The first persecution of the Church that ended in death concerned how we understand God’s Presence in the world. In Acts 7 Stephen was killed by overly zealous Jews who could not tolerate the idea that God never intended us to understand his Presence locked into a fixed location – i.e. the Temple at Jerusalem. Rather he revealed himself to us as a mobile God who could be in Mesopotamia to call Abraham, in Egypt to call Moses or anywhere else in the world. Such an idea was completely foreign to rabbinical thought, but, once revealed, it couldn’t be expunged from a valid understanding. The New Testament theology of God’s Presence within man and traveling with him, wherever he goes, has its context in the Wilderness years of Israel’s history.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth, he told her that she would become pregnant with a child, a son, and she was to call his name: Jesus (Luke 1:31)! Unless the angel’s words denote immediacy or at least sometime very soon, Mary’s question in Luke 1:34 seems odd, given Luke’s mention of her being espoused to Joseph (Luke 1:27), because how else could she interpret Gabriel’s prediction that she would become pregnant? Jewish tradition holds that a man and a woman would become engaged (kiddushin – see The Process of Marriage: Kiddushin and Nisuin) up to a year before the marriage would be consummated. Indeed, Mary’s question only makes sense, if she understood Gabriel’s announcement to imply her pregnancy would take place before the fulfillment of her marriage commitment to Joseph.
Therefore, not only does Gabriel tell Mary that Jesus would be called the “Son of the Most High” and that God would give him the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33), but in answer to Mary’s question (Luke 1:34) the angel says in verse-35 that the whole matter would be accomplished by God. The Holy Spirit would come upon her (Matthew 1:20; cf. Job 33:4 and Hebrews 10:5), and the power of the Most High would overshadow her (episkiazo – G1982; cf. Exodus 40:34; 1Kings 8:10), making her son the Son of God. The only other times this Greek word (G1982) is used in the New Testament concerns two incidents: Peter’s shadow falling on people and healing them (Acts 5:15) and the Cloud that overshadowed the three disciples at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34). Thus, Luke emphasizes Mary’s pregnancy would not be the result of a sexual act.
This was an astonishing statement, and Gabriel did not expect Mary to believe it without some verification. Therefore, he offered her a sign, namely, that at the time of the angel’s visit Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, and this was her sixth month (Luke 1:36). Mary probably knew Elizabeth, because Gabriel doesn’t have to describe her, but the word, cousin, may indicate that someone in Mary’s family married someone in Elizabeth’s (cf. 2Chronicles 22:11; 2Kings 11:1-3). It was not an uncommon thing for the two royal families to intermarry.
Therefore, Mary agreed to be the vessel of God—according to the words of the angel, which also included the sign he gave her for verification. Not only did Mary visit Elizabeth to verify the angel’s words (cf. 1John 4:1), but she made haste (Luke 1:39) to the hill country of Judea, showing she was excited about proving his words true. Thus, the moment the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary may very well have been the moment she was completely comfortable with Gabriel’s words, namely, when she first saw her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth!
Both of Luke’s infancy narratives present us with a problem that only God could solve. Elizabeth was barren and past the age of childbearing, and Mary was a virgin unable to produce a child, since her marriage contract with Joseph had yet to be consummated. Gabriel’s mention of God’s power in Luke 1:37 points us back to Genesis 17:1 where the description of God as God Almighty first appears in Scripture. Then in Genesis 17:19 God promised Abraham that Sarah would bear Isaac to him. Sarah’s, Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies were wonderful works only God could have performed. Similarly, Christ, dwelling in our flesh, is the promised Seed in whom all nations would be blessed, and Christ, dwelling in our flesh, is our glorious hope (Colossians 1:27).