I have spent the last two weeks hovered over the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. I wouldn’t venture to guess as to how many times I’ve read the accounts of the announcements of John the Baptists’ miraculous conception and Jesus’ immaculate conception. This time I find I’m seeing and hearing some things differently than in past readings. Luke tells a much larger story than just the announcement of the two births.
In the previous post, Mary Did You Know? (Part 1), we discussed the angel Gabriel’s surprising appearance and greeting of Mary, the insignificant teenage girl from the insignificant little town of Nazareth, far from the religious epicenter, Jerusalem. Let’s continue to look into the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, starting again with Gabriel’s visit announcing the birth of John the Baptist…
It was in the Temple in Jerusalem that Gabriel visited John the Baptist’s to-be father, Zechariah, as he was performing his temple duties. Zechariah was a priest. One of approximately 20,000 priests, he was required to be in Jerusalem, serving at the Temple, during each of the four major festivals – Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths. Additionally, he was scheduled to serve two, one-week stints throughout the year.
Priests were set apart to carry out duties associated with worship and sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish faith community. Their duties took place at the Temple where God was presumed to have resided. For the Israelites, the Temple was the intersection of heaven and earth. Priests, following Old Testament tradition, served God on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of God. On the day of Gabriel’s visit, Zechariah had been “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9).
The burning of incense was a twice-a-day ritual. As a crowd of worshipers assembled outside to pray, Zechariah entered the Temple’s Holy Place to burn the incense on an altar designed specifically for that purpose The altar of incense was just in front of the curtain separating the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place. This was indeed a holy experience for the officiating priest. After burning the incense, the priest came out of the Temple and pronounced the Aaronic blessing over the people, the same blessing we use today as a common benediction to our worship services.
The Temple, you see, is where the “with-you-God” resided with his people throughout the ages. The precursor of the Temple dated back to the time of the exodus from Egyptian captivity. God was content to live in a tent (tabernacle), but the people wanted otherwise. So God allowed them to build a temple. And the steps of the Temple were where people gathered to worship – this intersection of heaven and earth.
In the last post, we discussed the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. Let’s look at the rest of his Annunciation. After reassuring Mary that she needn’t fear, and reminding her that she had found favor with God, he began to reveal to her the rest of the story, the reason for his visit. She would conceive and bear a son whom she would name Jesus. Jesus is a form of Joshua meaning “God is Salvation.” Gabriel, then, proclaimed five descriptors of God’s saving intervention that Jesus would embody (Luke 1:32-33):
- Jesus will be great. Gabriel did not say his greatness would be “in the sight of the Lord” as he did concerning John. Jesus’ greatness is unqualified. It stands alone.
- Jesus will be called Son of the Most High. Note that Luke capitalized Son of the Most High, grammerically reserved for royalty. Most High is derived from the Hebrew name for God, El Eylon, meaning the one true sovereign God.
- The Lord God will give Jesus the throne of his father David. Most Jewish people would have understood this to mean Messiah. I wonder what Mary was thinking at this point.
- Jesus will reign over Jacob’s descendents (Israel) forever. This was a somewhat contemptuous pronouncement considering King Herod’s attempts to establish his reign over the Jewsih people.
- Jesus’ kingdom will never end. Eternity is an attribute of God and in Hebrew understanding, only El Eylon’s kingdom is considered to be eternal.
Gabriel was clearly communicating to Mary that the Eternal, Most High, One true and sovereign God was going to take up residence in her womb. Mary understandably perplexed asked, “How can this be…?” Gabriel’s response:
“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
A noteworthy word in Gabriel’s response is “overshadow” (Greek, episkiazein). Recall the tent/tabernacle that God was satisfied to live in. After the tabernacle was completed, God overshadowed it and infused (i.e., impregnated) it with his presence and glory (Exodus 40:33-35). Right there in the middle of the camp, God was present with his people. When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek (known as the Septuagint), the word used for overshadowed was episkiazein. Luke did not use an inconsequential word when describing the immaculate conception.
The divine cloud that established God’s presence with his people in time and place now does so in a person. The divine overshadowing of the earthly tabernacle was a foreshadowing of the living tabernacle, the incarnation (Edwards). Thus the Apostle John’s distinctive declaration that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Greek word for dwelling could be translated as tabernacle. Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
Bottom line: God left the building and took up residence right there in the middle of Nazareth!
Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapid, MI