Our subject this morning is The Virgin Birth as we continue with our new series of studies in Luke’s Gospel. Our passage is Luke 1:26-45; and my headings this morning are first, THE ANGEL’S MESSAGE; secondly, THE VIRGIN BIRTH and thirdly, MARY AND ELIZABETH. So…
First, THE ANGEL’S MESSAGE
Look at verses 26-27:
26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
Do you believe in Angels? Jesus had no doubt. In the report of his temptations by the devil that you read about in Matthew 4.1-11, the last verse, verse 11, reads as follows: “Then the devil left him, and angels came and ministered to him.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane he said (Mat 26:53): ”Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
And the letter to the Hebrews is very clear. Hebrews 1.14 says: all angels [are] ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.
Yes, Colossians 2.14 warns against the “worship of angels”. And they are all created beings totally subject to Christ. But you should not ignore them. Of course, angels are not a major part of the Bible’s teaching or of normal direct Christian experience. But they are for real. Here is a modern, world famous, Scottish theologian, Tom Torrance:
“Angels are to be regarded, not as personified concepts, symbolical agencies or ethereal figures that merely appear in dreams and visions, but as real existent beings of an incomprehensible nature which eludes us.”
The Bible teaches that they can help, direct, guide and guard us. And they praise God in heaven and are an example to us in praise. You read that in the Book of Revelation. As we recited in the words of that ancient hymn, the Te Deum:
“To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
The cherubim and seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
Well - and back to the text - we are told in verses 28 - 33 that:
28The angel went to her [Mary] and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you." 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He 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, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
Note three things about Mary from those verses.
First, when she had this amazing experience and meeting with this supernatural messenger of God, the angel Gabriel, she was “greatly troubled” (v 29). The thought of having a child, while not yet married, would have horrified her. She knew it would have brought her instant disgrace.
Do you panic like that sometimes? Perhaps you hear something said (or read something written) that you think means trouble for you. And your heart sinks. Well, that’s what it was like for Mary.
But, secondly, she was given assurance that God’s grace was at work in her life. “You are highly favoured” (v 28) literally means you are highly “graced”. So note God’s working in her life did not mean an absence of sinking feelings. That was an important lesson for her (and still is for us) to learn. You can feel bad when God is working for you and in you. You don’t always feel wonderful. Conversely you can feel wonderful when doing wrong. There is pleasure in sin, but the Bible says, it is only for a short time.
Note, thirdly, that Mary became the very first disciple or learner. She learnt from the angel the good news about Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the Messiah who would have an eternal reign. That surely is how we should think of Mary. We should not think of her as the Queen of Heaven as some do, but as the first disciple who then has some great lessons to teach us all.
With all that in mind, let’s now move on …
Secondly, to THE VIRGIN BIRTH
Look at verses 34-35:
34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" 35The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Mary, far from fleeing in fright, wanted to face the situation out. In that she certainly is an example to all of us when under pressure. She then simply asked how all this would happen. You say, “but why was she allowed to get away with her questioning. After all, Zechariah did not get away with his questioning, as we saw last time?”
Well, they were two radically different questions. Zechariah’s question was (1.18) “how can I be sure of this?” He was doubting the angel’s word to him about having a son. That was faithless.
Mary, however, was not doubting the fact. She was simply questioning the method of how what was going to happen would happen. And she was told she would conceive as a result not of human sexual intercourse but as a result of the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. She was, and we are, not told anymore. But that was clear enough to show that this was going to be a supernatural miracle. So Mary is also an example of reasonably using your mind.
Faith is never the opposite of reason. Faith believes for good reasons that God is faithful and true. But that doesn’t mean you should then refrain from using your mind and never ask further questions; but you do that from a position of faith. It is often vital to know how God is going to work. That is “faith seeking understanding”. That is what a Christian must seek - understanding.
So if there is someone asking basic questions about the Christian faith here this morning, let me just say this. Faith will often precede your full understanding. And it works like this. You come to see that it is more reasonable to believe in God than not to believe. And you come to see that it is more reasonable to commit yourself to Jesus Christ than not to. But when you do believe and commit yourself to him and start to obey him, then you will discover and understand much more. Jesus said (John 7.17):
If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.
From a position of trust in, and obedience to, God, it is amazing how often intellectual problems get resolved. This happened with Mary. So Mary was not doubting the angel’s word. She was just wanting some clarification. And she got it. So we can take from her example that we, too, should use our minds. And we need to use our minds over the virgin birth.
Many people have doubts about the virgin birth – or more correctly, the virginal conception of Jesus. But that is nothing new. Some may think that in previous generations people were just simple and believed anything they were told. By contrast we in this modern age are sophisticated and more thoughtful. That is just not true. There were doubters from the earliest period of the church’s life. It is just that the mainstream of the church thought such doubters were simply wrong. And that is why the Virgin Birth is a fundamental belief of the Christian Church.
The early Christians believed that Christ was virginally conceived, but fully aware of doubts and denials just like you have today. Doubt is not something modern.
The great struggle in the early centuries after Jesus was born was between orthodox Christians, on the one hand, who held a biblical view that God could get involved in the “stuff” of this messy material world.
And, on the other hand, there were people in Gnostic sects who said God was a great “mystery” beyond all knowing. He certainly was beyond getting involved the stuff of this physical world and certainly not in virgin births. There were, for example, Cerdo, Cerinthus, Saturninus, Carpocrates, Marcion and the Manicheans, These all denied the Virgin Birth in the early centuries.
