It takes a village (parents, family, friends, and neighbors) to raise a child. This common saying neglects to mention the influence of God. Every child is precious to God and every birth is a miracle of God’s creative endowments to men and women. Consider the power of God, expressed in the abundant and extraordinary miracles, which occurred in the village of God-fearing men and women who surrounded the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Miraculous Pregnancies and Profound Prophecies
Shortly before the birth of Jesus, God chose a Jewish couple, childless and advanced in age, to give birth to a son who would play a key role in authenticating Jesus as the Son of God. This chosen couple was Zacharias, a Jewish priest who served in the temple of God, and his wife Elizabeth. Both were descendants of the priestly line of Aaron and lived holy lives devoted to the Lord. While in the temple to burn incense, as part of his priestly service, Zacharias was greeted by the angel Gabriel, with a message that Zacharias and Elizabeth will have a son. They will name him John and he will bring “joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14); that is, both a sweet calm delight and also feelings of triumphant elation. How is this different from the feelings of any couple who have waited and prayed to have a child, believing that it was impossible in their situation? The angel then expounds on the ways this child will be special to God’s people (Luke 1:14-17): (1) his birth will cause many to rejoice, (2) “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”, (3) “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before birth”, (4) through his influence many will turn back to the Lord their God, and (5) his life and words will influence hearts and minds and prepare them for the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Their prayers had been heard and answered. Quite an event for a godly man who was knowledgeable about the prophecies and promises of God; yet, Zacharias doubted the message brought by the angel, and as a result of his unbelief speech was taken from him, by the power of God. A short time later, the Lord restored Elizabeth’s fertility so that she and Zacharias could conceive. After a lifetime of waiting, she and her husband would soon be parents. Elizabeth welcomed their pregnancy as a special blessing from God.
When Elizabeth is six months pregnant, God sends the angel Gabriel to visit Mary, a young Jewish woman engaged to Joseph, a descendent of King David. The angel tells Mary that the Lord has chosen her to give birth to a son. Like Zacharias, Mary was initially disturbed by the appearance of the angel (Luke 1:29); however, unlike Zacharias who doubted, Mary responds to the message of God’s plan in humility, submission, and faith (Luke 1:38). The angel also tells her to name the child Jesus, and describes his future (Luke 1:32-33): (1) “he will be great, and . . . called the Son of the Most High,” (2) “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David,” (3) “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” and “His kingdom will have no end.”
Mary’s conception is vastly different from Elizabeth’s. Mary is a virgin and becomes pregnant through a miracle of God – a miracle never before given and never to be repeated. Luke quotes the words of the angel Gabriel, spoken to Mary, regarding this unique miracle: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). What is this event like for Mary, becoming pregnant without having relations with a man? We can only speculate and imagine. Did she even remember the moment? Two phrases in this description give us a hint of her supernatural experience. The Greek verb eperchomai, translated here as come, indicates the action of descending and overtaking. Similarly, the Greek verb episkiazō, translated as overshadow, suggests to envelope in a shadow, with the idea of a shadow of brilliance, rather than darkness. Based on other Scriptural accounts of encounters with God, we can imagine her experience was overwhelming, life-changing, and completely pure, for God is holy.
The angel Gabriel also tells Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, is pregnant, so Mary hurries to visit her. When Mary arrives, the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she declares Mary blessed, not only for being chosen by God, but for her belief in the message from the angel Gabriel and the Lord’s ability to do all that he said. Mary is blessed in the sense of being praised by her people (Luke 1:42) and also recognized as esteemed for the favor shown to her by God, choosing her to carry and nurture the holy child (Luke 1:45, 48). Mary honors the Lord with praise and thanks, recognizing the gift as an act of His grace, and acknowledging His holiness (Luke 1:41-49).
When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he plans to end their engagement quietly, to minimize her disgrace. Then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and reassures him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
The Miracles and Angelic Visits Continue
Elizabeth gives birth and they name their son John. Soon after the birth, Zacharias’ ability to speak is miraculously restored and he immediately praises God; then is filled with the Holy Spirit and gives a prophecy concerning their son, proclaiming John “will be called the prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76) and John will “go on before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77).
Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth to a son, whom they name Jesus. This child, born of a virgin, comes into our world as a tangible connection between heaven and earth, God and humankind.
Shortly after the birth of Jesus, angels appear that same night to a band of shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. “And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9). “Do not be afraid,” they were told. Just as the angel of the Lord reassured both Zacharias and Mary with these words, he now speaks to the shepherds watching over their sheep. The angel declares that the child born in Bethlehem is the long-awaited Savior, the Jewish Messiah, Christ the Lord. This announcement is accompanied by a great number of angels praising God with these words: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke2:14). Note the condition of peace. Peace on earth, among men; that is, humankind, but not all humankind. There’s a condition. The heavenly angels proclaim this peace to those with whom God is pleased; or those to whom God chooses to bestow good will.
God is certainly pleased with Zacharias and Elizabeth and blesses them with a child. He honors Joseph and Mary in an extraordinary and miraculous way, choosing them as the earthly parents of the Son of God. And God chooses shepherds to receive a visit from angels to explain the fulfillment of a prophecy. The shepherds respond immediately. They travel to Bethlehem to find the child and share the angelic message with Joseph and Mary. Mary treasures their words, words that confirm and expand the message she received from the angel Gabriel. What do the shepherds do next? They return to their flock, all the while glorifying and praising God because he chose them to receive the message and be first to see the Christ child.
Simeon and Anna
Eight days after his birth, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and present him to the Lord, according to Jewish custom. A righteous and devout man named Simeon, looking for the Messianic salvation of Israel, greets them. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and announces that this child is the long-awaited savior (Luke 2:25-32). When Anna, a prophetess who serves at the temple night and day with fastings and prayers, sees the child, she gives thanks to God and speaks of him to others who, like She and Simeon, are patiently and expectantly waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38).
Messages and Miracles
Three men and three women and an unknown number of shepherds receive instructions from God’s messengers, witness and experience miracles executed by God, and recognize the presence of God. What do they have in common? Godly lives? Faith and belief evidenced in praise and service? A mind focused on God? A receptive heart and a willing spirit? Love of God? A reverence for God and His holiness? A natural and Godly fear of angels? They had all these attributes. But most importantly, they were chosen by God to be key participants and witnesses in the miraculous birth of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah.