Today on Truth for Life, we're going to look at an encounter between two cousins that may not have seemed all that out of the ordinary on the surface, but their extraordinary circumstances would ultimately change the course of human history.
Alistair Begg walks us through the unfolding, dramatic, history-changing moment. Our focus is on the song of Mary, which, of course, begins in the forty-fifth verse, is it? But there is a little section that precedes that, that we daren't pass over lightly. It is the prenatal conversation between Elizabeth and Mary, something that women are very familiar with and men should usually stay out of as much as possible—conversations that involve kicking and hiccupping and various personal and private interaction that we as men may only wonder at and mainly recoil from.
But ladies understand a little section like this insofar as the humanity of it is obvious. However, even the most casual of readings of these six verses makes clear to us that this is something more significant than two expectant mothers comparing notes. The context has arisen because, with the words of the angel ringing in her ears, Mary has chosen to make a journey of some seventy miles into the Judean hill country, primarily to link up with her cousin Elizabeth, about whom she had heard from the angel this dramatic news that Elizabeth, who was known as the barren one, the one who was never going to have a child, was in fact expecting a baby. And so she hastens to the home of Elizabeth and greets her.
This may seem as nothing very important, but in point of fact, the way in which greetings took place in Eastern custom was and is very important. Elizabeth was the senior, should have been greeted by the junior, and she was. Elizabeth was the daughter of Aaron from the priestly line, and therefore she had some stature which Mary did not have, and therefore Mary should be greeting her, which of course she did. But within a very quick moment, the greeting of Mary seems to be swallowed up by the loud voice of Elizabeth as she gives this dramatic explanation, which of course must have filled the mind of Mary with profound wonder. Having come from an incredible encounter with this angel who had delivered her the news of her expectancy and the nature of it, she now finds herself going for whatever reason from a human perspective to the home of her cousin and on the receiving end of a reinforcement of this dramatic news. Because, if you look carefully at the text, you will see that Elizabeth, upon hearing Mary's greeting, speaking out in a loud voice, displays a knowledge of things that clearly did not come by deduction.
Without having seen or heard anything about Mary at all, she finds herself possessed of perfect clarity. And her words are in concurrence with the earlier statement of Gabriel. She is also extolling Mary for her favored status, which of course the angel had done in verse 28 earlier on.
Now, how did this come about? How is it that this lady, well on in years, who herself is expecting a child who is to be the forerunner, namely John the Baptist, how is it that she, upon the arrival of this young slip of a girl, is able to make these statements? The answer is, by the Holy Spirit. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and, in a loud voice, exclaimed. Lenski says, When the one mother, Elizabeth, recognized the other mother, Mary, the unborn forerunner, felt his master's presence and was himself filled with the Spirit, and that Spirit then also filled his mother. You remember, we've already seen that the angel says of this John the Baptist that he will be filled with the Spirit from birth.
And here in this dramatic encounter, these things are unfolding. Now, some of the ladies listening say, Well, I don't think there's anything particularly unusual about this. After all, when we have these kind of prenatal discussions, we often talk to one another about whether the baby's kicking and when it's kicking and whether the music was playing and my baby always kicks when Mozart plays and all that kind of stuff. I recognize that these things are common, and it's also quite common for an emotional response on the part of the woman to cause movement in the baby. It is quite another for a miraculous expression of emotion on the part of the unborn child to have an impact on the mother, and that's what is said is taking place here.
You've got to look at your Bible carefully. Elizabeth is enabled to translate her baby's tumbling into theology, and this is a result of divine revelation. And so she reiterates the truths that we have already discovered as coming from the lips of the angel. And she gives explanation of what is going on in verse 44.
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. And then she makes this summary statement, Blessed is she, using the third person, who has believed what the Lord has said to her, it will be accomplished. Now, we might be tempted to say, Well, this is a very interesting anecdotal piece of information, sort of a little parenthetical thing that is off in the corner from the larger issues that are before us in Luke's narrative. To do so would be to make a dreadful mistake.
And I'll tell you why. Consider when this is taking place. This is taking place at the end of centuries of prophetic silence. The Old Testament has concluded with the prophecy of Malachi. And hundreds of years have elapsed since Malachi spoke. For example, if you just turn to that—let me reinforce it for you—in Malachi chapter 4 and in verse 2, But for you who revere my name, the Son of righteousness—this is God speaking through Malachi—the Son of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. And in verse 5, and we'll come to this later, see, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. Isn't it interesting that the word of the prophet is that people will go around and leap when the Son of righteousness rises with healing in his wings? And the very same verb is used concerning what is happening to this child in the womb of the mother.
It leapt for joy. Now, the significance is simply this—that the generations that had lived between the Testaments, in what we refer to as the intertestamental period, would have continually rehearsed the promises of God to one another. The parents would have told the children, and the children would have sat on the knees of the grandparents, and the grandparents would have said, You know there is coming a day, son—there's a coming a day, my lassie—when the Son of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And the grandchildren would have said, And what does that mean?
And when will that be? And will it be today, grandpa? Do you think it'll be tomorrow, grandpa?
And grandpa would have to say, Honey, I don't know when it's going to be, but I know it's definitely going to be. And one generation would go to their death, and another generation would arise reading the same Scriptures, reading the prophecy of Ezekiel. I will put my Spirit within you. Reading the prophecy of Joel, afterward I will pour out my Spirit upon all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy. And the prophetic voice had been silenced for four hundred years. So the people of God who were tuned in to the promises of God and the unfolding plan of God would be constantly on the lookout to say to themselves, Is this then the day of the Lord? Is this the Old Testament day that God has promised, which is to be the day of his Spirit?
And what Luke is announcing here in his narrative is, yes, that is exactly what has happened. In the announcement of John the Baptist, we have the return of the prophetic voice. He's filled with the Spirit. In the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit, we have the beginning of the new creation. Elizabeth and Zechariah are both filled with the Spirit. And Luke is announcing that in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the day of the Spirit has finally dawned—not yet in all of its fullness, but nevertheless, it has arrived.
Now, the significance of this is vast. Some would have said to one another, God has forgotten his promise to Abraham. And someone would have said, Well, what was his promise to Abraham? And they would have quoted from the book of Genesis chapter 12, and how God had come and made a covenant with Abraham and said, You know, your seed will be as the sand of the seashore in its vastness, as the stars of the sky. And through your seed, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. And people are saying, Well, then where is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham?
In the same way that scoffers today say, Well, where is the promise of the return of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? After all, everything continues the same as it has always been. But when the time comes, God displays the fact that he has not forgotten his promise to Abraham. God always remembers. And in making Mary the mother of the Messiah, he has declared his mercy. Elizabeth's words reinforce the reality of Mary's faith. She has believed, verse 45. She has trusted. She has come to rely upon what the Lord has said.
Now, think about that. What did she have to go on? Only the Word of God.
What do you have to go on? The exact same thing. What, then, is the spirit of dependent faith? It is the spirit which takes God at his Word. And this little section reinforces the reality of Mary's faith, reinforces the certainty of God's promise that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.
The seed of David will reign on the throne of Jacob forever, and his kingdom, verse 33, will never come to an end. And Luke provides for us this wonderful point of continuity between the Old Testament expectation and the New Testament realization. Now, as we come to the song of Mary, there exists a very real danger—actually, a number of real dangers—mainly in the way in which we deal with the text. Some of us are familiar with this as the magnificat.
We've come from a background where we used to sing it, magnificat being the first word of the Latin translation of this song. And we have tended to think of it in a certain way. And because we think of it in that way, we find it very, very difficult to come to it with freshness.
We need to ask the Lord to help us. But there is a real danger in approaching it in a way that is simply devotional. And believe me, I can do this without any difficulty at all. I can preach a devotional sermon on the song of Mary without any study during the week whatsoever. And I don't say that to impress you with my ability but simply to let you know how dreadful the sermon would be. Not that there is not devotion in it, but it is not there for our devotional acceptance. The Bible does not exist primarily so that men and women can sit in Cleveland and say, What does this mean to me? and impress one another with a sort of existential unfolding of these truths. Well, I think it means this, and it means that to me, and I discovered this.
That's not the issue. You may be completely wrong. The question is, What does this mean? And after we've discovered what it means, then we can think about to me but not until. And there is a real danger in a devotional approach to it. The other danger is that we'd approach it as a kind of revolutionary treatise, as many have—that this is the God who overturns the mighty and so on, and we will take him at his word, and we'll go out and seek to do that. Of course, the very point is that it is not man who is overturning these institutions, but it is God himself who is doing it.
So there would be a real danger in using it as a diatribe for political revolution. Thirdly, the danger is that we focus on Mary rather than on the song, and we laud her for her virtue and for her merit instead of concentrating on that which she makes much of—namely, her lowest state and her need of God's kindness in salvation. Now, setting those things aside, I found it helpful to view the song this week in my study as a song of God's mercy. As a song of God's mercy.
And I want to draw a line through it by means of this one word, mercy. It is the English translation of the Hebrew chesed, and the word mercy speaks of God's devotion to his covenant. It is expressive of God's covenant love—the kind of love that is steady and is persistent and refuses to wash one's hands of those who even deny the covenant. It is expressive of compassion to those who are in need, those who understand themselves to be helpless or in distress, those who recognize their debt and, at the same time, know that they have no claim whatsoever to any kind of favorable treatment.
It is that work of God whereby he takes the initiative in the lives of men and women. It is because of your great mercy, says Jeremiah, that we have not been consumed. Lamentations 3, Great is your faithfulness. Now, this song is a song of God's mercy. If grace is concerned for men as guilty, then mercy is concerned for men as being miserable.
In fact, we could combine the two and say that God's mercy is his love towards those who are in misery as a result of their sin and their guilt. First, then, notice God's mercy to Mary. God's mercy to Mary. Notice, first of all, that she stood in need of mercy.
That's the first and obvious thing to notice. Why did Mary stand in need of mercy? Because she was a sinner like all the rest. That's why she rejoices, verse 47, in God who is the Savior. In glorifying God, in rejoicing in his person, Mary extols this child as Savior.
And we don't want to camp here, but we don't want to miss the point. And throughout the wonder of her motherhood of Christ, whether it is when he is a boy in the temple or whether it is at the wedding of Cana in Galilee, when she comes to him and says that they've run out of the wine and he does the miraculous event, but he says to her, Woman, my time has not yet come. And she continues to ponder all of that in her heart, leading her eventually to the place beneath the cross where she looks up on her son, the Christ, and she recognizes that there he bears her sin in his own body on the tree. God's mercy to her was a necessary mercy. It was a mercy, notice, that extended to her humble circumstances, verse 48.
God could have come and found a rich, noble, powerful queen, but instead he came to this poor, despised, lowly maiden. He's been mindful of the humblest state of his servant. And, says Mary, his mercy towards me will not be forgotten with the passing of generations.
From now on, all generations will call me blessed. And our very study of this song this morning is a fulfillment of her Word. We're here looking at the very text that she gave by inspiration in this moment in time. And we extol the circumstances because of the Mighty One doing great things for me, holy is his name.
Notice Mary's focus. It doesn't say, The Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is my name. The Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is his name. You always find Mary looking away to the Christ.
What are the great things that he has done? Well, he has sent Gabriel, he has chosen Mary, he has caused her conception, he has revealed the mystery to her cousin Elizabeth and enabled her to speak as she has done, and he has, at the bottom line, shown her need of a Savior. So God's mercy is there made plain to Mary. When you go to verse 50, you realize that God's mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. Now, what, then, is this fear? And how would we know that there is this fear of God which is in awareness of his mercy? Well, when the Bible uses fear, it does it in different ways. But the fear to which Mary refers here is that kind of fear which is revealed in awe. It fills the hearts of those who recognize God's majesty and his might and his holiness. It's the kind of reverence that bows before his power and his righteousness, which deters individuals from treating God and his commandments lightly and by setting them aside by their disobedience.
Men and women who declare themselves to fear God in this way and live in a direct violation of God's plain statements in the Bible are at least walking contradictions, if not flat-out liars. Because the mercy of God extends to those who understand his love and his grace and his goodness, and it moves them to honor him and to obey his commands in childlike reverence. Now, he has performed for these individuals mighty deeds with his arm. Well, God doesn't have an arm. God is invisible. So what does it mean he has done mighty things with his arm?
Well, it's an anthropomorphism. It is always a picture of his intervention. So, in Exodus chapter 6, for example, where God has come to his servant Moses and has given him the courage to go and say, Let my people go, he has undergirded that with the statement, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. And in revealing his plan of redemption, he is revealed as both a mighty warrior and as a merciful Savior.
His might is established without question. Verse 51b, What are these mighty deeds he has performed with his arm? Well, he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
It's a striking statement, isn't it? The fool has said in his heart, There is no God. Man stands up and calls God in question. I even listened this morning as I drove here to a minister in the city asking questions about God and saying, Well, is God like this? Or is God like that? Or God is going to have to answer for this.
Or God is going to have to make himself explain. And I said to myself, You know, it's a mystery to me that his voice doesn't just drain the radio, it's powered down, and he has stones on the street sing out his glory. What is this nonsense, this proud man speaking of God in this way? He scatters the proud, the arrogant skeptic. God is not impoverished by the skeptic nor by the haughty scientist who struts and frets his hour upon the stage of his laboratory to make metaphors and says, You know, there is no God, and if there is a God, I know what he's like, and I know where he came from. And God says, I remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
You're listening to Truth for Life. That is Alistair Begg with a message about the mercy and faithfulness of God. We want everyone to draw near to God. And so we have a book we want to recommend to you today. This is a one month devotional titled Be Thou My Vision. This book leads you through the daily rhythm of prayer and scripture reading.
You work your way through the first 31 days and then repeat the pattern with different prayers that are provided in the back of the book. Be Thou My Vision is available by request when you donate to Truth for Life today at truthforlife.org slash donate. While you're online today, take advantage of the opportunity to purchase a copy of the large print ESV Bible in our online store. Over the years, we've had many requests for a Bible with large, easy to read print. This edition includes extensive cross references in the footnotes, and it's the same Bible that Alistair teaches from in the Pulpit of Parkside Church.
It comes in top grain brown leather. You can buy a copy for yourself and open the door to a gospel sharing conversation with someone by giving this high quality Bible to them as a gift. You can purchase it for our cost at truthforlife.org slash gifts. I'm Bob Lapine. Sometimes amassing wealth and accomplishing goals only leaves us feeling empty and unfulfilled. Find out what's really missing when you join us tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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