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Birth of John. The Annunciation
1-4. Preface. To write a preface to a history is not a Jewish, but a classical custom, and by following it St. Luke shows himself a true Gentile, trained in Greek culture and imitating classical models. Here he affects classical elegance and correctness of expression, but in the course of his Gospel he generally imitates the simpler synoptic style.
This Preface contains all that is really known as distinguished from what is guessed about the sources of the Synoptic Gospels. Its main statements are, (1) that already, when St. Luke was compiling his Gospel (56-58 a.d.), many earlier Gospels existed; (2) that these Gospels were based upon the evidence of the eyewitnesses; (3) that these eyewitnesses were the apostles and official Christian teachers; (4) that the eyewitnesses ’delivered’ their testimony in the form of a more or less definitely fixed tradition, which may have been either oral or written; (5) that Christians were definitely instructed and catechised in the contents of this tradition.
St. Luke claims for his Gospel, (1) diligence in collecting all available materials, (2) fulness, (3) careful investigation especially of the earliest period (our Lord’s birth and infancy), (4) orderly arrangement, (5) accuracy.
1. Surely believed] RV ’fulfilled.’
2. Even as] i.e. these narratives were in exact accordance with the evidence of the eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses] i.e. mainly the Apostles themselves, perhaps also the seventy disciples.
3. In order] may refer either to chronological order, or to orderly arrangement according to subjects.
Most excellent Theophilus] Some think that Theophilus is not a real person, but an ideal name for a Christian reader (’beloved of God’). More probably Theophilus was a distinguished Roman citizen resident in Rome. The epithet ’most excellent’ was under the empire peculiarly appropriated to Romans of high rank, and became in the 2nd cent, a technical title indicating equestrian rank. This is probably its sense here. Both Felix and Festus, addressed by this title in Acts 23:26; Acts 24:3; Acts 26:25, were ’knights’ (equites). Acts is also dedicated to Theophilus.
4. Instructed] lit. ’catechised,’ i.e. taught by means of question and answer. At a very early period, probably in the apostolic age, candidates for baptism (’catechumens’) were required to go through a preliminary course of training in Christian doctrine and morality, of which catechising formed a prominent part. Theophilus was probably one of St. Luke’s own converts, who had with other catechumens attended regular catechising on the life of our Lord.
5-25. Conception of John the Baptist. The rise of Christianity was preceded by a long period of four hundred years, during which prophecy was silent, and the religious guidance of the nation passed to the rabbis and the scribes, who made void the Law of God by their traditions. The advent of Christ was heralded by a great revival of prophecy, and by the restoration of direct communications from God to man through supernatural agency, as in the cases of Zacharias, Joseph, Mary, Elisabeth, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds, the Magi, and, in particular, John the Baptist, who, though he left no written prophecies, and worked no miracle, was declared by our Lord to be the greatest of the prophets, yea, and more than a prophet.
5. The classical style of the preface now changes abruptly to one which is deeply tinged with Hebraisms. This Hebraic style continues to the end of Luke 2. Some scholars explain it by supposing that St. Luke is here using a Hebrew document. Herod] see Matthew 2:1.
The course of Abia (Abijah)] David divided the priests into twenty-four ’courses’ or groups, each of which in rotation was responsible for the Temple services for a week. Each course, therefore, officiated twice a year, at an interval of six months. The course of Abijah was the eighth. After the Captivity only four courses returned, but these were subdivided into twenty-four courses under the old names. The course of Abijah is said to have officiated in April and October: see 1 Chronicles 24:3; Nehemiah 1:1.
6. Righteous] i.e. according to the OT. standard. They were good, pious Jews, strict and careful observers of the Mosaic Law, but not, of course, sinless.
9. Lot] To avoid disputes the various functions were decided by lot. To burn incense] This was done daily, morning and evening (Exodus 30:6-8). The daily sacrifice of the lamb was offered on the great altar of burnt offering outside the Temple proper, in front of the porch. The incense was offered inside the Temple on the golden altar of incense which stood before the veil of the Holy of Holies. The officiating priest was alone within the Temple while offering the incense, and the other priests and the people were outside worshipping in the various Temple courts. Only once in a. lifetime could a man enjoy this privilege, and he was ever afterwards called ’rich.’ It was the ’highest, mediatorial act,’ ’the most solemn part of the day’s service, symbolising Israel’s accepted prayers.’
