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Luke 1:1. Many.—St. Luke cannot here refer exclusively to the works of the other evangelists. He alludes to narratives drawn up by writers who derived their information from the testimony of “eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.” The first and fourth Gospels, written by “eye-witnesses and ministers of the word,” are necessarily excluded from this category. This would only leave one Gospel, St. Mark’s, as a representative of the “many” incomplete narratives. Neither can St. Luke refer to apocryphal gospels, which are of a very much later date and of no historical value. “He had in view rather the very earliest literary attempts, made by persons more or less authorised, at the beginning of the apostolic age; and it may be reasonably concluded from this preface, that, during the composition of his Gospel, he had before him many written documents and records, which, when they seemed worthy of acceptation, be incorporated in its pages. The relative coincidence between this and the two former Gospels is certainly most simply accounted for by supposing them to have been freely drawn from common sources” (Lange). Taken in hand.—I.e. attempted; as Luke 1:3 implies, the attempts had not been very successful. The narratives were fragmentary and ill-arranged, but not necessarily erroneous. Which are most surely believed among us. R.V. “which have been fulfilled among us.” A rendering favoured by many critics, and which seems to yield a better sense, is, “which have been full accredited,” or “established by sure evidence.”
Luke 1:2. Even as they.—I.e. the apostles and original disciples. The English rendering is at first a little misleading. From the beginning.—I.e. from the time Jesus began His public ministry. To have associated with the Saviour from the time of the baptism of John was a necessary qualification for apostleship (Acts 1:21-22).
Luke 1:3. It seemed good to me also.—“St. Luke by this classes himself with these πολλοί, and shows that he intended no disparagement nor blame to them, and was going to construct his own history from similar sources. The words that follow imply, however, a conscious superiority of his own qualification for the work” (Alford). Having had perfect understanding, etc.—Rather, “having traced the course of all things accurately” (R.V.). From the very first.—Reference is made here to the contents of the first two chapters of the Gospel. The fragmentary narratives in question dealt solely or chiefly with the official life of the Lord. In order.—I.e. “to narrate the events consecutively in a connected series, and methodical, but not necessarily chronological, order” (Wordsworth). Most excellent.—A title formally applied to officials of high rank (Acts 23:26; Acts 24:3; Acts 26:25). Theophilus.—Probably like St. Luke himself, a Gentile convert. Nothing whatever is known of the person here addressed. The name was a very common one. The idea that it is not a proper name, but is to be taken as a designation of a believer—“one who loves God,” or “is loved by God”—is far-fetched and highly improbable. The official title—“most excellent”—is a conclusive argument against it.
Luke 1:4. Instructed.—Lit. “catechised”; reference being made to the oral teaching imparted to candidates for baptism (catechumens). The section from Luke 1:5 to Luke 2:52 is Hebräistic in style, and hence many have supposed that the Evangelist here makes use of Aramaic documents.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Luke 1:1-4
The Relation of Believers to the Written Word.
I. Faith in Christ and personal devotion to Him are the sources of religious life, and not merely faith in a book.—Many early disciples had very imperfect knowledge of Jesus, and had to draw upon materials of information very much inferior to those in our Gospels, and yet manifested a love to their Saviour which puts us to shame. The Christian Church, indeed, existed for several centuries before the canon of the New Testament was fully formed. In the age in which St. Luke wrote, and long afterwards, multitudes became Christians who never saw a copy of any of the Gospels, but relied upon the teaching imparted by evangelists and preachers. This explains the words of St. Paul: “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). Specimens of this oral teaching are to be found in Acts 10:36-43; Acts 13:23-41. The fact that there may be vital religion of the most genuine kind in the cases of individuals who have not very abundant knowledge is a very significant one. We need to remember, too, that there may be abundant knowledge and very little of the religious spirit.
II. Devotion to Christ will lead to our treasuring up everything that we can learn concerning Him—every incident recorded, and every word that fell from His lips. It was this motive no doubt that led to the writing of the multitudinous narratives to which St. Luke here refers. People naturally desired that history of such immense spiritual importance should be committed to writing, and not merely to the fickle memories of hearers. Very early in the history of the Church Papias endeavoured to gather up all the fragments of oral traditions of the facts of the Saviour’s life that were still extant. This interest in everything that concerns Jesus accounts for the extraordinary fascination which the apocryphal gospels have had, in spite of their worthlessness, for many, in every generation of Christian history. As one who has studied them carefully says: “We know before we read them that they are weak, silly, and profitless—that they are despicable monuments even of religious fiction—yet still the secret conviction buoys us up, that, perchance, they may contain a few traces of time-honoured traditions—some faint, feeble glimpses of that blessed childhood, that pensive and secluded youth, over which, in passive moments, we muse with such irrepressible longing to know more—such deep, deep desideration. We think that, though so many have sought amidst all this incoherent tissue for the thin golden thread of true history, and have sought, as they themselves tell us, so utterly, so bitterly in vain—still our eyes may descry it—that we may see and realise in our souls some few unrecorded words or deeds of our Redeemer that others have failed to appreciate” (Ellicott).
III. Christian belief is not allied to credulity.—St. Luke writes that Theophilus may know the certainty of those things in which he had been instructed. The basis of fact is essential to faith; and therefore every believer is convinced that, in the New Testament records of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, he has to do with genuine history, and not with cunningly devised fables. This conviction rests upon reasonable grounds. Two of the evangelists, St. Matthew and St. John, were themselves eyewitnesses of events they describe, and were apostles of the Lord. St. Mark is generally considered to have drawn the greater part of his Gospel from the testimony of another eyewitness—St. Peter. While St. Luke writes as one who had had access to the fullest and most trustworthy materials for the biography he has drawn up, and plainly informs us that he had carefully traced out matters from the very beginning, and had scrupulously adhered to the principles that should guide a historian. The Gospels, therefore, submit to the test by which ordinary historical works are to be tried, and come scatheless out of the ordeal. The general tendency of modern criticism is to assign them to a period well within the time when persons were living who could have exposed their falsity, if they had not been records of fact.
Luke 1:1-4. The True Teacher.—St. Luke alone, of all the evangelists, writes a personal introduction to his Gospel. The historical is helpful to the doctrinal, and the record of the individual is as necessary as that of the community. Truth passes through one individual to mankind; the few teach the many. This preface is useful as a distinction, an explanation, and a reflection. It distinguishes the competent from the inadequate instructors, it explains the immediate design of the Gospel, and it reflects light on the high character of the writer. It has been remarked that St. Luke, in this preface, makes no claim to Divine inspiration. The best men do not, as a rule, claim inspiration in so many words, but evince it in their record. The sacred writers do not parade the supernatural; their words are bright with its lustre. True inspiration is self-revealing, and does not need to speak its presence any more than the star its light or the rose its fragrance. Men who talk much about inspiration often lack it. This preface is full of literary grace. A graceful style has its moral uses. St. Luke was a cultured penman; he could employ either the graceful or the rugged. This preface would be helpful to the circulation of the Gospel. Gospels do not disdain the advantage of secondary aids. Eternal realities make use of transient assistances; little things may sometimes advance redemptive missions. Small prefaces may herald the Christ. But a preface of high periods must never fall into a commonplace record; the kindled fire must glow more intensely as it burns. Thus is it with the Gospel of St. Luke. Here we have a pattern of the true teacher.
I. That he comes under the sacred spell of truth.—This preface informs us that “many” had taken in hand to write gospels, and that St. Luke was one of a multitude who had commenced a like task. Why so many scribes? Were they mainly animated by a curious desire to investigate the history of the Christ? was their intellectual activity stirred by the strange facts and doctrine they had heard? did they wish to gain fame by literature? Nay! These early writers had come under a mighty influence—the history of the Christ had awakened them to enthusiasm. The truths concerning Him burned in their souls, and longed for outlet through the pen. This is the true history of theological literature. It is the outcome of a holy enthusiasm stirred by soul-moving and unique facts. It is the outcome of a living and acting Christ. No other literature is written under such a constraining energy. Science has no such moving power. All truth has a charm for the sincere mind; but the charm of Christian truth is incomparable. Hence the number of written gospels. The enthusiasm is numerically strong as well as intense. Enthusiasm in the teacher awakens enthusiasm in the scholar. Christ has set many pens in motion. He has awakened innumerable teachers. Christianity is the best teaching power in the earth; it inculcates the most powerful knowledge—a knowledge mighty because based on facts. Men write about it only as they come under its sacred charm. The writer ignorant of this spell will never send a gospel to his fellows. The true teacher is not a common man, but a man in whose soul truth has been revealed, who strives to write in a book the inner vision he has seen and the subtle power he has felt. Only such a man can record miracles with grace. Such men must write gospels.
II. That he is not discouraged by the partial failure of others.—Many had taken in hand to write the holy record of the Christ. St. Luke seems to imply that their efforts were praiseworthy; he indeed ranks himself amongst them; he gives no censure; he implies their honesty. Doubtless they were zealous but inadequate scribes; had their histories been satisfactory, he would not have added another. Zeal is not competency. Evidently St. Luke does not include the other inspired evangelists as amongst “the many.” “The many” are indicated as outside the apostolic circle. He probably refers to writings which have not reached our age. Many feel the impulse of sacred literature; few only realise its ideal. The multitude write inadequate gospels; few write gospels that live. The numerous writers named by St. Luke indicate the difficulty of sacred authorship; in that even a multitude of men cannot accomplish it with success. That in which many fail must be hard to achieve. It indicates the inexhaustibility of religious truth; though many write about it, none can exhaust its meaning. The moral instructor can never wear out his theme. But inadequate attempts to unfold spiritual truth are not without value; each mind has its own peculiar view of Christ, and adds something to the universal conception of Him. But religious literature must of necessity be inadequate, because eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, pen cannot describe, these inscrutable things. The artist cannot paint the sun; he cannot even look upon its glory. Imperfect gospels must be superseded; they place truth in undue perspective; they may destroy the due proportion of the faith. The imperfect gospel must perish—time will destroy it; the true only can endure. But the true teacher is not discouraged by the multitude of imperfect gospels about him; he summons all his energy, uses them as far as he can, enlarges and transforms them, and conducts his own to a complete and perfect end. His gospel is immortal.
III. That his aim is to impart permanency to truth.—The “most excellent Theophilus” had been orally instructed and catechised in the things most surely believed. Rumour of them had reached him, and doubtless he had also enjoyed the privilege of definite verbal teaching. The traditions of the past had been related to him. But tradition was transient and uncertain, liable to corruption and decay. St. Luke was not content with the oral; he wanted “to write” to Theophilus, and through him to all subsequent ages. The true teacher is anxious alike for the adequate and permanent embodiment of the truth. He wants to write it in books, engrave it on immortal souls, embody it in human lives, and associate it with enduring institutions. He would rather commit it to the care of the pen than to the guardianship of the voice. The written Gospels keep the facts of Christianity alive in the universal mind. The true teacher does all he can to make the truth vital and permanent, so that when he is gone his gospel may survive and instruct. He builds a temple for the truth, that it may no longer live in a frail tent.
IV. That he exercises the highest qualities.—This preface proves that St. Luke gave his best abilities to the writing of his Gospel and to the instruction of Theophilus. He was not content to put forth an inferior effort or to gain a partial success; he engaged his whole being in the task.
1. Diligence. He was diligent in the use of existing documents; he did not want to be original where originality would be injurious. He was diligent in research; he traced the history point by point to its commencement. He did not indolently accept conclusions or facts without testing them. He was diligent in personal application and effort, so that he added much to existing information about the Messiah. The true teacher must be diligent; he must be given to original research and fervent endeavour. His mental activity will have a stimulating effect upon the student.
2. Method. St. Luke wrote “in order.” He was methodical in the arrangement of his materials. Truth is served by arrangement. It is worth arrangement. Arrangement aids the student. God is not the author of confusion. Order is heaven’s first law. It is visible in the material universe. The true teacher will have due regard to the advantage of arrangement; he will secure it by industry and skill. The order of the record will inspire order of mental conception and of moral life.
3. Completeness. St. Luke had “perfect understanding of all things.” He investigated facts both small and great; he allowed nothing to escape his observation; all were of meaning in his history. He was not a careless student. He was not a partial thinker. He was not a prejudiced investigator. He was not a sectarian scribe. He had nothing to conceal. All relating to the Christ was interesting and important to him, and would bear the light of day. The true teacher seeks to gather into his instruction all the facts relating to his theme, and so doing he need not fear results; they are in the safe keeping of truth. Completeness of instruction will lead to fulness of moral conduct.
4. Fidelity. St. Luke does not write as an “eyewitness”; the facts he narrates were delivered to him and investigated by him. Testimony is the basis of Christian truth; and in the first instance it is the testimony of eyewitnesses. St. Luke does not claim an authority he did not possess; he presents his authorship in its true light. This gives antecedent credibility to his history: a man true to himself will be true to his facts. He will not be likely to avail himself of seeming advantage in a clandestine manner. He will be characterised by candour and modesty. The true teacher does not claim more than his due, and will not assert an independence that does not belong to him. His fidelity will awaken a love of truth in his students.
5. Courtesy. St. Luke in his preface addresses Theophilus in the most courteous manner, both as regards his character and official position. Truth gains by the courtesy of its teacher. The true teacher is never rude; he has in him the wisdom that is gentle and peaceable. The historian of Christianity must approach men on their best side, and seek the advantage of conciliatory address. Courtesy reacts in the favourable disposition of the student.
V. That he understands the worth of the solitary mind.—St. Luke wrote his Gospel for the instruction and certitude of the most excellent Theophilus; the instruction and confirmation of one mind were to him an object of desire. He wanted to strengthen faith: how many teachers seem to awaken doubt!
1. The man was attractive in disposition. Theophilus was attractive in disposition. He was friendly toward the Divine. He would be likely to receive with meekness the engrafted word. The true teacher is drawn to the receptive scholar.
2. He was influential in rank. Not many mighty are called. The poor have the gospel preached to them. But the true teacher is also anxious to bring wealth and rank under the influence of the truth as it is in Jesus. Theophilus will be a helpful disciple in the future. Christ Himself sought the single soul, the woman of Samaria. The good Shepherd goes after one lost sheep until He finds it. The true teacher appreciates the value of the individual, and will write a gospel for the one mind.
3. He was representative in position. Though St. Luke wrote to one man, yet his Gospel is characterised by universality. The Gospel is sure to travel beyond Theophilus to the world. It will touch all ages. Providence takes our gospels to people we never addressed them to, to ages beyond our own. In St. Luke’s Gospel the light dawns upon the Gentile world; the true teacher has words of hope for the outcast, for universal man. He is not exclusive in temper. He delights in wise men from the East, in certain Greeks, as well as in the privileged people. One mind is worth more than a world. The Bible is more concerned about souls than suns and material systems.—Exell.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON Luke 1:1-4
Luke 1:1-4. The Prologue.—In the Muratorian fragment it is expressly said of Luke that he had not himself seen the Lord in the flesh, but, having drawn his information from as high a source as possible, began his narrative with the birth of John. In his prologue we see the witness, as it were, collecting the materials, and laying the productions of his predecessors, as well as the knowledge of his companions, under contribution, that he may present Theophilus with a reliable history.—McCheyne Edgar.
