An angel announces Jesus' birth to Mary
The virgin Mary is engaged to Joseph. They live in Nazareth. Luke gives details of the angel visit and Mary's response. Jesus is uniquely God and man. Mary is seen to be faithful.
The virgin Mary is engaged to Joseph. They live in Nazareth. Luke gives details of the angel visit and Mary's response. Jesus is uniquely God and man. Mary is seen to be faithful.
Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 5: the angelic announcement of Jesus' birth to Mary.
Introduction and Recap
We are in Luke 1. We'll be reading the passage very shortly. If you have been following the series, you will know that after some introductory episodes, where we looked at the opening statements of Matthew, Luke and John's Gospels. In the last episode, we looked at the astonishing story of John the Baptist, who was going to be the prophet of Jesus, and the amazing way that his birth was predicted by an angel speaking to a man from the priesthood, called Zechariah, when he was in the Temple, concerning his wife, Elizabeth, who was going to have a child in her old age when she was beyond the age of natural childbearing. Something miraculous and powerful was happening in Israel at this time and John the Baptist and Jesus - their lives are going to be intertwined from the very beginning up until John's death, and even beyond that, in terms of his influence.
As the story unfolds, we are awaiting John's birth. We heard in the last episode that Zechariah and Elizabeth returned to their home in the Judean hillside and Elizabeth finds herself pregnant. Shortly after this she goes into seclusion for a number of months. She is pregnant, preparing for the birth of a much loved and longed-for first child in her old age. That is where the story leaves us and we are waiting for Luke to tell us about the birth of John.
An Angel visits Mary
That story is intertwined with another significant story. In fact, an even more significant story. Luke brings in now the second story, which is the story of another couple - Joseph and Mary. We are going to read this passage from Luke 1: 26 - 38. If you are familiar with the Christian story, you will be familiar with this passage because it is frequently spoken of and read in connection with the celebrations of Christmas in the Christian faith. Nevertheless, we are going to read it in its original context, as it is intertwined with the story of John the Baptist and the story of God breaking into Israel and preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah.
So let us read in Luke 1: 26 to 38:
“26In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32He 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, 33and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37For no word from God will ever fail.” 38“I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.Luke 1:26-38, NIV
Let us take away the sentimentality of the context in which we sometimes hear this story if we are familiar with the Christian faith and its celebrations around Christmas-time. Let us take it back to its original context. Think for a moment about Mary and her situation. Mary was engaged to be married. Two things are stated here unambiguously. She was engaged to be married but she was a virgin. She had had no sexual relationships with Joseph, or indeed any other man. This was the strict sexual, ethical code of ancient Israel. Sexual relationships before marriage were out of the question in terms of their moral code - unlike many liberal, secular societies of today. Hence her very pointed question to the angel concerning how she could have the child in that particular time. Engagement was a very strong commitment, it wasn't something people entered into lightly. The absolute intention was to get married and it took a form of ‘divorce’ to end an engagement - it was such a serious commitment. Both families prepared for the marriage day and the time when the wedding celebration took place and then the sexual relationship would start at that time. That was the custom that we are talking about in this particular context.
Mary and Joseph seem to have both lived in their separate households in the town of Nazareth. Nazareth is in the northern province of Israel, which we will be very familiar with all the way through the series and you will hear much spoken about. It is the province or area of Galilee. Galilee is a beautiful part of Israel, I have had the privilege of visiting it on many occasions, and on the eastern side of it is a beautiful inland freshwater lake, called the Sea of Galilee, or the Sea of Gennesaret, which you will read about many times in the Gospels. The fishing industry was strong there, agriculture was strong generally throughout Galilee and it was a place with small towns scattered around the countryside - some rolling hills and some flat areas across the region of Galilee. One of these little towns was Nazareth. It really wasn't a significant place. Archaeology tells us that only a few hundred people lived there at this particular time. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament; it clearly wasn't a significant town in the nation of Israel. It was a backwater, a quiet little sleepy town in the northern province of Galilee, far away from the centre of national life much further south, in the province of Judea and around the city of Jerusalem. I have had the privilege of visiting the modern Nazareth, which is a much bigger bustling community with several ethnic groups mixed together: a Jewish section and an Arab section and others living there. It has the feel that it is not in any sense a special place in terms of the national life of modern Israel. It attracts tourists but it is just one of many places.
Mary and Joseph were born in humble circumstances and they lived there. Nazareth was an insignificant place in the land but the interesting thing is Luke has a tremendous amount of detail here. He is the only writer who gives this amount of detail and it looks as though his source is someone close to the events - either Mary, another member of the family, or someone nearby who knew a lot about these events. Aren't they dramatic? It was very dramatic in the last episode when the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared in the Temple to the priest Zechariah as he was going about his routine duties. Here, again, is another extremely dramatic moment. The same angel - remember I said last time that only two angels are named in the Bible, Michael and Gabriel, and they have some seniority and some authority and they're given very major responsibilities - and here Gabriel brings perhaps the greatest message that could ever be bought: the message about the coming of Jesus. It was completely unexpected.
Mary was over-awed and surprised - ‘troubled’ is the word used - which describes a sense of emotional upset and uncertainty for all sorts of obvious reasons. What a shock! What a message! Mary is going to be the mother of Jesus, who is going to be called the Son of the Most High and the Son of God. These are going to be his titles; he is going to be a unique human being. He is going to be following on from King David - verse 32 “I'll give him the throne of his father David”- He will have an eternal kingship over Israel and Mary is going to give birth to this baby, Jesus, before her marriage is consummated, before the wedding day, before any sexual relationship with Joseph. It is going to be a miraculous birth - in a literal sense. It is going to be a virgin birth - in a literal sense. The concept of virgin birth is a literal explanation, or description, of what is actually described here unambiguously in Luke. This was a pregnancy like no other in human history: without a human father, without human male genetic contribution. A virgin birth. We also find that Mary is related to Elizabeth, we don't know the exact relationship, but she is a female relative and the angel Gabriel tells her that Elizabeth, who Mary knew to be childless and much older than her and beyond the natural age of childbearing, was going to have a special child as well.
We see Mary's very wonderful, humble response. We can learn from this. Mary is held up as a great example in the church for all sorts of very good reasons.“I am the Lord's servant,” (verse 38) Mary answered “May your word to me be fulfilled.” She was humble, she was open, she was willing to be used by the Living God for his purposes - even though it meant considerable risk to her for all sorts of obvious reasons: social stigma, the risk to her marriage. What would Joseph do when he found out this unbelievable story? Joseph knew nothing of what was going to happen, how would he respond? Mary had to calculate these things but her greatest calculation was that God had sent a messenger to her and given her a unique responsibility and that her primary concern should be to fulfil the responsibility that God graciously given her
I want to talk about three different significant aspects of this story in terms of Christian thinking, Christian theology and Christian understanding of the person of Jesus. As yo a're reading this you may not be a committed Christian, you may come from another faith, you may be secular, you may be enquiring. This is a great place for you to reflect and perhaps to learn something from this passage because all of us need to be aware that Christianity is not about Jesus as a moral teacher, prophet, healer, or a kind and loving man - he was all those things and they are all absolutely wonderful and glorious but this passage tells us that he was far more than all of those things put together. His very identity is revealed here in the narrative and in the message from the angel Gabriel.
Let me say three things about the identity of Jesus. First of all, it says, unambiguously, that he will inherit the throne of his father David. What does this mean? King David was God's choice to be king of Israel about 1000 years before these events, when the monarchy or the kingship of Israel was being established. There had been a previous King, Saul, unsuccessful and chosen by the people, and after him King David, very successful, chosen directly by God through his prophet, Samuel. You can read the story in the Old Testament.(1 Samuel 16:1 - 13) The interesting thing about David is that he wasn't just a successful king in his own time - although he was, despite some flaws and mistakes he made which are very clearly stated - but there is something very significant about David. He was given a prophetic promise through the prophet Nathan, a contemporary of David's. Nathan came to him once and prophesied that his dynasty, his succession in the monarchy, would continue after him and would be established by God as an eternal monarchy through which God was going to work. We see this in 2 Samuel 7: 16,
“16Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; (says God) your throne will be established forever.”2 Samuel 7:16, NIV
We can read more fully by going to 2 Samuel 7: 11 -16. They refer, initially, to King Solomon and then, at the end of the passage, is this wider prophecy of a permanent, eternal, monarchy, or kingship. David's monarchy, in fact, faded out hundreds of years later when the nation went into exile and had never been restored but that promise suggested that God was going to work through a successor of King David, a biological descendant, who was going to inherit this kingship and turn it into something much wider, much more powerful, to bring God's rule on the earth. That is what we call the Davidic covenant - the monarchy covenant of Israel and it was unfulfilled at the time of Jesus. People were looking for a Son of David, as they said, and you will find that this term is used of Jesus during his ministry. Here we find the angel unambiguously saying Jesus is going to succeed David to the throne of God - the kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of God - that is going to spread to the whole world. It is a very exciting thought and one that we need to keep in mind because Jesus' opening message 30 or so years later, when he started his ministry, was that “the time has come and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He was going to be that King. What sort of King he was going to be we will find out later. Interestingly enough, both Mary and Joseph were related to King David through their ancestry, as we discussed in the previous episode when we looked at Matthew and Luke's accounts of the ancestry, or genealogy, of Jesus. The first thing I want to say about Jesus' identity is that he is identified as the person who fulfils this promise to become the king who comes after King David and extends God's kingdom permanently.
The second thing I want to say, is the fact of the virgin birth - the historical and the biological fact of the virgin birth - means that the uniqueness of Jesus is, literally, the fact that God himself brings about this birth through the human agency of Mary and her womb and her childbearing capacity. So here we see God and man coming together. We call it the Incarnation: when God became man, when God took on human nature. Jesus, as the Son of God, existed eternally with his Father and with the Holy Spirit, three-in-one - three persons in one Godhead - who have existed before time, before the creation of anything; in all eternity they have always existed. Jesus did not take on humanity - he didn't become a man in a physical sense - until this moment in history. It was a moment in time where Jesus, the Son of God, becomes a man in order to come alongside humanity, to identify with us and to set us free from our sin through his atonement and sacrifice in ways that we will discuss in the future. We have Jesus, the fulfilment of the promise to King David to have a permanent monarchy and throne. We have Jesus the Son of God, who is fully human and fully God.
We also have another interesting point - the name of Jesus. We looked at the name of John, John the Baptist, in the last episode and saw some significance in his name. The name Jesus, closely related to Joshua, or Jeshua in Hebrew, means probably, literally, ‘God saves’. Here we are, right at the very beginning: we know what ministry and the work of Jesus is. He has become a man in order to fulfil a mission and that mission involves you and me. It extends to all humanity. You may be a believer as you are reading, or viewing this episode. You may not be a believer in Jesus, you may not be a disciple of his. You can come into that relationship with him as soon as you begin to realise he is more than a prophet, more than a teacher, more than a healer. He is actually the Son of God come down, taking on human nature in this miraculous way that we have just described, which the angel prophesied. We can enter into a relationship with him through his death on the cross for us and his subsequent resurrection.
My reflections, as I just step back from this story and think what does it teach us? How does it help us on the journey? First of all, let me say, unambiguously, Christianity depends on the Incarnation. Christians believe, fundamentally, that Jesus was a unique person combining deity and humanity, combining God and man together in one person in a miraculous way that we will never fully understand, but which means that he is able to do two things: he is able to represent us as human beings towards his father, God the Father, in terms of our need of being set free from our sin. He is also able to represent his Father to us. He is able to show us the will of the Father; able to reveal God to us. He is able to warn us that we need to be reconciled with this God because he is a just God and he will punish sin. He is also able to represent us like a priest representing the people in the Jewish Temple, or in some other religion. He is described in the New Testament as a great high priest, in Hebrews 4: 14 - 16, who represents the people to God. So we have these two unique things happening in Jesus: he represents God to us, and he represents us to God. He is the divine Son of God, combining humanity and deity.
Another reflection from this passage would be to emphasise again Mary's outstanding character and faith. We can compare her with Zechariah in the previous episode and if you listen to that episode you will know that Zechariah hesitated when the same angel, Gabriel, revealed to him that his wife was going to have a child unexpectedly in her old age - he found that really hard to believe. Mary is told something even more impossible: that she should have a baby without being in a sexual relationship or having a husband. She believes simply. Her outstanding character and faith are rightly commended by Christians of various persuasions. This does not mean that Mary is without sin - nothing in the New Testament suggests that; or that we should worship her; or that she is an intermediary who stands between us and Jesus. None of those things are written in the Gospels, as we will find out. She is a very godly lady whose character we should admire and follow.
Another reflection is that here is another of God's sudden interventions. Just like we had with Zechariah and Gabriel in the last episode, here we have Mary and Gabriel intervening here. There is a very intriguing prophecy in Isaiah 7: 14, which we are going to comment on more fully in a few episodes' time, Isaiah 7:14,
”14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”Isaiah 7:14, NIV
In Matthew's Gospel, Matthew takes this to be a prophecy of Jesus - a virgin birth prophesied in the Old Testament. Something very miraculous is happening in this story.
We mentioned, in the last episode, the significance of angels. They are very prominent in these early stories. We should respect the existence of angels; we should believe in their existence and it is not a fairy story; it is not a fantasy - it is a reality. But angels are not to be sought after, to be worshipped, or to be manipulated by human beings as is the habit of some groups. They are discreet servants; they work for God and they work on our behalf and, almost always, their work is invisible and unseen. Here is just an occasional glimpse into the reality of their work in this narrative.
My final comment is to go back to verse 37. I want to leave you with this thought at the end of this episode. The angel's final word to Mary was, “for no word from God will ever fail.” The primary reference of this passage is almost certainly to the prophecies of the Old Testament that pointed towards the coming of the Messiah as a divine Son of God. I have given you an example: Isaiah 7: 14, which I will explain more fully when we study it in the context of Matthew's Gospel. The prophecy of 2 Samuel 7: 16 is being fulfilled here - as a king to follow David and take over his throne, so to speak, is being fulfilled. The angel is saying no word of God will ever fail. What he promises, in terms of his plan for humanity and our salvation, will be fulfilled. That word isn't going to fail. The Jews had waited hundreds of years for the Messiah to come. Had God's word failed? No. It just wasn't the time yet. Now is the time and this is the place from which we need to see the ever-expanding story of the life of Jesus.
I hope you will join us again for the next episode.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What 3 things do we know about the identity of Jesus from this episode? How does this affect your understanding of who Jesus is?
- Discuss Mary’s feelings in this meeting with the angel Gabriel.
- What is it about Mary that makes you admire her and make you want to follow her example?
- Gabriel tells Mary that no word from God will fail - ‘What he promises, in terms of his plan for humanity and our salvation, will be fulfilled.’ What promises from God are important to you?
- What do you know about Nazareth, in Galilee, in Jesus’ time and now?
- Use tagging to find out about ‘angels’ and how God uses them.