When Mary Visited Elizabeth

January 27, 2019 Series: The Book of Luke Scripture: Luke 1:39-56 by Chris Strevel

John Leaped for Joy (vv. 39-41)

Gabriel Prompted Mary’s Visit

Mary knew the Scriptures, as her song makes clear, and her spirit was fully in tune with God’s redemptive purposes. Even so, that she would be the mother of the Messiah was a revelation that drove all else from her mind. Evidently she did not tell Joseph about the angel’s visit. Would he have believed her? At some point, she did tell him, and nothing less than a visit from Gabriel convinced him not to divorce her quietly. In short order, Mary arranged a visit to her much older cousin, Elizabeth. There was no one else with whom she could discuss these things. Mary’s journey was prompted not by idle curiosity and or haunting doubt but by her intense desire to here all God’s word about these great things. The journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea would have taken 3-4 days, so this was no small undertaking, but it was a small thing to her. God’s grace through his Son was about to enter the world, and nothing would ever be the same. She sensed that she would not be the same. But above all, she believed Moses and the Prophets. Her actions can only be understood as faith seeking more light, faith responding to God’s word with earnest inquiry, faith desiring fellowship and sharpening in the company of other saints.

The haste or earnestness in seeking out her cousin certainly rebukes the lazy way that we respond to God’s word. When we hear a sermon or read something of God’s precious word, we must not be content with a passing good thought or two. Most of us rarely “roast what we take in hunting,” as the Proverb says (Prov. 12:27), turning over and over in our minds the glories of God’s grace to us in Christ, so that we may grow up into him and bear much fruit. We are very earnest to critique the preacher or find fault with him if he presses us too much, but we are slow to critique ourselves in the light of God’s word. And what is God’s word to us? The same as it was to Mary – I am doing great things for you in my Son. I am keeping my covenant promises. But of course, we have much more of his word than Mary did, for we have the Old Covenant Scriptures that are now backlit with the splendor of the Word Incarnate, and the New Covenant Scriptures that show the way he relates to us and what we are to believe concerning him and how we may live to please God. Let us be in earnest, like Mary, to search out these things. I cannot imagine a more bitter resident of hell than the man or woman who had many Gabriel visits through God’s word, saw it sitting there on the shelf a thousand times, but never opened it seriously and prayerfully to seek out its riches for himself. Please, child of God, for your eternal happiness, for the glory of God, and for his honor in the world, put away your distractions and eagerly search God’s word of salvation.

John Leaped for Joy

Even John in his mother’s womb strongly rebukes our laziness when it comes to the things that matter most. If only the Lord will open our eyes to see that what the world says is important, what the flesh craves, is usually irrelevant, frequently dangerous, and always an abomination to God (Luke 16:15). Then, Mary entered Zacharias’ house and greeted Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. This was about the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, so she had certainly felt fetal movements, but this was something different. This was John responding to the Lamb he was to announce, embracing the Bridegroom in whom he greatly rejoiced. Was John conscious of this? It is doubtful, and it is not the point. John’s leaping was to encourage Elizabeth’s faith, and then Mary’s. And was Mary already pregnant? It is certainly possible, but again, it was the sound of Mary’s voice that caused John to leap. This was undoubtedly said to encourage both these believing women that God was doing something unique and wonderful in their lives. It is written not so that we will speculate about intrauterine regeneration, though the Lord may give the new birth at any time he pleases, with personal conversion (faith and repentance) coming at a later date. These things are written to encourage us that God did in fact keep his word, that he brought his Son into the world for our salvation, and that these humble human vessels of his salvation were awe-struck at his grace and power in them.

Elizabeth Was Filled with the Holy Spirit (vv. 42-45)

Her Humble Confession

At this movement within, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. Mother and son – together they are led to bow not before Mary but to the God of Mary, at God’s providence in Mary, that standing before them was the lowly virgin promised by Isaiah and through whom the Savior of the world would be born. It was too much for them both, but the Holy Spirit had greater concern than Elizabeth’s personal feelings. She must speak as his oracle. As wonderful as it was for her to be the mother of “Elijah to come” (Mal. 4:5-6), the grace standing before her was far greater. “You are blessed among women.” Yes, I have my own news, my own wonders, and I will praise God for them, but this in no way prevents me from confessing that your news is greater, your place higher, and your Son incomparably greater than mine. “For why should the mother of my Lord come to me?” The attention is on Mary – not as papist dreamers imagine, that she was a conduit of grace to sinners – but as the chosen vessel of “my Lord.” Notice that Mary’s greatness is the shadow of the greater greatness of the Son she was or would soon be carrying.

Two things stand out in these first words of the Holy Spirit through Elizabeth. First, Mary was blessed among women, the most blessed woman who has ever lived. We do not detract from God’s honor when we honor those whom he honors, for all their honor is the shadow of his grace in them. Mary’s honor is not that of a Savior but that of God’s chosen vessel to bring his Son into the world. He did honor her: to make her so physically close to him; to use the dust to show forth his glory; to make her the mother of our Lord; to give her a place to serve him in his great work of salvation. Any of my dear sisters here this morning would have felt it almost an unbearable honor, a weight of glory unable to be contained to be so highly blessed. And since Mary will soon confess herself to be a lowly sinner, there is no danger in detracting from our Savior’s honor when we honor God’s elevating grace to the mother of our Lord.

Elizabeth’s humility, secondly, is worthy of notice and imitation. She had also been elevated above all other women, save one. And yet, like her son will later confess, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), so she deflects all attention from herself and is content to bask in the greater glory before her. It is common for there to be rivalry among those who ought to be the most deeply humbled by God’s goodness, but here we see how things ought to be among us. The most preeminent in gifts and graces should claim nothing for herself but defer all praise to the Lord. The lowliest should rejoice in his particular place and God’s goodness to him, without craving more honor than the Lord has not seen fit to bestow. But where is this humility to be found, except where Elizabeth found it – by the grace and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit? You can tell a proud man one thousand times to be humble, and he may admit to his arrogance, but he cannot humble himself. We must be tamed by the Holy Spirit to see the all-consuming glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Then and only then can we be truly and rightly humbled, willing for our personal graces to be eclipsed by others, knowing that he will never forget them, always use them, but that all must be deferred back to him. We have nothing that we have not received (1 Cor. 4:7). Already Elizabeth felt this keenly; she was only too happy to bask in the grace and glory shown to her younger cousin, because it was the glory of Jesus Christ her Lord shining in her.

Her Prophetic Benediction

How did Elizabeth know that in the lowly village girl standing before her, she was really standing before the mother of her Lord? The Spirit taught her this, at that instant, and the lesson was confirmed by the leaping of her own son in the womb, whom she knew to be from Malachi the forerunner of the Messiah. Let us learn the lessons of Scripture better, and we shall rejoice more, speak with more wisdom, and bask with more joy in the radiance of God’s glorious grace! Elizabeth spoke again: “Blessed is she who has believed.” Here is God’s greatest benediction, from trusting Abraham to believing Mary, to believers who believe without seeing. Our highest honor is to believe God’s word, as well as our greatest joy, for this is the blessedness we lost in Eden, but which God restores to us by the Holy Spirit. As with Abraham and Sarah, and before them Noah and Enoch, and later Samuel, David, and the prophets, all the saving grace and light God has brought into the world has been through the faith of his people in his word. It was no different for this greatest of all his blessings. Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, was brought into the world through the faith of lowly Mary.

Her Declaration of God’s Faithfulness

Hearing this, each one of us should strive to our utmost for the faith that receives God’s word with meekness. We do this chiefly by asking God for it, for we cannot conjure up faith simply for the wishing. God must give it to us. Seeing how unbelieving the majority of men are and how much the glory of God and progress of his kingdom depends upon our taking him at his word, each one who loves the Lord must pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” For notice that Elizabeth, still speaking by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, unites Mary’s faith and God’s performance of his promise. It is not that God’s word depends upon man’s faith, but he has tied the two together, so that if we do not believe, we shall not be blessed or see the fulfillment of God’s steadfast word as we would otherwise would (Isa. 7:9; Matt. 13:58). Through Mary’s faith, the Lord will keep his word. Mary needed to hear this at this particular time. The weight of glory, of two millennia of revelation and covenant, was heavy. But what else can we do before God’s word? We must believe him. He is faithful and powerful. The Holy Ghost thus directed Mary to contemplate not her own weakness or the overwhelming implications of what she had been told, but to look solely at the faithfulness and power of God. And if Mary was told to consider only God’s faithfulness, how much more are we directed to the same fountain of courage and steadfastness? God’s word is often overwhelming; what he calls us to walk through may seem impossible. We must trust his promises and ask only to be upheld by his faithfulness and power, for he will bring us to the end of our course, if we trust him.

Mary Praised the Lord (vv. 46-56)

He Has Done Great Things for Me (vv. 46-49)

Could Mary have imagined that her trip would be so richly rewarded? The Lord’s word confirmed. Her cousin recognizing her as the mother of her Lord – and no Jew would ever lightly use this word Lord – certainly more than “my sir” is indicated. And since Elizabeth spoke by the Holy Ghost, surely he rises as high as Thomas – “My Lord and my God” – same word, same faith, same worship. And Mary praises the Lord. There is nothing higher for the adoring heart. We cannot give to God anything higher than our praise. And her magnifying is the old Latin title for her song of praise – The Magnificat. She uttered it in good Hebrew parallelism. Some have questioned whether she could have delivered it as Luke wrote it – spontaneously in response to Elizabeth. I have no problem believing that she did. It breathes inspiration; it breathes personal wonder; it breathes nothing studied but the Word of God, adored for many years but now brought home to Mary’s soul with quickening force and joy.

She began with personal praise – my soul is open to you, O Lord, praising you, wondering and worshiping you. I exalt you, Lord. My soul, my inmost self, my life, rejoices in God my Savior. I am not in this exalted place because of anything in me, but because you are my deliverer from sin and death. You are my salvation. You had to humble yourself to look upon me, for I am only your handmaiden – again this word (v. 38) – again total deflection of all glory, good, and grace back to the Lord. Mary viewed herself with great lowliness of mind. Mary looks down the annals of time and affirms what Elizabeth has said – that all generations will call her blessed – not the source of blessing but the recipient of blessing. It is amazing how men blinded by a perverse and grasping theological system could so twist Mary into her exact opposite. As for Mary, she attributed everything to God. He has done these things for her. He is the mighty One. His name is HOLY. There was not one thought of personal worthiness or subsequent virtue in Mary that would make her a conduit of grace to others. God had raised her up from nothing to be the mother of the Messiah. If Mary leads us to God, it is not by any co-mediation but by showing us the broken and contrite spirit that is of such value in God’s eyes. In this, we must certainly follow her example of humility and adoration of God for his great grace and mercy to us.

He Rules the World and Turns It Upside Down (vv. 50-53)

The middle section of her song celebrates God’s sovereign grace and government of the world. Strange it is to find a young Jewish girl versed only in the Scriptures with more theological acumen and more courage than we often find in pulpits and seminary lecterns. For Mary spoke of social upheaval, but not on the humanistic platform of egalitarianism, bloody revolutions fought upon the bayonets of man’s covetousness; it is God’s grace that makes men to differ (1 Cor. 4:7). He shows mercy to those who fear him, and upon them his eye is firmly fixed. They are rarely the worldly wise and wealthy but are usually the despised and outcasts of the earth. Nevertheless, they are the favorites of heaven. God never removes his mercy from them – mercy being a frequent synonym for “covenant” (Ps. 23:6), for it means not only God’s compassion but also his sworn, steadfast, everlasting love. And how that love marched quietly through the hearts and lives of his believing people for generations, preserving the smallest shoots of David’s line, until it was time for sovereign, holy love to send his Beloved into the world! What joy should surge through our hearts when we think that God will never take away his mercy from his people, his love and covenant, that however despised and forgotten the church may look at certain times in history, or how strong and flourishing God’s enemies, reality is not what it seems. Only the eye of faith can see the true state of affairs. God is still nurturing the undeserving recipients of his love, his children. They fear – adore, love, serve – him, and he may allow fruit to incubate in the crucible of trouble and obscurity for many years, but spring is coming.

