Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

4. Gabriel’s Greater Mission (Luke 1:26-38)*

Meantime away in Galilee yet more important events were taking place in the home of a maiden related to Elisabeth. Mary belonged to the house of David, but in some’’ way the family also had connections with the priesthood. She was betrothed to Joseph, who also was of the house of David, and who may have been her cousin (Study 3). It is usually assumed that at this time Mary was a girl in her teens and that Joseph was much older, but it is doubtful whether the evidence is adequate for these conclusions. There is perhaps reason to believe that Joseph died in the last year of the Lord’s ministry (Jn. 6:42; 19:26).

“Hail, Mary!”

The angel Gabriel now came to Mary, not in the splendour and solemnity of the temple (v. 11), but in her own poor home. But he came with the most wonderful announcement ever made to any woman. It was an annunciation absolutely necessary to save both Mary and Joseph from mystification and misery. “Hail, thou that art highly favoured among women.” The greeting is, literally: “Rejoice”-a sharp contrast with the first word of the angel of the Lord (the same angel?) to another woman: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception” (Gen. 3:16). Now, at last, through the Seed of the woman the dire effects of the sin in Eden were to be taken away.

“The Lord be with you” was the greeting of the Lord of the harvest to his workers, as Ruth 2:4 plainly shows. Here, in the greeting to Mary, the words surely mean: “God give you a good harvest”. The mind of Elisabeth ran on these lines also. She too said: “Blessed art thou among women”, adding also: “and blessed be the fruit of thy womb.”

Blessed Woman

“Blessed art thou among women” means “You are the most blessed of all women.” The words were first applied to Jael for her desperate (and often badly misunderstood) action in ridding the people of God of their great enemy. Now Mary is to be blessed even more than Jael, for through her Seed the great Adversary is bruised in the head, by “a nail in a sure place”.

Today and through many centuries of darkness Catholics have so badly misread this blessedness of Mary as to make her more blessed than any man, even more than her own Son. And “Hail, Mary, full of grace” has been inflated to mean that she herself is a special source of divine grace to the devout believer. Yet the phrase simply says: “who hast been graced”, with a clear implication that from early days a special divine providence had been exercised over her. “The Lord is with thee” is a fairly close equivalent of Immanuel.

In sharp reaction to this ignorant or perverse extremism there has been a tendency in the ecclesias of Christ to ignore Mary almost entirely. Yet how can this be? What sort of a woman was she that she should be chosen by heaven to mother the Son of God? If no other fact were known about her it would be sufficient testimony, making her worthy of the highest esteem. But more is known, enough to make the picture tolerably complete, and except for one thing it is all superlatively good.

But “when she saw the angel, she was troubled (bewildered, confused) at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be.” Mary was a woman who knew her Scriptures well and who also saw deeply into their meaning (Study 5). So, very probably, her mind would fly to other angelic appearances to women-to the mothers of Isaac and Samson, and probably of Moses and Jacob-and always they had to do with the impending birth of a man of God, a man of God’s purpose.

Mary’s Expectation

Almost certainly this was the trend of her quick womanly speculation, for there is reason to believe that, even before any revelation came to her, Mary had already pondered the big possibility that she might become the mother of the Messiah. Certain facts, all known to her, pointed that way. At that time the descendants of David were but few in number, this in a generation which was to see the running out of the great Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9. And Mary was of the line of David, and apparently without brothers (Jn. 19:26). More than this, she was betrothed to one who stood in direct line of right to the throne. Had there been an independent kingdom of Israel at that time Joseph would have been its reigning monarch. But how likely is it that at this time Mary had thought of the possibility of Messiah being born of a virgin? Would she then understand Isaiah 7:14?

It would seem that she had already prayed earnestly that she might be found worthy to be the mother of the Lord’s Christ. This much may be inferred from the words of the angel: “Thou hast found grace with God.” This is a fairly common Old Testament idiom, occurring usually in the form: “If I may find grace in thine eyes”, or “Let me find grace in thine eyes”. Always its meaning is: “Grant me the favour I am now seeking.” Understood thus, Gabriel’s words are equivalent to: “God has granted your request.”

The observation (which has become almost a dogma with some) that all Jewish women prayed to become the mother of the Messiah is a pious piece of nonsense which ought never to have been put into circulation, for did not everyone know that Messiah was to come of the line of David? So eleven of the twelve tribes were without this hope.

In harmony with this understanding of Mary’s devout aspiration is her rejoinder to the angelic promise: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Her surprise is not that she should be the object of this divine choice, but rather: How can this come about since I am not yet married?

A detailed consideration of Mary’s song of praise (1:46-55; Study 5) reveals that the suggestion just explored is entirely what would be expected in a young women of her exceptional spiritual insight.

