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Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary About Jesus’ Birth -
A Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Luke 1:26-27 - Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

In verses 1:26-27, Luke tells us the persons, place, and time, of Jesus' birth announcement, just as he had with John's (1:5f.) As mentioned earlier, Luke is employing step parallelism and so the birth announcement of Jesus is patterned the same way as John's to make comparison and memorization easy (see page one of this study). There are clear similarities between John and Jesus, both men will be pivotal agent's of God's salvation. But Jesus is clearly the greater, since he is the Son of God as well as man, etc.

"Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God"

"In the sixth month" refers to the six month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, rather than the six month of the Jewish or Roman year.

Once again, the angel Gabriel is sent by God with a salvific message of great importance. That Gabriel is sent again (rather than another angel) shows that the announcement of Jesus' birth was of no less importance than John's. Rather, as we will see, it is of greater importance.

"to a city in Galilee called Nazareth,"

Only Luke mentions that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth before Jesus was born. Matthew gives the impression (but it is only an impression) that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus settled in Nazareth only after Jesus was born and only because Archelaus was ruling in Judea. All the Gospels recognize that Jesus had been brought up in, and therefore, was "from" Nazareth (Mt. 2:23; 21:11; Mk. 1:9; Lk. 4:16; John 1:45-46; Acts 10:38).

"to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary."

Notes: Mary is clearly identified as a virgin not once, but twice. This is fortified by Mary's admission in 1:34 that she had not known a man and Gabriel's explanation of how such a conception could take place. Many "Christian" studies have denied that Mary was a virgin and the resulting supernatural virginal conception of Jesus. The real reason for their denial of the virgin birth is their bias against the supernatural, i.e., they don't believe that the miraculous described in Scripture really happened or can happen. Because of this bias against the miraculous they then try to argue that the text doesn't really say that Mary was a virgin when she conceived (for a thorough discussion of these arguments against the virgin birth see Brown, 298-309).

Fitzmyer, for example, (cited in Brown, 299-301) argues that there is nothing in this Lucan text that disallows that Mary and Joseph could have had sexual relations soon after Gabriel's announcement. While Matthew's Gospel makes it clear that this did not happen (Matthew 1:18, 25: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit . . . but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus." Matthew also has the explicit quotation of Isaiah 7:14, which Luke does not have: ""Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," ), Fitzmyer is arguing on the basis of Luke's Gospel alone.

Mary's question in 1:34, however, along with the angel's explanation of how the conception would take place in 1:35 ("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.") makes Fitzmyer's view impossible. Brown rightly contrasts Mary virginal conception with John's birth announcement. John's conception and birth was clearly a miracle (in that Elizabeth was old, like Sarah had been before her), but there is nothing in the text that suggests that Elizabeth's conception happened in anything but a normal way. i.e., through sexual relations with Zechariah. But with Mary clearly something greater is happening here (Brown, 299-301).

Another argument attacks the Greek and Hebrew words for "virgin," namely the Greek parthenos and almah, saying that these words typically mean merely "maiden" not "virgin." Just has a succinct answer to this argument:

    Nevertheless, this Greek word, used also in the LXX of Is 7:14, means "virgin," not just "maiden" or "young woman." The same is true of almah in Is 7:14, and no philological studies have convincingly shown otherwise. parthenos occurs fifteen times in the NT; almah occurs seven times in the OT, and in no case is there an indication that the person referred to is not a virgin. Moreover, the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on more than the lexical meaning of the words. Mary's question in 1:34 and the parallel passage in Mt 1:18-25 confirm the doctrine and exclude any other explanations for Jesus' conception (Just, 61).

For those who want to further examine this for themselves, the fifteen NT occurrences of parthenos are Mt. 1:23; 25:1, 7, 11; Lk. 1:27; Acts 21:9; 1 Co. 7:25, 28, 34, 36, 37, 38; 2 Co. 11:2; Rev. 14:4. The seven OT occurrences of almah are Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:26 [68:25]; Prov. 30:19; Sol. 1:3; 6:8; Is. 7:14.

The Nicene Creed nicely summarizes this glorious teaching of the virgin birth. Jesus, "true God of true God" . . . was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man."

