The Most Surprising Pregnancy in Human History – Luke 1:26-33
By: Alistair Brown
Go back just a few decades, and you could picture a friendly, family doctor leaning over his desk and saying, “Mrs. Brown, I have good news for you. You’re going to have a baby.” Normally there would be an excited reaction, though every family doctor was well aware that he or she was not always sharing “good news” because not every pregnancy is welcomed. These days – with pregnancy test kits sold in every pharmacy – the personal touch of announcing a pregnancy is rare.
This study is about a pregnancy announcement. Luke begins his gospel with a surprise pregnancy, the story of how Zechariah and Elizabeth came to have a baby even in their very old age. Now – from Jerusalem – Luke moves the story north to a modest-sized town called Nazareth, and another announcement. If the news for Zechariah and Elizabeth was remarkable, the news about to be given to Mary is of the most surprising pregnancy in human history.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Three things make this pregnancy announcement remarkably special and unique:
Who tells it.
Who is told.
What is told.
1. Who tells it.
Gabriel, the same angel who met with Zechariah in the Temple (v.19) goes to Nazareth. He is now well practiced at breaking news about pregnancies! First came the announcement to Zechariah, and now it’s Mary’s turn.
Gabriel, of course, is just the messenger. When he spoke with Zechariah he is very specific about that. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you…” (v.19). With Mary, he quickly says: “The Lord is with you” (v.28). Gabriel is not bringing his own message. What Mary is about to hear is coming from God.
Ultimately, that fact underpins everything that happens next. What Mary is about to hear is God’s plan. It is God’s will for Mary’s life, and not just for Mary but for the people of Israel and for the world. Mary’s response, when it comes, will be based on what God has said.
- It won’t be because some crazy preacher has mad ideas for her future.
- It won’t be because she had some bizarre dream.
- It won’t be because something got into the water supply and affected her brain.
Gabriel’s message will come from God, and whatever Mary says and does will be because God has spoken to her.
So should it be for all Christians.
I watched a young lady in her twenties wrestle with a call to mission work in south east Asia, to a place where Christians could be killed for their faith, where just a month earlier a female missionary had been raped, a place where western levels of security or comfort were not even remotely possible. That young lady said ‘yes.’ She told me she didn’t feel brave, or ambitious, or adventurous. She did have a strong sense of compassion but even that wasn’t why she would go to such a dangerous and inhospitable place. The reason? “It’s where God has told me to go.” God had spoken deeply into her heart. This was his will and she was content with that.
The message Mary is about to hear is massively significant in content, but none of that would have meant anything if she had not been sure who was telling it. This was coming from God.
2. Who is told.
‘Who is told,’ of course, is Mary. There is more to learn about Mary further on in Luke’s gospel, but we know a few things straight away.
1) She was from Nazareth in Galilee. Clearly she is a Jew and we soon get to know she loves the Lord, but Galilee also had a substantial non-Jewish population. The faith she had was not the only faith around.
2) Mary was “pledged to be married” to a man called Joseph. Other translations say she was ‘betrothed’ or ‘promised,’ and several use the word ‘engaged.’ ‘Engaged’ is an unhelpful term, because it makes us think Mary and Joseph were engaged in our modern sense. They were not. Jewish betrothal was a very serious matter. It was a legally binding commitment lasting for one year, and it could be broken only by death or divorce.
3) Mary was very young by our standards. In her day girls reached marriageable age at twelve, and that was the earliest a betrothal period could start. More often girls would be a year or so older before betrothal. If that was true for Mary, then she would be thirteen or fourteen by the time of this conversation with the angel. That seems shocking to us, but life expectancy in New Testament times was much less. If you calculated the average length of life starting from birth, it was less than forty. It would be higher for those who had survived through infancy into adulthood, but still not long. Getting married and having children early made sense.
4) Mary was still a virgin. In the next study, I’ll write a little more about this. But for the moment we can be clear about two things:
There is no ambiguity about the meaning of the word translated virgin, parthénos. It is the word for a woman who has never engaged in sexual intercourse.
Mary’s reaction also confirms that she was a virgin. She was completely puzzled when she was told she will have a baby. Why puzzled? Biologically she was old enough. But becoming pregnant made no sense to Mary for the simple reason that she had never been involved in sexual activity (v. 34).
We know one more thing about Mary and this one is contained in the angel’s message: that God has looked down and chosen her for a very special purpose.
The angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary are: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (v. 28). A moment later he is telling her that she has found favor with God (v. 30). The meaning is not that God is impressed with Mary. Certainly she is a devoted follower of God, but the angel is not commending her for that or suggesting that God is impressed with her piety. Rather, Gabriel is telling her that God will pour his grace on her. God will favor her with the very unique role of bringing his Son into the world. Of all the women in Israel, God has chosen Mary to bear his Son.
No-one will ever again be called to do what Mary did. But God does continue to choose people for special purposes. When he does, it won’t be because of their goodness, their spirituality, or their talents.
- Was Gideon chosen to lead Israel against Midianites and other invading nations because he was so brave? No, he was as frightened as anyone and trying to do a little farming in secret (Judges 6:11). He was no warrior and no leader. But God chose him.
- Was Nehemiah selected to lead God’s people out of slavery in Persia because he was a rebel who could rouse a crowd? No, he had a top civil service job in the King’s palace as cupbearer to the King (Neh. 1:11). He served at the royal table, and must have been one of the most loyal and most trusted of the Israelites. But God chose him.
- Was Paul one of the most committed Christians of the early church when God decided he was the one to be his apostle to the Gentiles? No, he was a leader among the Jews who were harassing and persecuting Christians (Acts 9:1-19). But God chose him.
God does not choose us for his work because we are godly. Rather, he chooses to make us godly so we can do his work. Mary was greatly blessed, and she would need all that blessing for what was to follow.
3. What is told.
The angel’s announcement really is of the most remarkable, the most surprising pregnancy in human history. This young woman, growing up in a modest sized town, coming from no especially significant background, someone who has never been in a sexual relationship, she will give birth to the Son of God. Gabriel says: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).
No announcement of an impending birth has ever been like this one. It will be of a boy, his name will be Jesus (which, in Hebrew is Joshua which means “The Lord is Salvation”). The angel then reels off five amazing descriptions of Jesus. I imagine Mary listening with her mouth wide open in astonishment.
1) He will be great.
That is what was promised in a messianic passage in the Old Testament prophecy of Micah. It foretells a new ruler for Israel, coming from Bethlehem, whose “greatness will reach to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5: 4). Mary’s baby will not grow up in obscurity, and his life will not be spent in one town, and his influence will not be for just one people. He will be great.
2) He will be called the Son of the Most High.
In other words, he will be the Son of God. John the Baptist will be called “a prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). Jesus is so much greater: “the Son of the Most High.” He is from God in a very special sense.
3) The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.
King David had been promised that his house and his kingdom would always endure (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4). That could be true only through the Messiah who would come from David’s line. Mary knew that through her, and certainly through her future husband’s line, her child would be a descendant of David (Luke 1:27; Matt. 1:6,20).
4) He will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever.
To talk of Jacob’s descendants was to talk of the nation Israel. The Messiah would not reign for one kingship or even one lifetime, but “forever.” That is what is promised to Mary about her son.
5) His kingdom will never end.
Again, the expectation was that the Messiah’s kingdom would go on and on. For example, here is the prophecy through Isaiah:
“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.” (Isa. 9:7)
This too is told to Mary about her son.
No baby anywhere or anytime had promises made about him like these about Jesus. What is portrayed here is not merely a great man, not merely a great ruler for Israel, not even merely a great ruler for this world. This is the One God will send, whose stride will cover the earth from north to south and east to west, who will reign not only in that age but all ages and forever.
Have you ever sat in awestruck wonder as the final part of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah rings out from a powerful choir?
King of kings and Lord of lords
King of kings and Lord of lords
And he shall reign forever and ever
Forever and ever and ever and ever
(King of kings and Lord of lords)
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
What music. What words. That experience, washing over you, stirring every fiber of your being, lifting you up in awestruck wonder at the majesty of our God and the magnificence of his Son… that experience is but a fraction of what these words must have meant to Mary.
God was not about to do a small thing. His Son was about to be conceived in her womb. An event that would change her life forever? Yes, certainly. But that was almost nothing. It would be an event would change the world, and would change the world’s history, and would change eternity for all who would know and believe in this little baby. That is what is being promised in this moment to a girl in her early teens called Mary.
 In the 4th century Latin translation called The Vulgate, this is translated “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Some have used that translation to support the idea that Mary can bestow grace, but there is nothing in the angel’s words that carry that sense.
 The genealogy which appears in Luke 3:23-37 is often understood as Mary’s line of descent, and David is mentioned there (v. 31).
 Daniel 7:13-14 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”