Holly Marie Scheer recently wrote an article titled, “Why ‘Mary Did You Know’ Is The Most Biblically Illiterate Christmas Tune.” The digest at the head of the article says,
Anyone who has even a slight familiarity with the biblical account of Christ’s conception and birth shouldn’t need to ask if Mary knew, because the Bible plainly tells us she did.
This article has generated controversy. At this writing, there are 154 comments. Links to the article have been shared elsewhere on the internet, spawning additional comment threads.
Many people are critical of the article. They present a variety of critiques. Despite the variety, one common foundation underlies most of them: failure to appreciate the place of the Word in Mary’s trial. The role of the Word is what Holly is pointing out.
This same failure runs through many of our errors in reading the Bible, understanding the biographies of Bible characters, sensing the sore spot in their trials, and understanding their victories of faith. Mary is an outstanding victor of faith. When we don’t recognize the role of the Word in her trial, we know neither her suffering nor how she overcame.
Let’s set the case of Mary in its biblical context of the Word, trial, and faith.
The angel announces to Mary that she will have a miracle child. The child will be a miracle because, as Mary truly said, “I do not know a man.” (Luke 1:34 NKJV) “I am a virgin.” (ESV) Christians, of whom does this remind you? What other woman heard a divine announcement that she would have a miracle child?
The Lord himself who spoke to Abraham in the hearing of Sarah. (Genesis 18:1)
He said, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh!” (Genesis 18:10-15)
Abraham already had laughed at the same Word of God.
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? (Genesis 17:17)
Laughing trial is not sore trial. Laughing at the Word of God is not victory. If we stop tracking the story here, we won’t have seen the trial, the soreness, the victory, or what faith is. We will have gained nothing for our own lives of faith. We must follow on.
God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 21:1-2)
Certainly, to lose one’s child is sore suffering. To lose an only child and all descendants is worse. To lose these by yourself killing your only child is suffering beyond description. It overloads our capacity to fathom.
At the time God tests Abraham with this trial, it is a startling interruption of happiness. Finally in their old age, the miracle child, Isaac, has been born. Luther figures that Isaac has grown to the age of about 20 years. (4 AE 91) He is approaching the common age of marrying. Abraham and Sarah have the sweet prospect of a daughter in law and grandchildren. They are living the promise that their offspring would be innumerable and the whole world would be blessed through them. After waiting so long, they saw God’s word of promise coming true.
What, then, is at stake in the command to kill Isaac? Abraham and Sarah are threatened with the loss of the Word of God.
This command is destructive of the promise. One Word of God, the promise of Isaac, is contradicted by another Word of God, the command to sacrifice Isaac. If we carry out the command, we lose Isaac, but also we lose the Word of God. After this, the Word ceases to be true, and faith becomes impossible. This was an existential threat to the entire life that Abraham and Sarah were living and would leave them, in even older age, with nothing.
Part and parcel of the promise along with Isaac is that his Seed, Jesus, would be the Savior of the world. This would include being the Savior of Abraham and Sarah. This command threatened the abolition of their salvation along with the salvation of the world.
Another trial arises for faith from the fact that at times God appears to be contradicting himself. Luther demonstrates this by the example of Abraham. It is for this reason that Abraham has become the father of faith, because God subjected him to especially severe trials. Thus in connection with this man Luther develops not only his theology of faith, but also his theology of trial, another indication of how inseparably linked faith and trial are for Luther. In trial faith wrestles with the self-contradiction of God.
Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, trans. Herbert J.A. Bouman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), p. 136.
Here Scripture states plainly that Abraham was actually tempted by God Himself, not concerning a woman, gold, silver, death, or life but concerning a contradiction in Holy Scripture. Here God is clearly contradicting Himself, for how do these statements agree: “Through Isaac your descendants shall be named” (Gen. 21:12) and “Take your son, and sacrifice him”? (4 AE 92)
At a juncture like this, it is tempting for a theologian to go off in an intellectualizing direction. Luther, however, has a pastor’s heart. He comes straight to us with the use this has for us. He brings to us the usefulness of understanding the Word, trial, and faith in the life of Abraham.
