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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Pulpit commentary, St.Luke chapter 1- via Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, ma,dd.


Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA,DD.

Bishop Rosenkranz, MSCS

THE origin of the Gospels—the four histories which relate in detail the circumstances of the foundation of Christianity—will ever be an Interesting study. Here we shall never know the exact truth of the compilation of these writings, the foundation-stones of all our hopes and fears; a reverent, scholarly speculation is all that can be offered to the student of the Divine memoirs. The speculation, however, probably in this case comes very near the truth.
After the Ascension and the events of the first Pentecost, which quickly followed their Master’s return to heaven, the twelve and a few others who had walked in the company which followed Jesus during the years of his public ministry no doubt often met together and talked over the teaching and the acts of their risen and now glorified Master. As time passed on, a certain number of these acts, a certain number of the public and private discourses in the apostolic company, became adopted as the usual texts or subjects of the teaching and preaching in the assemblies large and small gathered together by the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the neighbouring towns and villages, subsequently in other parts of the Holy Land, in Syria, and in more distant countries—in Africa and Italy. We may assume that the Holy Spirit aided the composition of these apostolic summaries by bringing to the memory of these holy men the more important of the words and acts of the Lord Jesus, spoken and done when in their midst.
That some such early authoritative summary existed among the first preachers of the faith we may positively assume, (1) from the general harmony of the facts and teaching of the first three Gospels; (2) from the almost total absence of any other traditional sayings and doings of the great Master besides those contained in the four Gospels.
Some twelve traditional sayings besides those related by the four, and those of no great importance, are all that we possess; no record of other miracles of any description have come down to us.
Years passed on. The precious treasure of the apostolic records, the simple memories of his words and acts preserved, and no doubt arranged in some order, were enough for the first preachers and teachers of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.
There were, no doubt, many rough attempts to write these down on the part of apostles and their pupils. These are most probably the writings to which St. Luke alludes, without disparaging them, in his preface to his Gospel, in the words, “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us.”
But something more accurate in the way of written memoirs was necessary for the Church, as the number of believers multiplied, and the original friends of the Master were one by one taken from their midst—the men who had seen the presence and heard the voice. When the first fervour of enthusiasm had passed away, or rather when the Church had so multiplied that, in the case of the great majority of its members who had only heard of Jesus, this fervour of enthusiasm had never been experienced at all, something of a critical spirit of inquiry sprang up in the various congregations. Who, for instance, was this Jesus of Nazareth, whom the apostles and their pupils preached? Whence came he? Who was that strange teacher John, who baptized him, and, so to speak, introduced him to Israel? Such natural questions necessitated the putting forth, on the part of the leaders of the new faith, documents at once comprehensive as well as authoritative.
Each of the four Gospels supplied an evident want of the early Church; each was the answer, on the part of responsible men, to the natural inquiry of some great section of believers.
The preface to the Gospel of St. Luke, with which we are at present concerned, with great clearness relates how its compiler, having availed himself of all the written and oral apostolic traditions then current in the Church, had personally, with careful and continuous research, traced up these various traditions to their very source, and, having arranged his many facts, presented the whole continuous story to a man of high rank in the Christian congregations, one Theophilus, a noble Greek or Roman, who may be taken as an example of a large class of inquiring earnest Christians of the years 70–90 A.D.
Ver. 1.—Forasmuch as many have taken in hand. The Greek in which St. Luke’s Gospel is written is generally pure and classical, but the language of the little introduction (vers. 1–4) is especially studied and polished, and contrasts singularly with the Hebrew character of the story of the nativity, which immediately follows. St. Luke here, in this studied introduction, follows the example of many of the great classical writers, Latin as well as Greek. Thuoydides, Herodotus, Livy, for instance, paid special attention to the opening sentences of their histories. The many early efforts to produce a connected history of the life and work of the great Master Christ are not, as some have supposed, alluded to here with anything like censure, but are simply referred to as being incomplete, as written without order or arrangement. They most probably formed the basis of much of St. Luke’s own Gospel. These primitive Gospels quickly disappeared from sight, as they evidently contained nothing more than what was embodied in the fuller and more systematic narratives of the “four.” Of those things which are most surely believed among us. There was evidently no questioning in the Church of the first days about the truth of the story of the teaching and the mighty works of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the incompleteness of these first evangelists, rather than their inaccuracy, which induced St. Luke to take in hand a new Gospel.
Ver. 2.—Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and ministers of the Word. The general accuracy of the recitals contained in those early Gospels is here conceded, as the source of these primitive writings was the tradition delivered by the eye-witnesses of the acts of Jesus; among these eye-witnesses the apostles would, of course, hold the foremost place. The whole statement may be roughly paraphrased thus: “The narrative of the memorable events which have been accomplished in our midst many have undertaken to compose. These different narratives are in strict conformity with the apostles’ tradition, which men who were themselves eye-witnesses of the great events, and subsequently ministers of the Word, handed down to us. Now, I have traced up all these traditions anew to their very sources, and propose rewriting them in consecutive order, that you, my lord Theophilus, may be fully convinced of the positive certainty of those great truths in which you have been instructed.” Eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word; witnesses of the events of the public ministry of Jesus, from the baptism to the Ascension. These men, in great numbers, after Pentecost, became ministers and preachers of the Word.
Ver. 3.—Having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first; more accurately rendered, having followed up (or, investigated) step by step all things from their source. St. Luke, without depreciating the accounts of the life and work of Jesus then current in the Church, here sets out his reasons for undertaking a fresh compilation. His Gospel would differ from the early Gospels: (1) By going back much further than they did. It is doubtful if these primitive Gospels began earlier than with the ministry of John and the baptism of Jesus. St. Mark’s Gospel—which, perhaps, represents one of the earliest forms of the apostles’ preaching and teaching,—does not go further back than those events. St. Luke gave Theophilus, among other early details, a history of the incarnation and the infancy of the Blessed One. (2) By presenting the whole story in a consecutive form. Hitherto, apparently, “apostolic tradition probably had a more or less fragmentary character: the apostles not relating every time the whole of the facts, but only those which best answered to the circumstances in which they were teaching. This is expressly said of St. Peter, on the testimony of Papias, or of the old presbyter on whom he relied: Πρὸς τὰς χρείας ἐποιε͂ιτο τὰς διδασκαλίας (‘He chose each time the facts appropriate to the needs of his hearers’). Important omissions would easily result from this mode of telling the great story” (Godet). Most excellent Theophilus. The term rendered “most excellent” (κράτιστε) denotes that the friend of Luke for whom nominally his Gospel was written was a man of high rank in the Roman world of that day. Nothing is known of his history. He was most likely, from Luke’s connection with Antioch, a noble of that great and wealthy city, and may fairly be taken as a representative of that cultured thoughtful class for whom in a measure St. Luke especially wrote. The title κράτιστε, by which the Theophilus is here addressed, we find several times applied to high Roman officials, such as Felix and Festus (Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25).
Ver. 5–ch. 2:52.—THE GOSPEL OF THE INFANCY. The critical reader of the Gospel in the original Greek is here startled by the abrupt change in the style of writing. The first four verses, which constitute the introduction, are written in pure classical language; the sentences are balanced, almost with a rhythmical accuracy. They are the words evidently of a highly cultured mind, well versed in Greek thought. But in the fifth verse, where the history of the eventful period really begins, all is changed. The narrative flows on clearly with a certain picturesqueness of imagery; the style is simple, easy, vivid; but at once the reader is sensible that he has passed out of the region of Greek and Western thought. The language is evidently a close translation from some Hebrew original; the imagery is exclusively Jewish, and the thoughts belong to the story of the chosen people. It is clear that this section of St. Luke’s writing, which ends, however, with ch. 2, is not derived from apostolic tradition, but is the result of his own investigation into the origin of the faith of Christ, gathered probably from the lips of the virgin mother herself, or from one of the holy women belonging to her kinsfolk who had been with her from the beginning of the wondrous events. St. Luke reproduced, as faithfully as he could in a strange tongue, the revelatious—some perhaps written, some no doubt oral, communicated to him, we reverently believe, by the blessed mother of Jesus herself. The story of these two chapters is what St. Luke evidently alludes to when, in his short preface (ver. 3), he writes of his “perfect understanding in all things from the very first (ἄνωθεν).”
Vers. 5–25.—The vision of Zacharias in the temple.
