Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary for Luke 1:26-38] Mary, just another girl from just another town, is portrayed to the world as a model of faith and obedience for believing that nothing is impossible for God. God will use anyone and everyone -- even a poor, powerless girl -- to accomplish His great plan of salvation.
“See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.” Luke 1:38
What If It Were Today?
Over the past few years, we've made a lot of changes to our Drive-Through Nativity (no jokes about 2020; too soon). One of my favorites was Paige's idea of giving everyone a booklet that helped explain the story with a feature called "What If It Were Today?" We created that, and I think it's super-fun.
I think that this week would be the best week to use this as a group discussion because attendance is historically down for the following two weeks. You guys know the basics of the Nativity story pretty well. Take two or three of the big scenes and imagine what it might be like if Jesus' Nativity happened today around someplace like Thomson. How would it go? How would people respond? (Remember -- if Jesus is just now being born, that would mean that there aren't any Christian churches around for support!)
Here are some tag lines we put in our Nativity booklet (if that helps you see where I'm going with this and sparks some ideas):
Caesar forcing everyone to travel for a census: It’s a scary thing to bring a child into the world today. Politics and society are unstable, and some people worry a lot about government intrusion. It makes us uncomfortable and nervous . . . And that was exactly the kind of world into which Mary brought Jesus.
Mary being told she will become pregnant before she gets married: Mary was just an ordinary teenage girl from an ordinary family in an ordinary town, Nazareth. Pregnancy is difficult enough; unmarried and pregnant is harder. Unmarried and pregnant as a teenager is really hard. Add to it an announcement that your baby is the Son of God? Mary had extraordinary faith that God knew what He was doing, and she found peace even though she knew no one would believe her.
Joseph's dream: How would you take it? The woman you’re engaged to is pregnant, but she says she doesn’t understand how it happened. That doesn’t just sound fishy, it sounds like a lie. Joseph was a good man, though. He had a plan. He would just end the engagement quietly and not cause a scene. What would you do? Wouldn’t it take a word from God Himself to assure you Mary wasn’t lying?
Traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem: Bethlehem was a small town outside of the big city of Jerusalem, about ninety miles from Nazareth—kind of like walking from Thomson to the outskirts of Atlanta. Imagine being 9 months pregnant and riding on the back of a donkey to Atlanta while your fiancé walks beside you. No hotels, no sleeping bags, no tents, a week of travel. Just the two of you . . . and a bunch of random strangers walking to Atlanta.
The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem?: Network talent searchers are always looking for “the next big thing.” In Georgia, they go to Atlanta, right? But what if some search firm said that the next President of the United States would come from Plains, GA (pop. 776), or that the Godfather of Soul would come from Barnwell, SC (pop. 4700)? We’d have to see it to believe it. Bethlehem may be famous today, but in those days it was pretty insignificant. Now for the really important part: we’re not talking about the President or a music celebrity, we’re talking about the King of the Universe. Where do you think such a One would be born?
No room in the inn: You know what Master’s week is like around here. Now imagine if the government did a forced evacuation from the coast to Augusta that same week. Crowded and cranky. Maybe even angry. Do you think there would be a spare room for a random pregnant teenager? Do you think anyone would even notice her or care?
And then there the crowded Bethlehem streets, the announcement to shepherds in their fields, the visit of magi from the East, and even more little details you might think of. Imagine what it might be like if it happened today. How do you think you would respond if you knew Mary or Joseph?
Remember: Save Something for Next Week!
This week, I'm going to focus my extra energy on a comparison of Luke with Matthew. I'm going to save the fun topics of Herod and Caesar and the date of Christmas (and "the star") for next week. If someone wanted to talk about any of that this week but I wanted to wait until next week (either because I wasn't prepared or I didn't think we had time), here's my preferred response: "Can we hold off and talk about that next week? There's so much in this week's passage already; I'd hate to shortchange anything!"
Harmony of Luke and Matthew
When we talk about a "harmony of the Gospels" (how they line up) with respect to the birth of Jesus, we're really just talking about Matthew and Luke, as this standard-on-the-internet chart explains. John and Mark pick up with the baptism of Jesus.
Now, look closely at the three overlaps: it includes the genealogies and a verse about the return to Nazareth. So, really, the only real overlap in the birth narrative is Matthew 1:18-25 // Luke 2:1-7. Luke is the only Gospel writer who talks about Zechariah and Elizabeth and our passage this week and the shepherds and Simeon and Anna. Matthew is the only Gospel writer who talks about Joseph's dreams and the magi and the escape to Egypt.
Why is that? Why are the two accounts so different? Is it because, as the skeptics and liberals say, the Gospel writers are untrustworthy? Let's investigate.
At just a quick reading, I think it's pretty obvious that Luke is focusing on Mary while Matthew is focusing on Joseph. Elizabeth is Mary's relative. The encounter with the shepherds is something Mary pondered. Simeon's song specifically highlighted Mary's own themes (and Simeon specifically noted Mary). Conversely, Matthew recounted events directly related to Joseph's dreams -- taking Mary as his wife, and the escape to and return from Egypt (along with the cause, the murder of the boys in Bethlehem).
That should make sense. Matthew's primary audience was Jewish (and a key purpose was to identify Jesus as the prophesied Jewish Messiah). So, he would have focused on the things related to the husband as well as Old Testament fulfillment. Luke's primary audience was Gentile (and a key purpose was to identify Jesus as their Savior), so he was building a cross-cultural bridge. He would have focused on the things that would connect with readers the world over. Mary's story is so compelling.
There's potentially an additional reason: there's a very early tradition that when Luke was researching his Gospel he interviewed Mary. Not just that, but Mary's testimony was the backbone of his Gospel. That would easily explain not just Luke's choice of the stories but how they included such private details about Mary.
Does that mean that Matthew interviewed Joseph? That would sure make sense. Goodness, that Gospel has Joseph's dreams recounted! But . . . it is commonly believed that Joseph was dead before the wedding in Cana (John 2), which was well before Matthew became a disciple. Perhaps Matthew interviewed family friends of Joseph who had heard these stories years before. Perhaps the earliest disciples had talked to Joseph. Perhaps Joseph was in fact still alive when Matthew became a disciple but bedridden.
The biggest question is -- assuming Matthew and Luke had access to the same sources -- why is their story choice so different? If Luke interviewed Mary, why didn't she say anything about the escape to Egypt and the early threat on her baby's life? If Matthew was so interested in the Old Testament, why did he ignore all of the incredible Old Testament allusions in Mary's song and Simeon's song (and the whole thing with Zechariah the priest)?
I think that's easy to explain, starting with Luke's emphasis on Mary and Matthew's emphasis on Joseph. Luke's Gospel reads so smoothly and beautifully; try adding the magi or the escape to Egypt. Where do they fit? Do they ruin the narrative flow? Do the same thing in reverse for Matthew -- how do Luke's stories fit in Matthew? Further, there's a huge difference between Old Testament allusion and fulfillment. Allusion aligns closely with Luke's themes and purposes (I talked about this last week), but allusion does not satisfy Matthew's desire for a careful exposition of prophetic fulfillment. And then there are their themes and purposes. Over the course of the month, we will learn exactly how each of Luke's stories fits his major themes. The same is true of Matthew (although we don't have time to talk in depth about that right now).
Here's why I think this has become a point of contention: other parts of Matthew and Luke follow each other closely (see "The Synoptic Problem" from last week), and so the assumption is that every part should match. But is Matthew obligated to include everything in Luke's birth narrative? Or vice versa? Of course not. The two authors accomplished what they sought in the stories that they included.
But What About the Differences?
So, now we need to get into a stickier question. We can explain why or how different stories were included in the different Gospels, but can we explain the differences (read: discrepancies)?
