After the Ascension and the events of the first Pentecost, which quickly followed their Master's return to heaven, the twelve and a few others who had walked in the company which followed Jesus during the years of his public ministry no doubt often met together and talked over the teaching and the acts of their risen and now glorified Master. As time passed on, a certain number of these acts, a certain number of the public and private discourses in the apostolic company, became adopted as the usual texts or subjects of the teaching and preaching in the assemblies large and small gathered together by the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the neighboring towns and villages, subsequently in other parts of the Holy Land, in Syria, and in more distant countries—in Africa and Italy. We may assume that the Holy Spirit aided the composition of these apostolic summaries by bringing to the memory of these holy men the more important of the words and acts of the Lord Jesus, spoken and done when in their midst.
That some such early authoritative summary existed among the first preachers of the faith we may positively assume,
Some twelve traditional sayings besides those related by the four, and those of no great importance, are all that we possess; no record of other miracles of any description have come down to us.
Years passed on. The precious treasure of the apostolic records, the simple memories of his words and acts preserved, and no doubt arranged in some order, were enough for the first preachers and teachers of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.
There were, no doubt, many rough attempts to write these down on the part of apostles and their pupils. These are most probably the writings to which St. Luke alludes, without disparaging them, in his preface to his Gospel, in the words, "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us."
But something more accurate in the way of written memoirs was necessary for the Church, as the number of believers multiplied, and the original friends of the Master were one by one taken from their midst—the men who had seen the presence and heard the voice. When the first fervor of enthusiasm had passed away, or rather when the Church had so multiplied that, in the case of the great majority of its members who had only heard of Jesus, this fervor of enthusiasm had never been experienced at all, something of a critical spirit of inquiry sprang up in the various congregations. Who, for instance, was this Jesus of Nazareth, whom the apostles and their pupils preached? Whence came he? Who was that strange teacher John, who baptized him, and, so to speak, introduced him to Israel? Such natural questions necessitated the putting forth, on the part of the leaders of the new faith, documents at once comprehensive as well as authoritative.
Each of the four Gospels supplied an evident want of the early Church; each was the answer, on the part of responsible men, to the natural inquiry of some great section of believers.
The preface to the Gospel of St. Luke, with which we are at present concerned, with great clearness relates how its compiler, having availed himself of all the written and oral apostolic traditions then current in the Church, had personally, with careful and continuous research, traced up these various traditions to their very source, and, having arranged his many facts, presented the whole continuous story to a man of high rank in the Christian congregations, one Theophilus, a noble Greek or Roman, who may be taken as an example of a large class of inquiring earnest Christians of the years 70-90 a.d.
The annunciation of the Virgin Mary.
The recital contained in this little section is peculiar to this Gospel of St. Luke. It lay outside what may be termed the apostolic tradition. It neither helps nor mars the moral or dogmatic teaching of the men trained in the school of Jesus of Nazareth. It simply answers a question that probably few of the converts of the first quarter of a century which succeeded the Resurrection morning cared to ask:
We do not suppose that the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ was any secret, any precious mystery in the Church of the first days. It was known doubtless to the leading teachers, known to many of their hearers, but it was evidently unused as a popular text for preaching. It probably was not among those "memoirs" of the apostles which were read and expounded in the first forty years in the public synagogues and in the quiet upper rooms of so many of the cities of Syria, and in not a few of the towns of Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Nor is the reason of this doubtful; the wondrous story of the child Jesus' birth would add little to the simple faith of the first believers in the Crucified.
Of miracles and works of wonder they had heard enough to convince them that, if these were true, surely never man had worked like this Man. They had heard, too, of the crowning, sign of the Resurrection. There were men in those first days, scattered abroad in all lands, who had seen these things, who knew that the Master had died on the cross, and who had seen him, touched him, and spoken to him after his resurrection. The mysterious miracle of the incarnation was not needed for the preaching of the first days.
But time went on, and naturally enough many of the thoughtful cultured men who had accepted the doctrine of the cross began to say—We ought to have the true story of the beginnings of these marvelous events authoritatively written down. Here and there we have heard something of the birth and childhood, why have we not the details authenticated? Men like Paul and Luke felt that such natural questionings should be answered. And hence it came to pass that, moved by the Holy Spirit—under, we believe, the direction of Paul—Luke went to the fountainhead, to the blessed mother herself, to those holy women some of whom we believe had borne her company from the beginning, and from her lips and their lips wrote down what she (or they) dictated, partly from memory, partly perhaps from memoranda which she and others had kept of that strange sweet time; and so these two chapters of the Third Gospel, of which the incarnation is the central narrative, were written down much in the original form in which Luke received it, the Greek simply translating the original Hebrew story. Around the words of the Gospel soon gathered a host of miraculous legends glorifying the blessed mother of the Lord. These are utterly unknown to Scripture, and should be quietly put aside. Strange speculations respecting her and the manner of the wondrous birth have been in all times, nay, still are favorite subjects of dispute among theologians. It is a pity to try and be wise beyond what is written. The believer will content himself with just receiving the quiet story of the holy maid as Mary the mother gave it to Luke or Paul, feeling assured that the same power of the Highest by which the crucified Jesus was raised from the tomb where he had lain for three days, was able to overshadow the virgin of Nazareth, was able to cause to be born of her that holy thing which was called the Son of God.
The Son of the Highest . It is singular that this title, given by the angel to the yet unborn child, was the one given to the Redeemer by the evil spirit in the case of the poor possessed. Is this the title, or one of the titles, by which our Master is known in that greater world beyond our knowledge? The throne of his father David ; clearly indicating that Mary herself was of royal lineage, although this is nowhere definitely stated (see Psalms 132:1-18 : 11). These words of the angel are as yet unfulfilled. They clearly speak of a restoration of Israel, still, as far as we can see, very distant. Nearly nineteen centuries have passed since Gabriel spoke of a restored throne of David, of a kingdom in Jacob to which should come no end. The people, through all the changing fortune of empires, have been indeed strangely kept distinct and separate, ready for the mighty change; but the eventful hour still tarries. It has been well observed how St. Luke's report of the angel's words here could never have been a forgery—as one school of critics asserts—of the second century. Would any writer in the second century, after the failure of Jesus among the Jews was well known, when the fall of Jerusalem had already taken place, have made an angel prophesy what is expressed here?
The announcement to the Virgin.
Gabriel, "the mighty one of God," or "the man of God," again sent with glad tidings. The work for the great-hearts, for the strongest and best, is the work of preaching the gospel of his grace. The Godsent preacher is he who, like Gabriel, "stands in the presence of God." "He that is now called a prophet was aforetime called a seer." But the true prophet is always a seer. "Sent to a virgin … and the virgin's name was Mary." It is significant that so little is said in Holy Scripture as to this one "blessed among women." Nothing is related as to her birth and parentage, as to her gifts of mind and person; it is not even directly asserted that she belonged to the royal stock of David—that is to be implied only from such a verse as the thirty-second. After the Lord, on the cross, solemnly gave her to the care of the beloved disciple, there is only one allusion to her—an allusion in Acts 1:1-26 . There is no reference to her in the Epistles of Paul; none in that of James, certainly nearly related to her; none in those of John, with whom she had lived. St. Luke, speaking of her in connection with the birth, says only, "A virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph." "Blessed," cried a woman one day to Jesus, "is she that bare thee!" He did not deny it; but that there might be no distraction of soul, he added, "Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it." This Mary, or Miriam, is blessed among women. The word of the Lord's angel we need not hesitate to utter', "Hail, thou that art highly favored!" But what is the real beauty of Mary? Is it not that she is in the foremost rank of those on whom the Lord's "yea rather, blessed" rested—that she is pre-eminently the hearer and keeper of the Word of God? The few touches of character which are presented suggest the picture of a rarely lovely nature.
"Faith through the veil of flesh can see
The face of thy Divinity,
My Lord, my God, my Savior."
"This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes."
The greatness of Jesus Christ.
To Mary, as to Elisabeth, it was foretold by the celestial messenger that her Son should be "great." There can be no doubt that, after all that was then said, Mary expected unusually great things of the Child that should be born of her. But how very far short of the fact her highest hopes have proved to be! For to whatever exalted point they reached, the Jewish maiden could not possibly have attached to the angel's words such meaning as we know them to have contained. The greatness of that promised Child was threefold; it related
I. HIS DIVINE ORIGIN . He was not only to be her offspring, but he should "be called the Son of the Most High." And there was to come upon her and overshadow her the Holy Ghost, the Power of the Most High. He was to be not only a son of God, but the Son of God, related to the Eternal Father as no other of the children of men had ever been or should ever be. He was to be One that would in the fullest sense partake of the Divine nature, be one in thought and in aim and in action with the Father ( John 5:19 , John 5:23 ; John 8:28 ; John 10:30 ; John 14:10 , John 14:11 ). He was to be "God manifest in the flesh."
II. THE WORK HE SHOULD ACCOMPLISH . "Thou shalt call his name Jesus;" and he was to be so called because he would "save his people from their sins" ( Matthew 1:25 ). There have been "saviors of society" from whom this poor wounded world might well have prayed to be delivered, men who tried to cover their own hideous selfishness under a fair and striking name. What they have claimed to be, Jesus the Savior was and is. He saves from sin. And to do that is to render us the very greatest conceivable service, both in its negative and positive aspects.
1 . Negatively considered. To destroy sin is to take away evil by the root. For sin is not only, in itself, the worst and most shameful of all evils by which we can be afflicted, but it is the one fruitful source of all other evils—poverty, estrangement, strife, weariness and aching of heart, death.
2 . Positively considered. Saving from sin means restoring to God; it includes reinstatement in the condition from which sin removed us. Jesus Christ, in the very act in which he redeems us from the penalty and power of sin, restores us to God—to his Divine favor, his likeness, his service. Accepting and abiding in the Savior, we dwell in the sunshine of God's everlasting friendship; we grow up into his perfect image; we spend our days and our powers under his direction. It is not only that Jesus Christ delivers us from the darkest curse; it is that he raises us to the loftiest heritage, by the salvation which he offers to our hearts.
III. THE DIGNITY AND POWER HE SHOULD ATTAIN . He was to reign upon a throne, "over the house of Jacob for ever;" and "of his kingdom there should be no end." Great and large as Mary's expectations for her promised Child may have very justly been, they can have been nothing to the fulfillment of the angel's words. For the kingdom of Christ. (as it is or as it shall be) is one that surpasses in every way that of the greatest Hebrew sovereign. It does so:
1 . In its main characteristics. It is spiritual. The only homage which is acceptable to its King is the homage of the heart, the only tribute the tribute of affection, the only obedience the obedience of love. It is beneficent. Every subject in this realm is sacredly bound to seek his brother's wellbeing rather than his own. It is righteous. Every citizen, because he is such, is pledged to depart from all iniquity, to pursue and practice all righteousness.
2 . In its extent. It has "no end" in its spacial dimensions. No river bounds it; no mountain, no sea; it reaches the whole world round.
3 . In its duration. He shall reign "for ever;" his rule will go down to remotest times; it will touch and include the last generation that shall dwell upon the earth. Let us rejoice in his greatness; but let us see to it that
"The Beginning of the creation of God."
We now enter upon another announcement, more wonderful still than that about John. It is the announcement about the advent of him who is indeed "the Beginning of the creation of God" ( Revelation 3:14 ). A deeper interest should gather round it than attaches to the beginning of the material universe. Both begin in mystery, but happily we see the mystery by the eye of faith safely lodged in the hand of God. Genesis gives to us the mysterious origin of the ordinary creation, and Luke gives to us the mysterious origin of the extraordinary creation of which Jesus is the real Head.
I. WE SHALL NOTICE THE SCENE OF THIS ANGEL - VISIT . We saw Gabriel last in the temple, holding intercourse beyond the first veil with Zacharias as he offered the incense. He was in "the holy place," on the threshold of "the holy of holies." But now, by way of contrast, he repairs to Nazareth, that city of Galilee so hidden in the hills that all who for various reasons needed a hiding-place resorted thither. It was a rendezvous for the worst of people, and became proverbial as the one place out of which no good thing need be expected ( John 1:46 ). It was here the angel of mercy made his way to carry good tidings to one in whose veins was the blood of kings. The house of David had fallen indeed on evil days when its lineal representative was to be found in a virgin betrothed to the village carpenter. Meanwhile let us comfort ourselves with the thought that angel-visits, though reputedly few and far between, are not confined to temple-courts or palaces of earthly kings. The lowliest of situations and the lowliest hearts may be honored by a messenger from heaven. £
II. THE MESSAGE GABRIEL BROUGHT . Having sought and found the virgin who was espoused to Joseph, he first addressed to her a remarkable salutation. He salutes her as one who is
1 . The name of her Son is to be Jesus . That is, he is to be a Savior of men from sin (cf. Matthew 1:21 ). The world has had Joshuas in abundance, captains of invasion, but only one Jesus as a Savior from the curse and power of sin.
