the same promise for us
We began a new series on the gospel of Luke last week. We saw last week that Luke is writing this gospel to a man named Theophilus, so that Theophilus might have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (v. 4). So he’s trying to convince Theophilus that what he’s heard about Jesus is true; it’s not just a story. But it’s interesting how he goes about it: in writing his narrative of Jesus’s life, he doesn’t begin with Jesus at all. He starts before Jesus, setting the scene for Jesus’s arrival. (Like I said last week, Luke is thorough.)
Last week we did four verses; today we’re going to do thirty-four. This is a very dense text, and there’s a lot we could stop and look at here. But we’re going to try to get a bird’s-eye view of the story, to try and figure out what the main point is: what is Luke trying to show Theophilus?
1) Gabriel and Zechariah (v. 5-25)
First we see an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are a holy couple (v. 6): And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect, but they lived very upright lives: they obeyed the commandments well.
Zechariah is a priest. He’s working in the temple when an angel named Gabriel appears to him. Zechariah is justifiably freaked out (I love how understated Luke is, v. 12: And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him…), but the angel tells him not to be afraid, because he’s come with good news! V. 13: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. Which is extraordinary, because a) Elizabeth is really old; and b) even when she was young, she was barren. She couldn’t have children.
So this is the first big thing we see here: the angel communicates a promise from God, the promise of a miraculous birth.
And not only that, but this isn’t going to be any normal child: this child, whose name will be John, will be important. V. 15: and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. Now, it’s hard to grasp how huge this is. No one, before or since, has been filled with the Holy Spirit in the mother’s womb. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, in this kind of situation, meant being equipped by the Spirit to fulfill a task particular task.
And the task that John has been set apart and equipped to do, even before his birth, is huge: John will prepare the way for the Messiah. The people of Israel had been waiting for the Messiah for centuries. The prophets had predicted that God would send a Savior, who would free the people from slavery and lead them into a kingdom of perfect peace. These promises came at various times during the people’s history, and nearly all of them were painful periods—they were exiled from their homeland for a time; and now their home country was occupied by the Romans. If you read the Old Testament, you see an almost endless succession of painful situations they had to endure, and nearly all of those situations were a direct result of their own rebellion against God. So God said that this Messiah would come and free them from this rebellion, from their sin.
And John’s task was to get the people ready for this Messiah’s coming. V. 16-17: 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.”
God had promised this Messiah, but he said before the Messiah comes, God would send a prophet, like the prophet Elijah, who would get things ready for the Messiah’s coming. And it’s important that the angel indicates the way in which he would do that, because the people had essentially misinterpreted a lot of the prophecies about the Messiah, and imagined that he would be a great military leader who would free them from foreign enemies. But that’s not the Messiah’s goal.
And that is why the way John would prepare the way for the Messiah by “resensitizing" the people—he would bring them to a keener awareness of their sin, and their need for repentance. Fathers who had neglected their children would turn their hearts back to them; those who had fled from God in disobedience would desire to return to him and obey. And all of this will happen so that when the Messiah comes, preaching the kingdom of God, the people will be ready to listen.
And now, according to Gabriel, that promise was being fulfilled: the man who would come to prepare the way for the Messiah was coming, and he would be Zechariah’s own son.
Now, what is Zechariah’s reaction? V. 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.” It’s hard to hear this so clearly in the English, but essentially, when Zechariah says, “How shall I know this?”, he’s saying, “Prove it.”
Now this seems like a reasonable request, but it reveals something “off” in Zechariah’s heart. An angel appears to him, clearly from God, clearly powerful, clearly authoritative; Zechariah is rightly amazed to see him there…but when this angel says, “You will have a son,” Zechariah says, “Wait a minute; that seems a bit farfetched. My wife and I are both really old. What can you show me to prove this can happen? How shall I know this?”
So Gabriel says (in one of the more intimidating episodes in the Bible), “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.” In other words, “You're kidding, right? An angel appears in front of you in the power of the eternal God, and you want to see more? OK, here’s a sign for you—you’re not going to say a word until the kid is born.” And he makes Zechariah mute on the spot.
2) Gabriel and Mary (v. 26-39)
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.
When Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John, Gabriel shows up again in Nazareth, to a young girl named Mary. Mary’s engaged to a man named Joseph. Luke goes out of his way to say twice in v. 27 that Mary is a virgin (we’ll of course see why this is important in a moment).
So Gabriel appears and says (v. 28), “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Contrary to what the Catholic Church says, this does not mean that Mary was without sin, or that she is able to give grace to anyone. In the Greek, this reads literally, You have found grace with God. In other words, Mary doesn’t deserve this—she’s just a girl, like any young girl in this room; she’s a sinner, in need of grace, and God gave her grace because he chose to, not because she deserved it.
Mary is (like Zechariah) freaked, but again, the angel tells her not to be afraid…and then he drops on her an even bigger bombshell than he did on Zechariah. Elizabeth was pregnant with the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, the Son of God; Mary’s about to be pregnant with the Messiah himself. V. 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?”
Now, this seems like something similar to what Zechariah said, but (as John Piper wrote), “Note the contrast: Zechariah says, How can I know this?—Mary says, How can this be? Zechariah asks for more evidence; Mary asks for an explanation. Zechariah says he can't be sure; Mary says she can't understand.”
In other words, Zechariah doubted, and demanded proof; Mary believed, and wanted to understand.
So the angel answers her (v. 35), “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.”
So this birth would be even more miraculous (if I can say such a thing). In John’s case, God would cause a barren, elderly woman to become fertile again—but it would still happen by the ordinary process of sexual relations with her husband. In Jesus’s case, there would BE no ordinary process. Mary’s a virgin, and she would become pregnant while still a virgin, and the baby she would carry would be the very Son of God.
Now, what’s going on here? This is not the main point of this text, but I do need to mention it briefly, because it very clearly brings up one of the key doctrines of the Christian faith—the doctrine of the Trinity. Question 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it wonderfully: “Since there is only one divine being [God], why do you speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” Answer: “Because that is how God is revealed in God’s own Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.” So that’s it in a nutshell: one God, existing for all eternity in three distinct persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you don’t understand, don’t worry—no one does completely.
So when Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, and the power of God will overshadow her, and she will give birth to the Son of God, what he doesn’t mean is that God will create a new being—the Son—in Mary. The Son has always existed, and the Son is God (as we see in John 1). When Gabriel says Mary will bear the Son of God, what he means (and this is a ridiculous oversimplification) is that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who has always existed, will take on a new, particular form: he will become an embryo and will be carried to term in the womb of this young girl Mary, and that the Holy Spirit will be the one who works in her to make that happen.
So Mary responds (v. 38), “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
3) Parallels and Contrasts
Now let’s just step back for a minute—the way Luke has structured this passage tells a lot about what he’s trying to do here. He has filled this passage with parallels and contrasts between Zechariah’s story and Mary’s story.
- First we have an angel appearing to Zechariah to give him the promise of a miraculous birth. Then we have the angel appearing to Mary, to give her the promise of a miraculous birth.
- First we have John, who is filled with the Spirit in the womb. Then we have Jesus, who is conceived by the Spirit in the womb.
- First we have a barren woman becoming pregnant, when that should be impossible (because she’s barren). Then we have a virgin becoming pregnant, when that should be impossible (because she’s never had sex).
At every point, Luke is pointing out patterns—similarities in the steps God takes to go about bringing his Messiah to the world.
And the end point of both of these promises is the same. The angel tells Zechariah, Your wife will miraculously bear a son, and he will prepare the way for the Messiah. The angel tells Mary, You will miraculously have a son, and he will BE the Messiah.
Both of these promises have the same end result, and the same means. There are two different promises, but they are really just two aspects of the same reality: the Messiah will come to save his people from their sins, and God’s Spirit will be active in every step in that process.
But Luke does more than just point out similarities. There are lots of things that are the same in these episodes with Zechariah and Mary. But there is one way in which these two episodes are wildly different, and that is the way in which Zechariah and Mary respond to the promises they are given.
