We are studying selected passages from Luke 1–2 with a view towards having a gospel-centred Christmas. I trust it will also help us to have a gospel-centred year beyond Christmas. Previously, we studied 1:26–38 under the title “The Good News Announced.” In this study, we will look at 1:39–56 under the title “The Good News Affirmed.”
This order is recognisable to those who are followers of Jesus. That is, we once heard the announcement of the gospel and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we were enabled to repent and to believe. But at some point, we found that our faith required affirmation. In fact, this is a lifetime experience. God provides us with encouragements along the way to continue to believe, particularly as we face a cynical world hostile to grace.
In the text before us, we have an instructive example of faith being affirmed: both the faith Elizabeth and Mary.
This passage contains so much for our practical instruction and for our Christian edification. May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, be filled with the Spirit and be affirmed in our faith in God our Saviour.
Fellowship in the Good News
When Mary heard the good news of Messiah’s birth from Gabriel, she immediately sought out fellowship:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”(Luke 1:39–45)
Luke draws attention, first, to Mary’s retreat: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (vv. 39–40).
Hearing the great news that the Saviour had come, and that she was the chosen vessel for the delivery of this good news, Mary headed for the hills to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
It seems that Mary commenced this retreat very soon after receiving the good news from Gabriel. She believed (1:38), but it is unlikely others in Nazareth would believe her (see Mark 6:1–6). However, Mary assumed that Elizabeth would believe her. After all, her older, past-child-bearing-years cousin had recently experienced a somewhat similar angelic visit about a God-ordained miracle.
Mary therefore set out to find fellowship with someone who would believe what was happening. There was no better person than Elizabeth (vv. 36–37).
Christian, we all need Elizabeths in our life. Thank God for those that God uses to affirm our faith in the gospel of God!
Mary was received in a most wonderful way (vv. 41–45). Elizabeth and her unborn son both rejoiced at the news of Messiah’s birth.
A Womb as a Pulpit
When Mary greeted Elizabeth, immediately something happened inside the elderly woman: “And when Elizabety heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb” (v. 41). The child leaped in his mother’s womb for he was filled with the Holy Spirit (see 1:15). (As a side note, is it not interesting that Luke, a medical doctor, recognised that human life begins in the womb, as anyone does who takes seriously the word of God?)
Elizabeth’s six-month-old son was divinely ordained to proclaim the coming the Lord (see Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3). He was not about to wait until he could speak to begin his ministry! Like most preachers, John the Baptist had a hard time keeping quiet about Jesus.
But most importantly, the Holy Spirit—whim someone has called “the shy member of the Trinity”—is never shy to draw people’s attention to Jesus. So here. Immediately, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we will see, the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth what she never could have known by nature: that Mary was pregnant with Messiah. Here we have the glorious coming together, literally, of the old and new covenants.
An Ecstatic Exclamation
Elizabeth broke into an ecstatic exclamation:
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”(Luke 1:41–45)
The language makes clear that this is a strong reaction. If (speechless) Zechariah was present, what was he thinking? Perhaps he felt rebuked about his unbelief (vv. 15–20).
Elizabeth spontaneously burst out: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Significantly, Mary had not said a word, but Elizabeth knew that she was pregnant with someone special: her Lord (v. 43). Notice a couple of things here.
First, Elizabeth was filled with Spirit at the conjunction of the preacher and the presence of Jesus (v. 41).
Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, had conceived Messiah. God was with her (Matthew 1:23). John the Baptist was cognisant of this and made it known. John’s first convert, as it were, was his mother.
When we hear the preached word and believe, we are immediately indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And the proof of this is that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit points us to Christ. And a faithful herald will always point hearers to Jesus Christ. You have the right to expect nothing less from a preacher!
When Jesus Christ is made known to others, the Holy Spirit is pleased to do a wonderful work of confirmation.
Perhaps you think that I am stretching the text here. I don’t believe so. Note, in v. 43, how Elizabeth acknowledged that Mary was carrying her Lord. When Elizabeth exclaimed “my Lord,” it was not a natural response, for as Paul writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Elizabeth, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, was enabled and empowered to believe the otherwise unbelievable. Praise God, so can you. So can your loved ones.
Second, note the evidence of this powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit: humility coupled with joy. There was not a hint of jealously, only of joy.
The Holy Spirit produces humility in the lives of those whom he fills. Someone once asked Augustine about the characteristics of a true Christian. He said there were three: humility, humility, and humility.
Elizabeth was much older than Mary—perhaps in her sixties or even her seventies. Yet she joyfully pronounced a benediction upon this young, teenaged lady. Yes, Elizabeth was carrying the prophesied forerunner of Messiah, but Mary was carrying Messiah! Yet there was not a hint of jealousy from Elizabeth.
Those filled with the Holy Spirit, who truly know the Saviour, rejoice with those who are blessed; they don’t envy them. As James reminds us, envy is devilish (James 3:14–16). Envy has ruined many a gospel opportunity; it has ruined many a church. Beware.
Paul informed the church at Ephesus that when a church is filled with the Spirit, it will be evidenced by what comes out of its collective mouth: singing and thankfulness (5:18–21).
What is coming out of your mouth? Are you astonished by grace, to the point that your lips exalt the Sovereign? Or are you so self-absorbed that your mouth pours forth backbiting, murmuring, complaining, criticising, and griping? Let us learn from Elizabeth.
Third, Elizabeth affirmed what Mary had experienced. The ESV offers a footnote with a better translation of v. 45: “And blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Leon Morris, commenting on v. 45, writes, “Elizabeth is affirming that the fulfillment will certainly take place, not simply that Mary believed it would.”
Note that the Holy Spirit—the shy member of the Trinity—points believers to Jesus Christ and to those who possess him. Mary knew that Elizabeth was a believer. The Holy Spirit, as we have seen, enabled Elizabeth to realise the identity of the baby in Mary’s womb. She knew that he was the Lord. But don’t miss her simultaneous benediction, recognising Mary as one who possessed Christ. That is, Mary sought the fellowship of another believer. We learn from this that believers desire the presence of other believers. We call this the church.
We learn from this the importance of fellowship as a means of helping one another to believe God’s word. The local church is God’s gift to strengthen the faith of his people. Our gathering with one another should be such that what we profess to believe is affirmed. This is one reason there is value in reciting truth together.
As I read this passage, over and over, it slowly dawned on me that here we have a beautiful example of what congregational life should look like.
For example, Mary gathered with another believer, in part to share her good news with someone whom she knew would understand and rejoice with her. It should be like this with every gospel-faithful congregation.
We should desire to be with those who understand the miracle we have experienced. We should want to encourage one another about what God is doing in our life as well seeking encouragement from one another for our faith walk. We should so interact with one another that joy predominates, asit did here. Our gathering together should be a means of encouraging one another to continue to believe. We should not be nervous about commending one another for faithful behaviour (v. 45). In fact, most of us would testify that we need such encouragement.
Our gathering should help one another to be astounded at God’s grace. The Christian Standard Bible captures this tone very well when it translates v. 43, “How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” Unbelievably believable! This was Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s visit and their gathering. Our gatherings should aim to do the same. We should aim to leave our times of fellowship and worship with astonishment at the grace of God in Christ. Our interactions, in other words, need to be Christ-centred. They need to be gospel-grounded. They need to be godly.
As we conclude this point, let us consider the effect of our greeting of one another. May our gathering and our greeting produce joy and encouragement in each other. It did for Elizabeth and, I will argue, it did for Mary. Hence her song that follows. You see, having her faith confirmed by another believer led Mary to pen one of the most famous hymns in church history. This song, as we will see, flowed from Mary’s astonishment at God’s might and mercy and mission.
Faith in the Good News
If vv. 41–45 record Mary’s reception, we can say that vv. 46–55 record her rejoicing.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”(Luke 1:46–55)
There is an important lesson for us: Be careful how you receive one another (Romans 15:7), for it may affect someone’s response to God. After all, Elizabeth’s joyful response to Mary led to her worshipful response. This is recorded in the Magnificat.
In short, Mary sang this praise from a heart that was astonished at God’s grace. Note a couple of things.
