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This gospel, together with the Acts of the Apostles, were written by St. Luke, the beloved physician and companion of St. Paul, who wrote, as did the rest of the evangelists, by the special direction and inspiration of the Holy Ghost; where we may profitable remark the wonderful wisdom of God, who, in order to the confirming of our faith in the truth of the gospel, raised up a sufficient number of witnesses to testify the verify and infallible certainty of all that the gospel delivers unto us. Now this evangelist, St. Luke, dedicates this gospel, together with the Acts of the Apostles, to Theophilus, who was, as some think, an honourable senator; or a renowned and eminent person in the church, as others suppose: but many take the word Theophilus, not for a proper name, but common name, signifying every one that loveth God; to whom St. Luke addresses his discourse.
The first four verses of this chapter are a preface to the following history, and acquaint us with the reasons which induced St. Luke to write, namely, because divers persons in that age had imprudently and inconsiderately set upon writing gospels, without direction from the spirit of God, whose errors and mistakes were to be corrected by a true narrative. This St. Luke declares he was able to make, having had perfect understanding and knowledge of the truth of those things he was about to relate; partly by his familiarity with St. Paul, and partly by his conversation with the other apostles, who, constantly attending our Saviour, were eye and ear witnesses of those things that are the subject matter of the ensuing history.
Hence learn, 1. That there were some apocryphal writings (or writings which were not of divine authority) relating to the New Testament, as well as to the Old; as the books of Asher, Gad, and Iddo, are recited in the Old Testament, but were never received into the canon of the scripture: so were there some gospels, or historical relations of our Saviour's life and actions, wrote by persons which the church never received, as not having the impress of God's ordination.
Note, 2. That the gospels which St. Luke and the other evangelists wrote, have nothing of fallibility or uncertainty in them; they wrote nothing but what they either heard, or saw themselves, or else received from those that were eye and ear witnesses of matter of fact. It seemed good to me to write, having had perfect knowledge of all things from the very first.
In this and the following verses, the Holy Ghost gives us a description of John the Baptist, who was the harbinger and forerunner of our Saviour Christ; he is described, first by his parentage, being the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth. This Zacharias was a priest, who had a course in the temple, or a right to officiate there when it came to his turn; for we read that David appointed the priests, the sons of Aaron, to minister by turns, and divided them into four and twenty courses, 1 Chronicles 24 every one ministering in the temple by their weeks.
Here note, that Zacharias, a priest, and attending the service of the temple, was a married person, having one of the daughters of Aaron to wife, according to the command of God, Leviticus 21:14 where the priest is required to marry one of his own people.
Learn hence, that neither the priests under the law did, nor the ministers of Christ under the gospel ought, to abhor the marriage-bed; nor judge themselves too pure for an institution of their Maker. The doctrine of the church of Rome, which forbids to marry, St. Paul calls a doctrine of devils.
Observe here, 1. The sweet harmony of this religious couple in the ways of God, "They both walked in the commandments of God." It is a happy match when husband and wife are one, not only in themselves, but in the Lord.
Observe, 2. The universality of their holiness and obedience; "They walked, not in some, but in all, the ordinances and commmandments of the Lord." Such as will approve themselves to be sincerely religious, must make conscience of every known duty, and endeavour to obey every precept and command of God.
Observe, 3. The high commendation which the Holy Spirit of God gives of this their religious course of holiness and obedience; they are pronounced blameless, and without sin. To live without gross sin, is our holiness upon earth; to live without any sin, will be our happiness in heaven. Many sins may be in him that has true grace; but he that has truth of grace, cannot allow himself in any sin. Such are the condescensions of the covenant of grace, that sincere obedience is called perfection. Truth of grace is our perfection on earth, but in heaven we shall have perfection as well as truth.
Observe, lastly, a pattern for their imitation who wait at God's altar, and are employed in and about holy things; such ought all the ministers of the gospel and their wives to be, what Zacharias and Elizabeth are here said to be, namely, blameless; that is, very innocent and inoffensive in their daily conversation.
Observe here, 1. This holy pair, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were fruitful in holy obedience, but barren in children; a fruitful soul and a barren womb are consistent, and do oft-times meet together. This religious couple made no less progress in virtue than in age, and yet their virtue could not make their age fruitful.
Observe, 2. Elizabeth was barren in the flower of her age, but much more so in old age. Here was a double obstacle, and consequently a double instance of the divine power in the birth of John the Baptist, shewing him to be a prophet very extraordinary, and miraculously sent by God.
Observe, 3. That when Almighty God in old times did long delay to give the blessing of children to holy women, he rewarded their expectaiton with the birth of some eminent and extraordinary person; thus Sarah after long barrenness, brought forth an Isaac; Rebecca, a Jacob; Rachel, a Joseph; Hannah, a Samuel; and Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist. When God makes his people wait long for a particular mercy, he gives it in at last with a double reward of their expectation.
Here note, 1. That none but a son of Aaron might offer incense to God in the temple; and not every son of Aaron neither: nay, not any of them at all seasons, God is a God of order, and hates confusion no less than irreligion. And, as under the law of old, so under the gospel of this day, No man ought to take this honour upon him, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
Observe, 2. That there were courses of ministration in the legal services, in which the priests did relieve one another weekly. God never purposed to burthen any of his servants with devotion, nor is he pleased when his service is made burthensome, either to or by his ministers. Many of the sons of Aaron served together in the temple, according to the variety of their employments, which were assigned them by lot: and accordingly it fell out this time, that Zachary was chosen by lot to burn incense.
Observe, 3. That morning and evening, twice a day, the priests offered up their incense to God, that both parts of the day might be consecrated to him, who was the Maker and Giver of their time. This incense offered under the law, represents our prayers offered to God under the gospel. These Almighty God expects that we should, all his church over, send up to him morning and evening. The ejaculatory elevations of our hearts should be perpetual; but if twice a day we do not present God with our solemn invocaton, we make the gospel less officious than the law; and can we reasonably think that Almighty God will accept of less now, than would content him then?
Observe here, 1. While the incense was burning, the people were praying; while the priest sends up his incense in the temple within, the people send up their prayers in the court without. The incense of the priest and the prayers of the people meet, and go up to heaven together.
Hence learn, that it is a blessed thing when both minister and people jointly offer up their prayers for each other at the same throne of grace, and mutually strive together in their supplications, one with, and one for another.
Observe, 2. How both priest and people keep their place and station; the priest burns incense in the holy place, and the people offer up their prayers in the outward court. The people might no more go into the holy place to offer up their prayers, than Zacharias might go into the holy of holies to burn incense. Whilst the partition wall stood betwixt Jew and Gentile, there was also a partition betwixt the Jews themselves. But now, under the gospel, every man is a priest to God, and may enter the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus. But, Lord! what are we the better for this great and gracious freedom of access to thee, if we want hearts to prize and improve our privilege from thee?
Whilst Zacharias was praying to God, an angel appears to Zacharias: When we are nearest God, the good angels are nighest us: they are most with us when we are most with him. The presence of angels with us is no novelty, but their apparition to us is so. They are always with us, but rarely seen by us. Let our faith see them, whom our senses cannot discern: their assumed shapes do not make them more present, but only more visible.
Observe, 1. The place as well as the time where the angel appeared, in the temple and at the altar, and on the right side of the altar of incense. As the holy angels are always present with us in our devotions, so especially in religious assemblies; as in all places, so most of all in God's house; they rejoice to be with us whilst we are with God, but they turn their faces from us when we go about our sins.
It was partly the suddenness, partly the unexpectedness, and partly the glory, of the apparition, that affrighted this good man. Glorious and sudden apparitions do affright even the holiest and best of men. We cannot bear the sight and presence of an angel without consternation and fear, in this our frail and sinful state. O happy, happy hour! when mortality and sin being taken out of our natures, we shall not only behold the glorified angels without fear, but the glorious God with delight and love. Lord! let me now see thee by faith, hereafter by sight. Sit in alio seculo, non in hoc! visio tua, merces mea. Gerson.
Observe here, 1. How apprehensive this good angel was of Zacharias's surprising fear, and encourages him against it. The holy angels, though they do not express it in words, yet they pity our frailties, and suggest comfort to us. The evil angels if they might, would kill us with terror; the good angels labour altogether for our tranquility and cheerfulness. The angel said unto him, Fear not.
Observe, 2. The comfortable words spoken unto Zacharias; Thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son. No doubt Zacharias and Elizabeth had often prayed for a child, and now God sends them one when they least expected it.
Learn hence, that sometimes God gives in a mercy to us, when we least expect it; yea, when we have given over looking for it. No doubt it was the case here, Zachary and Elizabeth being both well stricken in age.
Observe, 3. The name which the angel directed Zacharias to give his son: Thou shalt call his name John, which signifies gracious; because he was to open the kingdom of grace, and to preach the grace of the gospel through Jesus Christ. The giving of significant names to children, has been an ancient and pious practice; names which either carried a remembrance of duty or of mercy in them.
Here the angel declares to Zacharias, what kind of son should be born unto him, even one of eminent endowments, and designed for extraordinary services. The proof of children makes them either the blessings or crosses of their parents. What greater comfort could Zacharias desire in a child, than is here promised to him?
1. He hears of a son that should bring joy to himself, and many others; even to all that did expect the coming of the Messias, whose forerunner the Baptist was.
2. That he should be great in the sight of the Lord; that is, a person of great eminency, and great usefulness, in the church.
A person of great riches and reputatuion is great in the sight of men; but the man of great ability and usefulness, the man of great integrity and serviceableness, he is truly great in the sight of the Lord. They are little men in the sight of the Lord, that live in the world to little purposes; who do little service to God, and bring little honour and glory to him. But the man that does all the possible service he can for God, and the utmost good he is capable of doing to all mankind; he is a person great in the sight of the Lord; and such was the holy Baptist.
3. It is foretold, that he should neither drink wine nor strong drink, that is, that he should be a very temperate and abstemious person, living after the manner of the Nazarites, though he was not separated by any vow of his own or his parents; but by the special designation and appointment of God only, it was forbidden the priest, under the law, to drink either wine or strong drink, upon pain of death, during the time of their ministration, Leviticus 10:9 and the ministers of Christ under the gospel, are forbidden to be lovers of wine. 1 Timothy 3:3.
4. He shall be filled witt he Holy Ghost from his mother's womb; that is, he shall be furnished abundantly with the extraordinary gifts and sanctifying graces of the Holy Spirit, which shall very early appear to be in him, and upon him.
5. His high and honourable office is declared, that he shall go before the Messias, as his harbinger and fore-runner, with the same spirit of zeal and courage against sin, which was found in the old prophet Elias, whom he did so nearly resemble.
6. The great success of his ministry is foretold, namely, That he should turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; that is, the hearts of the Jews to the Gentiles, say some; that he should bring men say others, even the most disobedient and rebellious Pharisees and Sadducees, Publicans and sinners, unto repentance, unto the minding of justice and righteousness, and all moral duties; and thus he made ready a people for the Lord, by fitting men to receive Christ upon his own terms and conditions; namely, faith and repentance.
From the whole, note, that those whom Almighty God designs for eminent usefulness in his church, he furnishes with endowments suitable to their employemnt; and when he calls to extraordinary service, comes in with more than ordinary assistance. Here was the holy Baptist extraordinarily called, and as extraordinarily furnished, for his office and ministry.
Observe here, Zacharias being slow to believe so strange a message; asks the angel, by what sign he should know that this thing, so far above the usual course of nature, should come to pass?
The angel answers, that he was dispatched by God as a messenger extraordinary, to declare this good news to him. And seeing he was so hard to believe it, and required a sign, he should have it, but such an one as should be a punishment of his unbelief, as well as a sign to confirm his faith; namely, he should from thenceforeward, to the birth of the child, be dumb and deaf, as the original word signifies; because he had not hearkened to the angel's speech, he was struck deaf; and because he had gain-said it, he was made dumb.
Learn hence, that the word of God in the mouth of his messengers is God's own word, and as such to be received and believed.
2. That not believing their word, is a sin which God will severely punish; it is all one not to believe God, and not to believe the messengers of God speaking from him. Some expositors will have this dumbness of Zacharias to be prefigurative. The priest, at the dismission of the people, when the service of the temple was finished, was to pronounce the blessing recorded, Numbers 6:24-Lamentations : which when Zacharias was about to do, he was struck dumb and could not perform it; signifying thereby, that the silencing of the Levitical priesthood was now at hand: that they must expect another kind of worship, and that he who was able to bless indeed, namely, the Messias, was near at hand.
Observe lastly, that though Zacharias ceased to speak, yet he did not cease to minister; he takes not his dumbness for a dismission, but stays out the eight days of his course, knowing that the service of his heart and hand would be accepted of that God which had bereaved him of his tongue. The powers which we have we must make use of in the public service of God, who will accept us according to what we have; pardoning our infirmity, and rewarding our sincerity.
The priest, during the time of their administration, had their lodgings in buildings appertaining to the temple. Zachary having ended his administration, leaves his lodgings, and returns to his house, where his wife Elizabeth conceiving, she hides herself; that is, retires from company partly to prevent the discourse of people, until it was out of all doubt that she had conceived, and partly to give herself opportunity of returning her thankful acknowlegments unto God, who had given her this miraculous mercy; and had thereby taken away, the reproach of barrenness which was so heavy and insupportable among the Jews.
Note here, two things, 1. How piously Elizabeth ascribes this mercy to the power of God: Thus hath the Lord dealt with me. It is God that keeps the key of the womb in his own hand, and makes the fruit of it his reward, and therefore children are to be owned as his special gift.
Note, 2. How great a reproach bodily barrenness is in the sight of man, but not so great as spiritual barrenness in the sight of God; for this is at once a reproach to God, a reproach to religion, a reproach to professors, and to ourselves.
In this history of our Saviour's miraculous and immaculate conception, we have several things observable, as, 1. The messenger sent from heaven to publish the news of their conception of the son of God, an angel; an evil angel was the first author of our ruin; a good angel could not be the author of our restoration, but is the joyful reporter of it.
Observe, 2. The angel's name, Gabriel, which signifieth the power of God; the same angel who had many hundred years before declared to the prophet Daniel the coming of the Messiah.
Observe, 3. The place which the angel is sent unto, Nazareth, an obscure place, little taken notice of; yea, a city in Galilee, out of which arises no prophet; even there doth the God of prophets condescend to be conceived. No blind corner of Nazareth can hide the blessed virgin from the angel. The favours of God will find out his children wherever they are withdrawn.
Observe, 4. The person whom the angel is sent unto, To a virgin espoused, whose name was Mary; for the honour of virginity, Christ chose a virgin for his mother; for the honour of marriage, a virgin espoused to a husband.
Observe, 5. The message itself, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.
Where note, that the angel salutes the virgin as a saint, he doth not pray to her as a goddess. The church of Rome idolatrously uses these words as a prayer to the holy virgin (saying ten Ave Maries for one Pater-Noster) whereas they are only a salutation; declaring that she above all women, had the honour freely conferred by God upon her to be the mother of the Messiah. The original word signifies, not full of grace but freely beloved.
Compare Mary with other renowned women, and what had she besides this favour, more than they? Had she the spirit of prophecy? so had they. Had she the spirit of sanctification? so had they: and she had no more immunity and freedom from sin and death than they.
Accordingly, says the angel, Blessed art thou among women; he doth not say, Blessed art thou above women. Let the church of Rome be as copious as they will in the commendation of the mother, so they do not derogate from the glory of the Son.
But how senseless are they,
1. In turning a salutation into a prayer!
2. In making use of these words upon every occasion, which were spoken by an angel upon a special occasion!
3. In applying these words to her now in heaven, which suited with her only when she was here on earth, saying, Full of grace, to her who is full of glory; and, The Lord is with thee, to her that is with the Lord!
Observe, 6. The effect which the sight and salutation of the angel had upon the holy virgin; she was afraid. If Zachary before her was amazed at the sight of the angel, much more the virgin, her sex subjecting her to fear. All passions, but particularly the passion of fear, disquiets the heart, and makes it unfit to receive the messages of God. Therefore the angel instantly says unto her, Fear not, let joy enter into thy heart, out of whose womb shall come salvation. Thus the fears of holy persons do end in comfort: joy was the errand which the angel came upon and not terror. What little cause she had to fear the presence of an angel, who was so highly favoured of him, at whose presence the angels tremble! But we see the holiest person on earth cannot bear the presence of a holy angel, much less the presence of a holy God, nor stand before the manifestations of his favours:
Lord! how unable then will the wicked be at the great day to stand before the manifestation of thy fury! If the sight of a holy angel now makes the best of saints to quake and tremble, what will the sight of an infinitely holy and just God then do, when the wicked shall be slain by the brightness of his presence?
Observe lastly, the character which the angel gives of the person that should be born of the blessed virgin, He shall be great, and called the son of the Highest. Great, in respect of his person: Great, in respect of his offices: Great, in respect of his kingdom; for God would settle upon him a spiritual kingdom, of which David's earthly one was a type which shall never be abolished: though the administration of it by the word and sacraments shall cease at the day of judgment, when he shall deliver up the kingdom, in that respect, to his father. All other kingdoms, have had, or shall have, their periods, but the gospel-church, which is Christ's kingdom, shall continue till his kingdom of glory be revealed.
Observe here, 1. The virgin's question, How shall this be? This question did not import her denial of the possibility of the thing, but her wonder at the strangeness of the thing; it proceeded rather from a desire of information, than from a doubt of infidelity. Therefore she doth not say, This cannot be, nor, How can this be? but, How shall this be? She doth not distrust, but demand, how here virginity shall become fruitful, and how she, being a virgin, could bring forth a son?
Observe, 2. The angel's reply to the virgin's question, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.
Where note, the angel declares the author who, but not the manner how: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, but in what way, and after what manner, is not declared: no mother knows the manner of her natural conception, what presumption had it then been for the mother of the Messiah, to have inquired how the Son of God could take flesh and blood of his creature! It is for none but the Almighty to know those works which do immediately concern himself.
Observe, 3. The holy and immaculate conception of our blessed Redeemer: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; wherefore that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be caled the Son of God; that is, the Holy Ghost shall prepare and sanctify so much of thy flesh blood, or seed, as shall constitute the body of Chirst. For though it was a work of the whole Trinity, yet it is ascribed particularly to the Holy Ghost, sanctification being his peculiar work. And the title and epithet of that holy thing, sheweth the purity and immaculateness of Christ's human nature, and that none was ever born thus holy and immaculate but Christ only; because none had ever such a way and means of conception, but only he: Therefore that holy thing shall be called the Son of God; not constituted and made, but evidenced and declared. Christ was God before he assumed flesh, even from eternity; but his taking flesh in this manner, evidences him to be the Son of God.
Observe, 4. The argument used by the angel to confirm Mary in the belief of what he had told her, namely, the wonderful conception of her cousin Elizabeth, in her old age, who was now six months gone with child.
Where observe, 1. What an exact knowlege God has, and what a particular notice he takes of all the children of men; he knoweth not only ourselves, but our relations also, Behold thy cousin Elizabeth: the knowledge which God has of every person, and every action, is a clear and distinct knowledge.
Note, 2. How the angel strengthens her faith by a consideration drawn from the almighty power of God; With God nothing shall be impossible, be it ever so strange and difficult. There is no such way to overcome difficulties, as by strengthening our faith in the almighty power of God. Faith will enable us to assent to truths, though seemingly incredible, and to believe the possiblity of things, though appearing impossible.
Observe, lastly, how the virgin expresses her faith and obedience, her submission and entire resignation, to the divine pleasure, to be disposed of by God as he thought fit: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word. We hear of no more objections or interrogations, but a humble and submissive silence.
Learn hence, that a gracious heart, when once it understands the pleasure of God, argues no farther, but quietly rests in a believing expectation of what God will do. All disputations with God, after his will is made known and understood, arise from infidelity and unbelief. The virgin having thus consented, instantly conceived by the overshadowing power of the Holy Ghost.
Observe here, 1. The visit made by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The holy virgin had understood by the angel, that Elizabeth was no less akin to her in condition than in relation, being both fruitful in conception; she hastens into the hill country to visit that holy matron: the two wonders of the world were now met under one roof, to congratulate their mutual happiness; only the meeting of the saints in heaven, can parallel the meeting of these two saints on earth.
Observe, 2. The design and intention of this visit, which was partly to communicate their joys to each other, and partly to strengthen the faith of each other: such a soul as has Christ spiritually conceived in it, is restless and cannot be quiet till it has imparted its joy.
Observe, 3. The effect of the virgin's salutation; she had no sooner saluted Elizabeth, but the babe in Elizabeth's womb leaped for joy, doing homage, and paying adoration, to his Lord, who was then in presence. If Elizabeth and her holy babe thus rejoiced, when Christ came under their roof, how should our hearts leap with in us, when the Son of God vouchsafes to come into the secret of our souls, not to visit us for an hour, but to dwell with us, yea, to dwell in us, and that for ever.
Observe, 4. How Elizabeth, by an extraordinary spirit of prophecy, confirms what the angel before had told the holy virgin: Blessed, says she, art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb; and what an honour is this, that the mother of my Lord, should come unto me!
Where note, how Elizabeth acknowledged the incarnation of Christ, and the union of the divine and human nature in the person of the Mediator. She acknowledges Christ to be her Lord, and Mary to be the mother of the Son of God.
Observe, lastly, how the virgin is pronounced blessed, not so much for carrying Christ in her womb by sense, as for bearing him in her heart by faith; Blessed is she that believed. Mary was not so blessed in the bringing forth Christ, as believing in him: yet the believing here mentioned, I take to be, her firm assent to the message brought her by the angel; as if Elizabeth had said, "Dumbness was inflicted on my husband for his unbelief of what the angel said, but, Blessed art thou that didst believe the angel." My husband, a man, an aged man, a learned and eminent man, a priest of the most high God; and the message to him of more appearing possibility; yet he disbelieved; but thou a woman, a mean, unlearned woman, of a private condition, and the message brought most incredible both to nature and reason, and yet it is believed by thee! Blessed therefore is she that believed; and know, that as a reward for thy faith; all things shall certainly be performed that were foretold thee from the Lord.
Learn hence, 1. That it is the property of God to do great and wonderful things. Our faith must be great, and our expectation great; great expectations from God, honour the greatness of God.
2. That if our faith be great, God's performances will be gracious and full. Blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a performance of those things which were told here from the Lord.
This is the first canticles, or song of praise, recorded in the New Testament, composted by the blessed virgin with unspeakable joy, for designing her to be the instrument of the conception and birth of the Saviour of the world.
Where observe, 1. The manner of her praise; the soul and spirit bear their part in the work of thanksgiving, My soul doth magnify, my spirit hath rejoiced. As the sweetest music is made in the belly of the instrument, so the most delightful praise arises from the bottom of the heart.
Observe, 2. The object of her praise; she doth not magnify herself, but the Lord; yea, she doth not rejoice so much in her son, as in her Saviour.
Where note, 1. That she doth implicitly own and confess herself a sinner; for none need a Saviour, but a sinner; and,
2. By rejoicing in Christ as her Saviour, she declares how she values herself, rather by her spiritual relation to Christ as his member, than by her natural relation to him as his mother; according to that of St. Austin, Beatior fuit Maria percipiendo Christi fidem, quam concipiendo carnem; she might have been miserable, notwithstanding she bore him as her son, had she not believed in him as her Saviour: therefore she sings, My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Observe, 3. How she admires and magnifies God's peculiar favour towards herself, in casting an eye upon her poverty and low condition; that she, a poor, obscure maid, unknown to the world, should be looked upon with and eye of regard by him that dwells in the highest heavens.
Where note, that as God magnified her, she magnified him, ascribing all honour and glory to him that had thus dignified and exalted her. He that is mighty hath done for me great things, and glorified be his name.
Observe, 4. She thankfully takes notice, that it was not only a high honour, but a lasting honour, which was conferred upon her. All generations shall call me blessed. She beholds an infinite, a lasting honour prepared for her, as being the mother of an universal and everlasting blessing, which all former ages had desired, and all succeeding ages should rejoice in, and proclaim her happy, for being the instrument of.
5. How the holy virgin passes from the consideration of her personal privileges, to the universal goodness of God; shewing us, that the mercies and favours of God, were not confined and limited to herself, But his mercy is on all them that fear him, throughout all generations. She declares the general providence of God towards all persons, his mercy to the pious, his mercy is on all them that fear him; his justice on the proud, he hath put down the mighty from their seats, and scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; his bounty to the poor, he fills the hungry with good things.
Learn hence, the excellency and advantageous usefulness of the grace of humility; how good it is to be meek and lowly in heart. this will render us lovely in God's eye, and though the world may trample upon us, he will exalt us to the admiration of ourselves, and the envy of our despisers.
Observe lastly, how she magnifies the special grace of God in our redemption; He hath holpen his servant Israel; that is, blessed them with a Saviour, who lived in the faith, hope, and expectation, of the promised Messiah, and this blessing, she declares, was
1. The result of great mercy, He remembering his mercy, hath holpen his servant Israel.
2. The effect of his truth and faithfulness in his promises, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Learn hence, that the appearance of the promised Messiah, in the fulness of time, in order to the redemption and salvation of a lost world, it was the fruit of God's tender love, and the effect of his faithfulness in the promises made of old, to his church and children: He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spake to our forefathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
Two things are here observable, 1. The civil courtesy of the Virgin Mary, towards her cousin Elizabeth. She stays with her three months, probably till she was delivered and brought to bed, not leaving her just at the time of travail: for the angel told Mary, Luke 1:36, that it was then the sixth month with Elizabeth, after which Mary stays with her three months, which made up the full time. To visit and accompany our friends in the time of their distress, is not only an act of civil courtesy, but of religious piety; not a matter of indifference, but of duty, James 1:27. "Pure religion, and undefiled is this, to visit in affliction;" that is, this is an eminent act and exercise of religion, the evidence and fruit of sincere religion; and the virgin's doing this was an act and instance of her piety, as well as of her civil courtesy.
Observe, 2. The religious joy, and spiriutal rejoicing, which the neighbours and kindred expressed at the lying-in of Elizabeth: they did not meet together upon that great occasion, only to eat and drink and make merry; " but they rejoiced that the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her." Oh, how rarely is this example followed in our age! At the delivery of the mother, and at the birth of the child, how little is God taken notice of! How little is his power magnified, and his goodness celebrated, in opening the womb, in giving strength to bring forth! And how rarely is this the subject of discourse at the woman's labour! Verily, if the mercy of a child, and the safe delivery of the mother, be not the first and principal things taken notice of at such rejoicing meetings, they look more like Pagan than Christian rejoicings.
Observe here, 1. The circumcision of the child at eight days old, according to the commandment, Genesis 17:12.
Where note, first, the act, circumcising.
Secondly, the time, at eight days old.
God commanded every male child to be circumcised; because the males by the foreskin, propagate sin, and convey original impurity.
By this ordinance, God gave his people to understand the exceeding filthiness of sin, and that man brings something into the world with him, which ought presently to be cut off.
Note also, the time of circumcising the child, at eight days old; not before, lest the child should be too weak to bear the pain; and it must not be deferred longer, lest God interpret the delay to be a contempt of the ordinance.
Hence by the way we may learn, that God did not tie salvation to the outward sacrament; for if the child had perished that died uncircumcised, it had been a hard thing to defer circumcision eight hours. 'Tis not the want, but the contempt and neglect, of the sacrament that damns. "It came to pass on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child." We find in scripture, the ordinance appointed, and the time limited, but neither the persons nor the place declared: Moses's wife "circumcised the child, and that in an inn," Exodus 4:25.
A duty is sometimes positively enjoined in the scriptures, when the circumstances belonging to the duty are undetermined. Thus the sacrament of the Lord's supper is appointed by Christ; but the time, the place, the gesture, are not positively commanded, but to be prudentially determined.
Observe, 2. The name is given, or at least declared, at the time of the child's circumcising, and that by his parents; "His mother said, he shall be called John."
But how did his mother know that, when her husband was dumb?
Ans. 'Tis likely her husband Zachary had, by a writing, informed his wife concerning the whole vision, and what name was imposed upon him by the angel; therefore she says, "He shall be called John," and Zachary ratifies it, " His name is John." The nomination was originally from the angel, the imposition of the name is now at circumcision from the parents.
Observe, 3. How ancient a custom it has been to give names to children, according to the names of their fathers or kindred: "There is none of thy kindred of this name," say they: the Jews made it a part of religion, to give suitable names to their children, and significant names.
Accordingly they either gave them names to put them in remembrance of God's mercy to them, or of their duty to him. Thus Zachary signifies the remembrance of God; which name points at God's mercy in remembering him, and his duty in remembering God.
Well then, it is usual and useful for parents to give significant names to their children: then let the children have an holy ambition to make good the signification of their names. Thus John signifies the grace of God; but how will that gracious name be raised up in judgment against that child that is graceless!
Observe, 4. How Zacharias's speech is immediately restored to him upon the naming of his child. The angel, Luke 1:20, told him, "he should be dumb till the things he had told him should be performed;" and now that they were performed, his tongue is loosed, and he praised God in a most thankful manner.
Observe, 5. The effect which all this had upon the neighbourhood; "Fear came upon all them that dwelt round about them;" that is, an awful and religious fear of God, occasioned by these miraculous operations; and they laid up these sayings in their hearts; that is, considered of them,. and pondered upon them. It argues a very vain spirit and temper of mind, when we pass over the observation of God's wonderful acts with a slight regard. The true reason why we do so little admire the wonderful works of God, is, because we consider so little of them.
Observe, 6. The special favour vouchsafed by God to this child John: "The hand of the Lord was with him;" that is, God was in a special manner present with him, to direct and assist him, to protect and prosper him. The hand of God, in scripture, signifies the help of God, the strength and assistance of God. The hand of man is a weak and impotent hand, a short and ineffectual hand: but the hand of God is a strong hand, an almighty hand, able to assist and help, able to protect and preserve: "The hand of the Lord was with him;" that is, the heart of God and the help of God, the love and favour of God to support him, the power and providence of God to protect and preserve him. Lord, let our hearts be with thee, and then thy heart and thy helping hand will be with us.
Here observe, 1. That no sooner was Zacharias recovered and restored to his speech, but he sings the praises of his Redeemer, and offers up a thanksgiving to God; the best return we can make to God for the use of our tongues, for the giving or restoring of our speech, is to publish our Creator's praise, to plead his cause, and vindicate his honour.
Observe, 2. What it is that Zacharias makes the subject-matter of his song: what is the particular and special mercy which he praises and and blesses God for. It is not for his own particular and private mercy; namely, the recovery of his speech, though undoubtedly he was very thankful to God for that mercy; but he blesses and praises God for catholic and universal mercies bestowed upon his church and people: he doth not say, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, that hath visited me in mercy, that hath once more loosed my tongue, and restored my speech: but, "Blessed be the Lord that hath visited and redeemed his people."
Whence learn, that it is both the duty and disposition of a gracious soul, to abound in praise and thankfulness to God, more for catholic and universal mercies towards the church of God, than for any particular and private mercies how great soever towards himself; "Blessed be God for visiting and redeeming his people."
Observe, 3. In this evangelical hymn there is a prophetical prediction, both concerning Christ, and concerning John. Concerning Christ, he declares, that God the Father had sent him of his free mercy and rich grace, yet in performance of his truth and faithfulness; and according to his promise and oath which he had made to Abraham, and the fathers of the Old Testament.
Where note, 1. He blesses God for the comprehensive blessing of the Messiah; "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who hath visited his people:" namely, in his Son's incarnation. The Lord Jesus Christ, in the fulness of time, made such a visit to this sinful world, as men and angels admired at, and will admire to all eternity.
Note, 2. The special fruit and benefit of this gracious and merciful visitation, and that was the redemption of a lost world, he hath visited and redeemed his people. This implies that miserable thraldom and bondage, which we were under to sin and Satan, and expresses the stupendous love of Christ, in buying our lives with his dearest blood; and both by price and power rescuing us out of the hands of our spiritual enemies.
Note, 3. The character given of this Saviour and Redeemer; he is a horn of salvation; that is, a royal and glorious, a strong and powerful Saviour to his church and people. The horn, in scripture, signifies glory and dignity, strength and power; as the beauty, so the strength of the beast lies in its horn: now Christ being styled a horn of salvation, intimates, that he himself is a royal and princely Saviour, and that the salvation which he brings, is great and plentiful, glorious and powerful; "God hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David."
Note, 4. The nature and quality of that salvation and deliverance, which the Son of God came to accomplish for us; not a temporal deliverance, as the Jews expected, from the power of the Romans; but spiritual, from the hands of sin and Satan, death and hell: his design was to purchase a spiritual freedom and liberty for us, "that we might be enabled to serve him without fear;" that is, without the servile and offending fear of a slave, but with the dutiful and ingenuous fear of a child: and this in "holiness and righteousness;" that is, in the duties of the first and second table, "all the days of our life."
Learn hence, that believers, who were slaves of Satan, are by Christ made God's free men.
Secondly, that as such, they owe God a service, a willing, cheerful, and delightful service, without fear; and a constant, persevering service all the days of their life, that "we being delivered out of the hands, &c."
Note, 5. The source and fountain from whence this glorious Saviour and gracious salvation did arise and spring; namely, from the mercy and faithfulness of God; "To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he sware to our father Abraham."
Learn hence, that the Lord Jesus Christ, the mercy of mercies, was graciously promised, and faithfully performed, by God to his church and people. Christ was a free and full mercy; a suitable, unsearchable, and everlasting mercy; which God graciously promised in the beginning of time, and faithfully performed in the fulness of time. Thus far this hymn of Zacharias respects the Messiah.
Observe, 4. How he next turns himself to his child, and prophesies concerning him: "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, &c."
Where note, 1. The nature of his office, "thou shalt be a prophet;" not a common and ordinary one, but a prophet of the highest rank; the messenger of the Lord of Hosts. A prophet thou shalt be, annd more than a prophet.
Note, 2. As the nature of his office, so the quality of his work: "Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, to prepare his way:" thou shalt be an herald and harbinger to the Most High; thou shalt go before the face of the Messias, and by thy severe reproofs, and powerful exhortations, shalt prepare his way before him, and make men fit and ready to receive this mighty Saviour. Thou, child, shalt be as the morning star, to foretell the glorious arising of this Sun of Righteousness.
Learn hence, 1. That it is the highest honour and dignity to serve Christ in the quality and relation of a prophet.
2. That it is the office and duty of the prophets of Christ, to prepare and make fit the hearts of men, to receive and embrace him.
Observe, 5. That Zacharias having spoken a few words concerning his son, he returns instantly to celebrate the praises of our Saviour, comparing him to the rising sun, which shined forth in the brightness of his gospel, to enlighten the dark corners of the world: "Through the tender mercies of our God, whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness."
Learn hence, 1. That Jesus Christ is that true Sun of Righteousness, which in the fulness of time did spring from on high to visit a lost and undone world.
2. That the great errand of Christ's coming into the world, and the particular end of his appearing in the flesh, was "to give light to them that sit in darkness."
3. That it was nothing less than infinite mercy, and bowels of compassion in God and Christ, which inclined him to come from on high, to visit them that sit in darkness: "Through the tender bowels of mercy in our God, whereby his own and only son sprung from on high to visit us here below, who sat in darkness and the shadow of death; and to guide our feet unto the way that leads to everlasting peace."
Here we have a short account of John's private life before he entered upon his public ministry, which was at thirty years of age; "He grew," that is, in bodily stature, "and waxed strong in spirit;" that is, in the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, which increased with his age, and shewed themselves in him every day more and more. "And he was in the deserts; "that is, in the mountainous country of Judea, where he was born, till the time of his preaching to and amongst the Jews; not that he lived like a hermit, recluse from all society with men, but contented himself to continue in an obscure privacy, till called forth to promulge and preach the gospel: and when that time was come, John leaves the hill country, and enters with resolution and unwearied diligence upon his public ministry; teaching us, by his example, that when we are fit and ripe for public service, we should no less willingly leave our obscurity, than we took the benefit of it for our preparation. John abode in the deserts till his shewing unto Israel; that is, till the time of his setting forth to execute his office among the Jews.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Luke 1". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28