Know the Whole Story
Many people know some stories from the Bible, but not how the narrative fits together. The Bible is one story that begins in a garden, ends in a city, and all the way through points to Jesus Christ. Open is your guided journey through this powerful, life-transforming story.
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Dedication to Theophilus

1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah,1 of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed2 to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”3 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”4

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born5 will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant6 of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be7 a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary's Song of Praise: The Magnificat

46 And Mary said,

  “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48   for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49   for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50   And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51   He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52   he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53   he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54   He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55   as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

The Birth of John the Baptist

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah's Prophecy

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68   “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people
69   and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70   as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71   that we should be saved from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us;
72   to show the mercy promised to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73   the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
  might serve him without fear,
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76   And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
78   because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us8 from on high
79   to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Footnotes

[1] 1:5 Greek Zacharias
[2] 1:27 That is, legally pledged to be married
[3] 1:28 Some manuscripts add Blessed are you among women!
[4] 1:34 Greek since I do not know a man
[5] 1:35 Some manuscripts add of you
[6] 1:38 Greek bondservant; also verse 48
[7] 1:45 Or believed, for there will be
[8] 1:78 Or when the sunrise shall dawn upon us; some manuscripts since the sunrise has visited us

(ESV)

Overview

Throughout the Old Testament, God had promised that help was coming. In Jesus Christ, that help has come. God the Son came on an amazing journey. He took human flesh to Himself and was born of a virgin. He came down, lived among us, and went to the cross to bear our sins. As God, He reconciled us to Himself. As man, He delivered us from the wrath of God. As the holy one, He empowers us for a holy life, and one day He will welcome us into the joy of His holy presence.

Imagine you are living on a beautiful island with breathtaking views.1 The beaches extend for hundreds of miles, and the island is home to a vast population.

Over the years, the islanders have often wondered what may lie beyond the horizon. But nobody has ever left the island, and so no one really knows.

The islanders have spent many hours studying wildlife, plants, weather, and rock formations. They have also paid a great deal of attention to cultivating family life. Seminars have been held on how to have a healthy island marriage and how to bring up island kids.

The islanders are all descended from castaways who were washed up after a great disaster that happened many years ago—so long ago that most residents know little or nothing about it.

At the center of the island is a volcano. Some islanders fear that one day it may erupt, but most have come to the conclusion that it never will.

Message in a Bottle
One morning, as you are out strolling on the beach, you see a reflection in the sand. As you look more closely, you notice that a green bottle has been washed up on the shore. Inside you find a message: “Help is coming.”

Strange. You have never seen anything like this before. “Help”? What kind of help could possibly be needed on such a beautiful island?

A few weeks later, you see another bottle, with another message: “Help will arrive soon!” Two bottles with the same message. Where could they have come from?

The discoveries are strangely unnerving. After all, you are living on an idyllic island and are enjoying a very full and satisfying life. But the notes in the bottles suggest that there is some kind of problem.

Perhaps there is someone out there beyond the horizon. And perhaps he, she, or it is telling us that we are in danger, and that there is a plan to do something about it.

But then again, the messages might have been written by children on the other side of the island. And if they threw the bottles out to sea, the tide could easily have washed them back in.

Whatever happened, you can’t get the bottles and their message out of your mind: “Help is coming.”

The Islanders’ Problem
The story of the islanders can help us to grasp the big picture of the Bible. God created you to know Him, enjoy Him, and live in His presence. But there was a great disaster. Sin ruptured the relationship between man and God, and now we live in a fallen world which, for all its beauty, has a curse hanging over it. We all face many problems living on the island, but our greatest problem is that the island itself will one day be destroyed.

But from the beginning, God promised that help would come. Over hundreds of years He repeated the same message through the Old Testament prophets: “Don’t despair. I am sending help. Someone will come to rescue you from a danger that you do not yet fully understand.”

You were born for a land that you have never seen, but you can only get there if someone comes to rescue you. This is why Jesus Christ came into the world. He is the help that God promised from the beginning of the Bible story.

God Takes the Initiative
The birth of Jesus was entirely at the initiative of God. Mary was a young woman, preparing for marriage to a man named Joseph. She was a virgin, and God had chosen her as the one who would bring Jesus Christ into the world. So He sent the angel Gabriel to tell her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:30–31).

“How will this be?” Mary asked.

The angel’s answer takes us to the heart of the greatest mystery in the Bible. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (1:35).

Mary’s child was born as the result of the direct initiative of God. Joseph had nothing to do with it. He was an outsider, a passive observer to the whole miraculous event. If God had not told him what was happening, he would not have had the faintest idea. God completely bypassed him; Joseph made no contribution whatsoever.

The Bible contains other stories of miraculous births. Abraham and Sarah had longed for a child, and Isaac’s birth was a miracle because they were both well past the age of conceiving children. The same was true for Zechariah and Elizabeth when John the Baptist was born.

These children were born as a result of a special intervention of God, working through the union of a father and a mother. But Mary was a virgin. Joseph had no union with her before the child was conceived, and he had no union with her until after the child was born (Matt. 1:25).

The life in Mary’s womb came to be there through a creative miracle of God that is beautifully described in the words of the angel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

God did not wait for a deliverer to arise from the human race; He came to rescue us. God became a man, taking flesh from the virgin, Mary.

The New Testament teaches us three foundational truths about the identity of Jesus: He is God. He is man. And He is holy.

God’s Amazing Journey
The angel announced to Mary that her child would be “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). He would be “the Son of God” (1:35). He would be “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).

Before He was born, God the Son already enjoyed the most marvelous life. Your life began when you were conceived in your mother’s womb. Before that moment, you did not exist. God used the union of your father and your mother to bring you into being.

But with Jesus, it is different. His life did not begin in the virgin’s womb. Before He was born in the stable, He shared the eternal life of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The one who shared the life of the Father came to us. He did not arise from the human race, but He came to the human race.

The wonderful truth that Jesus is God is good news, because only God can reconcile us to Himself.

The Mystery That Makes Sense of Everything Else
Once we have grasped that Jesus is God, it is every bit as important for us to grasp that the Son of God became a man. Nothing like this had ever happened before or has happened since.

In the Old Testament, there were many occasions when God appeared in visible form. These appearances are called theophanies, and they could be compared to an actor dressing up or putting on a disguise. When the show is over, the actor takes off his costume and leaves the theater. But the birth of Jesus was entirely different. The Son of God took human flesh to Himself. He did not cease to be God, but He truly became a man.

You will never be able to fathom how God could become a man, but when you believe that He did, you will not find it difficult to understand the claims, the miracles, or the resurrection of Jesus. When you see that God became a man in Jesus, it all begins to fit.

Since Jesus is “God with us,” no one should be surprised when He tells us that He is the way to God and that there is no other way. And when you know that God has come to us in Jesus, you may be astonished that He would allow His enemies to nail Him to a cross, but you will not be surprised when He rises from the dead. What other outcome would you expect?

A New Kind of Humanity
Jesus Christ is like us in every respect except one—He is holy (Luke 1:35). This means that Jesus did not at any time commit a single sin. But it means more than that. He was holy in His thoughts, in His intentions, and in His character. His nature was holy. He was not drawn to sin, and He had no inner propensity to sin. There has never been anyone else in all of human history about whom this could be said.

The apostle Paul was a good man who desperately wanted to live a holy life. He was born into a privileged family and educated in the finest schools. His parents gave him everything he could want, except for one thing. They could not give him holiness. The nature he inherited from his parents was far from holy.

Parents pass on many good things to their children, but holiness is not one of them. We do not have it in us. What is born is not holy, and what is holy was not born until Jesus Christ came into the world.

Jesus blazes the trail of a new humanity that will be holy, free from sin, and thus no longer subject to death. The purpose of God has always been that Jesus will be the first of many who through Him will triumph over death and live forever in the joy of God’s holy presence.

Note:
1. Original idea adapted from a piece in Eugene Petersen, Working the Angles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 139 ff. Petersen adapted it from an essay/parable by Walker Percy, The Message in a Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975).

  1. What is your response to the Bible’s message that “Help is coming”? Are you unnerved by it? Curious? Relieved? Skeptical? Other? Why?
  2. What makes the birth of Jesus entirely unique in the history of the world? What does this unique birth tell us about God?
  3. The New Testament teaches three foundational truths about the identity of Jesus: He is God. He is man. He is holy. Which one do you find easiest to believe? Which is most difficult? Why?
  4. React to the statement: “Jesus Christ is like us in every respect except one—He is holy.”
  5. Think about the amazing journey of the Son of God. What is most amazing to you? Why?
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