The Birth of the Messiah
The Announcement (Luke 1:26-38)
After John the Baptist’s mother became pregnant with John, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, the angel Gabriel came from the presence of God, “To a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary,” (Luke 1:26,27). Notice how Luke locates this story in history — to a particular region — Galilee, and a town — Nazareth; and to a particular man and woman. This is not myth or legend. This is history.
Notice the emphasis on Mary’s virginity. We cannot understand the life and ministry of Jesus unless we understand this fundamental truth, that Jesus was conceived by God, not man, though born of a woman. Only in this way could He be God in human form (as we have discussed).
The angel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” (Luke 1:28). The word favored, charitoo, means one who is endued with honor or grace. It is derived from charis, the New Testament word for benefit, gift or grace. This does not mean, as some falsely teach, that Mary is a dispenser of grace. Rather, she is the recipient of God’s grace. “The Lord is with you” underscores God’s enablement of Mary. God is gifting Mary with grace so that she will be able to accomplish His purpose.
Mary was perplexed (greatly troubled, disturbed, 1:29) at this greeting, as we can imagine, and the angel responded, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor (grace) with God” (1:30). Again the angel speaks of Mary’s favor, her charis, her grace, with God. Charis is the root of the words free gift in Romans 6:23, “The free gift (charisma) of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why is Mary gifted with such grace? Is there something God wants to do in or through her life? Yes, and the angel tells her: “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 will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end,” (Luke 1:31-33).
Five important revelations are contained in this statement.
1. Mary though unwed, would conceive a child. This would be a unique birth.
2. The child would be named Jesus (the Greek form of a common Hebrew name, Yeshua, which means, God saves). Joseph had also been given specific directions by the angel, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins,” (Matt. 1:21).
3. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High (Most High is hupsistos, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name for God, El Elyon).” El Elyon is the sovereign God, the God who creates and sustains, upholds, rules over that which He creates. Surely this child will be great for He will be the Son of God, the glory of God incarnate in human flesh, sharing the nature and essence of the Most High God.
4. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob reveals that this child will be of the royal line of David. As we discussed in the previous lesson, Jesus was descended from David legally through Joseph who was of the lineage of David (Matt. 1:1-16); also genetically through Mary who also was descended from the line of David (Luke 3:23-38). He will reestablish the throne, the kingdom of David and will reign over that kingdom forever.
5. His kingdom will have no end implies the eternality of the Child (as we read in Isaiah 9:6, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” The child was born but the Son was given, for He already existed).
Such revelation was far beyond anyone’s capacity to understand. Yet Mary’s humble response was simply, “How can this be, since I am a virgin (since I know not a man)?” (Luke 1:34). Mary was not expressing unbelief, rather, incredulity, perplexity. Her expectation is that she would be married to Joseph and have children through him. How could she have a child any other way? She did not have a Bible with a Christmas story in it.
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God,” (1:35).
The same Holy Spirit who, at creation, hovered over the unformed, dark expanse of the deep, who with God the Father and God the Son shared in the creation of light and life — this same Spirit will come upon Mary with the creative power of the Most High (El Elyon).
The power of El Elyon “will overshadow” Mary. The word overshadow may also be translated, encompass. This is the same word as in Matthew 17:5, when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John and “a bright cloud overshadowed” them. That was the shekinah glory of God encompassing them on the mountain.
The glory of God encompassed Mary with creative, life-generating power, conceiving in her the life of Jesus. “For that reason,” the angel adds, “the holy Child shall be called the Son of God,” (Luke 1:35). Though Jesus is the Son of Mary, He is also Son of God. It was necessary that He be both. Paul reminds us, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). In order to offer Himself as the Substitute for humanity, He had to share the same human nature as those He came to save. But it was equally necessary that He be the perfectly holy Son of God, for only a holy God can offer a perfectly holy Sacrifice, thereby reconciling sinners to a perfectly holy God.
Jesus is “Son of the Most High.” The eternal, preexistent Son of God was conceived in the womb of a woman. He is the God / Man, as Paul reveals, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
To further build Mary’s confidence, the messenger reminds her, “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month” (1:36). He then testifies, “For nothing will be impossible with God,” (1:37). That verse may be translated, “For no word (rhema) of God is empty of power.”
Every word that God speaks contains in it the power necessary to call into being the reality of that word. Just as an acorn contains the building blocks of an oak tree, just as human DNA contains the information needed to build a unique human being, so the word of God carries in it the life and power needed to bring that word into fulfillment.
Certainly Elizabeth had limitations — she was advanced in age and barren. Yet God gave her a son, John, forerunner of the Messiah. Mary surely had a limitation — she had no husband. Yet God purposed to conceive in her His Son. Nothing is impossible with God. No word of God is without the power to accomplish the purpose of that word.
Mary now confesses her faithful surrender to God’s purpose, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38). She does not say that she understands. She simply submits. “And the angel departed from her,” (Luke 1:38).
The Birth (Luke 2:1-7)
Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). This was important because the Messiah needed to be of royal blood, descended from King David. What better way to demonstrate this than to have Him born in the city of David?
The fact that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, about 90 miles from Bethlehem, was not a problem for God. The same God who upholds the universe He created, also governs the affairs of nations. In Proverbs 21:1 we read, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” So it was that the Lord moved the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, to issue an edict that an empire-wide census should be taken. This required families to return to their ancestral homes.
This caused Joseph and Mary to return “to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, for he (Joseph) was of the house and family of David,” (Luke 2:4). In fact, Mary was also descended from David. While they were there, “She gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn,” (Luke 2:7).
This is not the usual word for inn. It is a word that has to do with a shelter. Bethlehem was overcrowded because of the census and this may have been a temporary lodging place built for the visitors. But there was not even room in that temporary shelter. So Joseph and Mary found lodging where the travelers kept their animals.
The Glory (Luke 2:8-20)
Jesus, the revelation of God’s glory, was born in a stable and placed in a feeding trough. Yet as this was happening, the glory of God was breaking forth over the fields surrounding Bethlehem: “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night,” (Luke 2:8).
The first people to hear about the birth of the Messiah were shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Obviously, God did not hire a modern Public Relations firm. Professionals would have notified the political rulers, the wealthy, the chief priest, the most important rabbis — the power brokers of Jerusalem. Not shepherds. They lived near the bottom of Jewish society. They were poor, uneducated, unskilled laborers. Because of their low social status, shepherds were not allowed to testify in a court of law. Because their flocks needed continual care every day and night of the week, they were unable to fulfill the complex system of Sabbath laws and regulations. They were therefore considered ceremonially unclean by the Pharisees.
But who did Jesus come to seek and to save? Quoting Isaiah 61:1, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.”
Who responded to Jesus? The poor, the outcast, the guilty. Folks like those shepherds, folks like us.
The Apostle Paul reminds us, “But consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,” (I Cor. 1:26,27).
Though these shepherds were not highly respected by society, they were highly valued by God. They may have been humble, devout men of simple faith — or men of no faith at all — but God chose them to hear the good news of Messiah’s birth before anyone else. They are the common folk who have responded to the call to follow Jesus throughout the centuries and He is not ashamed to call them, and to call us, His brothers and sisters.
It was an ordinary night. The flocks were gathered into the sheepfold, bedded down, sleeping close together for warmth. The shepherds sat nearby, gathered around a small fire of sticks and straw. The wind was chilly and they pulled their robes tightly around them. Overhead, stars flickered in a spectacular, clear Eastern sky. Especially one star blazed brightly — almost like a second moon.
Every now and then one of the shepherds would get up and circle the flock, watching, listening for any sign of danger. But danger seemed far away. The only sound that could be heard was the muffled crackling of the fire and the low, hushed conversation of men familiar with the slow dance of star shadows. There was a deep stillness upon the cool night air.
Suddenly, the sky exploded with dazzling light. Darkness was consumed by a radiance brighter than the noon day sun and the shepherds shielded their eyes. Yet this was more than mere light. It was the brightness of God’s glory splitting the heavens.
Then in the blazing splendor above them a living being appeared — an angel! The shepherds pressed into the ground, terrified, not simply by the indescribable brightness of glory but by the holiness of God pulsing from this messenger who had come to them from the presence of God.
Encompassed by such glory, Ezekiel had fallen on his face (Ezkl. 1:28) and Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me” (Isa. 6:5). John the apostle, lifted up in vision into the presence of the glorified Christ, “Fell at His feet like a dead man,” (Rev. 1:17).
These humble shepherds did not know that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising,” (Isa. 60:1-3). They did not know. They only clutched the sod with clinched fists, seeking to bury their faces in the low grass.
Now the angel stood before them radiating the shekinah glory of God, the manifest presence of God’s glory (Luke 2:9). He spoke with a voice at once awesome and comforting: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Lk. 2:10).
This messenger had not come announcing the terrible news of judgment but rather, the good news of great joy “for all the people,” (Luke 2:10). All the people would include the lowest of the low, every sinner, every outcast shepherd. They lifted their heads, slightly, releasing the sod from trembling fingers.
