Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he reads. Even when it’s a passage he has seen many times before. As I was rereading (for the 5th or 6th time this Christmas season) Luke’s nativity narrative, I was surprised by a repeated emphasis on the certainty of God’s words. I’ve given a good deal of attention to that passage and to that theme over the years. But it is one of Scripture’s unique capacities to delight even the long-time reader with previously unnoticed details, sometimes in the most familiar literary terrain.
I was already aware of Luke’s accent on that theme in Gabriel’s words to Mary. “For with God, nothing shall be impossible” is not so much an assertion of divine ability as an assurance of divine reliability: “For with God, no saying shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37, literal). In other words, nothing God says will prove impossible for Him to do—an assurance that comes on the heels of God’s promise to do the impossible. The Greek term rhēma, like the Hebrew dabar, is routinely glossed as “word” or “thing.” But that secondary nuance is sometimes too hastily relied upon. If you take the time to poke around in the passage, you’ll often discover that the “thing” being referred to is a spoken thing. (Try tracing the usage of rhēma in Luke 1:37, 38, 65 and 2:15, 17, 19, 50, 51; in every case where it is translated thing(s) it is referring not to generic “stuff” but specifically to something spoken right in the context.)
What I had not seen before, however, was that Luke 1:37 is not an isolated emphasis on the dependability of God’s words. It is only one piece of a motif mosaic that emerges from Luke’s nativity narrative: whatever God says is an absolute, copper-bottomed guarantee.
The biblical theme that has most repeatedly captured my attention over the last few years is developed in The Trustworthiness of God’s Words.1See Scott Aniol’s review of The Trustworthiness of God’s Words (Christian Focus, 2022). The language of the title is specific and intentional, the book’s focus twofold. (1) It’s not merely about the truthfulness of God’s Word (the Bible), but the dependability of every word God speaks in the Word—a point God jealously guards and is passionate about proving. And, (2) it emphasizes not only believing God’s words but trusting them (Scripture differentiates the two), learning to lean the whole weight of your soul’s expectations on God’s specific statements.
So, where else in this most familiar of biblical stories does Luke underscore the fidelity of God’s words? The first occurrence is when the angel Gabriel rebukes Zacharias, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their own time” (1:20). And so they were (1:57–66). Gabriel had already clarified that he was relaying God’s words, not his own (1:19). The second assertion of the infallibility—and therefore the reliability—of whatever God says also comes from Gabriel, in his words to Mary (“For with God, no saying shall be impossible,” 1:37), which we’ve already briefly explored.
The third time the theme surfaces is in the words of Elisabeth to Mary (1:45). The wording is variously translated: “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (KJV, NKJV) or “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (ESV, NAS; cf. NIV). Either way, the statement affirms a certainty that what God has said is exactly what will happen.
Fourth, Mary affirms this truth in her Magnificat. In sending His Messiah through her, God is helping His servant Israel, just “as He spoke to our fathers” (1:54–55). Zacharias, too, blessed the God of Israel, “for He has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us,” just “as He spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets” (1:68–70). Moreover, He has done this in order “to perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, and the oath which He swore to our father, Abraham” (1:72–73).
The seventh occurrence of the theme comes in the shepherd pericope (2:8–20). Luke makes the point subtly at first. In announcing the birth of Christ, the angel gives them a confirming “sign” so familiar to us that we forget how unique and bizarre it was: “you will find a babe . . . lying in a feed trough” (2:12)! Sure enough, “they came with haste, and found . . . the babe, lying in a feed trough” (2:16). Then, as if to underscore the point unambiguously, Luke adds that the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, as it had been told them” (2:20).
The last direct reference to the reliability of God’s words comes from the mouth of the aged Simeon. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him “that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26). True to His word, the Holy Spirit providentially led Simeon to the temple on the very day of the infant Christ’s dedication (2:27). Taking the Child up in his arms, he blessed God: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (2:29–30).
It is one thing for God to do amazing and miraculous things. It is quite another for Him to regularly announce ahead of time the amazing and miraculous things He’s going to do, and then to do them. That is the very criterion God offers to differentiate Himself from every pretender god and wannabe deity (Isa 41:21–24). And He is determined that all the nations will come to know that He is the God who speaks and acts, and always keeps His words (Eze 36:36).
Put another way, divine ability (omnipotence) is one thing; but divine reliability is quite another. The Christmas story is just one more evidence and reminder of that.