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“The Heart of Submission”

Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 1:18-25
Bob DeGray
December 6, 2009

Key Sentence

Submission is choosing to let others tell you what to do, or how it’s going to be, even against your own preferences.


I. Mary’s example of submission (Luke 1:26-38)
   “may it be to me as you have said”
II. Joseph’s example of submission (Matthew 1:18-25)
   “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded”
III. Our submissions
   A. To God
   B. To governing authorities
   C. Of servants to masters
   D. Of wives to husbands
   E. (of children to parents)
   F. To church leaders
   G. To one another


Alright, fasten your seat belts. I think this is going to be one of the most painfully practical Christmas messages you’ve ever heard. Now it’s not going to start that way: we begin with one of the most familiar and romanticized scenes in all of Scripture. We’ve already read the text, so let me just tell you the story.

I. Mary’s example of submission (Luke 1:26-38)

Once upon a time there was a girl, probably a young girl, fourteen or sixteen, Scripture doesn’t say. All her life this girl had lived in a little no-name town called Nazareth, and grown like every little girl – hanging on her mother’s hip, toddling around the house, playing with her sisters, learning the endless tasks of womanhood. Fetching water at the well, going to the busy market, cooking at her mother’s side, making cloth with her aunt, sewing, mending, and endlessly cleaning, sweeping, battling the dust of the Galilean hills.

But Mary’s life wasn’t all work. The spring air was cool and clean; the desert bloomed, bringing her joy with every sunrise and sunset. She talked to her friends while waiting in line at the well, young girls speculating about young men, the marriages in their futures, the children they would bear.

Above all Mary had the synagogue, the voice of the rabbi opening God’s word weekly, even daily when Mary could sneak away and listen at the yeshiva. Mary loved the prophets, not so much when they scolded Israel, but very much when they promised the nation beauty, plenty and the presence of God. Confronted by Rome’s brutal rule, Mary believed God would yet fulfill his promise of rescue, a Messiah from David’s line who would come to save.

In Mary’s fourteenth or sixteenth year a great event happened. Joseph the carpenter had spoken to her father, and the two were betrothed. Mary was not entirely displeased by the choice, for Joseph had often caught her eye. Though years older than she, she knew he admired her for her hard work and devotion to God, qualities she could see in him as well. But like every young girl, Mary approached this great change with some tears and trembling, wondering how she would make a life with this man in the home he was even now building.

It was to this young girl, and none other in Israel, that God sent the angel Gabriel. Maybe she was sweeping the floor, or walking under the trees, or carrying the jug to the well, Scripture doesn’t say. But it does say that the angel spoke to her “Greetings to you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary heard the words, but could not of course grasp the meaning.

In fact she responded like everyone in Scripture does to an angel, with fear. So the bright scary angel said what angels always say: ‘Don’t be afraid Mary, you’ve been given a special measure of God’s grace. You’re going to have a baby, a son; name him Jesus.’ What? Then the angel made some of the prophet-promises Mary loved: ‘Son of the Most High; throne of his father David; reigning over the house of Jacob; a kingdom that would never end.”

Mary’s got to be saying “Whoa, this can’t be! Not these promises, not this girl! I’m not even married!” “It’s okay Mary, the Holy Spirit will do this; God himself will be present to do this. Do you want evidence that nothing is impossible with God? Think about your old cousin Elizabeth. She’s going to have a baby; she’s already six months along – and people called her old and barren. But nothing is impossible for God – not that, and not this.”

Though Mary must have doubts – she’s already somewhat expressed them – she responds through the grace that God had given her with wonderful words of submission: “I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

This is a basic statement of submission. Mary has been headed a certain direction in life: both her desires and her circumstances have pointed her toward a safe life as the wife of a good man. Now it’s suddenly apparent that God’s will for her is radically different. But Mary, for whatever reason of training and grace expresses a key attitude that enables her to submit to God: “I am the Lord’s servant,” literally “I am the bond-servant, the slave, the doulos of the Lord.” My life is not my own but has been given in service to another; I choose to do his will not mine.