Ver. 5.—There was in the days of Herod, the King of Judæa. The Herod here alluded to was the one surnamed “the Great.” The event here related took place towards the end of his reign. His dominions, besides Judæa, included Samaria, Galilee, and a large district of Peræa. This prince played a conspicuous part in the politics of his day. He was no Hebrew by birth, but an Idumæan, and he owed his position entirely to the favour of Rome, whose vassal he really was during his whole reign. The Roman senate had, on the recommendation of Antony and Octavius, granted to this prince the title of “King of Judæa.” It was a strange, sad state of things. The land of promise was ruled over by an Idumæan adventurer, a creature of the great Italian Republic; the holy and beautiful house on Mount Zion was in the custody of an Edomite usurper; the high priest of the Mighty One of Jacob was raised up or deposed as the officials of Rome thought good. Truly the sceptre had departed from Judah. A certain priest named Zacharias; usually spelt among the Hebrews, Zechariah; it means—“Remembered of Jehovah,” and was a favourite name among the chosen people. Of the course of Abia. Ἐφημερία (course) signified originally “a daily service.” It was subsequently used for a group of priests who exercised their priestly functions in the temple for a week, and then gave place to another group. From Eleazar and Ithamar, the two surviving sons of the first high priest Aaron, had descended twenty-four families. Among these King David distributed by lot the various tabernacle (subsequently temple) services, each family group, or course, officiating for eight days—from sabbath to sabbath. From the Babylonish exile, of these twenty-four families only four returned. With the idea of reproducing as nearly as possible the old state of things, these four were subdivided into twenty-four, the twenty-four bearing the original family names, and this succession of courses continued in force until the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple, A.D. 70. According to Josephus, Zacharias was especially distinguished by belonging to the first of the twenty-four courses, or families. Of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth; identical with Elisheba. “One whose oath is to God.” Both the husband and wife traced their lineage back to the first high priest—A coveted distinction in Israel.
Ver. 6.—And they were both righteous before God. “One of the oldest terms of high praise among the Jews (Gen. 6:9; 7:1; 18:23–28; Ezek. 18:5–9, etc.). It is used also of Joseph (Matt. 1:19), and is defined in the following words in the most technical sense of strict legal observance, which it had acquired since the days of Maccabees. The true Jashar (upright man) was the ideal Jew. Thus Rashi calls the Book of Genesis ‘The book of the upright, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ ” (Farrar).
Ver. 7.—And they had no child. This, as is well known, was a heavy calamity in a Hebrew home. In the childless house there was no hope of the long looked-for Messiah being born in it. It was not unfrequently looked on as a mark of the Divine displeasure, possibly as the punishment of some grave sin.
Ver. 9.—His lot was to burn incense; more accurately, he obtained by lot the duty of entering and offering incense. The office of burning incense gave the priest to whom this important lot fell the right of entering the holy place. It was the most coveted of all the priestly duties. The Talmud says the priest who obtained the right to perform this high duty was not permitted to draw the lot a second time in the same week, and as the whole number of priests at this time was very large—some say even as many as twenty thousand—Farrar conjectures that it would never happen to the same priest twice in his lifetime to enter that sacred spot.
Ver. 10.—And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. This would indicate that the day in question was a sabbath or some high day. Dean Plumptre suggests that, lost among that praying crowd, were, “we may well believe, the aged Simeon (ch. 2:25) and Anna the prophetess (ch. 2:36), and many others who waited for redemption in Jerusalem.”
Ver. 11.—And there appeared unto him as angel of the Lord. Critics have especially found grave fault with this “Hebrew” portion of our Gospel, complaining that it need lessly introduces the marvellous, and brings uselessly into everyday life beings from another sphere. Godet well answers these criticisms by observing “that as Christianity was an entirely new beginning in history, the second and final creation of man, it was natural that an interposition on so grand a scale should be accompanied by a series of particular interpositions. It was even necessary; for how were the representatives of the ancient order of things, who had to co-operate in the new work, to be initiated into it, and their attachment won to it, except by this means? According to Scripture, we are surrounded by angels (2 Kings 6:17; Ps. 34:7), whom God employs to watch over us; but in our ordinary condition we want the sense necessary to perceive their presence—for that condition a peculiar receptivity is required. This condition was given to Zacharias. Origen (‘Contra Celsum’) writes how, “in a church there are two assemblies-one of angels, the other of men, … angels are present at our prayers, and they pray with us and for us.” Standing on the right side of the altar of incense. The angel stood between the altar and the shew-bread table. On entering the holy place, the officiating priest would have on his right the table with the shew-bread, on his left the great candlestick, and before him would be the golden altar, which stood at the end of the holy place, in front of the veil which separated this chamber and the dim, silent holy of holies.
Ver. 12.—He was troubled. This was ever the first effect produced by the sight of a spirit-visitant.
Ver. 13.—Thy prayer is heard. What was the nature of this prayer? The Greek word (δεήσις) used here implies that some special supplication had been offered, and which the angel tells had been listened to at the throne of grace. The righteous old man had not, as some have thought, been praying for a son,—he had long resigned himself in this private sorrow to the will of his God; but we may well suppose that on that solemn occasion he prayed the unselfish patriotic prayer that the long looked for Messiah would hasten his coming. His name John; the shortened form for Jehochanan, “the grace of Jehovah.” Under various diminutives, such as Jonah, it was a favourite Hebrew name.
Ver. 14.—Many shall rejoice at his birth. The gladness which his boy’s birth was to bring with it was to be no mere private family rejoicing. The child of his old age, who was to be born, would be the occasion of a true national joy.
Ver. 15.—Great in the sight of the Lord. To the pious old Jewish priest the strange visitant’s words would bear a deep signification. Zacharias would quickly catch the angel’s thoughts. His son was not to be the Messiah of the people’s hope, but was to be like one of those great ones loved of God, of whom the women of Israel sang on their solemn feast-days—one like Samson, only purer, or Samuel, or the yet greater Elijah. Could all this deep joy be true? Shall drink neither wine. The old curse then as now. God’s heroes must be free from even the semblance of temptation. They must stamp their high lives, from the beginning, by the solemn vow of self-denial and abstinence. It is remarkable how many of the great deliverers and teachers of the chosen people were commanded from childhood to enrol themselves among the abstainers from all strong drink. Nor strong drink. The word σίκερα, includes all kinds of fermented drink except that made from the grape; it was especially applied to palm wine.
Ver. 16.—And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. The state of the people at this period was Indeed unhappy. The dominant Italian power had introduced into Syria and Palestine the vices and profligate life of Italy and Greece. The great Syrian city Antioch, for instance, in vice and sensuality, had gone far beyond her conqueror, and was perhaps at that time the most wicked city in the world. In the court of Herod, patriotism and true nobility were dead. The priests and scribes were for the most part deeply corrupted, and the poor shepherdless common folk only too readily followed the example of the rich and great. The boy who was to be born was to be a great preacher of righteousness; his glorious mission would be to turn many of these poor wanderers to the Lord their God.
Ver. 17.—In the spirit and power of Elias. There was a confident hope among the Jews, dating from the days of the prophecy of Malachi, some four hundred years before the vision of Zacharias, that the days of Messiah would be heralded by an appearance of the Prophet Elijah. The selfsame expectation is still cherished by every pious Jew. To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. The usual explanation of these words of the angel, who uses here the language of Malachi (4:5, 6), is that the result of the preaching of this new prophet, who is about to be raised up, will be to restore harmony to the broken and disturbed family life of Israel, whereas now the home life of the chosen race was split up—the fathers, perhaps, siding with the foreign or Roman faction, as represented by Herod and his friends; the sons, on the other hand, being Zealots attached to the national party, bitterly hostile to the Herodians. So also in one house some would belong to the Pharisee, others to the Sadducee, sect. These fatal divisions would, in many cases, be healed by the influence of the coming one. There is, however, another interpretation far deeper and more satisfactory; for nothing in the preaching of the Baptist, as far as we are aware, bore specially on the domestic dissensions of the people; it had a much wider range. The true sense of the angel’s words here should be gathered from prophetic passages such as Isa. 29:22, 23, “Jacob shall no more be ashamed, neither shall his face wax pale, when he seeth (כִּי בִרְאֹתוֹ) his children become the work of my hands;” Isa. 63:16, “Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer!”—The patriarchs, the fathers of Israel, beholding from their abodes of rest the works and days of their degenerate children, mourned over their fall, and, to use earthly language, “were ashamed” of the conduct of their unworthy descendants. These would be glad and rejoice over the result of the preaching of the coming prophet. Godet well sums up the angel’s words: “It will be John’s mission then to reconstitute the moral unity of the people by restoring the broken relation between the patriarchs and their degenerate descendants.”
Ver. 18.—Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man. There was something evidently blamable in tide hesitation on the part of Zacharias to receive the angel’s promise. It seems as though the radiant glory of the messenger, as he stood before the curtain of the silent sanctuary in his awful beauty, ought to have convinced the doubting old man of the truth of the strange message. The words of the angel, which follow, seem to imply this. What! do you doubt my message? “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of the Eternal.” Others in Old Testament story before—for instance, Abraham (Gen. 15) and Gideon (Judg. 6)—had seen and listened to an angel, had at first doubted, but had received in consequence no rebuke, no punishment, for their want of faith. Zacharias was, however, condemned, we learn, to a long period of dumbness.
Ver. 19.—I am Gabriel. The meaning of the name Gabriel is “Hero of God,” or “Mighty One of God.” In the canonical books only two of the heavenly ones are mentioned by name. Gabriel (here and Dan. 8:16 and 9:21) and Michael which signifies “Who is like God” (Jude 9; Rev. 12:7; and in Dan. 10:13, 21; 12:1). Of these two blessed spirits whose names are revealed to us in the Word of God, their appointed work seems to be in connection with the human race and its enemies. Gabriel is the special messenger of good news. He comes to Daniel, and tells him of the restoration of Jerusalem; to Zacharias, and announces the birth of his son, and declares what his glorious office would consist in; to Mary of Nazareth, and foretells the nativity. Michael, on the other hand, appears as the warrior of God. In the Book of Daniel he wars with the enemies of the people of the Lord; in Jude and in the Revelation of St. John he is the victorious antagonist of Satan the enemy of the Eternal. The Jews have a striking saying that Gabriel flies with two wings, but Michael with only one; so God is swift in sending angels of peace and of joy, of which blessed company the archangel Gabriel is the representative, while the messengers of his wrath and punishment, among whom Michael holds a chief place, come slowly. That stand in the presence of God.

“One of the seven
Who in God’s presence, nearest to his throne,
Stand ready at command, and are his eyes
That run through all the heavens, and down to the earth
Bear his swift commands, over moist and dry,
O’er sea and land.”
(‘Paradise Lost,’ iii. 650.)

Milton derived his knowledge of the seven from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, where in ch. 12:15 we read, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.” In the very ancient Book of Enoch we read of the names of the four great archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael.
Ver. 21.—And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. The Talmud tells us that even the high priest did not tarry long in the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement. The same feeling of holy awe would induce the ministering priest of the day to perform his functions with no unnecessary delay, and to leave as soon as possible the holy phace. The people praying in the court without were in the habit of waiting until the priest on duty came out of the sacred inner chamber, after which they were dismissed with the blessing. The unusual delay in the appearance of Zacharias puzzled and disturbed the worshippers.
Ver. 22.—When he came out, he could not speak unto them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple. Something in the face of the old man, as, unable to speak, he made signs to the congregation, told the awestruck people that the long delay and the loss of speech were owing to no sudden illness which had seized Zacharias. We know that, in the old days of the desert wanderings, the children of Israel could not bear to look on the face of Moses when he came down from the mount after dwelling for a brief space in the light of the glory of the Eternal. Zacharias had been face to face with one whose blessed lot it was to stand for ever in the presence of God. We may well suppose that there lingered on the old man’s face, as he left the sanctuary, something which told the beholder of the presence just left.
Ver. 24.—And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months. Various reasons have been suggested for this retirement. It seems most probable that, amazed at the angelic announcement, the saintly woman went into perfect retirement and isolation for a considerable period, to prove well the words of the angel, and to consider how she best could do her part in the training of the expected child, who was to play so mighty a part in the history of her people.
Vers. 26–38.—The annunciation of the Virgin Mary. The recital contained in this little section is peculiar to this Gospel of St. Luke. It lay outside what may be termed the apostolic tradition. It neither helps nor mars the moral or dogmatic teaching of the men trained in the school of Jesus of Nazareth. It simply answers a question that probably few of the converts of the first quarter of a century which succeeded the Resurrection morning cared to ask.
We do not suppose that the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ was any secret, any precious mystery in the Church of the first days. It was known doubtless to the leading teachers, known to many of their hearers, but it was evidently unused as a popular text for preaching. It probably was not among those “memoirs” of the apostles which were read and expounded in the first forty years in the public synagogues and in the quiet upper rooms of so many of the cities of Syria, and in not a few of the towns of Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Nor is the reason of this doubtful; the wondrous story of the child Jesus’ birth would add little to the simple faith of the first believers in the Crucified.
Of miracles and works of wonder they had heard enough to convince them that, if these were true, surely never man had worked like this Man. They had heard, too, of the crowning sign of the Resurrection. There were men in those first days, scattered abroad in all lands, who had seen these things, who knew that the Master had died on the cross, and who had seen him, touched him, and spoken to him after his resurrection. The mysterious miracle of the incarnation was not needed for the preaching of the first days.
But time went on, and naturally enough many of the thoughtful cultured men who had accepted the doctrine of the cross began to say—We ought to have the true story of the beginnings of these marvellous events authoritatively written down. Here and there we have heard something of the birth and childhood, why have we not the details authenticated? Men like Paul and Luke felt that such natural questionings should be answered. And hence it came to pass that, moved by the Holy Spirit—under, we believe, the direction of Paul—Luke went to the fountain head, to the blessed mother herself, to those holy women some of whom we believe had borne her company from the beginning, and from her lips and their lips wrote down what she (or they) dictated, partly from memory, partly perhaps from memoranda which she and others had kept of that strange sweet time; and so these two chapters of the Third Gospel, of which the incarnation is the central narrative, were written down much in the original form in which Luke received it, the Greek simply translating the original Hebrew story. Around the words of the Gospel soon gathered a host of miraculous legends glorifying the blessed mother of the Lord. These are utterly unknown to Scripture, and should be quietly put aside. Strange speculations respecting her and the manner of the wondrous birth have been in all times, nay, still are favourite subjects of dispute among theologians. It is a pity to try and be wise beyond what is written. The believer will content himself with just receiving the quiet story of the holy maid as Mary the mother gave it to Luke or Paul, feeling assured that the same power of the Highest by which the crucified Jesus was raised from the tomb where he had lain for three days, was able to overshadow the virgin of Nazareth, was able to cause to be born of her that holy thing which was called the Son of God.
Ver. 26.—And in the sixth month; that is, after the vision of Zacharias in the temple. Unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. These explanatory notes make it clear that St. Luke was writing for those who were strangers to Palestine. Such details were no doubt added by St. Luke to the oral or written Hebrew narrative upon which this section is entirely based. Under the Roman domination the land of promise was divided into Judæa, Samaria, Peræa, and Galilee. Galilee was the northern department, and comprised the old territory of the tribes of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Asher. From Josephus we learn that at this period the northern division was rich and populous, and covered with flourishing towns. Nazareth, which still exists as a large village of some three thousand inhabitants, under the name of En-Nazirah, is about twenty-four miles to the east of the Lake of Tiberias. It is well situate in a valley among the hills which rise to the north of the Esdraelon plain. From one of the grassy slopes which rise behind Nazareth, one of the noblest views is obtained. The snowy summits of Lebanon and Hermon close the prospect on the north; on the south the broad Esdraelon plain, with the mountains of Ephraim; Gilead and Tabor lie on the east; on the other side, the green uplands of Carmel are bathed by the blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The meaning of the name Nazareth has been the subject of much learned controversy. The more usually adopted derivation, bow ever, refers the word to נצר, “a shoot or branch,” which conveys, as Dean Plumptre remarks, something of the same meaning as our hurst or holm in English topography. Burckhardt, the traveller, believes the name was originally used on account of the numerous shrubs which cover the ground in this locality.
Ver. 27.—To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; more accurately, betrothed. The formal ceremony of betrothal took place among the Jews in most cases a year prior to the marriage. The question has arisen whether the words, “of the house of David,” refer to Joseph or to Mary. Grammatically, they would seem to belong to Joseph; but the fact of the Gospel being here so closes translated from a Hebrew (Aramaic) original, prevents us from laying down any strict linguistic rules which belong to the Greek language. “Who was Mary the virgin?” has been often asked. Vers. 32 and 69 would lose their point altogether unless we regard Luke as being persuaded that the young Hebrew girl was a descendant of David. In respect to the virgin’s family, we read that she was a cousin or kinswoman of Elisabeth. This would at least ally her closely to the priestly race. Dean Plumptre quotes one out of the many ancient apocryphal legends current respecting Mary of Nazareth, deeming it worthy of mention as having left its impress on Christian art. “The name of the virgin’s mother was Anne. Mary surpassed the maidens of her own age in wisdom. There were many who early sought her in marriage. The suitors agreed to decide their claims by laying their rods before the holy place, and seeing which budded. It was thus that Joseph became betrothed to her.” The same scholar adds, “The absence of any mention of her parents in the Gospels suggests the thought that she was an orphan, and the whole narrative of the nativity pre-supposes poverty! The name Mary is the same as Miriam or Marah.” (On the question of the genealogy recorded by St. Luke, see note on ch. 3:23.)
Ver. 28.—Hail, thou that art highly favoured. The plena gratiâ of the Vulgate, said and sung so often in the virgin’s famous hymn, is an inaccurate rendering. Rather, “gratiâ cumulata,” as it has been well rendered. “Having been much graced (by God)” is the literal translation of the Greek word. Blessed art thou among women. These words must be struck out; they do not exist in the older authorities.
Ver. 29.—She was troubled; more accurately, she was greatly troubled. Different to Zacharias, who evidently doubted in the mission of the angel, and who required some sign before he could believe, Mary simply wondered at the strangeness of what was about to happen. Her terror at the sudden appearance of the angel, who probably appeared to her as a young man clad in garments of a strange dazzlmg whiteness, is most natural.
Ver. 31.—JESUS; the ordinary Greek form, the well-known Hebrew Jehoshua, the shortened Joshua, “The Salvation of Jehovah.”
Ver. 32.—The Son of the Highest. It is singular that this title, given by the angel to the yet unborn child, was the one given to the Redeemer by the evil spirit in the case of the poor possessed (see Mark 5:7). Is this the title, or one of the titles, by which our Master is known in that greater world beyond our knowledge? The throne of his father David; clearly indicating that Mary herself was of royal lineage, although this is nowhere definitely stated (see Ps. 132:11). These words of the angel are as yet unfulfilled. They clearly speak of a restoration of Israel, still, as far as we can see, very distant. Nearly nineteen centuries have passed since Gabriel spoke of a restored throne of David, of a kingdom in Jacob to which should come no end. The people, through all the changing fortune of empires, have been indeed strangely kept distinct and separate, ready for the mighty change; but the eventful hour still tarries. It has been well observed how St. Luke’s report of the angel’s words here could never have been a forgery—as one school of critics asserts—of the second century. Would any writer in the second century, after the failure of Jesus among the Jews was well known, when the fall of Jerusalem had already taken place, have made an angel prophesy what is expressed here?
Ver. 35.—The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Again the angel makes use of the term “Highest” when alluding to the eternal Father. The expression of Gabriel, “the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee,” reminds us of the opening words of Genesis, where the writer describes the dawn of life in creation in the words, “The Spirit of God moved [or, ‘brooded’] over the face of the deep.” “The Word was conceived in the womb of a woman, not after the manner of men, but by the singular, powerful, invisible, immediate operation of the Holy Ghost, whereby a virgin was, beyond the law of nature, enabled to conceive, and that which was conceived in her was originally and completely sanctified” (art. iii., Bishop Pearson on the Creed).
Ver. 38.—Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. “God’s message,” writes Godet, “by the mouth of the angel was not a command. The part Mary had to fulfil made no demands on her. It only remained, therefore, for Mary to consent to the consequences of the Divine offer. She gives this consent in a word at once simple and sublime, which involved the most extraordinary act of faith that a woman ever consented to accomplish. Mary accepts the sacrifice of that which is dearer to a young maiden than her very life, and thereby becomes pre-eminently the heroine of Israel, the ideal daughter of Zion.” Nor was the immediate trouble and sorrow which she foresaw would soon compass her round by any means the whole burden which submission to the angel’s message would bring upon the shrinking Nazareth maiden. The lot proposed to her would bring probably in its wake unknown sufferings as well as untold blessedness. We may with all reverence think Mary already feeling the first piercings in her heart of that sharp sword which was one day to wound so deeply the mother of sorrows; yet in spite of all this, in full view of the present woe, which submission to the Divine will would forthwith bring upon her, with an unknown future of sorrow in the background, Mary submitted herself of her own free will to what she felt was the will and wish of her God.
Ver. 39.—Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste. Between the annunciation and this journey of Mary to visit her cousin Elisabeth, we must interpose the events narrated in St. Matthew’s Gospel, viz. the natural suspicion of her betrothed future husband, Joseph; his action in the matter; and then the dream of Joseph, in which her innocence was vindicated. As we believe that St. Luke’s story here was derived from Mary’s own narrative, we can understand well that these details, related by St. Matthew, were scarcely touched upon, and the mother would hurry on to the real points of interest in that eventful past of here. The hill country here alluded to is the elevated district of Judah, Benjamin, and Mount Ephraim, in contra distinction to the low maritime plain on the east—the old Philistia. Into a city of Juda. There is no such city known as “Juda.” Some have supposed that the text is corrupt here, and that for “Yuda” we should read “Jutta,” which, according to Josh. 15:55, was a priestly city in the hill country. There is a rabbinical tradition in the Talmud which places the residence of Zacharias at Hebron. It is very probable that Hebron, the great priestly city, is here signified.
Ver. 41.—Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit—that Spirit of prophecy, so often mentioned in the Old Testament—seizes her, and she salutes her young kinswoman, Mary, as the mother of the coming Messiah.
Ver. 42.—And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women (see Judg. 5:24). The words which clothed the thoughts in these ecstatic expressions of intense joy and thankfulness on the part of the two favoured women, Mary and Elisabeth, are in great measure drawn from hymn and song contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. The song of Hannah, the hymn of Deborah, many of the psalms, the Songs of the Canticles, the more glorious of the prophetic utterances, had been ever familiar to both these true women of the people; and they could find no language so fitting as the words of these loved national songs to express the intense joy, the deep awe and gratitude of their hearts. Think what must have been the feeling of the two—the one finding herself the chosen out of all the thousands of Israel, after so many centuries of weary waiting, to be the mother of the Messiah; the other, long after any reasonable hope of any offspring at all had faded away, to be the mother of Messiah’s chosen friend, his herald, and his preacher, the mighty forerunner of the King of whom the prophets had written!
Ver. 43.—And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? But the Holy Ghost (ver. 41) raised Elisabeth’s thoughts yet higher. Not only did she bless the mother of the coming Messiah, but the Spirit opened her eyes to see who that coming Messiah really was. Very vague indeed was the conception of the coming Messiah in Israel. The truth was, perhaps, revealed, and in rapt moments received men like Isaiah and Ezekiel; and now and again men like David; Daniel wrote down visions and revelations respecting the Coming One, the true purport of which vision they scarcely grasped. Generally the Messianic idea among the people pictured a hero greater than Saul, a conqueror more successful than David, a sovereign more magnificent than Solomon. They pictured ever the glorious arm sustaining the coming Hero-King; but few, if any, dreamed of the “glorious arm” belonging to their future Deliverer. But here the Spirit in a moment revealed to the happy wife of the priest Zacharias that the Babe to be born of her young kinswoman was not only the promised Messiah, but was the awful Son of the Highest! Think, reader, what these simple words we are considering signify! Why am I so favoured “that the mother of my Lord should come to me”? “The contrast leaves no room for doubt,” well argues Dean Plumptre, “that she used the word ‘Lord’ in its highest sense. ‘Great’ as her own son was to be (ver. 15) in the sight of the Lord, here was the mother of One yet greater, even of the Lord himself.”
Vers. 46–56.—The hymn of Mary, commonly called the Magnificat.
