Q.

Someone asked one of the newspaper social columnists if it were all right, on the basis of Matthew 1:25, for couples to live together before or without marriage. In other words, the reader maintained that Joseph and Mary lived together and were not married until after Jesus was born. Please comment.

A.
Your observation provides a good opportunity to point out that we must use discernment concerning what we read and hear. Many social columnists tend to reflect and accommodate prevailing views and whims, whether these views and whims concern the sins of abortion, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, or “temporary insanities” of societal manners and mores. Christians have a better place than the unbelieving world to obtain advice—the Scriptures.

The situation you addressed reminds us to believe exactly what the Scriptures teach and not allow Satan to plant doubts in our minds.

Matthew 1:18—20, 24, and 25 read,

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together [had sexual relations], she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. . . .“ Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her [have sexual relations] till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

People who cannot accept supernatural acts of God are going to have problems with the above passage. For born-again Christians who accept the Bible as literally true, the supernatural happenings in the account are no problem. First, there is the supernatural way in which Jesus was conceived. Rather than through a human father, Jesus was conceived in a virgin through the Holy Spirit—a miracle. Second, the voice of God communicated to human beings through angels or in dreams.

So the order of events is as follows: Mary, a godly woman, became engaged to Joseph, a godly man (Luke 1:27, 28; Matthew 1:19). Jewish engagement in those times was much more binding than our concept of engagement today. At the point of betrothal, even though a couple were not officially married, their relationship could be severed only by divorce or death. During this one-year period, the couple abstained from sexual relations, and the two lived separately with their parents. If, during this period, the wife-to-be were found pregnant, the marriage could be annulled.

The angel Gabriel came to Mary after betrothal, announcing she would have a child, Jesus, the Savior, conceived in her through the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-56).

Having learned about Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph found himself in a real dilemma. If he married Mary, he would be tacitly admitting he was guilty of the pregnancy when he was not. But with a public divorce, Mary would be disgraced. So, according to Matthew 1:19, Joseph decided to have a private divorce between two witnesses and to dismiss Mary quietly.

God then intervened in a dream, revealing to Joseph that Jesus had been conceived of the Holy Spirit and that he should not fear to take Mary as his wife. Apparently, Mary had not yet divulged to Joseph the details of the encounter she had had with the angel. Perhaps she had been waiting until the pregnancy was physically evident. With the unusual circumstances involved, the law, and the separating nature of the betrothal of those times, one can understand her silence. Joseph’s knowing prematurely could have caused more problems. The timing was obviously God’s.

Joseph obeyed, and “took to him his wife” (Matthew 1:24). We can admire Joseph’s willingness to take Mary home and care for her during her pregnancy, in spite of the potential harm to his reputation. Also, we see his righteous character in still not having sexual relations with her until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25).

So, no, the passage does not teach that it is all right for two unmarried people to live together before or without marriage.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (December 2000).
© 2000 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.