When we first meet Mary in Luke’s gospel, it is on the occasion when an archangel appeared to her suddenly and without fanfare to disclose to her God’s wonderful plan. Scripture says, simply, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26–27).
The Young Nazarene Woman
Mary is the equivalent of the Hebrew “Miriam.” The name may be derived from the Hebrew word for “bitter.” Mary’s young life may well have been filled with bitter hardships. Her hometown was a forlorn community in a poor district of Galilee. Nazareth, you may recall, famously bore the brunt of at least one future disciple’s disdain. When Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah and the Anointed One was a Galilean from Nazareth, Nathanael sneered, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Mary had lived there all her life, in a community where, frankly, good things probably were pretty scarce.
Other details about Mary’s background can be gleaned here and there in Scripture. She had a sister, according to John 19:25. There’s not enough data in the text to identify accurately who the sister was, but Mary’s sister was herself obviously a close enough disciple of Jesus to be present with the other faithful women at the crucifixion. Mary was also a close relative of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). The nature of that relationship isn’t specifically described. They might have been cousins, or Elizabeth might have been Mary’s aunt. Luke’s account describes Elizabeth as already “in her old age.” Mary, on the other hand, seems to have been quite young.
In fact, at the time of the Annunciation, Mary was probably still a teenager. It was customary for girls in that culture to be betrothed while they were still as young as thirteen years of age. Marriages were ordinarily arranged by the bridegroom or his parents through the girl’s father. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, about whom we know next to nothing—except that he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and a righteous man (Matthew 1:19).
Scripture is very clear in teaching that Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was miraculously conceived in her womb. Luke 1:27 twice calls her a virgin, using a Greek term that allows for no subtle nuance of meaning. The clear claim of Scripture, and Mary’s own testimony, is that she had never been physically intimate with any man. Her betrothal to Joseph was a legal engagement known as kiddushin, which in that culture typically lasted a full year. Kiddushin was legally as binding as marriage itself. The couple were deemed husband and wife, and only a legal divorce could dissolve the marriage contract (Matthew 1:19). But during this time, the couple lived separately from one another and had no physical relations whatsoever. One of the main points of kiddushin was to demonstrate the fidelity of both partners.
An Angelic Announcement
When the angel appeared to Mary, she was already formally bound to Joseph by kiddushin. Luke 1:28–35 describes Mary’s encounter with the angel:
And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 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 name Him Jesus. 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; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
Pregnancy and Perception
Numerous godly women in Mary’s ancestry, going all the way back to Eve, had fostered the hope of being the one through whom the Redeemer would come. But the privilege came at a high cost to Mary personally because it carried the stigma of an unwed pregnancy. Although she had remained totally and completely chaste, the world was bound to think otherwise.
Even Joseph assumed the worst. We can only imagine how his heart sank when he learned that Mary was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. His inclination was to divorce her quietly. He was a righteous man and loved her, so Scripture says he was not willing to make a public example of her, but he was so shaken by the news of her pregnancy that at first he saw no option but divorce. Then an angel appeared to him in a dream and reassured him:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21)
Common sense suggests that Mary must have anticipated all these difficulties the moment the angel told her she would conceive a child. Her joy and amazement at learning that she would be the mother of the Redeemer might therefore have been tempered significantly at the horror of the scandal that awaited her. Still, knowing the cost and weighing it against the immense privilege of becoming the mother of the Christ, Mary surrendered herself unconditionally, saying simply, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).
There’s no evidence that Mary ever brooded over the effects her pregnancy would have on her reputation. She instantly, humbly, and joyfully submitted to God’s will without further doubt or question. She could hardly have had a more godly response to the announcement of Jesus’ birth. It demonstrated that she was a young woman of mature faith and one who was a worshiper of the true God. Her great joy over the Lord’s plan for her would soon be very evident.