Skipping the centuries - in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you have the Deists. These were people, again, who did not believe God is ever involved in this world and so denied the Virgin Birth.
Two years after this church (JPC) was founded the Frenchman Renan wrote his book entitled the Life of Jesus. In that he denied the Virgin Birth. One well known Bishop damned the book with faint praise as “an exquisitely conceived and executed romance rather loosely or remotely based upon history.”
And David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham in the 1980s was a vocal doubter of the Virgin Birth. So what do we say in reply to these doubters? Well, many things. Time only allows me to give you five considerations.
One, it is clear that the story of the Virgin Birth goes back to the earliest of times. Both Matthew and Luke in their Gospels have the same central core. This was that Mary remained bodily a virgin in the conception of Jesus and did not have intercourse with Joseph. Yet both evangelists were drawing on different sources for their information with the result that Luke focuses more on Mary while Matthew on Joseph.
Two, Luke, as we saw last time in the opening verses of his Gospel, had a concern for truth. Why should we disbelieve him?
Three, with regard to Matthew, he certainly is not making the story up to fit in with certain Old Testament texts (as some have suggested). It is clear Matthew already has the story of what happened and is then looking for Old Testament texts that support the story.
Four, – and this is very important - the Old Testament makes it so clear that the Messiah would be of David’s line. The New Testament makes it so clear that Jesus is the Messiah. Why, then, on earth did the Gospel writers stress that Joseph “belonged to the house and line of David”, as they did? And then why did they invent an untrue story that separates Joseph (of David’s line) from the process of the conception of Jesus?
And, five, a supernatural entry of God the Son into this world is entirely believable if he, Jesus Christ, is the Father’s agent in the creation of the entire universe, as the Bible teaches. The issue is the greater miracle of the incarnation itself. The incarnation is God the Son coming to earth and becoming flesh, blood and bones as you and I are. And then after his death he exited this universe through a supernatural resurrection from the dead; and now is enthroned as Lord of all.
If we can believe all that (and the evidence for it is good), it is easier to believe the lesser miracle of God the Son’s entry into this world through a conception in a virgin mother.
But Mary believed, even if others did, and do, not! And then God, through the angel, strengthened and confirmed that faith. For the angel encouraged Mary to think about Elizabeth (vv 36-37):
36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God."
Do you see how Mary’s faith was strengthened. One, in verse 35 you have the proposition – the statement that Mary will experience this amazing miracle of a virginal conception. Two, here, in verse 36 is evidence of what actually can happen, indeed, already has happened in the case of Elizabeth. And Mary will see it before her own eyes when she visits Elizabeth. And, three, you have here a reminder of the most fundamental of all truths – the transcendental greatness and power of Almighty God, in verse 37:
nothing is impossible with God.
Are you facing a problem or a challenge at the moment. Well, follow Mary and learn from the experiences of other Christians and how God has worked in their lives; and then remember nothing, absolutely nothing, is impossible with God. If you trust and obey him, he will work for your long term good. He may not work as you would want. But Psalm 18 verse 30 says: “As for God, his way is perfect.” And note Mary’s response, verse 38:
38"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
There was submission and then obedience
Thirdly, MARY AND ELIZABETH.
Look at verses 39-44:
39At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
There is so much here and it raises deep and serious ethical and theological questions. So before we conclude, I must just touch on these.
First, there is the value and importance of fellowship for believers. When things are difficult remember: a grief shared is a grief halved. When things are good remember a joy shared is a joy doubled.
Secondly, - and this is a matter of great ethical importance for today’s world, - in verse 41 and 44 is a reference to Elizabeth’s “baby” leaping in her womb. But the word for “baby” in the original is the same word as is used in chapter 2 verse14 for the “baby” Jesus now outside the womb. That was when the shepherds found, “the baby, who was lying in a manger.”
So what does that say about abortion and embryo experimentation? Is the unborn child entitled to my brotherly, neighbourly protection? Raymond Johnston, a former churchwarden at JPC and the founder of CARE thinks that this use of the same word for a baby inside and outside the womb (I quote) “conclusively resolves the issue”
Furthermore, he points out that Elisabeth spoke of the pregnant Mary as (v 43) “the mother of my Lord” (with the baby still in her womb). It is a fact that the history of the incarnation began with Jesus conception not his birth. As we say in the Creed, “He was conceived by the power of Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary”.
But how should we take this phrase “the mother of my Lord”? In the early church that phrase led to talking about Mary as the “God-bearer”. That in turn has led some to call Mary (often misleadingly) “the mother of God”.
So what was the cause of all this? The cause was a bishop called Nestorius who was teaching heresy and saying Mary bore only a human Son, not one who was also divine. So the manhood and the divine nature of Christ were divided. But the mainstream (or orthodox) Christians at the Church Council of Ephesus in 431 and after much debate and discussion, said, No! Mary’s baby was both fully human and fully divine.
You cannot divide the two if you are to be true to the Bible. And the Bible makes it clear that Mary was the human mother of the one who is the eternal Son of God. So the issue was not about the status of Mary. It was about the unity of the divinity and humanity in her Son. Graham Kendrick’s theology, as we sang, is spot on:
“Meekness and majesty, manhood and deity, in perfect harmony, the One who is God. Lord of eternity, dwells with humanity; kneels in humility and washes our feet. Oh what a mystery, meekness and majesty: bow down and worship, for this is your God.”
I must conclude
I do so with reading verse 45, which is always true for everyone.
Blessed is she [or he] who has believed that what the Lord has said to her [or him] will be accomplished!"
May we all follow Mary’s faith.