So far the narrative has concerned itself with the extraordinary announcement of the birth to an aged couple long past child-bearing years of the one who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Now our attention is turned away from Zechariah and Elizabeth to a lass who lived in Nazareth. Why her? We don’t know.
v.26 That is, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That note ties what follows directly to what has happened so far. The two births are going to be connected, the two miraculous pregnancies, the latter even more miraculous than the former, are both part of one great divine work! In fact if you study the two angelic announcements, the one made to Zechariah and now this one made to Mary, you will notice that they are very similar in both language and form. Notice also that the angel does not simply appear; he was sent by God. All that follows is the plan, purpose, and work of God. A point made here at the beginning and again at the end of the paragraph when we read “Nothing will be impossible with God.” This is, of course, the whole challenge of this text: those who believe it will do so because they know the power of God; those who do not will not because they cannot imagine God doing any such thing, they don’t believe he could, or their view of God is such that they don’t believe he would. But let it be noted at the outset, the Bible makes no bones about the fact that what follows is a divine work, something only the Almighty could do.
Nazareth, as you remember, will figure later in the Gospels because of its insignificance. It is called a city here, but perhaps that is only because the Greek of the period did not have a word for “town.” [Morris, 89] It certainly wasn’t much of a city and it isn’t mentioned in any of the primary sources of our knowledge of Palestine at the beginning of the first century. Indeed, Luke mentions that it was in Galilee, because his readers would otherwise not likely know where it was. [Bock, i, 106] We would call it a village, not a city. Zechariah was met in the temple, the very center of Jewish national life. But Mary was met in Nazareth. [Green, 84; Bock, 107] Much of the Lord’s work would be among the common people, the despised and disenfranchised. That he should be born to a no-account Jewish maiden from a no-account town is surely significant. It is part of his humiliation, his great stoop down for us and our salvation.
v.27 Important information: 1) Mary is a virgin, a fact repeated twice here and then confirmed by her own mouth later in the paragraph; 2) she is betrothed but not married (in those days meaning that she was formally, even legally, committed to marriage to Joseph – as we learn in Matthew 1, a divorce would be required to break a betrothal – but that they were not yet together as man and wife); a point of some importance because, of course, there is to be no thought, no suggestion that the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ occurred in the ordinary way; and 3) Joseph was of the house of David, a descendant of Israel’s greatest king, and, therefore, any son he should have would belong to David’s line, a prerequisite for the Messiah, who, according to the prophets and according to the original promise the Lord made to David, was himself to be a descendant of David.
By the way, we should probably, though not certainly, think of Mary as an adolescent by today’s standards, not a young woman. It was typical in Jewish practice of the period for girls to be married or at least betrothed by her 12th or 13th year. During betrothal the girl remained in her father’s house. [Green, 86]
v.28 As you may remember, a great deal of confusion was created by the Latin Vulgate’s translation of “favored one” by “gratia plena,” full of grace. That was taken by Roman Catholics to mean that Mary had grace in abundance, so much so that she could be a source of grace to others. No one, including Catholic biblical scholarship, defends that meaning of Luke’s words today but the damage was done. “Highly favored” is the idea, as will be clear by the explanation of his greeting given to her by Gabriel in v. 30. Or, as Albrecht Bengel the early German Lutheran biblical commentator says, and I think wisely, the words “highly favored” or “the grace of God much given to you” meant not that Mary is the “mother of grace, but the daughter of grace.”
v.29 From what we learn of Mary subsequently it seems likely that Mary’s trouble with Gabriel’s greeting had largely to do with the fact that she couldn’t figure out why he should have come to her of all people.
v.31 Jesus, as you know, means “savior.” It is the Greek form of the name Joshua, formed from the verb “to save” and means “The Lord is salvation.”
v.33 In other words, you will bear the Messiah. The words could not have borne any other interpretation. The one to whom the virgin Mary will give birth is unmistakably to be a king and the king promised to David a thousand years before.
v.34 Some wonder why this question is not evidence of doubt in the same way that Zechariah’s question in v. 18 was taken to be. After all, she was soon to be married. Why should she doubt that she would have a child? But it becomes clear that her question is motivated not by unbelief, but by belief. She doesn’t ask for a sign to prove that such a thing will happen, as Zechariah did. She believes that what the angel has told her will come to pass, but she wonders how it will come to pass given her situation. [Green, 89] She understood human biology! [Bock, 118] Gabriel’s response in the following verses confirms that Mary’s question concerned the method of this conception. She apparently understood the angel to mean that the child would be conceived in some other way than by the normal process of human reproduction. Perhaps the past tense “you have found favor with God” suggested to her that the pregnancy, if it had not already begun, would be immediate and so would not be the result of her marriage. [Bock, 120]
v.35 The matter is put very delicately. There is no suggestion of God mating with a human woman, as we find so often in the Greek myths. The terms do not suggest sexual activity at all; what they suggest is divine agency. [Green, 90] What is said is that the power of God will accomplish the conception within her.
Here “Son of God,” which has a royal reference frequently in the Bible, is said particularly to mean that he will be “holy.” This child will be holy in a very special sense and to a degree otherwise unknown, to be sure. He will be holy to the nth degree! We are sons of God too, of course, we who are united to Christ by faith, but our holiness is derived from his whereas his was intrinsic, a characteristic of his nature from the beginning.
v.38 We are inclined to miss the heroism in this reply of quiet but complete submission. No young woman in her situation, no girl in the Judaism in that day would be unaware of the complications that inevitably would follow a pregnancy of this kind. We remember from Matt. 1 Joseph’s strong reaction when he learned that his betrothed was pregnant; he planned to divorce Mary, as we can well understand. Mary would have wondered about how her husband-to-be would take such news. She did not yet know that an angel would be dispatched to inform Joseph of what had happened and why. The pregnancy would not be regarded as proper by the rest of her family or any of her friends. Indeed, there was still a death penalty for adultery on the books, even if, apparently, at that time it was rarely if ever carried out. But she submitted to her calling as God’s will complications and difficulties notwithstanding.
We spoke last week about the place of faith in the birth narrative in Luke 1-2. You remember the statement in Matt. 13:58 that the Lord did not do many miracles in places where there was no faith. We wonder about that. How could the Lord be constrained by our lack of faith? But that is what he said, he would do fewer or no miracles in places where there was no faith to receive the work of God. Alexander Whyte deduces the following from that remark in Matthew 13:58.
“If the converse of our Lord’s words hold true, that no mighty work is done where there is unbelief…: if we may safely reason that where there has been a mighty work done there must have been a corresponding and co-operating faith; then I do not think we can easily overestimate the measure of Mary’s faith. If this was the greatest work ever wrought by the power and the grace of Almighty God among the children of men, and if Mary’s faith entered into it at all, then how great her faith must have been!” [Biblical Characters: Joseph and Mary to James the Lord’s Brother, 8]
What we have read, as you know, is referred to throughout Christian history as The Annunciation, that is, the Announcement. How many great composers have bent their genius to create musical settings for this text? How many beautiful Ave Marias have we heard? And how many of the world’s greatest artists have given us their depiction of the scene, such as Fra Angelico’s magnificent annunciation, as if the angel appeared to Mary in an Italian villa of the renaissance period? Our organist, Mr. Bechtel, will next week at a family wedding play the organ in the Church of the Annunciation in Paris. This is an event that has understandably left its mark on the consciousness of the Christian church.
What is announced is, of course, that a virgin will conceive and bear a son. That had never happened before and it has never happened since. It is an utterly unique event in human history. It is the purest miracle, an utterly supernatural event, unlike many of the other miracles that God has performed, it is utterly unrelated to any natural phenomenon of any kind. This is nothing but a pure act of God It is not for nothing, therefore, that the miracle of the virgin birth or, more accurately, the virginal conception of the Lord Jesus has proved to be a stumbling block for many. Perhaps this is because if you admit that Christ was born of a virgin you’ve given away the whole store of unbelief. Admit the virgin birth, and you admit everything in the Gospels. No one can doubt the Lord’s miracles of healing or his power over nature. No one can doubt the Lord’s resurrection from the dead if he or she has already admitted that he was born of a virgin, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of his virgin mother.
It was entirely predictable that this biblical history would therefore be under attack from the very beginning. Celsus, the 2nd century Greek philosopher and critic of Christianity, was a demythologizer before anyone had ever heard of Rudolf Bultmann or the Jesus Seminar. According to Celsus, Jesus himself fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin. He had actually been born to a poor country woman who became pregnant by a soldier and was driven out by her husband once she was convicted of adultery. While she was wandering about in disgrace she secretly gave birth to Jesus. Whether Celsus got that story from the Jews who obviously must have offered their counter-explanations for the Christian claim that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and had been born of a virgin as Isaiah had prophesied. Whether he got that story from the Jews or made it up himself nobody knows for sure. But already in the second century the Christian claim that Jesus Christ was virgin born was under attack and the nature of that attack has been the same from that time until this. It is the claim that Gospel accounts are hearsay, legendary and are not to be believed by intelligent, educated people. Celsus went on to say that any educated person knows that there are countless legends of men and heroes of the distant past who are supposed to have done remarkable supernatural things, but those stories have no more claim on historical truth than does the account of Jesus’ birth. [R.L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 109-110]
The fact is you will not hear anything substantially different in a typical religion class in an American University in the year 2011 than what Celsus wrote nearly 2000 years ago. Those arguments are persuasive to unbelievers; they leave believers and have left them through the ages utterly unmoved. They have come to know Jesus Christ as the God/Man and the Savior he is described to be in Holy Scripture; they have felt the power of his resurrection life in their own lives, and they accordingly have no difficulty believing that when God became a human baby his birth was understandably extraordinary! I believe in the virginal conception of Jesus Christ, as Luke here reports it, and you do as well, or most of you certainly, and many of us have been to college! Some of us have been to graduate school. We’ve read the arguments of the critics and are unpersuaded and not only because we have come to know Jesus Christ as the truth teller and the Savior. It is not only because we have come to have an absolute confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible that we believe that events unfolded precisely as Luke records them in the text we read this morning.
We believe this startling and utterly unique event to have happened not only because naturalism – I’m speaking not of people who study the great outdoors but of people who believe that nothing exists except this material universe, neither God nor angels – I say naturalism has no explanation for much of anything that must be explained in human life, and certainly no explanation for everything that makes human life so utterly unique: the wonder of creation and the human capacity to wonder at it, human personality and consciousness, the moral and ethical nature of human life, the reality of the conscience, the sense of significance that all human beings share, the central place of love in human experience, and so on. If naturalism cannot account for such things as those or validate them, then why should I credit anything naturalists say? Why should I take seriously their philosophy of life when they don’t take it seriously and no naturalist does? And why should I credit a naturalist’s doubt about the virgin birth of Jesus Christ?
But we are also right to doubt the force of the standard objections to the virgin birth for other reasons. Since Origen replied to Celsus – that, by the way is how we know Celsus’ work existed and what it consisted of, because of Origen’s reply and the copious citations from Celsus that Origen includes – Christians have offered a substantial rebuttal to the standard objections to the historicity of the virginal conception of the Lord. As a matter of simple historical fact, the very Jewish narrative of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus does not read in any respect like the Greco-roman myths. There we find stories of gods mating with human women and having children by them or, in some other mythologies, stories of other sorts of supernatural births. But all of these are utterly different from the account which the Gospels provide us. In fact, it is point that even skeptics have sometimes acknowledged: there is no true equivalent to the virgin birth narrative of the Gospels anywhere in pagan literature. And when you add to that fact the fact that the very notion of God mating with a human being would be pure, unmitigated blasphemy to any Jew or any early Christian, the idea that the story is a thinly disguised version of a pagan myth becomes still more preposterous. No such story could possibly have taken root and been found acceptable in a Jewish or Christian context unless the story happened to be true and the virginal conception of the Lord was achieved not by sexual means but by the power of God alone, a genuine miracle.
That is some indication of the problem posed to unbelief by this history which Luke and Matthew have given us. Its origin cannot be traced to the myths of the ancient world and understood as a manufactured tale it is impossible to imagine its reception in the theological environment in which these events were first proclaimed to have happened. As a matter of fact, there is a chasteness and delicacy to Luke and Matthew’s history, a credibility, a genuine historical context – think of Herod, Zechariah’s priestly division and its service at the temple, the mention of Augustus and Quirinius in Luke 2 – all of which is utterly lacking in the myths. There is a relatively new volume published on Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts that provides massive, some would say tedious demonstration of Luke’s veracity as an historian down to the most minute details. He was concerned to tell what happened, that and nothing more. But that same scrupulous historian wrote the account of the annunciation. It is not as easy as you might think, certainly not nearly as easy as a religion professor at a typical American university thinks to imagine that Luke’s account is not a straightforward report of what actually happened, founded on eyewitness testimony and confirmed by every available means. As C.S. Lewis reminds us: a concocted tale, if human literature is anything to go by, would have a very different appearance!
I have on my shelf a very learned work of theology by a Dutch theologian, a work marked by a penchant to disbelieve the obviously supernatural elements in the Gospel history. It is the kind of work that would be well received as a text in a University history of religions class because it is tinged with unbelief everywhere. But even this author admits that “a convincing source for Luke in earlier traditions has not yet been found.” [H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 293]
The fact is, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the King of Kings, and the Savior of the world that we have come to know him to be, the virgin birth is hardly the leap of faith the unbeliever imagines it to be. Christians have every reason to rest confidence in the historical character of the annunciation.
But there is something more to say about the virgin birth and the announcement of it than simply that they occurred. Why did it occur? What does it mean? We cannot say, because the Bible does not teach us to say, that the only way God the Son could enter the world in human nature was through such a birth. Perhaps the incarnation could have been effected by other means. We do not know.
But this much we do know.
- The virgin birth was a sign.
It was a sign in the sense of the Biblical use of that term; an event in the world that points to ultimate reality. The virgin birth is not evidence as much as it is explanation. The conception of Jesus in the womb of his virgin mother was not a conspicuous event open to public investigation as was, for example, the Lord’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead, an event so public it fixed the Jewish religious leadership in their determination to rid themselves of Jesus. It was never, for that reason, the spear-point of Christian preaching as was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, witnessed as it had been by hundreds of people. The virgin birth was a fact at first known to few, a few utterly reliable witnesses whose testimony was confirmed by the onrush of subsequent events. The virgin birth does not even figure prominently in the rest of the New Testament. In fact, it is not explicitly mentioned beyond its record in Matthew and Luke.
But the virgin birth does this: it confirms the nature of the incarnation as nothing less than the visitation of this world by its creator who took to himself a human nature for the purposes of our salvation. He is not the half-god, half-man or the superman of the pagan myths. He is God himself come in the flesh. The manner of his birth illustrates and confirms the nature of this human child, as it was obviously intended to do.
No wonder that when God became a man, his birth would be remarkable, more remarkable than that of any other human being, even more remarkable than that of John, born to aged parents long past the time of childbearing. As a Puritan put it long ago: “It became not God to have any mother but a maid, and it became not a maid to have any other son but God.” [Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, 134] So the virgin birth is one of those miraculous events that in an impossibly dramatic way points to ultimate reality, in this case, the reality of the incarnation of God the Son, the nature of Jesus Christ as the God/Man, and the meaning of his life as the Savior of sinners and the King of Kings. It is only to be expected, when one thinks about it, that the arrival of this King should be unlike the arrival of any other! When the creator of the world entered his world it does not surprise us that his entrance was itself an act of divine creation. He was born of woman because he came to be a man for men, but he was virgin born because he was and would live as no man before him or after him.
- But the virgin birth also establishes a pattern.
This is point actually made explicitly elsewhere in the Gospels. In what is almost certainly a reference to the virgin birth in the first chapter of his Gospel, the apostle John writes:
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:10-13]
That is a very striking parallel to Luke 1:34-35! Mary asked how this child could be born since she had not known a man and Gabriel replied that he would be born by the power of God and not by the will of man and therefore would be the son of God. In John 1 all Christians are born by the power of God as Jesus was and by that means become sons of God as Jesus did. In other words, we Christians are born as Christ was born. Jesus’ birth was a great miracle and, in some ways, it stands utterly alone as an event in history. But, in an important way, it bears a striking resemblance to the new birth, the spiritual rebirth, the new creation that the power of God brings to pass in everyone who is being saved. Both works, Christ’s birth and your new birth, are and must be works of divine power; only God could create such new and supernatural life in a human being as he did in Mary and as he had in you. You cannot deny the virgin birth without at the same time denying that such power utterly to recreate human life from the inside out exists in the world. Or, put it this way: you cannot deny the virgin birth without denying salvation as it is described in the Word of God and offered to us in the Gospel. As secret as the operation of the Holy Spirit was in creating Jesus in Mary’s womb, so secret is the operation of the Holy Spirit in bringing new life to dead sinners. So says Jesus himself in John 3. One can enter the kingdom of heaven, he said there, only by being born again, but that can happen only by the secret working of the Holy Spirit. Creating new life within human beings is the Holy Spirit’s special work!
As we have it here in Luke 1:37 and everywhere else where the Bible speaks of salvation: what is impossible with man is possible with God! You understand nothing about your salvation or anyone else’s salvation if you do not understand that it is God’s work, done with God’s might, and does not in any way, shape, or form lie in the power of human beings to achieve and, what is more, that it is a work that is utterly mysterious in its method. What is required is not only the payment of our debt to divine justice, which only the incarnate Son of God could pay, but a remaking root and branch of our fallen and sinfully corrupt natures. Only the creator himself has the power to do that!
And like the Lord’s virgin birth the reality is known only by its effects. How do we know Jesus was virgin born, apart from the report of it in the Gospels? Because of the life of the one who was Mary’s child, that stupendous, that wonderful life that has become the hope of the world. And how do we know that the Holy Spirit by his sovereign power creates new life in spiritually dead human beings? By the change that is wrought in them, by the new life they begin to live, by the love they have now for God and others which they did not have before, by their new devotion to purity, to justice, to goodness of every kind. They have become what they once were not and that profoundly.
The same power that formed Jesus in the womb of Mary is that power that transformed Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine in his Milanese garden, John Wesley sitting in the balcony of a Moravian church in London, sixteen year old Charles Spurgeon as he sat in a virtually empty Methodist church on a snowy Sunday morning, Charles Colson as he sat in his car outside a friend’s house, and all of you who are now followers of Christ but who would never have been if the Spirit of God by his mighty power had not created something absolutely new in your hearts. You today sit there as sons of God for the same reason that Jesus was to be the Son of God upon his birth. Because the Holy Spirit came upon you and overshadowed you, the very same Holy Spirit that overshadowed young Mary in Nazareth long ago.
The great meaning of the virgin birth is salvation. The extraordinary birth of one human who would give new life to vast multitudes of others. Commit your way today and in the days to come joyfully to the one who can do what you cannot and whose great power and love has turned you into something you were not: a child of God!