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EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW

Luke jumps right in explaining that John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias (alternatively, “Zechariah”) and Elizabeth, were too old to have children. This was more than just a disappointment for them, since Jewish culture placed a high value on lineage and producing offspring that would carry on their ways of life and maintain their presence upon the earth in every age. So the couple prayed fervently for a miracle. Zacharias was a priest serving in the Temple at the altar of incense when the archangel Gabriel appeared to tell him he was going to have a son, then proceeded to prophetically describe him:

Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.…and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:13, 15–17; emphasis added)

Remember that, unless otherwise specified, we are using the biblical translation that has been the most commonly read since its production in 1611, the King James Version (KJV), due to many readers’ familiarity with its treatment of language. However, that places upon us the responsibility of offering up occasional clarity.

The name “Elias” is Greek. In Hebrew, it’s “Elijah.”

If necessary, turn back to the Old Testament study and review the very last prophet, Malachi, under “The Prophets” subsection. One of Malachi’s statements, spoken through him by the Lord, was the exciting proclamation: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me!” (Malachi 3:1). Later, God said through Malachi, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children…lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (4:4–6). So here, in Luke, Zacharias is carrying out the Temple duties when suddenly Gabriel the angel appears and tells him, nearly word for word, that his own son, John, will be imbued with the same spirit and power as Elijah, of whom Malachi spoke.

Note this is not a doctrine of reincarnation. This is not literally the “rebirth” of Elijah, as scholars acknowledge: “John was not Elijah revived from the dead, but his ministry was to be characterized by a similar prophetic earnestness, a passion for reformation, and a forthright denunciation of ungodliness. His ministry was to be, in reality, a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.”[i]

Elijah had, in Old Testament times, been one of the boldest, bravest prophets to ever challenge God’s people during their seasons of wicked idolatry (1 Kings 18:21–40). Here, the “spirit” (read: “integrity,” “courage,” and “passion”) of Elijah was being bestowed upon Zacharias’ son, John, who would be instilled with the Holy Spirit for this work even before his birth! In fact, the popular verse that tells of John’s physical appearance (he wore clothing of camel’s hair and a belt; Matthew 3:4) details almost exactly the same clothing as Elijah (a garment of hair and a belt; 2 Kings 1:8).

John the Baptist’s role as the forerunner would be for two purposes: 1) to prepare the people spiritually, and 2) to identify the Lord when He arrived (which we will address later). Regarding the first, theologians are not certain if the note about turning “the heart of the fathers to the children” meant John would reestablish a special bond among the Jews, or if it referred to a return to the glory days of Israel—the “children” being those alive on the day Gabriel met with Zacharias and the “fathers” being the unity that existed under the patriarchs. Either is possible, but one naturally leads to the other, so it’s likely God intended both interpretations. Readers who may have skipped our reflection on the Intertestamental Period should really consider reading that section before proceeding. It takes understanding the fragmented state of the Jews of that time to really appreciate what is happening here in Luke. Barnes’ Notes relates this state of the Jews to this verse:

In the time of John the Jews were divided into a number of different sects.… They were opposed violently to each other, and pursued their opposition with great animosity. It was impossible but that this opposition should find its way into families, and divide parents and children from each other. John came that he might allay these animosities and produce better feeling.… He would restore peace to their families, and reconcile those parents and children who had chosen different sects, and who had suffered their attachment “to sect” to interrupt the harmony of their households.[ii]

Most academic material on the Intertestamental Period acknowledges that many Jews just before Christ’s appearance were dealing with extreme doubt in the promises of God. If they could speak for themselves, they would surely explain that four hundred years passing since the last anointed prophet of God could likely do that to even the most faithful of His devoted followers when they had been used to the words of the prophets among them for so long. One of John the Baptist’s central goals would be to restore unity and “turn the heart of the fathers to the children,” thus making the holy nation of God let go of their petty disputes and be spiritually prepared for what was going to happen next. That’s a huge undertaking! That is probably why Zacharias—likely one of the devout Jews that had given his life to Yahweh in spite of great doubt—couldn’t believe his very own son would be the powerful “preparer,” and he was thus stricken dumb (Luke 1:20). Zechariah’s son John would be eight days old when the older man would be able to speak again.




Meanwhile, just months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the same archangel Gabriel appears to a young virgin betrothed (engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph, saying, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). After we read about how shocked she was by this announcement, we see Gabriel go on to state the oft-repeated proclamation:

Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus [Hebrew, Yeshua]. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:30–33)

We’re sure you caught it, but just in case: Isaiah 7:14 was just fulfilled in this moment: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…” Matthew not only mentions this event, he interprets it in light of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel [Greek spelling], which being interpreted is, God with us” (1:23).

Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man [being that I’m a virgin]?”

And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:34–38)

The protevangelium, the Gospel promise of Genesis, has finally, after the whole of human history up to this point, begun!

Can you even imagine what must have been going through Mary’s mind?

Keep in mind we’re not talking about an average-aged virgin fiancée by today’s standards. The Bible doesn’t mention Mary’s age, but extrabiblical, historical documents written in the first and second century AD indicate she was between the ages of twelve and fifteen, making her between about thirteen and sixteen at the end of her pregnancy nine months later. As girls in ancient Israel were frequently promised to a man as soon as they reached puberty, this is not an unbelievable age to associate Mary with. (Note that, unlike today, a marriage to a young girl was not immediately consummated, so a girl of twelve could be betrothed for quite some time before she faced more adult situations.)

Though some young women today experience pregnancy, the circumstances are obviously different; their pregnancies likely result from either promiscuous choices or tragic and dark scenarios involving coercive actions of a men upon minors. Both possibilities (and any other we can imagine) involve more “educational experience” than a girl at this age should be familiar with. Mary had never “known” a man. At the same age as many of our youth today who are playing with Barbie dolls and braiding hair, Mary was informed through a frighteningly awesome angelic appearance that her childhood was over in an instant. Hers was the “seed” that was about to produce God, Himself, “among us” in the form of a Baby: Immanuel. Genesis 3:15, as a reminder, reads, “And I [God] will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

In our study of Genesis, we considered how odd the reference to a “female seed” would have sounded to the ancients. The emphasis in Israel’s culture was upon the seed of males—and there has never been any such thing as a “seed” in a female’s reproductive system. Isaiah prophesied about the Baby Immanuel being born of a virgin, which is the Hebrew alma. Some have pointed out the literal translation of this word in Hebrew is “young woman” or “young maiden,” and not necessarily “virgin.” But the biblical usage and context would render a non-virgin female absurd, as scholars are aware: “There is no instance where it can be proved that alma designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen 24:43 where alma is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac.”[iii] This utterance from Isaiah about Immanuel coming from the womb of an untouched maiden would likely be the only other time in history up to that point that a reliable voice in the Jewish nation would place such emphasis on the offspring of a woman. Though they knew already that no man would even be involved in the Messiah’s birth, to the hearers of Isaiah’s words as recorded in 7:14, a light must have gone on: Ohhh… That’s why we’ve been talking about the “seed of a woman.”

We can only imagine the surprise some of the Israelites felt when they initially began to fully comprehend that God, back in the Garden of Eden and in the presence of the only two people in existence, was prophesying out of His own mouth that the Messiah wouldn’t even have a biological father. Of course they had heard the prophecy many times before it happened, but the shock of seeing such a phenomenon come to fruition is likely not one that can be prepared for. Jesus was a miracle, an authority over natural law, as early as the beginning of the world and humanity.



As far as the maiden whose “seed” would carry the Child, we find her described in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, a document important to the early Church until circa AD 500 when it fell out of circulation as a result of Pope Gelasius’ rejection of it. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary openly attests the Protoevangelium of James “had a tremendous impact in the early church.”[iv]

Important disclaimer: That doesn’t mean it should be read as a Holy-Spirit-inspired book equal to the canon. What it does mean is that, while the Church was in its infancy in the first century and people were still just hearing about who Mary and Jesus were, vindictive rumors about Mary’s virginity were popping up and the heresy needed to be corrected—the answer to which was, in part, this early apologetic that strove to reaffirm her innocence. Some believers wince at hagiographical literature (hagio, “holy,” thus “holy biographies”: extrabiblical accounts of the early saints), believing it wrong to consider what they say because they are not inspired Scripture. There’s a stigma linked to these documents that often results in a raised eyebrow or two when they’re brought up in biblical research. We find it interesting that these same readers will study, and even quote from, biographies on their own historic heroes—Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare—and never even think about how similar that practice is to reading a hagiography. They browse the local bookstore, pick up a story on a historical figure, believe it’s filled with truth, and even share what they’ve learned with others, usually without even questioning confirming the facts outlined in the books. But if it involves information about a Bible character, the general consensus appears to be: “If it’s in the Bible, I’ll believe it! If it’s not in the Bible, it’s hogwash! All we ever need to know is in the Book.” The value of hagiographies is not in accepting every single word at Holy-Spirit-level value, but in seeing that they do tell another perspective of the story, some of which might be based in truth since we were not there to say otherwise.

That said, if some of the details told in the Protoevangelium of James happens to be as true as many in the first several centuries believed it to be, then Mary was actually quite popular…and she may have had some warning that God planned to involve her in His Redemption plan in some way. From chapters 6 and 7 of this ancient writing, we read:

And when she was a year old, Joachim [Mary’s father] made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel. And Joachim brought the child to the priests; and they blessed her, saying: “O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations.”

And all the people said: “So be it, so be it, amen.”

And he brought her to the chief priests; and they blessed her, saying: “O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be forever.”…

And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.[v]



The narrative goes on to say that, from an early age, Mary actually lived in the Temple (which wasn’t necessarily uncommon; Anna from Luke 2:36–38 also lived in the Temple), and when she was twelve years of age, the priests were concerned that she would defile the Temple with her presence now that she was old enough to start her menstrual cycle (which was a complicated issue in the cleanliness laws). Not wishing to embarrass her, they quietly sought the Lord over the issue, and were led to host an event for the widowers of Judea to come and claim this beloved young virgin for a wife. The rods of all widowers were gathered together and presented to the High Priest, who prayed over them in the Temple, after which they were returned to their owners. Joseph—whose character calls himself “an old man” in this narrative, wherein he is a widower with children from his first wife—reached for his rod and a dove came out from it, landing on his head: a sign from God that he was the chosen husband for the virgin, Mary. Because of his age and the fact that his new betrothed was very young, Joseph did not consummate the relationship. Instead, as a carpenter, he left to work on a building project, promising young Mary the Lord would protect her as she lived amidst her community without him for a time. (Later, he would return to find her pregnant by the Holy Spirit.)

Again, though we do not claim that the noncanonical Protoevangelium of James is as reliable as the Bible, it offers one sweet detail that can inspire a smile for the woman whose “seed” would be the Messiah prophesied in Genesis: During the time Zacharias was stricken dumb from his lack of faith in Gabriel’s announcement regarding John’s birth, Mary was at her new home spinning the scarlet and “true purple” threads that would be a part of the new Temple veil. The Temple priests decided that she, along with six other virgins (totaling seven, God’s number and the number of completion or fullness), would been given this privilege.

What a poetic picture. If this part of Mary’s life is true, then the hours she spent laboring at her spinning needle at home, in the earliest days of her pregnancy with the Christ Child, contributed to the completion of the heavy cloth at the doorway to the Holy of Holies. Under the Old Covenant, the veil marked the only consecrated site where mankind was allowed to meet directly with the presence of God (Exodus 30:6). Therefore, with this great honor bestowed upon her by the Temple priests, Mary’s craft would relate in adding scarlet (the color of the Lamb’s blood that was slain) and “true purple” (biblical colors of true royalty and kingship) to the meeting place of God and men. One day, the son she carried, the Son, would die on a cross for all mankind, announcing in the unseen, spiritual realm an eternal victory over the enemy…and that veil would tear from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). King Jesus, who is alone worthy of true purple threads, would be the Lamb whose scarlet blood gave all who believe in Him access to the Holy of Holies—an all new, invisible, but ever-present meeting place for God and man, accessible anywhere in the world and at any time—through “a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Hebrews 10:20).

Christ’s flesh became the new and living veil.



And whether or not the apocryphal account of Mary is true, God the Father knew from the beginning the Son’s body and blood would become the doorway to the Holy of Holies for all believers, as He stated to the world’s first two finite, imperfect humans in Genesis.

Another question that arises regarding Mary is how this virginal birth would have looked to those in her community. The Messiah’s Coming through the womb of a virgin had been prophesied since Isaiah, so it wasn’t a new concept. However, certainly, there would have been doubters amid Israel when the news spread, making a very uncomfortable situation for Mary, whose integrity would have been under fire. In the Bible, this issue is not addressed. In the Protoevangelium of James, the midwife confirms our suspicions, marching into Mary’s presence in unbelief, saying, “Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee.”[vi] In other words, “Let’s see this big belly everyone’s talking about. You’re the talk of the town around these parts!”

(In the interest of closure, the story goes on to say the midwife proceeded to deliver the Christ Child and, because of her lack of faith, a great, searing, fiery pain spread throughout her hand. She prayed right there on the spot and was healed, and a voice told her to keep secret the things she had seen until after the Child had officially made Himself known to Jerusalem. The identity of the midwife is a fascinating topic. Her name in verse 10:1 of the Protoevangelium is “Salome.” Records unanimously dismiss the idea that she might be connected to the daughter of Herodias who shared her name. However, according to many historical interpretations, this is the same Salome who married Zebedee, giving him sons James and John, who grew up to be two of Jesus’ twelve disciples. If this is true, then this midwife is the same Salome who had ministered to Jesus and remained in His presence from Galilee to the cross [Mark 15:40–41], and was with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus when the three went to anoint their Savior’s body with sweet spices and found the tomb empty [Mark 16:1–3].)



Everything we know today about the culture at the time of Mary suggests that she would have been more than merely controversial, but she handled herself admirably. An excerpt from Donna Howell’s Handmaidens Conspiracy slows down the narrative and allows her story to be felt at a deeper level, depicting Mary as the warrior she truly must have been in order to accept this responsibility. Though a portion of this excerpt gets a little ahead of where we are in the account, the conclusion is about the person of Mary, so we will include it in this section so we can connect with her character. After Gabriel’s announcement:

If we let the weight of what just occurred in Mary’s life settle within our thoughts, the bravery and boldness of this young woman at this moment in time is extraordinary, if not unfathomable. In an instant, Mary transforms from a scared little girl to a spiritual warrior with a determination that would make Joan of Arc pale in comparison. She responds with tenacious heroism: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (1:38).

Christians have read and celebrated this narrative for so long in a culture that paints her as a quiet, gentle, and mild-mannered saint that the authority Mary shows in her words here has been traded for the image of a woman bowing her head in docile servitude. Yes, servitude was an enormous part of the big picture regarding Mary, absolutely. By accepting such an inconceivable task as carrying the Son of God into the world in a day and age when a premarital pregnancy would have likely resulted in the death penalty by stoning or, at the very least, banishment from her family and the rest of her people, Mary was no doubt an illustrious servant—first and foremost. Everything stable in her life was now at risk, and she accepted the mission of the Lord despite that. However, it is because of such factors, as well as the obedience and humility in her response, that we can catch a glimpse of the warrior within. Her submission to the messenger of God does not relate weakness, but tenacity! She had every reason to be afraid of the earthly, societal repercussions of being pregnant before marriage—thousands of unimaginably awful hardships undoubtedly lay ahead of her—but she didn’t waver for an instant. This is not to say that she didn’t feel fear, as Luke 1:29 states that she did. But it is to say that she did not allow the fear to rule her. She immediately cast away all concepts of leading a normal life and did the bravest, most warrior-like thing any human in her position could have done: She submitted herself to being the mother of the most important Man this world has ever known, and she did so without any experience whatsoever. She didn’t just agree with Gabriel’s decree, she owned her role bravely despite all human reasoning.

Had she been selfish, she might have said, “But wait! What about my betrothed? What about the people in town? What about my parents? Everyone will think I am tainted by indiscretion! I will be killed, or made to leave my people and wander the world alone. I am chaste. This is not a fair thing to ask of me!” Had she lacked confidence, she might have said, “Surely not I, messenger. I am a girl of humble means. Joseph is only a carpenter. I cannot give the King of kings a full life. I have never raised a child, and I cannot possibly know how to guide this Child, the Son of God.” Had she allowed any one normal, human emotion to lead her response, she would have revealed that she was still only a child—perhaps more befitting of the modern ideas we have of the “meek and mild” Mary. Instead, she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” It’s as if she downloaded ten lifetimes’ worth of maturity in a matter of seconds.

