Why have I entitled this article, "Nine Months Before Christmas"? If you're a mother, you would have no difficulty understanding what I mean. Every year at this time, we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. But there is another amazing miracle that is often overlooked during this season. If you believe that life begins at conception, as I do and as the Bible teaches, then the Lord Jesus Christ became a human being at the moment of His conception in the womb of Mary. I personally think that this is an even more amazing miracle than His birth. Since this event is often overlooked during the Christmas season, let's take a look at the sequence of events and the miracle that occurred at His conception as recorded for us in Luke's Gospel.
I. THE SETTING (verses 26-27)
The story begins in Luke, chapter 1. Verses 26 and 27 say, "Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary." Luke states that it is the "sixth month" He means the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. He's marking time from the last appearance of the angel Gabriel, and the miracle of pregnancy that was promised to the aged priest, Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. They were going to be the parents of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.
In verse 27 we are introduced to Mary, a virgin girl, probably in her early to mid-teen years, and she was engaged to a man named Joseph. Among the Jews at that time, the marriage vows were said at the engagement (betrothal), and it required a divorce to end the relationship. It was the custom for there to be an interval of usually a year before she could take up residence in her husband's house and the physical union could be consummated. It must have been near the end of that engagement period. Mary and Joseph were both from Nazareth and so they were both very poor. This town, and the Jews in it, were despised by the Jews in Judea because Nazareth was a small, poor, out-of-the-way town in the region of Galilee where there were more Gentiles than Jews.
II. THE GREETING (verses 28-29)
Everything seems to be going according to plan for Mary and Joseph, and then something unexpected happens. God sent the angel Gabriel on another mission. this time to Mary. Gabriel's name means "the strength of God", and he is often seen delivering messages of kindness and blessing.
There seems to be a fascination with angels, especially at Christmas time. Recent surveys have shown that anywhere between 55-70% of Americans believe in the existence of angels and their activity in our world today. There have been several major motion pictures about angels, as well as movies having angels in them. The classic film, "It's A Wonderful Life" is shown every Christmas season, and the angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) shows George (James Stewart) what life would have been like if he had never been born. If you have never seen this movie, please put it on your "must-see list" this year. You will really enjoy it!
The Bible says that angels are "innumerable" (Psalm 68:17). There are too many of them to count. Yet only two angels are named in the Bible: Gabriel and Michael. It's interesting to note also that both Zacharias and Mary recognized that it was an angel who was visiting them. I've often wondered whether the faces of angels shone because of being in the presence of God and seeing Him face-to-face. We will know some day!
Let's see what the angel Gabriel has to say to Mary. Luke 1:28 says, "And coming in, he said to her, 'Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you'." He's not putting her on a pedestal above other women. He is letting her know that God has given her a unique role to play in His plan of salvation. It is an unmerited favor from God. She didn't earn the right, nor did she deserve it, but, as we shall see, she didn't gloat over it but humbly accepted it. Steven is also called "full of grace" in Acts 6:8. In verse 29 we see Mary's initial response to his greeting: "But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of greeting this might be." I can imagine that many thoughts and questions were going through her mind, such as "What an unusual greeting". "Why would he be saying that to me?" "I'm supposed to return his greeting; what words should I say?"
III. THE ANNOUNCEMENT (verses 30-33)
The angel Gabriel seems to understand her fears and concerns because he tells her: "Do not be afraid", calling her by name. Then he declares to her the announcement that was given to him by God.
"And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end."
After that description, I don't think there was any doubt in Mary's mind that this child he speaks of is going to be the Messiah. The phrase, the "Son of the Most High" is a Messianic title, and His lineage and everlasting reign eliminate all other possible contenders. (Psalm 89:36-37; Isaiah 9:6-7)
As a Jewess, should Mary have known that the Messiah was going to come by virgin-birth? Yes. Was it her fault that she didn't know it? No. This information given by the angel Gabriel should not have come as a surprise to the nation of Israel.. There are at least two passages of Scripture in the Old Testament that point to the virgin birth of the Messiah. The first is Genesis 3:15. After the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, and they sinned, God said to the serpent, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heal."