11. An angel] It was said of the high priest Simon the Just (died 320 b.c.) that ’for those forty years wherein he had served as high priest, he had seen an angel clothed in white coming into the Holy Place on the Day of Atonement and going out again.’ St. Luke gives special prominence to the ministry of angels, and the appearances which he records are particularly difficult to account for as subjective phenomena: see Luke 1:26; Luke 2:9, Luke 2:13, Luke 2:21; Luke 12:8; Luke 15:10; Luke 16:22; Luke 22:43; Luke 24:4, Luke 24:23, and often in Acts.
12. Was troubled] cp. Luke 2:9; Judges 6:22; Judges 13:22, etc.
13. My prayer] Probably not for offspring, but for the coming of the kingdom of God, and of the Messianic salvation, the only suitable prayer for so solemn an occasion. It was a maxim of the rabbis that ’a prayer in which there is no mention of the kingdom of God is no prayer at all.’ John] lit. ’Jehovah is gracious.’
15. John was a Nazirite, i.e. one of a class of men in Israel who consecrated themselves to God by abstaining from all intoxicants, by avoiding with scrupulous care all ceremonial defilement, and by wearing the hair long, Numbers 6:1-21. Usually men made the Nazirite vow for a definite time, not less than thirty days, but John, like Samson, Samuel, and the Rechabites in the OT., was a Nazirite for life. There are some examples of the Nazirite vow even among Christians (Acts 18:18; Acts 21:26). James the Lord’s brother is said by Hegesippus to have been a life-long Nazirite.
John, the Nazirite and dweller in the wilderness (probably also a celibate), represents the austere and ascetic type of piety which few can imitate. Jesus, purposing in His life to offer an example to all mankind, came eating and drinking, and sharing the joys and sorrows and even the recreations of ordinary society. Both these types of piety, the ascetic and the social, have their place in the Kingdom of God.
Filled with the Holy Ghost] As Jesus was conceived without sin, so his forerunner was sanctified in the womb, though the reference is less to personal sanctification than to consecration to the prophetic office: see Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:5.
17. Go before him] RV ’go before his face,’ i.e. before the face of Jehovah. Elias] RV ’Elijah’: see Malachi 4:5-6 and on Matthew 17:10. To turn the hearts, etc.] Malachi’s exact words are, ’He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.’ ’The fathers’ are the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, ’the children’ are their degenerate descendants who have alienated the heart of ’their fathers’ by their disobedience to their godly precepts. The preaching of John will turn the heart of the children to imitate their just (i.e. pious) ancestors, and thus the heart of their ancestors, now alienated, will be turned to them in love and approbation.
18. With the unbelief of Zacharias compare the laughter of Abraham, Genesis 17:17, and of Sarah, Genesis 1:12. To ask for a sign was not in itself wrong. Abraham, Gideon, and Hezekiah had done so without rebuke. But the appearance of the angel ought itself to have been a sufficient sign to Zacharias.
19. I am Gabriel, etc.] cp. Tobit 1:15, ’I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and go in before the glory of the Holy One.’ Two angels only are named in the canonical Scriptures, Gabriel (lit. ’the mighty man of God’), Daniel 8:16; Daniel 9:21 and Michael (lit. ’Who is like God?’), Daniel 10:13, Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1; Judges 1:9; Revelation 12:7; In the Apocrypha, Raphael and Uriel are also named. The rabbis say that the Jews learnt the names of the angels in Babylon.
The apparent sanction given here to current Jewish angelology is a good instance of the accommodation to human ideas which is so common in both Testaments. God’s messenger reveals himself by the name of Gabriel, because that was the name by which he was commonly known among the Jews. The Jews themselves did not suppose that they knew the real names of the angels. According to the rabbis the names of the angels represented their mission, and were changed as their mission was changed.
21. Marvelled that he tarried] RV ’Marvelled while he tarried.’ The people were afraid that the officiating priest might be struck dead for omitting some formality (Leviticus 1:13), hence the custom was for the priest to finish his ministry as quickly as possible. Once when Simon the Just delayed too long, the people became so anxious that they almost broke into the Holy Place. Afterwards they reproached him for his want of consideration for them.
22. Came out] His duty was now to pronounce the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24), but this he was unable to do.
