Becoming Holy: Joseph’s Dilemma

"Joseph chose faithful obedience to the revealed will of God and, by his silence, cast doubt on his own innocence... by David Winters, MD

Our journey into holiness is challenging. However, the Bible gives us examples of those who have gone this way before us, and who reveal what God wants from us. Although often overlooked in the excitement and wonder of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly father of the Son of God, has much to teach us. He demonstrates the holiness of a listening heart, immediate obedience, and extraordinary humility.

Perhaps due to the influence of Christmas cards and children’s pageants, we often romanticize the account of Joseph, and picture him leading Mary on the donkey through the moonlit Judean countryside, or kneeling quietly at the manger with stars shining brightly. In reality, he faced agonizing decisions. His story was painful, and nearly tragic.

Matthew 1:18–19 concisely outlines Joseph’s difficult situation: “Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Joseph “was a righteous man,” which means much more than just being a good person. The definition of righteousness handed down from Moses is found in Luke 1:6. “Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations.” If Joseph’s righteousness was the same, it became a life-threatening problem for Mary, an unmarried pregnant woman in a society very different from ours.

Shocking by our standards, Mosaic law mandated that Mary should be put to death. Deuteronomy 22:21 stipulates that an engaged woman found not to be a virgin “must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime.” This outcome would have been triggered when Joseph stepped up to claim that he was not the father. As Mary’s fiancé, and the aggrieved party, it was probably not only Joseph’s responsibility to condemn her to death, but possibly to cast the first stone. As Joseph struggled with his terrible duty under the law, he resolved to spare Mary’s life, and “decided to break the engagement quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Of course, this consigned her to a very uncertain future, but is better than the alternative.

As he deliberated, an angel appeared to him in a dream and revealed God’s instruction to take Mary as his wife. The angel also asked Joseph to believe something that had never happened in the history of the world, and would never happen again. “The child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). This required an incredible leap of faith for Joseph, perhaps more than any other person has ever been asked to believe. It was more than just theological assent—she was his fiancée, and this was his life. 

His dilemma was real. His righteousness as a true believer in the law of Moses required that Mary should be put to death. On the other hand, his righteousness with regard to belief in what God commanded through the angel required not only tremendous personal faith, but also tremendous personal sacrifice. Who would believe that Mary carried God’s own son in her womb? Obedience to God would cost Joseph his reputation, his job, his home, and possibly his extended family. He and Mary would soon become refugees escaping a judgmental village, to which they would not return for years. 

No one in Nazareth would understand his decision to take Mary as his wife, since he had not claimed the child as his own. No one would fault him for following the law of Moses. But the life of the One Who “come to fulfill the law” (Matthew 5:17 NIV) now hung in the balance, and was condemned by that very law. Joseph chose faithful obedience to the revealed will of God and, by his silence, cast doubt on his own innocence regarding the pregnancy.

As Jesus grew through childhood he would learn of the sacrifices that Joseph made to protect Mary, and thereby Jesus Himself. Joseph’s incredible act of faith saved the life of the Savior of the world, and Jesus would love him with a deep and everlasting love.

Years later the Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus who had been caught in adultery. “The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” (John 8:5). As Jesus stooped down to write in the dust, He must have thought of His mother, and recalled the pressure that Joseph felt as he faced his own dilemma. 

In reality, there is no dilemma of righteousness in God’s plan. The law was given to show us God’s standard and His holiness, and we all deserve punishment. It was never a pathway to salvation. “No one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands” (Romans 3:20). Instead, Paul reminds us of the Old Testament understanding — “As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Romans 1:17), and he further affirms, “You are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14 NIV).

Joseph’s ancestor Abraham was considered righteous by God because he believed by faith what God told him to do, and then he did it. “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Romans 4:3). Joseph followed Abraham’s example, and  was one of the first in the New Testament to fully understand what had always been an Old Testament truth — that righteousness comes not by following the law, but through faith in God. “The righteous will live by their faithfulness to God” (Habakkuk 2:4). 