Luke says that Mary was already "betrothed" to Joseph. The word is mnesteuo, the normal word for engagement or betrothal, rather than gameo, the typical NT word for "to be married." But as Marshall as pointed out, betrothal "usually lasted about a year . . . . Although it was regarded as equally binding as marriage, the girl having the same legal position as a wife, it was not normal for intercourse to take place during this period" (Marshall, 64). We also know from Matthew 1:18 that Joseph and Mary were not yet living together. The name Joseph means "May he (God) add (sons)." Most commentators understand the words "of the house of David" grammatically to be referring to Joseph here. Many in the early church, however, understood this phrase to be asserting Mary's Davidic lineage, including Origin, Ignatius (in Eph. 18:2), Justin (Dialogue 43, 45, 100, 120). The virgin's name was Mary, Mariam in the Greek, though it is spelled as Maria in Luke 1:41 and 2:19. The name is said to mean "exalted one." It was a common name being the equivalent of the Old Testament miryam, Moses' sister (Ex. 15:20f.).

Luke 1:28 - And coming in, he said to her, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

"And coming in,"

Notes: Whereas, Gabriel "appeared" to Zechariah, he "enters" or "comes in" to Mary, which can mean that he merely walked in the door or entered in miraculously. Clearly, though this conversation happened indoors.

"he said to her, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

The greeting contains three parts. (1) "Greetings," (2) "favored one!" (3) "The Lord is with you."
 

(1) The Greek word translated "greetings" is the Greek imperative chaire which was a common expression of greetings among the Greeks. It could also be translated "Hello" or "Hail" or "Good morning." The verb chairo normally means "rejoice" or "be glad." Because the imperative form of chaire is also found in the LXX version of Zephaniah 3:14 and Zechariah 9:9 where the daughter of Zion is addressed, some commentators following the lead of Lyonette believe that Mary symbolizes the daughter of Zion, that is, the people of God, the Church. Just, for example, favorably passes on this understanding (Just, 65-66, also fn. 9-10). I find all this quite unconvincing. The angel greeted Mary with a common Aramaic word for "hello" or possibly `rejoice." Luke under the Spirit's guidance simply choose the common Greek word that conveyed the same thing. Seeing Mary here as the embodiment of God's people cannot help but invite a kind of mariology into the church that credits her with too much. There is no real evidence for it in the text it is an exegetical stretch, to say the least! I agree with Marshall's assessment, "But a typological identification of Mary with the daughter of Zion is nowhere explicit, and it would tend to distract attention from the coming of the Messiah to the mother" (Marshall, 65).
 

(2) Gabriel next calls Mary "favored one" (kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle of charitoo). Charitoo, "to bestow grace/favor" is the verb form of the noun charis, "grace, favor." The passive form ensures that Gabriel is addressing Mary as the recipient of God's grace or favor, rather than the giver of it. The Latin Vulgate translation of this word "full of grace" (gratia plena) is unfortunate and inaccurate as it has led to exaggerated claims for Mary: that because she was full of grace, she now is able to dispense grace to sinners. There is no support in all of Scripture for such a claim. Moreover, Roman Catholic theology has tended to quantify God's grace and make it something that grows "inside us." Luther recovered the NT notion of grace as God's gracious attitude toward us for Christ's sake that is "outside of us." Therefore, I cannot agree with Just's statement, that "the Vulgate's rendering . . . even if `full' is overstated, may be rightly understood in the sense of `unmerited grace received from God,' but the passive Greek participle and the context are abused das `grace now available to give others'" (Just, 67). My point of disagreement is that the Vulgate translation "full of grace" is a bad translation. Luke knows how to write "full of grace" if he chooses (see Acts 6:8). And the translation leads to an internalized view of grace that destroys it by making our salvation dependent on growth inside of me. Mary is a sinner that God regards graciously, not because of anything meritorious in her. In the same sense, every Christian is a "favored one."
 

(3) Gabriel says to Mary, "The Lord is with you." This is a marvelous OT greeting (Judges 6:12; Ruth 2:4; 2 Samuel 7:3) which is meant to be a statement of fact rather than a wish. It also speaks to more than God's presence, as in "The Lord is physically or spatially with you." It carries the meaning that the "The Lord is on your side to help you." This statement does not refer to the incarnate Lord within her womb, because the incarnation had not yet occurred.
 

Luke 1:29 - But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.

"But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was."
 

Notes: Mary's reaction was that she became "perplexed" or "troubled." The Greek word behind these translations was is diatarasso, from the same word family as tarasso which described Zechariah's reaction to the angel in 1:12. It is actually a stronger version of the verb and a more accurate translation might be "greatly confused." In addition to denoting fear, the word family can also indicate being moved with deep emotion, such as sadness (see, for example, John 11:33; 12:27; 13:21). This is the only time that diatarasso is used in the NT.
 