Luke 1:1. “Many have taken in hand.”—We have here an incidental notice of the sensation created in human society by the mission and work of Jesus Christ. Those who had seen and heard Him could not but be persuaded that His appearance upon earth was the greatest event in history, and those to whom they spoke of Him could scarcely fail to form the same opinion. As the first generation of believers who had had personal knowledge of the Saviour began to pass away, oral statements concerning His teaching and mighty deeds would naturally be superseded by written documents of a more or less imperfect character. Fragmentary knowledge would lead to the writing and circulation of defective narratives of the life of the Saviour; and no doubt, in some cases, legendary matter would find its way into the record. There was an opening, therefore, for the work of a regular historian like St. Luke, who would by personal labours fill up gaps in the narrative of the life of the Founder of Christianity, and reject all such matter as was from its apocryphal character unworthy of a place in it. The greatness of the task—“to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us” (R.V.), or an adequate account of the life of Jesus—explains why so many had failed in the endeavour. The life of any ordinary man, who has been successful in accomplishing a certain limited piece of work, may with care be satisfactorily written; but that of those who have exercised wide and deep influence upon the society in which they have lived can only be presented in an imperfect and one-sided manner. In many instances the biography utterly fails to explain to a succeeding generation the extraordinary personal influence exercised by the subject of it upon those who came in contact with him. A consideration of this fact convinces us of the enormous, if not insuperable, difficulties in the way of writing the life of One who was Son of God as well as Son of man. Two reasons for the failure that marked the tentative biographies to which St. Luke here alludes may be noted:
(1) the incompleteness of the historical material at the command of the authors; and
(2) want of adequate spiritual sympathy between them and Him of whom they wrote. Hase felicitously compares these early gospels which have now passed into oblivion with the fossil plants which have disappeared to give place to existing vegetation.
“Among us.”—Whether we take the latter clause of the verse to mean “the events which have been fulfilled,” or “the matters which are most surely-believed,” the words “among us” imply that St. Luke is writing as a sacred, and not as a secular, historian. The readers whom he has in view are those who are firmly convinced that the kingdom of God has been established on earth by the life and work of Jesus, the Son of God. It is our being convinced of this fact by the living evidence of those who are believers in Christ, and by the existence of His Church in the world, that will enable us to read the Gospels themselves so as to understand them aright, and to receive the testimony concerning Him that they have to give. Faith in Him as the Saviour will then enable us to understand the significance of His teaching and work.
Luke 1:2. “Eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”—Though St. Luke hints at the unsatisfactory results of these early attempts to write the life of Jesus, he casts no slur upon the motives which had influenced the authors of them—indeed, he implies that these narratives were in general based upon the oral testimony of persons who had known Jesus. The errors that characterised them were, therefore, more likely to be those arising from defective knowledge than from intentional perversion of fact. The sources from which St. Luke drew his Gospel were threefold:
(1) the statements of “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”;
(2) the results of the inquiries which he himself had made into events in the life of Christ, which were not usually contained in oral preaching or not prominent in it; and
(3) no doubt material in the writings to which he refers which was suitable for his purpose. Examples of brief narratives of the life of Jesus as given in oral teaching are to be found in Acts 10:36-43; Acts 13:23-38. Both of these start from the period of John’s preaching and baptism. St. Luke mentions two qualifications which gave weight to the testimony of apostles and original disciples:
(1) they were eyewitnesses of the life of the Saviour from the beginning of His public ministry; and
(2) they had become, after His ascension, ministers of the word, i.e. they had given themselves up to the work of winning disciples by witnessing to the things which they had seen and heard. This second qualification was equally necessary with the first; for there were eyewitnesses who were enemies of the word—the prejudices of scribes, Pharisees, and elders of the Jews, who rejected Jesus, would render it impossible for them to give trustworthy information concerning Him. The kind of “tradition” St. Luke has in view is that of 1 John 1:1 : “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life … that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.” Among those who were both eyewitnesses and disciples from whom the Evangelist obtained information were the twelve, the seventy, the Virgin Mary, Lazarus of Bethany and his sisters Martha and Mary, Mary Magdalene, etc. “It is because the Gospels are so primitive and authentic that they bring before us so perfectly, not some visionary ideal that grew up in the mind and soul of Christendom, not some legend of a glorified and saintly figure, but the very picture and image of Jesus Christ as He lived among men.”
Luke 1:3. “It seemed good to me also.”—An interesting light is here thrown incidentally on the nature of the process of inspiration. The Evangelist speaks of the composition of the Gospel as having been a work which he felt at full liberty to undertake or not. He evidently did not regard himself as having been a passive machine moved by the Holy Spirit, but as a man attracted to write upon a subject of absorbing interest, concerning which he was able to give fuller information than had as yet appeared. The method he describes himself as following, too, is that adopted by every conscientious and painstaking historian or biographer. Yet no one can doubt that his work rightly occupies a place in inspired, as distinguished from ordinary, literature. His Gospel has been one of the great means employed by the Holy Spirit for the regeneration of mankind; and all who accept the Christian revelation are firmly convinced that it was composed under the influence of inspiration, however unconscious the author himself may have been of the fact. In this co-operation of the Divine and the human, we have a proof that the Divine sovereignty is exercised without infringement upon the freedom of our will.
“Having traced the course of all things,” etc. (R.V.).—“St. Luke seems to compare himself to a traveller who endeavours to ascend to the very source of a river in order to trace it down again all along its course, and to make a full survey of its banks” (Godet). If we might employ the same metaphor, and apply it to the two historical works which we owe to the pen of this Evangelist—the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles—we could describe him as following the stream of God’s mercy as revealed in Christ, from the source in the hills of Nazareth down through many lands until it reaches Rome, the centre of the world’s life, from whence its healing waters are to flow again to the nations under its rule.
“All things.”—St. Luke’s purpose seems to be to omit nothing worthy of notice or of a place in the history. St. John, on the other hand, admits that he has in his Gospel merely selected some incidents from a life of unparalleled activity: “Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name” (Luke 20:30-31). And, again, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (Luke 21:25).
“The very first.”—This is an earlier starting-point than “the beginning” of Luke 1:2. He goes back fully thirty years before the Baptist’s preaching, and begins with the announcement by the angel of the birth of him who was to be the forerunner of the Christ. Some idea of the extent to which St. Luke has supplied us with information omitted by the first and second evangelists may be formed from a consideration of the fact that out of the thirteen hundred and ten verses contained in the first three Gospels, five hundred and forty-one are peculiar to him. So that he has actually given us more than one-third of the history which we possess of the words and sayings of Jesus.
“Most excellent Theophilus.”—From this form of address, used by an inspired writer, may be fairly deduced the lawfulness and propriety, generally speaking, of giving to men the ordinary titles of respect. They err who think that there is any propriety or religion in assuming a singularity in such things, or in sturdily refusing what are usually considered marks of civility and respect. It is unworthy at once of the Christian and of the man to be guilty of hollow hypocrisy or fawning servility; but it is both dutiful and adorning to be courteous, and to give honour to whom honour is due.—Foote.
The Orderliness of Gospel Scripture.—“To write unto thee in order.” St. Luke hoped not only to write what was true, but to write it in order. He knew the importance of arrangement, not least in the things of God. “God is not a God of confusion,” St. Paul says; and the saying has many applications besides the one which he made of it. It has an important application to God’s revelations. The Bible was many books before it was one. The whole volume of the two Testaments was some fifteen hundred years or more in writing; and it was written in order, not casually, and not promiscuously, as regards the Divine Author. There was method, there was system, there was sequence and consequence, in the writing of the Bible. We can trace, too, something of that orderliness of writing which the text speaks of in the acknowledged diversity amongst the three portions of our New Testament.
1. The writings of St. Paul.
2. The first three Gospels.
3. The writings of St. John. Does God write in order, or does “confusion” bewray the no-god, when He bids St. Paul first write down the Saviour in glory—then the three tell us what He was on earth, and then the beloved apostle, survivor of the eleven, spectator of a new age with its troublous fortunes, build the little bridge which shall knit together the two, and say, “He that ascended is the same also that descended: I am He that liveth, and I was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore”?—Vaughan.
Luke 1:4. Edification.—It is interesting to notice that St. Luke dedicates his Gospel to a fellow-Christian, to be used by him for edification—that he might know the certainty of those things in which he had been instructed. One might have expected that his purpose would have been to appeal in it to those who were still ignorant of Christian truth, in order to convince them of the reality of those things about which he wrote. But his actual procedure is in perfect harmony with the general character of Holy Scripture. The word of God is so written as to respond only to those who come to it seeking salvation, or who desire to be established and confirmed in the faith they hold, or to make additional attainments in knowledge with a view to a more perfect and worthy service of God. It is a sealed book to those who do not feel the necessity of salvation, and who do not hunger and thirst after righteousness. In it, as in the teaching of Jesus, which is its choicest part, there are things which are hidden from the wise and prudent, but which babes can read and understand. For its treasures are not the prize won by force of intellect, but the gift of Heaven to the loving, believing heart.
The Believer’s Faith confirmed.—We know nothing of Theophilus beyond the facts that he was one who had received certain elementary instruction in the articles of the Christian faith, and that St. Luke wrote his Gospel with the purpose of giving him firm assurance of the truth of the great principles and beliefs on which that faith was founded. In one respect, indeed, he was in different circumstances from those in which we find ourselves: his knowledge of religious truth was not derived from a written revelation, but from the oral teaching of apostles and disciples who had known Christ, or of their immediate successors. We can scarcely make a mistake in saying that, until he received this Gospel from the hands of St. Luke, he had never seen a page of any of the books which now make up the New Testament. But apart from this accidental difference of outward circumstances, his experience as a believer was like that of all who, since his time, have embraced the Christian religion. His religious life was based upon the following beliefs, in which he had been instructed:
1. That God is absolutely holy, and requires holiness in all whom He has made capable of consciously serving Him.
2. That he himself was guilty and depraved, and consequently exposed to the Divine anger against sin, and that he could not by any efforts of his own atone for the evil he had done, nor attain to that holiness which God requires.
3. That Jesus Christ, a perfectly holy being, who was Son of God and Son of man, had made atonement for sin.
4. That in the name of Christ free pardon of sin, and the gift of everlasting life, were now offered to all men, to be received by faith in Him. All these beliefs were fully confirmed by the history St. Luke had to give of the life and teaching of Christ. All through this Gospel Christ claims and exercises the power of forgiving sin; and the record of the mercy shown to the penitent woman, to those who had lived lives like that of the prodigal son, and to the dying robber, abundantly proved that no degree of human guilt need lead to despair of forgiveness. (The incidents referred to, and the parable, are peculiar to this Gospel.) We cannot doubt but that Theophilus derived from his reading of this Gospel a deeper assurance of the love of God revealed to mankind in Christ Jesus than he had had before.
Luke 1:5. Herod, the king of Judæa.—He also ruled over Galilee, Samaria, and the greater part of Peræa. He was the son of Antipater, an Edomite, and had been imposed upon the Jewish nation by the Romans. The sovereignty of Herod and the enrolment under Cæsar Augustus (Luke 2:1) are indications of the fact that the sceptre had departed from Judah (Genesis 49:10), and that the appearance of the Messiah might now be looked for. A certain priest.—Not the high priest. Of the course of Abia.—The priests descended from Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron, were divided by David into twenty-four courses, each of which ministered in the Temple for one week (1 Chronicles 24:1-19). Only four of the twenty-four returned from exile in Babylon; these were again divided into twenty-four classes, and the original names were assigned to them. This is alluded to in Nehemiah 13:30. Course.—Ἐφημερία is properly a daily service, but came to denote the class which served in the Temple for a week.
Luke 1:6. Commandments and ordinances.—It seems arbitrary to distinguish between these as some do, and to understand them to denote moral and ceremonial precepts respectively,
Luke 1:7.—Childlessness was regarded among the Jews as a great misfortune. It is several times spoken of in the Old Testament as a punishment for sin (see Luke 1:25).
Luke 1:9. His lot.—The various offices were distributed among the priests by lot: the most honourable was this of burning incense, the act being a symbol of acceptable prayer rising to God, no priest was allowed to perform it more than once. This day, therefore, would have been a most memorable one in the life of Zacharias, even apart from the vision. The temple.—I.e. the sanctuary, in which was the altar of incense, as distinguished from the outer court, in which the people were praying.
Luke 1:10. The time of incense.—Probably at the time of the morning sacrifice.
Luke 1:11. An angel.—St. Luke both in this Gospel and in the Acts dwells frequently on the ministry of angels. The right side.—A circumstance which seems to have no more significance than as marking the definiteness of the vision.
Luke 1:13. Thy prayer.—For a son; a prayer formerly offered, but to which he had now ceased to expect an answer. John.—Jehochanan—“the favour of Jehovah.”
Luke 1:15. Shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.—He shall be a Nazarite (Numbers 6:3), separate from the world to God like Samson and Samuel. Cf. Ephesians 5:18 for a similar contrast between the false excitement of drunkenness and spiritual fervour.
Luke 1:17. Before Him.—I.e. before the Lord their God, manifest in the flesh. A very clear testimony to the divinity of Christ. “The angel making no express mention of Christ in this passage, but declaring John to be the usher or standard-bearer of the eternal God, we learn from it the eternal divinity of Christ” (Calvin). Spirit.—Disposition. Power.—Zeal and energy, or mighty endowments. There is one point of difference between Elijah and John Baptist—John did no miracle.
Luke 1:18.—“Grotius here remarks on the difference in the cases of Abraham (Genesis 15:8) and Zacharias, as to the same action. The former did not ask for a sign from distrust in the promise of God, but for confirmation of his faith; whereas the latter had no true faith at all, and did not as the former turn from natural causes to the great First Cause. Hence, though a sign was given to him, it was a judicial infliction likewise, for not believing; though wisely ordained to be such as should fix the attention of the Jews on the promised child” (Bloomfield).
Luke 1:19. Gabriel.—Name means “man of God”; appeared to Daniel (Daniel 8:16; Daniel 9:21), and to the blessed Virgin (Luke 1:26). Only two angels are mentioned by name in Scripture: Gabriel and Michael (Daniel 9:21; Jude 1:9)—the one announces God’s purposes, the other executes God’s decrees. Stand in the presence of God.—I.e. in attendance, or ministering to: a figure derived from the customs of Oriental courts. He says this to accredit himself as a Divine messenger, and to assure Zacharias that the promise would be performed. To shew glad tidings.—Or, “to preach the gospel.” St. Luke uses the word more than twenty times in his Gospel and in the Acts, and it is common in the Pauline writings; but it is only found elsewhere in the New Testament in 1 Peter 1:12; Matthew 11:5.
Luke 1:21. He tarried so long.—It was customary for the priest at the time of prayer not to remain long in the holy place, for fear the people who were without might imagine that any vengeance had been inflicted on him for some informality, as he was considered the representative of the people.
Luke 1:22. He beckoned unto them.—R.V. “he continued making signs unto them.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Luke 1:5-25
Human Life at its best.—We see here—
I. Human life at its best.—
1. A devout and blameless course of conduct.
2. Honourable descent.
3. Sacred calling.
4. The enjoyment of high privilege—that of being chosen to offer the incense which symbolised the prayers of the nation.
II. Yet at its best human life is compassed about with sorrows and weaknesses.—Sorrows:
1. The heart of the man is troubled by his own personal affliction, especially as childlessness was regarded in Israel as an indication of Divine displeasure.
2. The heart of the priest could not but be wrung by the sinful state of the nation of whom he was the representative before God. Weaknesses:
1. He is overcome by fear at the sight of a messenger from the God whom he served so zealously.
2. He is slow of heart to believe the promise made to him, though it was but the fulfilment of his own prayers.
III. The Divine compassion.—
1. Towards this lonely pair in filling their hearts with joy and gladness.
2. Towards the nation in sending one who would prepare them to receive their Redeemer.
3. In inflicting merely a transitory punishment for unbelief.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON Luke 1:5-25
Luke 1:5. “A certain priest.”—One of the special purposes of St. Luke’s Gospel is to display the sacerdotal office and sacrificial efficacy of Christ, the true priest, and victim of the whole human race; and he aptly begins his Gospel by showing that the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices were imperfect and transitory, but had a sacred purpose as preparatory and ministerial to the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ.—Wordsworth.
“In the days of Herod.”—It makes a great deal of difference in what times and amid what circumstances and influences a man lives. In godly days it is not remarkable that one should live righteously; but when the prevailing spirit is unrighteous, the life that is holy and devout shines with rare splendour, like a lamp in the darkness. Such were the times and the spirit of “the days of Herod,” and such were the lives of the blameless old pair here mentioned. Amid almost universal corruption, they lived in piety and godly simplicity. The lesson is, that it is not necessary for us to be like other people, if other people are not what they ought to be. The darker the night of sin about us, the clearer should be the light that streams from our life and conduct.—Miller.
Luke 1:6. A Definition of a Holy Character and Life.—
1. Piety towards God: it is a real and not an apparent goodness, for it is an omniscient Judge who here pronounces sentence of approval: it is manifested in a habitual obedience to all the various commandments and ordinances of God (walking describes habitual action).
2. Good repute with men: irreproachable or blameless. Both elements are essential to a perfect character, and it is to be noted that righteousness towards God will always, where it is genuine, include blamelessness towards men. A man may win the approval of his fellows, and yet be neglectful of his duties towards God; but no one can be approved of God, and yet fail to deserve the respect of all who know him.
“Both righteous.”—The peaceful, pious home of the old priest is beautifully outlined. Somewhere in the hill country, in quiet seclusion, the priestly pair lived in cheerful godliness, and their content marred only by the absence of child voices in their quiet house. They presented a lovely example of Old Testament piety in a time of declension. Inwardly, they were “righteous before God”; outwardly, their lives were blamelessly conformed to His “commandments and ordinances,” not in absolute sinless perfection, but in the true spirit of Old Testament religion. Earth shows no fairer sight than where husband and wife dwell as heirs together of the grace of life and fellow-helpers to the truth. The salt of a nation is in its pious home life.—Maclaren.
“Before God.”—It is not enough to have human commendation. How do we stand before God? How does our life appear to Him? No matter how men praise and commend, if as God sees us we are wrong. We are in reality just what we are “before God”—nothing less, nothing more. The question always to be asked is, “What will God think of this?”—Miller.
A Righteous Life.—Zacharias is the first man of whom the Gospels tell us. He was “righteous before God.” This was shown by—
1. His blameless life.
2. His faithful service as God’s priest.
3. His prayerful spirit.
4. His heartfelt praise.
Luke 1:8. “While he executed the priest’s office.”—How solemnly, how divinely, the holy drama of a new revelation opens! An angel from heaven, a man on earth,—these are invariably the two chief characters in the sacred story; heaven acting upon earth, man brought into contact with the beings of the invisible world. On one hand, an Israelite,—one of the peculiar people to whom the promises belong; more, one of its priests appointed to plead for God to man, and for man to God; one specially chosen out of the chosen nation. On the other, “I, Gabriel, that stand before the presence of God.” The scene is the most sacred spot of the whole earth, of the Land of Promise, of the city of the great King—namely, the sanctuary of God’s house; and here, in the most holy retirement, an announcement is made, a dialogue held between the two by the altar of incense—type of the worship of the saints—in the hour of public prayer, while Israel is imploring the blessing of Jehovah. Could the opening of the Divine New Testament drama be more solemn, more appropriate, more Israelitish, more sacred, either as regards person, place, time, or action?—Pfenninger.
Luke 1:10. “At the time of incense.”—The offering of incense was simultaneous with the prayer of the people assembled in the court of the Temple. There was a close relation between these two actions. The one was symbolical, ideal, and therefore perfectly holy in its character: the real prayer offered by the people was of necessity imperfect and tainted by sin. The former covered the latter with its holiness: the latter communicated to the former reality and life. The one was, therefore, complementary to the other.—Godet.
Luke 1:11-79. The Last Messianic Prophecies.—The last of the long series of prophecies that foreannounced the Redeemer were in their substance and form unlike any that had preceded, thus marking the advent of a new order of things. St. Luke presents them to us in three most vivid groups, ascending in their gradation of tribute offered to the dignity of Christ.
I. An angel breaks the silence of ages by predicting the birth of the forerunner, but in such a manner as to make the coming of the Lord Himself the burden of his prophecy (Luke 1:11-20).
II. Then follows the central announcement by an angel to the virgin mother, in which the supremacy of the Saviour’s personal dignity and kingly rule is testified in terms that are never surpassed in Holy Scripture (Luke 1:26-38).
III. Finally, the Holy Ghost Himself, taking the angel’s place, proclaims by Zacharias, the last of the prophets, the future and eternal dominion of the Christ (Luke 1:67-79).—Pope.
Luke 1:11. “An angel.”—The third Gospel is throughout a gospel of the holy angels, i.e. we read more of their ministry in connection with Jesus than elsewhere. This is especially marked at the outset (Luke 1:11-26; Luke 1:35; Luke 2:9-16). Our most complete revelations, whether of the functions of the holy angels towards the Saviour during His life-walk on earth, or of their relation to us, are to be found in St. Luke. His narrative shows us in detail the living and continuous realisation of the most beautiful vision of the Hebrew story—“the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”—Alexander.
“On the right side of the altar.”—The Temple from which the prayers of the people ascended to God is the place where the first sign is given of the coming fulfilment of the national desire and hope of a Deliverer: here in the presence and message of the angel the first rays of light begin to break through the darkness.
Luke 1:12. “He was troubled.”—Yet the angel had come on an errand of love. All through the Bible we find that people were afraid of God’s angels. Their very glory startled and terrified those to whom they appeared. It is ofttimes the same with us. When God’s messengers come to us on errands of grace and peace we are terrified, as if they were messengers of wrath. The things which we call trials and adversities are really God’s angels, though they seem terrible to us; and if we will only quiet our hearts and wait, we shall find that they are messengers from heaven, and that they have brought blessings to us from God.—Miller.
“Fear fell upon him.”—He that had wont to live and serve in presence of the Master was now astonished at the presence of the servant. So much difference is there betwixt our faith and our senses, that the apprehension of the presence of the God of spirits by faith goes down sweetly with us, whereas the sensible apprehension of an angel dismays us. Holy Zachary, that had wont to live by faith, thought he should die when his sense began to be set on work. It was the weakness of him that served at the altar without horror to be daunted with the face of his fellow-servant.—Hall.
Luke 1:13. “Fear not.”—The first recorded words are thus those that banish fear—an appropriate prelude to the gospel of peace. St. Luke’s last sentence tells of the apostle’s “blessing and praising God” (Luke 24:53).
Soothing Words.—The angel’s message begins, as heaven’s messages to devout souls ever do, with soothing words—the very signature of Divine appearances both in Old and New Testaments. It is like a mother’s whisper to a terrified child, and is made still more caressing and assuring by the use of the name “Zacharias,” and by the assurance that his prayer is heard. Note how the names of the whole future family are in this verse, as token of the intimate and loving knowledge which God has of each.—Maclaren.
“Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son.”—What other home in Israel could have been the training-ground of the prophet? What more fitting nursery for a personal force, inspired by and steeped in the Scriptures, unindebted and indeed hostile to contemporary urban authority and petrified traditionalism? The prophet did not owe all his originality and unique moral force to himself. His character owed its primary development to the home of a devout priest, blessed by an immediate Divine revelation, and living in the light of a recognised Divine purpose.—Vallings.
Prayer granted at last.—“Thy prayer is heard.” That this prayer was not one which Zacharias had offered that day is quite evident; for when the angel told him that it was to be granted to him he was surprised, and doubted as to the possibility of its being granted. It was, therefore, a prayer which he had offered years before, and which now perhaps he had forgotten, until the angel brought it to his remembrance. At any rate, for some time, perhaps for a long time past, he had given up all thoughts of receiving an answer. Yet though he may have forgotten it, God had it in remembrance. In a general way we all believe and admit that the omniscient God is acquainted with all our thoughts, and with the circumstances of our lives; but we can scarcely help being surprised at every new proof we receive of the fact that God knows our individual desires, and the trials and difficulties of our individual lot. Such wonderful acquaintance and sympathy with the sorrow that lay beneath the surface of Zacharias’ life is now shown in the message sent to him. From it he might learn, and we may learn, three great lessons:—
I. That delay is not necessarily refusal.—There may be delay in answering prayer, which simply means that God is postponing, and not refusing, the gift of those things which we ask from Him. We should, indeed, be prepared for this; but in our actual experience we are often surprised and perplexed by it. The spiritual blessings of pardon and of help in time of need are, we believe, instantly given. God would no more delay giving them than a parent would delay giving food to his hungry child. But other things—things which we believe would be for our present advantage and comfort—His higher wisdom may lead Him to withhold, or to delay giving.
II. That God is not strict to punish our loss of faith.—Our ceasing to offer the prayer which has not been granted, and even our becoming incredulous as to the possibility of receiving it, do not necessarily preclude our getting the benefit we desire. God does, indeed, require us to manifest faith in order that we may receive; but He is merciful towards our spiritual infirmities, and is not strict to withhold what we may have become unworthy to receive. The strong faith we once had may receive its reward—a reward which rebukes the unbelief into which we may have fallen, and arouses us out of it.
III. That the purpose of the delay may have been to give a fuller and more satisfying answer to our prayer.—Thus was it in the case of Zacharias. The son for whose birth he had longed was predestined to be the forerunner of Christ. It was only now, when the angel appeared to him, that the fulness of time was drawing near for the incarnation of the Son of God, and with this great event the birth of John the Baptist was associated in the counsels of God. Zacharias and Elisabeth were not only blessed with a son, but with a son who was to be the herald of the great King. In this way both the prayer which Zacharias offered this day on behalf to the people that God would hasten the coming of the Messiah, and that which in former years he had offered for himself, were simultaneously granted: both found their fulfilment in what was communicated by the angel. St. Luke elsewhere, in the parables of the selfish neighbour and of the unjust judge, commends importunate prayer, as having power to prevail with God. The example of the fulfilment of Zacharias’ prayer is full of encouragement for those who cannot, by reason of spiritual infirmity, manifest heroic faith, and take the gate of heaven by storm.
Luke 1:15. “Great in the sight of the Lord.”—How true this prediction is Christ’s eulogium witnesses, who declared that no greater had been born of women. Greatness, prophesied by an angel, and attested by Jesus, is greatness indeed. Greatness “in the sight of the Lord” is measured by very different standards from the world’s. It does not lie in the qualities that make the thinker, the artist, or the poet, but such as make the prophet and the saint. The true ambition is to be great after this pattern—great in dauntless witness for God, in self-suppression, in yearning towards the Christ, in pointing to Him, and in lowly contentment to fade in His light, and decrease that He may increase.—Maclaren.
“Great in the sight of the Lord.”—The annunciation of the forerunner by an angel, an honour which he shares with other elect servants of God’s will, derived all its meaning from the glory of the Being whose herald he was. The greatest of the children of men was raised up in this preternatural way, and amidst these circumstantials of dignity, not for His own sake, but that His whole life and mission might proclaim to Israel, “Thy King cometh!”—Pope.
“Great in the sight of the Lord.”—Truly great, then; for just what a man is in God’s eyes that is he indeed, neither more nor less. A silent hint also that no earthly greatness is to be expected; for that which is highly esteemed before men is an abomination in the sight of the Lord.—Lange.
“He shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.”—The strongly marked features in the habits of the Nazarite should be viewed as typically teaching that not only the ministers, but all the people of God, should abstain from sin, be temperate in all things, be superior to earthly pleasures and cares, and be altogether a peculiar people, distinguished from men of the world.—Foote.
“Filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.”—As the more plentiful influence of the Spirit was in John an extraordinary gift of God, it ought to be observed that the Spirit is not bestowed on all from their very infancy, but only when it pleases God. John bore from the womb a token of future rank. Saul, while tending the herd, remained long without any mark of royalty, and when at length chosen to be king was suddenly turned into another man (1 Samuel 10:6). Let us learn from this example that, from the earliest infancy to the latest old age, the operation of the Spirit in men is free.—Calvin.
Luke 1:16. “Many shall he turn to the Lord their God.”—The word of John was one of preparation and turning men’s hearts towards God. It was a concentration of the spirit of the law, whose office it was to convince of sin, and he eminently represented the law and the prophets in their work of preparing the way for Christ.—Alford.
Luke 1:17. “The spirit and power of Elias.”—I.e. after the model of that distinguished reformer, and with like success in turning hearts. “Strikingly, indeed, did John resemble Elias: both fell on evil times, both witnessed fearlessly for God; neither was much seen, save in the direct exercise of their ministry; both were at the head of schools of disciples; the result of the ministry of both might be expressed in the same terms—‘many of the children of Israel did they turn to the Lord their God’ ” (Brown).
“Turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.”—The true sense of these words seems to me to be indicated by other prophetic passages, such as Isaiah 29:22, “Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale, when he seeth his children [become] the work of Mine hands”; Isaiah 63:16, “Though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not, thou, O Lord, art our father.” Abraham and Jacob, in the place of their rest, blushed at the sight of their guilty descendants, and turned away their faces from them; but now they will return with satisfaction towards them, in consequence of the change produced by the ministry of John. The words of Jesus, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56), prove that there is some reality beneath these poetic images. In this sense we can easily explain the modification introduced into the latter part of the passage: the children who return to their fathers are the Jews of the time of the Messiah—the children of the obedient, who return to the wisdom of the holy patriarchs.—Godet.
“And the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.”—The very substitution of this clause for the original of Malachi, “and the hearts of the children to their fathers,” seems suggestive at least of the connection between filial estrangement and a general ungodliness—between a heart undutiful and a heart irreverent, a son alienated from his father and a man alienated from his God. “He shall turn the hearts of the children to their fathers” is, in other words, “he shall turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” It is remarkable, in this connection, that we do not find any express mention, in the Baptist’s ministry, of a special appeal to parents and children, such as he addressed to the soldiers, the publicans, the Pharisees, or the people at large. Parental and filial discord was not so much one single example, it was a general description rather, of the dislocation and disorganisation of society which the Baptist was sent to remonstrate with and to heal.—Vaughan.