And when it does, he will reverse things. He is not the Governor of the nations (Ps. 22:27) to sit idly by and allow his poor ones to be forsaken forever. He will bare his holy arm for those whom he loves; he will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts. The incarnation of the Son of God guarantees this. What! Salvation from such a quarter? From God incarnate and crucified? From a lowly Jewish girl? Not possible, say the best philosophers and scientists, whose theories close off the universe to God and are really autobiographical horror stories of those trying to escape from the truth that haunts their soul. God will scatter the proud. He will bring down the powerful from their places of power. Yes, for a while they may spread their arms like a mighty tree, and God strikes slowly, but he strikes hard when he strikes. He is longsuffering, but the faith of his poor ones will not go unrewarded forever (Ps. 9:18). In their place, the humble will raise. The hungry will be satisfied; the rich will be sent away empty-handed. Many of these reversals are anticipated in the prophets and explained by our Lord more fully. Such a lowly Savior – the proud are doomed! A crucified Savior – the hard-hearted, the worldly rich and full, are destined to feast upon their riches in hell forever – unless they too repent and believe the gospel. This is the true revolution that Jesus Christ has begun and continues to carry forward in the world. His saving work emptied him, and it must empty us of all worldly loves and faiths. We must come before him, feeling our emptiness, and seeking to be filled only with him. He will take care of his enemies, for having been crucified in weakness, he now lives by God’s power. He will frustrate the counsels of the wicked and overthrow the wisdom of the wise. His wisdom is the cross; his righteousness is obedience.

He Remembers His Covenant (vv. 54-55)

And here is a final and not the least important part of her song – covenant. This is a strange thing to modern thinking, for Mary grounds the birth of her Son not in the soil of a new theology that jettisons the past but in the soul of God’s very covenant promises to Abraham and the fathers. These promises were made primarily to Abraham’s seed (which is here a singular noun – see Gal. 3:16), which means that Mary saw her child as the heir of the covenant God made with Abraham, the substance of the Mosaic, Davidic, and all the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12) that God gave. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the old covenant revelation and Scriptures without losing his identity and becoming nothing but what many would like for him to be – a religious idea that can be remade by each generation to suit their own tastes and needs; or a pointer to the divine within – the list of these Christs is very long and diverse, but our Lord warned us of this (Mark 13:21). If we would hold fast to the true Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world, and the heart of God’s covenant from the very beginning, we must never suffer him to be released from the Old Testament Scriptures but must see them all as being about him, as he taught (Luke 24:27,44; John 5:47).

Upon this foundation our faith is immoveable, and how wonderful that Mary was led by God’s spirit to see this foundation, this chief cornerstone, from the very beginning. God kept his promise to Abraham and the fathers. It seemed that he had forgotten his people, but he cannot, for we are engraved upon his hands. And thus, Mary’s song, if we will but learn to sing it, grounds us firmly in the great work of God that he has been working for his people since the beginning. All the old covenants were about one promise, as the apostle says in Ephesians 2:12 – the promise of life and salvation through the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. Much has happened in the past two millennia, and some of the world thinks it has moved past him. For a while, they loved his ethic, but hated his redemption. Then, they grew to hate his ethic, and now they have no ethic, no Christ, and no salvation. They look to government programs and printing presses to secure blessings that are found only in national and personal submission to Mary’s crucified, exalted, and enthroned Son. Let us hasten to bow before him now, to confess him as our life, and to trust him as our Savior from sin, from tyranny, and from the blindness and depravity of our own hearts.