LUKE 1:29-36. PARALLELS WITH ZECHARIAH
Note the parallel wordings in the accounts of the angel’s appearance to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and to Mary (Green, 83):
Luke 1:12-20 (Zacharias) Luke 1:29-36 (Mary)
“Zacharias was troubled” (v. 12). Mary ” was greatly troubled” (v. 29)
“the angel said to him (v. 13).”the angel said to her” (v. 30).
“Don’t be afraid” (v. 13). “Don’t be afraid” (v. 30).
“will bear you a son” (v. 13). “will…give birth to a son” (v. 31).
“and you shall call his name” (v. 13).”and you will call his name” (v. 31).
“he will be great” (v. 15). “He will be great” (v. 32).
“said to the angel” (v. 18). “said to the angel” (v. 34).
“The angel answered” (v. 19). “The angel answered” (v. 35).
“Gabriel…God…sent” (v. 19).”Gabriel…sent…God” (v. 26).
“Behold” (kai idou) (v. 20).”Behold” (kai idou) (v. 36).
LUKE 1:26-29. REJOICE, YOU HIGHLY FAVORED ONE!
26Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27to a virgin (Greek: parthenon—maiden, unmarried daughter, virgin) pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s (parthenou) name was Mary. 28Having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice (Greek: chaire—be cheerful, hail, rejoice), you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed (Greek: kecharitomene—graced one or honored one) are you among women!” 29But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be.
“Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth”(v. 26). “In the sixth month” ties Mary’s story to that of Elizabeth, for whom “this is the sixth month” of pregnancy with the baby who will be known as John the Baptist (v. 36). John will be born six months before Jesus, and will be the forerunner of Jesus—the one who prepares the way for Jesus by calling Israel to repentance and baptism (3:1-18). The angel Gabriel is the same angel who announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband (1:19)—another connection between the two stories.
The story of the annunciation (announcement) by the angel to Zechariah (1:5-25) immediately precedes this story of the annunciation by the angel to Mary. The Zechariah story is like the annunciation to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15) in that both couples were old, beyond childbearing age, and both Zechariah and Sarah doubted. The Zechariah story is like the annunciation to Mary in that neither Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) nor Mary is a likely candidate for motherhood. Elizabeth is too old, so John’s birth will require a miracle. Mary is a virgin, so Jesus’ birth will require an even greater miracle.
The angel’s appearance to Mary in Nazareth contrasts starkly with the same angel’s earlier appearance to Zechariah. The appearance to Zechariah took place in the Jerusalem temple, where Zechariah was serving as a priest—i.e., to a holy man in a holy place. The appearance to Mary takes place in Nazareth, an inconsequential town far removed from the Jerusalem and the temple. It involves Mary, a young woman of no standing or apparent consequence.
“to a virgin (parthenos—maiden, unmarried daughter, virgin) pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (v. 27a). This brief mention is all the billing that Joseph receives here—remarkable given that Jesus will trace his lineage to David through Joseph. However, in this Gospel, Mary has the lead and Joseph is only a supporting actor—much different than the Gospel of Matthew, which begins with a lengthy genealogy of Joseph (1:1-16) and recounts Joseph’s intent to dismiss Mary quietly for her pregnancy, a decision that he reverses at the angel’s behest (1:18-25).
The Greek word parthenos clearly means virgin or maiden—an unmarried chaste woman.
“The virgin’s name was Mary” (v. 27b). It is remarkable that, in this patriarchal society, Mary is front-and-center in this story. Girls are often betrothed at a very young age, so it is almost certain that Mary is in her teens—possibly in her early teens. Young women are expected to be seen, but not heard. It is a man’s world, and Mary is neither a man nor married to a man (although her betrothal to Joseph is binding and can be dissolved only by divorce). She is still quite young and living with her parents, but expecting to be married within the year.
“Rejoice, you highly favored one!” (v. 28a). In the original Greek, the words are, “Chaire kecharitomene!” Note the alliteration—Chaire kecharitomene (pronounced CAR-eh Ke-CAR-i-toe-MEN-eh). Say it aloud a few times and experience the lovely sound, a grace note that no translation can convey.
“The Lord is with you” (v. 28b). While Luke does not cite scripture, as Matthew does, the angel’s promise reminds us of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12)—and the angel who said to Gideon, “Yahweh is with you” (Judges 6:12)—and the Lord’s assurance to Jeremiah, “Don’t be afraid because of them; for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8),
“But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be” (v. 29). Mary must be perplexed as much by the appearance of the angel/messenger as by his words. In her not-very-large town, she would not often see a strange man, much less have him appear unexpectedly and address her directly. Does Gabriel look like a man or an angel? What does an angel look like?
Mary is further perplexed by Gabriel’s words—chaire kecharitomene—”Rejoice, you highly favored one!” Keep in mind that Mary is a female in a world that prizes males—an almost-child in a world that reveres age and wisdom—a nobody in a nowhere town. God has not prepared her for the appearance of the angel, but instead sends the angel to prepare her for an even greater surprise. “Chaire kecharitomene!” “Rejoice, you highly favored one!” Mary must wonder whom the angel is addressing. Luke says that she ponders what sort of greeting this might be (v. 29). No doubt! We can see the wheels turning! What in the world is happening!