Luke 1:19-20. “I am Gabriel … thou shalt be mute.”—In comparison with the angels man in his present state seems but a feeble creature. He is subject for the time being to their control, and they rule over him. In all their communications with men they show that they mean to be believed and obeyed. They are not to be trifled with, any more than physical nature itself, and cannot leave the authoritative station in which the eternal Word has ranged them.—Mason.
Luke 1:20. “Thou believest not.”—In the words actually employed by Zacharias, and the blessed Virgin Mary, respectively (see Luke 1:34), there does not seem to be much difference; but the speakers were very diversely affected. While hers was the hesitation of faith (see Luke 1:45), which timidly asked for explanation, his was the reluctance of unbelief, which required a sign. Hence her doubt was solved, his punished.—Burgon.
Luke 1:22. “Remained speechless.”—Origen, Ambrose, and Isidore see in the speechless priest vainly endeavouring to bless the people a fine image of the law reduced to silence before the first announcement of the gospel.—Farrar.
“Beckoned unto them.”—The sign given to Zacharias was one that both chastised and humbled him. His infirmity becomes a sign to him of the power of God. In like manner Jacob was lame after he had wrestled with the angel and prevailed: Saul was blind after he had been overcome by the Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus (Luke 1:24-25).
Luke 1:24. “Hid herself.”—The reason for Elisabeth’s seclusion is doubtless that given by Godet. From the fifth month the fact of a woman’s pregnancy can be recognised. She will remain in seclusion until it becomes evident that God has indeed taken away the reproach of childlessness. As he points out, the combination of womanly pride and of humble gratitude to God is a very natural trait of character, and one not likely to occur to a forger of a later age, who might be supposed to have invented these incidents.
Luke 1:26. The sixth month.—I.e. not of the year: the reference is to the time indicated in Luke 1:24. Nazareth—St. Luke alone informs us that this village was the place of Mary’s residence before the birth of Jesus; from St. Matthew’s narrative we might have inferred that it was Bethlehem. The two Gospels are thus shown to be independent of each other, though there is no contradiction between them. Nazareth was an obscure village; it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud, or the writings of Josephus. “This is important in its bearing on the originality of our Lord’s teaching. In Nazareth the only instruction He would receive would be in His own family and in the synagogue; there He would not be under the influence of Grecian culture, nor that of Rabbinical teachers, with whose whole spirit and system His own was most strongly contrasted” (Speaker’s Commentary).
Luke 1:27. Espoused.—Rather, “betrothed,” “contracted”: a ceremony which among many nations has always preceded marriage, and to which great importance has been attached. House of David.—Mary’s own descent from David is nowhere asserted, though it seems to be taken for granted in Luke 1:32; Luke 1:69. The two genealogies are those of Joseph; it is most probable that Joseph and Mary were first cousins, so that her genealogy would be involved in his. Mary.—The same name as Miriam.
Luke 1:28. Highly favoured.—One on whom grace or favour has been conferred. The Lord is with thee.—Perhaps should be, “The Lord be with thee”: a frequent form of salutation in the Old Testament. Blessed art thou among women.—Omitted in the best critical editions; probably taken from Luke 1:42.
Luke 1:31. Jesus.—This is the Greek form of the name Joshua, which means “the salvation of Jehovah,” or “Jehovah the Saviour.” In two passages of the New Testament the name Jesus occurs when the reference is to Joshua: Acts 7:45; Hebrews 4:8.
Luke 1:32. Shall be called.—Shall be publicly recognised as what He really is, the Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; Psalms 89:27). The throne of His father David.—A clear revelation of His Messiahship. The prophecy of the physical descent of the Messiah from David is found in Psalms 132:11.
Luke 1:33. There shall be no end.—A universal and supernatural kingdom. Cf. Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 7:14.
Luke 1:34. How.—“The question of Mary expresses, not unbelief, or even doubt, but innocent surprise” (Speaker’s Commentary).
Luke 1:36. Thy cousin Elisabeth.—Rather, “kinswoman”; the exact nature of the relationship is unknown. It does not follow from this that Mary was also of the tribe of Levi; as intermarriage between members of different tribes was allowed, except in the case of heiresses. Reference is made to the pregnancy of Elisabeth as an example of the power of God’s creative word.
Luke 1:37. Nothing.—Rather, “no word.” R.V. “no word of God shall be devoid of power.”
Luke 1:38. Be it unto me.—The words reveal not only obedient submission, but patient, longing expectation.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Luke 1:26-38
A Chosen Vessel and an Angelic Declaration.
I. The chosen vessel of the Divine purpose.—A village maiden, of whose previous history we know almost nothing, has the quiet tenor of her life in the little belated village of Nazareth strangely broken by the appearance of the angel Gabriel. Of the maiden’s birth, parentage, and breeding we are told nothing. An ancient and constant tradition asserts that she was one of the many descendants of David who had sunk into obscurity and penury; and the tradition must be true, if we are to read the title “Son of David,” often given to Jesus, in a literal sense. But we may infer from what we are afterwards told of her that she was
(1) a devout student of the prophetic scriptures, giving to “hiding” and “pondering in her heart” any Divine word of hidden significance, since her Magnificat is a chain of citations from, and allusions to, the Old Testament writings;
(2) that she specially pondered the Messianic prophecies, as if she cherished the hope, in common with all Jewish women, that Jehovah might “condescend to her low estate,” and make her to be mother of the “Son of the Highest,” since she turns all the texts she cites to a Messianic use; and
(3) that she was not simply “just” or “righteous” in the Jewish sense, but one of those pure and saintly souls who are utterly devoted to a Divine life and service. There must have been eminent spiritual preparedness in this “graced” flower of Israel and humanity. For
(4) when she understands the angelic errand and message, and is conscious of all the pain and shame it will bring upon her, even to the loss of her maiden name and honour, she meekly submits herself to the Divine will, saying, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.” Mary asks no sign, like Zacharias. Her question is one of maidenly simplicity. And “supernatural faith, never so taxed in any earth-born one before or after, is rewarded with the promise of the overshadowing Spirit and power of the Highest.”
“Yes, and to her, the beautiful and lowly,
Mary, a maiden, separate from men,
Camest Thou nigh, and didst possess her wholly,
Close to Thy saints, but Thou wast closer then.”
II. The angelic declaration.—The angelic declaration gives the sum of Divine revelation and the Church’s doctrine concerning the person and government of the Redeemer.
1. His pure and perfect humanity is proclaimed. Jesus, the Saviour of men, was to be conceived and born of a human mother, and therefore possessed of every essential element of our nature, including its subjection to infirmity and the possibility of death. He entered into the world a true man.
2. But He—the same Jesus—was to be the “Son of the Highest,” having no father, but God, through the power of the Holy Ghost. “The altar of the Virgin’s womb was touched with fire from heaven.” “Conceived of the Holy Ghost” is an article of faith on a level with “born of the Virgin Mary.” In His eternal generation Son of God, in His human birth Son of man, both names are for ever to belong inseparably to His one person, to be used interchangeably in His own Divine majesty. “He shall be great”; not, like His forerunner, “in the sight of God”—“great” as God’s equal, and head of humanity.
3. The angel adds the substance of Messianic prediction concerning the “increase of His government.” Gabriel’s words are a text waiting for illustration and expansion by a higher than angelic interpreter.
(1) He is the Messiah, seated on the throne of “His father David.” These words descend from heaven to earth—from the “Son of God,” a revealed truth beyond Jewish expectation, to the “Son of David,” the current Messianic hope when Jesus appeared.
(2) He is the Messianic King of an eternal kingdom. The angel does not burden the Virgin’s soul with any announcement of the via dolorosa by which her Son would reach His Messianic throne. He is predicted to rule over the “house of Jacob,” the true spiritual Israel, in a dominion which, unlike the kingdom of visible Israel, is to “have no end.” Beyond this the angel’s commission does not extend. In due time angels will again take up the theme, and fill the world with its echoes.
III. The response of faith.—To such an undreamt-of, sudden, overwhelming call—a call to such a glorious destination, and to such a pinnacle of unearthly and unique greatness—the greatest summons ever sent from heaven to a mortal creature—there is the prompt response of profound and humble obedience: “Be it unto me according to Thy word.” What tides of shame and wonder, fear and rapture, swept through the pure heart of this gentle maiden we cannot even conceive. Betrothed, and standing on the verge of her new life with Joseph, there is in the angel’s presence neither dejection nor exultation. The humble Virgin, after his departure, remains in her sweet humility the same. With perfect readiness of trust she receives her Divine commission, and surrenders herself in lowly meekness to the Divine will.—Cox; Pope.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:26. “A city of Galilee.”—Very different are the circumstances of the two visits of the angel Gabriel to announce the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus. The first is paid to the priest engaged in sacred duties in the Temple at Jerusalem, the second to an obscure maiden in a humble dwelling in Nazareth. Nazareth, as we know, was held in ill repute by the Jews, and indeed the whole province of Galilee was regarded by them as semi-heathen; yet here it was that one was found whose piety and faith were surpassed by none of whom we read in Holy Scripture—who was counted worthy to be the mother of the Saviour. “This message announced the exaltation of man’s nature above angels (Hebrews 2:5; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 2:16); yet an archangel joyfully brings it, and angels celebrate the event (Luke 2:13). There is no envy in heaven” (Wordsworth).
Luke 1:27. “House of David.”—The royal house of Israel, with which were associated the memories of the past glory of the nation, and the hopes of its future greatness, was now in very humble circumstances. Its representative was now a village carpenter; while the throne was occupied by Herod, who was regarded by the majority of the people as an Edomite and a usurper. The contrast between the two illustrates the saying of Solomon, “I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth” (Ecclesiastes 10:7). It is interesting to notice that the mother of John the Baptist, and his mother of Jesus, bore names associated with the first high priest of Israel: Elisabeth is the same with Elisheba, the wife of Aaron; Mary the same with Miriam, the sister of Aaron.
Luke 1:28. “The angel came in.”—There seems to have been less to startle Mary in the appearance of the angel to her than in the case of Zacharias. He comes into the house in a natural way; while Zacharias sees him suddenly appear in the sacred precincts of the Temple, from which all were debarred but the priests in the exercise of their office. She seems to have felt more perplexity at the strange salutation that fell on her ears than fear at the presence of the heavenly visitant. There is nothing in the salutation uttered by the angel to justify the offering of anything like worship to the blessed Virgin: she is addressed as one who has received a special blessing from God, which distinguishes her above all ordinary women. The Vulgate rendering, gratiâ plena, is ambiguous; it should rather be gratiâ cumulata. She is not the fountain of grace, but one who has received grace, from God. Doubtless Mary’s daily prayer had been that she might enjoy the favour of God; and now this prayer she learns is fully granted, and, in addition to it, an honour she would never have hoped to possess is bestowed upon her.
Luke 1:29. “She was troubled.”—In her countenance her astonishment and perplexity are expressed. But she remains silent. “She would rather not answer the angel than speak thoughtlessly of what she could not understand” (Bernhardt.)
Luke 1:30. “Fear not.”—So vast is the distance between us as creatures from our Creator, so deep the gulf that sin has dug between us and Him, that not even the holiest men or women can fail to be affected with fear, whenever the feeblest ray of the Divine glory bursts upon them. Yet the purpose of God in the revelation of His mercy through Christ is to abolish this fear. Hence the apostle says, “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15).
“Found favour.”—It is the condescension and favour of God, and not any merits of her own, which give Mary her distinction. “By these words the angel witnesses that she is on the same level with all other saints. He does not praise her for her piety, but simply because of the great grace of God by which she is chosen to be the mother of His own Son” (Luther).
Luke 1:31. “Thou shalt conceive.”—Now was the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 to be fulfilled. And the angel foretells that those other statements given to Israel by messengers from God of Messiah’s universal and unending rule will in like manner find accomplishment. The mind of Mary seems to have been imbued with the scriptures of the Old Testament, as is abundantly indicated by the free use she makes of them in her song of praise. To her knowledge of them the angel now appeals, and her firm faith that God would fulfil all the promises He had made to His people must have strengthened her to believe what was now promised to herself personally.
“Jesus.”—The reason for this name being given is noted in St. Matthew’s Gospel—“for He shall save His people from their sins” (Luke 1:21). It is not a name given by men to Him, after the manner in which grateful nations have bestowed titles of honour upon their deliverers and benefactors, but is given to Him by God. He is our Saviour, not merely because we regard Him as such, but because God has appointed Him to this office: our faith is built not on an earthly but on a heavenly foundation.
Luke 1:32. “He shall be great.”—In these words Gabriel bows before the majesty and power of Jesus—renders to Him that homage which He is to receive from all in heaven and earth. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). He was great in heaven, where all obeyed His will; but He is to acquire additional glory by His life on earth, where He endures the contradiction of sinners against Himself. His humility and shame, His immeasurable patience and love, His submission to sufferings and death, win for Him an even deeper adoration than was rendered to Him before. Not that He really became greater than He was; but that His inherent greatness became more fully manifested by His condescension and love.
“Throne of His father David.”—Jesus is head over all things to His Church. He establishes His gentle sway over the hearts of His people, subduing them to Himself, ruling and defending them, and restraining and conquering all His own and all their enemies.—Foote.
Luke 1:33. “Reign over the house of Jacob.”—But His kingdom is not to be confined to one people. Israel is indeed the centre of His kingdom, but all nations are to become subject to Him. The covenant being made with Abraham and his seed, it was becoming that Christ should belong to the chosen people. But all who manifest the faith of Abraham become his spiritual children, and therefore subjects of Messiah’s kingdom. In this way the barrier that divides Jew from Gentile is virtually broken down, and those who had been afar off are brought nigh. Nor is the prophecy annulled by so many of the Jews having rejected Jesus as the Christ; for their history as a nation is not yet concluded, and there is reason to hope that by repentance and faith they will yet submit themselves to the Saviour (see Romans 9:25).
“For ever.”—A kingdom that would endure for ever had been promised to David (2 Samuel 7:16). But as long as it was ruled over by men it was not secure against loss and overthrow. It was only when it came into the hands of Christ that it became eternal and unchangeable (Daniel 7:14). Nor are the words “for ever” to be taken in any limited sense, as signifying for a great while, or as long as the world endures; but as implying an everlasting rule, to be manifested, indeed, more clearly when this earth shall have passed away.
Luke 1:34. “How shall this be?”—The fact communicated by the angel Mary accepts with implicit faith. It is the manner in which it is to be accomplished that she cannot understand. Her question, therefore, does not manifest unbelief, but a natural wonder as to the method of fulfilment. She indicates her astonishment, and not her distrust. The incredulity of Zacharias on receiving a much less astonishing message is very marked, if we compare it with Mary’s attitude on this occasion. The lowly village maiden shows herself possessed of more faith in God than was found in the priest whose duties brought him into constant relations with God.