An important difference: Mary became greatly disturbed by Gabriel's words, whereas Zechariah became frightened by Gabriel. It was Gabriel's greeting that confused Mary. Why? Likely because he greeted her in such exalted terms, similar to the way great men of the OT had been greeted (e.g., Gideon, Judges 6:12). Not because it was unusual for a man to greet a woman, as has sometimes been suggested. The second part of the verse bears this out. It was the highly unusual nature of the message, not the message itself that confused and frightened Mary.
 

Luke 1:30 - The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.
 

"The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God."
 

Gabriel spoke the same me phobou ("fear not") to Mary that he had spoken to Zechariah in 1:13. The present imperative with the negative commands someone to stop an action already begun, so "Stop being afraid, Mary" would be the sense here.
 

The expression, "for you have found favor with God," gives the reason why Mary should not fear. "You have found favor with God," is a semitism and is found in the Old Testament, for example, in Gen. 6:8: "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD." See also Judges 6:17 and 2 Sam. 15:25. The word "favor" is actually a translation the Greek word charis (from the same word family as charitoo in 1:28), which is normally translated "grace" (as in Acts 15:11, Eph. 2:8). To have "found favor with God" means to be approved by him not because of anything meritorious in her (she is a sinner like everyone else!) but because of His gracious choice. Luke uses a similar expression in Stephen's speech in Acts 7:46: ""David found favor in God's sight." Actually the very same thing can be said of any Christian, that they have found favor in God's sight!
 

The Birth Announcement
 

Luke 1:31 - "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus."
 

"And behold"
 

Notes: The phrase "kai idou" ("and behold") occurs 26 times in Luke's gospel and four times in these infancy narratives. The expression marks either a saying or an event of importance. It alerts the listener or reader that what is coming next is very important and can also be translated as "pay attention!" or "look!" or "listen! This is also true when the word idou occurs by itself. Altogether the word idou occurs 57 times in Luke's gospel and ten times in the infancy narratives. Only Matthew uses the word more (62 times). John uses it four times (he prefers the similar word ide, as in John 1:29, which he employs 15x). Mark uses idou 7 times. Gabriel already used this language, as recorded in Luke 1:20.
 

"you will conceive in your womb and bear a son"
 

Notes: Some commentators suggest that Gabriel is telling Mary that she already is pregnant. They claim that the Hebrew participial construction in birth announcements can be either present or future in tense. They point to the angel's message to Hagar in Gen. 16:11, very similar in form to our current text, because Hagar was already pregnant: "The angel of the LORD said to her further, "Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction." This is hardly convincing, however, since the verb in the Greek, translated as "will conceive" is clearly in the future tense (sullempse). In addition, another OT birth announcement similar in form to this, takes the Hebrew construction in the future sense. The future mother of Samson is told: " "Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son" (Judges 13:3). Also significant is Mary question in 1:34: "How will this be . . . ? (The future form of the verb "to be' is used in the Greek, estai) and the fact that in Gabriel's answer in 1:35 the future tense is consistently used.
 

Though Luke, unlike Matthew (1:22-23), doesn't quote Isaiah 7:14 or explicitly reference it, the words of Gabriel in 1:31 sound very similar to Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel." A key difference in Luke's account of course is in the naming. About this, see below.
 

More importantly, Gabriel is declaring that the incarnation of the Son of God shall be similar to the conception of any child in one sense. In other words, God's Son will be conceived and gradually develop in the womb just as any other child does. Amazing! But see 1:35 below.
 

"and you shall call his name Jesus."
 

Notes: As in the case of John, God himself names the child. The name Iesous is a Greek form of the Hebrew yesa, which is a shortened form for yehsua, that is, "Joshua" the name of the successor of Moses. The Hebrew name for Joshua is translated in the LXX as Iesous (Jesus). Marshall tells us that this name was a common name up until the second century A.D. After this both Christians (out of respect) and Jews (out of disdain) stopped naming their children "Jesus" (Marshall, 67). See Luke 3:29 and Col. 4:11, for examples of other men who bore the name "Jesus." The meaning of the name, which Matthew makes clear in Mt. 1:21, is "Yahweh saves." Brown demonstrates that the Hellenistic Jewish scholar Philo (first century B.C.) agreed with this etymology. Philo writes, "Jesus [Joshua] is interpreted salvation of the Lord, a name for the best possible state." Cited in Brown, 131. In this passage Mary is commanded to name the child and in Mt. 1:21 Joseph is. In the OT both father (Gen. 4:26, 5:3) and mother (Gen. 4:25) named children. Of course, Matthew spells out the significance of this: "for he shall save his people from their sins" (1:21).
 

Jesus' Identity and Mission Explained
 

Luke 1:32-33 - 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 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.
 

"This one will be great"
 

Notes: As mentioned previously, whereas John's greatness is qualified (in the sight of the Lord; cf. 1:15) the greatness of Jesus is unqualified by a simple statement: "This one will be great."
 

"and will be called the Son of the Most High"
 

Notes: Does the fact that the text says "he will be called" (klethesetai) rather "he will be" the Son of the Most High indicate that Jesus was not the Son of God by nature but in name only? Hardly, for "to call" in the NT can be the same as "to be" as a comparison of Matthew 5:9 and Luke 6:35 shows:

Matthew 5:9 - "for they shall be called sons of God."

Luke 6:35 - "and you will be sons of the Most High."

This is not merely Jesus' title, it is a statement of who he will be, not merely a name but a description of being. See Brown, 289; Marshall, 67.
 

The expression "ho hupsistos" ("the Most High") is very common in the LXX and it is equivalent to Hebrew el elyn. The first occurrence of it is in Gen. 14:18: "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High." It also occurs in Balaam's fourth oracle in Numb. 24:16. It is fairly numerous in the Psalms appearing at 7:17; 13:5; 21:7; 77:10; 82:6; 91:1; 107:11 [note that these are the Hebrew and English translation references]. It is especially plentiful in Daniel, occurring 12 times. In the NT, it is used most often in Luke, 7 times and four of these are in the infancy narratives.
 

Jesus will be the "Son" of the Most High God. This is Messianic title and is perhaps an allusion to 2 Samuel 7:14, where God says to David about the Messiah, "I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me." Though all believers are called "sons of the Most High" in Ps. 82:6 (quoted by Jesus in John 10:34), or "sons of God" (Luke 20:36; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:26), the child to be born was is the Son of God from eternity. Psalm 2:7-8: "I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. 8 'Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. `" Also, Isaiah 9:6: "or a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace." John 1:1-2 is applicable also: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God." Hebrews 1:2-8 is especially instructive:

    in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they. 5 For to which of the angels did He ever say, "YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU"? And again, "I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME"? 6 And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, "AND LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM." 7 And of the angels He says, "WHO MAKES HIS ANGELS WINDS, AND HIS MINISTERS A FLAME OF FIRE." 8 But of the Son He says, "YOUR THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER, AND THE RIGHTEOUS SCEPTER IS THE SCEPTER OF HIS KINGDOM.

Whereas Christians are sons of God by adoption, Jesus is the Son of God by nature: "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4-5).
 

That Jesus the man is also Son of God is the unanimous teaching of the NT confessed by disciples (Matthew 14:33; 16:16-17; Mark 1:1; John 1:34, 49; Acts 9:20; Rom. 1:4; 2 Co. 1:19; Heb. 4:14; many more, esp. in 1 John), angels (Luke 1:32, 35) demons (Luke 4:41; 8:28), centurions (Mark 15:39) and Jesus (Luke 22:70; many examples in John's Gospel) and God the Father himself at Christ's baptism (Luke 3:22) and his transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; 2 Peter 1:17). Furthermore, salvation depends on believing and confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, damnation results in not believing in the Son (John 3:18, 36; 20:31; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:13; 1 John 4:9, 15; 5:12- 13, 20).
 

"and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end."
 

Notes: This is the direct reference to 2 Samuel 7:12-13, a prophesy of God's Messiah, who would save Israel: "When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 "He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever." That these words were not spoken about Solomon is clear from the eternal nature of the reign of David's descendent (see also 2 Sam. 7:16). The promise of the Messiah who reign over the house of David forever was repeated throughout the OT period.

    Psalm 89:3-4 - ""I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, 4 I will establish your seed forever And build up your throne to all generations."

    Isaiah 9:6-7 - "For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this."

    Isaiah 11:1-5, 10 - "Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear; 4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. 5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist . . . 10 Then in that day The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious."

    Jeremiah 23:5-6 - " "Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely And do justice and righteousness in the land. 6 "In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, 'The LORD our righteousness.'"

Daniel saw a vision of the Messiah (which he calls the "Son of Man") receiving his kingdom:

    Daniel 7:13-14 - "I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. 14 "And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed."

Gabriel's words tell Mary unmistakably that the son to be born to her will be the Messiah, the son of David. Jesus himself would later take up this very question to silence the Sadducees: "Then He said to them, "How is it that they say the Christ is David's son? 42 "For David himself says in the book of Psalms, 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, 43 UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET."' 44 "Therefore David calls Him 'Lord,' and how is He his son?" (Luke 20:41-44). The answer, of course, is that the Christ was both God and man in one person! He was son of David according to his human nature and Son of God according to his divine nature.
 