In other words, God has the right to tell me what to do: I’m his servant, he’s my master. So when faced with a circumstance from his hand that would not be my preference, I accept his way. “May it be to me as you have said.” Do you get it? I think this two part verse is as powerful for us as Jesus saying in the Garden “not my will but yours be done.” Faced with circumstances and developments we would not have chosen, we cannot do better than to say with Mary “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

So you and I go through life largely setting our own directions, and for the most part that’s okay, as long as we are walking faithful to God in those circumstances. But once in a while God gets in our face, either by a change of external circumstances or by a combination of his word and his people and the burden laid by the Holy Spirit on our hearts. And he says here’s the new reality, here’s the new direction, here’s the new plan.

At that point, even if the circumstance will force a changed direction, God wants us to submit, choosing to let him tell us what to do or how things are going to be. Our godly response is the one so wonderfully modeled by Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” So how are you doing in this submission? Can you affirm Mary’s response in your own situation and circumstances. Can you say ‘may it be to me as you have said?’

II. Joseph’s example of submission (Matthew 1:18-25)

Let me tell you a second story that gives more insight into submission. Once upon a time there was a man named Joseph, a carpenter, the Joseph of Mary’s story. He was a man with a plan. He’d already spoken with Mary’s father, and been betrothed to this lovely girl in whom he saw a purity of devotion to God that promised purity of devotion to husband, children and household.

Joseph was a good judge of character. Yet strangely his betrothed has gone to see her cousin, an extended visit during a betrothal. Joseph hasn’t been real happy about this, though it has freed him up to finish the house he and Mary will live in. Now he hears she’s on the way back into town, riding with a family that has come up from the south. But when Joseph arrives he finds a scene he never expected. To his amazement and dismay, Mary is pregnant!

Matthew 1:18 “She was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke are in complete agreement as to how this happened, but the village of Nazareth, and the people of Israel and ultimately skeptics throughout the world are not. Joseph can only leap to one conclusion, while the rest of the crowd probably leaps to a different one, so that both Mary and Joseph are suddenly the objects of scorn, derision and social rejection.

Verse 19 gives us Joseph’s approach to this problem “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Mary was a servant of the Lord; Joseph was a righteous man: he wanted to do what was right before God and men. Nonetheless, I think his plan was self-focused. It seems he couldn’t handle the thought of what had happened, didn’t believe Mary’s account, couldn’t accept the burden of raising a child not his own. God had changed the direction of his life and his first impulse was to say ‘no, not going with it.’

Now he was righteous in that he didn’t want to publically shame Mary. It’s quite possible that if he’d denounced her she’d have been stoned for immoral behavior. So his plan was to formally but quietly rescind the betrothal, leaving her with her parents, disgraced but not publically humiliated.

But this was not absolute submission to God’s will, to God’s changed direction. So God sends the angel again, this time in a dream: “Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, for the baby she carries has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Notice he identifies Joseph’s problem – Joseph is afraid: afraid of the humiliation, maybe afraid of his own anger, maybe afraid of not loving this baby, or Mary anymore.

Whatever his fear, the angel tells him ‘submit to God, get with his program.’ Just as the angel used God’s promises to reassure Mary, so here he uses different promises to reassure Joseph. First promise: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is Greek for a Hebrew name Jeshua, which means ‘Jehovah saves’. God will use this child to rescue God’s people, not from their oppressors, but from their sins. This is so familiar to us, but it was a radical when applied to the Messiah. It could well lead people to Isaiah 53, where the suffering servant substitutes himself to rescue his people from their sins.

Second promise, verse 22: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us." I don’t know that the angel actually said this; it looks like a comment by the author, Matthew. But I think Joseph, the husband of a pregnant virgin, could easily make the connection to the prophecy of Isaiah 7. Somehow the child in Mary’s womb would fulfill God’s promise to be with his people in flesh.

Verse 24 is Joseph’s submission, and it may be more powerful and practical even than Mary’s: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Obedience to God against our own will is the most powerful thing in the world. And I don’t say that lightly: I say it because this is exactly the submission of Jesus in the Garden: ‘not my will but yours be done.’ Jesus’ unswerving obedience even unto death is the foundation by which he has rescued all who believe.

Where did Jesus learn that? Well, he was the Son of God, he learned it from loving his heavenly father. But he was also son to this human father, and Joseph is no small example of submission that pays a price. Joseph would now bear the disgrace, the scorn, the social rejection of owning this child as his own.

So what have we seen so far? Submission is choosing, against your own preference, against your own will to let God tell you how it’s going to be or what you need to do. Submission is ‘I am the Lord’s servant: let it be to me as you have said.” Submission is ‘He did as the Lord had commanded.”

III. Our submissions

But how does this apply to our lives? This is where the romance of the early chapters of Matthew and Luke fades out and we are faced with the painfully practical task of learning submission. I want to identify seven areas of submission and very briefly point toward application in our own lives. But all these submissions share this in common: ‘I am the Lord’s servant . . . May it be to me as you have said . . . . Then he did what was commanded.”

Six of these seven areas of submission explicitly use the Greek word ‘hupotasso,’ which literally means ‘to arrange underneath,’ and it is used of someone giving someone else the right to tell them what to do in order to preserve order and unity. Each of these could also be the subject of a whole sermon, but I’m only going to touch them very briefly, not answer every question.

We’re called, first, to submit to God. Hebrews 12:9 makes this explicit: “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” James 4:7 is even more concise ‘Submit therefore to God.”

The major difference between our submission to God and the examples of Mary and Joseph is in how God’s will is revealed. Mary was told in advance of the circumstance into which God was drawing her. He doesn’t often give that notice. Nonetheless we are expected, in things outside our control, to echo Mary, and to say of the circumstances we are in ‘may it be unto me as you have said.’ Job, in his suffering, understood this perfectly: ‘the Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’

On the Joseph side the commands we’re called to obey are Scripture’s commands, rightly understood in light of our salvation in Jesus. So the command to offer burnt offerings doesn’t apply to us, but the commands to love God, to love one another, to humbly serve, to boldly evangelize, these are God’s will for us: we’re called to submit to God’s will, to choose to let God tell us what to do, even in things that go against our preferences. It doesn’t matter if our desires are sinful or just different, God’s will trumps ours.

The rest of our submissions are of a different kind: they are to others around us who have some specific realm of authority over us. We can begin with the government, Romans 13:1 “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” If you and your government disagree, if the government calls on you to do something that is not your preference, like paying taxes, Paul affirms that you must choose to obey this God-ordained authority in your life.

This leads us immediately to the little side trip about when not to submit. Scripture gives clear cases of people not submitting to governing authorities; the mid-wives in Egypt who refused to perform live birth abortions; Daniel in the lion’s den who refused to give up praying to God; his three friends in the fiery furnace who refused to worship the king’s idol. Peter makes a principle of this before the Sanhedrin: ‘we must obey God rather than men.’ The principle is that you submit unless asked to do something sinful. So in cases like taxes and traffic laws and regulations in general we are to submit.

In a time when the government seems to be moving further and further away from a moral approach to governing, this can raise tough ethical issues. Some of those are being talked about right now in the health care debate. But the nature of the tension that governs our individual decisions in these areas is clear: submit unless submission involves you in sin.

Second, we submit to our employers. 1 Peter 2:18 “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” It’s a fairly well accepted principle that what the New Testament says to slaves in the first century can be readily transferred to employees in the 21st century. But as an employee, there will be times when you try to get something done your way, and your boss comes along and says ‘no, you have to do it my way.’ And you know what – you have to do it his way, even if you think your way is better.