Ver. 46a.—And Mary said. There is a great contrast between the behaviour of the two women when they met in Elisabeth’s house. The elder was full of a new strange ecstatic joy. “She was filled with the Holy Ghost” (ver. 42), and spoke her words of lofty congratulation with “a loud voice” (ver. 42). Mary, on the other hand, was not conscious evidently, on this occasion, of any special presence of the Holy Spirit. Since the hour of the annunciation and her own meek faithful acceptance of the Lord’s purpose, she had been dwelling, so to speak, under the immediate influence of the Spirit of the Lord. Her cousin’s inspiration seems to have been momentary and transitory, while here, during that strange blessed season which immediately preceded the Incarnation, was enduring. Hence the quiet introduction to her hymn, “And Mary said.” It is, of course, possible that she had committed the beautiful thoughts to writing; but perhaps, in giving them to Luke or Paul, she needed no parchment scroll, but softly repeated to the chronicler of the Divine story the old song in which she had first told her deep imaginings to Elisabeth, and afterwards often had murmured the same bright words of joy and faith over the holy Babe as he lay in his cradle at Bethlehem, in Egypt, or in Nazareth. The “Virgin’s Hymn” for nearly fourteen centuries has been used in the public liturgies of Christendom. We find it first in the office of Lauds in the Rule of St. Cæsarius of Arles (A.D. 507).
Vers. 46b–48.—My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. This is the first of the four divisions of the Magnificat. In it she speaks of herself, and her deep feelings of adoration and of holy joy, and of intense glad surprise. It is a prayer, but the highest kind of prayer, for it asks for nothing—it simply breathes adoration and thankfulness. We may imagine the angels praying thus. They have all that created beings, however exalted, can desire in the beatific vision which they perpetually enjoy; and yet they pray continually, but only after this manner. The joy of her spirit, notice, is based on the fact of the revelation that he, God, was, too, her Saviour; and, of course, not hers only: her great joy was in the thought of the salvation of the suffering, sinning world around her. Then she passes into simple wonderment that she should have been chosen as the instrument of the boundless goodness of God. She had nothing to recommend her only her low estate. Though royally descended, she only occupied a position among the humblest Hebrew maidens, and yet, owing to God’s favour, she will be deemed blessed by countless unborn generations.
Vers. 49, 50.—For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. In this strophe, the second division of the hymn of praise, she glorifies three of the principal Divine attributes—God’s power, his holiness, and his mercy. His power or might, alluding to the words of the angel (ver. 35), “The power of the Highest shall over shadow thee.” Surely in all the records of the Lord’s works since the world’s creation, his might had been never shown as it was now about to be manifest in her. His holiness had been displayed to her in the way in which the mighty acts of ineffable love had been carried out. His mercy: this attribute of God came home with intense power to the heart of the Jewish girl, into which God’s protecting Spirit was shining with so clear a light. She saw something of the great redemption mystery which was then in so strange a way developing itself.
Vers. 51–53.—He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. From adoration, Mary’s hymn proceeds to celebrate the mighty results effected by the Divine pity. As so often in these prophetic strains, the speaker or writer speaks or writes as though the future had become the past; so Mary here describes the Messianic reversal of man’s conception of what is great and little, as though the unborn Babe had already lived and done his strange mighty work in the world. The “glorious arm” which, in old days, had wrought such mighty things for Israel, she recognized as belonging to the coming Deliverer (ver. 51). His chosen instruments would be those of whom the world thought little, like herself. The proud and mighty would be put down; the men of low degree, and poor and humble, would be exalted. The hungry would be filled; and they who were rich only in this world’s goods would have no share in the new kingdom—they would be sent empty away. How strangely had the virgin of Nazareth caught the thought, almost the very words, of the famous sermon her Divine Son, some thirty years later, preached on the mountain-side near Gennesaret!
Vers. 54, 55.—He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. Her hymn dies down into a strain of gratitude for the eternal faithfulness to the cause of the chosen people. Had not God in very truth remembered his ancient promise? From one of their daughters, still speaking of the future as of the past, Messiah had been born—a greater Deliverer, too, than the most sanguine Hebrew patriot had ever dreamed of.
Vere. 57–80.—John, afterwards called the Baptist, the son of Zarharias and Elisabeth, is born. The Benedictus.
Ver. 58.—How the Lord had showed great mercy upon her. No doubt the vision of Zacharias in the temple, and his subsequent dumbness, had excited no little inquiry. That the reproach of Elisabeth should be taken away, no doubt few really believed. The birth of her son, however, set a seal upon the reality of the priest’s vision. The rejoicings of her family were due to more than the birth of her boy. The story of the angel’s message, coupled with the unusual birth, set men thinking and asking what then would be the destiny of this child. Could it be that he was the promised Messiah?
ver. 59.—On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. This was always, among the Hebrew people, a solemn day of rejoicing it resembled in some particulars our baptismal gatherings. Relatives were invited to be present. as witnesses that the child had been formally incorporated into the covenant. It was, too, the time when the name which the newly born was to bear through life was given him.
Ver. 60.—Not so; but he shall be called John. It is clear (from ver. 62) that the old priest was afflicted with deafness as well as with dumbness. At the naming ceremony, the stricken Zacharias, who was patiently awaiting the hour when his God should restore to him his lost powers, made no effort to express his will. He had already in the past months, no doubt, written down for Elisabeth the name of the boy that was to be born. She interrupts the ceremony with her wishes. The guests are surprised, and make signs to the father. He at once writes on his tablets, “His name is John.” The name had been already given. The word “John” signifies “the grace of Jehovah.”
Ver. 63.—A writing-table; better, a writing-tablet. The tablets in use generally at the time were usually made of wood, covered with a thin coating of wax; on the soft layer of wax the words were written with an iron stylus.
Ver. 64.—And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. This, the first hour of his recovered power, was without doubt the occasion of his giving utterance to the inspired hymn (the Benedictus) which is recorded at length a few verses further on (vers. 68–79). It was the outcome, no doubt, of his silent communing with the Spirit during the long months of his affliction.
Ver. 65—And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judæa. The inspired utterance of the old priest, so long dumb, in his beautiful hymn of praise, completed as it were the strange cycle of strange events which had happened in the priestly family.
Ver. 66.—And the hand of the Lord was with him. This kind of pause in the history is one of the peculiarities of St. Luke’s style. We meet with it several times in the gospel story and in the history of the Acts. They are vivid pictures in a few words of what happened to an individual, to a family, or to a cause, during often a long course of years. Here the story of the childhood of the great pioneer of Christ is briefly sketched out; in it all, and through it all, there was one guiding hand—the Lord’s. The expression, “hand of the Lord,” was peculiarly a Hebrew thought—one of the vivid anthropomorphic idioms which, as has been aptly remarked, they could use more boldly than other nations, because they had clearer thoughts of God as not made after the similitude of men (Deut. 4:12). Maimonides, the great Jewish writer of the twelfth century, in his ‘Yad Hachazakah,’ says, “And there was under his feet (Exod. 24:10); written with the finger of God (Exod. 31:18); the hand of the Lord (Exod. 9:3); the eyes of the Lord (Deut. 11:12); the ears of the Lord (Numb. 11:18). All these are used with reference to the intellectual capacity of the sons of men, who can comprehend only corporeal beings; so that the Law spoke in the language of the sons of men, and all these are expressions merely, just as, If I whet my glittering sword (Deut. 32:41); for has be, then, a sword? or does he slay with a sword? Certainly not: this is only a figure; and thus all are figures” (‘Yad,’ ch.i. 8).
Ver. 67.—His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying. The inspired hymn which follows—thought out, no doubt, with the Holy Spirit’s help in the course of the long enforced seclusion which his first want of faith had brought upon him—holds a prominent place in all Western liturgies. Like the Magnificat, it is believed to have been first introduced into the public worship of the Church about the middle of the sixth century by St. Cæsarius of Arles. It may be briefly summarized as a thanksgiving for the arrival of the times of Messiah.
Vers. 68, 69.—He hath visited and redeemed, … and hath raised up. The tenses of the verbs used in these expressions show that in Zacharias’s mind, when he uttered the words of his hymn, the Incarnation, and the glorious deliverance commenced in that stupendous act of mercy, belonged to the past. He hath visited; that is, after some four hundred years of silence and absence, the Holy One of Israel had again come to his people. About four centuries had passed since the voice of Malachi, the last of the prophets, had been heard. An horn of salvation. A metaphor not unknown in classical writings (sec Ovid, ‘Art. Am.,’ i. 239; Her., ‘Od.,’ iii. xxi. 18), and a much-used figure in Hebrew literature (see, among other passages, Ezek. 29:21; Lam. 2:3; Ps. 132:17; 1 Sam. 2:10). The reference is not to the horns of the altar, on which criminals seeking sanctuary used to lay hold; nor to the horn. with which warriors used to adorn their helmets; but to the horns of a bull—in which the chief power of this animal resides. This was a figure especially familiar among an agricultural folk like the Israelites. “A rabbinic writer says that there are ten horns—those of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the horn of the Law, of the priesthood, of the temple, and of Israel, and some add of the Messiah. They were all placed on the heads of the Israelites till they sinned, and then they were cut off and given to the Gentiles” (Schöttgen, ‘Hor. Hebr.,’ quoted by Dr. Farrar). In the house of his servant David. Clearly Zacharias looked on Mary, as the angel had done (ver. 32), as belonging to the royal house of David.
Ver. 70.—By the mouth of his holy prophets. Zacharias looked on all that was then happening as clearly foretold in those sacred prophetic writings preserved in the nation with so much care and reverence. Which have been since the world began. He considered Messianic prophecy as dating from the first intimation after the fall in Eden (Gen. 3:15) and continuing in an intermittent but yet unbroken line from Genesis to Malachi.
Ver. 71.—That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us. When Zacharias spoke these words, his mind, no doubt, was on Rome and its creatures, Herod and his party, whom Rome had set up. The deliverance of Israel, in every Hebrew heart, was the first and great work of the coming Deliverer; but the inspired words had a far broader reference than to Rome, and the enemies of Israelitic prosperity. The expression includes those spiritual evil agencies which war their ceaseless warfare against the soul of man. It was from these that the coming Deliverer would free his people. It was only after the fall of Jerusalem, and the total extinction of the national existence of the people, that, to use Dean Plumptre’s language, “what was transitory in the hymn vanished, and the words gained the brighter permanent sense which they have had for centuries in the worship of the Church of Christ.”
Vers. 74, 75.—Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. What Zacharias looked on to was a glorious theocracy based upon national holiness. Israel, freed from foreign oppression and internal dissensions, would serve God with a worship at once uninterrupted and undefiled.
Ver. 76.—And thou, child; literally, little child. Here the father breaks forth into an expression of gladness at the thought of the great part his baby-son was to bear in this great national deliverance. His son, too—oh, joy undreamed of!—is to be ranked among the glorious company of the prophets of the Highest.
Ver. 77.—To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins. Zacharias goes on to celebrate the splendid part his son was to play in the great Messianic drama. He was to be Messiah’s pioneer in order to give men the true information respecting the Deliverer’s work. Israel was mistaken altogether in its conception of the salvation which they really needed. Godet puts it with great force. “Why,” he asks, “was the ministry of the Messiah preceded by that of another Divine messenger? Because the very notion of salvation was falsified in Israel, and had to be corrected before salvation could be realized. A carnal and malignant patriotism had taken possession of the people and their rulers, and the idea of a political deliverance had been substituted for that of a moral salvation. There was need, then, of another person, divinely authorized, to remind the people that perdition consisted not in subjection to the Romans, but in Divine condemnation; and that salvation, therefore, was not temporal emancipation, but forgiveness of sins.”
Ver. 78.—Through the tender mercy of our God. And, goes on Zacharias in his noble hymn, all this tender care for Israel (but really for mankind, though perhaps the speaker of the hymn scarcely guessed it) is owing to the deep love of God. Whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us. The beautiful imagery here is derived from the magnificence of an Eastern sunrise. In his temple service at Jerusalem the priest must have seen the ruddy dawn rise grandly over the dark chain of the distant mountains, and lighting up with a blaze of golden glory the everlasting hills as they stood round about Jerusalem. The thought which pictured the advent of Messiah as a sunrise was a favourite one with the prophets. We see it in such prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi as, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold … Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isa. 60:1–3). “Unto you that fear my Name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2).
Ver. 79.—To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. It would seem that for a moment the Hebrew priest saw beyond the narrow horizon of Israel, and that here, in the close of his glorious song, he caught sight of the distant far-reaching isles of the Gentiles, over which so deep a darkness brooded for ages.
Ver. 80.—And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit. We have here another of St. Luke’s solemn pauses in his narrative—one of those little passages in which, in a few words, he sets before us a picture clear and vivid of the events of long years. “The description,” writes Dr. Farrar, “resembles that of the childhood of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:26) and of our Lord (ch. 2:40–52). Nothing, however, is said of ‘favour with men.’ In the case of the Baptist, as of others, ‘the boy was father to the man;’ and he probably showed from the first that rugged sternness which is wholly unlike the winning grace of the child Christ. ‘The Baptist was no lamb of God. He was a wrestler with life, one to whom peace does not come easily, but only after a long struggle. His restlessness had driven him into the desert, where he had contended for years with thoughts he could not master, and from whence he uttered his starting alarms to the nation. He was among the dogs rather than among the lambs of the Shepherd’ (‘Ecce Homo’).” And was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel. “The deserts” here alluded to were that desolate waste country south of Jericho and along the shores of the Dead Sea. We know nothing of the details of the life of the boy, the wonderful circumstances of whose birth are related so circumstantially in this opening chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. Mary, whose “memories,” we believe, are recounted almost in her own words, was herself a witness of some of the circumstances narrated; from her friend and cousin Elisabeth she doubtless received the true history of the rest. But Zacharias and Elisabeth, we know, were aged persons when John was born. They probably lived only a short time after his birth. Hence his solitary desert life. Of it we know nothing. In those wild regions at that time dwelt many grave ascetics and hermit teachers, like the Pharisee Banus, the master of Josephus. From some of these the orphan boy probably received his training. It is clear, from such passages as John 1:31–33 and ch. 3:2, that some direct communication from the Highest put an end to the ascetic desert life and study. Some theophany, perhaps, like the appearance of the burning bush which called Moses to his great post, summoned the pioneer of Christ to his dangerous and difficult work. But we possess no account of what took place on this occasion when God spoke to his servant John, the evangelist simply recording the fact, “The word of God came unto the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (ch. 3:2).

Vers. 1–4.—Preface to the Gospel. Observe—
I. THE AUTHOR’S APOLOGY. How conspicuous in it are the elements of candour, simplicity, and earnestness! The first authorities as to the things related were “the eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word.” He is careful to intimate that he is not one of them; not an apostle; not even one of the seventy, as some have supposed he was. The position which he assumes is simply this: Many had taken in hand to draw up “a narrative concerning those matters which had been fulfilled among them;” and he too felt constrained to place on record all the information which he possessed. And his claim to be heard is the painstaking which he has brought to the task, the desire to trace the course of the wonderful history with perfect accuracy. Can we fail to note the absence of all self-assertion? Pretentiousness of all kinds is abhorrent to the mind which is “of the truth.” Especially when it contemplates the “holy glory” of Jesus, it is like the friend of the bridegroom, who rejoices greatly to hear, not his own, but the bridegroom’s voice.
II. THE AUTHOR’S AIM. It is to give the sequence of events “accurately from the first.” He had enjoyed exceptional advantages, on account of which he was able to relate the things connected with “the beginning” of the life of Christ. And his purpose is to unfold that life in the completeness and beauty of its development. Now, is not this the work of the Christian teacher still? Christianity is Christ. It is not a mere system of doctrines to be believed and of duties to be done; the root and strength of all doctrines and of all duties is the Person of Jesus. And the noblest function of the “minister of the Word” is to show the eternal life which was with the Father, and is manifested in the Son, who for us was incarnate.
III. THE DESIGNATION OF THE ONE WHOM THE AUTHOR ADDRESSES. “Most excellent Theophilus.” Probably he had in view a man bearing this name—a man of high station or rank. The superlative employed is the same as that applied in the Book of the Acts to the Roman procurator, and once by Paul himself, when he replied, “I am not mad, most noble Felix.” This Theophilus, therefore, may have been distinguished by position. “Not many mighty, not many noble, are called,” but some mighty and noble are; and he may have been drawn through the teaching of St. Paul, and may have wished a full account of those things in which he had been catechized. But be this as it may, note the meaning of the name. “To thee, O lover of God, O soul, teachable, humble, desirous to find in Jesus the Way to the Father; to thee, O hungerer and thirster after righteousness, seeking with pure heart God’s gift of the living water; to thee, O man, O woman, who knowest thyself to be the sinner who needs salvation, and wouldst see the Saviour who receives sinners and eats with them; to thee, O Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile, this declaration of the gospel of the grace of God is sent! May he who opened the heart of Lydia open thine heart; and through the demonstration of the Spirit, making effectual the exposition of the message, mayest thou have that witness in thyself which is ‘the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed’!”
Vers. 5–23.—Zacharias and his vision. Notice some features in the sketch that is given of the priest and of that which happened at the altar of incense.
I. IT IS A PICTURE OF THE SOUL WAITING FOR GOD. That waiting which is emphasized in the Old Testament Scriptures as one of the essentials of piety. How beautifully are the words—“More than they that watch for the morning, my soul waiteth for the Lord;” “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord”—illustrated in the life and attitude of Zacharias and Elisabeth! Year on year they had waited in their hillside home, asking the blessing of a son. Apparently the hope had set in heavens that were only brass. But one thing was ever bright and real—their faith in the living God; and they walked in all his commandments and ordinances blameless. “Our wills are ours to make them thine.” It is easier to consent to God’s will when the demand is to act, than to consent when the demand is simply to wait, to direct our prayer to the Eternal, and look up. One of the lessons which we are slow to learn is, “Walk humbly with thy God.”
II. THE PASSAGE BEFORE US REVEALS THE HEARER OF PRAYER. (Ver. 13.) “Thy prayer is heard.” Was this the prayer for the son? Or was it the priestly prayer, offered at the altar and through the incense, for the hope and salvation of Israel? Both, it may be, are included. For it is noteworthy that in the two scriptural instances of intense longing for a son—that of Hannah and that of Zacharias—the blessing to the individual is associated with blessing to the whole Church of God. The prayer of faith has interconnections with the purpose of God far beyond our power to estimate, and the doing is “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” “Thy prayer is heard;” the answer often looks a great way back. Matthew Henry quaintly says, “Prayers are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten though the thing prayed for is not presently given us. The time as well as the thing is in the answer; and God’s gift always transcends the measure of the promise.”
III. Again, LET THE FORM OF THE ANSWER RETURNED SPEAK TO US OF THE REALITY OF THE SPIRITUAL WORLD. (Ver. 19.) “The angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God: and I was sent to speak unto thee, and to bring thee these good tidings.” The same presence as that we meet in the Book of Daniel. Gabriel is the angel for the greatly beloved, the angel with the glad tidings; he who afterwards bore the most wonderful of messages to the Hebrew maiden. Our ideas are very confused as to the holy angels. There can be no doubt that the tendency of thought in our day is to narrow the sphere of the supernatural. Formerly, it dominated over thought and action; the influence of spirits and occult spiritual forces was brought in to account for much that is referable to laws and powers in nature. Nowadays men are occupied in tracing “natural law in the spiritual world.” But who can accept the truth of this first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel and doubt as to the reality of a spiritual universe encompassing the material? And if there be such a universe, why should it seem incredible that spiritual presences should, at sundry times, be declared to men—that Gabriels and Michaels should “at God’s bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest;” “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation”? The spiritual mind can have no difficulty as to this. It will recognize in the vision of Zacharias a truth for all. Where there is the praying heart there is “the angel on the right side of the altar of incense”
IV. Finally, THE PUNISHMENT RECORDED IS ONE OF MANY WARNINGS IN SCRIPTURE AGAINST THE UNBELIEF WHICH WOULD LIMIT THE HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL. “How can these things be?” “Whereby I shall know this?” are questions ever rising in the heart. The good priest had waited long. When expectation failed, he bowed his head to God’s will. No doubt, one to another, he and his wife, now “well stricken in years,” had often recalled the word to Abraham concerning Sarah’s laughter, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” But when the trial actually comes, the faith falters. Cannot we understand this? We limp when we should walk and not be weary. “Thou shalt be silent … because thou believedst not.” Is not the constant result of unbelief spiritual silence? And the closed heart is followed by the closed lips—“silent … and not able to speak.” “Lord, increase our faith.”
Vers. 26–38.—The announcement to the Virgin. Gabriel, “the mighty one of God,” or “the man of God,” again sent with glad tidings. The work for the great-hearts, for the strongest and best, is the work of preaching the gospel of his grace. The God sent preacher is he who, like Gabriel, “stands in the presence of God.” “He that is now called a prophet was aforetime called a seer.” But the true prophet is always a seer. “Sent to a virgin … and the virgin’s name was Mary.” It is significant that so little is said in Holy Scripture as to this one “blessed among women.” Nothing is related as to her birth and parentage, as to her gifts of mind and person; it is not even directly asserted that she belonged to the royal stock of David—that is to be implied only from such a verse as the thirty-second. After the Lord, on the cross, solemnly gave her to the care of the beloved disciple, there is only one allusion to her—an allusion in Acts 1. There is no reference to her in the Epistles of Paul; none in that of James, certainly nearly related to her; none in those of John, with whom she had lived. St. Luke, speaking of her in connection with the birth, says only, “A virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.” “Blessed,” cried a woman one day to Jesus, “is she that bare thee!” He did not deny it; but that there might be no distraction of soul, he added, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it.” This Mary, or Miriam, is blessed among women. The word of the Lord’s angel we need not hesitate to utter, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured!” But what is the real beauty of Mary? Is it not that she is in the foremost rank of those on whom the Lord’s “yea rather, blessed” rested—that she is pre-eminently the hearer and keeper of the Word of God? The few touches of character which are presented suggest the picture of a rarely lovely nature. (1) Observe the manner of the faith which is evoked by Gabriel’s message. First, there is the “casting in the mind.” The sight is marvellous; the salutation is strange. She is troubled; but instead of any display of excitement or of alarm, there is only the quiet self-possessed casting in the mind. “What could this be? Was it from above? Was it a voice of God or a snare of the devil?” (2) When the birth is announced, there is no such reply as that which fell from Zacharias—no word of scepticism, no demand for a sign. She does not doubt that it shall be; she only inquires how it shall be. (3) And, lastly, when the angel’s answer is given, concluded by the assertion, “With God nothing shall be impossible,” or “No word shall be void of power,” how complete is the response of the heart! Difficulty, trial, sorrow, for herself was certain. “Wherefores” and “hows” were no doubt beating against the bars of their cage; but there comes forth the submissive and quiescent, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy Word.” The portrait bears the marks of Divine wisdom. The reticence of Scripture might suggest that the inspiring Spirit of God, foreseeing the danger which so soon appeared, of an admiration scarcely separated from and insensibly sliding into grave error, moved the evangelist to abstain from any magnifying of the Virgin. But the mistaken honour paid to Mary should not withdraw the mind from what is truly honourable and exemplary in her conduct. She is a type of the believer for all times, in that quietness and confidence which are the believer’s strength, in that receptiveness of soul which is his life, in that entire self-yielding to God which is his reasonable service. “Blessed is she that believeth.” What is the angel’s message? Do not attempt to expound the words in vers. 30–35. Be content reverently to receive a mystery so deep and dread. But two things may be noted as to ver. 35. (1) The force of the “therefore” or “wherefore,” at the beginning of the last clause, bidding us see in the statement which precedes the reason of the assertion which follows. The statement is that the Holy Ghost should enclod the mother—therefore the holiness of the Lord. Mark, the difference between Christ’s holiness and ours is not in kind: it is in this, that his generation was that which is denotes in our regeneration. Of course, in the human nature of Christ we must recognize an altogether exceptional work of Divine power. But the efficient cause in his birth is the efficient cause in all spiritual birth. Holiness, we see, is not a mere attainment, the result of adherence to a moral regimen, of obedience to a moral law; it is a new supernatural being—“born of the Spirit.” What took place, in a marvellous way, even before the actual birth of the Son of Mary, takes place in the case of every one born from above. He is “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And therefore that which is born, being holy is the Son of God. (2) The word, that holy thing,” or “that which is to be born,” that sacred, separated entity, may suggest a hint as to the Person of Jesus. Body and soul are one thing, each having its own properties and qualities which cannot be transferred to the other, yet the two making one. It is not possible to tell where body ends and soul begins. Now, in the Son of Mary we have the humanity and the Divinity, each perfect and complete. Whatever can be said of man can be said of him; what can be said of God can also be said of him. Very man and very God. He is one Person. The one entity born of the Virgin is the Son of God. More than this let us not try to say.