It was also for this reason that Jesus was hailed as the "Son of David" throughout his ministry (Luke 18:38-39; Matthew 9:27; Matthew 15:22). When Jesus entered Jerusalem on "Palm Sunday" the crowds addressed him as "Son of David": ""Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!" (Mt. 21:9). Even those who were not convinced were wondering, "All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, `This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?'" (Mt. 12:23). This was also the preaching of the apostles, as recorded in the Acts (2:30 and 13:22-23). See also Rom. 1:3 and 2 Tim. 2:8. In Rev. 5:5 Jesus is referred to as "the root of David" and "the lion that is from the tribe of Judah," a clear reference to Gen. 49:10. And in Rev. 22:16, Jesus says of himself, "I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
 

Luke 1:34 - "Mary said to the angel, `How can this be, since I am a virgin?'"
 

"`How can this be, since I am a virgin?'"
 

Notes: Mary's simple question has been the subject of intense and microscopic scholarly debate. Bock does an admirable job of summarizing the various interpretations of what Mary's question meant (Bock, 118-121; See also Brown, 303- 309). Behind many of the interpretations is a basic problem. Gabriel had told Mary that she would conceive and give birth in the future. Therefore, it seems odd that Mary questions how the conception would occur since she would soon be married to Joseph. It is argued by some scholars that surely Mary would have deduced that the child would be conceived through sexual relations with Joseph her future husband. In other words, Gabriel said the conception would happen in the future; Mary was going to be married to Joseph in the future. So what does her present virginity have to do with it?
 

Some (esp. Roman Catholic interpreters, see Brown, 303-305; Marshall, 69) hold that Mary had made a vow of perpetual virginity and this was the reason for her question. There is no evidence for this position, however. Others are convinced that Mary's question is merely a literary device invented by Luke. Mary actually never asked the question. This view is to be dismissed because it does not take the historical nature of the text seriously. The best answer, which is also the traditional one, is that Mary understood Gabriel to be saying that the conception of Jesus would happen in the immediate future, very soon, long before her marriage was consummated with Joseph. Therefore, her present virginity was a logical obstacle in her mind! In addition, it is possible that Mary was familiar with Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would conceive and bear the Messiah, and this was also caused her to ask the question.
 

Though some scholars go to ridiculous lengths to deny it, it is clear that Luke intended to teach the virgin birth in this section. In addition to this verse, he twice referred to Mary as a virgin in 1:27. Plus, Gabriel's answer to Mary's question in 1:35 is obviously describing a miraculous conception, rather than a natural one.
 

As part of the step parallelism in this passage, Mary questioned the angel's word as Zechariah had before her (1:18). The questions, however, though similar, are not identical.

Mary: "How will this be because I do not know a man?"

Zechariah: How will I know this, because my I am old and my wife is advanced in days?"

At least one commentator makes much over the fact that Mary was not asking for a sign, since the form of her question ("How will/can this be?") is different from Zechariah's ("How will I know this?") (Bock, 118). This, however is making too much out of the grammatical difference. Both questioners (in the form of a causal clause) state the reason why their question is necessary. Mary's virginity makes her question the angel's announcement that she would soon conceive a son. Zechariah and Elizabeth's old age make him question Gabriel's announcement of the birth of John. Both questioners are asking for an explanation of how such incredible births will be possible.
 

Two differences are worth noting, however. First, whereas Gabriel struck Zechariah mute because he had not believed the angel's word (which also became the sign) (1:20), Mary is not chastised in any way. Gabriel says nothing about a lack of faith in her. Because of this it is fully justified to conclude as Just has put it, "But unlike Zechariah, her wondering is not laced with skepticism. It is a simple and honest question she poses" (Just, 69). A parallel to this is God's acceptance of Abel's offering and rejection of Cain's (Gen. 4:3-5). As the letter to the Hebrews expliclitly tells us, God's different attitude toward the two brothers is to be explained by faith: "By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous" (Heb. 11:4). Abel's offering was "by faith," whereas, by implication, Cain's was not. Likewise, Mary's question contained no disbelief, whereas Zechariah's question did.
 

Whether or not Mary was asking for a sign, Gabriel gave her one, as recorded in 1:36: the miraculous birth of Elizabeth is the sign that what Gabriel had said to Mary would indeed come true. This is the reason Mary went "with haste" to the hill country to visit Elizabeth (1:39).
 

Luke 1:35 - "The angel answered and said 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.'"
 

This is a magnificent statement. It is one of only two explanations in all of Scripture of one of the most significant events of our salvation: the incarnation - that the Son of God became flesh, human. The incarnation is confessed and stated in various places in Scripture (e.g., Is. 7:14; 9:6-7; Micah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38; John 1:1- 4, 14-18; Heb. 2:9-18; Rom. 1:1-4; 8:1-4; 2 Co. 8:9; Gal. 4:4-7; Phil. 2:4-11; 1 John 4:1- 3). Only here and in Matthew 1:20, however, is an explanation of the how of the incarnation, albeit a simple one, given.
 

Gabriel says that the incarnation will happen in the following way:
 

"The Holy Spirit will come upon (eperchomai) you."
 

Notes: The same Holy Spirit who was intimately involved in creation (Gen. 1:2) is involved in our Lord's incarnation.
 

Isaiah prophesies of a day when the Holy Spirit was to "come on us from on high" (Is. 32:15 where the same Greek verb, eperchomai, is used in the LXX). The language of the Holy Spirit "coming upon" Mary is also reminiscent of the way the Holy Spirit had inspired the OT prophets for prophesy, leadership, or great deeds. Thus, "the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah," one of the judges who delivered Israel (Judges 11:29); the Spirit of the Lord came on Samson mightily giving supernatural strength (Judges 15:14); the Spirit of Elijah came to rest on Elisha (2 Kings 2:15); "the Spirit of God came on Azariah the son of Oded," so that he went and prophesied to King Asa (2 Chron. 15:1); and "the Spirit of God came on Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest," so that he prophesied to the people and in turn was stoned to death by them (2 Chron. 24:20). Indeed upon the root of Jesse himself (Messiah) himself will the Spirit rest (Is. 11:2), something that was fulfilled at Christ's baptism (Luke 3:22). And in the last days God will pour out His Spirit on all mankind (Joel 2:28-29), something that was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
 

Amazingly, before he ascended into heaven Jesus promised that all those who believed in him "will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon (eperchomai) you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
 

All this is not to suggest that the Spirit's "coming on" other saints was identical with the way He came on Mary in the incarnation. Certainly, His interaction with Mary in bringing forth the incarnation of the Son of God was unique. Only this one time, only with Mary, did the Holy Spirit act in this awesome way. The point of the foregoing is that the Spirit had also "come on" other believers to accomplish the great acts of God.
 

Gabriel also states that
 

"the power of the Most High will overshadow (episkiazo) you."
 

Notes: As mentioned previously, the name "Most High" (hupsistos) refers to Yahweh, the entire Trinity, not just to the Father alone. In some inscrutable way, God's power will "overshadow" or "cover" Mary in order to bring about the incarnation. The verb episkiazo (overshadow, cover) is often used in connection with clouds. Significantly, during the exodus (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-31) and during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Yahweh's presence to His people was manifested as a pillar of cloud by day (Deut. 1:33). We are told that, "Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and the LORD would speak with Moses." (Ex. 33:9). Moreover, "throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel." (Ex. 40:38; Numb. 9:15-16). In fact, in Exodus 40:35, we are told that, the presence of Yahweh in a cloud overshadowed (episkiazo) the tabernacle, so that Moses was not able to enter. God warned Aaron through Moses that never was he to enter the most holy place inside the veil (except for the day of atonement) "for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat." (Lev. 16:2). When the Israelites had finished Solomon's temple, after the priests had placed the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, the glory of the Lord appeared in the form of a cloud, filling the temple. (1 Kings. 8:10-11). Finally we are told that at the transfiguration of Jesus, a cloud overshadowed (episkiazo) him and his disciples, and God the Father's voice spoke from the cloud (Luke 9:34; Mark 9:7; Mt. 17:5 - Matthew's gospel says, a "bright" cloud). This is not to suggest that such a overshadowing cloud was an ordinary water-based cloud; rather God manifested his powerful presence in a visible form that resembled a water-based cloud.
 

Gabriel's explanation was certainly not meant to satisfy inquiring minds (especially not inquiring "post-modern" minds). This was never intended to be a scientific explanation of the incarnation. Its intention was to declare that the incarnation would be a miracle, made possible by the action of the Holy Spirit and the power of Yahweh. Nor is there anything here that would support the silly theory that Luke is describing a divine and human mating, as in Greek mythology.
 

"and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God."
 

