“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’”
Having announced to an obscure priest, Zechariah, that his ageing and barren wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a child, six months later the angel Gabriel is sent by God to an obscure town called Nazareth to announce the conception of another child to another obscure and barren woman, Mary, who is Elizabeth’s cousin.
As has been seen several times throughout these pieces, the theme of a barren woman going on to conceive runs throughout the Bible. However, with most barren women who go on to give birth, the problem is either one of God simply having withheld children from them for a time (for instance, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah); or it is more extreme than that and the woman in question is actually past the age of child-bearing (for example Sarah and Elizabeth). Yet the conception that Gabriel announces to Mary is in another category entirely. She is betrothed to a man called Joseph, and is a virgin.
On Day 17, we saw how the word virgin (almah in Hebrew) has a somewhat different connotation to how we think of it now. We tend to think of it as simply denoting a person who has not yet had sexual relations, but back in Mary’s day it not only meant that, but also signified that she was bound to covenantal faithfulness. Betrothal was much more than what we call engagement, and although the couple still lived under their parents’ roof, they were covenantally bound to one another for a year, effectively married, only without the sexual relations.
And so Mary’s question to Gabriel – How will this be, since I am a virgin? – is not just a biological question but a covenantal one too. She is genuinely puzzled. How can I have a baby when I am only betrothed to Joseph, and we are not yet fully married? Am I missing something?
Gabriel’s response is to tell her that God is about to do something that he has never done before: He is going to give her a child before the end of her betrothal, and so before she has had sexual relations:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
The language Gabriel uses is deliberately and unmistakably the language of creation. As we saw back on Day 1, God starts with a barren and formless world lying in darkness, and then over that barren world the Spirit of God “hovers over the waters”. As we saw then, the word “hovers” is one that in the Hebrew indicates a rapid fluttering, and therefore an energising. But we also saw that this picture is not of an impersonal energy, but is more akin to the fluttering of an eagle’s wings over its young. It is therefore a loving and personal overshadowing of the dark and barren world, and it precedes the coming of light into that world.
We also saw how the Bible connects the concept of the barren earth with the womb:
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13-16).
These themes are then pulled together by Gabriel to signify the following: In the beginning, God created a dark and barren earth, which his Spirit then overshadowed, before he filled it with light. God is about to begin again, but this time his Spirit will overshadow a barren womb, and through this womb he will again flood the world with light. In other words, the old creation is passing away, and God is about to begin creation again, only this time he is not starting with a new world, but rather with a new man – The Man – in the midst of that old world.
As an aside, the connection with creation shows that scepticism about the virgin conception, as such, is entirely misplaced. The question actually has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it’s possible for a woman to conceive without having had sexual relations. Rather, it rests squarely on the question of whether it was God who assembled the universe out of nothing or whether the universe managed to assemble itself out of nothing. If the former, then the virgin conception is no more difficult to believe than any other conception, since it is obvious that a being who can speak a universe into existence is hardly going to find placing a baby in the womb of a virgin too difficult. Make of it what you will.
Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favour with God. She is not, as has been supposed, a bestower of grace, but rather the humble and grateful recipient of it. Indeed, in her song (the Magnificat), which she consciously models on the song of Hannah (see 1 Samuel 2), she testifies that she is as much in need of salvation as anyone else when she sings of “God my Saviour” (Luke 1:47).
Although the manner of the conception is astonishing, it is not this that is the most amazing thing about Gabriel’s announcement. Rather, it is the identity of the child that should stagger us. Who is he?
He shall be called Jesus
Jesus (Yeshua / Joshua), is a name meaning “Yahweh saves”. The child in Mary’s womb is therefore a new Joshua, a deliverer who has come to save his people, and lead them into the promised land after years of dwelling in the wilderness.
He is the Son of the Most High
The expression “sons of the Most High” refers to God’s people, and signifies that they are children of the Father, and are meant to resemble him in righteousness, goodness and mercy:
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).
Yet here Gabriel tells Mary that she is to give birth not to a son of the Most High, but rather the Son of the Most High. The child in her womb is the Son of the Father, “The radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).
He will sit on the throne of his father David
After the line of Davidic kings was broken when Zedekiah was carried away into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, it seemed that the promise made to David that a son of his would sit on the throne of his kingdom forever had failed (2 Samuel 7:13). Yet Gabriel tells Mary that the line is about to be restored. The child in her womb is that promised son, and to him will be given the throne forever.
Of his kingdom there will be no end
Many of the passages we have looked at over the last few weeks have spoken of an everlasting kingdom:
“He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13).
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it, with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:7).
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Gabriel confirms that this kingdom was now about to burst into the world through the child she would carry. God’s new creation had finally come, and it was bound up in an unborn baby, miraculously conceived, in the womb of an obscure peasant girl.