By Marcelo Tolopilo
As Evangelicals we tend to shy away from the marvelous biblical character of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The obvious reason for this is that the Roman Catholic Church has imbued the person and life of Mary with much extra biblical lore. For example … the Roman Church has put forth the notion of Mary’s immaculate conception. By this they mean that Mary was born without the taint of original sin.
Of coarse this grates against the testimony of scripture regarding all the sons of Adam (Romans 3:9-20, 23 ,et al) not to mention the confession of Mary herself. In Mary’s wonderful hymn of praise, known as the Magnificat, she declares in verse 47 “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Simply put, Mary recognized she was a sinner in need of salvation, and her salvation came from God. If she was indeed sinless such a statement would be ludicrous.
Far from being a dispenser of grace she was a grateful recipient of God’s undeserved favor as the angel Gabriel’s greeting teaches, “Hail (a common friendly term of greeting at the time), favored one (literally, one filled with grace) ! The Lord is with you.” Mary was filled with the grace she had received from the Lord Who was with her. I love what Hendriksen says regarding the promise of this special greeting, “From first (the conception of Jesus) to last (the glorification of the last saint) our salvation is the work of God, the product of His grace and favor.” [emphasis added] And so we are all, like Mary, filled with grace and that is why the same term is used in Ephesians 1:6 to describe the state of all believers.
Another extra biblical myth attributed to Mary is her perpetual virginity. Yet we know she had a husband, Joseph, and scripture tells us she bore him at least six children. In Matthew 13 55-56 we have the Lord’s four brothers specifically named and His sisters referred to in the plural – suggesting their were at least two if not more. Finally, Roman tradition teaches that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven rather than suffer the fate of all mankind, death. There is not one shred of biblical or early church evidence to support such a belief.
Consequently, because of this body of tradition, we have largely neglected Mary’s story and example to our own spiritual disadvantage. In the this article it is my hope to simply reintroduce you to this amazing young believer. It is my hope that you will read her story on your own with a fresh perspective and a teachable heart.
The story of the Annunciation begins in Nazareth of Galilee, a town located on the slope of the Lebanon mountain range just before it sinks into the plain of Esdraelon. It was a busy city overrun by Gentiles of questionable character and frequented by Jewish merchants from all over Israel. The town itself was perched on a hillside overlooking a major trade rout servicing Tyre, Sidon, and Jerusalem. As such it served as a resting place for a constant stream of caravans and an ever present flow of Roman soldiers. With such clientele it isn’t difficult to imagine the unsavory deeds that constantly took place within the limits of it’s environs.
As a whole Galilee was looked upon with disdain by Judeans (Jews from Southern Israel), but Nazareth was considered the offscouring of Galilee (Northern Israel). Perhaps that’s why even Nathanael (a Galilean from Bethsaida) cast the following rhetorical aspersion to Philip “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) G. Campbell Morgan further describes Nazareth as “. . . a hotbed of corruption.” To say the least Nazareth was a mercenary place where the nefarious deeds of the night blended comfortably in a shadowy world.
Yet from this dark crossroad the Father of lights (James 1:17) brought the “light of the world” (John 8:12) to shine the rays of salvation on those dwelling in the gloom of perdition. The promise of Jesus was conceived in Nazareth and the preaching of Jesus would one day illuminate God’s salvation to all of Galilee, “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish . . . but later on He shall make it glorious, by way of the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.” Isaiah 9:1-2
And so the Angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth with a message of hope, to the house of a young Jewish women whose very life was an oasis of righteousness in a desert of worldliness.From the very beginning of Luke’s Christmas narrative (Luke 1:1-2:38) the sterling character of Mary radiates against the dark contrast of her surroundings. Without doing an exhaustive study of the narrative there are several truths that jump up out of the text revealing to us the godly character of this young women.
In Luke 1:27 we are told very simply that Mary was “… A virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David.” There are many important facts in that verse but allow me to direct your attention to one simple thing which is this, Mary was pure. She was a virgin. In the corrupt and oppressive environment of Nazareth she walked with God. She was living in obedience to God’s Law and she was pure. How refreshing!
Secondly, she was a profoundly humble young lady. This is abundantly evident in her hymn of praise outlined in vv 46-55, but notice also the way she responded to Gabriel’s greeting. Let’s pick up the narrative with verse 28, And coming in, he said to her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Several verses earlier (Luke 1:12) Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, had been visited by Gabriel to announce the birth of His son, the forerunner of Messiah. And the text tells us that Zacharias became ‘troubled’ and terrified by the sight of Gabriel, a shining, sinless being – Yikes! I would be too!! And while Mary must have been alarmed by such a sight the true cause of her agitation was not Gabriel’s appearing but the greeting and message he came to deliver. Notice to what she reacted in verse 29, “But she was greatly troubled at this statement [v 28, emphasis added], and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be.”
In other words, she was troubled and perplexed with wonderment as to why God’s messenger would address her in such lofty terms, and why she, a young woman of low social standing, would be singled out for special divine favor! In her own eyes she was simply a young woman (scholars believe in the age range of 14 to 15 years old) living a lower tier existence in a patriarchal culture.
Ultimately, however, I believe she viewed herself as ‘lowly’ because she had a high view of the lofty One of Israel – as vv 46-55 bear out. What Mary may have initially forgotten when hearing Gabriel’s message is that the exalted One is near those who are lowly. The very fact that she was lowly placed her in close proximity to the exalted One. What beautiful irony! Mary’s predecessor David understood this, “For though the Lord is exalted, yet He regards the lowly . . . “ (Psalm 138:6). In Isaiah the prophet we read, “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15
In great measure what made Mary the object of God’s use and favor was her purity and humility. Yet in Luke 1:26-37 Mary’s usefulness and service was but potential. What sets her apart from so many in redemptive history is her willingness to exercise faith through obedience. Notice verse 38, And Mary said, “Behold the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.”
That my dear friends is a staggering step of faith and obedience for two reasons. First Mary’s question regarding the conception of the holy offspring (v 34) remained largely unanswered. We still don’t understand the mystery of the virgin birth. And we have the hindsight of history and the record of Scripture to guide us and still it remains to a great degree mysterious. Mary had less information than we do and she was called to believe – on the spot!
Secondly, Mary’s obedience is truly amazing because she must have understood that submitting to the will of God – becoming pregnant before her marriage to Joseph was consummated – would surely expose her to ridicule, shame, and ostracism. She no doubt became the target of every venomous tongue in her community. Even so she humbly submitted.
God’s assignment to Mary was to believe a message without historical precedent (she was the first and last to receive such a directive), and obey a command beyond the pale of human experience (she was the first and last to bear such a child). Mary had little information to answer her burning questions and her obedience would come at great personal cost. Yet she believed and obeyed. That’s what God wanted, and that’s what made her useful and blessed indeed. Through her humble faith and obedience we were given the marvelous miracle of Christmas that we gratefully celebrate this time of year.
As you study this remarkable biblical character consider your own situation. Are you walking with God in the midst of this evil day? Do you have an exalted view of the Most High? If so, are you willing to humbly submit to the plans He has for you? Though at times doing what God wants us to do is the hard thing remember, as was true with Mary, He is with you, His grace is sufficient, and obedience places us in the place of greatest blessing. May He continue to fill you with His inexhaustible grace! Merry Christmas!!