LUKE 1:30-33. BEHOLD, YOU WILL BRING FORTH A SON
30The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and give birth to a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus’ (Greek: Iesous—a variant of Joshua, a name that means “the Lord saves” or “salvation comes from the Lord”). 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. There will be no end to his Kingdom.”
“Don’t be afraid, Mary” (v. 30). Zechariah was afraid of his angel (1:12), and these words suggest that Mary is afraid too. Shortly, we will see terrified shepherds in the presence of their angel (2:9-10). Fear is appropriate in God’s presence, but God is merciful to those who fear him, as Mary will remind us in her Magnificat (1:50).
“for you have found favor with God” (v. 30). In the preceding story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke tells of that couple’s religious virtue (1:6-7, 13), but we have none of that here. Nothing is said of Mary’s faith or character—nothing that helps us to understand why God chose her. But, as we have seen with Abram, Isaac, and especially Jacob and David, God chooses whom God chooses. God told Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19b). God is free to choose. God is free to act.
Mary is not chosen because she deserves favor, but is favored because she has been chosen. As Mary will say in response to the angel’s announcement, God brings down the powerful from their throne, and lifts up the lowly (1:52). As Jesus will later say, in God’s realm the last will be first and the first will be last (13:30).
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and give birth to a son, and will call his name Jesus”(Iesous) (v. 31). Iesous means savior and is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua which means “The Lord saves” or “Salvation comes from the Lord.”
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (v. 32a). Luke several times uses the phrase, Most High, to refer to God (1:76; Acts 7:48; 16:17), so Son of the Most High equates to Son of God, a name that that Luke also uses several times for Jesus (1:35; 22:70; Acts 9:20). The devil will use the name, Son of God, in his attempt to tempt Jesus (4:3, 9).
“The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom” (vv. 32b-33). The phrase, “house of Jacob,” refers to the nation Israel (Exodus 19:3; Isaiah 2:5-6; 8:17; 10:20; 14:1; 48:1)
This is a fulfillment of the promise that God made to David, who wanted to build a temple for God. God forbade him to build the temple, but said, “Yahweh will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:11-13). Knowing that David’s son, Solomon, built a temple, we might assume that the promised offspring who “shall build a house” refers to Solomon. However, the full promise was not to be found in Solomon but in Jesus. Solomon built a temple that stood for a few years, but the Christ will build “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
God could have chosen the temple in Jerusalem as the site for this announcement, but did not. Nazareth is a smaller and more ordinary town located far from the temple, and is tainted by the pagan religions that surround it. God chooses a lowly person in a lowly place to contrast with the glory of the Son of the Most High, who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (v. 33).
All this is Good News, of course. God is making provision for the salvation of his people. The Good News is that God has a place and plan for every person—even the ordinary person—especially the ordinary person. God calls Mary to be mother of the Lord, but calls every mother to raise her child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
In most cases, we are acutely aware of the ordinariness of our lives. In many cases, our work for God seems less-than-ordinary—handing out church bulletins, driving for a youth group retreat, preparing for a potluck dinner. In some cases, our calling seems higher—teaching a Sunday school class or singing in the choir—but the kids are unruly or someone sings off key and we wonder why we bother. The reality is that each task, low or high, fits into God’s scheme-of-things in ways that we cannot yet understand. It matters less that we execute our tasks with expertise than that we approach them with devotion. God desires, not the skill of our hands, but the love of our hearts. The person who has only the ability to love God and neighbor is all-important in God’s economy.
But we must also acknowledge that favor with God is a two-edged sword. God offers mercy but no life of ease. For Mary, God’s favor didn’t bring prosperity or comfort. Instead, she conceived a child before she was married, fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plan (Matthew 2:13ff), and saw her son die on a cross.
LUKE 1:34-35. THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL OVERSHADOW YOU
34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin (Greek: andra ou ginosko—a man I do not know)?” 35The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God.
“How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” (andra ou ginosko) (v. 34). The word used in verse 27 isparthenos, which means maiden or virgin. Now Mary says that she has not known a man. The verb, “know” is often used in the Bible to refer to sexual relations (Genesis 4:1). Mary is saying that she has not had sexual relations with a man.
Mary’s question is natural, very much like Zechariah’s “How can I be sure of this?” (1:18). However, the angel struck Zechariah mute, but answers Mary’s question. The difference seems to be twofold. First, Zechariah expressed doubt while Mary expresses only confusion. Second, Zechariah asked for a sign—tangible proof that the angel was telling the truth—while Mary simply asks for an explanation.
“The Holy Spirit will come on (eperchomai epi) you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow(Greek: episkiazo) you” (v. 35). This raises the issue of the virgin birth, which has generated a great deal of controversy:
• Ringe notes that (1) (eperchomai epi) (come upon) has a variety of meanings, none of them having to do specifically with impregnation and (2) episkiazo (overshadow), is used at the Transfiguration (9:34) and in a story of Peter’s healing ministry (Acts 5:15)—in neither instance referring to impregnation. She concludes that there is nothing in this verse from Luke that requires us to understand the birth of Jesus as a virgin birth or as “a birth any more ‘miraculous’ than every occasion of a new life” (Ringe, 32).
