Christmas Echoes

By Peter Amsterdam

December 3, 2013

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For many of us, an important feature of Christmas is remembering the story of Jesus’ birth, whether through reenactments and Christmas plays of the first Christmas, readings of the Christmas story from the Bible, or by singing beautiful carols about His birth. As we celebrate the Christmas season, we are reminded of the story from which these all emanated.

When we read about the shepherds, the wise men, the manger, and the star, it connects us to different aspects of the birth of our Savior. As we look at the context in which the birth of Jesus is placed, we find that there are a number of events recorded in the Old Testament that echo within the Gospel accounts of the Nativity. Awareness of these connections with the distant past helps to deepen our understanding and appreciation of God’s work in bringing about His plan for our salvation.

One such aspect of the story relates to the announcement given to the young Jewish woman named Miriam, or Mary in English, that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary.[1]

As was the custom of the time, Mary had become betrothed to Joseph, meaning that she was legally considered married to him, though she had not started living with him yet. There had been no wedding ceremony and the marriage had not been consummated. Twice Luke, the Gospel writer, mentions that Mary is a virgin.

The angel Gabriel made this astounding announcement to Mary:

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[2]

Six months earlier the same angel had appeared to Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, while he was in the Temple in Jerusalem, and announced that Elizabeth would have a child as well. To Zechariah Gabriel had said:

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.[3]

Both announcements were delivered by a heavenly messenger, an angel; both explained that sons would be born in situations that would require a work of God, as Mary was a virgin and Elizabeth was both old and barren.

Mary was told to name her son Jesus; Zechariah was instructed to name his son John:

And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”[4]

Zechariah was troubled and afraid at the sight of the angel; so was Mary. Both were told not to fear.

Mary asked a question:

Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”[5]

Zechariah also asked a question:

Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.[6]

The birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus follow a pattern similar to the stories recounted in the Old Testament of the births of Ishmael, Isaac, and Samson.

Some of the similarities in all these stories:

  1. An appearance of an angel of the Lord (or an appearance of the Lord Himself)
  2. Fear, astonishment, or falling down prostrate before the angel or messenger
  3. A divine message containing one or more of the following:
  4. An objection as to how this can happen or a request for a sign
  5. The giving of a sign

This pattern can be seen in the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, when she was found by the angel of the Lord in the desert. The angel called her by name, saying “Hagar, where are you going”? She showed amazement when she said, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” And the angel said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”[7]

A similar pattern is also seen in the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, who was barren.

The Lord appeared to Abraham, who was ninety-nine years old, and said to him, “I am God Almighty.” Abraham fell on his face prostrate before the Lord. The Lord announced that within a year He would give Abraham a son by Sarai, his wife, and that she would now go by the name Sarah. Abraham questioned how it would be possible by asking himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham was instructed to call his son Isaac, and God said that He would establish His covenant with Isaac and his offspring.[8]

We see these similarities in the birth of Samson as well.

The angel of the Lord appeared to a barren woman and told her she would bear a son and that she should drink no wine or strong drink, nor eat anything unclean, as he shall be a Nazirite[9] to God all of his life. The woman’s husband, Manoah, prayed for the Lord to send the angel again, which He did. At the end of this second visitation, Manoah and his wife made a burnt offering to the Lord and the angel ascended in the fire of the offering. Upon seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell upon their faces. Manoah was afraid and told his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”[10]

Another facet of the story that is noteworthy is the miracle of three of these women becoming pregnant. Sarah and Elizabeth were both barren and elderly; the mother of Samson was also barren, though her age isn’t recorded in the Old Testament account. Despite the difference in their circumstances, none of these women would have been able to conceive without God’s direct intervention. Each couple experienced a miracle birth just as the Lord had said they would.

With Mary it was different.

She was a virgin. Although we witness God’s miracle-working power in these earlier miraculous births, there was no Old Testament example of a woman who had never been with a man becoming pregnant. While Sarah and Elizabeth overcame age and barrenness through a miracle of God, an even greater miracle was going to be required for Mary to conceive. This was going to require a completely new manifestation of God’s creative power.

Mary asked the angel how this was going to come about.

How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And 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.”[11]

Rather than God overriding some physical impediment such as barrenness or old age, this was going to be a completely new, one-of-a-kind act of creation by God.

The Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary and performing such a creative work of God connects this supernatural intervention with the opening phrases of the book of Genesis:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.[12]

Author Raymond E. Brown expressed it this way:

The Spirit that comes upon Mary is closer to the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters before the creation in Genesis 1:2. The earth was void and without form when that Spirit appeared; just so Mary’s womb was a void until through the Spirit God filled it with a child who was His Son.[13]

Later in Luke’s Gospel, we hear of another overshadowing. This refers to the transfiguration of Jesus, a time when He was on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. While He was praying, the appearance of His face was changed and His clothes became dazzling white. Similar to the annunciation message, we hear that Jesus is the Son of God.[14]

A cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”[15]

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, we also see some shades of the annunciation as the Holy Spirit descends upon Him, and once again the pronouncement is made that Jesus is God’s Son:

When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”[16]

A further example of the echoes of the Old Testament in the Nativity story is the reference in the angel’s announcement to Mary to a prophecy Nathan gave regarding King David’s offspring a thousand years earlier. This prophecy was foundational to Israel’s expectation of the messiah. Part of Nathan’s prophecy stated:

And I will make for you a great name;[17] I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.[18] I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.[19] And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.[20]

The hope and expectation of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ birth was that a messiah—a normal human being—would be anointed by God and would arise in Israel as a king and leader. There was no expectation that the messiah would be the Son of God.

However, the angel Gabriel, using terms similar to Nathan’s prophecy, expressed that Mary’s son would be great, that God would give him the throne of David forever, and that there would be no end to his kingdom, and most important, that he would be called the Son of the Most High.[21]

In these few examples of similarities between the story of Jesus’ birth and other events related in the Old Testament, we see connections that point to the wonderful miracle of God’s love for us and His work throughout history to bring salvation to humanity. Jesus, the Son of God, entered this world as a gift of love from God Himself. His life, death, and resurrection made it possible for us to connect with God in a more personal and intimate manner than ever before. Through God’s gift to humanity, we are able to find the joy and happiness of being one of God’s children, to live with Him forever—the greatest and most long-lasting gift of all.

May you have a wonderful Christmas celebrating the birth of the one who lived and died for each one of us, Jesus, God’s Son who gave His life so that we can live with Him forever—God’s gift to humanity.[22]

Would you like to have a satisfying personal relationship with the God of love? You can personally receive Jesus into your own heart right now by sincerely praying this simple prayer:

Dear Jesus, please forgive me for all my sins. I believe You died for me. I believe You are the Son of God, and I now ask You to come into my life. I open the door and I invite You into my heart. Please come in, Jesus, and help me to confess You before others that they may find You too. In Your name I ask. Amen.

Read more if you would like to know how you can develop a personal relationship with God.

[1] Luke 1:26–27.

[2] Luke 1:28–33.

[3] Luke 1:14–17.

[4] Luke 1:12–13.

[5] Luke 1:34.

[6] Luke 1:18.

[7] See Genesis 16.

[8] Genesis 17.

[9] Person who was either chosen or consecrated for life or for a set period of time to complete a vow to God. The Nazirite (kjv Nazarite) devoted himself to self-imposed discipline in order to perform some special service. Israelite tradition viewed the Nazirite as consecrated for life. Samson was the ancient hero of the Nazirites. He was “consecrated to God” through the vow of his mother (Judges 13:5; 16:17), and remained under that vow to the “day of his death” (Judges 13:7). As long as Samson’s hair was not cut, he was able to receive the “spirit of the Lord” and thereby perform amazing physical feats. W. A. Elwell and B. J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).

[10] Judges 13.

[11] Luke 1:34–35.

[12] Genesis 1:2.

[13] The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 314.

[14] Luke 9:29–35.

[15] Luke 9:34–35.

[16] Luke 3:21–22.

[17] 2 Samuel 7:9.

[18] 2 Samuel 7:13.

[19] 2 Samuel 7:14.

[20] 2 Samuel 7:16.

[21] Luke 1:32–33.

[22] Points for this article were taken from the teaching of Raymond E. Brown in his book, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993).


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