Above is an Armenian portrait of Mary greeting Elizabeth in Luke 1.
The following sermon is to be delivered at Grace Church of Philly on December 5, 2010:
The big themes of our text today are joy and humility.
The two sections of text that we will study together in Luke 1 reveal the hearts of women who were genuinely excited and amazed at the character and works of God.
In these texts, it is clear for all to see that there is joy expressed that is beyond compare and without parallel.
In these texts, it is also clear for all to see that there is a very deep humility present in the hearts of these women that colors their joy in a very unique and interesting way.
Thus, the themes of joy and humility are woven together in a literary tapestry that forms one of the most famous and magnificent texts of the New Testament.
Before we undergo a more detailed look at these verses, I believe it is critical to note that the humble rejoicing of these two women is not necessarily centered upon their own personal circumstances, but instead upon the person and works of the mighty, saving God of Israel.
Let us be very careful not to miss this fact. The joy of these two pious and devout women rested and centered in God Himself. They rejoiced as they reflected upon the character of their mighty, saving God.
Too often we find ourselves rejoicing in things that are related to God, but not God Himself.
For example, Christians rejoice in the fact that, because of their new birth by faith in Christ, they will go to heaven when they die, rather than hell. Heaven, then, can easily become the objective and the focus of our thoughts: What’s it going to be like? Are the streets made of literal gold? What will my living quarters be like? Can I sleep in heaven? Can I eat in heaven? Can I play Wii in heaven? Will my pets be in heaven with me?
Thinking like this quickly turns heaven into an eternal idol factory, a place where we can get and do everything our hearts desire. Kind of like the Mall of America or Disney World, but on a grander scale.
I’ve heard Christians go on and on and on talking about heaven without ever once mentioning the presence of God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.
Is this really how we should think of heaven? Is heaven nothing more than a cool party place where we get to do whatever we like, and almost as an aside, we get to hang out with that nice Jesus guy once and a while?
Or is heaven a place where we will be in perfect relation and union with our great and mighty God and King? A place where we get the privilege of bowing down before Him in worship and rejoicing eternally in His awesome presence?
Dr. Vern Poythress aptly reminds us:
“God’s glory, the reality of God himself in all His attributes, is the center and heartbeat of heaven.”
Let the words of Elizabeth and Mary be a reminder to us in our own day. Whether things go right or wrong, whether things go as we planned or not, whether we get what we want or not in this life, our focus and our joy should be in the character of our powerful, saving God, and in Him alone.
Observations from the text:
I. MARY VISITS ELIZABETH
1:39 (ESV) In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Mary goes “with haste” to visit her older relative Elizabeth (cf. 1:36). The New American Standard Bible states that she “went in a hurry.”
It should be stated that this was no minor trip for Mary. Scholars have noted that this was a journey of at least fifty to seventy miles from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home, which would have taken her between three and five days to get there. This kind of trip would have been “unusual and potentially dangerous for a woman of Mary’s age” to undertake.
Why is Mary hurrying out on a long trip to see Elizabeth?
Have you ever received such good news that it made you practically burst with excitement and anticipation? Have you ever got the kind of news that made you want to run spread it to everyone you know?
News like: a job promotion…a surprise gift…an engagement…a pregnancy?
Imagine Mary’s excitement as she receives the news from the angel Gabriel that she was to be the chosen vessel in which the Lord was to incarnate His Son, the salvation of the entire world!
Mary practically bursts with joy, unable to contain herself. And so she travels “with haste into the hill country” to see Elizabeth her relative, to share with her the good news.
1:41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.
John the Baptist, whose role is to be a forerunner and witness to Christ “leaps” in the womb of Elizabeth. Why? He is rejoicing at the coming of the Savior! In v. 44 we are told that the baby “leaped for joy” at “the sound of [Mary’s] greeting.”
The theme of rejoicing at the arrival of God’s salvation is very prominent in Luke’s gospel, and he refers to it often.
1:41 … And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…
Consider this phrase within the larger context of the progressive relevation of God to mankind: “In the Old Testament, the filling of the Spirit [was] often associated with the prophetic gift. [The significance of this is that,] after four hundred years of silence, the Spirit [of God] is appearing again in Israel.”
Consider this phrase within the context of the Lukan writings: “Usually in Luke’s writings, before one opens his or her mouth to praise God and recite the gospel, he or she is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’”
It is in this phrase (“and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”) that we see the omnipotent Lord of the universe condescending in grace to reveal Himself to fallen humanity.
The text that follows clearly indicates that both Elizabeth and Mary understood the magnitude of what God was doing in their lives and in the world. Their reaction is a celebration mixed with joy and humble gratitude.
1:42 …and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”… 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
These verses have been called “Elizabeth’s Song.” The structure of these lines is characteristic of Hebrew poetry, which contains a parallelistic and balanced form.
Blessed are you…
And blessed is the fruit of your womb…
And blessed is she…
This is the first of five pieces of poetic literature in Luke 1-2 that center around the nativity theme. In all five of these poems God is the object of joyous adoration, and people are depicted in a position of humble gratitude.
Elizabeth’s joy is evident in her expressions. And her humility is noticeable in the expression in v. 43, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Incidentally, it deserves mention that “my Lord” is an intentionally Messianic phrase. It is an expression used by David in Psalm 110 to describe the coming Messiah, and was a court expression that was roughly equivalent to the phrase “my king.” Elizabeth, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, recognizes that Mary is bearing in her womb the future King of Israel.
It also deserves mention that nowhere in the NT is Mary called the “mother of God,” as in the popular Roman prayer the “Hail Mary.” She is called, “the mother of my Lord,” which, as just pointed out, carries a distinctly Messianic meaning that is confined to the person of Christ alone.
We know, however, that deity is not confined to the person of Jesus alone. We know that Jesus is God, but that He is separate in His person from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. We may say that “Jesus is God,” but not (all of) “God is Jesus.” Therefore, Mary cannot and should not be given the title “mother of God,” because she did not birth the entire Godhead, but instead bore Christ in His humanity. This is a theological distinction that must be made.
Elizabeth calls Mary and her child “blessed.” What does “blessed” mean, anyway? When asked how they are doing, people in our culture sometimes reply, “I’m blessed.”
“Blessed,” however, means much more than “happy.” “Happy” is how a person feels. “Blessed” is what a person is. To be “blessed” means that God’s favor is resting upon you, that the Lord delights in you. “Blessed” means that you are the object of God’s special favor. In our feelings-heavy world, let us not miss this important distinction.
With this in mind, we understand that Elizabeth is saying that both Mary and her child are objects of God’s special favor. Both she and her child John respond to this fact with joyous adoration of God and His mercy.
Elizabeth also states that Mary is “blessed” because “she…believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (v. 45).
Not only is Mary called “blessed” because the favor of God has rested upon her in that she was chosen to bear the Messiah, but also because “she…believed” in the promises of God.
Note the striking similarity of this verse with John 20:29, where the Lord Jesus says to Thomas:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
If we believe in the promise of the gospel, that God in Christ is able to save us, body and soul, from the destruction of the grave and hell, we too may be called “blessed”; we too will be the objects of God’s special favor as His precious children.
II. THE MAGNIFICAT
Verses 46-55 are arranged in poetic stanzas. This section is frequently referred to as “Mary’s Song” or “The Magnificat,” from the Latin translation of v. 46 which reads, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.”
This text reveals to us that Mary was a woman who was very well acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures, or the Old Testament. There are quotes and allusions to the Psalms and some scholars have pointed out that there is a close parallel between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song of thanksgiving (for the birth of Samuel) in 1 Sam. 2:1-10.
1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
To “magnify” (μεγαλυνω) in this instance means “to make great, to enlarge, to glorify, to praise.” Mary is joyfully proclaiming the greatness of God as her Savior.
In light of the Roman Church’s false teaching about Mary, namely, that she was sinless and never physically died but ascended into heaven (and therefore is worthy of “veneration”), we should take special notice of the phrase “God my Savior.”
If one were sinless, they would be in no need of a Savior, for a sinless person is one who is in perfect fellowship with God and one who would not fall under condemnation for transgressing God’s laws. And yet, in the inspired Scripture we find Mary rejoicing in God as her very own Savior.
In stark contrast with Roman doctrine, which continually lifts Mary up as an object worthy of worship (which they call “veneration”), in Scripture we find that Mary repeatedly points not to her own greatness, but to the magnificence of God Himself.
1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Again we find Mary highlighting her low position in relation to God. She calls herself “his servant.” The Greek word here translated “servant” (δουλη) means “female slave.”
Roman teaching exalts and lifts up Mary, giving her the title “Queen of Heaven.” The Mary of Luke’s Gospel, however, calls herself a “slave.”
Roman teaching ascribes tremendous godlike power to Mary, stating that, even now in heaven, she continues “to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.” The Mary of Luke’s Gospel, however, points away from herself, exalting God as the “mighty” One who has accomplished “great things” for her.
Roman prayers refer to Mary as “holy.” The Mary of Luke’s Gospel, however, reserves this title for God, declaring, “holy is his name.”
The basic meaning of “holy” describes something that is “separate, set apart, exalted. To ascribe ‘holiness’ to God [means] to describe him as being infinitely high above all creatures.” “Holy” is not a title that should be reserved for Mary (for she is not “infinitely high above all creatures”) but for God Himself.
1:50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
God’s mercy is best understood and meditated upon in the light of His holiness. It is only when we consider His infinite holiness that we can properly begin to understand His mercy.
His mercy becomes greatly magnified as we understand that this Being that is set infinitely high above all creation, has deemed fit to condescend to this wicked world to show grace to sinful and rebellious creatures such as we are.
This favor, however, is not shed abroad to all men and women. Take note of what the Holy Spirit tells us through Mary: “…and his mercy is for those who fear him…” (emphasis added).
Prov. 1:7 tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The starting point of anyone’s spiritual life begins with a proper and healthy fear of God.
There are many in our time that do not fear the Lord, but instead, attempt to make their own way in the world, deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong. These ones set themselves up as the king or queen of their own little universe, usurping God’s role and authority for their own fleshly purposes. For all practical purposes, they have become their own gods and goddesses. They have no fear of the Lord before their eyes.
God’s mercy and favor is not for them: “His mercy is for those who fear him.” It is for His people, and for them alone.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary again speaks of the mighty power of God. Earlier (v. 49) she spoke of the Mighty One who had done great things for her. Now she speaks of the power of God in His dealings with all of humanity.
A common theme of the OT is the justice of God, displayed in the overturning of the social and political order. God is the only One with ultimate power to lift up and bring down. Humanity is powerless before such an awesome and powerful Being.
Recognition of this basic fact about the universe and our place in it should cause us to humble ourselves under His mighty hand. Pride is a display of opposition to Him that will bring punishment and, ultimately, eternal ruin.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
One scholar has stated that this is the “single most important part of the Magnificat,” because it is in these verses that we see the precious truth that the mercy of God extends outward to “include Gentiles as well as the Jewish race.”
It is by faith in Christ that Gentiles become the sons and daughters of Abraham, and therefore, heirs of the promise:
Gal. 3:7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Even today, this mercy that Mary spoke of 2,000 years ago flows forth from the throne of God’s grace.
In Christ, God extends His mercy to all who fear Him, who become “the sons and daughters of Abraham” by faith in Christ. These ones inherit “eternal life,” which is the knowledge of God:
John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Do you “know” the “only true God” and Jesus Christ His Son? I’m not here asking if you know about God in Christ; I’m asking if you know God in a personal and deeply intimate way.
1:56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
Based on the Song of Elizabeth and the Song of Mary, I have little doubt that, during the course of this three-month stay, these two women had many joyous conversations about the greatness and magnificence of God.
I can imagine them speaking of and celebrating God’s mercy as they rejoiced in the astonishing favor that the Lord had shown unto them.
When was the last time you rejoiced in the presence of God?
When was the last time you praised God, not for what He has done for you, but for who He is in the magnificence of His person?
Is your joy centered in God Himself, or do you find yourself rejoicing only when circumstances go your way? Is your joy self-centered or God-centered? Or is it a combination of both?
When was the last time you celebrated God’s incredible mercy in your life, whether in prayer, or in conversation with other believers? When was the last time you celebrated God’s mercy by being involved in ministries of mercy to outsiders?
In Christ, we can escape the judgment for sin that we all deserve. We should be celebrating this wonderful gift of salvation with our mouths and with our deeds of mercy! We should be a joyous people! How quickly we forget this wonderful truth and fixate ourselves upon the weak and beggardly things of this wicked, fallen world, which is passing away.
When was the last time you humbled yourself before the mighty arm of the Lord in gratitude for the favor He has shown you in sending His Son to live and die for you?
Whatever length of time it has been, whether five minutes or five years or five decades, it has surely been too long. Let us pray.
 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 109.
 Walter L. Liefeld, “Luke,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 834.
 Mark Strauss, “Luke,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Vol. 1, Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. by Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 334.
 Strauss: “Leaping is an expression of joy” (334). Cf. Mal. 4:2; 2 Sam. 6:16.
 Strauss, “Luke,” 333.
 Strauss, “Luke,” 334.
 Craig A. Evans, Luke, New International Biblical Commentary, ed. by W. Ward Gasque (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 26.
 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 95.
 (1) The Song of Elizabeth – 1:42-45, (2) The Song of Mary – 1:46-55, (3) The Prophecy of Zechariah – 1:68-79, (4) The Song of the Angels – 2:14, and (5) The Song of Simeon – 2:29-32.
 Hendriksen, 95.
 Strauss, 334-5.
 Liefeld, 834.
 Hendriksen, 95-6.
 Evans, 26: “That the Magnificat would parallel Hannah’s song is appropriate for two major reasons: First, like Hannah’s song of thanksgiving, the Magnificat expresses gratitude for a pregnancy…. Second, as in Hannah’s case, the child is to become great in God’s service and is to have a vital ministry to Israel. Moreover, many elements in Hannah’s song could be readily understood as having messianic significance.”
 Hendriksen, 111. On “soul” and “spirit” he adds: “It should be clear immediately that in these two parallel lines there can be no difference – and certainly no pronounced difference – between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’” (103).
 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI,” Vatican: The Holy See, Online ed., http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html (30 November 2010).
 Hendriksen, 106.
 Hendriksen, 105.
 Strauss, 335.
 Evans, 27.
 The substance of the promise to Abraham being, “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Gen. 17:7, NET).