• Others say that Mary’s virginity is unnecessary. God is quite capable of saving the world without a virgin birth. They note that, outside of this passage, the New Testament places little emphasis on the virgin birth. Jesus says nothing about it.
• However, the angel calls the child “the holy one” and “the Son of God” (v. 35), clearly intending the holy/Son of God designations to differentiate this child from all others. The word parthenos (which can mean virgin) appears twice in verse 27 and Mary states clearly that she has not known a man—has not had a sexual relationship (v. 34). Luke clearly intends to emphasize and re-emphasize Mary’s sexual purity. We must conclude that he intends to portray a virgin birth, which he believes to be an important part of God’s plan.
• Matthew’s Gospel says, “the virgin (he parthenos) shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son”(Matthew 1:23). Both Matthew and Luke make it clear that the child is from the Holy Spirit and that Joseph is not the father (Matthew 1:18, 21; Luke 1:35)—and that Mary is a virgin.
• The significance of the virgin birth is that Mary’s son “will be called the Son of the Most High” who will reign as king forevermore (v. 32). The New Testament includes many references to Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, etc.). In at least two instances, his status as Son of God is linked with his status as Messiah (Matthew 16:16; John 11:27). On one occasion, Jesus refers to himself as God’s Son (John 10:36), and he often addresses God as Father or speaks of God as his Father (Matthew 11:25-26; 12:10; 15:13; 16:17, 27; 18:10, 19, 35; 24:36; 25:34; 26:39, 42, 53, etc.).
LUKE 1:36-37. EVERYTHING SPOKEN BY GOD IS POSSIBLE
36Behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37“For everything spoken by God is possible” (Greek: hoti ouk adynatesei para tou theou pan rhema—literally, “For nothing will be impossible with the word spoken by God.”).
“Behold, Elizabeth, your relative (sungenis), also has conceived a son in her old age” (v. 36). The old woman, Elizabeth (1:7), is a relative of the young woman, Mary. We do not know the exact nature of the relationship. The Greek word sungenis is a combination of sun or syn (with) and genos (offspring, family). The KJV uses the word “cousin” in this verse, but that is far more specific than sungenis would suggest. Given the difference in ages between elderly Elizabeth and young Mary, aunt and niece would be more likely.
The irony is that Zechariah, who asked for a sign, was punished (1:20), while Mary, who does not ask for a sign, gets one. If she wants to know whether God can make it possible for her to bear a son, she need only to look to her kinswoman Elizabeth’s swelling belly for confirmation. If God can spark new life in old woman, God can surely do the same in a young virgin.
“For everything spoken by God is possible” (v. 37) (hoti ouk adynatesei para tou theou pan rhema—literally, “For nothing will be impossible with the word spoken by God.”).
Again, Luke adopts Old Testament language. When the Lord announced the impending birth of Isaac, Sarah laughed. The Lord responded by saying, “Is anything too wonderful for Yahweh?” (Genesis 18:14—see also Jesus’ comment at Luke 18:27). This is truly Gospel—Good News for those of us who find ourselves in impossible situations. We talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. We know how it feels to be in an untenable situation with no exit—trapped. However, as we walk with the Lord, no situation is beyond redemption.
LUKE 1:38. BE IT TO ME ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD
38Mary said, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord (Greek: Idou he kyriou doule—”I am the Lord’s servant”); be it to me according to your word.” The angel departed from her.
“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord” (Idou he kyriou doule—”I am the Lord’s servant”) (v. 38). Mary does not require confirmation, but instead steps out in faith. Raymond Brown says that Mary’s response qualifies her as Jesus’ first disciple (Brown, 254).
The NRSV says, “Here am I,” but I don’t find that phrase in the Greek of this verse.
“be it to me according to your word” (v. 38). “This… sentence may contain a wordplay. 1:37 said that no thing—literally ‘word’ (rhema)—was impossible for God. Now Mary says, ‘May it be according to your word’ (rhema)” (Strawn, 290).
Mary’s Magnificat (1:46-55) expresses her humility and her sense of joy at being chosen by God for a significant role in salvation history. The New Testament provides only fleeting glances at Mary as the story progresses. Hers won’t be a comfortable journey. On one occasion she and her other sons will find themselves standing on the outside seeking to see Jesus, and he seems to refuse their overture (Luke 8:19-21). She will witness Jesus’ death on a cross (John 19:25-27). But never is there a hint of complaint from her lips. Never will she try to escape her calling. She models the kind of faithfulness that all of us will do well to emulate.
“The angel departed from her” (v. 38). Just imagine the jumble of thoughts that must be going through Mary’s head when her dramatic encounter with the angel ends as suddenly as it began. Her head must be spinning as she tries to grasp all that has happened to her in the last minute or two.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan