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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
Luke 1

 

 

Verses 1-80

Luke 1:1. Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things, which within a short compass of years have been acted and accomplished among us. In the first age, Eusebius admits, that no less than sixty gospels had made their appearance; a number which Mr. Whiston repeats without scruple or disbelief. The fathers, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, allow that the number was considerable. Heretics wrote gospels, of which Ambrose says, “they have filled their gospels with empoisoned doctrines,” though otherwise edifying.

Of these gospels Du Pin, the learned ecclesiastical historian, whose original work is now before me, says, Les anciens, font mention de deux evangiles. The ancients mention two gospels, which, though not of equal authority with the four canonical gospels, yet we may not reject them as heretical productions. The first is the gospel of the Nazarenes. The foundation of this work was that of St. Matthew’s, but which, after the christians had fled to Pella, became altered by jewish sectarians.

The second is the gospel according to the Egyptians, a passage from which is cited by St. Clement in his Stromata, where our Saviour says to Salome, who had asked that her two sons might sit, the one on his right and the other on his left hand, “I am come to destroy the works of the woman;” meaning as Clement expounds it, generation and death, the effects of concupiscence. The above gospels are cited also by Origen and Jerome: but both are now lost. To these we add,

1. The gospel of St. Peter, a spurious book, though noticed by Eusebius and Jerome.

2. The gospel of Nicodemus, still extant.

3. The gospel of truth, a Valentinian production.

4. The gospel of perfection, approved by the Gnostics.

5. The gospel according to St. Matthias. This being mentioned by Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome, is put by Galesus in our apochryphal books.

6. The gospel of St. Thomas. This also is named by the above fathers, and is put by Galesus in the same rank.

7. The gospel of St. Bartholomew, which Origen names in his preface to his homilies on Luke, and St. Jerome in his commentaries on St. Matthew. This also is called apochryphal.

8. The gospel of Thaddeus, apochryphal.

9. The gospel of Barnabas, apochryphal.

10. The gospel of Andrew, apochryphal.

These gospels must have contained some good things, else they would not have been so honourably named by those fathers, and retained as apochryphal works. Had they been really written by the apostles whose names they bear, and uncorrupted, they would have found their way into the sacred canon.

Luke 1:3. It seemed good to me also to write. Though Luke had access to those gospels then in use, yet he would write from the oral dictates of those who had accompanied the Lord from the commencement of his glorious career. Those short words show the great care which our evangelist took that nothing might enter his copy but the truth, and the truth as it is in Jesus. No doubt he had the manuscripts to which he alludes, as well as the living witnesses.

Having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first. ανωδην, as in John 3:3, designates also a knowledge of those things from above. As the new birth is from above, so Luke claims here, in addition to the apostolic teaching, inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

Theophilus, a lover of God. This cannot be fictitious, because he had been instructed in the christian faith: but who he was is uncertain.

Luke 1:5. In the days of Herod — a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia, or Abijah. Two of the twenty four courses served a month, but all assisted at the great festivals. Each of these courses were subdivided, according to the houses of their fathers.

Luke 1:6. They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, This testimony is given to the parents of John, to show that the long-promised herald of the Messiah, who went before his face, as a burning and a shining light, emanated from a hallowed parentage; and being specially promised to Israel, he was, like Isaac, specially given when his parents were both advanced in years. The works of God are works of admiration.

Luke 1:9. His lot was to burn incense, at the evening and morning sacrifice. In Ecclesiasticus, chap. Sirach 50:15, we are told that Simon the highpriest “poured out a sweet-smelling savour to the Most High, the King of all. Then shouted the sons of Aaron, and sounded the silver trumpets, and made a noise to be heard, for a remembrance before the Most High. Then all the people fell down to the earth upon their faces, to worship the Lord God, the Most High.” In later times they rung a bell when the incense was ignited; and while the priest was praying, each man in silence, or with a low voice, so as to hear only his own voice, prayed for pardon and for grace. But why should the papists at mass burn incense, and ring a little bell? This mimicry insults the mediatorial advocacy of Christ as imperfect. Why not also kill oxen and sheep? — On the word temple, see 1 Samuel 1:9. 2 Samuel 7.

Luke 1:13. Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer is heard. In early years, he had often prayed for a son, and now in later days for the Messiah: both those prayers shall be accorded, and with a plenitude of joy. The vows of the church are registered in heaven.

Thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name JOHN. This is a name of frequent occurrence in the Hebrew scriptures. יחנןJochanan, or Johanan, from the root חנןchanan, “I have gratified.” It designates joy, rejoicing, and exultation. 1 Chronicles 3:15; 1 Chronicles 6:9; 1 Chronicles 12:12. Isaiah 30:19-20. When God gave names, or rather surnames to the holy patriarchs, whom he peculiarly adopted as his sons, they indicated the grace which God conferred. The name is written in Greek and Latin as in Hebrew, ιωαννης, Johannes, the grace of God, or the gift of God; for John, like Isaac, was a son by divine favour, as illustrated in the next words.

Luke 1:14. Thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth, because it was the birthday of righteousness, when the dayspring from on high visited his people.

Luke 1:15. He shall be great in the sight of the Lord. The first minister of his kingdom, opening the way for the glory of the Lord to follow, and to enlighten the gentiles. He shall drink no wine, allowed to other priests, except when they officiated. Leviticus 10:9. Nor strong drink, σικερα; the same as the Hebrew שׂכרsechar, in 1 Samuel 1:15, which the LXX render μεθυσμα, metheglin, wine made from honey and water. The prohibition extends to all other kinds of strong drink, whether from fruits or from corn, being a Nazarite, as explained in Leviticus 6:1. On the contrary, the wine he shall drink shall be the celestial wine, which inspired Elijah and the ancient prophets. He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mothers womb. Like Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah, he was designated to the ministry from his birth, and gave early indications that he was moved by the Holy Ghost to glorious achievements in future years. He shall go before, as the angel or messenger of the Lord, and a harvest of souls shall be gathered in for him.

Luke 1:18. How shall I know this, for I am aged, and my wife is advanced in days. Here is a wary priest, suffering his too cautious mind to balance on the side of unbelief. He saw a presence more than human; he knew how God had assisted Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, and the mother of Samson, to be mothers of illustrious men. He must also have known what Josephus states, Antiq. 50, 13. c. 18, how Hyrcanus had seen a glorious vision when Heliodorus came to plunder the temple of the hallowed treasures for the support of aged priests, widows and orphans. 2 Maccabees 3. Nothing is more displeasing to the Lord than to disbelieve his word when sealed by the wonted characters of revelation.

Luke 1:19. I am Gabriel that stand in the presence of God. The same archangel was sent almost five hundred years before, to announce to Daniel the time of the Messiah’s advent, and he was now sent to say, that the time is at hand. Faith in a message above the powers of nature, from the age of this priest and his wife, required annunciation by a presence more than human. Daniel 8:16; Daniel 9:21.

Luke 1:26-27. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent of God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to Joseph. There are diversities of operations, but it is the same Spirit. The birth of John was divinely announced to the jews, and religious men would keep an eye on so auspicious a child. But now the conception of Christ is concealed from all, except the witnesses selected of God. The glorious mystery of God manifest in the flesh, as noticed on Isaiah 7:9., is too bright to be disclosed to vulgar eyes, till the world should become prepared by the doctrine, the miracles, and the resurrection of the Saviour from the dead.

Luke 1:28. Hail — highly favoured, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. This is a Gothic word, health, peace, joy, Ave, χαιρε, rejoice. What more can we add, but repeat, “the Lord is with thee.”

Whence could Hesiod form his Theogony or generation of the gods, but on the most ancient traditions. Whence, (as is noticed by the learned Frenchmen, Lavaur and bishop Huet) could the idea of Semele’s conception by Jupiter be derived, but from the hallowed traditions of the patriarchs. With these authors, our learned Dr. William Stukeley, in his Palæographia sacra, 1763, perfectly coincides. Whence then could Dr. Joseph Priestley derive his authority for saying, “Jesus was the legitimate son of Joseph and Mary.” Socinianism is assuredly an apostasy from the faith of the whole primitive world.

Luke 1:32. He shall be great, in sanctity, great in doctrine, great in miracles, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, after his hypostasis or glorious person is clothed with flesh, as he has ever been called since he was promised to Adam, the Woman’s Seed, or Son, to bruise the serpent’s head. The illustrious Agur, whose sayings the servants of king Hezekiah appended to Solomon’s Proverbs, confessing his ignorance, as to the immensity of Deity, asks, “What is his name, and what is his Son’s name, if thou canst tell.” Proverbs 30:4. This faith was David’s consolation, when the kings of the earth took counsel against the Lord, and against his Christ. Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee; or as St. Paul, to- day do I declare thee, the Son of God with power, seated for ever on the throne of David, and on the right hand of God. Psalms 72.

Luke 1:35. The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. The assumption is all mystery. It asks for adoration, not for comment. God so loved the world that he sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that he might redeem us from the curse of the law. The wings of Jehovah cover the mercyseat, his cloud rests upon the tabernacle. Let the priests and the people adore without, while incense is burned within. Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, shall be born. He shall emerge from the bosom of the virgin, even the Sun of righteousness, to illuminate a benighted world. Psalms 85:10-11.

Luke 1:36. Behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age. This was associating joys to Mary’s consolation: it showed the gracious care of heaven when the fulness of time was come for the redemption of the world. The plans of heaven were written in the volume of the book: God had but to open and extend the scrowl.

Luke 1:39-40. Mary arose in those days, and went to the hill country with haste, being unable to contain her joys. When Elizabeth heard her salutation, the babe leaped in her womb for joy. The like word occurs in the targums, when speaking of the mountains shaking, and the hills leaping. They also add, that “the infants leaped for joy in their mother’s bosoms, when they saw what God had done to Pharaoh at the Red sea.” — What women, what infants, what glory under one roof! Let the mother of the two Gracchuses boast no more of her jewels. See on Malachi 3:17.

Luke 1:41. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. The salutation of Mary kindled the spark of inspiration to a flame. The divine impetus was so strong, that like the ancient prophets, she burst at once into the effusion of discourse and song. Whence is this grace that I should be the first woman to hear the Saviour preached; that the mother of my Lord should come to me. Blessed art thou among women, supremely blessed above the daughters of Eve. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb, the fountain from which all those benedictions flow. Let Zion weep no more. The Lord who has thus begun, will complete his work. There shall surely be a performance of all the excellent things which the prophets have spoken of Christ, of the conversion of the gentiles, and of all the glory of his kingdom.

Observe, Elizabeth puts Mary among women; why then should the papists for filthy lucre place her high above all gods? She gives identity and locality to Mary: the mother of my Lord is come to me. Then while under her roof she was not in Nazareth. She calls Mary a woman, but her Son she calls her Lord; and as above, the Son of God. Why then should the papists give omnipresence to Mary, and in all the worship of their communion cause prayers to be addressed to her. Mater Dei, ora pro nobis. Mother of God, pray for us. Nay, no minister must preach without reciting, on dividing the subject, his Ave Maria. Oh protestant, if you regard the labours and tears of the reformers and confessors, if you revere the blood of martyrs, and like Paul would rend your raiment at the sight of idolatry, see that you shun the altars of Baal, and all the scarlet array of the mother of harlots.

Luke 1:46-47. Mary said, my soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. This song is the sublime of Hebrew poësy, bold in sentiment, and chaste in expression. It embraces all the cheering themes which once inspired the ancient seers. It is the utterance of Mary’s heart, in the triumph of faith, and is like the flood-tide which makes the rivers overflow their banks. She magnifies the riches of grace, that all the high and princely families of the Asmonean house, who had a palace near the temple, should be overlooked, and she, a lowly virgin, made the mother of “the heir of all things.” Courtly elevations swell the pride of mortals, but celestial favours humble the soul to the dust. Therefore her song awoke up to glory; her soul and spirit, all her powers of mind and heart were developed in the exuberance of praise. With other princes riches have wings, and crowns decay; but here is glory permanent in all its characters: “all generations shall call me blessed.”

Luke 1:51-52. He hath showed strength with his arm. This indicates his conquering power, like the arm of heroes which obtains the victory. He is great above all gods; he hath exalted the lowly, and cast down the mighty from their thrones. So Hannah sung, when she embraced a Samuel in her arms. But the words of Mary have all the expanse of prophecy. The Lord chose the things that were not to bring to nought things that are. He made poor apostles the ministers of his kingdom, to establish the glory of the cross on the ruins of idolatry. He has spread the gospel feast for the poor gentiles, pursuant to his promises to Abraham, while the gainsaying jews are sent empty away, to beg their bread in distant lands.

Luke 1:69. A horn of salvation, against which no foe, no power can stand. His horn can defend the flock. Job 16:15. Psalms 112:9. David’s horn was now in the dust, but in Christ it rose to the throne.

Luke 1:72-73. To perform the mercy promised — the oath which he sware to Abraham. Zacharias makes here a proper distinction between the promise of the Messiah to Abraham, Genesis 12:3, and the oath which he sware after Abraham had obtained an enlargement of the promise by the oblation of Isaac. These were “the two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie.” Thus Zacharias read the scriptures with enlightened regards, and built the hopes of the church on the word of God, the sure mercies of David.

Luke 1:74-75. That we, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies. God had promised to deliver Israel out of Egypt, Exodus 3:12; and he will in like manner deliver his people from sin and Satan, as Paul explains it in Romans 6:18; that being made free from sin, we might serve God in holiness and righteousness all our days. The first of these words, “holiness,” comprehends all the piety we owe to God; the second, “righteousness,” includes all the moral obligations of life, in duties and good offices towards our neighbours.

Luke 1:76. And thou, child, my infant son, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the Lord to prepare his way. What an apostrophe of a father to a son, born to eclipse the glory of his sire. A son, to prepare the way of the Messiah. To give knowledge and assurance of salvation by the remission of sins, agreeing with the words in Mark 1:4, that John preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. By assurance that the ransom is paid, by a removal of the wrath which the law excites in the conscience, by a sentiment of the love of God shed abroad in the heart, by all the joys of remission, and the fruits of faith which follow. What other gospel but this could relieve the labouring conscience of its load, and produce renovation of heart and life.

Luke 1:80. He was in the deserts. The Greek does not import that John was an eremite, that is, a hermit or anchoret. His father kept him much at his country retreat, leading him no doubt, as a Nazarite and priest by birth, to attend the festivals in Jerusalem as the law required.

REFLECTIONS.

St. Luke introduces his gospel with credentials of indisputable purity. He wrote under sacred patronage, in the face of many contemporaries, and even rival historians. He wrote with confidence, having had perfect knowledge of facts and expressions from the first, as well as illumination from above; and he wrote with the most laudable purpose of instructing and confirming Theophilus, and all who should read, in the faith of Christ. Christianity is therefore founded on argument. How should so many men, writing in different times and places, so exactly agree in all the essentials of their history, if they did not write from a clear head and an honest heart. For it is allowed that their slight variations, or apparent contradictions, are a striking confirmation of the truth of the gospel.

Concerning the birth of John we may remark, that the scripture characters were divinely raised up, and called of God. They had no hand whatever in their call and elevation. Let worldly courtiers canvass and become votaries for honour; the honour that cometh from God is all of grace, conferred by the giver, and always in due time. When Jacob was surrounded with great difficulty and distress, the Lord raised up Joseph to nourish his people. When the nation was sorely oppressed, behold, Moses was drawn from the water. In like manner, the Judges, David, Esther, and others, were successively elevated by the special hand of God. Thus also John, the Lord, and his apostles, succeeded in the scheme of providence, and unfolded the mystery hid in ages past.