First, we don’t know if this was the record of Mary’s immediate response or if it came later.
If, as most scholars believe, it was a three or four day journey from Nazareth to the hill country, Mary would have had plenty of alone time to contemplate all that had happened and its implications. Perhaps it was during this time that Mary wrote down her hymn. This may have been a poetical work that Mary wrote and then spoke rather than sung. It has been observed that this was the last psalm of the old covenant and the first hymn of the new covenant. Let’s listen to it.
Second, we should observe that this prayerful praise is saturated with Scripture. The ESV notes at least 55 Old Testament cross-references. These are the kinds of prayers and hymns that please the Lord. It seems to reference Hannah’s recorded song (1 Samuel 2:1–10), which is quite appropriate seeing that Hannah also experienced a miraculous birth.
Let us remember that Mary was likely a teenager. I therefore want to commend her parents. I know that I am presuming here, but I suspect I am probably correct to conclude that Mary’s parents faithfully raised Mary to hide God’s word in her heart. And when this is the case, it is a small step to God’s word then flowing out of one’s mouth. As Wiersbe says, “Mary hid God’s word in her heart and turned it into a song” (cf. Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18–19).
Parents, learn from this the value of grounding your children in God’s word. Utilise every means the Lord provides for you. Sunday School teacher, be encouraged to continue to lay line upon line, precept upon precept. You are probably accomplishing far more than you may realise.
Third, this is a wonderful piece of theology. It is rich with revelation concerning the character of God: his mercy; his power; his holiness; his faithfulness.
Fourth, we will see how Mary brings to our attention the inverted values of God’s kingdom, in comparison to the world.
This song can be divided into three sections: praise (vv. 46–49); promise, (v. 50); and prophecy (vv. 51–55).
Praise, vv. 46 – 49
First, there is the element of praise and exaltation (vv. 46–49). This song serves us well as a pattern for our praise to God for his gospel mercies to us.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”(Luke 1:46–49)
Sproul writes, “Mary sang from the deepest chamber of her soul. This is a prayer of prayers. What Mary says in this song of prayer is that from the depths of her being she wants God to be exalted. She is a model of adoration.”
Mary was deeply moved at being the recipient of God’s favour. She therefore magnified the Lord. She would not—could not—remain silent about the greatness of God and his mercies to her. Her entire being “rejoiced” in God her “Saviour.” She knew herself to be a sinner who needed God to save her. It should be noted that Mary spoke of God’s greatness, not her own. She would be horrified at the attention given to her by many who call themselves Christian.
Verse 48 highlights her self-estimation as being of “humble estate.” This speaks of her poverty of status, her poverty of goods, but most importantly, her poverty of spirit. Those who experience God’s favour are amazed that God would do such “great things” for them.
She acknowledged God’s “holy … name,” further indicating her astonishment that he would be so kind to such an undeserving sinner.
Christian, be encouraged that God is mighty (powerful, capable) and he is for you. Mary realised “something of great importance, God knew who she was. He noticed her” (Sproul). Brother, sister, he notices you as well. He will never leave or forsake you. Trust him (v. 45) and experience him giving you plenty of reason to rejoice in him.
It is this realisation that gives to us cause to rejoice. Again, noting the context of fellowship, this should be a goal of our gathering together as Christians. We should desire to impress upon one another God’s amazing grace in looking on, giving regard to the likes of you and me—those who have lived in rebellion to his rule. We who have seen ourselves as our own saviours.
Second, we see in this a promise: “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v. 50). Mary exalts in God for his mercy to her but, like all who have experienced God’s grace, she was not self-absorbed. Rather, she realised that God was not only for her but also for others. In fact, he is for those “who fear him from generation to generation.”
Mary understood that God is merciful and full of lovingkindness—for thousands of generations (Exodus 34:6–7). The qualifier is “for those who fear him.” That is, he is for those who, like Mary are reverent toward God, who worship and serve him.
It is true that Mary was a sinner saved by grace, just like us. But this grace led to godliness; her redemption—her regeneration—led to reverence. She was faithfully serving and worshipping the Lord when he called her to this task. Like Abraham, God knew she would be faithful (see Genesis 18:19; 22:12–18; see also Genesis 6:8–10).
The promise spoken by Mary is that God does not change, his standards do not change, and his mercies are there for those will serve and worship him. This promise is as true today as it has always been.
Christian, God is still committed to doing great things. God continues to be merciful to those who will serve him (2 Chronicles 7:14; 16:9a; Jeremiah 33:3; 1 Peter 5:7). What great things could happen in our day?
Non-Christian, fear God and then experience his forgiveness.
In the rest of this song, we see prophecy:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.(Luke 1:51–55)
Importantly, the lyrics in this section are in the Greek aorist tense, which means that they are to be read as completed action. This was an Old Testament grammatical use that was favoured by the prophets. In other words, what was prophesied here was as good as done. Though, in experience, these things may yet be in the future, nevertheless in our expectation, they are certain of accomplishment.
We can summarise these prophetic words by the term “revolution.” Perhaps better, a great reversal.
With the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, a great revolution was commencing, and one day it will be consummated. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes that Luke writes as “the theologian of the poor and of social concern”. Liefeld observes, “Luke conveys a strong social message to us, one that is rooted in the OT and that, with cultural adaptation, is of continued meaning.” In other words, this song of Mary speaks of the practical effects of the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel has implications beyond what we sometimes refer to as the “spiritual.” There are moral, social, political and even economic implications when the kingship of Jesus Christ is reverently acknowledged. “Mary saw the Lord turning everything upside down: the weak dethrone the mighty, the humble scatter the proud, the nobodies are exalted, the hungry are filled, and the rich end up poor!”(Wiersbe). This teenaged girl understood this!
This revolution is about the Lord Jesus Christ making all things new (Revelation 21:1–4). He is recreating the world. Mary had some inkling of this when she wrote these words. Though Jesus was only a centimetre long at this time, she was certain of God’s promise, certain that Jesus Christ would have his rightful dominion (see Psalms 2; 72; 110; etc.). Mary provided the foundation for the classic philosophical outlook of the Christian: already but not yet.
This outlook is essential for us to embrace. It will protect us from the twin yet opposite errors of triumphalism (a form of prosperity theology) and pessimism (things are merely getting worse). Both are wrong. We need Mary’s perspective. Jesus Christ the King is at work. Be encouraged. History is not an endless circular existence. Rather it is purposefully and progressively linear. Mary got this (see vv. 48–50).
But, what kind of a revolution should we expect? What kind did Mary expect?
First, she expected a moral, a social, a political revolution (vv. 51–52). Leaning much on Hannah’s prayer-song, Mary acknowledged that God had brought about a radical change in this world. Mary acknowledged that, with the coming of Jesus, there would be a huge reversal of values.
By his arm, God had humbled the proud and exalted the humble—just as he had done when he had destroyed the proud Egyptians in order to deliver the despised nation of Israel (Exodus 6:6; 15:16). It was by the same power of God’s saving arm that he sent his Son into the world to live and to die and to rise again for hell-deserving sinners. This commenced with the amazing humility of God the Son. The incarnation was the ultimate display of servant leadership. And what resulted, was the ultimate example of the principle that Jesus taught:The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled (Matthew 23:12).
United States Senator Alan Simpson, at the recent funeral of George H. W. Bush, said, “Those who travel the highway of humility in Washington D.C. never encounter heavy traffic.” How true. Humility is not usually what comes to our mind when we think of government officials. How sad this is. For the greatest leader of all—the King of kings—is marked by humility. His subjects are to characterised accordingly. As Ryle said, “A man has just so much Christianity as he has humility.”
Jesus often alluded to this radical, revolutionary aspect of his kingdom. For example, he taught that those will be chief must serve. Servant leadership is the revolutionary ethic brought by Jesus Christ. The first will be last and the last will be first. The rest of the New Testament affirms this.
Paul wrote that it was not the noble, powerful, mighty or wise of this world who make up God’s church. Rather, God uses the base, common and lowly to confound these (1 Corinthians 1:18ff). The new social order is marked by humility.
The Lord Jesus perfectly exemplified this. As Paul wrote, Jesus, having humbled himself, even to death on the cross, has been exalted. And one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. The one so lowly that he was willing to live in Mary’s womb, to be treated as a mere man—so humble that he was willing to die like a despised criminal in order to save the very ones that caused his pain—has been exalted. May our souls magnify him and may ours spirits rejoice in him: God our Saviour!
Increasingly, as the gospel conquers, such a radical political and social reversal will become more common (2 Corinthians 5:17–19). When Jesus returns, this will be the neverending norm. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Second, Mary expected an economic revolution (v. 53). Leon Morris observes, “In the ancient world, it was accepted that the rich would be well cared for. Poor people must expect to be hungry. But Mary sings of a God who is not bound by what men do.”
Mary did not prophesy the so-called prosperity gospel (which is no gospel at all). But she did believe that, with the coming of Jesus, Christians should be affirmed in their confidence that God our Father will care for our needs. We should be confident that one day all economic injustice and its related sufferings will cease. There is coming a day when all such wrongs will be righted (see James 5:1–11).
Christian, we should be concerned about unjust economic promises. And we should be persuaded that, when we oppose them, God is on our side.
Finally, Mary expected a spiritual revolution (vv. 54–55). In fact, without this expectation, all the other expectation are mere fantasy.
John Blanchard comments, “Nobody has a correct view of the world or of history until they can see that God is constantly and sovereignly at work.”The closing verses of the Magnificat point to this reality. Throughout history, God was preparing the world for the arrival of the Saviour. God used Israel as the vehicle through which he would bring this ultimate spiritual revolution to pass. The promised seed would come through Israel, as God had promised Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3).
This seed would indeed bring special blessing to the nation of Israel, not primarily geo-politically, but rather spiritually. That is, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one born of Abraham and in the line of David would come to give his life as a ransom for those who repent and believe on him. He lived for them, died for them, and rose from the dead for them. His people—the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)—are made up of Jews and Gentiles. These are the ones who receive God’s mercies. Such are Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:26–29).
Once this spiritual revolution occurs, then—and only then—do the other revolutions matter. Then—and only then—can they occur (Matthew 5:13–16; etc.).
Christian, you have been helped as God has remembered his mercy, which, long ago, he had covenanted to show to you. Be encouraged as this truth is affirmed over and over in his word by his Spirit.
Non-Christian: you need this great reversal; the great reversal from being God’s enemy to being his reconciled child and friend. Apart from this, any other reversals, not matter how important, are meaningless. Repent as you respond in reverence to God. The promise is for you: You will experience his needed mercy (v. 50).
Fortified by the Gospel
Lastly, we see Mary fortified by the gospel: “And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home” (v. 56).
Mary returned home to Nazareth. Having been built up in her faith, having been encouraged in the Lord, she now faced what would doubtless have been a very difficult life.
She would have been misunderstood and initially disbelieved—even by her fiancé (see Matthew 1:18ff). No doubt, wagging tongues would assault her character as she became the victim of slander. Her reputation would suffer because Jesus Christ was noticeably in her life. We should remember this as we conclude our study.
Being the recipient of God’s astonishing grace does not deliver us from the so-called real world’ In fact, receiving Christ as your Lord and Saviour will often make the reality of an unbelieving world all the more real. But keep in mind that God’s astonishing grace equips us to face such a world. As someone has well-said, “May God deny you peace and give you glory” because “Jesus Christ came not to make life easy but to make men great.”This greatness is a life marked by gracious humility.
Following Jesus is costly. But the reward is worth the price. Yes, we will suffer, but we follow God who himself suffers with us, as he suffered for us. As Tim Keller says, “It is because God is all powerful and sovereign that his suffering is so astonishing…. Since even he has not kept himself immune from our pain, we can trust him.”
Christian, may your faith in Jesus Christ be affirmed as you contemplate what God has done for you through him.
Non-Christian, may you turn to God through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and experience his saving mercy. When you do, you can join with us affirming one another’s faith as, together, we magnify the Lord and exalt his name together (Psalm 34:3).