Prelude to Bethlehem Lesson 1 - The Song of Isaiah
Jesus Christ is the subject of more than 300 Old Testament prophecies. His birth and life were foretold by numerous prophets over a period of 1,500 years. So why do people still refuse to believe in Him? Stephen gives us insight as he takes us to one of the most beautiful prophecies in the Bible.
“The Song Of Mary”
In our last two sessions we’ve uncovered some of the most beautiful music ever composed and sung in relation to the incarnation of God the Son.
Before the birth of Jesus . . . long before the singing of the Angels in the countryside . . . there was a musical prelude to Bethlehem.
The prophet named Isaiah penned the immortal words, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders . . . you can almost hear the strains of Handel’s Messiah as it sings Isaiah’s lyrics, “And His name shall be called, Wonderful . . . Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Not only did a prophet sing . . . but a priest sang as well.
Once the tongue of Zacharias was loosened he burst into a song that he had been composing for 9 months. He would sing a song about the Sunrise from on high who would end the night of darkness and bring the dawn of everlasting life.
Perhaps the youngest person to have composed a hymn about the coming birth of Christ, was a young girl named Mary. She also will be visited by the angel Gabriel and eventually, Mary herself will sing of the Messiah’s coming birth.
Without a doubt, music and the birth of Christ are inseparable.
Now, before we rush to the lyrics of Mary’s hymn, let’s first discover Mary’s setting, her surprise, her submission and then her song.
We discover her family setting in the first chapter of Luke and chapter 26: Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth.
Now stop – that’s enough to send shivers down the orthodox Jewish spine.
Gabriel has come with the most significant message ever delivered to the human race. He’s winging his way through the galaxies to planet earth to specifically deliver the news that Messiah is about to be born.
And he came, not to Judea, where the God had worked throughout the centuries . . . he ignores Judea and comes to Nazareth.
Nazareth was polluted with Gentiles and Romans – it was unclean and of no distinction among the Jews. It was a shoddy, corrupt halfway stop between the port cities of Tyre and Sidon.
The rumor would eventually come, believe to this day by liberals, that Mary had a dalliance with a Roman soldier and called the baby’s name Jesus.
When Nathaniel was called to become one of Christ’s disciples and he heard that Jesus had come from Nazareth he said, Nazareth! Can anything good come out of there?!” (John 1:46)
Nazareth was the other side of the tracks.
Furthermore, by going to Nazareth, Gabriel, and God who sent him, was ignoring the holy city and the most holy place in all of Israel – the temple.
Surely the news would be delivered to them – surely, the mother of the Messiah would be one of the High Priest’s daughters – or someone attached to the well connected families of Jerusalem.
But Gabriel ignored the religious and the well bred. He flew on past the pious, the educated, the most likely homes to raise the Messiah.
But Luke informs us that Gabriel instead went to Nazareth, (verse 27) “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, the greatest news ever to hit planet earth was delivered in the most unlikely city and to the most unlikely person.
The message was delivered to an illiterate, teenager, as poverty stricken as those around her.
A girl whose only bright spot in her life was that she was engaged. Her parents had successfully negotiated with another Jewish couple who had a son named Joseph. Neither family was wealthy – according to once third century source, Joseph made plows and other tools for the farmers and ranchers living around him.
The irony of these two families is in their family tree! Not the tree in their front yard – the tree in the fly leaf of their huge copy of the King James Bible that sat on their coffee table – I’m sure they had one – everybody has one of those – with all those gilded pages and in the front there were pages where you can record who your uncles and aunts and grandparents are.
You track Joseph and Mary’s family tree and you’ll go all the way back to David. This poverty stricken couple were rightful heirs to the throne of their ancestor – King David himself. Ha! Joseph and Mary had royal blood flowing through their veins.
One author wrote, “But from all the indicators in scripture, her life would be anything but extraordinary. She would marry humble, give birth to numerous poor children, never travel farther than a few miles from her home, and one day die like thousands of others before her – a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere.” / R. Kent Hughes, Luke, Volume One (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL), 1998, p. 30
To this day, the gospel seems to fly past the proud, the well connected, the religious.
The gospel of the Messiah still comes to people who know they are needy . . . who know they are unworthy.
Just as the Messiah was born to a young girl who would have never been considered worthy; she was an illiterate girl who lived on the other side of the tracks.
But life for her is about to change forever.
Look at verse 28. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29. But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 30. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.
The Latin Vulgate translated Gabriel’s opening remarks in verse 28, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
If Luke had wanted to communicate that Mary was full of grace, he would have used the same Greek expression he used of Stephen in Acts chapter 6 where he wrote that Stephen was full of God’s grace.
Gabriel is simply telling Mary that she has been chosen by God – she has found favor with God – not because of what she had done for God, but because of what God was about to do for her!
The Vulgate’s faulty translation which implies that Mary was already filled with grace that she had merited on her own, gave rise to the corruption within the Roman church during the middle ages who came to believe that Mary had every gift, even above those given to angels. This view gave rise to the idea that Mary could also become a dispenser of grace to humanity, which resulted in prayers being offered to her. Prayers that often begin with an incorrect translation of the Greek language into the Latin with the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
There are two extremes you can reach in regard to Mary.
One is to magnify Mary and the other is to ignore Mary.
One extreme is to effectively deify Mary – she would have to be Divine to be able to hear millions of prayers and then dispense grace and influence the Father – no one but God influences God.
For Mary to have a role of influencing the Triune God, she would have to be sinless and morally perfect. If the angel Gabriel is informing Mary that she was chosen by God because she was already full of perfect grace, then she would have had to have been somehow free from any kind of sin.
Kent Hughes wrote that this belief was in fact dogmatized on December 8, 1854 when the Pope declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He said, “From the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free from stain of original sin.”
In other words, Mary never sinned . . . in fact, she didn’t have a sin nature – she was free from original sin.
The Bible never says anything of that nature.
We do read that Jesus knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21)
Jesus did no sin (1 Peter 2:22)
Jesus had no sin (I John 3:5)
Gabriel had not come to explain to Mary how she had been able to live a perfect life, free from corruption; he came to explain to Mary how she would conceive by God’s power and give flesh and blood to the Messiah.
Warren Weirsbe wrote, “When Gabriel approached Mary, Mary did not say, “It’s about time, I’ve been expecting you!” / Warren Weirsbe, Be Compassionate (Victor Books), 1988, p. 14
One extreme is to deify and perfect and magnify the servant rather than the Sovereign.
The other extreme is to ignore the servant. To want to stay so far away from theological distortion that enlarges the role of Mary to co-redeemer and co-mediator that you overlook an incredible young woman who’s surrender to God is a model of submission and faith.
Notice what Gabriel goes on to say – verse 31.
31. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33. and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34. Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
You remember when Gabriel informed old Zacharias that he and his wife would have a son – Zacharias responded with doubt and he demanded proof.
Mary is not responding in the same way. She did not ask this question in verse 34 because she doubted the promise, but because she didn’t understand the process.
Gabriel explained the miracle in verse 35. The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you...”
That word “overshadow” is the same word in the Greek Old Testament to refer to the presence of God in the Holy of Holies – in the Jewish tabernacle and later in the temple.
“Mary’s womb would become a holy of holies for the Son of God.” / Ibid p. 15
Mary responds by saying in verse 38. And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
We know from the other Mary’s submission eventually led her to inform Joseph.
She tried to explain that her pregnancy was not the work of another man; she tried to tell him about the angel who’d visited her. But Joseph didn’t buy it.
We cannot imagine the grief in both their hearts:
the woman he had planned to marry had been unfaithful.
the man she planned to marry no longer trusted her.
But Joseph still loved her – Matthew tells us that he didn’t want to disgrace her so he planned to put her away privately.
But then Joseph is visited by an angel during a dream – the angel revealed that Mary had been telling the truth and that he was to marry her and give the newborn baby the name, Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.
So it’s all true! This story about God and angels and conception by the holy Spirit . . . Mary was telling Joseph the truth.
But who would believe it? Their family wouldn’t. Their neighbors wouldn’t.
The Talmud would call Mary the mistress of Panthera, a Roman soldier, and Jesus would be considered illegitimate. In fact, years later when Christ began his ministry the Pharisees said to Him in John 8:41, “We were not conceived in fornication, like you were!”
But there was someone who would believe their story. An old couple named Elizabeth and Zacharias.
And Mary flees to their home, located a good three days journey away. And as soon as she arrived, Elizabeth’s unborn son leapt in her womb and Mary and Elizabeth enjoyed fellowship as only the mother’s of two miraculous babies could enjoy.
One, the mother of the forerunner to the Messiah.
The other, the mother of Messiah.
Mary begins to sing this song that she must have been composing over her three day journey.
She praised God for her salvation (v. 47) Don’t ever forget, Mary needed a Savior too . . . like all of humanity, Mary needed redeeming – saving – as well.
Notice the lyrics in verse 46b. “My soul exalts the Lord, 47. And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
Just as the words of another more recent song go, “The One whom she delivered, would soon deliver her!”
She praised God for her testimony (v. 48)
48. “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond-slave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
Mary is in effect saying, “Imagine, God would choose someone like me to do something like this!”
Third, She praised God for His power (v. 49)
49. “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.
Fourth, she sang her praise to God for His mercy (v. 50)
50. “And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him.
Fifth, she praised God for displaying His sovereignty in at least three different ways:
- By exalting the humble (v. 51-52)
51. “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.
- By enriching the hungry (v. 53)
53. “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.
By the way, as you study this hymn, you’ll notice that each phrase is simply a quote from the Old Testament scriptures. Mary may have been unable to read – but she had memorized as a faithful Jewess, many of the passages of the Old Testament that she had been taught as a child.
Her thoughts of God were high and wonderful. The God she worshipped was able to save; merciful and holy; powerful and sovereign in His management of the world she lived in: He was the God who exalted the humble, who enriched the hungry, but he also:
- Established the helpless (vv. 54-55)
54. “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, 55. As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” 56. And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home.
Chuck Swindoll wrote, “Three months later, Mary returns to Nazareth to marry Joseph and sail into a storm of controversy that would last the rest of her life . . .” In fact, it has continued now for 2,000 years.
The most difficult times to sing are during difficult times.
This song says nothing of life back in Nazareth. It doesn’t answer Mary’s pain or coming sorrow. Or does it? It does – for it focuses on God, who is Savior, who is Sovereign, who is Merciful.
Except for the ones who’ve come by faith and surrender to this living Lord – the ones who’ve heard the message of the incarnation and have believed; placing their faith in this virgin born, Son of God, who did indeed come to seek and to save those who are lost.
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