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Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about Mary and Joseph’s faithful obedience despite their fears and questions.

Confront Your Fears:  Matthew 1:18-20; Luke 1:28-31.

[Matthew 1:18]  Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. [19]  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. [20]  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

[Luke 1:28]  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. [ESV]

[Matthew 1:18-20]  The difference between our modern concept of engagement and that of first-century Jews is indicated by the description of Joseph already in verse 19 as Mary’s husband and the use of the normal word for divorce to describe the ending of the engagement. Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave the woman a widow) or by divorce as if for a full marriage; sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement the woman (then normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s home and go to live with the husband in a public ceremony, which is here referred to as coming together. The role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception reflects the Old Testament concept of the Spirit of God active in the original creation and in the giving of life. The Spirit is also thought of in the Old Testament as having an eschatological role in connection with the coming of the Messiah. That Joseph was just (or righteous) is sometimes thought to explain his avoidance of a public scandal because he was merciful or considerate, but the more basic sense of the word is of one who is careful to keep the law. The law as then understood required the termination of the engagement in the case of adultery; in Old Testament times the penalty for adultery was stoning. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 deals specifically with the case of a woman found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage, and 22:23-24 with that of consenting adultery on the part of an engaged woman. But by the first century (when Roman rule had abolished Jewish death penalties) divorce was the normal course. As a law-abiding man Joseph would be expected to repudiate his errant fiancée publicly in a trial for adultery; but he also desired to spare Mary the shame of a public divorce. The Mishnah allows for the divorce of a suspected adulteress before just two witnesses; though it is hard to see how this could long be kept secret from a society aware of the original engagement. Four times in these chapters we are told of divine communications to Joseph in dreams [2:13,19,22], in all but the last case with an angel as the messenger. Divine guidance both by dreams and by the appearance of angels is of course a regular feature of Old Testament spirituality, and would need no explanation. The point of their concentration in these chapters is to emphasize the initiative of God in guiding Joseph’s actions through this crucial period. The angel’s address to Joseph as son of David reminds us what is at stake in the decision Joseph has just reached: the loss of Jesus’ royal pedigree if He is not officially recognized as Joseph’s son. So, despite his previous decision to divorce Mary, he is called to take two decisive actions; first to accept Mary as his wife rather than repudiating her and secondly to give her son a name, which will confirm his legal recognition of Jesus as his own son and hence as also a son of David.

[Luke 1:28-31]  Gabriel greets Mary and declares her a recipient of God’s favor. He appears to her in an unspecified indoor setting. After the greeting, Mary is addressed as the favored one. In this context, Mary is the recipient of God’s grace, not a bestower of it. She is simply the special object of God’s favor, much as John the Baptist was a special prophet of God. With his greeting, Gabriel assures Mary by promising the presence of the Lord God. The certainty of God’s involvement with Mary in bringing forth a great child is asserted. Gabriel wishes only to encourage Mary that God will be with her through all the events the angel reveals. Mary is perplexed (greatly troubled) by the angel’s initial remarks. Mary begins to consider what is happening to her and ponders the greeting. She heard that God was with her and that she was an object of His grace, but what was God going to do to her? The angel deals with Mary’s concerned curiosity by telling her: Do not be afraid. This word of comfort shows that her curiosity about the greeting also caused her anxiety. But the following announcement makes clear that she has no need to be concerned. Before turning to the discussion of the coming child, Gabriel adds one note of explanation to his call to be calm. Mary has found favor with God. As an expression of divine working, favor signifies God’s gracious choice of someone through whom God does something special. In the Old Testament, the phrase often involves a request granted on the condition that someone had favor with God. However, here this favor is announced without any hint of a request. It is freely bestowed. Mary is about to receive freely the special favor of God. She is a picture of those who receive God’s grace on the basis of His kind initiative. Mary receives a specific word about the grace that God will extend to her. The first part of this announcement is in 1:31-33: 1:31 predicts the birth of a child and 1:32-33 describes His ministry. The form of the angelic announcement that the virgin Mary shall bear a son follows the Old Testament pattern. The declaration of her approaching conception and bearing of a son is followed by instruction about what to name the child.

Ask Your Questions:  Luke 1:34-37.

[Luke 1:34]  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. [36]  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. [37]  For nothing will be impossible with God."

[34-37]  Mary questions how this birth can occur, given her lack of sexual experience. She does not doubt the announcement, for she does not ask for a sign as Zechariah did in Luke 1:18-20. Rather she is puzzled as to how this birth can occur, a question that causes the angel to elaborate in verse 35. The reason Mary raises her question is that she does not know a man. Mary uses the term know as a figure for sexual relations. Contextually the present tense focuses on her current status of inexperience as opposed to a perpetual state of virginity. Mary does not currently know a man and thus cannot expect to be pregnant. Luke supports the concept of the virgin birth. God is marvelously at work and has taken the initiative. Gabriel replies and proclaims direct divine involvement in the coming Davidic ruler’s conception. Verse 35 has a three-part structure centered around the Trinity: the Holy Spirit … the Most High … the Son of God. The divine work of conception comes in two parallel lines: The Holy Spirit will come … the power of the Most High will overshadow. God’s Spirit is the active, life-giving agent. Such a reference corresponds with the Old Testament and Jewish picture of God’s Spirit. God’s work in Mary will result in a child. Technically speaking, this verse proclaims a virgin conception for Mary. Jesus’ birth will be the work of God’s creative power. The power of the Most High will overshadow Mary. Putting the parallel lines together indicates that God’s Spirit acts with creative power. The Creator God who brought life out of nothing and created humans from the dust is also able to create human life in a womb. God’s act involves His overshadowing Mary. The word translated overshadow in the Old Testament refers either to the Shekinah cloud that rested on the tabernacle or to God’s presence in protecting His people. In Luke 9:34, the term refers to the cloud of the transfiguration overshadowing the disciples. Thus, overshadowing refers to God’s glorious presence before His people. The child produced by divine conception will be holy, the Son of God. This verse is one of the most christologically significant verses in the book. The divine conception results in two descriptive terms being applied to Jesus: holy and Son of God. The first, holy, is taken by many to refer to Jesus as set apart for special service. This sense does convey the basic meaning, but is there more significance to the term? What is the connection between the two terms: holy … Son of God? This connection depends on whether Son of God is taken as a term of divinity by Luke. Until this verse, Jesus is clearly portrayed as the Davidic son, the regal messianic figure in whom all Israel hoped. But does the addition of the title Son of God to the context make the passage explicitly contain more than a simple declaration of Jewish hope? The evidence for a deeper significance to the sonship reference is twofold. (1) The Holy Spirit’s action on behalf of Jesus shows that His human origins are grounded in God’s creative activity. Jesus’ superiority to John is grounded in a superiority of position and manner of birth, which is of a supernatural origin. Jesus was the Son of the Most High [32] while John was a prophet of the Most High [76].  (2) Verbally and linguistically there is a linkage between Son of God and Son of the Most High that makes them synonymous and points to a deeper role for Jesus than that of fulfilling the Jewish Davidic hope. Luke has heightened the Jewish conceptual use of being born of God by tying it to a virgin conception. Jesus is from God in a unique way. So the combination by Luke of the two terms holy … Son of God points to the divinity of Jesus. The use of behold forms a parallel with 1:20 and turns attention to work that God performed in tandem with His work in Mary. Mary does not request a sign, but one is given to her anyway for encouragement. Elizabeth, Mary’s long-barren relative, has conceived and is in the sixth month of her pregnancy. The reference to Elizabeth’s pregnancy shows that nothing is impossible with God [37]. In a major theological statement of this section, the angel affirms God’s total power to accomplish these miraculous births.

Obey in Faith:  Matthew 1:24-25; Luke 1:38.

[Matthew 1:24]  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, [25]  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

[Luke 1:38]  And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.  [ESV]

[Matthew 1:24-25]  Matthew’s editorial comment in verses 22-23 has interrupted the flow of the narrative which now resumes from the end of verse 21. Joseph’s obedient response to the angel’s words is indicated by the repetition of the same words to describe the first and third of his actions, accepting his wife and giving his son the name Jesus. But between these two actions, which together completed the legal adoption of Jesus as Joseph’s son, Matthew mentions a third which was not explicit in the angel’s instructions: he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth. For Joseph to accept his wife required the public completion of the marriage by taking Mary to his own house (the coming together of verse 18), which would normally have been the point at which sexual relations began. Matthew does not explain Joseph’s abstinence, but it is not hard to understand it in the light of the assurance that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit. If Matthew has an apologetic reason for inserting this statement, it is presumably to take away any doubt as to the supernatural origin of Mary’s child. The until indicates that after Jesus was born normal marital relations began. This section concludes triumphantly with the naming of Jesus. Verse 21 has explained the theological significance of the name, and the whole chapter so far has set up the problem of legal parentage to which this is the essential answer. Jesus of Nazareth is now securely adopted as the son of David.

[Luke 1:38]  Mary responds to Gabriel’s message with submission and obedience. She identifies herself as bondslave. In everyday speech, this word describes one of humble station who addresses a superior in recognition of their position. As God’s handmaid, Mary accepts openly what God asks of her. Mary is exemplary in the way she responds to God’s message of grace. God can do with her what He wishes. This acceptance is significant, taken at possible personal loss. Such a step might involve her in potential problems with Joseph and with her reputation. There is risk in agreeing to go God’s way, but as the Lord’s servant, she willingly goes. So Mary has the attitude of a model saint. God can do great things for His cause and can use anyone or anything to accomplish it. Mary is ready to be such a vessel.

Excursus on Virgin Birth

Scripture clearly asserts that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and without a human father. The doctrinal importance of the virgin birth is seen in at least three areas. (1) It shows that salvation ultimately must come from the Lord. Just as God had promised that the “seed” of the woman [Gen. 3:15] would ultimately destroy the serpent, so God brought it about by his own power, not through mere human effort. The virgin birth of Christ is an unmistakable reminder that salvation can never come through human effort, but must be the work of God himself. Our salvation only comes about through the supernatural work of God, and that was evident at the very beginning of Jesus’ life when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons [Gal. 4:4-5]. (2) The virgin birth made possible the uniting of full deity and full humanity in one person. This was the means God used to send his Son into the world as a man. If we think for a moment of other possible ways in which Christ might have come to the earth, none of them would so clearly unite humanity and deity in one person. It probably would have been possible for God to create Jesus as a complete human being in heaven and send him to descend from heaven to earth without the benefit of any human parent. But then it would have been very hard for us to see how Jesus could be fully human as we are, nor would he be a part of the human race that physically descended from Adam. On the other hand, it probably would have been possible for God to have Jesus come into the world with two human parents, both a father and a mother, and with his full divine nature miraculously united to his human nature at some point early in his life. But then it would have been hard for us to understand how Jesus was fully God, since his origin was like ours in every way. When we think of these  two other possibilities, it helps us to understand how God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that it would have been impossible for God to bring Christ into the world in any other way, but only to say that God, in his wisdom, decided that this would be the best way to bring it about, and part of that is evident in the fact that the virgin birth does help us understand how Jesus can be fully God and fully man. (3) The virgin birth also makes possible Christ’s true humanity without inherited sin. All human beings have inherited legal guilt and a corrupt moral nature from their first father, Adam. But the fact that Jesus did not have a human father means that the line of descent from Adam is partially interrupted. Jesus did not descend from Adam in exactly the same way in which every other human being has descended from Adam. And this helps us to understand why the legal guilt and moral corruption that belongs to all other human beings did not belong to Christ. This idea seems to be indicated in the statement of the angel Gabriel to Mary, where he says to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God [Luke 1: 35]. Because the Spirit brought about the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, the child was to be called “holy, the Son of God”. Such a conclusion should not be taken to mean that the transmission of sin comes only through the father, for Scripture nowhere makes such an assertion. It is enough for us merely to say that in this case the unbroken line of descent from Adam was interrupted, and Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:35 connects this conception by the Holy Spirit with the holiness or moral purity of Christ, and reflection on that fact allows us to understand that through the absence of a human father, Jesus was not fully descended from Adam, and that this break in the line of descent was the method God used to bring it about that Jesus was fully human yet did not share inherited sin from Adam. But why did Jesus not inherit a sinful nature from Mary? The work of the Holy Spirit in Mary must have prevented the transmission of sin from Mary. As John Calvin writes: “We make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall.” [Institutes, II.13.4].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How are Mary and Joseph models of Christian obedience? Compare Mary’s response to Gabriel in verse Luke 1:34 to the response of Zechariah in Luke 1:18-20 and how Gabriel responded to each of their questions. What is different about Mary’s response that she receives no rebuke like Zechariah did in Luke 1:20? How can you cultivate the attitude of Mary and Joseph?

2.         Gabriel reveals two things about the identity of Jesus in verses 32 and 35. What is significant about these two things? Why is verse 35 called “one of the most Christologically significant verses in the book”?

3.         What does overshadow mean in Luke 1:35?

4.         What is the doctrinal importance of the virgin birth?


The Gospel of Matthew, R.T. France, NICNT, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Luke, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Luke, Robert Stein, NAC, Broadman.

Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, Zondervan.

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