Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
At this time of the year, we focus on the conception and birth of a firstborn – two of them: Zechariah and Elizabeth’s boy, John, later known as the Baptist, and Joseph and Mary’s son, Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. In today’s devotional, we study and ponder the miraculous conception of Jesus and Mary’s response in song to this wonderful act of God’s grace. Our devotional will be in two parts: The Historical Context and The Theological and Doxological Response.
The Historical Context
Luke informs the reader this occurred “in the sixth month” when “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed [pledged to be married] to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (1:26-27). Gabriel brings a message from God to Mary. Not only was Mary a virgin who was engaged, she also, importantly, had found favor with God (emphasis mine): “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you” (1:28); “you have found favor with God” 1:30). It was because the Lord was with her that she was favored. God’s favor is not something earned or deserved. It is grounded in his grace and mercy. Mary manifests this truth. In the midst of being troubled by this visit from Gabriel (1:29; cf. 1:12), he comforts her with the words “do not be afraid” (1:30; cf. 1:13). Those with whom God dwells, need not fear. Through God’s presence and favor, it was revealed to Mary she would “conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” and importantly, “you shall call his name Jesus” (1:31).
Mary is informed that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (1:32). In other words, Jesus is the promised Messiah. He is the fulfillment of the prophecies given years before by the prophets, words contained in the Old Testament. Jesus would be the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams. More importantly, Jesus is the fulfillment God’s promises to David of having a king on the throne, a kingdom and kingship that will never end (1:32b-33). God’s promise had not failed. God’s promises will not fail. The promised one is great and is called Jesus (1:31), Son of the Most High, (1:32), Holy (1:35), Son of God (1:35) and King (1:33).
Though Mary faced an impossible situation, humanly speaking, “how will this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34), God was the guarantor of his promise, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). God’s work would be accomplished by the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41). In fact, God had already performed another impossible conception six months earlier in the lives of Mary’s relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were old and barren (1:7, 18, 36). Mary heard clearly what Gabriel had said about bearing a son, but she also realized the impossibility of this occurring. If Elizabeth’s problem was old age, Mary’s was that she was a virgin. But to highlight the human impossibility of fulfilling God’s promise and to emphasize God’s grace, he fulfills his promise through the miraculous conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. (This is not the immaculate conception, which claims Mary was born without sin and remained sinless through her life, and it was for this reason she was prepared to become the mother of Jesus.) How could this happen? Because nothing will be impossible with God (1:37)!
Do you remember when God gave the promise to Abram and Sarai (later to become Abraham and Sarah) that they would have a child who would be blessed and bring a blessing and all the nations would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:1-3; cf. Gen. 17:15-19; 18:9-15; 21:1-7)? They, too, faced an impossible situation – old age. Yet with Sarah at 89 and Abraham at 99, an angel appeared and told them they would conceive and bear a son at the ages of 90 and 100. They, too, doubted, but the angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Gen. 18:14), the same words spoken to Mary. Isaac was the child of the promise. Jesus is the child of the Promise.
Mary is a model of humble submission to be used for God’s honor and glory in the extension of his kingdom, and in the fulfillment of his plan. After hearing this news Mary replies, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). We often look at this through sentimental eyes, but what Mary learned about this miraculous conception, a divine conception, would raise questions about her chastity. This would bring pain, rejection, being ostracized, and shunned. She would be accused of infidelity. During Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees would recount Jesus’ birth and claim this very origin of him. They clearly identified Abraham as their father, over against Jesus, who had been “born of sexual immorality” (Jn. 8:41). It is difficult to know how much of this Mary would have understood at the moment, but, based on Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees, we know she experienced it. Her response reveals her humility, which reflects/manifests one who has experienced God’s favor, his grace.
Mary and Elizabeth both experienced God’s gracious providential plan in their miraculous conceptions. Upon Mary’s news of her miraculous conception, she visits Elizabeth, her relative, who is in her sixth month of pregnancy (1:36), in “the hill country, to a town of Judah” (1:39). When Mary greets Elizabeth, “the baby leaped in her womb” (1:41). This is an initial fulfillment of the promise given to Zechariah about their baby boy, John, who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15). Additionally, Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41). Furthermore, Mary’s experience was that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (1:35). God the Holy Spirit brought this about. Elizabeth pronounces a blessing on Mary. This blessing is, first and foremost, because of “the fruit of your womb” (1:42): Mary is pregnant with Jesus. The second blessing is pronounced because Mary “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45). In other words, she believed God would fulfill the promises he spoke to her (1:45), and she humbly trusted the promises of God, evident in her response of “let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). This is sharply contrasted with Zechariah who “did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (1:20).
One final and important truth to notice. When John encounters Jesus in utero through the voice of Mary, his mother, he “leaped in her [Elizabeth, his mother’s] womb” (1:41). Through this, we learn that Jesus is superior to John. Even in the womb, John begins his ministry of pointing to Jesus (1:16-17), of being the forerunner to Jesus, and he does so by worshiping Jesus.
Mary joins the baby John in worship as she praises God through song: “My soul magnifies [glorifies] the Lord” (1:46).
In this first part of Mary’s Song, ponder the following questions as you prepare your mind and heart to worship the Lord Jesus Christ this Christmas season: