A man heard a message on the end times and decided to make all he could before the economy collapsed. He took his life savings, went to the race track, and prayed for wisdom on how to bet. (He hadn’t heard my message on gambling!)
Just before the first race began, the man noticed a Catholic priest who came onto the track, sprinkled some water, waved his arms and made some signs over a horse. The horse won by seven lengths. The same thing happened on the second, third, and fourth races. The man waited one more race, just to make sure. The same thing happened--the horse the priest blessed won. So on the sixth race he waited until the priest did his thing and then he ran off and placed his whole life savings on that horse. The race began. The horse ran fifty feet and fell over dead.
The man was horrified. He ran down to the priest and said, “Priest, I have to talk to you!” “Yes, what is it my son?” “Priest, I watched you; in every race, the horse you blessed won. So I went and bet everything I had on this horse, but it died! What happened?” The priest shook his head sadly and said, “You must be a Protestant.” “Why do you say that?” asked the man. “Because,” said the priest, “you don’t know the difference between a blessing and the last rites.”
That story illustrates that there are some differences between Protestants and Catholics! Our text raises another area of more substantial difference, namely, how we view the virgin Mary. These verses are the basis for the Catholic Ave, Maria, or “Hail, Mary,” a prayer to Mary that is the core of the Rosary. That prayer concludes,
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy! Our life, our sweetness, and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping, in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us; and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus; O clement; O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
This raises some important questions: Should Christians hail Mary? (To hail means to greet with enthusiastic approval or to summon by calling.) Is she “our life, our sweetness, our hope?” Should we pray to her (or to any saint) or ask her to intercede with Jesus on our behalf? If not, how should we view Mary? Does she deserve a higher status than that of other believers? Our answers to these questions must come from Scripture alone, which is unchanging, not from the traditions of the church, which do change. In light of the strong movement today to drop all denominational barriers and to join together with the Catholic Church as if we were all one, these questions are not merely academic. Let’s look first at what the text tells us of Mary; then at what it says of her Son.
Background: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s being pregnant with John, the same angel, Gabriel, who had appeared to Zacharias was sent to Mary. Note how God took the initiative in sending His Son and in choosing Mary out of all the other young women in Israel. If we were going to announce the choice of a young woman as the mother of the long-promised Messiah, we would probably do it on prime time TV, with much advertising and hype beforehand. But God did it quietly and without fanfare.
Mary was not living in the center of Jewish culture and religion, Jerusalem, but in the often-despised town of Nazareth in Galilee. God often chooses the foolish things of the world to humble those who are wise in their own sight. Mary was probably a teenager, since Jewish girls in that culture usually married in their teens. The Jewish betrothal lasted about a year and was legally binding, requiring a certificate of divorce to end it. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter.
Gabriel greeted her by saying, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). (The King James Version adds, “You are blessed among women,” which probably was inserted by copyists from verse 42, and thus is not supposed to be in verse 28.) The word “hail” is simply the common Greek word used for greeting someone. In Hebrew, it was “Shalom!” The phrase, “favored one,” means that Mary has found grace in God’s sight (1:30; see Gen. 6:8). The emphasis is not on Mary’s merit, but on God’s sovereign choice. God singled out Mary for an important task. The phrase, “The Lord is with you” means, “God will give you His help for the task He has called you to do” (see Judges 6:12).
Mary didn’t seem to be afraid of the angel’s presence, as Zechariah had been (1:12), but she was troubled by his words. I think she was overwhelmed at the implication of what the angel was saying, that God had singled out her–of all people–for a special task. While God noticed Mary, she was humbly unaware of anything special about herself.
The angel went on to explain what was about to happen, that Mary was to conceive and bear a son named, “Yahweh saves” (Jesus, = Joshua, in Hebrew). The angel’s words make it plain that this son will be the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to David centuries before (see 2 Sam. 7:16). Mary didn’t doubt the angel’s words (as Zacharias had, 1:18), but she did ask for clarification. Since she is yet a virgin, and the implication was that this would happen before her betrothal to Joseph was consummated, how would it take place? Gabriel briefly explains the miracle of the virgin birth, which I’ll comment on in a moment.
Then, although Mary did not ask for confirmation, the angel graciously supplied it by telling her that Elizabeth, who had been barren and was now past her childbearing years, had conceived John by God’s power (through union with her husband). Then Gabriel added that great reminder, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s beautiful response was, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.”
After Gabriel left, Mary quickly went the 80 or so miles to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Probably she wanted to rejoice together with her about what God was doing and to compare notes on their recent experiences. As soon as Mary greeted Elizabeth, John, in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy. Through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized that Mary was carrying the promised Messiah in her womb and she proceeded to bless Mary for what God was doing through her.