Notes: It is because of the incarnation that Mary's child Jesus will be called the Son of God. Luke almost gives the impression that Jesus would become the Son of God when he was conceived in Mary's womb by the power of Yahweh. Many passages in the OT and NT show that this is an inaccurate understanding. Rather the incarnation involved the eternal Son of God taking to himself human nature from Mary, so as to become a new Person, a Person who was now both Son of God and man in one Person. The divine nature of Jesus existed from eternity; the human nature of Jesus did not. But when the incarnation occurred, both natures, because they were united in the one Person of Christ, shared in the qualities of the other nature. Nor did the Son of God lay aside his human nature when he rose from the dead (Jehovah's Witnesses) or when he ascended into heaven, so that the Jesus in heaven will only be the Son of God. Our Savior will be the God-man for eternity.
 

Another false understanding of the incarnation might arise from a faulty interpretation of passages like John 1:14 ("and the Word became flesh") and Phil. 2:6-7 ("who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.") These passages have been wrongly interpreted to mean that after the incarnation Jesus was no longer the Son of God because he "became flesh" (human) and had "emptied himself" of his divine nature. The Word did become flesh but without giving up being the Word (God). The Philippians passage means that our Savior did not make full use of his divine nature during his earthly ministry, but he was still very much God. The very fact that Jesus accepted and did not rebuke those who confessed or questioned whether he was God or the Son of God demonstrates this:

    Mark 14:61-62 - But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" 62 And Jesus said, "I am;"

    Matthew 16:16-17 - Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

    John 1:49-50 - Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel." 50 Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these."

    John 20:28-29 - Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."

    Mark 3:11-12 - Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, "You are the Son of God!" 12 And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was.

Gabriel refers to Jesus as a "holy" Child. Jesus will be holy because he will be conceived and born by the Holy Spirit, and therefore will be without sin (2 Co. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26). He would be conceived and born without sin because he had no earthly father, through whose seed original sin is passed on. Jesus was human in the truly authentic sense, as God had intended, human without sin, without corruption, without the curse of death. Since Jesus had no sin, would he have aged or died if he had not been crucified. Interesting question, that!
 

Luke 1:36-37 - "And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 "For nothing will be impossible with God."

"And behold, even your relative Elizabeth"

Notes: For the first time we are told that Mary was related to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is described as a sungenis, a "female relative," "kinswoman," but not necessarily a cousin (Marshall, 71). It has been claimed that John Wycliffe popularized the notion that sungenis means "cousin" (Brown, 292; Bock, 126, fn. 47). The word is only used here in the NT. Though Jesus and John your relatives, it appears that, other than the meeting described in Luke 1:39-45, while both were still in their mother's wombs, the two had not met. This deduction is based on John 1:31, 33, where John says twice, "I did not recognize him" until the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism.

"has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God"

As mentioned above, it is not clear whether Mary, like Zechariah, was asking for a sign when she inquired, "How shall (can) this be?" (1:34). Regardless, Gabriel gives her one. Elizabeth's wondrous conception is held before Mary as proof that God's word will be fulfilled for Mary also. "For nothing will be impossible with God": This passage removes all doubt that Elizabeth's pregnancy is to be considered miraculous. It is miraculous both because she was in her "old age" (geras, used only here in the NT, though it is used often in the LXX, e.g. to describe Sarah's giving birth to Isaac in her old age, Gen. 21:2, 7) and because she had so long been "barren." As we have seen, signs were typically of miraculous nature. That Mary understood this to be a sign is confirmed by her hurried trip to the Zechariah and Elizabeth's home in the Judean hill country (1:39).

The Greek statement (hoti me adunatesei para tou theou pan rema) rendered "For nothing shall be impossible with God" is very similar to the LXX version of Gen. 18:14, which says, "me adunatei para to theo rema," "nothing is impossible with God." The Masoretic Hebrew text puts it in the form of a question, "Is anything to difficult for the Lord?" The LXX version of Job 10:13 is also similar. Zechariah 8:6 ("Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?" NRS) and Jeremiah 32:17 (" 'Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You,'") sound a similar theme! Also Job 42:2: "I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted." The LXX version of this text actually says, "I know that everything is possible and that nothing is impossible for You." Luke may have been influenced by some of these passages in choosing the Greek wording. Much more importantly, these words of God spoken by Gabriel show how it was possible and how it will be possible for Elizabeth and Mary to conceive: "God is at work, and nothing is impossible for him" (Marshall, 72). Nothing is too difficult, too impossible for God's power to do, to solve, to overcome. This is the God who created ex nihilo, out of nothing, who spoke His word, and so it was.