“Faith through the veil of flesh can see
The face of thy Divinity,
My Lord, my God, my Saviour.”

“This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvellous in our eyes.”
Vers. 39–56.—The two expectant mothers. I. THE RETIREMENT. Elisabeth (ver. 24) had hidden herself when she knew that the promise of the angel would he fulfilled. Why she did so we are not told, but the language of ver. 26 suggests a religious motive. She was filled with gratitude, and she desired, perhaps, a season of holy rest and communion with God. “In silence and solitude,” says Thomas á Kempis, “the soul advantageth herself, and learneth the mysteries of Holy Scripture.” The same reason may partly have influenced Mary. But, besides this, there is no doubt that she wished to enjoy fellowship with her who alone could share her feeling, and with whom (ver. 36) her own prospect of motherhood was so intimately associated. Who can speak of the welcome, the salutations, the conferences, of the two cousins?

“O days of heaven and nights of equal praise,
Serene and peaceful as these heavenly days,
When souls, drawn upward in communion sweet,
Enjoy the stillness of some close retreat,
Discourse, as if released and safe at home,
Of evils past and danger yet to come,
And spread the sacred treasure of the breast
Upon the lap of covenanted rest!”

II. THE SONG OF MARY. Elisabeth, receiving Mary, speaks by the Holy Ghost. Mary had been told of her cousin’s condition, but Elisabeth had received no intimation of Mary’s. The arrival of the latter is the moment of special revelation. Elisabeth (ver. 42) lifts up her voice with a loud cry. The sound of Mary’s voice (ver. 44) had occasioned the prophetic impulse. She declares the Virgin the mother of her Lord, and in beautiful humility asks, “Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And, it may be, feeling the contrast between the faith of the Virgin and the unhelief of her husband, she pronounces a blessing on her who had believed. Then, in response from Mary, comes the song which the Christian Church has incorporated into its liturgies, which it has regarded as the opening of that fountain of praise, that wonderful hymnology, which has made glad the city of God. With regard to this hymn—“the Magnificat,” as it is usually designated: 1. Compare it with the song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2). In both there is the same blending of personal gladness with the emotion and experience of the Church; the same losing of self in the sense of an unspeakable loving-kindness; the same boasting in the Lord as he who “fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich empty away.” Mary was familiar with this song. Her thought would naturally take shape in utterance charged with its spirit and imagery, even as it represents the purest forms of Hebrew piety. Yet who can fail to see that her utterance is lifted to a higher plane, and is thrilled by a higher inspiration? 2. The song of Mary marks the transition from Old Testament to New Testament praise. The Old Testament is present, not only in the language employed throughout, but also (vers. 54, 55) in the earnest laying hold of the singular providence of God towards Israel, and the covenant made with Israel’s fathers—“with Abraham and his seed for ever.” But the germ of the New Testament is manifest in the special thanksgiving (vers. 48, 49). God the Saviour has appeared, and his might is to be declared in the Son because of whose birth all generations shall call her blessed. Thus the two covenants are united in all true Christian praise. The Old Testament is not a thing past; it is completed, and therefore more than ever one possession in Christ. “All the promises of God in him are yea.”