23. The days] i.e. the week of the course of Abijah.
24. Hid herself five months] She desired to devote herself entirely to prayer and thanksgiving for so signal a mercy. The reproach of childlessness was deeply felt: see Genesis 30:23; 1 Samuel 1:6, etc.
26-38. The Annunciation (see on Matthew 1). Wonder and awe and adoring praise are the emotions with which Christians have ever regarded the unspeakable condescension of Him who, ’when He took upon Him human nature to deliver it, did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.’ That Mary fully understood who her child was to be, cannot be supposed. The thought of such a condescension of the Author of nature as is implied in the words of the Creed ’conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,’ is overwhelming even to us; to Mary it would have been so appalling that she could not possibly have performed the duties of a mother. Hence the angel was only permitted to reveal to her, that her son would be the Messiah, and the ’Son of God’ in some specially exalted yet human sense. The whole narrative moves within the circle of Jewish OT. ideas, and this is a proof of its truth, for an invented story would certainly show marks of a Christian origin. The grace, modest reticence, and inimitable simplicity of the narrative, are in marked contrast to the vulgar details of the Apocryphal Gospels. The festival of the Annunciation (the day on which our Lord became man) is kept on March 25th.
26. The sixth month] i.e. from the conception of John, Luke 1:24. Nazareth] see on Matthew 2:23
28. Came in] Local tradition states that Gabriel appeared to her as she was drawing water at the fountain of the Virgin outside Nazareth, where the Church of the Annunciation now stands. But, as the angel ’came in’ to her, she must have been in the house, perhaps engaged in prayer, as painters are fond of representing her. Two well-known devotions have been founded on this incident: (1) the ’Ave Maria’ (’Hail, Mary!’); (2) the ’Angelus.’
Highly favoured] or, rather, ’endued with grace’ (RM), not, as the Vulgate has it, ’full of grace.’ She is addressed not as the mother of grace, but as the daughter of it (Bengel). The angel recognised in Mary a holiness of an entirely special kind, which God had given her to fit her to be the mother of the Holy One. Sinless in the absolute sense she probably was not (see on John 2:4), yet we may reverently believe that no one approached the perfection of holiness and purity so nearly as she. Blessed art thou among women] These words are omitted by many good authorities: see on Luke 1:42.
32. His father David] This seems to imply the Davidic descent of Mary: cp. Luke 1:27, which is ambiguous, and Luke 1:69.
34. How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?] The traditional view of this passage, which sees in it a proof of the perpetual virginity of our Lord’s mother, is perhaps correct. Unless Mary had resolved to remain a virgin after her marriage with Joseph, and had obtained her husband’s consent to do so, she would not, as a betrothed woman, regard it as impossible that she should have a child: see on Matthew 1:25; Matthew 12:50.
35. The Holy Ghost, etc.] Mary would doubtless understand ’the Holy Ghost’ impersonally, as the creative power of God, but St. Luke’s readers would understand it personally, as frequently in the Acts. The Holy Ghost, (1) miraculously forms and hallows our Lord’s human body and soul at His conception; (2) descends upon Him with an abiding unction at His baptism, consecrating Him to the Messianic office and preparing Him for His ministry; (3) brings about the mystical union of the ascended Christ with His people.
Overshadow] like the Shekinah in the Temple, or the cloud of glory at the Transfiguration, which symbolised the divine presence. We have here ’a new, immediate and divine act of creation, and thus the transmission of sinfulness from the sinful race to him is excluded.’ That holy thing, etc.] RV ’that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God.’ Mary would probably understand from this that her Child was to be sinless, but not that He would be divine, because the Son of God was an accepted title of the Messiah.
36. Unasked, the angel gives Mary a sign. He who has caused Elisabeth to conceive contrary to nature can make good His word to Mary also. Thy cousin] RV ’thy kinswoman.’ It does not follow from this that Mary belonged, like Elisabeth, to the tribe of Levi. Male descent alone determined the tribe, and Mary may have been related to Elisabeth on her mother’s side.
38. Behold the handmaid (lit. ’the slave’) of the Lord] In these words of humble submission Mary accepts her great destiny. She does so freely, with full understanding of the difficulty of her position. The future she leaves in God’s hand. Be it unto me according to thy word] This sacred moment, which marks the beginning of our Lord’s incarnate life, should be contrasted with Genesis 3:6. There the disobedience of a woman brought sin and death into the world. Here the obedience of a woman brought salvation, reversing the effect of the Fall.