In this situation, then, would he not murmur against God and think: “This is not a command of God; it is a trick of Satan. For God’s promise is sure, clear, and beyond doubt: ‘From Isaac you will have descendants.’ Why, then, does God command that he should be killed? Undoubtedly God is repenting of His promise. Otherwise He would not contradict Himself. Or I have committed some extraordinary sin, with which I have deeply offended God, so that He is withdrawing his promise.
By nature, we are all in the habit of doing this. When some physical affliction besets us, our conscience is soon at hand, and the devil torments it by assembling all the circumstances. Therefore a troubled heart looks about and considers how it may have offended God most. This leads to murmuring against God and to the greatest trial, hatred of God.
. . .
This trial cannot be overcome and is far too great to be understood by us. For there is a contradiction with which God contradicts Himself. It is impossible for the flesh to understand this; for it inevitably concludes either that God is lying – and this is blasphemy – or that God hates me – and this leads to despair. …
We are frequently tempted by thoughts of despair; for what human being is there who could be without this thought: “What if God did not want you to be saved?”(4 AE 92-93)
This trial is so sore that Luther declares, “I am unable to resolve this contradiction.” (4 AE 93)
Luther teaches what trial is. Trial is trial of faith. It is not simply suffering, no matter how severe. The Word and faith are the issues of trial. Faith is only faith in the Word, not some generic optimism. Before God says anything, there can be no faith, because there is no Word to believe.
Therefore trial strips everything but the Word from us, and then seems to strip us of even the Word. Until the Word is the loss, the sorest trial has not set in. God uses trial in his work of saving us because trial removes idols of misplaced trust, and reduces us to trusting sola scriptura.
When the Word contradicts itself, faith still must cling to the Word, and it must cling to both parts of the contradiction. To release either part is to abandon the Word, because both of them are the Word.
This is exactly what Abraham does. He clings to both contradictory parts of the Word.
Even though there is a clear contradiction here – for there is nothing between death and life – Abraham nevertheless does not turn away from the promise but believes that his son will have descendants even if he dies. … Thus Abraham relies on the promise and attributes to the Divine Majesty this power, that He will restore his dead son to life. … Accordingly, Abraham understood the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and through it alone he resolved this contradiction. … These were his thoughts: “Today I have a son; tomorrow I shall have nothing but ashes. I do not know how long they will be scattered, but they will be bought to life again … for the Word declares that I shall have descendants through this Isaac, even though he has been reduced to ashes. (4 AE 96).
So we read in Hebrews:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17)
Isaac is a figure of Jesus. The Father offers up his miraculously-born Only Begotten Son for the sins of the world. God raises him up from the dead, and receives him from the dead into heaven at his right hand.
Jesus himself underwent trial of the Word and faith. His cruel and innocent sufferings stripped away all appearances of his being the Son, and he cried, “Why have You forsaken me?” But He clung to the Word he heard in his Baptism, “You are my beloved Son,” and confessed faith, saying, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The Word alone supported faith that the forsaking God is his Father and would receive his spirit.
What this shows it that, yes, the Word is that big of a deal. To speculate about Mary, to pose rhetorical questions, might have some good uses, but not if it leads away from the central thing going on. As Isaac foreshadows Christ, Sarah foreshadows Mary. Where Sarah laughed at the Word, “Mary said ’Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). Mary believes the Word and submits to the Word. That is essentially what is going on. By faith, Mary suffers the word where Sarah laughed at it. The Word is the biggest of deals in this story.
The reason this prime feature of the story escapes the critics is that we tend not to value the Word the way Abraham and Mary do. We tend not to see loss of the Word as more devastating than loss of an only child. We tend to see the command to kill Isaac as being against Isaac without centering on the command being against the promise. Yet, the command and promise are the continual two Words of God to us, Law and Gospel. The Law kills, and the Gospel makes alive. They do this in Isaac and Jesus. They do this in Abraham and Mary. They do it in us.
Songwriters, write this song, how Mary heard Law and Gospel, and confessed both of them, because both of them are the Word of God.