“Both theirs and ours thou art,
As we and they are thine;
Kings, prophets, patriarchs, all have part
Along the sacred line.”

3. Finally, the song of Mary illustrates Ps. 40:1–8: whose waits patiently for the Lord will, like Mary, know that he inclines to and hears the cry of the soul; and a new song will be given to the lips, even praise to our God. The new song of the redeemed soul has its prototype in that which arose from the hillside dwelling in the uplands of Judah.
Vers. 59–80.—The name-giving, and what followed it. There is a quiet, gentle beauty in the picture of the home life given in ver. 58. The touches of nature in it make us feel our kinship with all the ages. We are told of the flood of congratulations and kind messages which surges towards the happy mother; how the cousins of the priestly families in and around Hebron, and the neighbours scattered over that part of northern Judæa, hastened to express their gladness to Zacharias and Elisabeth. The birth of a son of the old age is the talk of the whole country-side. Our attention is more particularly drawn to the ceremonial connected with the circumcision. Observe—
I. THE IMPORTANCE ATTACHED TO THE NAME IN THE BIBLE. Both in his word to Zacharias and his annunciation to the Virgin the angel is explicit as to the name. So, backwards in all the Hebrew records, the name is regarded as full of significance—e.g. Cain, Abel, Seth, Noah. Changes in character and destiny are marked by changes of name—e.g. Abram changed into Abraham; Jacob into Israel; Oshea into Jehoshua; Saul into Paul. The force of the names given to individuals should always be noticed—e.g. Isaac, Ishmael, Jehoshaphat. It is a sign of the deep religious feeling of the Hebrew nation that, in the name, there is so often a part of the ever-adorable name of God—e.g. Elijah, Elisha, Jehoshua. The name is the witness for personal responsibility and personal immortality, a reminder that each of us stands fully out, and alone, before God; that he deals with us separately. Moreover, as the Roman no less than the Hebrew understood, there is a capacity of acting on the imagination and, through the imagination, on the will, in the name. Note, with regard to the name, an interesting conjunction between Christian and Jewish habits. It was the Jewish custom to declare the name on the day of circumcision; it is a Christian custom to declare the name on the day of baptism. As the Hebrew word was the covenant name—that by which the child was to be recognized and individualized in midst of the covenant people—so, theoretically, the name which the parent bestows (not the surname) is that by which the child is individualized in the blood-bought Church of Christ.
II. THE DEPARTURE FROM “USE AND WONT” AT THE CIRCUMCISION OF ZACHARIAS’S BABE. A practice which had its root in a healthy instinct had come to be an accepted institution—the naming of the child after one of “the kindred.” What should be the name of the babe? Surely that of the honoured father. “Not so,” interposes the mother, who had been instructed by her husband, now dumb and deaf; “he shall be called John.” “John? No relative is called by this name! What shall the father decide?” Then, to the amazement of all, the writing on the slate, “His name is John.” It was the angel name; it was the Divine name. Note: God the Father in heaven has his special name-giving (see Rev. 2:17). Blessed—oh, how blessed!—to have this name the name written in the Lamb’s book of life, in which there is recorded “all that goes on in the depths of the heart between the inmost self and God”!
III. HOW THE PRIEST BECOMES THE PROPHET. The word is no sooner written than the mouth which for months had been closed is opened, and the long pent-up tides of feeling burst forth. When God brings back the soul’s captivity, the soul’s lost capacites are found. The tongue is loosed which unbelief always ties—tongue and ear as well. “Mine ears hast thou opened; then said I, Lo, I come;” “When I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth;” “We believe, and therefore speak.” It is a song of exalted praise, in some of its features resembling Mary’s, which flows from the opened lips. See how, towards the end, borne along by the ever-rising inspirations of the Spirit, the song swells into a grand missionary hymn. The Dayspring from on high, that shall visit Israel, will pour a light into the darkness that enwraps the earth, giving light to all that sit in it and in the shadow of death, and guiding their feet into the way of peace. Thus the father prophesied that the child should go before the face of the Lord.
IV.WHAT IS SAID AS TO THE CHILD WHOSE BIRTH AND MISSION HAVE BEEN THUS CELEBRATED. Is not the question discussed in the hill-country (ver. 66) one suggested by a birth, by looking at the tiny infant? How wonderful a birth is! What shall be the manner, type of mind, life-story, of the child? A being begun! A journey on and on for ever; but whither? O child!

“God fill thee with his heavenly light
To steer thy Christian course aright;
Make thee a tree of blessed root,
That ever bends with heavenly fruit”

“The child grew, and waxed strong in spirit” Blessed growth! High-spirited in the better sense of the word—the human guided by the Divine! The home far from the world, in the breezy uplands, where he could meditate in the Law of the Lord day and night, and realize the preparation for the work of the prophet of the Highest! Here we leave him for a little. For another Child has been born—he who is called “Wonderful, Counsellor.”