Gabriel tells Zechariah, “Your wife will bear a son, and he will prepare the way for the Messiah.” To which Zechariah pridefully responds (v. 18), “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
It’s not a bad thing to ask for evidence—in v. 3, Luke went out of his way to give Theophilus evidence for the believability of his gospel. But it is possible to take this desire for evidence too far. Gabriel’s rebuke of Zechariah, and his subsequently making him mute, show us that Zechariah’s heart was prideful—he was saying, in essence, “I know enough to know this isn’t possible; I won’t believe this until you prove it to me.”
Now, go with Luke and contrast Zechariah’s reaction to Mary’s. Gabriel tells Mary that she will bring the Messiah, the very Son of God in the world. And that news would have been terrifying, because she wasn’t yet married. No one would believe that God himself had miraculously put this baby in her; they would naturally think, adultery. Which could very well mean death for Mary. So this was a horrifying idea.
And yet, no matter how hard it is to believe, Mary says (v. 38), “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, “OK. I’m yours. Do with me as you will.”
Now the question is, why does Luke go out of his way to show us all of this?
Luke knows Theophilus is coming to this story after the fact. Theophilus has already heard about Jesus; he has already heard that this man lived, that he taught in Galilee, that he was crucified. It would have been hard for him to believe that someone whom the Romans would crucify as a criminal (and crucifixion was the worst possible punishment they had) could really be who everyone was saying he was. So Luke is trying to draw his attention to two things.
Similarities: Jesus’s coming was miraculous.
Firstly, he wants Theophilus to see that even before Jesus started doing anything—before he taught anything, before he performed any miracles—just his being here was profoundly miraculous. Jesus’s birth, and everything surrounding it—from the announcement of the angel, to John’s being filled with the Spirit as an embryo, to Jesus’s being conceived by the Spirit in the womb of a virgin—everything about this event was miraculous. He wants Theophilus to see past the way Jesus died, in order to see that this man Jesus was not some kind of theological anarchist: he was indeed the Son of God.
Contrasts: Theophilus will have to respond.
What about the contrast? Why would Luke show us the different ways in which Zechariah and Mary responded to the angel’s announcement?
By faithfully telling Theophilus how these two different people responded to these specific announcements, he’s very subtly showing Theophilus that “before too long, you’re going to have to do the same thing. You’re going to have to decide how you’re going to respond to this man.
Theophilus—and we—are living in a time and place after these promises have been fulfilled. The Messiah has come; God did put all of his resources to work to send him. Jesus was born of Mary, and he did live a perfect life on behalf of his people; he did die a horrible death, to take on the punishment for their sins. Everything the angel predicted, everything the prophets before him predicted, actually did come to pass. Jesus was and is everything the prophets said he would be, everything the angel said he would be. The Lord has given him the throne; Jesus does now reign over his people, today; and his kingdom will never end. That is the fulfillment of the promise God gave to Zechariah and Mary.
And as Theophilus keeps reading, he will realize that it goes even further—the promise is not just that Jesus would be born, or that he would live: the promise is that (v. 33) of his kingdom there will be no end. He still reigns today.
So think about all that comes with Christ’s status as king, and what the Bible promises to those who are united to him. The Bible says that all those who hear about who Jesus is and what he did, and who turn to him in faith, become fellow heirs with him (Rom. 8.17), and thus come to share in all of the benefits Jesus has received as the sacrificed and risen King. And for those of us who have faith in him, that promise is what we have to trust, every day of our lives. Every day of our lives, we are set before the same choice as Zechariah and Mary: either wait to obey until we have proof it will work, or respond in faith.
You see, Luke wants to warn us from the very beginning that this book is not just about gathering data to support the existence of this man Jesus. He wants to be very clear that this is not a mere intellectual exercise—like Mary and Zechariah, we will have to respond to this God, and there is a right way and a wrong way to respond. And we will have to respond to God, in one way or the other, every hour of every day of our lives.
4) Responding to the Promise
Now what would this look like in practice?