The angels of God take a most lively interest in the redemption of man. They attended JEHOVAH when he sware to Abraham. Genesis 18:2; Genesis 22:15. They attended in the visions of Isaiah, and of Daniel; and now Gabriel, as first of the train, comes to confirm these promises to Zacharias in the temple of God. Rejoice, ye heavens, and be glad, oh earth, the truth and faithfulness of God endure to all generations. Awake, oh sluggish world, to trace the steps of grace, for all heaven is alert. Come and learn the certainty of the things in which you have been instructed; for it is the highest happiness of angels to unfold the mysteries of providence in redeeming love. Where are there mysteries to be found so sublime, so pure, so abasing to the pride of reason, and so exalting to the humble soul.

Men greatly honoured must be greatly tried. This law seems to have no exceptions. Zacharias was struck both deaf and dumb. And in the next chapter, Mary’s joys are much allayed by the intimation, that the sword of anguish would pass through her soul because of her son. Divine joy participates so much of the consolations of heaven that we must drink it but sparingly in this life.

The salutation of the virgin is highly interesting. The person deputed — his approach and address, are all becoming and proper. There is no meanness of circumstance, nothing as in pagan fable revolting to delicacy. All is simplicity in the expression, all is sublime in the mission, being a disclosure, conformable to prophecy, of the grand plan of redeeming love. The virgin was troubled and embarrassed at the applause of so divine a stranger; but he detailed his mission, that she should be the mother of the Messiah, painting at the same time the future glory of her son. Mary, acknowledging herself the handmaid of the Lord, said, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” So may my soul say, when the Lord applies to me his great and precious promises.

The angel directed her to a companion in her sacred joy. He said that her cousin Elizabeth, then a hundred miles distant, and hitherto reputed barren, was six months advanced in pregnancy with a son, designated to be the harbinger of the Lord. In such extraordinary cases faith requires extraordinary support and pledges from God. So Jeroboam saw his altar rent. God struck the base altar before he struck the baser people. So when Isaiah went to give Ahaz a consoling sign of this virgin, he took his son in his arms to announce the speedy death of both the hostile kings: chap. 7.

How divine was the interview between these two women. They poured joy into each other’s breast, which swelled the torrent as the river of paradise. Their converse comprised all of heaven that mortals can taste on earth, and forgetful of prayer, their whole souls were lost in the transports of praise.

In the song of the virgin we see the dark curtains which had veiled protracted promises, dropped all at once. She saw the person and glory of her son, and all the joyful ages of his people calling her blessed. Above all, she magnified the riches of redeeming grace in passing by the haughty and the proud, and in looking upon her a virgin of low estate. Such is the mercy of the Lord to them that fear him.

Mary did not leave this happy family till she saw the birth of John; had assured signs of pregnancy; and heard Zacharias, dumb as he was, open his mouth in all the sublime effusions of prophetic song. As a little rivulet loses itself in a vast torrent, so this venerable priest lost the private joy of his illustrious infant, in the glories of Messiah his Lord, then sheltered under his sacred roof. And he viewed not his kingdom with carnal eyes, as the scribes and pharisees, but as a horn of salvation raised up for the saints, in conformity to the promises made to Abraham. He viewed it as promoting righteousness and holiness in the church, and as the opening of celestial day on a dark and beclouded world. Yea, and this was to his soul the summit of joy, that his son should he called “the prophet of the Highest,” and presede his Lord with the proclamations of pardon to a sinful people. Thus the divine wisdom took its counsel for the salvation of fallen man. Thus He who condescended to make us in his own image, stooped again to repair our ruin by uniting his divine to our human nature, sanctifying it in its assumption, and making it a model of our future glory. Thus, in this humble cottage were concealed the high characters which attracted the notice of all heaven, while the world knew them not. Satan, tremble, for thy bruiser is incarnate. Idolatry, avaunt, for thy light is come. And thou earth, be glad, for the promised Prince is come to bless the nations and distant tribes with righteousness, and peace, and joy.

 


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Bibliography Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Luke 1:4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jsc/luke-1.html. 1835.

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