Doug Van Meter - 2 December 2018
The Good News Announced (Luke 1:26–38)
Christmastime is loved and celebrated around the world. In the southern hemisphere, this usually means warm weather, an extended break from work or school, time for family and home maintenance, lots of eating and, of course, gift-giving. There is nothing wrong with any of this. However, we often miss the point of Christmas—Christ-mass. What does this mean?
Christ-mass is of Roman Catholic origin, but that should not frighten us. A mass service (sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where worshippers are reminded that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead for sinners. This is interesting, because it suggests that Christ-masswas originally about much more than a babe in a manger.
Christmas must include the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, Christmas is about the gospel. Too often, we miss this. We get caught up in the sentiment of the season and miss the point: salvation.
Further, the word “mass” means dismissal and, in Roman Catholic tradition, indicates that the congregation is dismissed after Communion. But the word also conveys the idea of mission. That is, with a renewed realisation of the grace of God in Christ, the congregation is dismissed for mission. Having feasted on Christ, the congregation is empowered for its mission of proclaiming the gospel.
In light of this, when we think of Christmas, we should be thinking, not so much of a babe in the manger, but rather of the gospel of God—for, without God’s gospel, there would be no Christmas and, without Christmas (i.e. the birth of the incarnate God), there would be no gospel.
My aim in these brief studies is to help us to rediscover something of the glory of this miracle; to recapture its central truth: the good news of what God has done for believing sinners through the gift of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Luke 1–2 will provide the material to accomplish this.
Warren Wiersbe once wrote,
If ever a man wrote a book filled with good news for everybody, Dr Luke is that man. His key message is, “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost” (19:10). He presents Jesus Christ as the compassionate Son of Man, who came to live among sinners, love them, help them, and die for them.
Regardless of the time of year, this message is indeed very good news! And it is good news that we need to hear especially at Christmastime.
The text begins with a note of God’s initiative.
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.”
The announcement of the good news was heralded by a heavenly messenger. This passage is sometimes referred to by the Latin term annunciation, and what an annunciation it is! As J. C. Ryle observes,
We have in these verses, the announcement of the most marvellous event that ever happened in this world—the incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a passage which we should always read with mingled wonder, love and praise.
This announcement tells us a whole lot about God. This is important since the gospel begins with God. The gospel is God’s (Romans 1:1) and, as John Piper reminds us, “God is the gospel.”
Since the gospel is God’s, we should not be surprised—though we should be amazed!—that God takes the initiative in making his good news known, and that he does so to specific individuals. As he did with this good news to Mary.
Piercing the Darkness and Breaking the Silence
The good news of the gospel always comes to a person in a unique context: sorrow, success, confusion, contemplation, etc. In our text, the immediate context is that of a history of silence now broken. Luke tells us that his work is a carefully crafted historical document (1:1–4), and immediately begins with the arrival of a heavenly messenger to Zechariah and his unbelief (1:5–25).
Our text opens “in the sixth month” of a new era. The one who would prepare the way for Messiah was on his way, and so God sent Gabriel to Messiah’s mother.
Gabriel startled Mary with the announcement that she had “found favour with God.” Literally, she had found acceptance with and therefore been accepted by God. This is the gospel in a nutshell (see Ephesians 1:6).
This messenger (Gabriel) now came with another announcement of a pregnancy. But in this case, a virgin would remain a virgin while conceiving a child. The recipient of this message was a teenaged girl from a humble village (an agricultural region with population perhaps five hundred—some sixty acres carved into a hillside) with no historical clout (not even mentioned in the Old Testament). Both angelic messages inform us of something that only God can do: give life.
Note that the good news begins with God: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God.” God takes the initiative to send the good news. Here we have the biblical pattern: not man reaching out to God but rather God reaching out to man. This is how it was in the garden after the fall (Genesis 3:1ff). This is how it happened when God took the initiative to save Noah and his family (Genesis 6–9). This is how it unfolded when God chose Abraham to be the father of the nation Israel and when God sought Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. I trust you get the point.
God’s initiative makes the gospel great news. We, who deserve God’s judgement, become the objects of God’s mercy. God breaks the silence, a silence that we have brought about because of our sin, which separates us from him (Romans 3:23; see Genesis 3).
Nothing had changed in Israel’s history that would make them expect such a gracious, divine intervention. But it happened.
And how about you? When the news came to you of the miracle that God would do for you by giving you his Son, did you deserve it? Hardly. Nevertheless, God broke the silence to save your soul.