Luke 1:35. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.”—Her wonder, not being incredulity, is solved, in so far as the mystery of God’s creative power can be made clear to a finite mind; and a sign, for which she had not asked, is given to strengthen her faith.
“That holy thing.”—We may notice in this phrase an implied distinction between this child and all others. From the first moment of His earthly existence He is holy in Himself. John the Baptist was to be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15)—from the first he is to be consecrated and set apart for the great work of his life. In this sense he may be said to have been sanctified; while Jesus is one with that God from whom sanctification proceeds.
“The Son of God.”—Not here (as Luke 1:32) in the Messianic sense, nor essentially by the eternal generation, but because the human nature of Christ was the direct and miraculous production of Divine power.—Speaker’s Commentary.
The Mystery of the Incarnation.—The words spoken by the angels in the synoptical evangelists are few and brief. We can almost count the syllables, accorded as if penuriously. In particular we owe to St. Luke those angel-uttered words which form so exquisite a shrine for the dogma of the Incarnation. In the angel’s answer to Mary’s question we have a sentence whose fulness of thought and delicate transparency of expression come to us from the sphere in which the Miracle of miracles was wrought. The whole sentence is packed with thought, and is a Divine mixture of reserve and enthusiasm. It is like a smile of heaven over the glory of the eternal wisdom and love in bringing its most consummate work from the labyrinth of antenatal fatalities through which man passes into the world. It is thus that the purity of an angel speaks to the purity of a virgin. Yet if not a word too much is said for the delicacy of a maiden’s ear, not a word too little is employed to indicate even the physiological process by which the Incarnation was effected. It is the 139th Psalm translated into one of the tongues of heaven. Yet not the less really is the material process summarised which had been so nobly prophesied in the psalm of the Incarnation.—Alexander.
The Office of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation.—The Holy Spirit was the immediate agent in the immaculate conception of “that holy thing.” Not that He was therefore the Father of the blessed Son, but He was the vehicle of the paternity. Not again that He so acted that the Son as God had nothing to do with the act of the Incarnation. The Son, in Divine will, willed to assume our nature, and so assumed it; but again the blessed Spirit wrought the process whereby the will was carried out.—Moule.
The Beauty of the Narrative of the Annunciation.—I have always felt myself at a loss to say whether the sublimity or the exquisite delicacy of the language here employed is the more to be admired. Calvin seems to have been struck with it, and the best expositors have felt it.—Brown.
The Spirit in the Son of Man.
I. The early beginnings of this wonderful life were implanted in the virgin mother by an act of the Holy Ghost.—In the annunciation to Mary not only is the supernatural conception declared, but the part of the Spirit in that mystery, about which it is almost impossible to speak, is defined and emphasised. Before the first stage of organic development had dawned He so wrought and ruled that the life fostered in this unique mother was protected against all the frailties of an earthly lineage, and made fit to blend with that Divine consciousness now or hereafter to be infused into it. The Spirit antedated the conception, and was present not as a competing but as a creative and dominating force in life. So richly was the Spirit given to Christ, that His holy influences were pulsing in those rudimentary stages of life which precede all signs of consciousness and moral responsibility.
II. The part of the Spirit in the conception (as well as in all the after-work of Jesus Christ) seems to suggest that independence of persons in the holy and blessed Trinity, about which we know so little, but which clearly preceded all the economies of human redemption. These sacred names of Father, Son, and Spirit do not represent merely latent potentialities in the Divine nature waiting for some crisis in human history before they can awake to consciousness and effective operation. In the eternal Godhead there was a co-relation of life scarcely suggested by the parallels of our rigidly defined human personalities. And the action of the Spirit in the miraculous dawn of Christ’s earthly life was the continuation of an influence which penetrated His consciousness and benignly wrought there prior to the Incarnation.—Selby.
Luke 1:36. “Thy cousin Elisabeth.”—The sign given was one of a kind to encourage the faith of Mary in the message of the angel. The creative power of God had been exercised in the case of Elisabeth. Neither her barrenness nor her old age could nullify the promise which had been made her of a son. In the gift of a sign where no sign was asked, we have an example of God’s constant procedure. Each day we live we receive fresh testimonies of His goodness by which our faith may be confirmed. The mercy and favour which others receive from Him should enable us to trust all the more firmly in Him at those times when we cannot understand His dealings with ourselves. Notice, “thy cousin Elisabeth.” The relationship to Mary, and the name she bore, are mentioned as known to God. There is something wonderful and affecting in this fact, though, after believing that God is omniscient, evidence of His being so may not seem remarkable. But the truth is, that we cannot realise what is meant by omniscience, and therefore find special knowledge of the kind here surprising.
Luke 1:37. “No word of God shall be devoid of power.”—Nothing that God promises is He unable to perform: all that He says He does. “This affirms not only God’s almightiness, but even more fully His absolute faithfulness to His promises, the thought most necessary to Mary. The denial of what is miraculous is the denial both of almightiness and faithfulness” (Schaff).
Luke 1:38. The Humility and Faith of Mary.—As David (2 Samuel 7:28), so does David’s daughter sink down in child-like humility and faith into the hands of her God, and let His will be her will. It is well for us that the Lord thus found on earth a believing heart, devoted to God, otherwise He could never have become man. “She was no unconscious vessel of the Divine will, but, in humility and faith, a fellow-worker with the purpose of the Father; and therefore her own unity with that purpose was required, and is here recorded” (Alford). Mary has restored woman to honour: the faithlessness of Eve brought us to sin and death; the faith of Mary brought us a Saviour from sin and death. “The heart of Mary is now filled with the Holy Spirit, who can also prepare her body to be the temple of the God-man” (Lange). “The holy Virgin came to her great perfection and height of piety by a few, and those modest and unattractive, exercises and actions. St. Paul travelled over the world; preached to the Gentiles and disputed against the Jews; wrote epistles; suffered dangers, injuries, affronts, and persecutions to the height of wonder; whereby he won for himself a crown. But the holy Virgin attained perfection by the means of a quiet and silent piety—by internal actions of love, devotion, and contemplation; and instructs us that the silent affections, the splendours of an internal devotion, the union of love, humility, and obedience, the daily offices of prayer and praises sung to God, acts of faith and fear, of patience and meekness, of hope and reverence, repentance and charity, and those graces which walk in a veil and silence, make great ascents to God, and as sure progress to favour and a crown, as the more ostentatious and laborious exercises of a more public religion” (Taylor).
Complete Consecration of the Being to God.—“And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” So much is said in the word of God concerning the depravity of the human heart, and so familiar is the fact to us from what we know of ourselves, that it strikes us with wonder and admiration when we come across a record of a human life in which we can find no outstanding blemish. Acts of heroic faith, and instances of remarkable integrity in circumstances of temptation, are numerous in the sacred record, but there are only very few examples of persons who have, all through the history that is given of them, lived before God in all good conscience. The Virgin Mary is one of these exceptional cases. And we cannot doubt but that piety like hers is the highest and purest service that can be rendered to God. The devotion that prompts to heroic deeds at great crises in the life, or in special circumstances of trial and difficulty, is admirable; but that which leads to quiet, unostentatious obedience to God, in the unromantic circumstances of every-day life, is surely superior to it, as it is far more difficult to cultivate and maintain. Several points in the history before us are worthy of notice.
I. Though the faith of the Virgin was so mature and strong, there can be no doubt but that she was young in years. The piety of the young, when it is spontaneous and deep, has a charm and freshness all its own. Beautiful as is the sight of the prodigal turning from his errors and vices to a life of holiness, a still more attractive charm is associated with the goodness of those who have never strayed from God—whose memories are not sullied with the records of a guilty past, and whose energies have not been wasted in the service of evil. Nor is there any reason in the nature of things why piety like that of the Virgin should not be the rule instead of the exception. For devotion to God, and holy obedience, are not a yoke of bondage, which we can only accustom ourselves to bear by long and laborious effort: they are the very conditions of our present peace and happiness.
II. The qualities of mind and heart displayed by the Virgin—her innocence, integrity, simplicity, humility, and obedience—prepared her for playing her part well in the new circumstances in which she found herself. She could not have anticipated the possibility of receiving such a message. For though in the Old Testament Scriptures it had been predicted that Christ would be born of a virgin, the prophecy was veiled and obscure, and it was not until the angel brought this message that the mystery was fully disclosed. But her consecration of herself to God in the ordinary circumstances of daily life enabled her to meet this sudden call upon her faith, and to rise to a high degree of heroic self-devotion in this new emergency in which she found herself. A great lesson is suggested to us all in this fact. How we shall act in some sudden crisis of life is predetermined for us by our habitual conduct, and by the character we build up in quiet times, when there is no strain upon us, and we are simply face to face with plain, every-day duties. The sudden emergency is the test by which the strength or weakness of our characters is brought to light. If, therefore, we wish to be prepared act nobly in special circumstances of trial and difficulty, the only wise course we can take is to do the duties that meet us now in a spirit of uprightness and of humble reliance upon God.
III. The spirit of true self-consecration shines out in the words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” It is not merely that of passive resignation, in which the human will is completely subordinated to the Divine will; but there is also a desire to carry out the Divine will. We are often resigned because we cannot help ourselves. But a higher resignation is that which leads us to yield ourselves to God in the full confidence that He knows what is best for us, and with the strong but humble desire to co-operate with Him in the promotion of His great designs.
“Be it unto me according to Thy word.”—Almost the very first word which Scripture records of the mother of our Lord is a word of piety—a word of sweet maiden piety. It is a reverent assent to a Divine revelation, and complete submission to a conviction which has entered her soul as a message from heaven, setting her apart to a consecrated life. The spirit of this noble expression of piety is not too powerful at the present day.—Roberts.
Luke 1:39. City of Judah.—The city is not named. Probably it was not Hebron, as a place so well known would most likely have been named. The conjecture that Judah is a corruption of Juttah, a priestly city (Joshua 21:16), is unsupported by MS. authority. Probably the place referred to was to the south of Jerusalem and to the west of the Dead Sea.
Luke 1:41. The salutation of Mary.—I.e. her salutation as she entered, and not the salutation addressed to her by the angel Gabriel, and now repeated to Elisabeth. The babe leaped in her womb.—This movement of the unborn child was evidently regarded by the Evangelist and by Elisabeth as something extraordinary; she took it as a recognition of the unborn Messiah on the part of His kinsman and forerunner.
Luke 1:42. Spake out, etc.—R.V. “she lifted up her voice with a loud cry.” Blessed art thou among women.—This might mean
(1) Blessed [or highly privileged] art thou beyond all other women, or
(2) Thou art blessed [praised] by other women (cf. Luke 11:27). The former rendering is the better of the two. The phrase used is indeed the Hebrew form of the superlative, as in Jeremiah 49:15; Song of Solomon 1:8.
Luke 1:43. The mother of my Lord.—This appellation “my Lord” as applied to the unborn babe is an acknowledgment of the Divine nature of Jesus. The title “mother of God” which came into use in the fifth century, is open to obvious objections.
Luke 1:45.—This may be rendered either, Blessed is she that believed, for, etc., or. “Blessed is she that believed that there shall be,” etc. The former is preferable. Elisabeth no doubt contrasts the faith of Mary with the unbelief of Zacharias.
Luke 1:46.—It is interesting to observe the close resemblance between the Magnificat and the song of Hannah in similar circumstances (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Soul.—The natural life with all its affections and emotions.
Luke 1:47. Spirit.—“The diviner and loftier region of our being” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) (Farrar). My Saviour.—Not merely as the Deliverer from a state of degradation, but the Author of the salvation, for which His people were looking.
Luke 1:48. Low estate.—Lowly condition, not humility; there is a contrast between the present humiliation and the former glories of the house of David.
Luke 1:51.—The sense of the passage is, “He scatters their imaginations, frustrates their schemes, and brings their counsels to nought” (Bloomfield).
Luke 1:54. He hath holpen.—I.e. helped: the word properly means to lay hold of anything by the hand in order to support it when it is likely to fall.
Luke 1:55. As He spake unto our fathers.—These words are parenthetical; the sentence runs, “In remembrance of His mercy to Abraham, and to his seed for ever” (cf. Micah 7:20; Galatians 3:16).
Luke 1:56. About three months.—That is, until Elisabeth’s delivery or until shortly before it. It seems probable that on Mary’s return to Nazareth the events narrated in Matthew 1:18-24 took place.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Luke 1:39-56
The Communion of Saints with Each Other and with God.—It was not merely to obtain verification of the angel’s words that Mary travelled with haste into the hill country, but to hold communion with her kinswoman Elisabeth to whom God’s grace had been so signally shown. A common participation in the Divine favour drew them together. This is ever the way with those to whom God makes Himself known. They do not regard what they have received as a private possession of their own, but long to make it known, and they have especial delight in the society of those who share their faith. This communion of saints differs in a marked degree from mere friendly intercourse; for the bond that unites those who enter into it is not similarity of tastes and pursuits, but common allegiance to God. In the case before us we see this communion in its purest and most intense form. We observe—
I. The elevation of feeling by which it is characterised.—This is indicated by the holy salutations, the rapt outcry, and the inspired words that flow in rhythmical utterance from the lips of Elisabeth and of Mary. It is not mere excitement of mind that is displayed; but the special and unique circumstances in which they meet are fully realised by them, and the Holy Spirit prompts the words they speak. Such fervid feelings as theirs can be no example to us, since the experience which prompted them was unique in its character; but something akin to them may be known by us all as we join with our fellow-believers in celebrating the sacrament of the Supper—as we commemorate the most signal proof of the love of that Saviour whose advent to earth filled the hearts of these holy women with such exceeding joy.
II. The deep humility that distinguished these saints.—They have been the recipients of marked favour from heaven; future ages are thought of as celebrating their blessedness; and yet both meekly declare their personal unworthiness of the grace that has been shown them. They descend in humility before God, and magnify His name, and praise His loving-kindness and condescension towards them. They clearly recognise, too, that God has mankind in view in the revelation of His mercy that He has made to them, and they are free from every tinge of spiritual pride. This combination of sobriety with intensity of feeling is very remarkable, and distinguishes true elevation of spirit from unwholesome enthusiasm. If those who received such wonderful proofs of God’s favour were thus devoid of all spiritual pride and self-complacency, what excuse can we find for ourselves if ever these feelings take possession of our hearts?
III. A practical result of this communion is seen in the words in which Elisabeth confirms and blesses the faith of Mary (Luke 1:45).—The elder encourages the younger, and assures her that her trust in God will be rewarded by the fulfilment of His promises; and her words have weight, as coming from one who had faithfully served God all her life, and who had received undeniable proof of God’s power and love. The confirmation of faith, the encouragement of hope, and the awakening of deeper love to God and to each other, are all results for which we should look from the communion of saints. We can scarcely make any mistake in regarding the song of Mary as owing something of its intensity to the thoughts and feelings excited by the words of Elisabeth. As an act of communion with God, it has a character of its own which distinguishes it from those in which we ordinarily engage. In it acknowledgment of sinfulness and weakness, though not absent, is in the background, and the thoughts are fixed upon the glorious attributes of God: in it we see one Divine perfection after another rising into view, and receiving the homage of a devout and grateful heart.