If grace is deserved, it is no longer grace. By definition, grace is God’s undeserved favor. Mary refers to God as her Savior (1:47). Scripture is clear that only sinners need a Savior. Thus Mary is acknowledging her own need for God’s grace and salvation. John Calvin points out that if Mary had to receive grace from God just as we do, then it is absurd to seek grace from her, as if she can somehow bestow it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:33). Mary is not a dispenser of grace to others, but a recipient of it herself.
The Bible is abundantly clear that no one is saved by his or her own merit or good works, but only by the merit of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross on their behalf (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7). That was true of Mary; it is true of every other person since Adam and Eve fell into sin, except Jesus Christ alone. The Catholic Church teaches that in order for Jesus to be born sinless, Mary had to be born without sin. In the 1850’s Pope Pius IX declared as dogma (which every Catholic must believe) that Mary was immaculately conceived or born without original sin (Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast [Harvest House], p. 443). The fallacy of that dogma (apart from the fact that the Bible never teaches it) is, Mary’s parents would have had to be sinlessly conceived for Mary to have escaped their sin, and so on all the way back to Adam. Without stating the method, the angel simply affirms that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s offspring would be preserved from sin through the virgin birth or conception (1:35).
The lesson for us is that if Mary, who was obviously a godly young woman, needed God’s grace, how much more do we! But the way we receive God’s grace is not through Mary, but only through the Lord Jesus Christ. He is offered freely as the Savior of sinners who trust in Him (John 3:16).
Unlike Zacharias, Mary did not seem to be troubled by the angel’s sudden presence, but rather by his words. Calvin (p. 34) states, “It instantly occurred to her that the angel had not been sent for a trifling purpose.” Mary took seriously this word to her from God. When the angel greeted her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you,” she didn’t flippantly reply, “Cool!” She was troubled by what it meant and pondered it seriously.
This tells me that teenagers can and should be serious about the things of God. The prevailing theory in youth ministry today is that you’ve got to entertain kids with funny skits and speakers who are comedians. Only in that context can you occasionally slip in any teaching about God. I’m not against wholesome fun or humor. But at the same time, we don’t need to go with the cultural flow. Young people can have a heart for the things of God.
Although she was astonished and puzzled by the angel’s words, so that she asked for clarification (1:34), she did not doubt. As Elizabeth affirms through the Holy Spirit (1:45), “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
The lesson for us is clear: If God has spoken clearly through His Word, we must believe it without wavering. We may need to study it further to make sure we understand it properly. We may need to acknowledge that we do not understand all the depths of it, as Mary probably never fully understood the miracle of how God could take on human flesh through the virgin birth. But the angel’s word in verse 37 is always true: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” If we believe in God, we believe in the possibility of miracles.
It’s interesting that Zacharias asked for a sign, but was disciplined for his doubting. Mary believed and did not ask for a sign, but she was graciously given one anyway (the word about Elizabeth). Often if we believe we are given more confirming evidence; if we doubt, we are not given any confirmation, because our hearts are not right before God.
By saying, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (1:38), Mary opened herself up to many trials. Her fiancé heard of her pregnancy and decided that he would have to divorce her (Matt. 1:19). Her friends would have shunned her and her family may have disowned her. She would have been publicly shamed and rejected for the rest of her life. But in spite of all the potential hardship, Mary obediently submitted to God’s will for her life. As a result, she was greatly blessed with this unique role in all of history, to be the mother of the Savior.
Often, submitting to God’s will is not the easiest way to go. It may involve giving up the desire for popularity or worldly success. It may mean leaving family or friends to go to the mission field. In some cases, it means giving up the potential for marriage and family in order to serve God. But whatever hardship we endure in obedience to God, He will richly repay. Because Mary obeyed God, she was blessed among women.
Conclusions about Mary: The Pope prays to Mary, that she will “comfort, guide, strengthen, and protect the whole of humanity” and that she would “obtain for us the grace of eternal salvation” (Dave Hunt, p. 445). A popular tract, “The Rosary, Your Key to Heaven,” declares,
The Rosary is a means of salvation, because a true child of Mary is never lost and one who says the Rosary daily is truly Mary’s child…. Mary is our all-powerful Advocate and she can obtain from the Heart of her Divine Son whatever is good for her children…. No one is beyond redemption if he but turns to Mary Immaculate. (Cited by Hunt, pp. 446-447.)
Dave Hunt (p. 447, italics his) comments,
Though the Bible never hints at such a thing, and though Paul never preached it or told it to anyone, yet for the Catholic, Mary has become the essential conduit through which salvation and all grace flows. Jesus and God the Father play an important role too, but it is Mary who brings everything together and dispenses all God’s gifts to those who through devotion to her become “her children.”