One of the lessons in this passage, which the Bible reveals from the beginning, is that the gospel is God’s idea, not man’s idea. As someone has noted, when it comes to the gospel, no human could come up with it if he would, and no human would come up with it if he could. When it comes to the gospel, God gets all the credit for taking the gracious initiative to save undeserving sinners. And amongst undeserving sinners was Mary, “the mother of God.”
The Object, Not the Source of Grace
Some translate the words “favoured one” (v. 28) as “full of grace.” It is from this translation that the Hail Mary prayer of the Roman Catholic Church derives:
Hail Mary, full of grace:
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
But the Catholic Hail Mary says something very different from what Gabriel said and intended. As Ryken notes, “favoured one” (or “full of grace,” if you prefer) is in a passive tense and it means “being favoured” or “receiving favour” or “filled with grace.” None of these options includes the idea of Mary being favoured above others. None of these options allows for the idea that Mary is a dispenser of grace. On the contrary, Gabriel was announcing to Mary the humbling message that she had been favoured, that she had been graced by God. She was the object, not the source, of grace.
Humbled by Grace
Mary was humbled by this divine visitation. As Wiersbe remarks, “Mary’s response reveals her humility and honesty before God. She certainly never expected to see an angel and receive special favours from heaven. There was nothing unique about her that such things should happen.”
Mary’s response makes it clear that this is precisely how she understood the greeting. “She was greatly troubled at the saying.” “Troubled” means “to be wholly disturbed.” It is a strong word, and this is its only occurrence in the New Testament.
It would indeed have been very troubling to be greeted by an angel, particularly Gabriel. If Mary knew his history, she would perhaps have found it quite intimidating (see Daniel 8:15–16; 9:21). The only other angel named in Scripture is Michael. Yet the text makes clear that Mary was troubled at “hissaying.” And what had he said so far? “O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
Mary was “troubled” that she was the recipient of God’s grace. Why? Because she knew that she was a sinner. And sinners are troubled in the presence of those who come from the throne room of God. Sinners who know they are sinners are humbled by grace because they are horrified at their sin. Mary was aware that she needed a Saviour (v. 47). God, by his sovereign choice, showed Mary favour, and this would make an eternal difference to her—as it has done, and continues to do, in the lives of sinners today.
We too deserve nothing from heaven. There is no reason why you and I should have heard and received the gospel any more than another. The good news is good news because it is not dependent upon what we deserve. Amen!
I suspect that Mary was a faithful Jewish woman who sought to keep covenant with Yahweh. But she was still a sinner who needed the Saviour. This message of Gabriel was a message of grace to a sinner—a sinner like you and me. This message to Mary was one of Emmanuel—“the Lord is with you.” That is the grace of the gospel. This Lord would literally reside in her. God with us, means also that God is for us (Romans 8:31)!
Christian, this is true of you and I. Be encouraged, sinning Christian: God is with you! That truth will humble you towards holiness. Todd Friel recently tweeted: “The Holy Spirit is praying for you even while you are sinning. Pondering that will help keep you from sin.” Related to this, I would expand: “The Holy Spirit is with you when you sin. That will make you think twice before you sin.” In other words, when we realise the gracious and holy presence of God, we will be humbled to repentance (Romans 2:4).
This good news contained the message of a Saviour and King. It contained the message of a kingdom. But all of this was God-centred (favour with God, Most High, the Lord God, never-ending kingdom). The gospel is only good news because it is centred in God. Luke wants us to see this.
The second major section of our text has to do with God’s incarnation.
“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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Gabriel announced that Mary had been chosen to conceive and carry to birth the incarnate God. That phrase may sound strange, but Christmas is precisely that. When we speak of the incarnation we are referring to God in the flesh. This is the mystery of all mysteries (1 Timothy 3:16). But it is this mystery which is the good news of Christmas. We should give much attention to this, especially at this season.
It seems to me that few, outside of the biblical authors, have captured the enormity of this miracle better than James Packer who wrote,
It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass man’s understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it needs to be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places.
Packer then highlights some of these areas: the atonement (one dying in the place of another to atone for sins), Jesus’ resurrection, his virgin birth, and his many miracles. He then adds,
But in fact the real difficulty, because the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies, not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man…. Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of [these other miracles]; it is all of a piece, and hangs together completely. The incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.
The language is unmistakeable. Gabriel was telling Mary that she was going to carry and give birth to the Son of God. She was going to be pregnant with God in the flesh. The promised seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15) would be birthed by Mary. This is a miracle, but don’t miss the greatest wonder: God would become a man.
“Jesus” means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.” No wonder “he shall be called great”!
Note that the greatness of Jesus is not qualified, as it was with John the Baptist (Luke 1:15). Here, Jesus is declared to be open-endedly great. And no wonder, since he would be named “Jesus.” The name that would be above all names (Acts 4:12)—so great that people would give their lives to make it known.
The description of this child further confirmed to her that he was not a normal child. No, this child would “be called the Son of the Most High” (cf. Genesis 14:19–20). This could only be the Son of God (v. 35). “The throne of his father David” points to God’s promise of Messiah revealed in 2 Samuel 7:12–17 (cf. Psalm 89:29). But what clinches this conclusion is the statement “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Only an eternal being can do this. This was God in the flesh!
A Royal Announcement
The gospel is about lordship. It is about a King who fills his kingdom with his subjects (see Psalms 2; 110). It is about submission to the sovereign, who is Jesus Christ the Lord (Matthew 28:18–20).
But we must ask and answer, why did God have to become a man for us to be saved? Could he not have saved us the way he created—by divine fiat? No, not if he is just. And he is.
The covenant broken (Genesis 2–3) needed to be renewed. It needed to be fulfilled. And this required a perfect man. It required the last Adam. It required the God-Man. It required the incarnation. God had to become man if he would save man. The Son of God became a son of man, so we might called sons of God.
Jesus was a sinless man in the face of comprehensive temptation. Verse 35 is key to this: Mary’s womb would become the holy of holies for the conception of the holy Son of Man—a sovereign man with the power to unite others in him to change them. Adam could only represent mankind, whereas Jesus alone could redeem mankind. He was, therefore, a saving man—the God-Man.
The gospel is good news because God became a man to do what only God can do: save sinners from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Third, our text says something about God’s invincibility.
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. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary asked an honest, yet believing, question: “How will this be?” Unlike Zachariah, who asked unbelievingly, “How shall I know this?” (v. 18), Mary simply believed—yet wanted to know how it would happen. Gabriel supplied a hope-filled answer.
Pause for a moment to consider Mary’s response. She was soon to be married. Therefore, it was not something insuperable to believe that she would soon become pregnant. Her question reveals two things.
First, she understood that this conception would be without the intervention of a man; and, second, she apparently assumed that it was going to happen immediately. She was taking God’s word seriously and believing it immediately.
One commentary I consulted in preparation for this study suggested that whether Jesus was born of a virgin is inconsequential. The author made some very weak arguments against the virgin birth. He said that it was probably merely poetic language to help the early readers to appreciate the sentiment of what was happening.
That is nonsense. It also smacks of what Lewis chronological snobbery. Are we to think that those in the ancient world were more prone to believe in a virgin birth of an actual person than we who live today? Read Mark 6:1–6 and John 8:39–41 and think again.
Let me make it clear that if Jesus was not born of a virgin, we would not have a Saviour. This speaks to the issue of original sin. When Adam sinned, we all sinned both in and with Adam as our representative—our federal head. Jesus had to be born of a virgin in order to be the federal head of a new people. If Jesus had Adam’s nature, we would have merely a martyr, not a Saviour. We need more than an example; we need a Redeemer.
Jesus was sinless because he was not sinful. If he had a human father, then he, like you and I, would be a failure. Thank God he did not, and so he was not!
Many, like the sceptical commentator, would argue that a virgin birth is implausible, not merely improbable. But that is because they do not know the God of the Bible. With him, nothing is impossible. Just ask Abraham and Sarah, or Zechariah and Elisabeth. In fact, Gabriel encouraged Mary with the news that her relative Elisabeth—elderly beyond child-bearing-age—was pregnant.
Note how the Lord sent a faith-builder to Mary. We all need this. We need the encouragement that God can do far beyond what we could ask or think. And the testimony of others is a great aid in this.
Unemployed Christians who hear of God meeting the needs of others who were jobless can be greatly encouraging. Christians struggling with sins can be greatly encouraged by the testimony of those who have experienced victory over sin. Those who see no end to the darkness that encompasses them can be encouraged by hearing from those who have been in darkness but have seen the light. Despairing Christians can be encouraged to persevere as they hear from others who have persevered.
The power that made this a reality was “the power of the Most High,” by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The principle behind it is that “nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37). Let’s consider this.
This name—“Most High”—is used 53 times in Scripture with reference to God. By this name, it is revealed that God is possessor of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19); the one who thunders from heaven with hailstones and coals of fire (Psalm 18:13); merciful (Psalm 21:7); awesome and a great King over all the earth (Psalm 47:2); a Redeemer (Psalm 78:35); ruler over all the earth (Psalm 83:18); a place of shelter and security (Psalm 91:9, 18); the one who gives kingdoms to kings (Daniel 5:18, 21; 7:18, 22, 27); kind (Luke 6:35); more powerful than evil (Mark 5:7); the provider of salvation (Acts 16:17); and righteous (Hebrews 7:1).
The Role of the Holy Spirit in Christmas
Apart from his work of the incarnation, we would not have a Saviour. And he continues to make the incarnation a miraculous realisation in the lives of God’s favoured people—his elect who were chosen before the foundation of the world.
Note the words of v. 35, “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 Holy Spirit has been actively involved in everything God has ever done: creation (Genesis 1:2); the Exodus (Exodus 40:35); Jesus’ anointing and public ministry (Luke 3:21–22); Jesus’ atonement for sins (Hebrews 9:14); Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 1:4). Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to overshadow the church (Acts 1:8; 2:33). But his greatest work was here at the incarnation.
Our confidence in God is determined by our knowledge of God. If the content of that knowledge is shallow, so will be our faith.
This matter of the knowledge of God is related to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He has given to us the word of God (2 Peter 1:21) and he teaches us this word (John 14:26). It was by the Holy Spirit that the ultimate revelation of God came into this world (see Hebrews 1:1–2).
Let’s make some parallels with the gospel. The only way that it can be experienced is by the power of God. This is precisely what the angel communicates: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” By the power of God, the promise of God becomes an experiential reality. The power of the Most High overshadows us and Christ is formed in us (see Colossians 1:27; Galatians 4:19; etc.).
When the gospel comes to us, at first it seems too good to be true. It seems impossible! Forgiveness of my sins? Removal of my guilt? Reconciled to a God whose wrath I deserve? A transformed life from self-centredness to that of loving God and my fellow man? Really? Yes, really!
By the power of the Holy Spirit, our lives are irrevocably and forever changed as he gives to us a new nature (see Acts 2:33; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:5).
Finally, our text tells us of God’s invitation: “And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her” (v. 38).
Mary is an example to all who would believe the gospel: She experienced the grace of God, believed the word of God, and was empowered to do the will of God. Her response is a model for how each of us must respond to the good news of God: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” We would do well to contemplate these words.
Mary’s commitment to this word from God was a costly one. It was also a courageous one.
The Gospels (for example, Mark 6:1–6) highlight that very few believed Mary was a virgin when it was known that she was pregnant. We know from Matthew 1 that even Joseph initially assumed she had been unfaithful. Yet she submitted to the will of God—at great cost to her reputation.
It would have required great courage for her to persevere with this. Yet she did. Abortion was never an option for her. This was not about her comfort; it was about God’s will.
The Cost, Commitment, and Confidence of Discipleship
Mary exemplifies for us what it means to submit to the lordship of Christ. She exemplifies the cost and, yes, the courage of discipleship. But ultimately, this was fuelled by her simple confidence in the word of God and in the God of the word. We are called to do the same.
As I said above (quoting Piper), God is the gospel. The gospel begins and ends with him. It is because he is trustworthy—because he is the “Most High”—that we can completely place our confidence in him. Because he is the Most High, we can face whatever cost he places upon us. So, like Mary, let’s submit to him.
Someone has pointed out that the first words about Jesus show his mother submitting to the will of God. And the last words and action of Jesus before his death was the same: submission to his heavenly Father. Let the same be true for us.
The passage ends informing us that “the angel departed from her.” He left her alone to contemplate all that had just transpired. We will pick up the story in our next study, but, for now, consider that the special revelation from heaven has ended.
Apparently, there was no further revelation to Mary and Joseph until after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:12ff). This suggests that once is enough. It indicates to us that once God has spoken, we need to simply believe (see 1 Samuel 1:12–18 for a similar pattern—perhaps the pattern that Mary was simply following.) Though we need to preach the gospel over and again to ourselves, we do so to be reminded, not convinced. God has spoken, simply believe.
Non-Christian friend, you don’t need further revelation. God has spoke the last word by the incarnation of his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). That same author informs us that today is the day to believe (3:7, 13, 15; 4:7). He also informs us that Jesus Christ is the same today as he always has been and always will be (13:8). So, like Mary, receive this good news with a humbled heart, submissive to carry within you the Holy One, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High.
How do you do this? By confessing and turning from your sins and trusting Jesus who lived the holy life required of you and yet rejected by you. He died the death you deserved as your substitute. He rose from the dead proving that his work on the cross was not in vain but victorious. All that is left is for you to trust him—today.
Christian, this is indeed good news that must be announced. Look for opportunities at this special season of the year to do so.
We should rejoice in this good news. We should rest in this good news. We must remind one another of this good news. Let us encourage one another as one of my fellow elders signs his letters: “Godspeed.”
Non-Christian, receive this good news today.