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 betrothed 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!” 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?”
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 born 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 servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
The Old Testament story set the stage for God’s greatest intervention in human history. God had given many clues about the identity of a promised person, often referred to as the Messiah or Christ. Whoever this person turned out to be, His entrance into the world would be the greatest event in the entire history of the human race. Everything God had promised to do would be fulfilled by Him.
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 you that you 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.
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 (1:34).
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 (Matthew 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” (Luke 1:35).
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” (Matthew 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 God became a man. This had never happened before, and it has never 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 knowing that He did makes sense of everything else. When you see that God became a man in Jesus, His claims, His miracles, and His resurrection all begin 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.
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.
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).
- What is your response to the Bible’s message that “Help is coming”? Are you unnerved by it? Curious? Relieved? Skeptical? Other? Why?
- What makes the birth of Jesus entirely unique in the history of the world?
- 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?
- How well do you think Jesus understands your experience of life?
- Think about the amazing journey of the Son of God. What is most amazing to you? Why?