A woman doesn't have a seed. She has eggs. The man has the seed. If this mother of the Messiah is going to have a seed apart from man, she will remain a virgin, right? If the seed doesn't come from man, then it has to come from God. Isaiah 7:14 confirms this. "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and she shall call His name 'Immanuel'." The Scribes and teachers of the Law ignored, overlooked, and failed to teach about the suffering Messiah because they were looking for the conquering Messiah.
IV. THE QUESTION AND THE ANSWER (verses 34-37)
Mary's response to the angel Gabriel's announcement is not the same as that of her relative Zacharias. Mary believed that God could do what the angel said. She didn't ask for a sign as proof that what he is saying is true. She is just curious as to the "process" by which it would be done since she was a virgin. So she asks the question: "How can this be since I am a virgin?" Just how is this all going to come about? Obviously this was going to be no ordinary conception!
First, Gabriel says, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you". He is answering her question with words she can understand - words from the Old Testament Scriptures. His words reminded her of Old Testament stories she heard from her parents, and lessons she learned in the synagogue, about how the Spirit of God "came upon" Joshua (Num. 27:18), Saul (I Sam. 10:10), David (I Sam. 16:12-18), Bezalel (Ex, 31:2-5, and others. In each case the Spirit came upon them to empower them and enable them to accomplish the work that God called them to do. This would have directed her thoughts to the power, the provision, and the faithfulness of God. As she did this, her worries would begin to fade away.
Secondly, Gabriel says, "The power of the Most High will overshadow you." The word translated "overshadow" means "to cover". Any Jew during that time would associate that word with the tabernacle in the wilderness during the forty years of wandering in the desert. Exodus 40:34, 35, and 38 describe God's "overshadowing" of the tabernacle after it had been erected. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. . . . For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel."
The cloud over the tabernacle was a symbol of God's glory and His continual presence with His people. To an Israelite, it was comforting to think that God was hovering over them like an eagle over its nest, with its wings outspread, keeping an eye on them and protecting them. The cloud also depicted the holiness of God, and therefore His worthiness to be worshipped. The angel Gabriel was telling Mary that her womb would be the tabernacle of the Son of God for nine months. He was directing her thoughts toward the holiness of God and the continual presence of God over her (and in her).
V. THE SECOND ANNOUNCEMENT (verses 36-37)
The angel Gabriel's second announcement is one of joy and encouragement to Mary. She learns that her relative Elizabeth is pregnant and in her sixth month of pregnancy. Elizabeth was old enough to be Mary's grandmother or even great-grandmother! What a pleasant surprise that must have been to hear that news about Elizabeth, and to hear the words that followed. In verse 37, the angel Gabriel ends his announcement with these words: For nothing is impossible with God". It's a reminder of the prophet Jeremiah's words to God in Jeremiah 29:17, "Ah, Lord God, Thou hast made the heavens and the earth by Thy great power and by Thine outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for Thee."
VI. THE ACCEPTANCE (verse 38)
Verse 38 tells us Mary's response to the angel's announcement: "Behold the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word." The Message puts it this way: "Yes, I see it all now; I'm the Lord's maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say." Then the angel left. As a humble servant of God, Mary accepted her calling from God immediately, in spite of the suffering, misunderstandings, and adjustments that might lay ahead for her. She joins the ranks of other virtuous women, such as Sarah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, and others who chose to obey God, and desired to be used by God in spite of the consequences to themselves.
VI. THE LESSONS
Thomas a Kempis, a Catholic priest in the 1400's who wrote the book, The Imitation of Christ, had these words to say about obedience: "Instant obedience is the only kind of obedience there is; delayed obedience is disobedience." Are there things you know God wants you to do or complete, and you haven't done them? Are there people you know God wants you to visit or contact; are there relationships God wants you to mend and you've been putting it off? You're probably familiar with the saying, "Better late than never, but better never late." Let's turn that saying around for the things we need to catch up on with God, and then turn it back. "Better never late, but better late than never."
Finally, is our devotion to God motivated by a fervent and grateful love for Him. Do we gladly and consistently spend time with Him in His Word and in prayer before we begin the other activities of our day? As we begin the Christmas season and look forward to celebrating His birth in Bethlehem, remember that the Lord Jesus spent nine months pretty-much incapacitated in Mary's womb out of love for us. He loves us "in season and out of season". Let's keep that in mind this Christmas season and all the way through the coming year.