What bravery! What valor!…

What leadership!

We all know what happened next, but rarely do we pause and reflect upon the enormity of it.

When Joseph discovers she is pregnant, he plans to discreetly divorce her, believing that she has given herself to the temptation of promiscuity, but he is halted by an angel in a dream who tells him that Mary has, in fact, been impregnated by the power of God. The angel instructs Joseph to support her, and the carpenter obeys (Matthew 1:19–25).…

When that precious Savior arrived, it was through the body of a simple, innocent girl who, in seconds, became a dynamic woman of brute-force tenacity in the face of all odds…

And the list grows even longer regarding Mary’s womanly strength. Once the Son of God was born to her, Mary left home with her new husband and traveled more than two hundred miles within the first few years—Nazareth to Bethlehem, seventy miles; Bethlehem to Jerusalem round-trip, twelve miles; Bethlehem to Egypt, more than forty miles; and Egypt to Nazareth, one hundred-plus miles—all without the modern conveniences of a vehicle or paved roads. Far from any concept of a home-body female plucking chickens near a stove and squeezing fresh fig juice, Mary was a voyager. A journeywoman! She fearlessly packed up the family’s mule and carried their belongings—as well as her infant (and later toddler)—from place to place as the Lord directed, regardless of potentially harsh weather conditions, dangers of the road, marauders by nightfall, or any other concerns that might have made another woman long for baking bread and sweeping the floor. It’s likely that Mary knew how to tie sailor’s knots, build fires, assemble a tent, and locate nearby food and water sources. What a resourceful woman she must have been.

But the greatest challenge was ahead of her, and it was one she met with equal grit and determination.

When the Christ child grew up and Joseph was gone, Mary willingly went to the foot of the cross and revealed a whole new level of bold heroism as she watched her boy bleed to death slowly and painfully. Her little boy… Her little Yeshua. The babe who had moved inside her belly. The babe whose knee boo-boos she had kissed and whose smile she would only ever see in memory until her journey through the Paradise Gate. The boy whose knowledge of Scripture was so impressive that He held His own amidst the intellects in the Temple. How proud she must have been of Him, the sweet and loving Messiah…and how unwaveringly fearless she was to remain by His side while He suffered.

Mary was as much a servant as any human could possibly be, but she was more than that. Far more. Mary was a dauntless, unflinching fortress of strength.

This was the woman who raised Jesus Christ, and her example teaches much.[vii]



Mary gave birth to and cared for the one and only Son of God. Isaiah’s prophecy about the virgin had now been completed, and though the Bible is silent on the subject, we know for certain there were those (Mary, Joseph, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and likely others) who knew who this Messiah was from birth.

Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin who was pregnant with John the Baptist, knew instantly.

Right after the conception, Mary went to Elizabeth’s house and greeted her. When she did, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly “leaped in her womb,” and, without Mary having to say a word about the message Gabriel had given her, Elizabeth greeted her as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:41, 43). John the Baptist’s birth is not covered at length in the Word. Really, all we know of him is in Luke 1:80, where we read he “grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” This describes the life of an Essene, who would have gone into the wilderness and sought only preparations for the Messiah until he was ready to emerge and provide for the world what he had been called to do.

UP NEXT: Birth of the Christ Child

[i] Trites, A. A., William J. Larkin, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Volume 12: The Gospel of Luke and Acts (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers; 2006), 38.

[ii] Barnes, Albert, Barnes’ Notes, Kindle locations 210501–210508.

[iii] Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers; 2003), 672.

[iv] Vorster, W. S., “James, Protevangelium of,” as quoted in: D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday; 1992), 632.

[v] Walker, A. (Trans.), Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages: Volume 8 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company; 1886), 362–363.

[vi] Ibid., 365.

[vii] Howell, Donna, The Handmaidens Conspiracy: How Erroneous Bible Translations Hijacked the Women’s Empowerment Movement Started by Jesus Christ and Disavowed the Rightful Place of Female Pastors, Preachers, and Prophets (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing; 2018), 187–192.

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