A common starting point for critics and skeptics is the genealogies. Let's not sugarcoat; they're different. Luke says that Joseph was the son of Heli who the son of Matthat. Matthew says that Matthan was the father of Jacob who was the father of Joseph. And there are further deviations. So, clearly one of these authors is a moron, right? No. A common way to explain this is that Matthew presented Joseph's line and Luke presented Mary's line. The problem with that approach is both Matthew and Luke specifically say "Joseph" (and both make it clear that Joseph was not Jesus' actual father). Here are the two most common explanations: (1) they "telescoped" different generations. No one thinks that they were attempting to put every generation in the list. Luke traced Jesus all the way to Adam, connecting Jesus with every person in the world. Matthew focused on David and Abraham, key figures in Jewish history. Recognizing that "Matthat" and "Matthan" are two different people, Matthew and Luke simply recorded different generational names. (2) If we want "Matthat" and "Matthan" to be the same person, then that means Jacob and Heli were half-brothers, or one married into the family because the other died childless (similar to a levirate marriage), and Joseph became the legal firstborn of both lines. Here, it is often assumed that Matthew focused on the legal line of descent (emphasis on Jewish law and fulfillment), and Luke focused on the natural line of descent (emphasis on human relationships). Here's the point: there are actually lots of possible explanations for the differences. The fact that we aren't sure which option is correct doesn't take away anything from the validity of the Gospels.
Luke says that shepherds visited; Matthew says that magi visited. Clearly one of them got the story wrong, right? No. We'll talk about this more next week, but they're both right. The shepherds came the night of Jesus' birth, and the magi came much later. Luke focused on the shepherds as part of his emphasis that salvation is for all people, even the lowest of the low, but also because a key theme that Jesus is part of the humblest of humanity -- His birth came in a stable, and His attendants were common laborers. Matthew, focused on prophetic fulfillment, told the story of the magi which allowed him to emphasize the prophecy of Bethlehem, how the Gentiles would come to worship the Messiah, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But more on that next week.
Luke says that Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth quickly; Matthew says that they lived in a house in Bethlehem (where the magi found them) and then fled to Egypt before returning to Nazareth. Clearly one of them has the story wrong, right? I do find this one strange -- I would think that Mary would vividly remember the flight to Egypt (if she were indeed Luke's primary source). As with the genealogies, there are actually many possible reasons for this difference. It comes down to that Luke decided to emphasize Jesus being presented in the temple as a baby, and then returning to the temple as a boy. Matthew didn't tell those stories; he went with the magi and Egypt. Matthews stories align more clearly with prophetic fulfillment. Luke's stories establish his themes (as we will talk about in two weeks) -- humanity, family, and humble beginnings. The two accounts are not contradictory at all. Luke simply says that after the presentation in the temple, the family returned to Nazareth. He leaves out that their return was by way of Bethlehem and Egypt with a visit from magi (whose gifts paid for their escape to Egypt). (As an aside, I have always believed that they would have stayed away from Nazareth to protect Mary's dignity; it was a small town in which everyone would have known that Mary was pregnant before they got married.)
In summary, yes the accounts of Matthew and Luke are different, but they are not contradictory in any way. They set the stage for the major themes and purposes of these two Gospels and put us in the right frame of mind for understanding what we are reading.
The Virgin Birth and "The Immaculate Conception"
These are two important concepts to understand and distinguish. You might know them well, but you might be surprised how many people in your Sunday School class are confused by them or underestimate their meaning.
It is critical -- vital -- that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. That comes up in our passage this week when Mary tells the angel that she has never been with a man sexually. In Matthew, it is explained that Joseph discovered Mary's pregnancy before they were married. Both authors stressed that Jesus' conception was supernatural, a miracle. Jesus was not the physical son of Joseph.
For skeptics and liberals who don't believe in miracles, this is obviously a problem. But the Greek words used are clear that Mary had not had sexual intercourse before she became pregnant with Jesus. For Bible-believing Christians like us, this fact of the virgin birth so clearly explains to us how Jesus can be truly human (full experienced what it means to be human) and yet also truly God. Jesus grew in Mary's womb and was utterly dependent on her as His mom for everything. But He was not the genetic product of Joseph and Mary.
And that leads us to "the Immaculate Conception". This phrase is not talking about Jesus' Miraculous Conception. This is actually a Catholic doctrine that Mary was herself a product of a miracle. In Catholic teaching (based on Augustine -- therefore lots of Christians believe this), sin is genetic. Sin is passed down from father to child through reproduction. (If you remember the word "concupiscence", it's the idea that sex itself is always a result of sinful lust; therefore, every human is literally conceived in sin.) Jesus was not born in sin because He was not a product of sex. But how did Jesus not inherit Mary's sin? Aha! That's because Mary was also born miraculously without sin! That's how Mary has grown over the centuries to become a co-redeemer along with Jesus in Catholic folklore. And, that's also why the Catholic Church has sainted Mary's mother, whom they named Anna.
[How do I handle the logic in there? Well, I do believe that all humans are sinners -- going back to Adam's original sin -- which is why all humans need a Savior. But I don't think there has to be a genetic component to that. Humans have a body and a soul; our body is genetic, but what about our soul? The Bible does not explain that, probably because we could never understand it. Consequently, I'm not worried about whether or not Mary was a sinner (spoiler: she was). The process by which we inherit Adam's sinful nature does not apply to Jesus because Jesus was preexistent to Adam. And so you ask, "but wait, isn't Jesus fully human?" to which I respond, "yes, and yet Jesus did not sin". Those two statements are held in tension, but not in contradiction. With this topic, we get in over our head really quick.]
Where We Are in Luke
Remember the five-week outline I shared last week:
December 6: Introducing Luke, a little about Zechariah, a little about John the Baptist (we have another lesson about John in January).
December 13: Introducing Mary, Mary's song, the themes of individuals (and I also covered a harmony of the Gospels).
December 20: The Christmas story -- the shepherds and angels, with a little about Herod and Caesar Augustus (and a little about the date and the star).
December 27: Introducing Simeon and Anna, the themes of God's plan
January 3: Jesus the boy
Luke uses these first two chapters to establish two key truths: Jesus is God, and Jesus is human. Over and over again, we hear phrases like "Most High" and "Son of God" and "Holy Spirit", and we see mighty angels sent on errands related to Jesus' birth. This is no ordinary child! But at the same time, Luke reiterates Jesus' humble beginnings. Zechariah the common priest. Mary the common girl. Joseph the common man. No room in the inn. Lowly shepherds being the first visitors. A temple offering reserved for the poorest Jews. That's what Luke establishes in these first weeks' stories.
Part 1: The Greeting (Luke 1:26-29)
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be.
Nazareth was what we would call a "backwater". It had a poor reputation (remember that Nathaniel even joked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" John 1:46). In Jesus day, it had one freshwater spring, and archeological evidence shows that fewer than 400 people lived there. Emphasizing Nazareth here puts Mary (and Joseph) in the readers' minds as a common, humble girl.
"Sixth month" and "Gabriel" connects this story with Elizabeth's, so let's compare. Judea was the center of the Jewish religion. Galilee was, let's just say, off the beaten path and a bit lax in their Judaism. Zechariah was an old man. Mary is a young virgin. (Let's push this harder: in that day, it was common for girls to be betrothed once they hit puberty. It is very possible that Mary was 13-14.) Zechariah was doubtful. Mary is trusting. Just an amazing juxtaposition. God uses all kinds of people -- He does not discriminate.
Mary was a virgin. It was a breach of the betrothal contract (and a sin) to engage in sexual activity of any kind before being married. Over the rest of the chapter, she is painted as faithful, gentle, and trustworthy -- the kind of person God wants to use. (Likewise, in Matthew Joseph is painted as an honorable, gentle, caring, but serious man; here we only know that he is a descendant of David.)
Whereas the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, Gabriel speaks to Mary face-to-face. (Aside: it is a very fun speculation to wonder why the two different choices of communication!) Without using the word "joy" as he did with Zechariah, the angel sets up this message as something positive and uplifting. All good news; no bad news. This is a message of God's grace (a key theme for Luke and the root of the word "favored").
Now -- imagine being the recipient of this message. How would you react? Mary was troubled, meaning "perplexed" or "anxious". (That's a reasonable response.) What would the angel say next?
Part 2: The Declaration (Luke 1:30-33)
30 Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
On its face, this doesn't have to be particularly strange. Every betrothed girl expected, after marriage, to have children, and they hoped for a son.
But there's a little more to it than that (well, in addition to the whole being-announced-by-an-angel thing). "Jesus" is the Greek form of "Joshua", meaning "Yahweh saves". A common name, but an important one. The next part is the eyebrow-raiser: "Son of the Most High". (Here's a fun project: do a Bible search for the phrase "Most High". There are only 53 instances. What do they have in common? How does Luke use it? Note particularly how anybody in the world would understand what it means.) This is intense. "His father David" could just be a reference to Joseph's ancestry, but the mention of "throne" kicks it up a notch. The Jews haven't had a king since the exile, and they have longed for one -- associating a king with political independence. You and I both know that God had something very different in mind. This is somewhat hinted at with the phrases "forever" and "have no end". This one statement calls back to Genesis 12:1-3, 2 Samuel 7:8-16, and Isaiah 9:6-7, major and eternal covenants between God and man.
[Note: this classic painting by Murillo is applauded for capturing the humble condition of Mary. As for the winged-naked-baby-angel thing, blame Donatello.]
Now it becomes clear that the angel is not talking about an ordinary child with Joseph. He is talking about the Messiah of the Jewish people. But even then, this is more than what the Jewish people expected out of a Messiah.
If you have a good study Bible, it should list all of the Old Testament allusions in these verses. While Matthew really hammered home the prophecies, Luke swims in an Old Testament worldview. It's beautiful and astonishing. Look those up!
Part 3: The Question (Luke 1:34-37)
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Somehow or another, Mary perceived that what the angel said to her either did not have to do with Joseph or would take place before her marriage (both are accurate). And that leads to an obvious question: how can this be? She knew she was a virgin. It's very possible that she was thinking about the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (in her song, she proved to be extremely knowledgeable of the Old Testament), so she wouldn't have been doubting that it could happen; she just didn't understand.
The angel responds with, in my opinion, the most beautiful and tasteful explanation possible. Neither "come upon" nor "overshadow" are anywhere in the Greek language used as euphemisms for sexual activity; God will simply make this pregnancy happen through His supernatural, gracious intervention. Legally, this child would be considered a child of Joseph (and thus of David's line), but in actuality, this would be the Son of God.
This leads to another of Luke's themes -- the difference between the way things seem and the way things are. An immediate illustration is Elizabeth, who seemed to be too old to have children yet was pregnant. Keep your eyes open in Luke for things that seem to be (from a human perspective) vs. things that are. We will find that distinction all over the place. And it's critical! People make determinations based on what they think reality is. Elizabeth is too old. Mary must have sinned to become pregnant. Jesus was just a son of Joseph. Nothing good can come from Nazareth. And so on. But God is not limited by our perceptions or imaginations. Nothing is impossible for God. (If you think about it, isn't that what "miracle" means?) Let's trust His abundance and not our own constraints.
If it's a part of God's plan, it cannot be stopped. Can churches in America survive? Can "that person" be saved? Nothing is impossible with God. What do you think seems impossible right now in our world?
Part 4: The Commitment (Luke 1:38)
38 “See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Where Zechariah doubted, Mary believed. And that's why God picked her in the first place.
Our challenge is to measure our faith against Mary's. And remember -- Mary is a young teenage girl in a culture where young women were not given much of the time of day. With that in mind, how's your faith? How much water do your complaints about "opportunities" and "obstacles" hold? Mary had little opportunity and a lot of obstacle, and yet she is still set up for us as a model of faith.
Continuing the Story
I can tell from my article length that we're out of time and space, so I challenge you to leave a few minutes to go into the next two sections: "Mary Visits Elizabeth" and "Mary's Song".
In "Mary Visits Elizabeth" (1:39-45), we have established that Jesus is greater than John, and that Jesus is a source of grace, joy, and blessing. In "Mary's Song" (1:46-55), we learn the revolutionary theme that God not only cares about the poor and the hungry, but that He will reverse the social order and lift them up. God will deliver His people (fulfilling a desire that goes all the way back to Hannah's Song in 1 Sam 2:1-10).
In these passages, Luke not only clearly connects the story of Jesus with Old Testament, he also clearly connects Jesus with the future of the whole world.
(Note: this continues for the rest of chapter 1 and the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Grace, mercy, deliverance -- preparing the way for the salvation from God in Jesus.
That's the Christmas story.