God again takes the initiative when he sends Gabriel to Galilee, a region some forty-five to eighty-five miles north of Jerusalem. God's announcement comes to a betrothed virgin, Mary. God will bring an unexpected addition into her family. Betrothal in the ancient world was part of a two-stage marriage process. The initial phase, the betrothal, involved a formal, witnessed agreement to marry and the giving of a bridal price (Mal 2:14; m. Ketubot 4:4-5). At this point the bride legally became the groom's and could be called his wife. About a year later the actual marriage followed, and the husband took his wife home. In the first century betrothal could take place starting at the age of twelve. Mary's age is unstated. It is during this betrothal stage that Gabriel breaks the news.
Mary's chaste character is highlighted by the description of her as a virgin. It is clear that the account attributes Jesus' origins to the Holy Spirit (vv. 34-35). But the human Davidic connection, the tie to the royal line, is also noted in verse 27. The point is important, for it seems that this connection is attributed to Joseph and comes to Jesus through him. Joseph need not be the biological father in order to pass such lineage on to Jesus (Schweizer 1984:27-28). The virgin birth is one mark of superiority for Jesus over John the prophet. It makes Jesus totally unique. The only other person to have had such a direct divine intervention in his birth was Adam—a point Luke will note in 3:38.
The portrait Luke paints of Mary is significant. She is a model believer, taking God at his word, in contrast to Zechariah (vv. 37-38). She is favored of God (v. 30), thoughtful (v. 29; 2:19, 51), obedient (v. 38), believing (v. 45), worshipful (v. 46) and a faithful follower of God's law (2:22-51; Craddock 1990:27-28). It must be emphasized, however, that despite all these qualities, God's choice of Mary to bear this child springs from his grace, not from any inherent merit that she possesses. She is the object of God's unmerited, graciously provided goodness. Her description as one who has found favor with God (kecharitomene, v. 30) makes it clear that God has acted on her behalf and not because of her. In fact, Mary is totally perplexed by the sudden announcement. She did not ask for or seek this role in God's plans; God has simply stepped into her life and brought her into his service. Her asset is that she is faithful. She should be honored for her model of faithfulness and openness to serve God, but that does not mean she is to be worshiped. Luke wants us to identify with Mary's example, not to unduly exalt her person.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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