The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 2

30 And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.

31 And behold, you will conceive in the womb and you will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus.

32 He will be great and will be called a son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,

33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for the ages, and his kingdom will not have end.

34 And Mary said to the angel, How will this be, since I do not know a man?

35 And answering the angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you—therefore, indeed, the one to be born will be called “holy”, a son of God.

Six months later the angel is back. According to Luke’s matter-of-fact account Gabriel is sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth. She is a virgin engaged to a man from the house of David called Joseph. The girl’s name is Mary. With the customary angelic formalities Gabriel tells Mary that she has no need to be afraid because she has “found favour with God”.

1. Luke stresses that Mary was a “virgin” (parthenos) and that she had not known a man (1:27, 34). Matthew interprets this explicitly in the light of Isaiah 7:14, which potentially brings into play a complex narrative of national judgment and salvation. Luke, however, places the emphasis on the future kingship of Jesus. Again this has nothing to do directly with personal salvation or the gift of eternal life as conventionally understood. The coming of the kingdom will install Jesus as king over his people, in place of both the corrupt leadership in Jerusalem and the “foreign occupiers” (see point 2 in the previous post).

2. In the Gospels Jesus is not often called “son of the Most High”. The Gaderene demoniac, perhaps symbolizing the unclean presence of the occupying force, uses the phrase: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Lk. 8:28; cf. Mk. 5:7). And that’s it. Interestingly, Jesus tells his disciples that they should love their enemies, and that they will be ‘sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Lk. 6:35). This may have apocalyptic overtones: note references to the “saints of the Most High” in Daniel 7:14-27, against whom the blasphemous pagan ruler makes war. But it also raises the question of whether at this point in the narrative we should translate huios hupsistou (1:32) and huios theou (1:35) indefinitely: “a son of the Most High”, “a son of God”. Probably not, but I’m not sure very much would be lost christologically, and it would bring out the apocalyptic texture of the passage.

3. There is no indication here as to how Jesus will come to rule over the house of Jacob forever. In Romans 1:3-4, however, Paul asserts that the Son, descended from David according to the flesh, was “appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead”.

4. The promise of a kingdom that will last throughout the ages of history presupposes an eschatological crisis that must be located historically and realistically. Micah, for example, speaks of a day when Jerusalem will be reduced to a “heap of ruins”, a battered remnant of Israel will be restored, and YHWH will judge the nations who have opposed his people. On this day “the Lord will reign over them in Zion from this time forth and for evermore” (Mic. 3:12-4:7). What the angel affirms, therefore, I think, is the establishment of an unprecedented “kingdom”—a determinative relationship between this people and the creator God—at a time of national crisis that implicitly entails judgment on unrighteous Israel, the restoration of a weak or poor or scattered people, and the defeat of the nations that opposed the people of God.

5. Although attempts have often been made to interpret the miraculous conception of Jesus according to Hellenistic traditions of divine intercourse, etc., Luke’s language points rather to a biblical theme of eschatological transformation. The Spirit that overshadows and comes upon Mary is the Spirit both of creation (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6) and of the restoration of God’s people conceived as a renewal of the created microcosm of Israel: the land of Israel will be a wilderness, its cities and villages deserted, as a consequence of divine judgment until “a spirit from on high comes upon you” (Is. 32:13-15 LXX; cf. 44:3-4; Ezek. 37:1-14).

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paulf | Tue, 12/21/2010 - 19:06 | Permalink

It troubles me when we talk about the church as fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus would rule over the house of Jacob. Mary and anyone else would have assumed that meant the nation of Israel. If god had something else in mind, he should have made it clear. "...and he will reign in the hearts of an assembly of people in a spirtual kingdom that will transcend national boundaries..."

We are so familiar with our own spin (and I'm talking generally here) on the passage, that we can't even conceive that Mary probably would have been horrified if she knew the truth.

Another thing that always bothered me, even when I was more orthodox, was if Mary did actually have these angelic vistors, how could she have not been the top supporter of Jesus? Why would his family have been surprised when he lingered in the temple as a child? Why would they have tried to stop his adult ministry? Nobody could forget getting pregnant by god or visits from the archangel. But the bible would have us believe that Mary either forgot or disregarded all this.

I agree that the expectation was that Jesus would rule over the house of Jacob—there is no hint here of a community that would transcend national boundaries. The rule of God’s anointed king over Israel would have implications for the nations, but for the most part this is put in terms of the nations acknowledging the power of Israel’s God and his exceptional faithfulness towards his people.

But I would argue that there is nevertheless a “logic” to the unfolding of the New Testament narrative from that point on. The inclusion of Gentiles in the community comes somewhat unexpectedly and pragmatically: non-Jews simply began to worship Israel’s God in the Spirit, in response to what they heard, and so became part of this community of the Spirit. Paul interprets this, again pragmatically, as a means of making Israel jealous, but I think it probably also came to represent the universal reach of Israel’s God and the claims to sovereignty made on his behalf.

Your observation regarding the family’s opposition to Jesus’ ministry is a good one. Not sure what to say about it though.