Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014
A Surprise for Mary
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth. Records show that girls then were usually married by the time they were 13 or 14 years old, so Mary was probably about that age. Betrothal was more than being “engaged to be married”. The word translated as “betrothed” or “espoused” is “mnaesteuo” (μνηστεύω). Vows to be faithful to one another for life were said before witnesses. It was more the first stage of marriage than a promised plan to get married. If the marriage plan was abandoned by those betrothed, a formal “divorce” was required by a legal process.
One day unexpectedly a spirit messenger sent from God appeared to Mary. It was the angel Gabriel.
Luke 1:26-27, “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
No one suspected that God would use a family from Nazareth. The Messiah was promised to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). But Nazareth? In John 1:46 Nathaniel said, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Things were unfolding in a way no one expected. God doesn’t reveal everything so we should always be cautious as we interpret the Scriptures.
Then Gabriel spoke to Mary and said,
Luke 1:28-30, “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.”
The last part of verse 28 in the KJV reads, “blessed art thou among women.” This phrase is not in some of the early manuscripts. However, it is included in the large majority of manuscripts widely distributed around the world. There is not enough documentation to be sure it does not belong in the text, though the ESV chose to leave it out. However, perhaps originally as a marginal note, the Latin Vulgate translation added “full of grace” enhancing the Romanist’s exaggerated view of Mary.
It is easy to understand that Mary would have been troubled. Gabriel immediately comforted her.
Luke 1:31-33, “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
She was told that she would have a male child and name him Jesus. He will be called “the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Promised One who will reign on the throne of his ancestor David forever. That is what Nathan the prophet promised to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16.
Mary asked a logical question in verse 34, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Should she marry Joseph right away and have a child with him? Or was this a promise that would not be fulfilled until some future time?
A surprising answer came in Luke 1:35,
“And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.’ “
The Holy Spirit was going to cause her to become pregnant — Supernaturally!
It tells us in Luke 1:27 that Mary was a virgin. Twice it refers to her as, “parthenos” (παρθένος), a young woman before she’s married or sexually active. It says she “knew no man” (Luke 1:34) – obviously meaning she had not been sexually intimate yet. This child would be no ordinary human. The corrupted line of Adam would be disrupted. The child would be a true human, but also the Son of God. There is nothing in the Bible to support the Romanist idea that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus.
The Angel added more evidence of the power of God over conception.
Luke 1:36-37, “And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
Elisabeth (sometimes brought into English as “Elizabeth”) was a relative of Mary. She was not necessarily a “cousin” as we use the English word today. The word there is “sun-genaes” (συγγενής) which literally means she was related to her. That is how the ESV translates it. Elizabeth’s son would be John, the one called the “baptizer” who would call Israel back to repentance. He was the one chosen to announce the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
Mary humbly submitted to what God said he was going to do.
Luke 1:38, “Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word’ And the angel departed from her.”
Comfort for Joseph
Matthew 1:18 introduces us to the story of our Savior’s birth from the perspective of Joseph.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
We are not told how Joseph became aware that Mary had become pregnant. We are not told how much time had lapsed before he became aware that his betrothed wife was going to have a baby. We do not know what kind of conversation they had with one another. When Mary became pregnant she immediately went to stay for three months with Elizabeth in the area of Jerusalem (Luke 1:39). When she returned it would have been evident that she was pregnant.
It is clear that Joseph loved Mary and respected her, but did not yet understand the situation. He knew it was not his child. He looked for a solution that would both honor God and preserve Mary’s honor.
Matthew 1:19, “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.”
God’s law was clear. If a betrothed woman consents to be intimate with another man she was condemned as an adulteress. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 required execution, but execution for adultery wasn’t permitted under Roman rule. If a betrothal was ended because of a woman’s unfaithfulness, she would not be permitted by Jewish law to ever get married.
Joseph wondered if he should marry her contrary to God’s law. Should he lie, and tell people it was his child? That was not a moral option. He looked for a way to avoid disgracing her. He planned to end their betrothal secretly. He would have to hide the reason for the divorce, which would not be honest.
