God was not conditional based on circumstances. Despite the confusing and difficult situation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph sought to honor God and act justly towards Mary. This required extreme faith and fortitude to trust God amidst uncertainty and to put righteousness before his own hurt or reputation. His steadfast pursuit of justice displays strong integrity regardless of the situation.
4. It highlights his compassion and mercy
Rather than reacting hastily, Joseph weighed his options and decided to show mercy by planning to divorce Mary quietly. As a righteous man, he sought to apply the law with wisdom and compassion. His deliberation shows thoughtful consideration of Mary’s position and how to allow her dignity. Joseph’s mercy further reflects the heart of God, who is perfectly just and perfectly loving at the same time.
5. It distinguishes him from typical views of justice
In Joseph’s cultural context, justice often equated to harsh, exacting application of the law without room for mercy. However, Joseph models a form of justice tempered by compassion. His brand of righteousness combined strong morals with thoughtful care for people involved. Joseph demonstrated that true justice sees people as individuals, not just cases to be processed.
6. It suggests restraint and moderation in his exercise of justice
A key component of Joseph’s justice was restraint from excess or overzealousness. While fully committed to obeying the law, he was careful to apply it with precision and avoid going beyond what God required. His careful deliberation and measured response to Mary reflected his commitment to enact justice, but only to the proper extent. Moderation marked his pursuit of righteousness.
7. It points to moral courage in fulfilling justice
As a righteous man, Joseph was committed to justice regardless of the consequences for himself. Following through with his plan to divorce Mary quietly would have required moral courage to contradict social expectations. Joseph displayed bravery and fortitude in his dedication to righteous action before God over seeking approval or ease before men. His justice was backed by courage.
8. It demonstrates humility and restraint from judgment
Despite feeling hurt and confused, Joseph avoided self-righteousness and harsh judgment. His humility and restraint reflect his godly justice. He sought to enact God’s righteousness by treating Mary with dignity rather than reacting in pride. Joseph’s example shows that pursuing true justice requires humility and grace.
9. It reveals his trustworthiness and character
Matthew’s description of Joseph as “just” succinctly encapsulates his trustworthiness and strength of character. It indicates he could be counted on to act with integrity, obedience, and wisdom. Joseph was dedicated to living righteously no matter what circumstances arose. His determination to obey God completely shows why God entrusted him with Jesus’ earthly care and protection.
10. It helps explain God’s choice of Joseph
Understanding Joseph as a righteous, just man clarifies why God selected him to be Jesus’ earthly guardian. Out of all men, Joseph’s deep faithfulness to God’s law and compassionate pursuit of justice made him uniquely suited for this honor and responsibility. God knew Joseph would act rightly as Jesus’ earthly father.
In summary, the Bible’s description of Joseph as a “just man” emphasizes his godly character and commitment to righteousness. It proves Joseph’s integrity, faithfulness, courage, humility, compassion, and trustworthiness. God used Joseph’s righteous reputation to protect Mary’s dignity and provide the best earthly father for raising His Son. As a just man, Joseph sought to honor God in all circumstances.
11. It indicates Joseph was a tsaddiq – a righteous person under Jewish law and tradition
The Greek word dikaios was used by early Jewish-Christian writers living in the context of 2nd Temple Judaism to translate the Hebrew/Aramaic word tsaddiq. A tsaddiq referred to a righteous person who studied Torah diligently, upheld the Mosaic Law, performed good deeds, and worked for justice in everyday situations. They stood apart from most as examples of piety. Calling Joseph a tsaddiq marks him as exceptional in his daily practice of righteousness.
12. It shows Joseph had a well-formed conscience guided by God’s law
As a righteous person, Joseph possessed a upright conscience which directed his life according to God’s word. His thoughts, words, and actions flowed from a constant inner sense of acting justly. He did what was right not simply out of duty but an integrated understanding of moral living guided by truth.
