Monday was the birth of Jesus from Matthew. Today, we start on the story from Luke.
In [Elizabeth’s] sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, who had been affianced to a man named Joseph, of David’s family. Coming in, it said, “Hello, honored one; the Lord is with you.”
She was alarmed by this message, and was speculating what sort of greeting this might be. The angel told her, “Don’t fear, Mary, for you have found grace with God. Look: You’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus. He’ll be great. He’ll be called the Most High’s son. The Lord will give him his ancestor David’s throne. He’ll be king over Jacob’s family in perpetuity. His Kingdom will never end.”
Mary told the angel, “How will this happen, since I’ve not been with a man?”
In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most High’s power will envelop you. The holy one that will be produced will be called the Son of God. Look: Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age. This is actually her sixth month—and she was called sterile. Because no word of God is impossible.”
Mary said, “Look: If it happens according to your word, I’m the Lord’s slave.”
The angel left her.
This story is preceded by the story of how John the Baptist was conceived by Mary’s relative (KJV “cousin”) Elizabeth “in her old age,” as Gabriel put it. (Lk 1.5-25) Hence the reference to Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. (Lk 1.26, 36) Some Christians take “sixth month” out of context and assume was the literal sixth month, Elul—so if Jesus was born nine months later in Sivan, he would have been born around Pentecost—and how profound is that, that Jesus was born around the same time of year the Law was given, and the same time the Holy Spirit empowered the church. But, profundity-seeking wishful thinking aside: This was Elizabeth’s sixth month. Not the year’s.
Gabriel was the angel who appeared to Daniel, (Da 8.15-27) and in the previous story appeared to John’s father Zechariah. Whether Gabriel is the same angel who spoke to Joseph, we’ve no idea. We do know the ancient Jews considered Gabriel to be the angel of the End Times, and they assumed—as both Jews and Christians do today—the Messiah will come at the End. But few had any idea there’d be two comings of the Messiah, and a Christian Era in between. Jesus’s students still believed the End was immediately coming right after Jesus was raised; that he’d take over the world. (Ac 1.6) So when an angel showed up and identified itself as Gabriel, people would understandably be thrown into a tizzy. As far as they knew, the End had come. There were a lot of mistaken assumptions people made about the Messiah. Still are.
Gabriel went to Nazareth, a town in the Galilee. Northern Israel had been conquered by Assyria in the 700s BC, and ever since had been mostly populated by Syrian Greeks. But there was a circle—a galil—of Jewish settlements in that area. Though it was still largely Gentile (“Galilee of the Gentiles,” Mt 4.15 ESV) with full-on pagan cities, Jews had moved there with the intent of making it Hebrew again. Nazareth was one of those settlements, founded by families from Bethlehem in the first century BC. By the first century of the Christian Era, priestly families were living there too. Likely this is how Elizabeth, a Levite, was related to Mary, a Judahite: Their families intermarried.
Mary was affianced to Joseph at this time: Promised to him, with oaths to God, by arrangement of her family and Joseph’s. This was often arranged as soon as girls became old enough to marry, i.e. 13 years old. A respectable engagement period would have been a year, meaning Mary was almost certainly still 13. Joseph, on the other hand, could’ve been anywhere between 13 and death: They didn’t care about age differences. Either way, that Jesus’s mother was a young teen is a startling idea to people nowadays.
Oaths to God are sacred, so in many ways a Jewish engagement was as binding as marriage. Some people teach the only way to end an engagement was by divorce—which sounds like a big deal, till you discover how outrageously easy it was to get divorced back then, and how divorce was just as common then as now. In any event, the only real difference between engagement and marriage was that, after a huge wedding feast, the couple would live together and have sex. There were no wedding vows: The vows had been made at the engagement, and they mainly had to do with the groom’s and bride’s financial obligations to one another. Not promises to love and honor; that stuff comes from New Testament teachings about husbands and wives submitting to one another. (Ep 5.21-33) Jewish weddings now have that, but didn’t then. They borrowed the idea from us.
Gabriel’s greeting was, “Hello, honored one; the Lord is with you.” The word for hello is khíre, a common Greek greeting that literally means “rejoice,” but like so many casual greetings, over time stopped really meaning that. The rest of the sentence—“honored one,” and “the Lord is with you”—were not things anyone but royalty or priests expected to hear. Coming from an angel, particularly God’s End Times angel, they were really unexpected. Hence Mary’s utter confusion. Gabriel probably should have started with “Don’t fear.” But angels aren’t infallible. Only God is.
Anyway, it got to its point: “You’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus.” And so forth. I translated these statements as separate sentences, but they can also be translated as a big long excited run-on sentence, because likely Gabriel was excited. This was big news. Jesus was coming.
Mary recognized Gabriel wasn’t talking about something that would happen some time from now—specifically, after she was married. This was happening now. She was gonna conceive now. God wasn’t going to wait till the wedding. So she asked the reasonable question, “How will this happen, since I’ve not been with a man?”—literally “not known a man,” which is a Hebrew euphemism (just like our English “been with a man”) for sex. I don’t know whether Mary had heard the Greek myths about how Zeus produced his “sons of god,” but she certainly knew the LORD doesn’t behave that way, and wanted to know how he’d pull it off.
Miraculously, of course. The Holy Spirit, using God’s power, would “envelop” her—in KJV, “overshadow,” which is a literal translation of epi-skiádzo, but we’re talking about a “shadow” made of light. Gabriel’s answer really was kinda vague, when you think about it—maybe it didn’t know all the details, either—but it knew God could do it, and it trusted God. For confirmation, it pointed to Elizabeth—a woman beyond childbearing age who was six months pregnant—and reminded Mary how God can do the impossible. Literally it said uk adynatísi pará tu Theú pan ríma—“it won’t be impossible, by God, every word.”
Mary’s response is often interpreted, “Let it happen to me,” and this is pointed to as an example of her great faith and submissive attitude. Actually, the King James has “be it unto me according to thy word.” The phrase “be it unto me” doesn’t mean let it happen, but if it happens. The original verb, géno’itó, means it could happen, not that it will. Not that Mary was granting God permission for this to happen. According to the Law, Mary had no right to give anyone permission for such a thing. Her will could easily have been overturned by her father, (Nu 30.3-5) and later her husband. (Nu 30.6-14) But God didn’t seek her permission. He was telling her what he was gonna do. She could get on board, or not. He wanted her on board, and he knew her well enough to know she’d be the sort who would go along with it. He was picking her, essentially, to be his own mother. He didn’t choose her lightly.
And Mary was rightly submissive: “If it happens, I’m the Lord’s slave.” She had the right attitude. But the “if it happens” shows that while she had faith, she wasn’t naïve. Yes, God can do the impossible, but she knew better than to just believe anything she was told, to just trust some being who claimed to be an angel out of the bible. The very next thing she did was go visit Elizabeth and get that confirmation.
So here we see some of the character qualities which made Mary an outstanding mother for Jesus, just as we see the qualities that made Joseph an outstanding father. God knew exactly what he was doing when he picked them.