For many of us, an important feature of Christmas is remembering the story of Jesus’ birth, whether through reenactments and 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 several events recorded in the Old Testament that echo within the Gospel accounts of the Nativity. Awareness of these connections 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 Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God.1 Mary was betrothed to Joseph, meaning that she was legally considered married to him, though there had been no wedding ceremony and the marriage had not been consummated. Twice Luke mentions in his Gospel that Mary is a virgin.
The angel Gabriel made this astounding announcement to Mary:
“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:
“You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord … 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 … to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”3
Both announcements were delivered by an angelic messenger; both explained that sons would be born in situations that would require a work of God, as Mary was a virgin and Elizabeth was old and barren.
Mary was told to name her son Jesus; Zechariah was instructed to name his son John.4 Zechariah was troubled and afraid at the sight of the angel; so was Mary. Both were told not to fear.
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 include an appearance of a messenger from God (or God Himself); fear, astonishment, or falling down prostrate before the angel or messenger; a divine message; an objection as to how this could happen or a request for a sign; and the giving of a sign.
This pattern can be seen in the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, when she was found by an angel in the desert. The angel called her by name, saying, “Hagar, where are you going?” Then he 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.”5
A similar pattern is also seen in the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, who was barren. God appeared to Abraham, who was ninety-nine years old, and announced that within a year He would give Abraham a son. Abraham was instructed to call his son Isaac, and God said that He would establish His covenant with Isaac and his offspring.6
Another facet of the story that is noteworthy is the miracle of these women becoming pregnant. Sarah and Elizabeth were both barren and elderly. Neither of these women would have been able to conceive without God’s direct intervention. Each couple experienced a miracle birth just as God 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, Mary’s pregnancy was going to require a completely new manifestation of God’s creative power.
Mary asked the angel how this was going to come about, and the angel answered, “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.”7
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.
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: “I will make for you a great name; I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.”8
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, that there would be no end to his kingdom, and most important, that he would be called the Son of the Most High.9
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 be redeemed from our sin and 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.