Ever wish you hadn’t picked up the phone? A young man in a major mess called me yesterday. He is an up-and-coming residential contractor quickly gaining a reputation for building million-dollar-plus, custom homes. He is engaged to a delightful lady and they have scheduled their wedding for next spring.
However, his bride-to-be told him last night over a quiet dinner that she is pregnant by another man. He is stunned! Numb! (So am I, frankly.) Nevertheless, he expressed to me over the telephone a resolute determination to marry this girl anyway.
What do you think? What do you suppose will become of his reputation, his clients, his acceptance by his rather prominent family? Should he marry this unfaithful girl? How will he love and accept her child that is not their child? All of this, and more, he wanted to know from me as we talked over the phone.
He is considering relocating.
What do you suppose will happen to this man—and woman, for that matter—should they choose to relocate to your town? Will they be welcome in your church? Can I refer them to you as a person ready to be their friend? Tough call, huh?
It is always risky to impose modern culture too heavily upon ancient culture, but pregnancy out of wedlock has always been problematic, and if anything, more so in ancient days than today. As a matter of fact, an adulterous woman, or an unmarried woman who rendered up her virginity, was to be stoned to death by law in many ancient cultures, the culture of the Bible included.
Take my telephone call last night and attach the people’s names, families, and location. It is no longer a case study but involves real people making huge decisions. While no telephones existed, a communication from Mary to Joseph did occur years ago (ref. Mt. 1:18 ff). A young man going about the normal process of building his construction business, looking forward to his wedding date with the lovely lady of his dreams, is stunned by the news that she is pregnant…and not by him.
And what a fantastic stretch the story of conception is that Mary offers Joseph: an angel talked to her; the Spirit of God impregnated her; the child conceived is destined to be the Savior of the World, no less than the Messiah.
Come on, Mary!
How easily, through familiarity and distance, we gloss over the pages of Scripture that recount the events leading up to the first Christmas. Consider Joseph! He was a real man, doing real business in the real world, engaged to a real woman who turned up pregnant thus presenting a problem that would not ever go away but that would haunt him for the rest of his days and recast his reputation for generations.
Disappointment. His fiancée was unfaithful to him and there is no viable explanation, at least no explanation that is credible. No one has ever been pregnant by the Holy Spirit before. There is no precedent spiritually, and certainly none physiologically. Who can he even turn to for counsel?
But note: Joseph possessed character of sufficient depth to corral his emotion, his loss, and his disappointment and consider Mary. The Scriptures smoothly mention that Joseph desired to end his engagement to Mary quietly and in secret, not to protect himself and his reputation as one would anticipate, but rather to avoid disgracing the one unfaithful to him: his fiancée, his promised one, his Mary. Facing his own heartbreak and disillusionment, Joseph thinks of Mary first.
Disgrace. Working through his disappointment, Joseph attempts to create a scenario that will protect Mary’s honor. The Bible gives no indication that Joseph ever considered the disgrace he would incur whether he married Mary or not. It is one thing to live through and recover from disappointment; we have all done this. It is quite another challenge to recover from disgrace. As a matter of fact, disgrace scars for life, and in the case of infidelity, it wounds a man deep in the core of his masculine soul.
Nevertheless, Joseph marries Mary. He believes her story about the Holy Spirit, and is obedient to the guidance given to him by the angel who appeared to him, but until their wedding day he does not know for certain that she is indeed still a virgin.
And what good is such information except to Joseph himself? He can’t announce to the community his finding of Mary’s virginity, can’t prove to his family and friends that she was a virgin on their wedding day. Who’s going to believe that?! Look at her physique! You can only hide a baby bulge for so long. Besides, whatever Joseph says, he and Mary will always have a child older than their marriage.
Determination. Another matter lightly mentioned, I suppose because of its personal nature and inappropriateness to the holiday season: The Scripture notes almost in passing, Joseph kept Mary a virgin until after Jesus was born. Wow! Consider that for a moment. Do you recall how long it took to get from your wedding reception to your honeymoon suite? In my case, we only drove an hour or so, but it seemed like three days! That’s as it should be. Making love is wonderful! But imagine the intimacy of Mary and Joseph living together in the honesty of marriage and Joseph possessing the self-control to refrain from sex with his new wife for months until after the birth of Jesus.
