Mary and Elizabeth. Woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, from Das Buch der Buecher in Bilden. Used by permission of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
After the angel Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant in old age, "Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth" (Luke 1:39-40). Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant (v. 36), so Mary quickly made the three-day journey to Judea. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was evidence that what the angel said about Mary was also true. One miraculous pregnancy was a sign of the other, just as the first son would prepare the way for the work of the second.
"When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 41). Elizabeth was inspired to understand a supernatural significance to this reaction, and even before Mary gave her the news, she knew Mary would have a child: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (vv. 42-45).
Elizabeth counted it an honor to be visited, for she recognized that Mary’s child would be her Lord. It was a joyful occasion, for the Savior was coming to the people who had waited for so long. Both Elizabeth and Mary are good role models for Christians today. Anyone who believes that the Lord keeps his promises will be blessed.
God inspired Elizabeth to praise and encourage Mary’s faith, that her child would, as the angel promised, be the Son of God, ruling over the children of Israel forever (vv. 32-33).
Mary’s song of praise
Mary’s response is a hymn of praise, arranged with the parallel thoughts that characterize Hebrew poetry, such as Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2. Mary’s song is traditionally called the Magnificat (the first word of the Latin translation):
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (vv. 46-47).
In this verse, the second line repeats the thought of the first—"my soul" and "my spirit" are similar, and "glorifies" and "rejoices in" are similar ideas. But the second line adds a new thought at the end: Not only is God the Lord, he is also the Savior. Mary then gives a reason for rejoicing: God has rewarded her humility:
"for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name" (vv. 48-49).
Mary, seeing the evidence in Elizabeth, knows that God has already done what he promised to Mary, that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Mary says that God has helped her, and everyone will know of her blessing. She then reverses the flow by saying again that God has helped her, and praising God, returns to the thought that she started her poetry with. (This mirror-like arrangement is called a chiasm.)
Mary then expands her praise to include everyone who trusts in God, contrasting God’s blessings for the humble with his opposition to the proud:
"His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts" (vv. 50-51).
To those who worship God, he gives mercy, but those who do not care about God are brushed aside with mighty deeds. A similar contrast is seen in verses 52-53, with another balanced structure—the rich, the poor; the poor, the rich:
"He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty."
God works in a great reversal, bringing the mighty down and exalting the poor and the weak. God did not send his Son into the palaces of royalty, but he honored the working poor of Galilee. Salvation comes not from human power, but must depend on the intervention of God. Mary represents all who trust in God to do what he has promised.
Mary concludes by mentioning God’s promise to the ancestors of the nation:
"He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers" (vv. 54-55).
The birth of John
The next significant event in Luke’s story is the birth of John. "When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy" (vv. 57-58).
They did not name the baby until the eighth day, when he was circumcised, and there was a community celebration. Although boys were often named after their grandfathers, the neighbors and relatives thought it would be appropriate to name the boy after his elderly father: "On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John’" (vv. 59-60).
"John" comes from the Hebrew Yohanan, which means "God is gracious." The neighbors objected to this name, since it wasn’t in the family traditions. Zechariah was apparently deaf as well as mute, so "they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child" (v. 62).
Zechariah names John.[Illustration by Ken Tunell]
Zechariah "asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God" (vv. 63-64). Earlier, Zechariah had been made mute after he asked, "How can I be sure of this?" (v. 18). He now had the evidence he wanted, and as the angel promised (v. 20), his speech was restored when God fulfilled his promise.
Luke will soon tell us what Zechariah said, but first he tells us what effect the miracle had on the people: "The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him" (vv. 65-66).
Rumors were stirring, Luke tells us. Many people knew that God was doing something among his people. Could it be that God would give them the Messiah they hoped for?
"Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied" (v. 67). After nine months of enforced silence, in which he no doubt frequently thought about God’s faithfulness, he praises God. His song is called the Benedictus, which is the first word of the Latin version.
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David" (vv. 68-69).
Surprisingly, Zechariah (a Levite) is not speaking of his own son—just as Elizabeth did, he focused on Mary’s unborn child, predicting the son of David. But John, the Levite baby, is nevertheless part of God’s preparation for rescuing the Jewish nation. In Hebrew, "horn" was a symbol of strength (perhaps from the strength of horned animals such as oxen), so Zechariah predicts a mighty salvation. He focuses on the Jewish people; he may not have realized (unlike Luke, who knew more of the story) that the Messiah would rescue the Gentiles as well.
Just as Mary did, Zechariah mentions that salvation was predicted, that it was part of the blessings promised to Abraham (Gen. 22:18), and that God was keeping those promises:
"(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (vv. 70-75).
Zechariah briefly turns his attention to his own son, with an echo of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1:
"And you, my child, will be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord
to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation" (Luke 1:76-77).
He then describes the salvation of the Lord—not a military conquest, but a spiritual rescue, bringing light and instruction in the way of peace. In this section, Zechariah uses concepts found in Isaiah 9:2; 60:1-3; and Malachi 4:2:
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace" (vv. 77-79).
Salvation will come not through force, but through spiritual growth. Through the Lord, the people will be enlightened about salvation, forgiveness, mercy and peace. John’s role will be to prepare the way.
Luke now summarizes the next 30 years for John: "The child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (v. 80). There is a hint of greater things yet to come. The promises made to the people have not been forgotten.
Questions for application
Do I believe that the Lord will do as he said? (v. 45) Why is it sometimes difficult to trust him?
What mighty things has the Lord done for me? (v. 49)
When God intervenes in my life, do I respond with songs of praise?
How important is the mercy of God to me? (vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78) When I praise him, is mercy a frequent theme?
Do I serve God "without fear," or am I sometimes embarrassed? (v. 74)
Who is "the rising sun … from heaven"? (v. 78). Has he guided me in the path of peace? (v. 79)