2 . He is to be great . And assuredly, if moral influence and genius constitute the highest greatness, Jesus has no equal among the sons of men.
3 . He is to be called the Son of the Highest . God is to be his Father in a special sense. This does not refer to his "Eternal Sonship," but to his human sonship. He is to stand to God in the relation of son to father, so far as his human nature is concerned. Mary is thus to be the mother of God's Son.
4 . He is to succeed to the throne of his father David . Now, are we to understand this of a succession to a world-kingdom, and a "personal reign" over the Jews? If this be the meaning, then this reign is still to come, for through the rejection of Messiah this kingship was prevented. And so some interpret this (cf. Godet, in loc .). But our Lord's own words about the unworldliness of his kingdom seem to set this idea at rest. He came to be King over a spiritual kingdom. Now, David, we should remember, was a great ecclesiastical reformer. He exercised commanding influence in the church as well as State of his time; and he realized his vice-gerency under God. Jesus succeeds David upon the spiritual lines which were the chief lines of David's influence as king.
5 . His reign and kingdom are to be everlasting . His is to be no dying dynasty, but an everlasting rule. Emperors and kings have come and gone, and left their glory behind them; but this Son of Mary commands more influence every year, and knows no decline. The kingdoms of the world run a longer or shorter course; but Christ's kingdom outlasts them all. Such a message was fitted to overwhelm an ordinary mind. Mary is to be the mother of a new King, and he is never to be uncrowned—an everlasting Monarch! Surely an ordinary head would be turned by such tidings as these.
III. HOW MARY TAKES THE MESSAGE . She is so meek that her head is not turned. She is in amazement certainly, but there is calm dignity and purity in her reply.
1 . She asks how such a birth is to come about since she is a virgin ? This was not the inquiry of a doubter, but of a believer. She wanted direction. Was she to go on with her proposed marriage with Joseph? or was she to break with him? or was she to do nothing but wait? Gabriel directs her to wait passively in God's hands, and all he has promised will come supernaturally about. Just as the Spirit overshadowed the old chaotic world, and brought the cosmos out of it, so would he overshadow Mary, and give her a holy Son. Mary was to sit still and see the salvation of God. And here we must notice that it was a "holy Child" which the world required as a Savior, one in whom the law of sin affecting the rest of the race should be broken, who would be "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." David may say, "In sin did my mother conceive me;" but no such language must be heard from the lips of Christ. This moral break, this exception to the general rule, is brought about by a supernatural conception and birth. Is there not here a lesson about leaving things sometimes in God's hands altogether? It is a great thing sometimes to sit still and do nothing; to cultivate passivity. Like the Virgin, let us simply wait. As a further direction, Gabriel suggests a visit to Elisabeth, that her faith in God's power may be confirmed. The intercourse with her aged relative will do her a world of good in present circumstances. There in the hill-country of Judaea she will find increasing reason for trusting in God.
2 . Mary accepts the situation with all its risks . Her submission is an instance of the holiest courage. She cannot but become for a time an object of suspicion to Joseph, and to many more. Her reputation will be for a time at stake. It is a terrible ordeal to encounter. But she bows to the Divine will, and asks God to do with her as he pleases. Faith alone could sustain her in such circumstances. God would vindicate her character in due season. How much are we willing to risk for our Lord? Would we risk reputation, the most precious portion of our heritage, if God clearly asked us to do so? This was what Mary was ready to do. In other words, are we ready to put God before personal reputation? Is he worthy in our eyes even of such a sacrifice? £
IV. NOTICE THAT WE HAVE HERE AN INTIMATION HOW THE NEW CREATION MUST BEGIN WITHIN US . The angel-message comes to us, as to Mary, that "Christ" may be formed in us "the Hope of glory." What we have got to do is just to wait for the overshadowing as Mary did. It comes to the waiting and expectant souls. Not the waiting of indifference, but the waiting of expectancy, secures the great blessing. Let us cease from our own efforts, let us be still, and we shall indeed see the salvation of God! £ —R.M.E.