What can we learn from Joseph? We must move past Satan’s lie that our obedience obligates God to resolve our problems and grant us a life of ease. Joseph’s obedience cost him everything. In a few years Jesus made His disciples get into a boat, and they soon found themselves on the water in a terrible storm. Why were they in such danger? Because they were obedient. 

Why were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, why was Daniel in the lions’ den, and why were Paul and Silas “severely beaten and thrown into prison”? Because they did what God told them to do. Our obedience is sometimes very costly from the world’s point of view. That’s why we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Joseph patterns three aspects of becoming holy. First, our holiness requires a listening heart. Joseph was clearly experienced in recognizing the voice of God. Again, the Bible says he was righteous, which is defined as being in a right relationship with God (see Abraham above) and is necessary for holiness. 

Righteous Joseph had been listening to God for a long time and was so sure of God’s voice that he was willing to leave behind all he had ever known. We must learn to recognize the voice of God, and that comes only through a practiced listening. When you pray, take time to listen.

Secondly, not only did Joseph have a listening heart, but he repeatedly demonstrated immediate obedience. The angel again appeared to him in a dream and advised him to flee to Egypt. “That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother” (Matthew 2:13–14). There was no deliberation. He did not agonize in “if it be Thy will”-type questioning. There was no time for that.

When God gives us instructions they are meant to be immediately obeyed. His guidance can be found in His word, but we will not recognize His instructions if we do not spend daily time reading, studying, meditating on, and memorizing scripture and listening for His voice. 

God must have been pleased with Joseph’s devotion. Even though we are under grace, our obedience is a sign of our love. Jesus says simply, “If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience is also a sign that we are in relationship with God. “We can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments”
(1 John 2:3). We easily sing “Trust and Obey,” often forgetting that these words are the very essence of our life in Christ.

Finally, we see demonstration of Joseph’s holiness not only in his listening heart and  immediate obedience, but also in his incredible humility. How he must have wanted to protest his innocence! “I’m not responsible for this situation! This child is of the Holy Spirit!” we can almost hear him saying. But his town had a bad reputation, and they couldn’t handle the truth of a virgin birth. The disciple Nathanael wonders, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Joseph had to endure the hushed whispers, the furtive glances, and the shame and social stigma of a pregnancy occurring prior to completed marriage vows.

How do we handle unjust criticism? Joseph chose to remain silent, when his pride wanted to shout out the truth. Society believes it is our right and responsibility to defend our reputation against criticism, especially false criticism. Just ask any politician. We take this so seriously that we use the violent term “character assassination” to describe even the smallest unfair evaluation. 

Joseph’s silence foreshadows Christ’s silence at His immoral trial before the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:63). “He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word” (Isaiah 53:7). Silence in the face of unjust criticism is a powerful demonstration of true humility.

Joseph sacrificed his own reputation to save Mary’s. He could not and would not claim the pregnancy was his doing. But by taking Mary as his wife, he protected her honor at the expense of his own, leaving the villagers to believe what they would. Even though no sin had been committed, the world of Nazareth could not comprehend the truth and assumed there was wrong-doing on someone’s part. Joseph took this on himself, another foreshadowing of what Jesus would do. “Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Joseph humbled himself in obedience to the Almighty. God made no mistake when he chose Joseph, a man of great moral quality and humility, to be the human father of the One Who would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph is a true hero of faith.

Our journey into holiness requires a listening heart, obedience to God and great humility. These are not easy lessons to learn; the secular world around us ridicules the ways of God, and cannot help us. But Joseph, the earthly father of the Son of God, has shown us the way. 

We learn by spending time with God in prayer, abiding in His Word and in fellowship with other believers. As we practice these and other disciplines, God the Holy Spirit will shape us in holiness. “And the Lord — who is the Spirit — makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

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