My maternal Grandmother lived with us for the last years of her life. As often happens with us as we get older, she frequently told the same story to us again and again. I’m ashamed to say that it used to really annoy me. Then one day my counseling professor suggested to me that people often recount the same story but they are doing so for a different reason . . . which means the story actually is making a different point. Sometimes a person may be sharing information, sometimes they might be trying to demonstrate their significance, and at other times they might be trying to illustrate a point from their life experience. He challenged me to look beyond the words and consider the reason she was sharing that particular memory. It was good advice.
We face a similar challenge when reading in the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke. For some, this may be new material. If that is the case, you will be blessed by the account of the birth of our Lord. It is a fascinating and even astounding story. However, for the rest of us, the challenge is great because the passage is so familiar we have a tendency to tune it out like the repeated story of our Grandparents. We may find it comforting because of tradition. However, we often overlook the divine and life-changing nature of these words. I encourage you to listen not simply to the words, but to the message behind those words.
Luke actually begins his gospel telling us the story of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. John was a relative of the Lord Jesus (we know this because Mary is told that her relative Elizabeth (John‘s mom) was pregnant also. Following the story of the announcements of John’s birth we read these words.
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David
There is something startling about these words that most of us won’t see. The angel came to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Nazareth was around 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee and was surrounded on three sides by mountains. There is discrepancy among the scholars as to how large a town it was. One source said 1500-2000 (not much bigger than LaHarpe) another said 10,000-15,000 (around the size a Macomb). Regardless, Nazareth was considered to be insignificant. Yet it was to this place the angel Gabriel came to call.
The Bible only identifies two angels in the Bible. One is Michael the archangel and the other is Gabriel. Gabriel was perhaps second in authority to Michael and may have also been considered an archangel. It was Gabriel that appeared to Daniel, to Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and now to Mary. The angel that appeared to Joseph (in the gospel of Matthew) is not identified by name.
Try to imagine if you were Gabriel. Angels are not all-knowing. They are servants of the Lord. Can you imagine the surprise in Heaven when Gabriel was sent to announce to Elizabeth (who had already gone through menopause) that she was going to bear a son who would be named John. I wonder if the angels wondered what the Almighty was doing.
Gabriel appeared to her Elizabeth’s husband, Zachariah, and he scoffed at the idea that his wife would be pregnant. As a result, he was unable to talk until after the baby was born and given the name “John”.
Gabriel may have thought it to be one of the oddest assignments he had been given. . . . until now. Now Gabriel was being sent to tell a teenager that she was going to have a child unaided by the seed of man. This child would be God in a body! If there was an angelic news network this would have been the lead story from this day on through the pregnancy and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ! This is how significant an event was taking place.
The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.
The virgin’s name was Mary who was likely somewhere around 13-15 years old which was the usual time that a woman would become engaged to a man. Mary probably looked forward to a somewhat unremarkable life (like most of us). She was not wealthy and was not marrying into money. She looked forward to giving birth to and raising a number of children. She probably would have never traveled far from her home and would be quite content in her small town life.
We are told an angel appeared before Mary. How did she know it was an angel? Was there a glow? Was he elevated from the ground? Was it something she just “sensed”. We don’t know.
The angel greeted Mary with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored”. In the Latin translation it says, “Hail Mary, full of grace” which scholars have recognized is mistranslated. However, it is from this verse that our Catholic brothers and sisters get what is called the “Hail Mary”. It begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Unfortunately, this has given rise to the idea that Mary herself possesses grace which she can dispense to the penitent. The angel was not announcing that Mary possessed grace, but that she is a recipient of grace.
These words left Mary confused. She was just a common girl from a small town in Galilee. Why would God favor someone like her?
The Lord is With Thee
Before Gabriel tells Mary her assignment he emphasized the presence of God that was uniquely and wonderfully present with Mary. She was especially favored. In our haste to make sure Mary is not made into more than what she really was, we must be sure that we do not make her less than what she was. Mary was specially favored. For some reason we don’t need to understand, she was chosen by God to be the conduit of salvation for all of mankind.
We are told Mary was troubled. Wouldn’t you be troubled if this happened to you? Mary may have been busy making wedding favors or something when the angel arrived. The course of her life seemed clear. The appearance of the angel caused her life to drastically change.
The angel said,
You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
These words make it pretty clear that this was going to be no ordinary pregnancy. This would be no ordinary baby. But Mary was confused. She wasn’t married yet and had never been intimate with a man. The Angel explained,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
We can’t even begin to imagine what is going through Mary’s mind here. I wonder how long a time elapsed before Mary spoke again. What an incredible declaration.
Let’s take a very brief detour here. We usually talk about the virgin birth of Jesus. Alistair Begg points out that it is probably imprecise to call this a virgin birth. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the actual birth. It was the conception of Jesus that was supernatural.
The doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus teaches that Mary became impregnated by the Spirit of God (apart from the involvement of the seed of man) so that the child born in her would be human but would be also uniquely God. This doctrine is one that many (even in pulpits today) scoff at.
Some contend that the Bible never predicted a virgin would bear a son. They argue that the Hebrew word for virgin (In Isaiah 7) could also be translated “young woman” (which is true.) However young women in those days were also virgins. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the translation used by most of the people in the time of Jesus, which was translated around 250 B.C.) the word used was parthenos which unambiguously means “virgin”. In other words the Jewish people understood the prophecy to refer to a virginal conception.
Most people who dismiss the virgin conception start with a bias. They believe there is no such thing as the supernatural. They say miracles are contrary to science. Miracles are not contrary at all to science; they are beyond the scope of science! Science studies natural and repeatable occurrences and draws conclusions based on observation. A one time event such as the virgin conception cannot be studied by science. A supernatural event cannot be verified or discounted by science because it falls outside the parameters of science.
