In the last essay we studied Luke 1:5-38. That passage included prophecies of the births of both John the Baptist (the Messianic forerunner) and Jesus (the Messiah). Although the birth of Jesus is the central focus, we saw Luke weave the story of the birth of John into his narrative about Jesus.
In this essay we study 1:39-80. In these two sections we find a visit by Mary to Elizabeth and an account of the birth of John. Beginning with verses 39-45 this visit by Mary to Elizabeth ties the stories of John and Jesus even more closely together. We are not told what Judean town Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in, but it would have been somewhere in the southern part of Palestine. When Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby, whom you will remember was filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb, leaps inside her. And Elizabeth herself is filled with the Spirit on the spot.
The Spirit reveals several things to Elizabeth, and she spontaneously exclaims to Mary, “Blessed are you among women.” She was right. God had greatly blessed Mary in all of this, though I’m sure Mary didn’t fully understand it all at the time.
Then Elizabeth continues, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Of course Elizabeth didn’t understand the full meaning of what she was saying either; but again she was right. As we learn later, Mary’s baby was to be the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
But Elizabeth isn’t finished. She continues, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Again we don’t know just how much understanding Elizabeth had of her own words; but at any rate, the Spirit revealed to her that Mary’s baby was her Lord.
Next, in verse 44, Elizabeth gives her interpretation of her baby’s leaping in her womb. She declares that he was leaping for joy over these wonderful revelations.
Finally, Elizabeth says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Thus she returns to the blessedness of Mary with which she began. Mary was blessed because of her faith.
Now then, in verses 46-50 we see Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled outburst. It is a song of praise. The Church traditionally has called this song the Magnificat, because Mary’s first word in the song in Greek is the word “magnifies.” Literally it reads, “Magnifies the soul of me the Lord.” The NIV translates it “praises.”
The song has some similarity to Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2, and to the psalms. Notice that Mary not only praises God, but acknowledges that she has been favored and blessed, as Elizabeth said. And she rejoices in what the Lord had done for her. Then she celebrates three attributes of God: his power, his character as holy, and his great mercy on those throughout the generations who fear him.
In verses 51-53 Mary draws a contrast between the proud, powerful, and rich on the one hand, and the humble, lowly, and hungry (that is, the poor) on the other hand. The humble, lowly and poor are those mentioned in verse 50 who fear God from generation to generation. The proud, powerful and rich are those who do not fear God. They rely on their own strength and wealth rather than on God. They prove themselves to be the enemies of God whether they are part of Israel or not.
Finally, in verses 54-55, Mary turns to the larger picture. She declares that God’s “servant Israel,” meaning the believing remnant in Israel (those who fear God), is receiving the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. In other words Mary understood that God was acting to fulfill his covenant promises.
Verse 56 ends the segment with an historical note. Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months. Since Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy when Mary visited, it stands to reason that Mary stayed until John was born, though that is not said anywhere.
In verses 57-66 we find the story of the birth and circumcision of John. The first thing we see is that Elizabeth’s friends and relatives, who knew she had been barren, recognized that God had been merciful to Elizabeth; and when John was born, they rejoiced with her (vv. 57-58).
Next, when John was eight days old, Zechariah and Elizabeth prepared for his circumcision. The family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth would have none of that (vv. 59). The family undoubtedly would have been shocked at Elizabeth’s firmness about it (v. 60). And they were not about to take the word of a woman on such an important matter, so they turned to Zechariah, who asked for a writing tablet so that he could write down his answer. And he confirmed what Elizabeth had said (vv. 61-63).
The family had not yet recovered from their amazement over the naming when Zechariah’s speech suddenly returned. And Zechariah began to praise God. At this point the neighbors’ amazement turned to a more profound fear and awe, and the story became a bit of a sensation in the general area (v. 65). People were asking, “What then will this child become?” This was a natural question for people to ask. For as Luke says, “indeed, the hand of he Lord was with him (v. 66).
The rest of the chapter (verses 67-80) consists of a prophecy by Zechariah. It is not clear that Zechariah spoke these words the same day that his speech returned, though that is quite possible. Some scholars call this poem a song, but Luke says that Zechariah prophesied (v. 67). The Church traditionally has called it the Benedictus.
Zechariah blesses and praises God for having visited his people and redeemed them (v. 68). He goes on to say that God did it by raising up a horn of salvation in the house of David. Of course horns are the locus of power of animals that have them. Thus this “horn,” which he calls a “horn of salvation” represents the power of salvation. And he says that the horn will arise in the house of David, which means that he is the Davidic Messiah (v. 69).
Next, in verse 70, Zechariah declares that God had of old promised to save Israel through his holy prophets. They were holy because they were instruments of God’s divine revelation that Israel would be saved from her enemies (v. 71). Thus God’s promises of mercy were not empty promises; God did not forget his covenant (v. 72). In verses 73-75, Zechariah reminds his listeners of God’s oath given to Abraham in Gen. 22:16-18 that God would give Abraham unnumbered descendants and deliverance from enemies. Interestingly, the key idea in Zechariah’s mind was that such deliverance would enable God’s people to “serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness.”
In the final segment of the section (vv. 76-80), Zechariah honors his child. At this point Zechariah shifts his attention to his son’s role in the saving acts of God. And he does it by speaking to the child. Zechariah tells him that he will be “the prophet of the most high and that he will be the forerunner to the Messiah (v. 76). This would be in fulfillment of Is 40:3 as well as Mal. 3:1. His ministry will include giving knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins (v. 77). It is interesting that forgiveness of sins is mentioned, but not baptism, since John was famous for his baptisms. Of course John’s baptisms represented forgiveness of sins.
Next, Zechariah uses the image of light as a guide to “the way of peace” (vv. 78-79). Peace (Hebrew shalom) in Scripture is closely related to salvation.
Verse 80 provides an historical conclusion, much as 1:56 did. This is all we know about John’s boyhood and youth. He grew and became strong in spirit. And then he “was in the wilderness until he began his ministry.
Turning to application, I would like to mention three points. First, the faith exhibited by Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah is a wonderful model for us. Faith essentially is trust. And these three people trusted God in a simple, classic fashion that we should emulate. They received God’s revelations at face value and believed them with complete trust.
Second, Mary, in her Magnificat, praised God as we all should. She praises his power, his character as holy, and his great mercy.
And third, Zechariah, in his Benedictus, adds the most important matter for which we ought to praise God. He praises him for his salvation through the Davidic Messiah (Christ).