The Worship of Two Women (Luke 1:39-56)
When one thinks of the women of the ancient world, our first emotional response is usually pity. This would even be true in the Jewish world of those days when our Lord added humanity to His deity and manifested Himself to men. There was so much that women could not do, or at least were not allowed to do. We might suspect that the limitations of biblical revelation, compounded by those of the culture, would have made womanhood a curse. The men assumed the leadership roles, especially in spiritual matters. The women seemed only fit for fixing meals and bearing children. Perhaps a few women, “blessed” by financial prosperity and social standing, may have been able to enjoy some of the benefits of the male world.
While there is some truth in the rather dismal picture which I have portrayed, it is not utterly so. We need by read the final chapter of the book of Proverbs to see that women, at least biblically, were given great privileges and responsibilities. The degree to which women were degraded was that to which their husbands and their culture stooped.
Luke is well-known for his high regard for women and for the prominence which he gives them in his two accounts. We find the first instance of his highlighting of women in our text in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, where the spotlight is directed toward two godly women. The two women are Elizabeth, the soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother-to-be of Messiah, were truly great and godly women. Both were humble women of no social or economic standing. Elizabeth was the wife of an obscure priest. Both she and Zacharias were country people, who lived in an unnamed village in the hill country of Judah. The bore the added social stigma of having no children. No doubt in the minds of some they were being punished by God for some sin. Mary, too, was a humble peasant girl. She did not have any social standing due to her parentage or class, nor even the dignity of Elizabeth and Zacharias age. Yet the worship of both of these women is such that they are models for all true disciples of our Lord.
Before we begin to deal with our text, there are some introductory comments which may prove to be helpful. First, it should be noted that there are several things which Luke has not told us, which we might like to know, but will not find in this inspired account. These include the following:
Whether or not Mary was yet pregnant. There is no mention as to whether or not Mary was pregnant when she first arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah. Neither, Elizabeth, Mary, nor Luke refer to the fetus in Mary’s womb, while we are specifically told that John leaped in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting (Luke 1:41). It is my opinion is that Mary became pregnant during the time she way staying with Elizabeth and Zachariah. She would have been separated from Joseph, while at the same time being chaperoned by Elizabeth and Zachariah. This would serve as further testimony to the divine origin of the Christ-child.
Whether or not Elizabeth and Mary had any previous communication before Mary’s arrival. Elizabeth’s immediate response to Mary’s arrival might be explained by some previous communication between the two (e.g. writing to tell Elizabeth that she was coming and what the angel Gabriel had told her regarding her becoming the mother of Messiah). Luke does not tell us of any such communication, and the reader’s impression tends to be that there was no communication prior to her arrival, at least so far as Mary’s visitation by the angel. Luke does tell us that Mary “arose and went with haste to the hill country” (1:39), which would suggest that there was not sufficient time for any communication to have occurred.
Whether or not Mary was present when John was born. Luke ends this section (vv. 39-56) by informing us that Mary returned home after three months (v. 56). This would put her departure very close to the time of John’s birth, and reasons have been suggested for identifying the time of her departure either just before or just after the birth of John.
In all of these cases we must remember that Luke purposefully chose, under the guidance and control of the Holy Spirit, either to include or to exclude various details. The things which Luke does not tell us ought not to be our primary concern, to deal with them as “unsolved mysteries,” for which we must have an answer. Instead, we must focus on the things which Luke has included, for these point to the thrust of his argument. I must confess to you that I often become overly absorbed in what isn’t said, rather than to concentrate on what is reported.
Finally, there are those who would accept the rendering of some obscure manuscripts14 and conclude that it was Elizabeth and not Mary, who was the composer of the “magnificat,”15 the praise hymn of verses 46-55. The major reason for this position, in my opinion, is the similarity of the “magnificat” to the praise of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2. Since Hannah’s circumstances more closely parallel those of Elizabeth, some have drawn the hasty conclusion that it was she, rather than Mary, who composed this hymn of praise. This is a very poorly supported theory, and one which can be rather quickly set aside.