39-56. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth. The Magnificat. This beautiful narrative must be derived from Mary herself, probably directly. It is told as vividly and minutely after a lapse of half-a-century as if it were an event of yesterday. Clearly it was one of those things which the Virgin mother kept and pondered in her heart.
39. Into a city of Judah] or, ’into a city called Judah’ (i.e. possibly Juttah, a priestly city near Hebron).
41. The babe leaped] The Jews believed that children were intelligent before birth: cp. Genesis 25:22.
42. Blessed art thou among women] A Hebraism for ’Thou art the most blessed of all women’: see on Luke 1:48.
43. The mother of my Lord] The aged Elisabeth acknowledges that the young maiden is greater and more highly favoured than she, because she is ’the mother of my Lord,’ i.e. of the Messiah.
44. See on Luke 1:41.
45. For there shall be a performance] RM ’that there shall be,’ etc.
46-55. The Magnificat. This glorious song of praise, which has been used in the services of the Church from early times, tells us more than anything else in the NT. of the character of our Lord’s mother, and of her spiritual fitness for her exalted destiny. She was one who diligently searched the Scriptures, and was able in spite of her youth to enter into their deepest spiritual meaning. Not that she had risen as yet beyond the standpoint of Judaism. She still regarded the coming of the Kingdom as an overthrow of Herod’s dynasty and a restoration of Jewish nationalism (Luke 1:52, Luke 1:54). But her thoughts were fixed on its ethical character. It meant to her the setting up of the ideal of humility, gentleness, and charity, in place of the pride of temporal greatness, a thought which her Son carried further when He said, ’Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ In the Magnificat Mary appears as a prophetess, like Hannah, whom she closely imitates, but greatly excels in spiritual elevation: see 1 Samuel 2:1. The genuineness of the Magnificat is manifest from its thoroughly Jewish character. It contains no trace of definitely Christian ideas. These may be read into it, and were intended by the Holy Spirit to be ultimately read into it, but they are not there in such a form as to be apprehended by those who are not already Christians. The Magnificat is conveniently divided into two parts: (1) Luke 1:46-49, (2) Luke 1:50-55. The first part is personal in character, expressing the exultant praise of the holy mother for the signal favour which God has shown her, and foretelling that all future generations will call her blessed. The second part sets forth the character of the Kingdom as a moral revolution, and a reversal of all existing standards of goodness and greatness.
46. In the Gospels (not in the Pauline Epistles) ’soul’ and ’spirit’ are synonymous.
47. In God my Saviour] In Mary’s idea of ’salvation’ was doubtless included deliverance from foreign power as well as spiritual deliverance. ’God my Saviour’ is, of course, in accordance with OT. ideas, God the Father. Not till much later did she come to regard her Son in this aspect.
48. The low estate] cp. 1 Samuel 1:11. Mary, though descended from David, was in humble circumstances.
All generations shall call me blessed] Prophetically spoken. She has become the pattern of womanhood and motherhood to the whole Christian world, and her song has been enshrined in the Liturgy of every Christian Church. Reverence for our Lord’s mother, even in its abuses, has not been without its elevating effect on humanity. ’It is remarkable,’ says a judicious writer, ’that one of whom we know nothing except her gentleness and her sorrow, should have exercised a magnetic power upon the world incomparably greater than was exercised by the most majestic female patriots of Paganism. Whatever may be thought of its theological propriety, there can be little doubt that the Catholic reverence for the Virgin has done much to elevate and purify the ideal of woman, and to soften the manners of men. It supplied in a great measure the redeeming and ennobling element in that strange amalgam of religious, licentious, and military feeling which was formed round women in the age of chivalry, and which no succeeding change of habit or belief has wholly destroyed’ (Lecky).
49. Cp. Psalms 111:9.
50. Cp. Psalms 103:17; Psalms 51. Cp. Psalms 89:10. With prophetic certainty Mary regards the putting down of pride, and the establishment of meekness as already achieved.