No very rigid marks of division need be looked for as separating the four strophes of which this spontaneous song of praise is composed; but the following may be regarded as the main lines of thought in it:
1. Mary celebrates God’s condescension towards her, and the everlasting honour which He has conferred upon her (Luke 1:46-48).
2. She speaks of God’s dealings with her as proofs of His omnipotence, and holiness, and mercy, which He manifests to all who fear Him (Luke 1:49-50).
3. She extols the justice of God, as shown in the humiliation of the proud, the powerful, and the self-satisfied, and in the exaltation of the meek, the lowly, and the destitute (Luke 1:51-53).
4. She praises God for His faithfulness towards His people in fulfilling the promises made to their fathers.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON Luke 1:39-56
Luke 1:39. “Went … with haste.”—The haste with which Mary set out on her journey to Elisabeth shows us that her faith was no transient mood: she is eager
(1) to obtain the sign indicated to her as a confirmation of the angel’s words, and
(2) to celebrate with her kinswoman the love and condescension of God in the exceptional privileges He had bestowed upon them. In the meeting of these two holy women, as we see from what follows, gratitude to God rises to its highest pitch. As they communed together the grace of God manifested to them would shine forth with double lustre. Mary’s example teaches us that it is our duty to use all means within our power for strengthening our faith. “Surely the mountains of that ‘hill country’—the forest, and every tree therein—broke forth into singing, and earth was joyful; for the Lord had redeemed Jacob, and comforted His people. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of Him that bringeth good tidings.’ ”
Luke 1:40. The Salutation.—Our salutations are often thoughtlessly given and trivial in character: this was a holy and sacramental action—a devout heart invoking God’s blessing upon one desirous of it and prepared to receive it. What Jewish salutations were we learn from Ruth 2:4 : “The Lord be with you”; “The Lord bless thee.” The mingled joy and ecstasy of this meeting are unique in earthly history. “Only the meeting of saints in heaven can parallel the meeting of these two cousins: the two wonders of the world are met under one roof, and congratulate their mutual happiness.” In the intercourse between Mary and Elisabeth we have a beautiful example of the communion of saints. Those who truly love God will draw near to each other in holy fellowship to offer their united thanksgiving for His goodness, and to establish and strengthen each other in the faith by mutual exhortations and counsels. “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul” (Psalms 66:16). “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another” (Malachi 3:16)
Luke 1:41. “The babe leaped in her womb.”—Cf. Matthew 11:25 : “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”
Luke 1:42-45. The Canticle of Elisabeth.—When read in accordance with its structure, this beautiful canticle is seen to be a celebration of Mary’s faith; and, as leading up to this, every part of it takes its proper subordinate place. This faith, astounding in itself, the most supreme example probably of perfect trust in God, and absolute self-devotion to His will, that human flesh has ever given, was all the more striking to Elisabeth on account of its contrast with the unbelief of her own husband under a far less severe trial. No wonder that, when Mary appeared before her Spirit-illuminated eyes (Luke 1:41), she seemed the embodiment of Faith—that modest virgin with clasped hands, whom Hermas saw in vision, through whom the elect of God are saved, and from whom spring all the Christian graces, as fair daughters of a fair mother. Mary is thus, in Elisabeth’s eyes, the most blessed of women, because the most faithful; and it suits well that the first psalm of the New Testament should take the form of a praise of the fundamental evangelical virtue.—Warfield.
Luke 1:42. “Blessed art thou.”—At certain times devout feeling cannot be repressed, but will break forth, sometimes in a way that seems strange and extravagant to those who are not under the same influence. If Elisabeth had been silent, surely the very stones would have cried out. A still higher blessedness fell to the lot of Mary when she became a disciple and follower of Jesus. This is distinctly implied in His own words (see Luke 11:27-28).
Luke 1:43. “The mother of my Lord.”—Note the absence of anything like envy on the part of Elisabeth at the higher honour bestowed upon her kinswoman. She acknowledges the superiority of Mary as the mother of her Lord, and speaks of being unworthy to receive her under her roof. The more highly God exalts us in favour, the more humble in spirit should we become. Compare as kindred examples of humility, David (2 Samuel 7:18), John the Baptist (Matthew 3:14), and the centurion (Luke 7:6).
“My Lord.”—The application of these words, which are equivalent to “Jehovah,” to an unborn child, can only be justified or explained by the fact of the divinity of Jesus. They were probably suggested to Elisabeth by Psalms 110:1.
Luke 1:45. “Blessed is she that believed.”—Though the faith of Mary was tried in a special way, yet her case is an illustration of the great principle that those who place implicit confidence in God obtain the fulfilment of His promises. The greater the faith displayed, the greater is the reward it receives (cf. John 20:29; 1 Peter 1:7-8). “God offers His benefits indiscriminately to all; but faith, so to speak, holds its lap to receive them; while unbelief allows them to pass away, so as not to reach us.”
Luke 1:46-55. The Magnificat.—The mother of our Lord was a poetess. The beautiful hymn which still has a frequent place in Christian worship is by her, and is another illustration of the meditative, reverential, mystical spirit whose steady fire burned within her. The Magnificat is the first Christian hymn—it is a hymn in the exact sense of the word; for a hymn originally means a poem sung in praise of the gods or of heroes. Augustine’s definition of a hymn is, “praise to God with a song.” The Magnificat is a type and model of what our hymns in church should be; its form is the old Hebrew form then passing away; its spirit is that of youth, of freshness of vision, of abounding bright-eyed energy. There is no pessimism in this morning hymn of Christianity.—Roberts.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord.”—Elisabeth sings the praises of Mary’s faith; Mary answers by a praise of God—His grace, might, mercy, justice, and faithfulness. The difference is significant—perhaps characteristic. The tone of the Magnificat is happy, though solemn—such as befitted one so highly honoured, and yet so unconscious of self. The ground of Mary’s praise to God is, that, in spite of her low estate, He has selected her as the vessel of His election for bringing the seed of Abraham into the world; and this is the mighty, holy, just, and faithful thing that He has done which commands her song.—Warfield.
The Magnificat.—In St. Luke’s Gospel the picture of Mary is clothed in flesh and blood. There is breath and there is poetry upon her lips. Her heart beats quicker at the angel’s salutation. Maiden modesty and saintly resignation to burning shame fill her brief but pregnant words. The hoarded music of her soul finds measured utterance of its serene and stately joy. The Magnificat, chanted in so many churches, is the highest specimen of the subtle influence of the song of purity, so exquisitely described by a great poet. It is the Pippa Passes among the liturgies of the world. It is a woman teaching in the Church for ever without usurpation of authority, but with a saintly quietness, that knows no end.
I. The historical framework in which the Magnificat is set (Luke 1:38-41).—Mary was misconstrued by the world. She was bearing a cross heavy to pure souls—a cross of shame. In Nazareth she could not remain. She turned to the spot towards which she seemed to be invited by an angel’s lips, and pointed by an angel’s finger (Luke 1:36). There must have been pathos in the quiet word of the gentle maiden as she saluted Elisabeth. Elisabeth, for her part, knew her cousin’s voice, even before she saw her pale and suffering face.
II. The Magnificat itself.—There is a noble quiet in the one word “said.”
1. The personal traits by which the hymn is pervaded. Humility is the chief of these. Mary does not profess humility; she practises it. Favoured, indeed, she is. Yet she has no thought of that which she is—only of that which, in God’s free grace, she has received. In the second line she counts herself among the lost whom God has brought into a state of salvation. Her joy and exultation repose upon that God who is her Saviour.
2. The religious principles by which the Magnificat is pervaded. Mary’s soul is full of faith in the tenderness and power of God—in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. She has the clear conviction that all which is sweetest and greatest in the attributes of God meet in the gift of His dear Son. Power, holiness, mercy, faith, and truth are there. And she believes intensely in the victory of that incarnation—in the sure triumph of God. With the instinct of a prophetess she sees an outline of all history, and compresses and crushes it into four strong, rugged words.
III. Some lessons, ecclesiastical and personal, from the Magnificat.—
1. This poem is retained in the Reformed Prayer Book. There are few Divine songs in the New Testament. But there are some; and surely they are there for good reasons. And it is a great thing to have some hymns in public worship whose permanence is ensured by their being strictly Scriptural.
2. Not without propriety is the Magnificat placed in the public service. It comes after the Old Testament lesson. Mary stood, as her song stands with us, between the two Testaments.
3. By using the Magnificat, we fulfil her own prophecy, “All generations shall call me blessed.” Some forget this. She is blessed—blessed, because consecrated as a temple for the eternal Word.
4. As to personal lessons. We may well apply Mary’s words to ourselves as a blessing common to us all. Her blessedness is ours: “For whosoever will do the will of God, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.” Again, praise should be our work. Once more, joy and peace are part of our purchased inheritance: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.” And the more we lean on Him, the more He loves us. When we read or join in the Magnificat, let us see to it that that peace is ours which will make its words true for us.—Alexander.
Luke 1:46. Compare the Magnificat with the Song of Hannah.
I. Points of similarity.—
1. Both express gratitude for God’s compassion and condescension.
2. Both rise from particular instances of Divine procedure to the principles that regulate the government of the world.
3. Both anticipate the glories of Christ’s kingdom.
II. Points of difference.—
1. Hannah’s words are animated by high-spirited exultation over her enemies, Mary’s by profound humility and self-restraint.
2. In the one Christ is “Jehovah’s King,” to whom He will “give strength”—His anointed, “whose horn He shall exalt”; in the other Christ is the help of Israel.
From Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving, which is filled with echoes from the writings of the psalmists and prophets of the Old Testament, we may see how she had delighted in the word of God, and how intimately she was acquainted with it. Perhaps we are even justified in concluding, from Luke 1:47-48, that she was acquainted with the Greek Version of the Old Testament, for the words there quoted agree with it rather than with the original Hebrew (cf. Psalms 31:7 with the corresponding passage in the LXX: Psalms 30:7). True piety will ever be found to lead believers to value the Holy Scriptures, and to appropriate for the expression of their devout feelings the words used by saints in old time.
“Magnify.”—To make great or to glorify. We cannot, indeed, add to God’s dignity or power, but the word “magnify” is an appropriate one for describing our giving God a larger place in our thoughts and feelings, and our publishing abroad the reasons we have for giving Him praise. “My soul doth magnify … my spirit hath rejoiced.”
1. True praise of God, with mind and heart as well as with tongue.
2. Cheerful praise of God in the full employment of every faculty.
Luke 1:47. “God my Saviour.”—It is the recognition of God in this character that alone dispels doubt and anxiety, and imparts a true and full joy. Mary refers, no doubt, to the name Jesus (i.e. Saviour) to be conferred upon her Son. Probably, like others, she anticipated a reign of material prosperity in connection with the coming of Christ, but her deeply religious cast of mind forbids us to suppose that her hopes were limited to it. The satisfaction of spiritual needs was doubtless equally looked for.
Luke 1:48. “Regarded.”—I.e. looked upon. It is a very beautiful fact, that in the Scriptures God’s regarding or looking upon is taken to be equivalent with having mercy upon. Cf. Luke 9:38 with Matthew 17:15. And here we see a great difference between God’s thoughts and our thoughts: God, who is infinitely holy, is compassionate also; we who are sinful are harsh and unsympathetic in our judgment of our fellows.
“Low estate.”—The house of David, to which Mary, as well as Joseph, doubtless belonged, was now in obscurity and poverty; but it can scarcely be to this fact that the Virgin here alludes. In her humility she is unable to recognise any reason why she should be the object of the Divine compassion and condescension. She is convinced that she is unworthy of the high honour bestowed upon her. “All generations shall call me blessed.” The insight of Mary is true: it is from the Divine favour that the purest and most lasting fame springs. However the admiration of those in any particular generation may be fixed upon those who are high in rank, distinguished by wealth, learning, beauty, or natural gifts, the general instinct of mankind is true in cherishing the names of those who have been holy, and of those who have received honour from God, as entitled to the highest place on the roll of fame. For by general consent a higher dignity attaches to saintliness than to any other quality that distinguishes a man from his fellows.
Luke 1:49. “His name.”—In many parts of Scripture the “name” of God practically signifies God Himself. Cf. Psalms 91:14; 2 Chronicles 6:20. It is that which suggests to us His adorable majesty. Properly speaking, it is God as revealed to us, or as known by us.
Luke 1:50. “That fear Him.”—All through the word of God true piety is represented as fear of God. By this we are not to understand slavish dread, but that reverence which is due
(1) from children to a father,
(2) from servants to a master, and
(3) from subjects to a king—a reverence which leads (a) to obedience to His commandments, and (b) to submission to His will. In contrast with this “fear,” which is an attitude and state of heart, is hypocrisy, or mere outward pretence of reverence and service.
Luke 1:51. “He hath scattered the proud.”—With the mercy shown to the lowly is contrasted the severity with which God will chastise the arrogance of the mighty. Mary speaks of this as in the past instead of in the future; but this mode of speech is common in prophetic utterances. In the choice of the lowly (of Mary herself and of Elisabeth) God has already rejected the proud; and this principle of action will be carried through to the very end in the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. “The proud, the powerful, and the rich describe Herod and his court, Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as foreign tyrants, Cæsar and his armies and heathen powers.”
“Scattered.”—When God has for a time looked down in silent mockery on their splendid preparations, He unexpectedly scatters the whole mass: just as when a building is overturned, and its parts, which had formerly been bound together by a strong and firm union, are widely scattered in every direction.—Calvin.
Luke 1:52. “He hath put down the mighty.”—The humiliation of the mighty and the exaltation of the humble were facts remarked by the ancients; and the explanation they gave was, that the gods envied those who were too successful in life, and delighted in humbling them, and in raising up others in their place. Sheer caprice, and not moral principle, was supposed to govern the Divine procedure. The figure frequently used to present this capricious interference with human affairs is Fortune’s wheel. But in the Scriptures it is impiety and the abuse of power that lead to the degradation of the proud and mighty, while those who are raised to honour have already moral qualifications for the places they are called to occupy. Cf. the cases of Pharaoh, Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar, and those of Joseph, Moses, David, and Daniel, respectively.
Luke 1:53. “He hath filled the hungry.”—By the hungry we are to understand mainly those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for here, as in Luke 1:48, we have an anticipation of the Beatitudes; but the destitute in the literal sense of the word are also probably kept in view. The latter as a class contained those who longed most eagerly for the blessings of Messiah’s kingdom. Just as those who were richly endowed with the world’s goods were apt to be self-satisfied and worldly-minded, those who were poor were in many cases prepared to receive the glad tidings of blessings which the world could neither give nor take away. Prosperity is indeed the gift of God; but if it leads to forgetfulness of Him, and if the sense of dependence upon Him is weakened, it becomes a snare.
Two Contrasted Classes.—Mary had here two classes of persons before her—the hungry and the rich; and she employs these words in the spiritual sense in which they are used in the Jewish Scriptures.