Let’s say you feel like God is calling you to go be a missionary in an undeveloped country, or to plant a church. Both situations in which you will be in either physical danger, or dire financial trouble, or both, for the foreseeable future. And you don’t want to do it, because the idea of that danger and instability scares you to death. What’s going on in that moment of hesitation? You’re not believing the promise. The promise is that the Messiah has come! He lived, he died, he was victorious over sin and death, and now he reigns sovereignly over all of creation. And he did it all to accomplish something so much bigger than your personal safety, or your financial stability. But you have a hard time believing that, because what he’s called you to do seems so impossible, you can’t imagine how it could ever work.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is Mary’s response: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, “Lord, I don’t understand how you could ever make this work. I can’t imagine where the money would come from. I can’t imagine leaving behind everyone I know and love. But I know you. I know you are on the throne, and that you reign, and that you are good. So do with me as you will, and I will do as you ask. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Or let’s say you’re not married, but you’re sleeping with your girlfriend. You know that the Bible says that sex is to be enjoyed by a man and a woman only in the context of marriage. But you love each other very much, and you probably will be married one day, so you give in. What’s really going on in that moment? You’re not believing the promise. The promise is that the Messiah has come! He was victorious over sin and death, and God has given him the throne of his father David. And now, all that is his is yours—all of the joy that he has in the Father’s presence, the eternal pleasures he enjoys at God’s right hand (Ps. 16.11), are yours, because you are united to him. But you don’t believe that. You’re not entirely convinced that being united to Christ, and pursuing conformity to Christ together, as husband and wife, will be far more pleasurable than giving in to pleasures you have no right enjoying right now. You don’t completely believe that the pleasure of being united to God in Christ is better than sex.
Every time we sin (whatever that sin may be), we sin because we don’t fully believe that God will make good on his promises to us. We want proof before we give ourselves fully to him—proof that whatever he’s commanding us to do will actually make us happier than whatever it is we want to do in that moment.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is Mary’s response: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, “God, I really don’t understand how not having sex now will actually change anything. I don’t understand how resisting the desire to sleep with this woman I love will actually make me happier than enjoying sex with her now. But I trust you, because you are God; you are my Creator; and you will make good on your promises. So do with me as you will, and I will do as you ask. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Or let’s say you’ve heard the gospel, you’ve heard the message of Christ, and it seems attractive, but not entirely plausible. So you’re holding out. You keep coming back to church, you enjoy your time with other Christians, but you don’t actually call yourself a Christian because you’re still not sure any of it is real. Why are you on the fence? Because you’re not trusting the promise. The Messiah has come. He lived our life and died our death, and now he reigns over all creation, and all the benefits he has received for his life and death are yours, if you place your faith in him. But these things just sound so impossible… So you’re waiting, saying, “Lord, if you’re there, give me more proof, and I’ll believe.”
What’s the alternative? “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. I don’t understand how Jesus’s death on the cross, and his resurrection, could be of any benefit to me. I don’t get how this works! But I trust you, because no matter how crazy the metaphysics of all this sound, I know enough about you to trust that you are trustworthy, and that you will make good on your promises. So do with me as you will, and I will do as you ask. Let it be to me according to your word.”
The call of this passage is unbelievably simple. Whatever it is you are going through, whatever the situation in your life, Gabriel’s promise to Mary and Zechariah is God’s promise to us—the Messiah has come. Miraculously born of a virgin. Lived a perfect life. Died the death we deserved. Raised again three days later. Ascended into heaven. Seated at the right hand of God. Given the throne to reign over his people. And anyone who places their faith in him has access to all of the benefits he has received by virtue of his life, death and resurrection.
So the question is, how will we respond to that promise? God calls us to respond like Mary. No matter how hard it is to accept or believe his promises, we are called to say, Behold, we are your servants; let it be to us according to your word.
This is our call. We have been given a promise—the promise of Jesus Christ—and we are called to trust that God will make good on his promise. Let us hear the promise, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, and let us respond as Mary did. Because the Messiah has come—he has come miraculously. He did everything God sent him to do. Now he is seated on the throne, at the right hand of God. And if we belong to him, all his benefits are shared with us. Let us always look to him, and say, like Mary, Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word