Messianic Promise

Gabriel proceeded to explain in detail concerning this son of Mary, just as he had outlined to Zacharias the role of his son. The familiar words are an impressive interweaving of Messianic phrases from the Old Testament and especially from the great covenant God made with David:

thou shalt conceive in thy womb,
and bring forth a son,
and (thou) shalt call his name Jesus.”
This is almost exactly the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, with the name Jesus substituted for “God with us”. Even the unusual feature of the child being named by his mother (contrast the naming of John, and Jewish usage generally) is retained here from Isaiah. Thus the virgin birth is emphasized. Later on, Gabriel was to quote the same scripture to Joseph to settle doubts in his mind (Mt. 1:23).

Attempts have been made-are indeed commonplace in the modernist commentaries-to water down the force of this prophecy of the virgin birth with the argument that the Hebrew word almah does not mean “virgin” but, more generally, “a girl of marriageable age”. Yet the other six occurrences of the word all read more naturally with the meaning “virgin”. Some of them positively require this meaning. (See also Study 7)

Gabriel went on to quote the great Covenant of Promise made to David (2 Sam. 7:12-16):

“He shall be great,
and shall be called the Son of the Highest;
and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Of these five phrases the second, third and fifth are readily traceable to God’s promise to David. Then the first should surely be equated with David’s prayer of praise and gratitude: “Wherefore thou art great, O Lord God” (7:22). I n that case, “he shall be great” signifies that the child to be born would share the glory of God! The remaining phrase-”he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever”-probably comes from Ezekiel’s vivid vision of a valley full of dry bones (37:25).

The angel’s words (v. 31,32) were remarkably comprehensive. They described Mary’s son as

1. Truly man.
2. The Saviour from sin (Mt. 1:21).
3. Son of God
4. King of Israel.
The unique birth, the idea of which might well, mystify Mary, was carefully and simply explained: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (1:35). This “overshadowing” is the same action of the Holy Spirit as when “the cloud abode on the (new) tent of the congregation, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:35, cp. Lk 9:34). Now in the child conceived by Mary was another and better meeting place between God and man.

Unlike Zacharias, Mary asked no sign, but was given as gracious a token as she could have wished. The immediate mention of God’s blessing on Elisabeth told her: ‘Messiah’s herald will soon be born to your kinswoman Elisabeth’, so is it not reasonable to expect Messiah himself before long? and if that birth is a miracle, how much more miraculous should this be? The power of God has no limits, “for (said Gabriel) with Him no spoken word (of what I have just told you: v. 28-36) shall be impossible.”

The Response of Faith

At once Mary recognized the Biblical allusion to the angelic remonstration to Sarah (Gen. 18:14 LXX) when she heard with incredulity the announcement of the impending birth of Isaac. Before ever she could have confirmation of the message (by a visit to Elisabeth), Mary reacted with an unhesitating fulness of faith Sarah did not at first achieve (v.45), and with a humble acceptance of the will of heaven: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord (Ps. 86:16: 116:16); be it unto me according to thy word.” The spirit of this response is marvellously like that of her great ancestor when the Messianic promise was first spoken to him (2 Sam. 7:25,28). There is here also an implication that, had she so chosen, Mary could have refused the role with which God sought to honour her. And some women would have so chosen, shrinking from the difficult situation and the malicious talk which would inevitably have to be endured by an unmarried mother. Mary’s quick mind saw all this immediately, and as quickly accepted it. If reproach was taken away from Elisabeth and, in a different sense, brought upon herself, she was content to have it so, for it was the reproach of the Christ.

Notes: Luke 1:26-38

The lord be with thee. Lord of the harvest: Ps. 129: 7,8; Jud. 6: 12; 2 Th. 3: 16 (gospel harvest).
Cast in her mind translates a Gk. verb which, in the N .1, always carries a bad sense. Then here does it suggest that at first Mary’s sense of propriety was affronted?

What manner^ of salutation. The word here meant originally “from what country”. In 2 Pet. 3: 11, 1 Jn. 3: 1 it has an “other-worldly” flavour. Thus here it implies: “Is this really an angel from heaven?”
Thou hast found favour (grace). For the meaning of this idiom, as already indicated, consider: Gen. 19: 19; 34: 11; 47: 29; Ex. 33: 13; 34: 9.
Lord God. This, as spoken to Mary, would certainly be the Covenant Name, as in 2 Sam. 7: 18.
Overshadow. Was Gabriel referring to a bridal canopy? The same word comes in Gen. 1: 2. It also occurs in Lk.9:34.

Shall be born. But in Gk. this is a present participle! Contrast the future in v. 31.
That was called. Another present participle. Even now, by those unaware of these divine developments Elisabeth was still spoken of in this way.

Previous Index Next