A Birth Like No Other

 

Week of March 8, 2015

 

Bible Verses:  Luke 1:26-35.

 

The Point:  Jesus is fully human and fully God.

 

Birth of Jesus Foretold:  Luke 1:26-35.

 

[26]  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, [27]  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. [28]  And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" [29]  But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. [30]  And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. [31]  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. [32]  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, [33]  and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." [34]  And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" [35]  And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.  [ESV]

 

[26-33]The Annunciation. John came first. He was the forerunner – the messenger sent ahead to announce the coming of the King. Then came Jesus – His Majesty, the King – to seek and to save the lost. In the opening chapters of Luke their stories are laid out side by side for comparison and contrast. John and Jesus: two cousins, two pregnancies, two hymns of praise, and two deliveries at the beginning of two great lives. The similarities between the two stories are striking. Both John and Jesus were born to godly women who apart from divine intervention were unable to bear children. The births of both cousins were announced by the same awesome angel, who told people not to be afraid, proclaimed the birth of a son, gave each child his name, and explained his mission in life. The people who heard these announcements – Zechariah the priest and Mary the virgin – questioned the angel and were given a confirming sign. Yet for all their similarities, what Luke mainly wants us to see are the differences. The comparison is made to show the contrast. So who is greater: John or Jesus? John’s mother was barren; the mother of Jesus had never been with a man at all. John would be a prophet crying in the wilderness; Jesus would reign on David’s everlasting throne. John would be great before the Lord [1:15]. Jesus would be great without qualification [1:32], the Son of the Most High God. John would be filled with the Holy Spirit, but Jesus would be conceived by the Holy Spirit. John would prepare for God’s coming, but when Jesus came, God was there, in the flesh. Who is greater: John or Jesus? Luke argues from the lesser to the greater to give more glory to Jesus. Jesus was like John, but superior in every respect – infinitely superior. The birth of Jesus, like the birth of John, was announced by the angel Gabriel [26-28]. It is doubtful whether Gabriel could have found a more unlikely person to greet anywhere in Israel. Mary was among the lowly. She was young – possibly as young as twelve or thirteen years old, in that awkward stage between childhood and womanhood. Like many people in Israel, she was a poor, uneducated peasant living in a small country town far from the center of power. Mary was also a female in a culture that discounted women. From a merely human perspective, she was insignificant. Yet Mary was given the greatest honor that any woman has ever been given. She was chosen to be the mother of Jesus, and her lowly estate was part of God’s plan. By choosing Mary, God was beginning to show what humiliation His Son would have to endure for the salvation of sinners. God preferred this because the plan of salvation required Jesus to humble Himself, and only then to be exalted. To rescue us from our sins and lift us to glory, Jesus first had to enter into the misery of our lost and fallen condition. What better way to show what He had come to do than for Him to be born to a woman like Mary from a town like Nazareth? God’s grace is for the lowly. God certainly showed grace to Mary. This is the meaning of the angel’s salutation: Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you [28]. With these words, Gabriel pronounced God’s benediction on Mary. God was with her to bless her, not because of her own merit, but because of his grace. The angel’s greeting has often been misunderstood. Gabriel was not worshiping Mary; nor did he say that she was ‘full of grace’. These ideas come from a prayer commonly used by Roman Catholics: “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” This is not a biblical prayer, although it has some biblical language in it. The problem is that it treats Mary as the source of grace rather than as an object of grace. People pray to Mary because they think she has grace to give. What the Bible actually says is that Mary was the recipient of God’s grace, not a repository of grace. O favored one refers to the grace that Mary was given by God, and not to any grace that she can give to others. It is important to know what to believe about Mary because so many people go wrong at this point. The Bible never says that Mary was without sin, that she remained a virgin, or that she is able to give grace to sinners. We can only imagine how much it would grieve her to know that some people worship her! What the Bible does say – beyond the fact that she was the mother of Jesus – is that she was saved by grace. The way Mary helps us is not by giving us grace, but by showing that God can give us the same kind of grace that He gave to her. Mary is the blessed virgin, who alone was called to give birth to the Son of God. Her experience is not our experience; nevertheless, her example is for us. Since she received grace from God, her example proves that God shows unmerited favor to lowly sinners. Even when we feel small and insignificant, overlooked by the world, we can know that God is for us. Gabriel’s greeting shows God’s grace for the lowly. What the angel said was meant to be reassuring, yet Mary was still troubled. As Luke tells it, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be [29]. Naturally Mary wanted to know what this meant. What was happening? Why was an angel talking to her? What had he come to say? Gabriel did not leave Mary in suspense, but followed his greeting with an announcement. The announcement came in two parts because it was divided by Mary’s question in verse 34. The first part of Gabriel’s announcement is found in verses 30-33. With these words, the angel announced the greatest event in human history: the coming of the Son of God. First Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid, because she had found favor with God. Favor is a different form of the same word that the angel used in verse 28, which is the Greek word for grace. God was showing unmerited favor to Mary; by His grace she would give birth to a son. Then Gabriel proceeded to explain the significance of this child, telling about His person and work. Who was He? What would He do? The angel told Mary to call His name Jesus, which means ‘God saves’, or ‘the Lord is salvation’. This was the first hint that Jesus would be the Savior. He would bring salvation to sinners by dying on the cross in shame and then rising again in glory. Even from the announcement of His birth, His name testified to His saving work. Jesus is the salvation of God. Next the angel said that Jesus would be great. When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he said that John the Baptist would be great before the Lord [1:15]. But Jesus is the Lord, so when Gabriel said that he would be great, he did not limit his greatness in any way. Jesus is great. In the Old Testament, whenever this word is used without qualification, it almost always refers to God Himself. God’s wisdom is great; His works are great; His power is great; His mercy is great. So great is God’s greatness that He alone deserves to be called great. By saying that Jesus would be great, therefore, Gabriel was testifying to the deity of Jesus Christ. No one is greater than He is. Jesus is great in wisdom, great in power, great in love, and great in the majesty of His divine being. His greatness is the greatness of God. Already we see the strange juxtaposition of meekness and majesty that define the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He was born in the humblest of circumstances. While on earth He suffered the humiliation of poverty, loneliness, homelessness, rejection, persecution, and torture. Jesus humbled Himself to the very death. Yet He was still the divine Son of God, and God exalted Him back to greatness by raising Him from the dead. We usually get this backwards. We exalt ourselves, trying to make ourselves greater than we are, and then God has to humble us. Jesus did the exact opposite; He humbled Himself and let God do the exalting. In fact, this was part of His greatness. God does not define greatness by status, but by service. Jesus was the greatest because by His sacrifice on the cross He became the servant of all. After testifying to His greatness, the angel said that Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High [32]. Gabriel used similar terminology a few moments later, calling Jesus the Son of God [35]. The term Son could be used for any child of God. There is a sense in which every believer is a son or daughter of the Most High. But this title belongs to Jesus in a unique way. Divine sonship is His eternal identity as the Second Person of the Trinity – God the eternal Son. Gabriel also said that Jesus would rule in majesty, sitting on the ancient throne of David. As Luke has already indicated [1:27], His earthly father Joseph came from the house of David, which meant that Jesus was David’s rightful heir. Long ago God had promised David that his son would have a kingdom that would never end [2 Sam. 7:13-14,16]. These ancient promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is the son of David and Israel’s eternal King. This was the angel’s announcement: Mary would give birth to a son named Jesus, who would be the great Savior and the Son of God, the most powerful ruler in the history of the world. Do you trust the angel’s promise? It was written so that you would know for sure – so that you would believe in Jesus as your Savior, worship Him as your great God, and serve Him as your everlasting King.

[34-35]  Mary’s Question. Mary believed the angel’s prophecy, but she still had a question: How will this be, since I am a virgin? Mary obviously understood the angel to say that her child would be conceived before she got married. As everyone knows, she was engaged to Joseph. In those days a betrothal was formalized in a public ceremony and generally lasted for a year, during which the bride was sometimes referred to as the man’s wife. But the couple did not live together, and they did not have sexual relations, for in those days an engagement was regarded as a definite promise of mutual fidelity and its violation was looked upon as adultery. Since she was a godly woman, Mary was saving herself for marriage. She was preserving her sexual purity as a prize, the way every woman should. But this raised the obvious question. How could she conceive and bear a son if she had never been with a man? Mary knew enough about the reproductive process to know that this was impossible. So she had to ask: How will this be, since I am a virgin? Mary did not ask this question in unbelief. Here Luke is drawing a clear contrast between Zechariah’s doubt and Mary’s faith. When old Zechariah received the promise of a son, he asked, How shall I know this [18]? He was not sure whether to believe the angel or not, so he wanted some kind of confirmation. Mary asked a completely different question: How will this be? In other words, she wanted to know how it would happen. Unlike Zechariah, she believed that the angel’s promise would come true. But she was still curious to know how it would happen, and perhaps to know whether there was anything she needed to do. It was a good, honest question, and Gabriel gave her the answer, as well as a sign to confirm the promise in verses 35-37. As a good historian, Luke gives us the facts: Mary’s son would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like a good physician, he also puts these facts into their medical context, telling us that Elizabeth was getting close to the end of her second trimester. The story of Jesus and His birth is not some bizarre myth. This is factual history, and what the facts declare is one of the most stupendous miracles God has ever performed: the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Mary asked the same question that people still ask today: How can this be? How can a woman become pregnant without having sexual relations? The answer is very simple – if you believe in the power of God. The answer is that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is the miracle of the virgin birth that Christians have always confessed. Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. This language echoes the Old Testament and reminds us that the Holy Spirit has been actively involved in everything that God has ever done. The Holy Spirit has been overshadowing God’s people from the very beginning, working with the Father and the Son for our salvation. But no work of the Spirit is more miraculous than the work He did in Mary’s womb, enabling the virgin to give birth to the Son of God. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is one of the essential facts and great mysteries of the Christian religion. If we deny this, we deny the faith. According to Luke, Mary had a child before she had intercourse. Do we believe this, or not? If we say that Jesus was not born of a virgin, then either we believe that Mary was sexually immoral, or that Luke was a writer of fiction, or both. In any case, we defame the character of these godly people and contradict the plain teaching of Scripture, Even worse, we deny the deity of Jesus Christ, because it is His conception by the Holy Spirit that makes Him the Holy Son of God. Jesus had to be born of a woman to be a man. But if He had been the physical offspring of Joseph, then he would have been nothing more than a man. His virgin birth, His divine conception by the Spirit – these things were necessary for His incarnation. Only the virgin birth preserves the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. His conception by the Spirit points to His deity. His birth from a woman points to His humanity. One person, two natures – a divine nature and a human nature. And because He was conceived by a unique creative act of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was not corrupted by the guilt of Adam. Fallen humanity could not produce its own Savior; He had to come from somewhere outside, by way of divine initiative and intervention. Therefore, God sent Jesus into the world as the perfect Son of God, born without sin.”  [Ryken, pp. 26-33].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Compare and contrast the births of John and Jesus.

 

2.         Describe who Mary was when Gabriel appeared to her. Why does God choose an unknown, apparently insignificant person like Mary to be the mother of Jesus? What errors do the Roman Catholic Church make concerning who Mary is?

 

3.         List the things that Gabriel told Mary in his announcement to her. What does Gabriel tell Mary concerning the Son whom she will give birth to?

 

4.         Why is the doctrine of the virgin birth necessary for a correct understanding of the birth of Jesus?

 

 

References:

Luke, volume 1, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

Luke, volume 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P&R Publishing.

Luke, Walter Liefeld, EBC, Zondervan.