I. “The hungry” mean those who feel the sense of spiritual needs, who are dissatisfied with present attainments, who long for something beyond themselves, and to be something better than they are as yet. To be humble, to be dissatisfied with self and with our shortcomings, is to be on the road to improvement, and God helps those who know that they need His help. When Mary announces the reward of spiritual hunger, she touches on a principle of wide range, applicable alike to mental, moral, and physical life. If human beings are to benefit by nourishment, there must be appetite. Nothing is more repugnant to the physical nature than forcing food upon a reluctant patient. If knowledge is to do good, there must be an appetite for it. Religious truth forced on the soul when there is no desire for it does not illuminate it. Appetite is the condition for acquiring anything, whether for body, mind, or spirit.
II. “The rich” Mary regards as those who regard themselves as being just as they should be—the self-satisfied. To be satisfied with self is to believe that there is no capability of improvement; and God will not help those who have made up their minds that they can do without Him. Self-sufficiency is a fatal bar to spiritual attainment. The distinction between the two classes is seen in illustrative cases—Jacob and Esau, David and Saul. The same clearly marked distinction continues down to our own day. God gives to every man an endowment which creates in the soul a longing after Himself. On the use made of this endowment man’s spiritual destiny turns. Cultivate this hunger for spiritual things. It is strengthened by exercise; it is lost by neglect.—Liddon.
Luke 1:54. “He hath holpen his servant Israel.”—From general statements regarding Divine procedure Mary comes to the particular case of Israel at the time then present. What God had formerly promised He was now granting. He had, as it were, by allowing the nation to fall into disorder and misery, shown His displeasure at their sins; but now He is remembering the mercy towards them which He had pledged His word to bestow upon them. For a time He had seemed forgetful, but now He is mindful of His ancient covenant with Abraham and with his seed.
Luke 1:55. “As He spake … to Abraham.”—The promise to Abraham was one that embraced all the nations of the earth (Genesis 22:18), so that in the thoughts of Mary far more than Divine mercy towards Israel is now to be revealed—even a blessing for all mankind in connection with the advent of Christ.
Luke 1:56. “About three months.”—Though it is not distinctly stated, it is probable that Mary stayed with Elisabeth until the birth of John. St. Luke is in the habit of rounding off the narrative without scrupulously adhering to the order of time (see Luke 1:65; Luke 3:19-20), so that we are not bound to take what is recorded here in Luke 1:56 as having happened before the events recorded in the paragraph beginning with Luke 1:57.
Luke 1:58. Cousins.—Rather, “kinsfolk,” which was the original meaning of “cousins.” How the Lord.—Rather, “that the Lord” (R.V.).
Luke 1:59. On the eighth day.—The stated time for administering the rite of circumcision (Genesis 21:4; Luke 2:21; Philippians 3:5). The custom from the first was to give the name to the child at the time of circumcision (cf. Genesis 21:3-4); perhaps it originated in the change of names from Abram to Abraham, and from Sarai to Sarah, at the institution of the rite (Genesis 17:5; Genesis 17:15). They called him.—Lit. “they were calling”; the imperfect tense being used idiomatically to denote an unfulfilled attempt—“they were for calling him.” After the name of his father.—We do not find traces of this custom in the earlier history of the Jews.
Luke 1:62. Made signs.—This seems to imply that Zacharias was deaf as well as dumb.
Luke 1:63. A writing table.—I.e. a tablet: a board smeared with wax, on which they wrote with a style, a sharp instrument used for the purpose. Marvelled.—At the agreement of the parents on the unusual name.
Luke 1:66. And the hand of the Lord.—A better reading is, “for the hand of the Lord” (R.V.): a remark of the Evangelist’s, which sums up the history of John’s childhood.
Luke 1:68. Blessed.—Hence this song of praise has been called the Benedictus.
Luke 1:69. Horn of salvation.—I.e. a powerful deliverer and helper. The figure alludes to the horns of beasts as used in defence of themselves or of their offspring.
Luke 1:71. Saved from our enemies.—“Salvation from our enemies” (R.V.). A political element was undoubtedly present in the anticipation of the deliverance which Christ was to accomplish; but we see from Luke 1:74-75 that Zacharias prized this as a means to a higher end, viz. a more complete consecration of the Jewish people to the service and worship of God.
Luke 1:72. To perform the mercy.—Rather, “to shew mercy toward our fathers” (R.V.).
Luke 1:73. The oath.—This is recorded in Genesis 22:16-18.
Luke 1:75. Holiness and righteousness.—As generally interpreted, “holiness” denotes the observance of all duties towards God; “righteousness,” the performance of all duties we owe to men. Godet, however, regards “holiness” as negative, and “righteousness” as positive—freedom from defilement, and actual goodness, respectively. All the days of our life.—Rather, “all our days” (R.V.).
Luke 1:76. To prepare His ways.—Cf. Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1. The same passages are combined in the same way in Mark 1:2.
Luke 1:78. Tender mercy.—Lit. “bowels of mercy”; the phrase is often found in the Scriptures (Proverbs 12:10; 2 Corinthians 7:15, etc.). The dayspring.—The word thus translated is used by the LXX. for both “the dawn” (Jeremiah 31:40), and for “the branch,” as a title of the Messiah (Zechariah 3:8, etc.). The former of these is evidently the meaning of the word here. On high.—These words, which convey the thought of the Messiah as coming from heaven, are slightly inconsistent with the figure of the dawn. Hath visited us.—A better reading is, “shall visit us” (R.V.).
Luke 1:80. In spirit.—That is, in mind and wisdom as contrasted with bodily growth Compare the description given of the childhood of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26), and of our Lord (Luke 2:40; Luke 2:52). In the deserts.—The wilderness of Judah (see Matthew 3:1), not far from his home in the hill country: a rocky tract in the eastern part of Judæa towards the Red Sea. There is no evidence of John’s having come in contact with, or having been influenced by, the Essenes—the mystical and ascetical sect of the Jews that lived in the same neighbourhood. “In every point John the Baptist was at variance with the teaching of the Essenes. They had given up Messianic hopes; while that which inspired his soul and ministry was an anticipation of Christ’s coming, and the belief that he (John) was to prepare the way before Him. The Essenes taught that matter was the seat of evil; while John, by his emphatic preaching of the necessity of conversion, plainly showed that he considered that evil lay in a depraved will. The Essenes withdrew from society, and gave themselves up to mystical contemplation; John at the appointed time casts himself boldly into the midst of society, and henceforward to the very end of his life takes a most active and zealous interest in his country’s affairs” (Godet). The day of his shewing.—I.e. of his manifestation or of his entrance upon his official life as the forerunner of Christ. The passage implies that on receiving a definite signal from God he withdrew from retirement and began his great work. We are not told what this signal was, nor how it was conveyed to him.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Luke 1:57-80
The Morning Hymn of the Gospel.—The Benedictus, like the Magnificat, is charged and surcharged with Old Testament allusions. All the people in this chapter use the Old Testament forms of speech, and pursue Old Testament ideals of conduct. It is difficult to analyse the beauty and the charm of this “morning hymn of the gospel.” But we may treat it, throughout, as a hymn of thanksgiving that—
I. The Messiah so long promised to the fathers has come.—At last, after four hundred dreary years, God has “visited” His people. To the Hebrew mind the word has a specially large and benign meaning. And all the Divine visits culminated when He came in the person of His Son to abide with men, to be their Redeemer, to establish a new righteousness, to lift them into the freedom of a glad and willing obedience to the Divine will, and so to turn all their sorrows into joy. Hence the designation of the Messiah as a “horn of salvation.” Strength in the ox culminates in the horns. So all the power of deliverance that had ever been diffused throughout the house of David, in kings, prophets, leaders, “saviours,” is but a faint and imperfect shadow of “the Saviour” just born in David’s city. All that they had ever done for Israel is now to be outdone. Yet this was to be no new thing, but only a fulfilment of what “the prophets” had foretold “since the world began.” All who had led and saved Israel were figures of Him who was to come; all who had taught Israel had borne witness to Him. Yet how great must He be for whose salvation there had been a preparation so long and great! His salvation would be a salvation from “all our enemies,” and from “the hand of all that hate us.” And whatever the first intention of these words in reference to foreign heathen rulers who oppressed the Jewish people, we are warranted by them in thinking of the salvation of Christ as a perfect salvation, extending to all the forces opposed to us, whether from within or from without. Nay, more, it is a salvation which extends to the dead as well as to the living, to “our fathers,” right away back to Abraham, the first of them all, since these too were waiting in the dim Hadean world for the fulfilment of the promises and covenants vouchsafed to them. And, again, this was to be not simply salvation political, but mainly religious, though involving political deliverance. The end of it was to be to “serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness.” Zacharias, like the prophets, clearly discerns that the Messianic reign is to be founded on personal holiness, that only those can enter the new kingdom who make righteousness their chief aim, and freely serve God in all that they do, consenting to His rule as good, and rejoicing to do His will through every province and the whole extent of their “days” or life.
II. He thanks God for the distinction conferred on his son.—It was no small honour to be a “prophet of the Most High,” but how much greater to be prophet and forerunner of “the Lord,” i.e. of the Messiah, the Lord who was to “come suddenly to His Temple”! This was the distinction conferred on John in which his father rejoices by anticipation. But what need for Messiah to have a herald? What need for the Divine Messenger to have a messenger? To prepare His way. The people must be taught that Messiah’s salvation was to involve and secure “the remission of their sins.” They had misconceived the salvation of the Lord, assuming that He would come to work political deliverance from Roman and Idumæan tyrannies. Before the Saviour could come His “way” must be prepared—gross and carnal misconceptions of His mission must be removed. They must be taught that sin was their true enemy, and salvation from sin their true salvation. Zacharias saw what the true bondage of the nation was, and what the work both of the Deliverer and of His herald must be. We need to be reminded that the only salvation and deliverance which can do us any good consists in getting rid, by pardon and by holiness, of the cords of our sins. He who could teach the people this, and only he, would prepare the way of Him who came to accomplish this very salvation, and no other.
III. Zacharias thanks God for the blessings which were to flow from the Messianic salvation and reign.—The cause of all these blessings was “the tender mercy of our God”: for from what could the “remission of sins” spring save from the Divine compassion, the heart of love in the bosom of God? And having traced them to their heavenly Source, Zacharias sums up these blessings in a figure of rare beauty and force. Isaiah had promised the faithful “remnant” that the “glory of the Lord should rise upon them,” and Malachi that the “Sun of righteousness should arise upon them.” Basing himself on these images, Zacharias conceives of the men of Israel, if not of men in general, as a vast caravan, which has strayed from the true path, the way of life and peace, and has lost itself amidst the shifting and barren sands of the wilderness. The night falls on them, and they huddle together in the darkness, which seems the very shadow of impending death. But in the Divine mercy a new and unexpected light dawns on them from on high; and as it spreads they take courage, and gather themselves up for a new effort: they find and return to the path, and their souls are filled with peace. In the beautiful figure of the “dayspring from on high,” Zacharias sets before us the happy effects of the remission of our sins, of that true salvation wrought by Christ. The shadows which obscured heaven and earth flee away; the path of life becomes plain; and returning to that path, we walk thenceforth in the light, and become children of the day. All Christ’s visitation and enlightenment are meant to lead us into the path where we shall find peace with God, and therefore with ourselves and all mankind. We are at rest only when all our relations with God and the outer world are right, and our inner being at harmony with itself.—Cox.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON Luke 1:57-80
Luke 1:58. “Her neighbours and cousins.”—In these verses we get a pleasing glimpse into the family life of a Jewish household eighteen centuries ago. Natural affections and the courtesies of social life are seen to be hallowed and refined by a devout acknowledgment of God as the giver of blesssing.
“Rejoiced with her.”—Not only because of the gift of a son and her safe delivery, but because of the sign of special Divine favour towards her in granting her the boon at an advanced time of life, when all hope of receiving it must have been given up.
Luke 1:63. “His name is John.”—The emphasis with which the answer was given is no doubt due to the fact that this name was given by Divine command (Luke 1:13). This sentence on the tablet was the first written sentence of the new covenant; and it contains the word “grace” (John = the grace of Jehovah). The last sentence of the old covenant concluded with the word “curse” (Malachi 4:6). If it had pleased God to preserve any relics connected with holy persons and events of the New Testament, this tablet with its inscription would doubtless have come down to us.—Bengel.
“Marvelled.”—Probably because the reason for imposing the name was now disclosed to them.
Luke 1:64. “Spake, and praised God.”—The first use made by Zacharias of his newly recovered faculty of speech was to praise God. A pious heart, in such circumstances, naturally follows this course. It is appropriate
(1) to admit the justice of God in correcting us for our sins,
(2) to thank Him for the removal of the chastisement which has been the sign of His displeasure, and
(3) to acknowledge the benefits derived from the painful discipline to which we have been subjected.
Luke 1:65-66. “Fear came on all.”—Wonder and awe filled the souls of those who heard of these things: in some cases, no doubt, it took the form of a guilty fear because of consciousness of sin; in others, that of adoring gratitude at the prospect of the fulfilment of Messianic hopes; and in others, that of mere empty astonishment. Strangely enough all memories of the events of this time seem to have died out in the period that elapsed before John begun his public ministry, as the marvellous circumstances connected with his birth are not again alluded to in the Gospel history. The memory is too often like a river which carries down light and trivial matters, while those that are weighty and valuable sink out of sight.
Luke 1:66. “The hand of the Lord was with him.”—
1. To strengthen.
2. To protect.
The Anxieties of Love.—“What manner of child shall this be?” This question has again and again been asked by all sorts of parents, about all sorts of children, ever since the world began. The best and the worst of mankind have had their time of innocence and beauty—have been welcomed, caressed, talked over, by those who cared more for them, and deserved more from them, than any one else in the world. If in some respects a useless question—for time is indispensable for a full answer to it, and those who ask it may have disappeared long before the answer is ready—it is a question full of nature and pathos. Not to ask it is to be quite unworthy of the blessing of a child.
I. What goes to make a child what Christian parents ought to wish it to be?—
1. Its own personality. Every human being is absolutely distinct from every other in mental capacity, tastes and gifts, disposition and physical nature. We must make the best of this separateness.
2. The home surroundings. These make an enormous difference to a child’s future, whether in material or spiritual things. Comfort or discomfort, abundance or penury, healthiness or squalor, protection from temptation or exposure to it, the suitableness or unsuitableness of social environment, are all powerful factors in moral development, gravely influencing a child’s future.
3. The training. This is of unspeakable moment. It includes the home atmosphere, the tone of its conversation, the aim of its ambitions, the spirit of its pursuits, the scope of its activities. Ordinary conversation at meal-times or in the home evening hours moulds character more than books.
4. The grace of God. Promised at baptism, given again and again to the receptive heart in the opening years, asked for by godly parents to be a continual gift, and coming to the child through the parents as its channels in many unsuspected ways.
II. What share in the making of a child is within a parent’s power?—Helplessness and presumption are equally fatal here. To know our limitations is the first condition of success.
1. We cannot make a child to order. Most of us would like to be able to do so; and if we tried, the result would be a curious creature. God reserves this prerogative to Himself. We cannot repeal the awful law of heredity. We continually suffer from the consequences of our parents’ sins.
2. We cannot, after a certain age, lock up a child in a glass case. If we try to do so, it is usually bad for the case, but much worse for the child.
