Matthew 1:19 portrays Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, as a just man. The passage reads, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18–19, ESV).
The Greek word translated as “just” signifies moral uprightness. The same word appears numerous times in the New Testament, notably in the letter to the Romans. Matthew characterizes Joseph as a man of principle, a just man who obeyed the law and sought to live in alignment to God’s ways. Joseph resembled Cornelius, the devout centurion who feared God (Acts 10:1–2).
The fact that Joseph was “a just man” does not mean he had an inherent goodness that produced salvation or earned him favor with God. Many Old Testament saints were recognized for their moral uprightness, yet it’s erroneous to assume their moral uprightness is what saved them. Salvation has always been by grace through faith, not by works (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Romans 3:20–24). Paul emphasizes this truth, using Abraham as an example: “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3; cf. Genesis 15:6). The only difference between the faith of the Old Testament saints and our faith today is the content of the promise on which our faith is anchored.
Let’s explore a few examples:
What about Joseph in the New Testament—how was he saved by grace through faith? First, like every other devout Jew, he likely anticipated the coming Messiah, as foretold by the prophets. His faith was also evident in accepting the message an angel conveyed concerning Mary and Jesus: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20–21). This was a proclamation of the gospel, as God’s promises to previous saints foreshadowed the good news.
It’s worth noting Joseph’s moral uprightness was demonstrated in his respect for Mary. Betrothals in that era were formal and serious, exceeding our dating and courtship norm. These agreements involved families and binding commitments (www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/mary-and-joseph-in-the-bible/). Pregnancy out of wedlock, during the betrothal period, was disgraceful, and any jilted husband could expose the woman to shame. Joseph, however, chose to honor Mary by discreetly resolving the matter and writing out a bill of divorcement privately. We can learn a valuable lesson here on how to treat people, even those who hurt us.
In conclusion, Joseph’s recognition as a just man stemmed from his moral uprightness, and he was also shown to be just before God when he believed the message of the angel.