After indicating his purpose for writing this gospel in verses 1-4, Luke immediately commenced his account by introducing Zacharias, the father-to-be of John the Baptist. Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were both descendants of Aaron (v. 5), and were “righteous in the sight of God” (v. 6). The did not have any children, however, and now that they were advanced in age, it would take a miracle for them ever to do so.
In the course of Zacharias’ priestly duties, it fell his lot to have the high privilege of offering the incense at the temple of the Lord (vv. 8-9). In the course of performing his duty, the angel Gabriel appeared to him while he was inside the holy place. Zachariah was told that his prayer (a prayer, I assume, for the coming of Messiah) had been answered, and that he and his wife would have the privilege and pleasure of bearing the son who would prepare the way for Messiah’s appearance (vv. 13-17). Zacharias’ faith wavered, and he consequently asked for some sign, some proof that the promise of the angel would be fulfilled. This brought a rebuke, and a temporary loss of speech, which nevertheless served as a sign to the people assembled at the temple that something very significant was about to happen. Zacharias returned home to his wife, who kept herself in seclusion for five months (vv. 24-25).
Six months later, Gabriel appeared to Mary, indicating to her that she would be the mother of Israel’s Messiah. She would, by the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit, become pregnant, and her holy child would be called the “Son of God” (v. 35). He would be the Son of the Most High, who would be given the throne of His father David, from which He would rule (vv. 32-33). Mary’s response was an elegant expression of faith:
“Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The immediate faith and submission of Mary, a simple and very young peasant girl, to the will of God is contrasted with the hesitant request of Zachariah for a sign, a man who was a priest all his many years of life. Just as Mary’s response surpasses that of Zachariah, so the greatness of the miracle of the virgin birth of Messiah will exceed the miracle which produces a son for the elderly priest and his wife. And so, too, will the greatness of Messiah and His ministry surpass that of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah.
The Magnificence of Elizabeth
When Gabriel announced the miraculous virgin birth of Messiah through Mary to this young16 peasant girl, he informed her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, indicating that this was a sign of God’s ability to achieve the impossible (Luke 1:36-37). While no instruction was given here, the inference was clear: Elizabeth would be an encouragement to Mary, and a woman who would understand what God was doing in the virgin’s life. Thus Mary quickly prepared and left to visit her relative living in an unnamed village17 in the hill country of Judah (v. 39).
While Mary is clearly the principle character in this section, Elizabeth, her relative is also shown to be a remarkable women. We will begin by focusing on Elizabeth, as Luke does, and on her response to the arrival of Mary, the mother-to-be of Messiah. Several observations concerning Elizabeth’s response to the arrival of Mary will help us to grasp the magnificence of this woman, as I believe Luke intended us to do.
Characteristics of Elizabeth’s Praise
(1) Elizabeth seems to praise Mary before Mary has had any opportunity to explain anything to her. Mary left almost immediately for the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias, and the journey may have taken some time. So far as Luke’s account informs us, Mary was only told that her elderly relative had conceived in her old age, which testified to the fact that nothing was impossible for God (Luke 1:36-37). We aren’t told that the angel informed Mary that the child which was to be born to Elizabeth was to be the forerunner of Messiah. Mary may have wondered how Elizabeth would respond to the news she had to share. She may even have wondered whether or not to tell of her visit by the angel Gabriel.
One can speculate as to what Mary may have been thinking along the way to Elizabeth’s home. She may have been rehearsing what she would say to Elizabeth when she first saw her. If Mary had any such reservations, how quickly they were dispelled! The very moment she entered the house and gave a customary greeting, Elizabeth blessed Mary as the mother of her Lord.
(2) Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and her words were a divinely inspired utterance. Gabriel had informed Zacharias that the child would be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Now, it would appear that both mother and child were both filled with the Holy Spirit simultaneously. John “spoke” as it were by leaping in the womb (1:41), while Elizabeth seems almost to speak for John. One wonders how much that Elizabeth came directly from the Spirit of God, and how much originated from her own grasp of the Scriptures. We cannot say for certain, but we can affirm at this moment that all that she said was divinely inspired.
Not only did Elizabeth, in a sense, speak for John, she also spoke like John. We learn from the other gospel accounts that John was quick to acknowledge and proclaim the superiority of Christ (John 1:19-28), and thus to accept his secondary role as “forerunner” to the Messiah. He even encouraged his disciples to leave him and to follow Christ (John 1:35-37). Elizabeth also readily acknowledged the superior blessing bestowed on Mary, and rejoiced in it. Like mother, like son. I believe that Elizabeth is a prototype of her son in this regard.
(3) Elizabeth’s praise is not for her personal fulfillment and blessing in the bearing of a child, but in the blessing bestowed on her by the visit of Mary. Elizabeth’s proclamation does not focus on the blessing of the child which she will bear (John), but on the blessing of God in the arrival of Mary, who is to be the mother of the Messiah. In short, Mary is the focus, not Elizabeth. We will explore the basis for Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary later, but for now let us simply observe that the arrival of Mary is the occasion for Elizabeth’s praise, not the soon arrival of John.
(4) Elizabeth’s words served primarily as an encouragement to Mary. How encouraging the greeting of Elizabeth must have been to Mary. Rather than having to try to explain to Elizabeth what the angel had said to her about the virgin birth of her son, Messiah, Mary learned that Elizabeth already knew. Thus, Elizabeth’s praise served as further confirmation of Gabriel’s words. There were now two witnesses. Mary was totally free to share the details of the angel’s revelation, without any hesitation. Elizabeth already knew, believed, and rejoiced in the truth of God, spoken through Gabriel.
(5) Elizabeth praises God for much more than those things that Zachariah was told. When we look back at Luke’s report of what Zacharias was told by Gabriel, it was simply that the son God was giving him and his wife would be the forerunner of Messiah. There is no mention in this account of how Messiah will come to earth. How, then, did Elizabeth know that Jesus would be born of a virgin, and that the virgin was none other than her relative, Mary?
We must first very candidly admit that we are not told how Elizabeth learned what she affirmed by divine inspiration. It is my personal opinion, however, that she is no just a mere “mouthpiece” for the Holy Spirit, who has had no knowledge of what God was doing. I believe that Elizabeth knew from the Scriptures that Messiah would be both human and divine, and that He would be born of a virgin. With these things already known (albeit by the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the Scriptures), the Spirit of God informed Elizabeth, perhaps at that very moment, that Mary was the one through whom Messiah would be born.
(6) Elizabeth’s praise suggests that she may have possessed a greater depth of spiritual and scriptural insight than her husband. As we compare Luke’s account which introduces Zacharias, this elderly (and godly) priest is not put in nearly as favorable light as is his wife, Elizabeth. That which she speaks far surpasses what we are told Gabriel said to Zacharias. I am thus inclined to view this as Luke’s way of informing us that some women may very well surpass men spiritually. Indeed, I believe that Luke is telling us that wives are not restricted to the level of spirituality of their mate. Elizabeth’s praise surpasses Zachariah’s petition for a sign. Elizabeth’s words far surpass the revelation which we are told Gabriel gave to Zacharias. Women may be limited so far as their public ministry is concerned, but not so far as their spirituality and intimacy with God is concerned. Elizabeth is a magnificent woman of God, in Luke’s opinion.
Mary seems immediately to respond to the praise of Elizabeth by offering her own praise to God. While we are not specifically told that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit when she spoke these words, we may surely assume so. Perhaps there is a hint here that the words of Mary’s hymn are divinely inspired, but that the work is her composition, her work of praise and devotion, in response to the revelation of the angel. Elizabeth’s words are not as reflective, but seem almost to explode from her lips unexpectedly. While Elizabeth spoke with “a loud voice” (1:42), Mary is perhaps more sedate. Regardless, these are some of the most beautiful words in all the word of God. Let us ponder them.
(1) Mary’s psalm of praise reveals a repeated use of the terminology and theology of the Old Testament. Virtually every commentator agrees that Mary’s praise is dripping with Old Testament allusions and references. In contrast to the “psalm” of Jonah in Jonah chapter 2, which we have recently considered,18 the psalm of Mary is a magnificent masterpiece. It not only employs the terminology of the psalms, but the theology. Mary dwells on the character of God, particularly His grace, which is bestowed on the humble and the oppressed. There is a also distinct parallel with the praise of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2. The marginal references in our Bibles indicate the many other allusions and parallels. Some may question how a simple peasant-girl may have such a grasp of the Old Testament. Geldenhuys responds,
In discussing this hymn of praise, some critics have asked whether Mary had her Old Testament open before her when she uttered the song. They forget that all pious Israelites from their childhood days knew by heart songs from the Old Testament and often sang them in the home circle and at celebrations. Mary was steeped in the poetical literature of her nation, and accordingly her hymn also bears the unmistakable signs of it.19
(2) Mary’s praise begins with her grateful response to the grace God has shown to her, a humble servant of the Lord. In verses 46-49, Mary praises God for His mercy as expressed toward her. She rejoices in God, who is her Savior (v. 47). While this may not refer only to the saving work which Messiah will come to accomplish, surely it includes it. God looked upon her humble estate with compassion; consequently she will be esteemed blessed by all future generations (v. 48). God’s compassion on her has revealed both His power and His holiness (“Mighty One,” “holy is His name,” v. 49).
Mary does not in any way view herself as better or holier than anyone else. She views herself as a sinner who needs God’s salvation, and as a the Lord’s servant, whose humble estate is the occasion for His mercy and grace. There is no hint that she thinks God has chosen her to be the mother of Messiah due to her blessedness, but rather that her blessedness is the result of God’s sovereign and gracious choice to use her as His instrument. In verse 48 her blessedness is viewed as the result of God’s grace.
(3) In verse 50 Mary’s praise broadens, viewing God’s grace to her as a reflection of His gracious purposes for His chosen people, Israel. God has not just singled Mary out for blessing, leaving others in their miserable estate. Mary saw her blessing as but an illustration, one instance of God’s grace, which leads her to praise God for His grace to all those who fear Him, from one generation to generation. Mary thus presses from the specific to the general, from her personal benefits to the blessings which all of God’s people (those who “fear Him”) experience.
(4) In verses 51-55, Mary’s praise focuses on the faithfulness of God to His promises and His purposes, especially His covenant with Abraham and his descendants. If verse 50 spells out the principle that God blesses His people, from generation to generation, verses 51-55 give some specific ways in which this has and will be done.
We can see that the verbs in these verses are past perfect. The question which this raises is what is meant by the use of the a past tense. My opinion is that deliverances which are described have already been demonstrated in Israel’s history, to some degree, but that they will finally and fully be realized in the future, as a result of Messiah’s coming. Much, perhaps most, of these things will be fulfilled in the second coming of Messiah, rather than in His first coming. In His first coming, Messiah came to reveal God to men, and to accomplish eternal redemption for all who would believe. In His second coming, Messiah will come to “set things straight,” to bring justice to the earth and judgment to the wicked. The book of Revelation speaks much of these themes, and prophesies their fulfillment.
(5) Mary’s praise serves as an encouragement to Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise was an encouragement to her. Many have observed the similarities of this Magnificat of Mary to the hymn of praise of Hanna in 1 Samuel chapter 2. It is so strong that some are tempted to view Elizabeth as the composer of the Magnificat, and not Mary. I believe that the similarity of the Magnificat to Hanna’s praise has the effect of encouraging Elizabeth, whose personal praise focuses on Mary, and not on her own joy in having a son in her old age. Thus there is a kind of criss-crossing effect in the praise of both women, for each expresses one’s personal praise, but edifies the other.
(6) Mary’s praise does not focus on the child she will bear, but on Father who is sending His Messiah. Geldenhuys has remarked,
It strikes us that Mary in this hymn does not utter a direct word in connection with the Son promised to her. Nevertheless she assumes throughout that He has indeed been promised her. Her whole hymn is inspired by this fact.20
It seems to me that this is a very significant fact. We would expect Mary to be taken with the fact that she will have a baby, and that this baby will be the Son of God. While this is certainly true, Mary chose to focus on what the child would be and accomplish as an adult, and not what her child would be as a child. In other words, Mary’s praise does not focus on the immediate blessedness of her having this child, but on the ultimate outcome of the coming of Messiah. She looks at the long range, not the short term. She views this event in terms of the distant past, in terms of the covenant promises of God, in terms of the history of Israel, where God’s mercy was shown on generation after generation, and in terms of the distant future, when at His second coming Messiah will set things straight. At this time the social order will under a radical and violent reversal. The lofty will be put down and the humble will be exalted (vv. 51-52). The hungry will be fed and the well-fed will be hungry. The poor will be helped, but the rich will be sent away (v. 53).
(7) Mary focused more on the results of Christ’s second coming than she did the first. When you ponder the specific results of Messiah’s incarnation as outlined in Mary’s “Magnificat” they have to do with what we know of as Christ’s second coming, more than with His first coming. I doubt that Mary way aware of the fact that Christ would come to earth twice, to achieve two distinct purposes. To press the matter further, I doubt that Mary understood that the redemptive purpose of Christ’s first coming would be accomplished by His death on a cross, death at the hands of wicked men. Even this is a manifestation of God’s grace, for at this early point in time such knowledge would only have caused Mary unnecessary and premature pain. Simeon’s words in chapter 2 (v. 35) allude to this pain, but do not explain what its cause will be. How gracious God is in what He does not tell us, as well in what He does.
(8) Mary’s theology, as reflected in her “Magnificat” is vastly superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, who would become the arch enemies of our Lord. As I have studied Mary’s psalm of praise it occurred to me that her theology was like that of her Son, and likewise, that it was very different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. I will not pursue this in any detail here, but let me point out several areas of contrast between Mary’s theology, her understanding of the Old Testament, and that of the scribes and Pharisees. Mary did not mention the Law of Moses, the Mosaic Covenant, but only God’s promise to Abraham, the Abrahamic Covenant. Mary understood that Israel’s hope was rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, not in the Mosaic. The scribes and Pharisees seemed as though they could only think and talk in terms of the Law of Moses. Mary viewed all of God’s dealings in the light of His grace; the religious leaders only thought in terms of human works.
Mary understood the great themes of the Old Testament, such as God’s mercy and compassion, God’s concern for the poor and the helpless. These were the themes of the Old Testament prophets. They were not, however, the themes of the scribes and Pharisees. In His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus constantly referred to these great themes, and to the fact that legalistic Judaism violated them (cf. Matthew 23). Mary also understood the purposes of God as a plan which He had been carrying out throughout Israel’s history. She viewed history in the light of this plan. The scribes and Pharisees, however, seemed only to grasp a few of the particulars, but missed the plan. They “strained the gnats” but they swallowed the camels. Mary grasped the “camels” and the religious leaders only grasped at the “gnats.”
The Magnificence of Mary
There are those who have distorted the truth of God’s word about Mary, and rather than regarding her blessed above all women, have honored her as above mankind, worshipping her and praying to her as though she were on the level of deity, or even above Messiah. This is clearly seen to be in blatant disregard for the teaching of our text. Nevertheless, others have reacted to this error by failing to see this woman as a model disciple. I believe that Charles Talbert is correct in viewing Mary as a “model disciple.”21 Let us consider some of the ways in which Mary provides us with a model of discipleship.
(1) Mary is a model disciple in her faith in the word of God, and in her submission to the will of God. Mary is not a model for disciples in being the mother of Messiah. It is true that Elizabeth blessed Mary as the mother of her Lord (1:42), and that future generations will bless her as such also (1:48). While this is true, this must be kept in its proper perspective. Our Lord was careful to show that being obedient to God’s will and His word were more important than being humanly related to Him:
And a multitude was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.” And answering them, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers!” “For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35; cf. Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21).
In yet another text we read:
And it came about while He said these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice, and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God, and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28).
While bearing the Messiah was a distinct privilege for Mary, that for which she is most highly praised is her faith and her obedience. This is evident in the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth, which subtly contrasts the belief of Mary with the unbelief of Zacharias:
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
To press the matter of Mary’s obedience even further, Mary was not only obedient to the imperatives of God’s word, but also to the inferences of His word. The angel had not commanded Mary to go to the house of Elizabeth, but had only stated that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, which showed that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:36-37). Mary got the point, however, and without having to be told to do so, went immediately to Elizabeth’s house, even though it was apparently some distance away and involved considerable inconvenience.
(2) Mary is a model disciple in the depth of her familiarity with the word of God. One cannot read the “Magnificat” of Mary without realizing that she has drawn deeply from the terminology and the theology of the Old Testament. Not only does she think biblically, she also expresses herself in biblical terms.
(3) Mary is a model disciple in her grasp of the grace of God, and in her gratitude toward God for bestowing grace on her. If there is any one concept which captures the spirit and the essence of God’s dealings with men it is the concept of grace. Mary’s “Magnificat” reveals the depth of her grasp of God’s grace, which is not only shown to her, but to all the people of God, and from generation to generation. Grace is the essence of true doctrine and the antidote to that which is false. As the writer to the Hebrews put it,
Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Heb. 13:9).
The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day were largely legalists, who focused on the letter of the law, but missed God’s grace in it. Not so with Mary.
(4) Mary is a model disciple in grasp of the social implications of the gospel. Peter momentarily forgot that the gospel is inseparably linked with certain social obligations, and thus Paul had to rebuke him (cf. Gal. 2:11-21). Mary understood that the good news of Messiah’s coming would result in great social reversals. In His ministry the Lord Jesus would expand on he social themes of Mary’s “Magnificat”:
And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied … But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry … ” (Luke 6:20-21a; 24-25).
In the New Testament epistles, the apostles insist that Christians not conform to the evil social practices of their day, but live according to the social standards of the gospel, to which Mary referred, and which our Lord taught. Thus, James has some very strong words on the subject of discriminating against the poor and showing partiality to the rich (cf. James 2:1-13; 5:1-12).
(5) Mary is a model disciple in her grasp of the purposes and promises of God. Mary’s “Magnificat” focuses on much more than just her own blessing in the bearing of Messiah. Indeed, she does not focus on the child, per se, but on the results of the coming of Messiah. We know now that this includes both His first and His second comings. Mary has a great breadth of understanding. She looks backward, to the covenants which God has made with Abraham and with His people in the Old Testament. She looks forward to the ultimate righteousness which will be established when Messiah reigns on the throne of David. Mary has a good sense of history and a broad grasp of God’s purposes and promises. There is no provincialism to be found in her praise.
(6) Mary is a model disciple in her evident reflection and meditation on the things of God. All that we see in these few phrases of praise points to the fact that Mary meditated on the word and on the works of God. We have further corroboration of this from two other statements made by Luke:
But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be (Luke 1:29, emphasis mine).
And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51, emphasis mine).
Mary may not be all that some have held her to be, but she is a magnificent model of discipleship. She is a woman who grasps the Word of God, who meditates upon it, and who is obedient to it, both in its imperatives and in its inferences. She is a woman who had a good grasp of what God was doing in history and in society. Mary is a model disciple.
(7) Mary is a model disciple in that her praise was not only a personal expression of worship, but also was edifying to Elizabeth. We are led to the conclusion that Mary’s praise was spoken in the hearing of Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise was spoken to God, but for Mary’s benefit. In both cases, the praise of God spoken before others was done in such a way as to edify and encourage those who heard.
There are a number of ways in which the worship of these two women relate to contemporary Christians. As we conclude, let me suggest some specific applications of our text.
First, our text has much to teach us on the subject of women, their spirituality, and their worship. Modern society, as we know, has been “liberated” from the archaic, chauvinism of the ancient world. Even the church has made its concessions to the women’s liberation movement. Because of this, the practices of our church stand out, and are considered very offensive to many women, and some men. Nevertheless, it is our conviction that the principles of the New Testament church are as relevant and binding today as they were in Paul’s day.
The point I wish to make here is that the “restrictions” which the New Testament makes on women and their role in public worship are not detrimental to the spiritual life and development of women. Granted, the worship of these two women is not public, but private. Nevertheless, their praise was pleasing to God and it has been preserved for our edification.
The fact that the worship of these women was more restricted than that of men is no hindrance to their spiritual growth and development. Indeed, it would seem that in the case of Elizabeth, if not also Mary, her spirituality surpassed that of her husband. Elizabeth was not restricted to the level of spirituality of her husband, nor did the fact that the public expression of her worship was limited keep her from experiencing the greatest intimacy with her God.
The same principle applies on a different level. The fact that Zacharias was a “professional” priest and that his wife and Mary were but “lay” people did not in any way set Zacharias above the others. An aged priest has less faith than a young peasant girl, and thus Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary for her faith in God’s promise contains a mild rebuke for her doubting husband, who did not believe Gabriel’s words.
Second, the praise of Elizabeth and Mary provide us with a model for our own worship and praise. Mary and Elizabeth’s praise of God went much further than just gratitude for the gift of a child. Mary’s praise began with her own experience, but quickly linked this with God’s character and actions in the past (His ways) and then with His covenant and promises regarding the future.
How shallow our prayers and praise seem when compared with that of these two godly women. Our praise tends to be based almost exclusively on our pleasant and pleasurable experiences. Our praise tends to focus primarily on what God has done for us. We must seek to dwell much more on the character of God, of His covenant promises, and of His working in history, as well as in the future. The language of our praise should betray a continual soaking in the Scriptures and meditation on the terms and theology of the Bible.
Our praise during this Christmas season should especially be patterned after that of Mary, who did not focus on the tiny baby that she would soon hold in her arms, but in the God who sent Messiah and in the goal of His coming earth. This includes the immediate goal of redemption and salvation, but it especially includes the “setting right” of those things which are unjust and evil. These things are still future for us, as they were for Mary, for they will be accomplished at the second coming of our Lord.
Our praise, like that of Elizabeth and Mary, should not only seek to exalt God, but also to edify those who may hear it. Too often, I fear, we find ourselves performing before others, using our praise to speak to men, to convey some message to them, rather than to God. Mary’s praise was addressed to God, but in adoring God she also encouraged and edified Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise encouraged her. As the apostle Paul put it, “let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26a).
Third, the account which Luke has provided us of Mary’s intimate worship, shared only with Elizabeth, should instruct and motivate us in the disciplines of discipleship. We should strive to be student’s of God’s Word, meditating on its terms and theology, seeking to be obedient to its imperatives and its implications.
Finally, we should strive to see beyond the birth of the baby to the end for which the child came—to restore and reconcile fallen men to God and to one another. While Christ’s coming meant more than saving men from their sins, this was the beginning, the prerequisite for all that He would accomplish.
The miracle of the virgin birth, which is the basis and the starting point of the praise of these two women, is analogous to the miracle of the new birth which every man, woman, and child must experience to have eternal life and to live the kind of life which our Lord requires.
There is a principle at work here in the first two chapters of Luke which can be found elsewhere in the Bible. This principle may be stated in this way:
A MIRACULOUS PERSON BEGINS WITH A MIRACULOUS BIRTH
Throughout the Old Testament, the miraculous ministries of God’s chosen instruments often began by a miraculous or unusual birth. The births of Abraham (Genesis 12-21), Samuel (1 Samuel 1 & 2), and Samson (Judges 13), are examples of such miraculous births. It is not at all surprising to find that the births of both John and Jesus are miraculous, for the lives of both are miraculous. While me cannot say that every miraculous life began with a miraculous birth, I think it is safe to say that every miraculous birth resulted in a miraculous life and ministry.
There are many today who seem to think that they can live according to the standards and principles of the Bible by setting their minds to it. This is not so. The Bible requires that men live a life which is miraculous, a life that is humanly impossible (cf. Romans chapter 7). There is only one way that this can ever happen, and that is by our experiencing a miraculous “new” birth. This is why the Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” even though he was a prominent teacher in Israel (cf. John chapter 3).
There are many nominal “Christians” who are tying to live an impossible (miraculous) life, yet who have not been miraculously “born again.” I fear some of you may be trying to live a miraculous life, but who have not had the prerequisite “new birth.” May I exhort you to experience this new birth through faith in Christ this very hour.
While some think that they will be a Christian by “trying harder to live a good life” they need to learn that becoming a Christian, being “born again” is illustrated by the birth of Mary’s child, while trying to be religious through good works is illustrated by the birth of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was born through the actions of Elizabeth and Zacharias, which God supernaturally brought to conception and birth. This is not the way men are saved, however. Salvation does not result from our efforts, which God miraculously blesses. Our salvation comes about in the same way that Mary’s baby was conceived—totally by the sovereign work of God, apart from any effort which Mary might make. God does the work of producing life in us, just as He brought about life in Mary. We but need to believe and to accept God’s work, but we must leave the working to Him, and not to ourselves. Salvation is God’s miraculous work in us, producing new life.
The Israelites felt that their physical link with Abraham was sufficient to save them, but they were wrong, and John would later challenge this false belief (Luke 3:8). As our Lord Himself said later, those who obey His word are His sisters, brothers, and mother. Physical relationship to Christ is not nearly so important as one’s spiritual relationship. What is your spiritual relationship to God?
14 “A few Latin MSS read ‘Elizabeth said’ instead of Mary said, and some commentators (e.g. Creed) accept this. But the textual evidence in support of Mary is overwhelming.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 75.
15 “FRom the first word of her hymn of praise in the Vulgate translation, this hymn is known as the “Magnificat.” From the earliest times it has been used in the praises of the Christian church.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 84.
16 The term “young” is used with some caution, for it is only tradition that teaches us Mary was a young, girl, a teen. Nevertheless, girls were married young in those days, and it is thus likely true that Mary was quite young. Let us bear in mind, however, that Luke has not told us this was the case. Mary’s age, then, is not a significant issue to Luke. Far more important to Luke is her virginity, for this is an essential element in the virgin birth.
17 The term which is rendered “city” (“a city of Judah,” v. 39) is one that is very broad, and does not really indicate the size of the place. Thus, it is used with reference to Nazareth (1:26), which was but a village. It is my opinion that the “town” in which Elizabeth and her husband lived was merely a village, too. If Luke was writing to Gentiles, the name of this “village” would not have had any meaning, and thus was omitted as non-essential to his purpose. To those who lived far away from the Holy Land, the name of this unknown place was unimportant.
18 In our study of the book of Jonah, we concluded that Jonah typified the sin of Israel by his lack of compassion, his disobedience, his self-righteousness, and his refusal to repent. His self-righteousness is evident in the psalm of chapter 2, which dwells on his dilemma, his danger, and his deliverance, but not on God. In particular, instead of praising God for His mercy and compassion, as the psalmists and Mary do, Jonah protests against the grace and mercy of God in the final chapter of the book.