Third, and most famously, Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Why did God set it up this way? It’s not because men are more worthy than women in any sense. But it is significant that the big idea of Scripture is that Christ sacrifices himself for his people, the church. And the church is called to submit to Christ. Wives submit to husbands partially to display that model of love and submission, and also to provide for unity and order. So there will be times, usually rare, when a husband and wife can’t prayerfully agree on a course of action, and the husband will have to decide. The wife, even if it’s not her preference, chooses to accept that decision.

Now again, I realize this is hedged around with the same protections as all these submissions, but it is still to be taken seriously. Husbands, I encourage you to be the head of your family by prayerfully loving and leading your wives, as Christ does the church. And wives, whether your husband does that relatively well or relatively poorly, I encourage you to respectfully let him make decisions as to what you do or how things will be. This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree, but that when the decision is made and any appeals are exhausted, you will abide by it without complaining or arguing.

Next, parents and children: you expect a verse saying ‘submit to your parents’ but nowhere in Scripture is this command given. Children, you are commanded to obey. Ephesians 6:1 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” You’re also commanded to honor your parents. But isn’t submission also expected? Sort of: Gail pointed out that where obedience is commanded submission is implied, but secondary, because you are not making a choice to accept this authority and direction: biblically you have to obey.

It’s interesting that the one place ‘hupotasso’ is used of a child is a case where there wasn’t that built-in obedience. It is used of Jesus, at twelve, submitting to his parents by returning home with them. Luke 2:51 “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” Jesus is the exception simply because he was voluntarily giving up his own will in order to accept theirs – and ultimately his heavenly Father’s.

For you, today, honoring and obeying your parents is a kind of submission. You’re accepting that they have the right to tell you what to do, and how things are going to be, even when you don’t agree. By obeying you almost always benefit from God’s design of authority and submission, because in most cases your parents know better what is right and best. We need to learn early to say ‘may it be to me as you have said.”

Two more. Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Hebrews, like most of the epistles, is written to believers. So the writer is telling these believers to submit to their leaders, because they’ve got this burden of responsibility, and because submission will be good for you.

It seems to me that in our culture this kind of submission is especially radical. We have the attitude that our leaders have the right to prayerfully and carefully make decisions on direction and program and content and assignments, but we have another attitude as well which says that if I don’t agree with the decisions or direction my leaders choose I just won’t participate, or I’ll find a program or even a church that does things my way.

Even this summer as we worked through issues of organizing to build community, there were several expressions of this exact attitude. Now I think in the end most people saw the significance of what we’re trying to do and enjoyed participating. But I don’t many recognized these as submission issues. But weren’t they? Submission is choosing to let others tell you what to do or how it’s going to be, even against your own preferences, even in the church.

The last of the New Testament submissions is to one another. Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Now I don’t believe for a minute this is submission of everyone to everyone. Part of the purpose of submission is to establish order and unity; fully mutual submission would only establish chaos. I believe this is each of us submitting to appropriate leadership in the right circumstance. Even leaders, have situations where they need to choose to let others tell them what to do, how things need to be.

The example I’ve been using all week is of a time several years ago when I went flying with Jonathan Kittle. At the time I was his boss, one of his elders, his pastor and to a large extent his mentor. But when I climbed into the co-pilot’s seat of that airplane I would have been an utter fool to think that I should be telling him what to do. Quite the contrary: at that moment he had a perfect right to tell me exactly what to do and not to do. I needed to submit to him. Wherever circumstances place one person in appropriate leadership, other people need to be in appropriate followership.

So what have we seen? Don’t lose sight of these two wonderful examples. Mary teaches us to say to God and even to others “I am your servant. May it be to me as you have said.” And Joseph teaches us to so submit that we go and do what has been commanded.

Submission is choosing to let others tell you what to do, or how it’s going to be, even against your own preferences. So whether you are submitting to God or to government, employer, husband, parent, church leaders or just to another believer with a leadership role, you have a choice to make. Making that choice and sticking to it is the submission that glorifies God.