It is difficult to approach the story of our Lord's virgin birth without a sense of holy awe. It is one of the most moving and inspiring of all stories.
Luke tells us that in the sixth month the angel Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth . The sixth month of what? The sixth month of Elisabeth's conception. Elisabeth, a kinswoman of Mary, was a greatly older woman, well along in years after a lifetime of barrenness. God had announced that through her the forerunner, the prophet who should prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, would be born.
The birth of John the Baptist was announced in the solemn grandeur of the temple; that of Jesus, in a humble home in Galilee . And yet the beauty and holiness which accompanies that annunciation and the events that follow are unrivaled in all of history. A hymn written in the very earliest times of the Christian church echoes the sense of reverence which the church has felt as it has sung of that event: Ave Maria. The song in its original form is purely Biblical. The third portion, which begins, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, was added in the 15th century and was not even officially in use until 1568; but the original form of the hymn, the first two parts, comes from the earliest days of the Christian church.
Mary, we are told, was a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. In those days in Israel , betrothal, or we would say engagement, was the legal act of marriage. The only way a betrothal could be broken was by divorce. The property settlement was made at that time; the girl's property was vested in the future husband; and although they did not live together until at least a year was passed, they were legally man and wife. Commonly during that year the young man earned the dowry which was to go to the bride to be part of the family capital, her treasury, and the inheritance of her children. Thus, any unfaithfulness on the part of a betrothed girl was, according to law, punishable by death; this is clearly stated in Deuteronomy 22, 23, and 24.
The angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou that are highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
The reaction of Mary to the appearance of the angel Gabriel and this salutation perhaps comes through to us a little more clearly because the wording is unfamiliar enough to give us a little bit sharper focus on it in the translation by the great Lutheran scholar Lenski in his commentary. He translates verses 29 and 30 thus:
But she was greatly perturbed at the word and began to argue with herself of what kind this greeting might be. And the angel said to her, Stop being afraid, Mary, for thou didst find favor with God.
Then Gabriel went on to make the great announcement: And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. The name Jesus means, God is our salvation. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest (or, Son of the Most High'): and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David. (He who shall be born of you miraculously shall be the Son of God, very God of very God; but He shall also be the son of David, very man of very man.) And He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end. (He shall be the Messianic King, the Messianic King foretold by David and the prophets of old, and He shall also be the eternal King, King of kings and Lord of lords, eternally King, so that His rule shall be over time and over eternity, over this world and over the world to come.)
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?' Mary was not only a woman full of grace but also a woman with a down-to-earth realism, and this is real holiness; she realized immediately that this glorious miracle presented for her a tremendous problem: she was legally wed to someone; and if she became pregnant, she was liable to the death penalty if her husband filed charges against her. She knew she would be wide open to gossip, to accusations; and indeed, we do know that for a time, according to St. Matthew, Joseph thought of putting her away until God spoke to him in a vision.
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. Not a word said as to how she is to protect herself. Simply the announcement, and Mary's responsive duty to receive it by faith.
God Becomes Man
The virgin birth is the greatest miracle of Scripture. It is in a very real respect the key miracle because we cannot take away the supernaturalness of our Lord's birth without destroying Christianity. Without the virgin birth we reduce the faith to the level of all paganisms because the essence of all paganism is man's apotheosis man becoming God. But the essence of the Christmas story is that God became man . This was an act of sheer grace on God's part; and man's salvation is not man becoming God as it is in all of paganism, but God became man and for our salvation assumed the fullness of humanity, fulfilled the full requirements of the law, died as our sin-bearer, and arose as He who conquered sin and death for us.
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. Here Gabriel, in effect, hints to Mary, Go to your cousin, Elisabeth. She, too, is the object of a miracle. Rejoice with her and she with you in that which God has done. For with God nothing shall be impossible. This then is a tremendous declaration. Problems, yes, of a certainty. God cannot enter into this sinful world without the sinful world striking back. Men cannot take the course of holiness and truth and righteousness without the world lashing out at them in hatred. Problems, of a certainty; but with God nothing shall be impossible.
Mary's Faith and Ours
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.' And the angel departed from her. Here we see the greatness of Mary's faith, Behold the handmaid of the Lord. The word handmaid has a beauty, an old-fashioned ring to it that takes away, to a certain extent, the literalness of the word and its meaning. It means simply, Behold the female slave of the Lord. And with that statement she avows her total submission to whatever God does, whatever God brings upon her. Here we have true faith, this total submission. And there cannot be true faith without this kind of submission. Where men pick and choose at God's Word and declare, I will believe this and I will not believe that, they have denied Scripture and set themselves as gods above God, as judge over His Word. But true faith everywhere will say even as Mary, Behold the handmaid (or, manservant) of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.
The New Humanity
This was the annunciation of our Lord's birth. His birth marked the beginning of a new creation, of the new heavens and the new earth. He was the second Adam, born from above, come to usher in a new world. That new world grows day by day. Whenever a Christian enters into the kingdom, is converted, he is born into the citizenship of that new creation so that we have, as it were, a life in two worlds: by virtue of our birth in the old Adam we belong to a world which is sentenced to death; by virtue of our rebirth in Jesus Christ we belong to that new creation which shall grow and abound unto eternal life and to the fullness of all hope, all the promises of life.
Moreover, the birth of our Lord sets forth God's continuity in His work. He did not destroy the old creation to make way for the new Adam and the new world. He used the old to create the new: Mary, a daughter of Adam, to give birth to Christ, the second Adam. And there is the same continuity in our lives. He uses the material and the framework of the old man in us, the old Adam, to create the new man in Christ. When Scripture declares, Behold, I make all things new, this is what the Lord means. It is to be understood in terms of this continuity, of the new or renewed work of creation in terms of Christ so that we are fully recognizable in terms of what we were before we became members of Christ and yet wholly new in that we have a new heart, a new life, a new perspective. We are fully recognizable and yet truly new. And so is the new creation which is our destiny. It is now beyond our imagination; but when we enter into it, it shall be fully recognizable; and we shall know it to be the fulfillment of all this in our being, of all our hopes, of all the potentialities of nature and men. Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
This, then, is the glorious annunciation of our Lord's birth declared unto Mary and in Mary finding a response which is the type (meaning symbol or foreshadowing) of true faith: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Let us pray:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we give thanks unto Thee for the glory of Thy Word and of Thy so great salvation made known to us through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Savior. We thank Thee, our Father, that He as born of us, of the virgin Mary, is very man of very man, in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. But we thank Thee, our Father, that He is also very God of very God, the eternal One, and that in Him we have access unto the throne of grace. Our God, we thank Thee.
In Jesus Name. Amen.
Topics: Biblical Commentary