3. Nor can we padlock a child’s mind. Any real or continuous effort to conceal from the growing faculties the laws of the universe, the melancholy facts of the world, the existence of unbelief, will only compel a woeful “Nemesis of faith” when the padlock is forced open.
4. Much is, however, possible. Much that we can do, and which God expects us to do. There is no nobler opportunity, no more awful talent, no loftíer duty, than that of nurturing and training a Christian child in the love and fear of God. By our own life, example, and conversation we can make a good soil for the young plant to grow in, and set a high ideal of motive, and principle, and duty before the young soul, which sees, admires, loves, absorbs, unknowingly. We can train a child from the earliest to obey and to deny itself. We can make them free of the Church’s privileges. We can always give them sympathy and love.—Thorold.
Luke 1:68-79. The Benedictus.—Zacharias, the humble father of the greatest human prophet, closes the strain of Old Testament prediction on the threshold of the New Testament. It is his honour to be the first of whom it was said that he was “filled with the Holy Ghost.” His prophetic song, uttered over the infant forerunner, keeps steadily in view the coming Christ. It belongs to the old economy in its phraseology and tone, while it is filled with the Spirit of the new dispensation. Zacharias speaks at the outset as one of the old prophets risen again, but his closing words might be an extract from an apostolic epistle. To his prophetic glance the Redeemer’s work is already accomplished. The Holy Ghost has raised this prophetic priest from his incredulity into the full assurance of faith; and, like Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry, he sees in clear perspective the full development of the kingdom of grace. The advent of Christ is that of God “looking upon” His creatures, “visiting” them to leave them no more, and “redeeming” them with a spiritual and eternal deliverance. That salvation was to be provided in the “house of David,” in performance of the mercy “promised to the fathers.” But it was a salvation proclaimed by the prophets “since the world began,” and therefore for the world; it was “the oath sworn to Abraham,” and therefore an eternal pledge, now virtually redeemed, to the children of faith; and the blessings of the everlasting covenant are personal redemption from those enemies that make God an object of terror, and strength to serve Him in personal holiness of consecration and righteousness of life all the days of human probation. But whatever Old Testament limitation may have seemed to linger in this last prophecy vanishes before the higher influence under which Zacharias blesses his son’s commission. In John he beholds “the prophet of the Highest” (the “Highest” and the “Son of the Highest” are one), and his office would be to herald the Light of the world, coming to pour the dayspring from on high on the nations sitting in darkness, and guide the feet of sinners into the way of peace—to announce deliverance from no other yoke than that of evil, “salvation by the remission of sins.” In due time that greater son will take up his father’s prophecy and point to Israel’s “Lamb of God” as taking away the “sin of the world.” But listening to this closing strain of prophecy, we still observe that the Redeemer’s dominion is alone exalted; and as yet the mystery of the Passion is kept veiled. All is victory, redemption, peace. The eve of the Incarnation hears no sound but that of rejoicing; for here the order is inverted, and the sorrow of the night will come after the joy of the morning.—Pope.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”—Consider for a moment whether we cannot find evidence in the context of this canticle that it belongs to the time to which it is assigned, and can be referred to no other, without supposing an exquisite literary tact totally alien from apocryphal forgeries. Take this hymn of Zacharias. What should we expect from him? The hope of Jesus Christ and of salvation, rising indeed a little beyond the Psalms, but still in Jewish colours, and under Jewish images. Precisely such is its character. The God whom Zacharias blesses is Israel’s God. The mighty salvation is in David’s house. It is the fulfilment of prophecy in the pursuance of the promise to Abraham. The whole groundwork of the hymn is Jewish. The time is felt to be a dawn at best, “the dayspring from on high”; but there are vistas which let us behold the broad light upon the great deep.—Alexander.
“Redeemed His people.”—This utterance of Zacharias is something more than a song or poem—it is a treatise on salvation.
1. Its Author. “The Lord God of Israel.”
2. Its cause. “On account of the tender mercy of our God.”
3. Its essence. “Salvation, consisting in remission of sins.”
4. Its blessedness and privileges. “Delivered … serve without fear.”
5. Its consequence. “Holiness and righteousness.”—Ibid.
Thanks to God.—The best expression of joy, when long cherished desires are at last on the eve of accomplishment, is thanks to God. No wonder then that the first words of the hymn are a burst of blessing of “the God of Israel.”—Maclaren.
The Fervour of the Hymn.—It seems to be implied by Luke 1:64 that this song was uttered immediately on Zacharias’ regaining his speech. “This canticle, which was composed in the heart of the priest during the time of his dumbness, issues solemnly from his lips when they are unsealed, as the molten metal flows from the furnace when an outlet is given to it” (Godet).
National Aspirations.—The song of Mary expresses her individual feelings, that of Zacharias represents the aspirations and gratitude of the nation whom God has visited. Zacharias does not simply express joyous feelings at the birth of a son, or even exultation at the glorious career that lay before that son. He does not dwell upon his own relationship to the child, and even the child himself is unmentioned, until the mercy of God in Christ has been fully celebrated. As in the case of the Magnificat, no very rigid lines of division need be looked for in this lyrical outburst of praise; but the following are the topics contained in it:
1.Luke 1:68-70; Luke 1:68-70—a Deliverer raised up for Israel in one of David’s line.
2.Luke 1:71-75; Luke 1:71-75—the nature of the work He was to accomplish is described.
3.Luke 1:76-77; Luke 1:76-77—the part to be played by John, as the forerunner of Christ.
4.Luke 1:78-79; Luke 1:78-79—the source of this fertilising stream of grace is in the compassion of God towards men.
Luke 1:68. “Visited His people.”—Four centuries had passed since the last direct communication between heaven and earth. During that time God had appeared, as it were, to be absent: no prophet’s voice had been heard, no angelic messenger had been seen. In the Old Testament the purpose of God’s visiting His people is generally to judge them; in the New Testament it is to show mercy to them.
Luke 1:69. “A horn of salvation.”—Cf. Psalms 132:16. This may be reckoned as one of the titles of Christ. The metaphor, appropriate enough in the language of an agricultural people, is taken from a bull’s defending itself and attacking enemies with its horns. In Christ power and authority are given
(1) for the deliverance and defence of His people, and
(2) for the defeat and overthrow of all His and their enemies. There is no reference to the horns of the altar as a place of refuge.
Luke 1:70. “His holy prophets.”—I.e. as the organs made use of for communicating God’s holy will. The prophets did not simply foretell events, they strove to establish and maintain right relations between men and God. Bad men, like Balaam and the old prophet of Bethel (1 Kings 13:11), might sometimes be inspired to predict the future, but only holy men could engage in the work of turning the hearts of the people towards God.
Luke 1:71. “Saved from our enemies.”—In this song of Zacharias there is more than an anticipation of merely temporal prosperity for the Jewish people. “It is the expression of the aspirations and hopes of a pious Jew, waiting for the salvation of the Lord, finding that salvation brought near, and uttering his thankfulness in Old Testament language, with which he was familiar, and at the same time under prophetic influence of the Holy Spirit” (Alford).
Luke 1:72. “Promised to our fathers.”—He bethinks himself of those in the long centuries of the past who had eagerly desired to see the fulfilment of Divine promises of blessedness through Christ, and had died with the desire ungratified; and he speaks of the advent of the Messiah as being an evidence of God’s mercy to the dead as well as to the living. This poetical language is not to be interpreted too literally.
Luke 1:72-73. John, Zacharias, Elisabeth.—It can scarcely be accidental that the names of the Baptist and of his parents correspond to three successive clauses in these verses. John (“the grace” or “mercy of Jehovah”)—to perform the mercy” (Luke 1:72); Zacharias (“God has remembered”)—“to remember His holy covenant” (Luke 1:72); Elisabeth (“God hath sworn”)—“the oath which He sware” (Luke 1:73).
Luke 1:74-75. “That we … might serve Him.”—The spiritual element in the aspirations of Zacharias here comes clearly into view: the deliverance of the nation from bondage and oppression is not the great end in view. It is desirable as a means for securing a more perfect service and worship of God.
“Without fear.”—I.e. fear of enemies, without being distracted by worldly cares.
The Nature of True Service of God.—The great purpose which God has in view in sending Christ for our redemption is here plainly stated.
1. He would lead us to serve Him: “that we should serve Him” (Luke 1:74).
2. He would free us from all distracting cares—“without fear” (Luke 1:74).
3. He would have this service to be in spirit and in truth—“in holiness and righteousness before Him”—in the discharge of all the duties we owe to Him and to our fellows.
4. He would have us to serve Him thus “all our days” (Luke 1:75).
Luke 1:74. “Delivered out of the hand of our enemies.”—As for the prophetic ideal of the kingdom, it is not so simple a matter to determine as one may be at first inclined to think. The general strain of Hebrew prophecy seems, indeed, to point to such a state of things as Zacharias longed for—Israel delivered out of the hands of her enemies, and serving God without fear and amid prevalent prosperity. Yet there are stray utterances here and there which suggest the doubt whether this idyllic picture was ever to find a place in the realm of reality.—Bruce.
The Christian’s Priestly Service.—The priest-prophet Zacharias views the life of all the emancipated children of God as one continuous worship, one endless priestly service: “That we … should continually do Him worship.” One word summed up the whole meaning and purpose of the priestly life of Zacharias—to do God service, to be worshipping Him. This word, this Ich Dien of the faithful priesthood, he makes the Ich Dien of every child of God. The one true Priest, whose coming is so near, shall enable all the redeemed people to perform the true service of priests, to celebrate God’s worship in the long festivity of a perpetual freedom. The motto of Christ’s kingdom of priests comes fitly from the lips of an inspired priest.—Alexander.
A Priest’s Thanksgiving.—The prevailing priestly character of Zacharias hymn is somewhat strongly marked. It would have been natural to no one but a priest to cast his Messianic hopes so prevailingly in the moulds of the sanctuary.—Warfield.
Luke 1:76. “And thou, child.”—Zacharias does not say “my son”: the relation of John the Baptist to him as son is lost sight of in the higher relationship in which he stands to Christ as His prophet and forerunner. “Child”—lit. “little child”: i.e. “though now such a little thing, thou shalt be,” etc.
“The Lord.”—This Divine title is here plainly applied to Christ, as it is for Christ that John is to prepare the way.
“Prepare His ways.”—I.e. by convincing the people that they stood in need of redemption from sin rather than of political emancipation. The figure used is an allusion to the well-known practice of Eastern monarchs on their progresses.
Luke 1:76-77. “Salvation.”—The Benedictus brings before us, with marvellous power and fulness, the great gospel doctrine of salvation. “Salvation consisting in remission of their sins.” It is evident, from the words of Zacharias, that a knowledge of the true nature of salvation was deeply needed. A false notion of the character of this Divine salvation was spread abroad in Israel. A carnal patriotism was fed by a teaching which corresponded to the miserable politics of the pulpit among ourselves. The distant prospect of political deliverance was substituted for the blessed certainty of spiritual salvation. Therefore Zacharias, in his prophecy, gives the true and sufficient account of the essential character of salvation. The worst slavery is that to evil. Sin is the darkest “badge of conquest.” Salvation consists in sins forgiven and its blessed consequences.—Alexander.
Luke 1:77. “Salvation by the remission of sins.”—I.e. not by merits of our own, but by betaking ourselves to a free reconciliation with God.
Luke 1:78-79. “The dayspring from on high.”—The various metaphors used in these verses seem to be borrowed from the following picture: a caravan has lost its way, and is wandering in the desert; the unfortunate pilgrims, overtaken by the night, cast themselves upon the ground, and in the midst of a darkness which appals them wait for death. Suddenly a bright star rises on the horizon and fills the plain with light. The travellers are encouraged by the sight, and rise to their feet; guided by the light of the star, they find the road which brings them to the place where they desire to be.—Godet.
Blessings of Christ’s First Coming.
I. An ideal of life.
III. Redemption from sin.
IV. The gift of a new nature.—Liddon.
Luke 1:78. “The tender mercy of our God.”—What would we ever have done if God had not been merciful? There could never have been a soul saved in this world. Not one of us can ever find a refuge at any door save the door of mercy. But here the vilest sinner can find eternal shelter; and not mere cold shelter only, for God’s mercy is “tender.” We are inside a sweet home. Our refuge is the very heart of God. No mother’s bosom was ever so warm a nest for her own child as is the Divine mercy for all who find refuge in it.—Miller.
Christ the Light of the World.—This figure is used of Christ
(1) by those who prophesied of His coming (Isaiah 9:2; Malachi 4:2);
(2) by Himself (John 8:12; John 9:5); and
(3) by His apostles (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 21:23; Revelation 22:16). Sometimes He is spoken of as the morning star which is the herald and pledge of the coming day, sometimes as the dawn or dayspring, and sometimes as the Sun of righteousness. Just as the sun gives life and warmth to the earth, so Christ creates and nourishes spiritual life in the souls of men.
I. He reveals truth.—He shows things as they really are: He makes known what God is and what He requires of man, and puts to flight all the erroneous and superstitious ideas which men in their blindness and ignorance had formed of Him. He also reveals man to himself, and shows him his sinfulness and helplessness and misery, and points out the way by which to pass from sin to holiness, and from death to life.
II. He gives guidance.—Not only does He show the way of obedience, but He has Himself walked in it, and calls us to be His followers. By His holy example He reveals to us how we should serve God and man.
III. He gives strength.—As life dwindles and grows weak in the absence of the light of the sun, so does it revive and flourish when exposed to its genial influence. In like manner Christ in His own person imparts spiritual vigour to us; by His atonement for sin He banishes the despair which the thought of our past sins is calculated to excite within us, and by the present quickening influence of His Spirit He gives us new supplies of strength that enable us to overcome all difficulties in the way of obedience.
IV. He gives comfort and joy.—To those who are downcast and sorrowful He imparts hope, to those that are timid He gives confidence, and to those that are strong in faith He gives help to win even greater victories than any they have yet won. He gives light in virtue of His own Divine nature, and hence it is of a higher kind than that afforded by the teaching and example of even the wisest and holiest of men. He gives, but we receive: there must be a sense of our own insufficiency and weakness, and of the darkness in which by nature we are, before we can profit by the light He gives. There must be spiritual life to be nourished by His beams, or at any rate a longing for what He has to impart; a spiritual sense—like the natural sense of sight—to take in the light.
Luke 1:80. The Humanity of Christ.—It is somewhat surprising to find the growth—corporeal and moral—of John the Baptist and of the Holy One of God spoken of, up to a certain point, in the same language (cf. Luke 2:40). At least it witnesses that the second was as truly human as the first.
“Was in the deserts.”—The advantages of this holy retirement:
1. Seclusion from the world, from its errors, defilements, and cares.
2. Nearness to God—away from the noise and tumult of human society the voice of God may be the more clearly heard, communion with Him more perfectly realised. Notice that John’s retirement was not like that of an anchoret, a permanent mode of life: he was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel. Similar instances of temporary seclusion from society are to be found in the lives of Moses and St. Paul, and from time to time in the life of our Lord Himself. From retirement they come forth strengthened for a more efficient service of God and man.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Luke 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34