13. It indicates faithful membership in God’s covenant community
Righteousness was closely tied to observing the Mosaic covenant. Joseph’s justice reflects his trusted status as a member of God’s covenant people. He carefully obeyed the obligations and boundaries of this covenant, marking him as set apart for God’s purposes. Joseph’s righteousness qualified him for a key role in salvation history.
14. It shows dedication to practicing hesed – covenant loyalty to God and others
Important Old Testament concepts like hesed (covenant loyalty) and sedaqah (righteousness expressed through acts of justice and mercy) were part of Joseph’s righteousness. As a just man, he would have understood his responsibility to reflect God’s character by acting in faithfulness and love towards others.
15. It reveals Joseph as a God-fearer devoted to Torah and prayer
From a Jewish perspective, Joseph’s righteousness emerges from a God-fearing life marked by immersion in Scripture, faithful obedience to the law, and commitment to prayer. His actions flow from a deep reverence for God cultivated through Torah study, worship, and spiritual devotion – hallmarks of a devout Jew.
16. It meant he followed his contempories considered leading a “moderate” life
Some Jewish writings from Joseph’s era emphasize pursuing moderation and balance in one’s conduct as an expression of righteousness. Joseph exemplified these qualities. He avoided extremes and discretion in his relationships and lifestyle. Moderation marked his habits, speech, work, and general deportment.
17. He likely belonged to a Jewish sect or movement focused on holiness
Scholars speculate Joseph may have associated with Jewish groups like the Pharisees, Essenes, or Nazirites who stressed personal and communal holiness. His devotion to obeying God’s commands suggests he actively pursued standards of ritual purity, moral uprightness, and social ethics promoted by these movements as they sought to live out Torah.
18. He would have studied Torah, Prophets, and Wisdom Literature closely
As a righteous Jew, Joseph drew on knowledge of Israel’s sacred writings to guide his conduct. This included the Law of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and Wisdom books like Psalms and Proverbs which describe the righteous person. Immersion in Scripture molded Joseph’s character.
19. He sought to embody the virtues praised in wisdom texts and prophetic works
Writings Joseph studied extolled virtues like justice, righteousness, faithfulness, compassion, humility, and integrity. The Prophets cry out against oppression and hypocrisy. As a righteous man, Joseph integrated these qualities and teachings into his life. Scripture shaped his actions.
20. His righteousness meant upholding both the letter and spirit of the law
Pharisees tended to focus on strict observance of the written law, while Essenes stressed inner transformation. Joseph’s justice incorporated both – exact obedience to the law’s commands and conduct flowing from spiritual devotion. For him, righteousness extended beyond outward conformity to righteous living from the heart.
In summary, Joseph’s righteousness marked him as a faithful, devoted Jew who diligently studied Scripture, upheld God’s covenant, and sought to live its moral vision. His integrity emerged from a deep knowledge of God’s word that directed his conduct. Joseph exemplified true justice.
21. He was known as someone who could be trusted to do what is right
An important implication of Joseph being called a “just man” is that he had a reputation for practicing justice and righteousness in everyday situations. People knew from experience that Joseph could be trusted to follow Torah, act ethically, deal fairly, show compassion to others, and generally do what is right in the eyes of God.
22. He handled business dealings and labor relations with integrity
As a tradesman, Joseph would have had many opportunities to display justice and integrity in his business practices – whether in pricing, contracts, timely work and pay, or treatment of employees. His reputation shows he conducted himself honestly and ethically in his working life.
23. He was fair and honest in legal and financial matters
Joseph’s righteousness extended to areas like legal disputes, financial dealings, and contracts. He built a reputation for handling money matters and legal issues in a fair, ethical way through words and actions. When involved in matters touching the law or finances, Joseph could be trusted to pursue justice.