What if Joseph had failed and let his desire get the better of him? What would Satan’s immediate accusation be? That Christ was not conceived in innocence by the Holy Spirit at all. In actuality, he was conceived by Joseph and Mary, via the same process that all other children are conceived, and just like all other children is the descendent of Adam, endowed with a flawed heritage that makes Him incapable of saving Himself before God, let alone all of mankind.
Can you imagine the talk among “the guys” when sex and women were discussed and Joseph insisted that Mary was still a virgin? Right, Joe! What’s with you? How do you explain that progressing bulge under Mary’s dress? You’ve been smelling too much glue in the carpentry shop!
What if Joseph had failed to protect and preserve Mary’s virginity? But note: He did not fail! He determined to be obedient, and he was, all the way to the end.
Being a man is about a lot more than marrying, loving a woman, or waiting to make love to a woman. Joseph not only obeyed God regarding sex with Mary until after she delivered Jesus, he obeyed God at the expense of his reputation and married Mary in spite of her fantastically conceived pregnancy. He denied his desires. He released his hold on his reputation. As a result of Joseph’s obedience, Scripture is fulfilled! Jesus is born of a virgin.
Another angel appears to Joseph shortly after Jesus is born, and for the safety of the child, instructs that Joseph should flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Now understand, the angel is telling Joseph something about his wife and child, but in between his worded message are clear implications that Joseph no doubt understood: leave your home; leave your family; abandon your profession and compromise your ability to provide a livelihood.
Tell me: What would happen to a carpentry business left untended for two years, which is how long Joseph was away? But that night, Joseph leaves with his new family and moves to Egypt. This man was obedient, and as a result, Scripture was fulfilled! God drew Jesus out from Egypt.
And what of Joseph’s return from the foreign country of Egypt? God instructed—for the sake of the integrity of Scripture—that Joseph relocate to the backwater town of Nazareth. I intend no offense, but this would be like moving from Dallas, Texas to Whiskey Flat, Texas. In Joseph’s line of work, this was a very unreasonable request that God made. But he moved, and he adopted the stigma of being from Nazareth, and he raised his family in the backwater, backwoods of Nazareth and because he did, Scripture was fulfilled! Jesus was born in Bethlehem, emerged from Egypt, but hailed from Nazareth.
Much is made of Mary at Christmas, and this is as it should be. Systematic theology emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit conceiving the Christ in Mary’s virgin body in order that the Christ be sinless, and rightly so. But it is appropriate as well that we consider Joseph. Granted, Joseph was something of a custodian for his pregnant wife and God-incarnate child. But he was also a man of impeccable character who played a significant role in the development of Jesus’ burgeoning character as he grew from infant to toddler to child to boy to man to the God/man destined to redeem mankind through His sacrifice and blood covenant with God.
While Jesus displayed many noteworthy characteristics during his tenure on Earth, perhaps none is more critical to His convincing display of allegiance to His Father than His unwavering obedience. I wonder if the man who served reliably as His earthy father had anything to do with demonstrating what unflinching obedience looked like?
Although never married, the Bible is clear that Christ loves the church as a man loves his wife. In a grand display of sacrificial love and commitment, Christ loved by laying His life down at Calvary for His bride, the church. But in some ways that in practicality seem even more profound, He lays His life down every day on behalf of His bride, and often He does so at the expense of His reputation and ease. I wonder if Jesus was influenced by the man tapped to serve as His masculine role model, Joseph, as He observed this humble man love his wife Mary with little regard for himself, his reputation, and his comfort?
As we sing “Away in a Manager” and “Silent Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” this holiday season, I think it fitting that we recognize the quiet, heavily-bearded man standing beside the Virgin Mary and the newborn Christ Child lying in the manger. He helped in the delivery, and he cleaned up, and he tended to his donkey, and he screened the unruly shepherds, and he foraged for food in the crowded town, and he listened to his Heavenly Father.
Joe obeyed. He loved. He sacrificed. He lived his faith and modeled marriage in front of his children, not the least of which—his eldest, conceived by One other than himself—was learning essential lessons in order that the Scripture would be fulfilled.