Easter VI: Luke 1:26-38
The virgin conception of Jesus is one of the most famous elements of the gospel story, and here, Luke subtly illustrates why. The gospel is all about how God is rescuing the world and bringing to birth a new creation through ordinary people.
With most miracles the supernatural element is primarily in the timing of the thing. If the wind blows hard enough, you can imagine a sea being parted – the miracle is in the timing: parting at just the right moment, holding steady all night long, and then closing back together before the Egyptians can catch the Israelites on the other side. Jesus turning water to wine and healing the sick are similar. However, the virgin conception is not like miracles that work with nature, and in this sense is not like the improbable conception of John by Elizabeth in the previous episode. Elizabeth’s conception still required a miracle, but the miracle was in the command and timing of nature. But it was still a matter of nature doing what it ordinarily does. But the virgin birth was not like that. The virgin birth is an event much closer in nature to the creation of the universe. In the beginning there was nothing, and that’s what God had to work with. In this case, there is Mary’s ordinary female biology, but she has not been with a man. Luke says that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit “overshadowing” her (Lk. 1:35). This reminds us of the first verses of Genesis when the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). This indicates something of the enormity of what is taking place. If the birth of John suggests that old, barren Israel must be made fruitful again, the birth of Jesus suggests that the whole world must be remade. God will keep His promises and John will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and to the Lord, but this is only preparation (1:17). The salvation of God will not merely be from the ordinary Israelite family. Jesus will be a new Adam; a new human race is starting. This is why the baptism of John was only a preparatory baptism, and his disciples still needed to be baptized into Christ (e.g. Acts 19:1-6). Jesus is coming with a new kind of life for the world.
Old & New
However, this new human race, this new world is not entirely new, there are similarities and differences. Jesus is being born in the “house of David” – the royal, kingly tribe in Israel (Lk. 1:27), and Gabriel says that he will have the throne of his father David (Lk. 1:32). And yet, the fact that Mary will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit is something entirely new. Furthermore, while the title “son” has rich covenantal and royal connotations (e.g. Ex. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:12-16), Gabriel clearly means something much more than that (Lk. 1:35). We should not miss the fact that Luke’s audience was likely more Hellenistic culturally. Luke was probably a Gentile himself, and we know that he was directly involved in Paul’s missionary work to the Gentiles (e.g. Acts 20:5-6). In some ways, Mary represents outsiders like Gentiles. She is not a male Israelite priest in the temple; she is a young woman in the countryside. And yet now, Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her. This is the same word used to describe the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle (Ex. 40:35), and when that happened even Moses couldn’t stand the glory. Now the presence of God is coming to overshadow a teenage girl. Not only is the conception of Jesus a sign that God is beginning something radically new, the fact that God Himself is on the move, both renewing His covenant people but also reaching outside the usual norms suggests that this Jesus is for everyone.
Gods & Heroes & Kings
We should also not miss the fact that the Greek and Roman cultures (and many others) had their fair share of miraculous birth stories. Perseus had a human mother and the Roman god Jupiter as his father. Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmena, and Pan was the child of Hermes and a shepherd girl. Many ancient heroes were said to have gods as parents, including many kings like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus. What is striking then is that Luke is announcing to the world that all the old stories are coming true. And this is consistent with how Paul preached in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). He announced that the “unknown god” was the God who created the world. He made all men from one man, that they might seek God and “feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). This is why C.S. Lewis called the gospel a “true myth.” He said that God had sent the nations “good dreams,” in order that all men might hope and long for the truth. There were many ancient stories about dying gods coming back to life again, and perhaps this is why many of the men of Athens mocked when they heard about the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). The scandal was not that they couldn’t imagine such a thing; the scandal was that it was too good to be true. Virgil wrote a poem before the birth of Christ in which he hailed a new order of centuries being born, “the Virgin now returns and the reign of Saturn; the new generation now comes down from heaven… this child will share in the life of the gods and he will see and be seen in the company of heroes, and he will be the ruler of the world made peaceful by the merits of his father.” Luke says that these hopes are coming true in Jesus: “He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33).
What the virgin conception means is that God is remaking the world. God has not rejected all that He has made and done, but the Holy Spirit is miraculously conceiving a gloriously new world within the old one. This is a precarious balancing act, and over the centuries the temptation has been to overcorrect – either emphasizing the radical newness while leaving everything behind or else emphasizing the renewal of the old and not being ready for the truly new. Frequently, people lean in one direction in order to hide from God’s grace.
So let Mary be your example. She is your example in having no natural capacity to conceive God’s new life within her; she is wholly dependent on His favor and grace (Lk. 1:28-30). She is also an example of the profound freedom and glory found in being God’s humble servant. To say, “here I am” in submission to God’s word is to open yourself up to the endless possibilities found in His grace.