It seems to be important that Luke doesn't merely write "nothing" (Greek ouk panta, or ou ta) shall be impossible, but "no word" (Greek ouk . . . pan rema) shall be impossible. This seems significant for Luke knows how to write that nothing is impossible to God without using the word rema (Luke 18:27). Now it is true that the Greek word rema translates the Hebrew dabar and thus can mean either "word" or "thing." In the majority of occurrences in the NT, however, rema has the sense of "word," "saying," or "statement." For example, in the very next verse, Luke writes that Mary says, "may it be done to me according to your word [rema]" (similar to this is 2:29). In Matthew 4:4, we read that man shall not live by bread alone, but "by every word [rema] which proceeds out of the mouth of God." In Luke and Acts rema occurs 33 times, and 24 of these clearly are to be understood as meaning "word." Paul typically uses rema as "word" or "preaching" (the one exception is possibly 2 Co. 13:1) as in Romans 10:8, 17, 18. 10:17 says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word [rema] of Christ." Eph. 5:26: " so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word [rema];" and Eph. 6:17: "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word [rema] of God." See also Heb. 1:3; 6:5; 11:3; 12:19. 1 Peter 2:25 is worth quoting here: "`but the word [rema] of the Lord endures forever.'" And this is the word [rema] which was preached to you."

What is the point of all this? That there is a strong likelihood that Gabriel is not merely saying that nothing is impossible to God, but "No word of God is impossible for God to fulfill and accomplish" or "If God says it, it is not impossible" or "If God says it, it is possible." The point is that it is through the Word of God that the miracle of the Elizabeth's and Mary's conceptions would occur. The Word is the channel and means by which the power of the Most High comes. Therefore Luther is on target when he contemplates how the virgin birth occurred: "Where does it come from? The angel Gabriel brings the word: `Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, etc.' With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it. No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word" (Luther's Works 36:341). In the same way baptism brings about regeneration because it is connected to the Word (Eph. 5:26) and preaching of the Word creates faith in those who hear (Rom. 10:17). The Word of God is powerful. It created the heavens and the earth, sustains the universe (Heb. 1:3) and creates Christians. So also the Word brought about these miraculous conceptions, even though such miracles contradict and circumvent the so-called laws of nature.

Luke 1:38 - And Mary said, "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

"Behold, the bondslave of the Lord"

Notes: Mary refers to herself as a doule, which is the female form of "servant" or "slave." The word means "female servant." Paul often used the masculine form (doulos) to refer to himself (e.g., Rom. 1:1). Hannah had referred to herself in the same way when beseeching God to grant her a son (1 Sam. 1:11). In all humility Mary submits herself to the Lord, as an inferior to a superior. It is tragically ironic that some of Mary's devotees seem to want to elevate her to a status nearly equal with Christ, when Mary saw herself so differently.

"may it be done to me according to your word."

Notes: The expression "may it be done" is a translation of the optative genoito. The optative mood in the Greek often expresses a wish. The word can also be translated, "let it be" [from which Paul McCartney took the name of his song, which is a very strange and theologically challenged tribute to the virgin Mary, one that is profoundly meaningless!] The sense of the whole passage is "let it happen to me exactly as you have said it will."

This is marvelous expression of faith! For by these words, Mary demonstrates that she firmly believes that what God's Word through Gabriel had told her would indeed occur. Luther asserted that Mary's faith was of great importance to the incarnation:

    When the Virgin Mary conceived and bore Christ, Christ was certainly a real, physical, visible man and not only a spiritual being; yet she conceived and bore him spiritually also. How? In this way: She believed the word of the angel and that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son. With the same belief in the angel's word she conceived and bore Christ spiritually in her heart at the same time as she conceived and bore him physically in her womb. If she had not conceived him spiritually in her heart, she would never have conceived him physically

    . . . Since she grasped the word and through faith became pregnant with it in her heart, she also became physically pregnant with that which the word in her heart said to her . . . The physical conception would have been of no avail to her if it had taken place without the spiritual conception (LW 37:89-90; Luther was asserting that in the Lord's Supper there is a simultaneous spiritual and physical eating. In the section quoted he was giving other Biblical examples of the "object being physical but the use being spiritual.").

Mary's faith was also a statement of willing submission to God's promise and will for her, as all statements of faith are. She willing accepted God's promise and plan for her life, including all the inconveniences and risks attached to it. These inconveniences included the possibility that Joseph would divorce her, that her reputation would be destroyed, that even if Joseph believed her, their wedding plans, and dreams, etc., would have to be put on hold. Even given all this potential personal loss, Mary willingly submits in faith to God's Word and plan. As Bock puts it, "There is risk in agreeing to go God's way, but as the Lord's servant, she willingly goes" (Bock, 127).

December, 2000


Bibliography:

Bock, Darrell L. Luke. vol. 1. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Updated Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Just, Arthur A. Just Jr. Luke 1:1-9:50. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996.

Marshall, I. H. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1978.