Nazareth was a lovely little town snuggled in the hills overlooking the broad and fertile Plain of Esdraelon. It consisted primarily of some small white stone houses, a synagogue built on its highest knoll, and a marketplace at the entrance to the village. When the New Testament era dawned, its population seems to have numbered little more than one hundred, mostly farmers, but also some skilled craftsmen whose shops were found in the marketplace—a potter, a weaver, a dyer, a blacksmith, and a carpenter. The most momentous events of all human history were to involve the people associated with that humble carpenter shop in Nazareth.
The carpenter himself, a robust man in the prime of life named Joseph, was engaged to a young girl named Mary, probably still in her teen years. She was a girl upon whom God had bestowed much grace (“favored one,” Luke 1:28). She was a sinner like all the rest of us, and she frankly admitted her low estate and her need for God’s gracious salvation (cf. Luke 1:47, 48). But she had responded enthusiastically to His offer of forgiveness and had been daily appropriating His limitless grace for growth and godliness. She was greatly graced of God. And she lived with a sense of God’s presence in her life. The Lord was with her (Luke 1:28). She enjoyed a beautiful moment-by-moment fellowship with God.
In spite of her intimate knowledge of God, however, it was a shocking and fearful experience when the angel Gabriel appeared to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:30-33). She questioned the angel, as well she might: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). And Gabriel explained the supernatural phenomenon that would accomplish this unbelievable feat. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). It was unbelievable, a miracle unsurpassed in human history, but it could be accomplished by the supernatural power of God, and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy was cited by the angel as evidence. Now the decision was Mary’s: the decision to resist the will of God, or to become the willing servant through whom God could carry out His plan. And this decision is basically a matter of trust. As the story unfolds, we see first of all Mary’s trust in God.
“What an honor,” you say, “to be chosen as the mother of the Messiah. How could she decline?” Wait a minute. You may be saying that because you know the end of the story, but put yourself in Mary’s place for a moment. Do you think anybody would really believe that this child was conceived of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you think more people would conclude that Mary was covering up an escapade with some Roman soldier? The Roman district administrative center was only four miles northwest of Nazareth in Sepphoris, and Roman soldiers were frequently seen in the streets of Nazareth. Don’t you think others might conclude that Mary and Joseph had gone too far in their relationship with each other and had disobeyed the law of God? In either case, was there not the possibility that Mary would be stoned for fornication?
And what about Joseph? He would know that he was not responsible for Mary’s condition. What would he say? Would he still be willing to marry her? Was she willing to give him up if it would come to that? And what about the child? Would he not carry the stigma of illegitimacy with him throughout his entire life? In that brief moment in the angel’s presence, all of Mary’s dreams for the future flashed before her mind, and she could see every one of them shattered.
The question boils down to one thing for Mary: “Can I trust God to work out every problem I encounter if I submit myself to His will?” Mary had enjoyed an abundant supply of God’s grace. She had reveled in her warm personal relationship with her Lord. But now He was asking her to face the greatest question in life for a believer walking in fellowship with him: “Mary, do you really trust me?”
Mary was a meditative woman. Twice we are told that she kept certain things and pondered them in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19, 51). But she did not take very much time to make up her mind here. She answered immediately, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her decision was to submit to God’s will and to trust Him with the consequences. Submission to God’s will almost always involves some risk. But God has promised to work all the details together for good, and we have no alternative but to believe it if we want to enjoy His peace and power.
The willingness to obey God and trust him with the consequences is a foundation stone in a good marriage. Every other man may neglect his wife to run around with the boys, chase after the latest fad, or play with his latest new acquisition. But God wants a Christian husband to put his wife above all else except Christ and love her as Christ loves the Church, trusting Him to make the consequences far more satisfying than any hobby or recreational pursuit could be. Women’s lib may sweep the day, but God wants a Christian wife to submit to her husband with a meek and quiet spirit, trusting God to enrich her marriage and fulfill her life through it. God may be asking us the same question He asked Mary: “Do you really trust me?”
Trust in God is only the beginning of a good marriage, however. There must also be a deep trust in each other, and no man has ever been asked to trust the girl he married more than the one in this story. Look then, at Joseph’s trust in Mary. The chronology here is not clear. Whether or not Joseph knew of Mary’s pregnancy before she departed for Elizabeth’s home in Judea, we cannot be sure. But after her return three months later, the secret could no longer be hidden (cf. Luke 1:56 and Matt. 1:18). Did Mary tell Joseph of the miraculous conception? Did he find her story hard to believe even though he loved her deeply? Or did he accept it readily? Was his decision to break the engagement because he doubted her word, or was it because he considered himself unworthy to marry the mother of the Messiah, or was it because he thought Mary would have to raise the child in the Temple? His motive is not absolutely certain.