24. He cared for the poor and marginalized in his community
Concern for the disadvantaged was part of Joseph’s practice of sedaqah – righteous living expressed through acts of justice and mercy. As a just man, he likely took measures to assist struggling individuals – such as provisions for widows,Manual work for the infirm, Advocacy for exploited workers. He sought the good of the powerless.
25. He contributed to charity and made sacrifices to help those in need
An upright Jew like Joseph would have been involved in almsgiving and assisting the impoverished in his community. He made personal sacrifices to provide for the needy – whether through charitable giving, extra work to aid neighbors, or offering his home to the vulnerable. Caring for the poor was integral to Joseph’s life.
26. He earned esteem as an elder and leader among his people
Living righteously placed Joseph in a position of influence within his community. Elders and leaders were expected to demonstrate virtue, wisdom, justice, and devotion to God. As a respected “just man”, Joseph served as an authority and adviser to those who sought his spiritual guidance and moral example.
27. He practiced self-discipline to guard his reputation
Maintaining a reputation for righteousness required great self-control from Joseph. He guarded his speech, conduct, passions, and dealings to protect his witness. Joseph’s discipline in what he did and said demonstrated his commitment to justice.
28. He was fair, impartial, and consistent in his judgments
When asked to help resolve disputes, Joseph’s reputation for justice would have inspired confidence in the fairness of the process and verdict. He weighed matters impartially and considered each case on its merits to reach equitable solutions. You could expect consistency from Joseph based on his character.
29. He spoke truthfully, acted honestly, and kept his word
Righteous living also meant Joseph strove to be a man of integrity and sincerity through truthful speech, honest dealings, and keeping promises. Staying true to his word – even when inconvenient or risky – was important to maintain his upright reputation built on trust.
30. He pointed others to God through his example of faithful living
Abraham was called a tzaddik for his extraordinary faith. Similarly, Joseph’s integrity attracted others seeking to know the God who shaped his righteous life. His devotion and character modeled the beauty of living faithfully before God. Joseph’s life encouraged others in their walk with God.
In summary, Joseph’s reputation as a “just man” meant he was trusted for fair dealings, care of the disadvantaged, moral leadership, wise counsel, honesty, impartiality, and faithful friendship. His example directed many to God.
31. It shows he took personal responsibility for his conduct
Rather than making excuses, Joseph took ownership of his actions as a righteous person. When he made mistakes, he sought forgiveness and restitution. When praised, he humbly pointed to God as the source of any goodness. Joseph allowed the law to expose his shortcomings and relied on God’s mercy for grace to improve.
32. He had an accurate and sober view of his own spirituality
Joseph avoided the extremes of spiritual pride and insecurity often caused by reputation. He acknowledged his capabilities and character strengths which equipped him for leadership. But he also recognized his flaws and sins which required dependence on God’s grace. Joseph saw himself truthfully before God.
33. He was willing to personally sacrifice his rights and agenda to fulfill righteousness
Joseph’s commitment to righteousness ruled his personal decisions, even at great cost. His decision to divorce Mary quietly despite personal hurt illustrates this sacrificial abandonment of self-interest for the greater good. Joseph willingly surrendered status, agenda, and perceived rights to obey God’s will.
34. He used position and influence to promote justice and protect the vulnerable
Joseph leveraged his reputation as an honorable man to advocate for what was right in his community. He used his influence to see that justice was upheld, especially for the poor, widowed, imprisoned, and foreigner. Position became opportunity for righteousness.
35. He emphasized mentorship and discipleship in the practice of righteousness
As a spiritual leader, Joseph invested in others seeking to grow in godly character. He exemplified righteous living while humbly acknowledging his flaws and need for God’s grace. Joseph taught justice and mercy through personal modeling as he walked alongside others in spiritual friendship.
In conclusion, Joseph allowed his reputation as a “just man” to point people to God as the source of true righteousness. At the same time, he took personal responsibility for pursuing justice and mercy through position, influence, sacrifice, sober self-reflection, and discipleship. Joseph provides a model of godly character for us today.