The faith of Mary in the story recorded in Luke 1:26-38 is so extraordinary that it almost escapes our notice, flying under the radar as we read through this story. When the angel Gabriel visits her to announce that she–a virgin–would conceive a child by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and then give birth to the heir to King David’s throne, she believes what he tells her!
More than that, the faith of Mary illustrates the essence of our relationship with God: wonder and grace. Despite the unbelievably good news and the impossibility of a virgin birth–and in contrast to the skepticism of her relative Zechariah–Mary wonderingly believed.
The Faith of Mary vs. The Unbelievably Good News
Despite the fact that Mary is a virgin, yet unmarried, the angel nevertheless insists to her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son who will be called Jesus. For the moment, set aside the impossibility of a virgin birth–we’ll come back to that.
For now, focus on the unbelievably good news that the angel brings to Mary:
32“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33)
This baby would be both the “Son of the Most High” and the rightful heir to “the throne of his father David”–both the son of God and the son of David. The net result of a child who was both the Son of God and the son of David is one who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
So why is this good news? Impressive–of course. But kings aren’t necessarily good. Many are cruel, despotic, and tyrannical. What makes this king good?
In the Old Testament, there is a tension that arises again and again regarding the identity of the one who will reign over God’s people. Sometimes, we read that David (that is, a king in David’s line) will sit on the throne, and other times, we read that God will reign over his people directly.
For example, take Ezekiel 34. YHWH blasts the shepherds (the prophets, the priests, and especially the kings) of Ezekiel’s day for neglecting and abusing his people:
1The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-6)
So, YHWH insists that he himself will become the shepherd to his people:
11“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16)
And yet, YHWH also insists that he would give them only a single shepherd, David:
22“I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.” (Ezekiel 34:22-24)
So, is YHWH to be the shepherd, or is David to be the shepherd?
In Jesus, the dilemma is solved. In Jesus, YHWH and David unite as a single Person to shepherd the people of Israel. Jesus would be the one to shepherd the sheep, to make them lie down, to seek the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak, to feed the flock in justice, but to destroy the fat and the strong.
This is the manner in which Jesus would be the prince, YHWH’s servant David, among God’s people forever. This is what Jesus as King looks like, and of Jesus’ kingdom there will be no end.
This is unbelievably good news. And even so, Mary believed it.
The Faith of Mary vs. The Skepticism of Zechariah
Mary’s response to this unbelievably good news is marked by wonder and awe:
34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
We don’t really appreciate the faith of this response until we contrast it with what her relative Zechariah had said when the same angel Gabriel had foretold that he and his barren wife would have their own son, whom they were to name John:
18And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18)
Zechariah asked for further confirmation of the news Gabriel was bringing–some way that he could know that what Gabriel was saying was true. He did not actually believe the message, and so he asked how he could “know this.”
Zechariah was a skeptic seeking proof; he simply did not believe Gabriel.
Mary, on the other hand, does not doubt that Gabriel is telling her the truth. Her question (“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”) expresses her wonder at the news as she tries to wrap her head around the manner in which it might possibly come to pass.
This response has very practical significance. Mary speaks from a perspective that expects God to live up to his word and to accomplish what he has promised. This isn’t the difference between optimism and pessimism, but between faith and doubt.
The faith of Mary believes first, and then asks questions later. She is a classic illustration of Anselm’s dictum fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. Our faith does not stifle questions, but it does prompt us to ask the right kind of questions as we seek understanding of something we believe.
Zechariah, the priest, skeptically demanded proof. Mary, the teenage girl who would personally face the humiliation of bearing a child out of wedlock, believingly sought understanding.
The Faith of Mary vs. The Impossibility of a Virgin Birth
When Mary asked “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”, it is impossible to know what she expected. Perhaps she expected that Gabriel would tell her that all of this would come to pass after she married Joseph, to whom she was betrothed.
But instead, Gabriel explains that she would conceive through nothing short of a miracle:
35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
However Mary had taken “Son of the Most High” in v. 32, she now finds out exactly what this would mean. God himself would miraculously bring about her pregnancy as his Holy Spirit would come upon her. This child that she would carry and deliver would literally be the Son of God!
Certainly, such a statement must have been terrifying. What would it mean for the Holy Spirit to come upon her, and for the power of the Most High to overshadow her? Who would believe her that she had not sinned, but that God himself had caused her to conceive? How could she possibly be a mother to God’s own Son?
There is no possible way that all of her doubts were smoothed and her fears assuaged. And yet, she responds with extraordinary grace:
38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
With wonder and grace, Mary accepts the news that Gabriel brought to her. She trusts, believes, and embraces her role to play in the coming of God’s Kingdom.