Then God’s angel appeared to assure him that it was a work of God. Mary had not been unfaithful.
Matthew 1:20-21, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.”
The name “Jesus” was not explained to Mary and Joseph completely at this time, but the meaning of the name itself would have been understood. “Jesus” in the original Greek text is “Iaesous” (Ιησους). This was Luke’s translation for the Greek readers. The angel probably would have addressed Mary in Aramaic or Hebrew. He would have used the name “Yeshua” (ישע), a shortened form for “Yehoshua”. Literally the name means “Yahveh (Jehovah) saves / helps”.
Joseph believed the message from God and obeyed. He took Mary to be his wife, but “did not know her” until the child was born. That means he was not sexually intimate with her until the birth of Jesus.
Another Special Birth
Our study now switches back to the area around Jerusalem where another miraculous conception had already taken place. This was what the Angel mentioned to Mary later in Luke 1:36-37.
Luke 1:5-7, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.”
Zacharias (or simply brought in to English as “Zechariah” or “Zachariah”) served in one of the 24 divisions in the tribe of Levi that rotated priestly duties (the division of Abijah). Elizabeth was also a descendant of the priestly line of Aaron, the brother of Moses.
When it says they were “righteous” and “blameless” it does not mean they were sinless. All of us are born sinners in Adam, and we all sin. They had sinned during their lives too. But as those redeemed by grace, they were declared “righteous” in the eyes of God. Their sins were paid for by the yet to come work of Christ. They were clothed with the Savior’s righteousness as it is with all believers, even those who lived before the death of Jesus.
They had given up any hope of having children. Elizabeth was “barren.” They were old and “stricken in years” (“advanced in years” ESV), literally, “advanced in their days”.
Then one day an amazing thing took place.
Luke 1:8-10, “And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.”
Early each morning a lot was cast to choose one of the priests to light the incense inside the holy part of the Temple. Zacharias was chosen (a once-in-a-life-time honor). Two assistants would have entered with him. One would remove the remains of the previous service. The other would spread live coals from the altar of burnt offering. Then they would leave. After they left Zacharias stood alone with the golden censer, and would approach the altar of incense. It was directly in front of the curtain that separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies. To his right was the table of showbread and to his left the candles of the menorah. Outside, the gathered worshipers silently bowed to add their worship and prayers to the rising of the incense. When Zacharias lit the incense he would worship for a moment then reverently leave the holy place.
But something happened —
Luke 1:11-12, “And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”
No one else was ever permitted in there with the Priest. This one appeared at the right of the altar! There was no way he could have entered without being seen, and he was not there before. This was obviously something supernatural.
God had a special message for Zacharias to deliver to Israel.
Luke 1:13-17, “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
That was a lot to take in. First, he and Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. This would clearly be supernatural and amazing in itself.
Second, his son will be very special and play an important part in God’s plan. He will bring joy to many people. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit (specially made able for his calling in life). Many in Israel will turn to the Lord through his ministry. He would fulfill the promise of the coming of one in the spirit of Elijah as predicted in Malachi.
Malachi 4:5-6″Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (ESV)
John will prepare the people for what the Lord is going to do.
Zacharias expressed doubt in what the angel told him.
Luke 1:18-20, And Zacharias said unto the angel, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” And the angel answering said unto him, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”
It was the part about he and his wife having a child in their old age that was hard to believe. His voice was taken away from him as a further confirmation that this was an act of God. His inability to speak would exactly coincide with the duration of the promise. It started with the angel’s announcement, and ended when the child was named as God instructed him (Luke 1:57-80).
Meanwhile, outside in the temple, the people waited for their Priest to come out as usual. This time he was taking longer than usual in there. Something was up!
Luke 1:21-23, “And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.”
Everything happened just as the angel predicted. John, the announcer of the Messiah, was conceived just as God promised through the angel.
Luke 1:24-25, And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, “Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
Jesus had not yet been conceived, but already the prophet who would precede him was growing in his mother’s womb.
Note: Bible quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.