Our text and the whole Bible make it clear that Mary is not to be elevated above any other believer. Yet at the same time, we should not react to Catholicism’s veneration of Mary by neglecting to learn from her. As a godly woman who trusted and obeyed God, she has much to teach us. But we can learn even more by looking at Mary’s Son:
Background: Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive in her womb, and bear a son, and that she should name Him Jesus (1:31). Furthermore, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (1:32-33). And, Jesus is called Mary’s “holy offspring,” “the Son of God” (1:35). Elizabeth refers to Mary’s child as her Lord (1:43), which implies His superiority to her offspring, John the Baptist. There is enough here for a series of sermons, but I can only make some brief observations:
Walter Liefeld states, “Luke presents the theology of the Incarnation in a way so holy and congruent with OT sacred history that any comparisons with pagan mythology seem utterly incongruous” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 8:829). While the virgin birth (or conception) is clearly a miracle, there is no hint of God cohabiting with Mary. Rather, the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her. It is the same word used for the glory of God resting upon the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35), and for the cloud overshadowing the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:34). While there is a mystery here, the sense is that the awesome presence of the Holy Spirit would envelope Mary and miraculously cause her to conceive the Lord Jesus, who is eternally God and yet, from conception in Mary’s womb, fully human. Jesus had a human mother, but no human father. He is unique in all history in that He is undiminished deity and perfect humanity united in one person.
As I already mentioned, the angel states that Mary’s offspring would be holy (1:35). Calvin (pp. 43-44) explains, “Though Christ was formed of the seed of Abraham, yet he contracted no defilement from a sinful nature; for the Spirit of God kept him pure from the very commencement: and this was done not merely that he might abound in personal holiness, but chiefly that he might sanctify his own people. The manner of conception, therefore, assures us that we have a Mediator separate from sinners, (Heb. 7:26).”
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth fully understood Jesus’ deity at this early point in time. Luke builds his Christology from the ground up, letting it unfold as the story makes it more clear. But the things revealed at this point fully allow for the further revelation. Elizabeth refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43). By “Lord” she probably was referring to Jesus as the Messiah, and she probably did not realize that Messiah had to be divine. But it later becomes clear that He is not just a human descendent of David and of Mary, but also fully divine.
The Savior had to be fully human, yet without sin of His own, to bear the sins of the human race. But He also had to be fully God so that His sacrifice had infinite merit before God. We must affirm both Jesus’ humanity and His deity. Thus we must affirm His virgin birth.
Gabriel’s description of Jesus shows that He alone is to be worshiped because He alone is God in human flesh. The angel said, “He shall be great” (1:32). While the angel said of John the Baptist that “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15), of Jesus he said, “He shall be great,” and added, “and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Hebrews 1:5 states, “For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten you’?” Jesus is uniquely God’s only begotten Son.
Jesus later said that John the Baptist was the greatest person ever born naturally on this earth (Matt. 11:11). That means that John was greater than Mary. But John himself acknowledged of Jesus, He is “mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals” (Luke 3:16). John also testified, “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me” (John 1:30). Remember, John was born six months before Jesus, yet he acknowledged that Jesus existed before him. No wonder John exclaimed, “This is the Son of God” (John 1:34). “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Any elevation of Mary that puts her on the same plane as Jesus is utter blasphemy! Jesus alone is the uniquely great Savior and Son of God.
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David a thousand years before, that one of his descendents would reign on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12-14). Although there is controversy among godly scholars over this point, it seems clear to me that the kingdom in Luke’s thinking has both present (Luke 11:20; 17:21) and future (Luke 13:28; 19:11; Acts 1:6, 11; 14:22) aspects. He is king over His people right now. But, also, I take the words at face value to mean that when Jesus returns, He will literally reign over Israel, as well as the whole earth, in His millennial kingdom.
But whatever one’s views of prophecy, every godly scholar agrees that the day is soon coming when every knee shall bow before Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. You can either bow voluntarily now, or be forced to bow later. Jesus made it clear that on that terrible day of judgment, the King will say to those who have not submitted to Him, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Clearly, now is the time to trust in and submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord!
The bottom line for us concerning the relationship of Mary and Jesus is:
While we should imitate Mary’s faith and submission to God, we should trust in and submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
On March 23, 1743, when Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed in London, the king was present in the audience. When the performance got to the moving “Hallelujah Chorus,” with its words, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” the whole audience, including the king, sprang to its feet, and remained standing through the entire chorus. From that time, it became a custom to stand during that chorus whenever it is performed.
But the custom of the British monarch standing changed over time. About 100 years later, when Queen Victoria had just ascended the throne, she went to hear “The Messiah.” Those in her court who knew protocol had instructed her that she must not rise when others stood at the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” So, as the singers were exclaiming, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! For the Lord our God omnipotent reigneth,” Victoria remained seated--but with great difficulty.
Finally, they came to that part of the chorus where they proclaim Christ King of kings and Lord of lords. Victoria could stay seated no longer. She rose and stood reverently with her head bowed before the Lord who alone is great.
Was Mary great? Yes, as far as those who need a Savior go, she was great for her humble submission to the will of God. In that we should imitate her. But Mary herself would be quick to acknowledge that in the true sense, only God is great. By the miracle and mystery of the virgin birth, Mary’s Son was the eternal God in human flesh. “O come let us adore Him!”
Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation