The Annunciation in Luke (1)

The annunciation passages in Matthew and Luke are our first introduction to the way the Holy Spirit will pick up the threads of the OT and join them with the new revelation that came with the advent of Jesus Christ. We start with those passages where angels announce the birth of the Savior.  I am going to begin with Luke’s account, and move on to Matthew’s Gospel.  Even John could be considered since his account, although it skips the birth of Christ, does emphasize His preexistence and His priority within the Creation Project.  But we will come to that in time.  Let us then turn to Luke and study his narrative.

            In Luke 1:5 we see that Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias the priest is advanced in years.  We find Zacharias burning incense to God in the Temple (Lk. 1:9).  Notice how Luke tells us that the angel was standing to the right of the altar of incense (Lk. 1:11).  This little detail is an indication of the kind of accuracy that was sought by the best ancient historians.  If at all possible they would seek out eyewitnesses to the things they were writing about.  

            The announcement begins in verse 13, which concerns God’s answer to the prayers of Zacharias and Elizabeth about a child.  This child was to be great (hence the angel), and he will “be filled with the Holy Spirit” from infancy (Lk. 1:15).  This mention of the Holy Spirit should not be missed, for it certainly would not have been missed by Zacharias, being as it was, firmly associated with special divine empowerment for a God-appointed task.   This son, John, will turn many of the children of Israel to their Lord, going in the spirit and power of Elijah.  Here we have a quotation of an OT text (Mal. 4), which is a prophecy of the latter-day ministry of Elijah.  This announcement does not say that John is Elijah, but that he comes in “the spirit and power of Elijah.”[1]  He comes “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Lk. 1:17), which is taken from the last verse of our OT (Mal. 4:6). 

            Because Zacharias expresses doubt about the angel’s words, he is stricken dumb for a season.  The angel introduces himself as none other than Gabriel (meaning “man of God” ).  Gabriel is one of only two angels named in the Scriptures, the other being Michael.  It was Gabriel who had spoken to Daniel centuries earlier (Dan. 8:16; 9:21).  Notice that it was necessary for Zacharias to take Gabriel’s words in faith at face value.  He wasn’t to spiritualize the words he was to believe what was said.  Because he doubted, he became a sign.  What would he be a sign of?  Disbelief it seems.   

The Annunciation of Jesus’ Birth in Luke

Next, we are told of Gabriel’s visit to Nazareth[2] “in the sixth month” to appear to Joseph’s house (Lk. 1:26).  There is a lot of continuity with OT expectation in Gabriel’s words to Mary.  The first point of continuity has been debated, which is the fact that Mary is a virgin.  There is no doubt that the Greek term parthenos does indeed mean “virgin.”  Since the Holy Spirit used this term twice (Luke 1:27), and Matthew expressly links the announcement to Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 (Matt. 1:23), we know that the almah of Isaiah means “virgin” not “maiden.”  But further, we know that the one whom Isaiah was predicting is about to come into the world. 

Another point of continuity between the OT and the annunciation to Mary is how Gabriel loaded his announcement with Davidic covenantal terminology: “the Lord God will give 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).  Joseph would surely have expressed his Davidic lineage to Mary, not to mention to the Son whom he would call his own.[3]  These words of the angel would only have been understood in one way.  Hence, the Davidic covenant is raised right off the bat. Whatever one thinks happens after the resurrection of Joseph’s Son, nobody at the birth of Jesus is taking God’s words in any way but literally.  Whatever happens after that, we will let unfold as it is revealed.  Whatever happens after that, we will let unfold as it is revealed.  Luke 1:38 records that, “Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”  Did she really have in mind a set of types and thematic structures and not the covenant pledges as delivered to her?  Next, we read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39-45), and Elizabeth’s words:

“Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” – Luke 1:45.

“She who believed” is Mary. What Mary believed were the Davidic promises that were conveyed to her, which words Elizabeth apparently thought would be fulfilled to the letter.  What follows is the ‘Magnificat.’

And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.

And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation.

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.

He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy,

as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” – Luke 1:46-55 My italics.

Again, from the words of Mary it is quite clear that she is thinking in covenantal terms.  She mentions her nation Israel (Lk. 1:54), calling to mind the Servant Songs of Isaiah.[4]  She also calls to mind the covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Lk. 1:55).  According to her words, the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to Israel are “forever.” 

            We are not yet out of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel and we are in the middle of covenant expectation.  The next witness to God’s oaths is Zachariah.  Upon agreeing with his wife that his son would be named “John”, which demonstrated his belief in what Gabriel had said, his tongue was loosed and he began to extol God.  What he said echoed the words of Mary.  He spoke of both the Davidic (Lk. 1:69), and the Abrahamic covenants.  Zachariah said that God would,

remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. – Luke 1:72-75.

            The words of Zachariah recall several OT themes: deliverance, safety, and consecration.  He too is powerfully influenced by the covenants of God and what they say about his people Israel.  The oath of God to which Zachariah is alluding is not a word-for-word quotation of anything in Genesis, but rather a valid inference from the Abrahamic covenant.  The “we” who he has in mind here is not the Church, it is connected with “our father Abraham.”  Zachariah began his inspired paen with, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.” (Lk. 1:68-69).  He is referring to the nation of Israel.  Moreover, he like Mary connects the covenants with Abraham and David.  

[1] In the Gospel of John, the Baptist explicitly says he is not Elijah (Jn. 1:21). 

[2] Many critics of the NT have tried to assert that Nazareth did not exist at this time, but this is an error.

[3] Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, 101. 

[4] The Servant Songs (Isa.49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12), refer both to Israel as a nation and to the Messiah.  Mary is thinking here of the former. 

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