52. Cp. Job 5:11; Job 12:19; 1 Samuel 2:7. The mighty] RV ’princes,’ include Herod and his dynasty, but the main idea is that a kingdom based on humility and love has entered into the world, more powerful than all earthly kingdoms, and destined to revolutionise them.
53. Cp. Psalms 107:9; Psalms 34:10; 1 Samuel 2:5. In true OT. style spiritual and temporal blessings are conceived of as united in the Messianic age. The temporal needs of the poor and lowly are to be cared for and their wrongs redressed. All things needful both for their souls and bodies will be bountifully supplied.
54. Cp. Psalms 98:3.
55. Cp. Micah 7:20. The national feeling is pronounced. The Gentiles are not mentioned, except indirectly in the allusion to the promise to Abraham. The true translation of Luke 1:54-55 is (see RV) ’He hath helped Israel his servant, that he might remember mercy towards Abraham and his seed for ever, as he spake to our fathers.
56. Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s condition (Matthew 1:18) must have been subsequent to her return to Nazareth.
57-80. Birth and childhood of the Baptist. The Benedictus.
59. The eighth day] Circumcision took place on the eighth day, even though it was the sabbath: see John 7:22. At the circumcision of a child the circumciser said, ’Blessed be the Lord our God, who hath sanctified us by his precepts and hath given us the law of circumcision.’ The father replied, ’Who hath sanctified us by his precepts and hath commanded us to enter the child into the covenant of Abraham our father.’
63. Writing table] i.e. a tablet covered with wax for writing upon.
68-79. The Benedictus. ’This song, which was composed in the priest’s mind during the time of his silence, broke solemnly from his lips the moment speech was restored to him, as the metal flows from the crucible in which it has been melted the moment that an outlet is made for it’ (Godet). It consists of five strophes, each of three vv., but is most conveniently divided into two portions: (1) Luke 1:68-75, (2) Luke 1:76-79. In the first portion Zacharias praises God for having now fulfilled His promises to Israel by raising up the Messiah in David’s house, to save Israel from foreign oppression, and to establish peace, true religion, and righteousness. In the second portion Zacharias directly addresses his son as the destined forerunner of the Messiah, and the preacher of repentance to Israel. The song closes with a beautiful description of the salvation which the Messiah will bring to His people.
This song, like the Magnificat, is purely Jewish in tone. It does not even mention the Gentiles, and it is only in the light of subsequent events that a Christian sense can be read into it.
68. Hath visited] The past tense may express Zacharias’ certainty that the Messiah will come, but more probably it implies prophetic knowledge that the conception of Jesus has already taken place. Redeemed] To Zacharias this would mean political redemption from foreign rule as well as spiritual redemption.
69. An horn of salvation] The power of the Messianic King is likened to the strength of a bull, or wild-ox (AV ’unicorn’), which is represented by his horns: cp. 1 Samuel 2:10; 2 Samuel 22:3; Psalms 75:10, etc. David] The expression implies that Mary was descended from David.
70. Since the world began] may be taken literally, Adam being regarded as the first prophet. More probably it is used vaguely for ’in olden times.’
71. Enemies] i.e. Herod and the Romans, but when Christians sing this hymn, they mean Satan and all the enemies of Christ.
72. To perform the mercy promised to our fathers] RV ’To shew mercy towards our fathers.’ The RV implies that the patriarchs, though dead, still exist, and take an interest in the fortunes of their posterity, a doctrine affirmed with authority by Christ (Matthew 22:32).
Covenant] The ’covenant’ and ’the oath’ (Luke 1:73) are identical, though the irregular grammatical construction conceals this: see Genesis 22:16-18.
76. Of the Lord] Zacharias understood it of Jehovah; Christians understand it of Christ. 77. This v. well describes the character of John’s ministry, which joined the announcement of the Kingdom with the preaching of repentance. Translate, ’To give unto his people knowledge of salvation—salvation which consists in the remission of sins.’
78. The dayspring] The Gk. word here (anatole) is ambiguous. It may either mean the rising of a heavenly body, and hence the heavenly body itself, so that the Messiah is virtually called ’the Sun’ or ’Star of Israel,’ or it may mean ’the Branch,’ a title applied to the Messiah (Jeremiah 23:5; Jeremiah 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12).
79. Peace] not successful war is Zacharias’ ideal for the Messianic period, and not only earthly peace, but ’peace with God.’
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Luke 1". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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