Reading: Luke 1—2
Charles Dickens captured the minds of many instantly with the suspenseful opening to his renown work: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”.1 The paragraph continues with stark contrasts of the human condition, describing the era just prior to the French Revolution. These words may well capture the essence of the beginning of Luke's Gospel. Hopes ran high; the hopeful were oppressed and beaten down. The time was at hand; yet the time couldn't seem further away. The promises of God to send a messiah, a deliverer, a son-to-be-king, have been hanging in the air like ripe fruit on a tree, but for so long that it may well seem like all the fruit has fallen to the ground and the season of hope is past.
It begins, “In the time of Herod king of Judea...” (Luke 1:5). Herod was king of Judea, but he was not of the house and line of David. He was certainly not the messiah. In fact, the messiah would compete for his throne. Herod stood in opposition to the messiah, the coming King of Israel, the promised son-to-be-king of Isaiah's prophecies. Additionally, Herod was merely a puppet king under the oppressive Roman government. Hopes ran high as the time was drawing near (Daniel 9:25); yet hopes were being pummeled through taxation, oppression, and poverty.
Into this scene Elizabeth and Zechariah are given a son. Like Sarah or Hannah before her, Elizabeth was barren. And both she and her husband “were both well along in years.” (Luke 1:6-7) Their prayers are heard and they are granted a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Israel has not had a prophet like this for about 400 years. John is to bring back to the Lord the people of Israel as was foretold. He would indeed be the forerunner to the messiah.
Then God sends the angel Gabriel, the same angel that told Daniel about the time when the Messiah would come, “to a virgin pledged to be married....The virgin's name was Mary.” He explained to Mary that she would have a child, which raised no small question,
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin.” (Luke 1:34)
But the word virgin is not here. Lest we try to redefine the word virgin to mean something other than it does, the words of Mary here define for us what it means. Literally, it could be translated, “since I a man I do not know.” Now she was engaged, so she knew a man in the sense that we use that word. However, this is in the same sense that “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived...” (Genesis 4:1). In other words, how can this happen since Mary had never had sexual relations with a man. Fair question. And she receives a fair answer (Luke 1:35-37).
The Lord is telling us something. This is the son-to-be-king that Isaiah promised (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-4; 16:5; 32:1). When Isaiah prophesied this virgin born king, all we knew about the timing was that it would be in the future... before the child is grown, Assyria will be laid waste (Isaiah 7:16). That placed its fulfillment at least six decades future from Isaiah 7. By Luke 1, we are long past the minimum requirement! For more on Isaiah's prophecy I did a sermon on Isaiah's prophecy titled, Immanuel Means Trust.
We are also told that Joseph is “a descendant of David.” (Luke 1:27) This is important because the messiah king would reign on David's throne, and come from the stump of Jesse (David's father). Again this is emphasized because of the census, that Joseph “belonged to the house and line of David.” (Luke 2:4) He was born in Bethlehem, “the town of David” (Luke 2:11). But is this child born the son of David?
He was born of a virgin in order that He could be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). By the time we get to the end of the birth / childhood scenes of Jesus this point is raised again. Jesus goes to the temple and stays there. Seemingly puzzled that his parents wouldn't know where to find Him, he asks, “Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?” He wasn't in the palace; He was in the temple. “But they did not understand what He was saying to them.” (Luke 2:49-50) Do we understand?
It was indeed going to be the best of times and the worst of times, as Jesus would “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35) He was the coming king, but not the kind that many were hoping for. He is the king of Israel, but not the kind of king Israel wanted (1 Samuel 8:7, 20; John 19:15). He is the very king Israel rejected because they could not see Him. Now He will come in flesh, and they will see Him, yet still reject Him.
When we come face to face with the fact of Jesus Christ we too face the best of times and the worst of times... we will either fall or rise. Do you submit to this King?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Opening words to The Tale of Two Cities, 1859.