One thing is certain, however. There was a conflict raging in Joseph’s soul, Whether he believed Mary’s story or not, others would definitely not believe it, and he would live with gossip about an unfaithful wife for the rest of his life. But Joseph was both a godly man and a gracious man. Whatever he decided would reflect both godly wisdom and tender consideration for Mary. And although his heart was breaking, he was leaning toward quietly terminating the relationship and sparing her any public embarrassment (Matt. 1:19). At least he was open to the Lord’s direction, though, and he was still prayerfully meditating on the right course of action when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20, 21). Remember now, that this angel, unlike the one who came to Mary, appeared in a dream. Could it have been a dream inspired by wishful thinking, or was this really a message from God? We have no doubt that it was from God, for Scripture plainly says so. But Joseph did not know that. He may have doubted it at first. But a growing assurance began to sweep over him and trust solidified in his searching soul. The issue was settled—it mattered not what wagging tongues would say; Joseph believed! “And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife; and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus” (Matt. 1:24, 25). It was probably the greatest act of trust ever exhibited between a man and woman.
In reality, every marriage is a relationship of trust. When we stand at the altar and listen to our new mate promise to forsake all others and cleave to us alone, we believe it. When we hear his/her solemn promise to love us for better or worse until death parts us, we believe it. And because we believe it, we make the same promises in return and commit ourselves to a lifelong relationship. Trust in each other is another foundation stone in a good marriage, and it must grow as the years pass.
Trust is being able to tell our mates our innermost thoughts and feelings, believing they will never be used against us, believing we will be loved and accepted anyway, maybe even more so because of our honesty. Trust is feeling no anger or jealousy when we see our mates talking to someone of the opposite sex. Trust is believing our mates when they tell us where they have been or what they are thinking, or when they explain what they really meant by what they said.
Trust does put us at our husband’s or wife’s mercy. It makes us totally vulnerable, and we can get hurt that way! When we really believe someone and later find out that we have been deceived, it makes us feel foolish and humiliated. But what other choice do we have? Without trust there can be no relationship. So we ask God for the grace to keep on trusting, and we believe that God will use our trust to make our mate more trustworthy if need be. You see, it is not just the Lord asking that question of us. Our mate may also be asking, “Do you really trust me?”
The angel of God appeared to Joseph two more times, and those appearances reveal another element of trust in the nativity story—Mary’s trust in Joseph. Joseph and Mary had completed the arduous trek to Bethlehem, and the ordeal of childbirth in a stable was now history. On the eighth day after Jesus’ birth, they had Him circumcised as the law required. Forty days after His birth, Mary offered her sacrifice of purification in the Temple. Then it seems as though they settled down in Bethlehem, possibly planning to make it their new home. Some time passed before the Magi arrived from Persia to worship the newborn king; and they found him in a house, not in the manger, as most nativity scenes suggest (Matt. 2:11).
The Magi had stopped in Jerusalem to find out where the Messiah should be born, and that alerted King Herod to this potential threat to his throne. That was the occasion of another message from an angel of the Lord to Joseph in a dream: “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him” (Matt. 2:13). While it was still night, Joseph gathered some of his belongings together, took Mary and Jesus, left for Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This is worth noting. Mary is the more prominent figure in the Christmas story, yet Joseph is the one to whom God gave his instructions. Joseph was the head of his family, and he was charged with protecting Jesus from Herod’s wrath. Mary trusted his decision.
This was no vacation in the southland, mind you. This was a trip of about two hundred miles by foot or donkey, over mountains, wilderness, and desert, with a baby under two years of age. Most mothers can appreciate the degree of inconvenience that involved. I doubt whether Mary really wanted to go. If they had to leave Bethlehem, why not go back to Nazareth? Wouldn’t they be just as safe there? But there is no indication in Scripture that Mary ever questioned Joseph’s decision. And it happened again. After Herod’s death, the angel spoke to Joseph in Egypt: “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20). Again, Joseph obeyed immediately; and again, Mary trusted Joseph to do the right thing.
As we saw in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, submission for a wife means trusting God to work through her husband to do what is best for her. And that includes trusting his decisions. But that is not exceptionally difficult when she knows her husband is acting in her best interest and is taking his directions from the Lord, as Joseph was. It seems that Joseph wanted to move back to Bethlehem in Judea, but was afraid to do so when he heard that Herod’s son was reigning in his place. Again God gave him directions, and he returned to Nazareth where Mary’s parents lived (Matt. 2:22, 23). Joseph made his decisions in accord with the will of God.
Men, you have no right to ask your wife to submit to you when you are arbitrarily expressing your own opinions, asserting your own selfish wills, or doing what is obviously best for you alone. But when you have clear directions from God that are best for all concerned and can share them fully with your wife, then she will be able to submit without hesitancy. You have an obligation to lead her in the path of God’s choosing, not your own. You must learn to consult the Lord about every decision, spending time in prayer to seek His wisdom, searching the Word for his principles to guide you, and waiting for the settled assurance of His peace. And if there is an unquestionable desire to do God’s will alone, regardless of your own personal preferences, He will protect you from making grievous mistakes that will bring unhappiness to your families. Then your wife will be free to follow your leadership with confidence and trust. Trust is not an easy and automatic response. It needs to be developed, particularly with those who have been deeply hurt. You can help others build a stronger trust in you by your own deepening commitment to the will of God. When they see that you are yielded to God, she will be able to trust you.