The angel then proclaimed the Good News: “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord,” (Luke 2:11).
“A Savior has been born for you,” — these words hung in the air. The men looked at one another, one unspoken thought filling each heart, “God has sent a Savior for us!”
“Where is He?”
“City of David, close enough. God knew where to find us.”
“Who is this Savior?”
“The angel said He is the Christ — the long awaited Messiah. And He is Lord.”
The word Lord could be applied to a person as a title of respect but it is also a way of speaking about God. (The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, translates the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh, with the Greek, Kurios, Lord.) Jesus never denied His equality with God and here, at His birth, the angels declare that this Child is not only the Messiah but God in human flesh.
Who has been born? A Savior, One who “will save His people from their sins,” as the angel had said to Joseph (Matt. 1:21). Jesus testified of Himself that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost,” (Luke 19:10).
“A Savior has been born for us,” the shepherds whisper among themselves, awed but now unafraid. They want to go and find this new born Savior, but how will they locate Him in such a crowded village? The angel answered their question before they could ask, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,” (Luke 2:12).
A baby wrapped in cloths was not a sign — that was normal at birth. But a child placed in a feeding trough — this would help the shepherds identify Him. How many new born babies in Bethlehem that night were lying in mangers?
Savior, Messiah, Lord, the revelation of God’s glory — placed in a feeding trough. Truly, a humble Savior. The shepherds are drawn to this Child, for they sensed, “He is like us, one of us.”
“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among men with whom he is pleased,’” (Luke 2:13,14). The sky blazed brighter with the fire of their worship.
The shepherds no longer fear the fire. They stand and gaze into the bright chorus of praise, knowing that they are a part of this unveiling of glory. Yes, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Something deep in them resonates with this choir, instinctively knowing that the universe exists to display the glory of God; knowing that the reason angels and shepherds exist is to behold God’s glory and to give Him glory. Now, somehow, God is born in human form. How could the skies over Bethlehem not resound with praise tonight?
The angels sang of peace among those with whom God is pleased. How do we find true, lasting peace? “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 5:1).
With whom is God pleased? With those who repent of sin and place their faith in Christ Jesus. The shepherds do not yet understand this but they are drawn to the truth irresistibly, as sheep are drawn to their master.
Whatever else the angels sang that night, surely they praised God for His mercy in providing salvation to lost sinners. Surely they praised God for His humility in becoming our Redeemer, a Redeemer lying in a manger in a stable.
Now the light of the angel choir dimmed into the familiar desert darkness, the echoes of their praise faded into the heavens and all was silent, except for the labored breathing of the shepherds. The eldest spoke, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).
Notice the form of the salvation process here:
1. God shines light into hearts darkened by sin, announcing good news.
2. Those who truly hear now act on what they have heard. They act on the light they have. God awakens sinners from spiritual slumber, from the sleep of death and separation from the Lord. But we must act in repentance and faith. So it was that the shepherds moved straight to Bethlehem.
3. We don’t know how long they searched, only that, “They came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby,” (Luke 2:16). Again, notice the representation of sinners seeking the Lord. All who seek Him find Him, as the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jere. 29:13). This is the Christ who draws us to Himself. The information which the angels provided was accurate, even as the word of God, proclaimed by Christ’s messengers, will always draw a seeking soul to Christ.
The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had seen and heard (Luke 2:17). They were the first witnesses of God’s new work of redemption. They were the first to hear the gospel and the first to go and share what they heard and they shared the Good News with the mother and earthly father of the Redeemer.
All who heard the story wondered at it (Luke 2:18). No doubt the young couple pondered the events of this night. But their wonder was also informed by what each had heard in their own encounters with angelic messengers. The angel had said to Joseph, “The Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit ... He will save His people from their sins,” (Matt. 1:20,21).
The angel had said to Mary, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High ... The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God,” (Luke 1:32,35).
Mary treasured these things in her heart (Luke 2:19), wondered over them. It would be 33 years before she fully understood, after the resurrection of her Son, her Lord and ours.
Having seen the child, the shepherds returned to their work, their families and their everyday life — the same fields, the same rolling hills and meadows, the same flocks of sheep and the same long, desert nights. Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed because the shepherds had changed. They had met Jesus and in Jesus, they had encountered the God who created this universe, the Lord who created man and woman, the Lord who redeems fallen sinners. Nothing would ever be the same again.
They went forth praising and glorifying God (Luke 2:20). And so may we.
1. How was Jesus conceived in Mary and why was it necessary that conception take place in this way?
2. Why was it necessary that Jesus was born in Bethlehem?