The Joseph Principle

by Pastor Dan Miller

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections.
miller_joseph.gifJesus of Nazareth was born in southern Palestine sometime between the winter of 5 BC and the spring of 4 BC. At the time of his conception, Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a Jewish peasant girl, probably in her early teens, and betrothed to a man named Joseph.

The Bible unblushingly declares that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:16, 18-23). “Enlightened” readers understand, of course, that virgin birth is a myth; and scholars have tripped over themselves the last couple centuries to assure us that the Bible is mistaken at this point, or that the original authors did not mean what they appear to say, or some similar dismissal of the text.

For the record, I believe the enlightened view is lost in the dark. Only a virgin-born Savior could secure the divine forgiveness of a believer’s sin which God’s Word attributes to the sacrificial death of Jesus. Be that as it may, Mary and Joseph, in anyone’s estimation, had a real problem on their hands. Young Mary was pregnant in a culture that strictly forbid premarital sex and characteristically ostracized offenders.

In fact, ancient Jewish society was purposefully structured to impede premarital sex. For starters, marriageable women were largely restricted from speaking to men in public—to say nothing of private interchanges. Further, a young woman’s whereabouts was the unceasing concern of the informal, but efficient, societal police force of the day. Generations of families lived in intimate communities where everyone not only knew who everyone else was, but where everyone else was at any given moment. Surrounded daily by married women resolved to keep her chaste, a Jewish virgin’s ability to steal away for a tryst with a man was virtually inconceivable.

Premarital intimacy was not only restrained in the physical realm, but in the emotional realm as well. Couples did not romantically “fall in love” or enter a “dating” relationship. Rather, custom insisted that a woman guard her heart against emotional longings for any man. In time, a husband would be chosen for her in an arrangement negotiated by her family.

Once a match was made, the young couple was, in due time, “betrothed” to one another in marriage. The betrothal period was not an engagement as we know it, but the first of two stages of marriage in which the couple was encouraged to initiate and to nurture an emotional bond with one another. This bonding period began after the covenant of betrothal was formalized and before the couple was permitted to cohabit. Though already married, they would not enjoy physical relations until graduated from the status of betrothal in a festive marriage ceremony.

So, betrothal was marriage and could be broken only by means of legal divorce. However, sex between betrothed couples was strictly forbidden.

Providentially, it was during this betrothal period that Joseph discovered his young wife was pregnant. It is difficult to perceive the psychological horror and the social disdain to which this revelation subjected Joseph. In betrothal, he had opened wide his heart to Mary’s love, only to have it dashed by her supposed infidelity. Somehow, somewhere, this woman he was learning to love and trust had displayed the stealth-ability to slip under the moral radar of the women of the community and to lie in the embrace of another man. Waves of sorrow, disbelief, confusion and anger undoubtedly welled up in Joseph’s soul.

But Joseph was a good man (Matt. 1:19). And so, with aching heart, his thoughts raced down gracious paths: “Put her away quietly and move on. Bear the wound. No virtue in adding to her shame. Her sin will prove ruin enough, no use to inflict more sorrow. God will heal your heart and get to it faster if you forgo the obligatory venting of public rage against her.”

After careful thought, Joseph decided to quietly divorce his betrothed wife. No raging diatribes here—no calculated smear tactics. He determined simply to dissolve the marriage and move forward.

But while Joseph mused, God spoke, and graciously redirected Joseph’s logical but errant thoughts. God instructed Joseph to proceed with the formalization of his marriage to Mary. She had not been unfaithful. The child living in her womb had been conceived by a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20-21). God was up to something unusual.

Joseph was certainly relieved, in one sense; but would he dare obey the divine message? There was much at stake. You can’t expect everyone to believe a virgin can conceive and bear a child, after all. By formalizing his marriage to Mary, Joseph would seem to admit that he had impregnated her or perhaps lacked the integrity or patience to find a virtuous wife. To remain married to Mary, Joseph would consign himself to suffer the hardships of ridicule and social misunderstanding the rest of his earthly life. Would he do it? Would he obey God?

Joseph obeyed (Matt. 1:24). He retained Mary as his wife because God willed it. There seemed to be no glory in it for him. His willingness to obey the divine call seemed to invite a lion’s share of misunderstanding and ridicule. But Joseph did what he was called to do out of principle and turned his attention once again to the task of loving his wife (Gen. 2:24).

A worthy principle emerges from the legacy of Joseph and calls for consideration: If God says it, you believe it; if God wills it, you do it. How profoundly this conviction has transformed lives through the centuries since Joseph’s day. How profoundly it transforms lives today. The cultural structures have changed radically since the days of Joseph, and our circumstances will never parallel his. But here is an awesome wonder: the same God still speaks, and the same God still reigns. Joy to the world!

Dan MillerDan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.
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