James Montgomery Boice has written,
The doctrine of the virgin birth is not neglected today because it has been disproved. Quite the opposite is the case. It is disregarded out of simple unbelief. . .When people do not want to believe something they often simply do not answer the arguments. They say, “We have progressed beyond that, “ or “We’ve come to see things differently today.” That is dishonest. No one has the right to say, “We have gone beyond that,” until he has answered the arguments the man before him has raised. If we fail to do that, our new beliefs are mere arrogance.
There are good reasons to affirm the supernatural birth of Jesus.
- Luke testified at the beginning of his gospel that he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and set out to write an “orderly account”. Luke was a careful historian. Most scholars believe Luke interviewed Mary herself as to what took place. Luke did not invent the idea of the virgin birth, he learned about the virgin birth.
- The virgin conception is the most natural understanding of the words of Scripture. Regardless of how the Hebrew word in Isaiah should be translated, the text clearly states that this conception was a unique work of God that did not involve the seed of man. (Matthew 1:18, 25)
- The angel appealed to the miraculous birth of Elizabeth. This would have been unnecessary if this was going to be a normal birth.
- Luke was a physician and would have been very much aware of how babies were conceived.
- Only the virginal conception explains the reluctance of Joseph to get married to Mary. In Matthew 1 Joseph considered actually divorcing (or ending his engagement) to Mary. This was a binding promise that could not simply be canceled. Joseph had concluded that Mary had been unfaithful. Why? Because he knew he could not possibly be the father! Joseph went on with the marriage because the angel assured him that Mary had not been unfaithful but the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. It appears from Scripture (Mark 6:3) that after the birth of Jesus Mary and Joseph had a normal marriage relationship.
- The virginal conception fits best with the rest of the teaching of Scripture. In the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus existed before the world was created. In Romans 5 Paul said our salvation was possible because Jesus was not of the line of Adam. Paul argued that Jesus was able to break that chain of sin because he was uniquely born (so he was unstained) and chose obedience rather than rebellion. Though the Bible may not recount the actual virginal conception often, it does allude to the necessity of that conception.
- Once you recognize that the miracle of Resurrection is a historical fact, the miracle of the virginal conception is not hard to believe at all. The person who rejects the later often also rejects the former.
The point of all of this is that the Virgin Conception or Birth is not something dreamed up by the followers of Jesus. For those who have become convinced of a real God who is really involved in the lives of His creation (as the Bible testifies), the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not only possible, it is reasonable and necessary.
We would do a great disservice to our story if we did not ponder the response of Mary. One commentator writes,
A young unmarried girl who became pregnant risked disaster. Unless the father of the child agreed to marry her, she would probably remain unmarried for life. If her own father rejected her, she could be forced into begging or prostitution in order to earn her living. She risked losing Joseph, her family, and her reputation. And her story about being made pregnant by the Holy Spirit risked her being considered crazy as well. Still Mary said, despite the risks, “Let it be with me according to your word.” When Mary said that, she didn’t know about the tremendous opportunity she would have. She took the risk of faith; she didn’t consult with anyone else; she didn’t take time to weigh the pros and cons. She only knew that God was asking her to serve him, and she willingly obeyed. Believers need Mary’s kind of trust and responsiveness. Too many wait to see the bottom line before offering themselves to God. God wants willing servants.
Alistair Begg rightly remarks that one of the biggest barriers to our faith is our supposed intelligence. We often hold back until we can have every question answered, and every difficulty explained. We insist that the full majesty and wisdom of God fit into our simple minds. It is similar to wanting a computer to understand your needs and emotions before you touch its keyboard. A computer is limited in its ability to analyze data. Likewise, we are limited in our ability to grasp the ways of God.
Mary does not appear to ask any additional questions. She didn’t ask, “But what should I tell my parents?” or “How will Joseph respond?” or “How do you go about raising the Son of God?” Instead, she said: “May it be to me as you have said.” In other words, after the incredible announcement of the angel, Mary simply said, “OK”.
There is a depth and maturity to Mary’s faith. Her faith was simple: if God makes a request . . . .you do what He asks. Why? Because you know His character, you know His heart, you know His track record. If God asks, I don’t have to understand, I just need to trust Him. Mary is like the little child who jumps from the steps into her daddy’s arms. She doesn’t wait to consider what will happen if dad does not catch her. She doesn’t worry about whether his arms are strong enough or whether she can jump that distance. She doesn’t fret about any of those things, she simply jumps. She trusts the one whose arms reach for her. Her eyes are alive with joy, expectation, and anticipation. That is Biblical faith.
Somewhere in your life God is asking you to “jump”. God may not be asking us to do something as remarkable as Mary. However, He is asking us to trust Him in some area of life.
For some it may be that initial jump of faith that says I am no longer going to simply talk about how much I believe IN Jesus, I am going to start believing Him. Some may need to trust Him in regard to forgiveness for things you’ve done in the past. God asks you to trust Him with your life and your eternity. He’s less interested in your church attendance than He is whether you follow Him daily. I encourage you to jump into His open arms.
Still others are encouraged to jump to Him in some kind of a crisis. You may not know where the crisis is headed. For some it may even be death. He asks you to take His hand, to trust His ability even as you jump into that dark valley before you.
Perhaps He is calling you to trust Him in your finances, or perhaps with a family situation, or maybe He is asking you to trust Him to help you heal from a deep hurt. Maybe God calls you to stop fretting about your future and to trust Him to take care of You.
The picture I leave with you is this: God’s arms are open before you in some area of your life today. I encourage you to take a lesson from Mary and to trustingly jump into the arms of your Father in Heaven. And if you will do so, this story of the Savior’s birth will continue to be fresh, new, and wonderful . . . .no matter how many times you hear it.