Vers. 1–4.—Certainties concerning Christ. There are many things in connection with the gospel of Christ about which there is difference of view and some measure of uncertainty. But it is “those things which are most surely believed” that constitute the rock on which we rest, on which we build our hopes. We cannot live spiritually on uncertainties; they may serve the purpose of speculation or discussion, but they do not bring peace to the soul; they do not minister to life. We may thank God most heartily that there are some certainties concerning Jesus Christ, on which we can construct our life as it now is, and on which we can rely for that which is to come. There is no doubt at all respecting—
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF OUR LORD’S CAREER. We have the testimony of “eyewitnesses,” of men who could not have been mistaken, and who gave the very strongest assurances that they were not deceiving and misleading; we therefore know what were the scenes through which Jesus passed, what were the particulars of his life. We know: 1. His character—how pure, how perfect, it was. 2. His thoughts—how profound, how practical, how original, they were. 3. His works—how mighty and how beneficent they were. 4. His sufferings and sorrows—with what sublime patience they were endured. 5. His death—under what awful solemnities it was undergone. 6. The great and supreme fact of his resurrection. Of all these things we are thoroughly assured.
II. THE OFFER HE MAKES OF HIMSELF AS OUR DIVINE REDEEMER. It is perfectly clear that Jesus Christ regarded himself as One that was here on the highest mission, as One that was very far removed above ordinary manhood. He felt that he stood in a relation to the human race that was not only unusual, but unique. Otherwise he could not have spoken of “giving his flesh for the life of the world,” of being “the Light of the world,” of “drawing all men unto him;” he could not have invited all heavy-laden souls to come to him that they might find rest in him. It is abundantly clear that Jesus Christ offered himself, and still offers himself: 1. As the Divine Teacher, at whose feet we may all sit and learn the living truth of God. 2. As the Divine Saviour, in whom we may all trust for the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation to God. 3. As the Divine Friend, to whom we may trust our heart, and in whom we may find a Refuge. 4. As the Divine Lord, who claims the obedience and service of our lives.
III. THE SUFFICIENCY OF CHRIST FOR ALL THAT HE UNDERTAKES. Can he, of whom his critics spoke so slightingly as “the carpenter’s Son,” do all this? Is he equal to such offices as these? There is the experience of eighteen centuries to which this appeal may be made. And from the first to the last; from the experience of the little child and of the man in middle life and of extreme old age; from that of health and of sickness; from that of adversity and of prosperity; from that of ignorance and of culture; from that of human souls of every conceivable variety of constitution and of human lives of every imaginable variety of condition;—the answer is one strong, unhesitating, enthusiastic “Yes!” Many things are disputable, but this is certain; many things are to be discredited, but these are to be “most surely believed;” and on them we do well to build our present heritage and our eternal hope.—C.
Vers. 5, 6.—Life in its completeness. A very beautiful picture, though on a very small canvas, is here painted; it is a picture of domestic piety. As we think of Zacharias and Elisabeth spending their long life together in the service of Jehovah, attached to one another and held in honour by all their kindred and friends, we feel that we have before our eyes a view of human life which has in it all the elements of an excellent completeness.
I. THE DOMESTIC BOND. Here we have conjugal relationship in its true form; established in mutual respect; justified and beautified by mutual affection; made permanently happy by common affinities and common aims; elevated and consecrated by the presence of another and still nobler bond—that of a strong and immovable attachment to God. A human life is quite incomplete without such tender ties of God’s own binding, and these ties are immeasurably short of what they were meant to be if they are not enlarged and ennobled by the sanctities of religion.
II. HUMAN AND DIVINE ESTIMATION. These two godly souls enjoyed the favour of their Divine Father and of their human friends and neighbours: “They were both righteous before God,” and they were “blameless” in the sight of men. God accepted them, and man approved them. He to whom they were responsible for all they were and did saw in them, as he sees in all his children, the imperfections which belong to our erring and struggling humanity; but he accepted their reverence and their endeavour to please and to obey him, forgiving their shortcomings. And their kindred and their friends recognized in them those who were regulating their life by God’s holy will, and they yielded to them their fullest measure of esteem. No human life is complete without the possession of these two things: (1) the favour of the living God; and (2) the esteem of those amongst whom we live. To walk in the shadow of conscious estrangement from God, to miss the sweet sunshine of his heavenly favour,—this is to darken our life with a continual curse, this is to bereave ourselves of our purest joy and most desirable heritage. And while some of the very noblest of our race, following thus in the footsteps of the Master himself, have borne, in calm and heroic patience, the obloquy of the ignorant and the malice of the evil-minded, yet it is our duty, and it should be our desire and aspiration, so to walk in rectitude and in kindness that men will bless us in their hearts, will esteem us for our integrity, will hold us in their affection. The man who “wears the white flower of a blameless life” is the man who will be a power for good in the circles in which he moves.
III. SACRED SERVICE. It may be questionable whether any distinction is intended between “ordinances” and “commandments;” but there can be no question at all that both together cover religious observances and moral obligations. The Law which these two faithful souls obeyed enjoined the one as well as the other. And no human life is complete which does not include both these elements of piety. 1. The worship of God, in private prayer, in family devotion, in public exercises, is a serious and important part of a good man’s experience. 2. And certainly not less so is the regulating of conduct by the revealed will of God; the walking, day by day, in uprightness and integrity, in sobriety and purity, in truth and in love. Beautifully complete, fashioned in spiritual symmetry, attractive and influential, is that human life which is spent in the home of hallowed love, which is bright with the favour of God and man, and which is crowned with the sovereign excellences of piety and virtue.—C.
Vers. 13–17.—Parental ambition. “What would we give to our beloved?” asks one of our poets. What would we ask for our children if we might have our hearts’ desire? When the young father or mother looks down on the little child, and then looks on to the future, what is the parental hope concerning him? What is that which, if it could only be assured, would give “joy and gladness”? The history of our race, the chronicles of our own time, even the observation of our own eyes, give abundant proof that the child may rise to the highest distinction, may wield great power, may secure large wealth, may enjoy many and varied pleasures, and yet be a source of sorrow and disappointment. On the other hand, these same authorities abundantly prove that, if the parent is only true to his convictions and avails himself of the resources that are open to him, there is every reason to expect that his child will be such an one as to yield to him a pride that is not unholy, a joy that nothing can surpass. Not on the same scale, but after the same manner, every man’s child may become what Gabriel told Zacharias his son should be—
I. ONE TAKING HIGH RANK WITH GOD. “Great in the sight of the Lord.” By faith in Jesus Christ our child may become a “son of God” in a sense not only true but high (see John 1:12). “And if children, then heirs, heirs of God” (Rom. 8:17). Obedience will ensure the friendship of God (see John 14:23; 15:14). Earnestness will make him a fellow-labourer with God (1 Cor. 2:9; 2 Cor. 6:1). The acceptance of all Christian privilege will make him a “king and priest unto God” (Rev. 1:6). Who can compute how much better it is to be thus “great in the sight of the Lord” than to be honoured and even idolized by men?
II. ONE IN WHOM GOD HIMSELF DWELLS. “He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost.” God desires to dwell with and in every one of his human children; and if there be purity of heart and prayerfulness of spirit, he will dwell in them continually (ch. 11:13; John 14:17; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Rev. 3:20).
III. ONE THAT IS MASTER OF HIMSELF. “He shall drink neither wine,” etc. By right example and wise discipline any man’s child may be trained to control his own appetites, to regulate his tastes, to form temperate and pure habits, to wield the worthiest of all sceptres—mastery of himself.
IV. ONE IN WHOM THE BEST AND NOBLEST LIVES AGAIN. “He shall go in the spirit and power of Elijah.” In John the Baptist there lived again the great Prophet Elijah—a man of self-denying habit; of dauntless courage, that feared the face of no man, and that rebuked kings without flinching; of strong and scathing utterance; of devoted and heroic life. In any one of our children there may live again that One who “in all things in which John was great and noble, was greater and nobler than he.” In the little child who is trained in the truth and led into the love of Christ there may dwell the mind and spirit of the Son of God himself (Rom. 8:9; Phil. 2:5).
V. ONE THAT LIVES A LIFE OF HOLY USEFULNESS. What nobler ambition can we cherish for our children than that, in their sphere, they should do as John did in his—spend their life in the service of their kind? Like him, they may: 1. Make many a home holier and happier than it would have been. 2. Prepare the way for others to follow with their higher wisdom and larger influence. 3. Be instrumental in turning disobedient hearts from the way of folly to the path of wisdom. 4. Earn the benediction of “many” whom they have blessed (ver. 14).
To ensure all this, there must be: 1. Parental example in righteousness and wisdom. 2. Parental training as well as teaching. 3. Parental intercession.—C.
Vers. 31–33.—The greatness of Jesus Christ. To Mary, as to Elisabeth, it was foretold by the celestial messenger that her Son should be “great.” There can be no doubt that, after all that was then said, Mary expected unusually great things of the Child that should be born of her. But how very far short of the fact her highest hopes have proved to be! For to whatever exalted point they reached, the Jewish maiden could not possibly have attached to the angel’s words such meaning as we know them to have contained. The greatness of that promised Child was threefold; it related to—
I. HIS DIVINE ORIGIN He was not only to be her offspring, but he should “be called the Son of the Most High.” And there was to come upon her and overshadow her the Holy Ghost, the Power of the Most High. He was to be not only a son of God, but the Son of God, related to the Eternal Father as no other of the children of men had ever been or should ever be. He was to be One that would in the fullest sense partake of the Divine nature, be one in thought and in aim and in action with the Father (John 5:19, 23; 8:28; 10:30; 14:10, 11). He was to be “God manifest in the flesh.”
II. THE WORK HE SHOULD ACCOMPLISH. “Thou shalt call his name Jesus;” and he was to be so called because he would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:25). There have been “saviours of society” from whom this poor wounded world might well have prayed to be delivered, men who tried to cover their own hideous selfishness under a fair and striking name. What they have claimed to be, Jesus the Saviour was and is. He saves from sin. And to do that is to render us the very greatest conceivable service, both in its negative and positive aspects. 1. Negatively considered. To destroy sin is to take away evil by the root. For sin is not only, in itself, the worst and most shameful of all evils by which we can be affected, but it is the one fruitful source of all other evils—poverty, estrangement, strife, weariness and aching of heart, death. 2. Positively considered. Saving from sin means restoring to God; it includes reinstatement in the condition from which sin removed us. Jesus Christ, in the very act in which he redeems us from the penalty and power of sin, restores us to God—to his Divine favour, his likeness, his service. Accepting and abiding in the Saviour, we dwell in the sunshine of God’s everlasting friendship; we grow up into his perfect image; we spend our days and our powers under his direction. It is not only that Jesus Christ delivers us from the darkest curse; it is that he raises us to the loftiest heritage, by the salvation which he offers to our hearts.
III. THE DIGNITY AND POWER HE SHOULD ATTAIN. He was to reign upon a throne, “over the house of Jacob for ever;” and “of his kingdom there should be no end.” Great and large as Mary’s expectations for her promised Child may have very justly been, they can have been nothing to the fulfilment of the angel’s words. For the kingdom of Christ (as it is or as it shall be) is one that surpasses in every way that of the greatest Hebrew sovereign. It does so: 1. In its main characteristics. It is spiritual. The only homage which is acceptable to its King is the homage of the heart, the only tribute the tribute of affection, the only obedience the obedience of love. It is beneficent. Every subject in this realm is sacredly bound to seek his brother’s well-being rather than his own. It is righteous. Every citizen, because he is such, is pledged to depart from all iniquity, to pursue and practise all righteousness. 2. In its extent. It has “no end” in its spacial dimensions. No river bounds it; no mountain, no sea; it reaches the whole world round. 3. In its duration. He shall reign “for ever;” his rule will go down to remotest times; it will touch and include the last generation that shall dwell upon the earth. Let us rejoice in his greatness; but let us see to it that (1) we have a part in the heritage of those whom he is blessing, and that (2) we take our share in the furtherance of his mission of mercy.—C.
Vers. 46–48.—The voice of praise. This “improvisation of a happy faith” is not more musical to the ear than it is beautiful to our spiritual discernment. It presents to us the mother of our Lord in a most pleasing light. We will look at these words of devout gratitude as—
I. MARY’S RESPONSE to God’s distinguishing goodness to her. She received from God a kindness that was: 1. Necessarily unique. Only to one of the daughters of men could be granted the peculiar honour conferred on her. We are naturally and properly affected by mercies which speak of God’s distinguishing goodness to us. 2. Fitted to fill her heart with abounding joy. She was to become a mother, and the mother of One who should render to his people services of surpassing value; no wonder that her “spirit rejoiced” in such a prospect. 3. Calculated to call forth all that was highest and worthiest in her nature. She would have to cherish and to rear, to teach and to train, that illustrious Son who should call her “mother.” 4. Certain to confer upon her an honourable immortality. All generations would call her blessed. 5. Rendered to one who could not have expected it. God had stooped low to bless, even to the low estate of “his bondmaiden.” And, impressed with this wonderful and unanticipated goodness, she poured forth her gladness in a song of holy gratitude, of lofty praise. Such should be—
II. OUR APPRECIATION of God’s abounding kindness to ourselves. 1. The indebtedness under which our heavenly Father has laid us. It is, indeed, as different as possible from that which inspired this sacred lyric. Yet may we most reverently and most becomingly take the words of Mary into our lips—both the utterance of felt obligation and the language of praise. For: (1) How low is the condition on which, in our case, God has mercifully looked! from what depth of error, of folly, of wrong, has he raised us!—a depth with which the lowly estate of Mary is not to be compared. (2) With what a great salvation has he delivered us!—a salvation with which even the national deliverance Mary would be expecting of her Son is of very small account. (3) And what a lasting good he confers upon us who have received God our Saviour! The blessing of an immortality of undying fame is very precious to these thirsting human spirits of ours: but is it comparable with that of an actual immortality of conscious, eternal life with God and with the good in the heavenly kingdom? Distant generations will not hear our name, but in remotest times we shall be dwelling and serving in unimaginable joy. 2. The response we should make to our Father. (1) Great gladness of heart. We should rejoice in God our Saviour; welcoming him, trusting and resting in him, finding our refuge and our strength in his faithfulness and his love. (2) Honouring him before all men. “Magnifying the Lord” with the utterance of the lip, with the obedience of the life, with active service in his vineyard.—C.
Vers. 49–55.—God revealed in Jesus Christ. We see much more in Mary’s words than the thoughts which were present to her mind at the time of utterance; for we stand well within that kingdom of God of which she stood on the threshold. To the holy confidence she entertained in God’s goodness to all Israel, and especially to herself up to that hour, there was added a reverent wonder as to this new manifestation of Divine mercy. So she sang of the power and the holiness, the mercy and the faithfulness, of Jehovah. Through bitterest experiences (ch. 2:35) she passed into the light of truth and the rest of God, and now she sees how much greater occasion she had than she knew at the moment to sing in such strains of the character of God. We look at these Divine attributes as expressed in the coming of the Saviour.
I. HIS DIVINE POWER. “He that is mighty hath done … great things” (ver. 49); “He hath showed strength with his arm” (ver. 51). God’s power is very gloriously manifested in the formation and furniture of this earthly home, in the creation of successive generations of mankind, in the providential government of the world, including the mastery of all physical forces and the control of all human energies; but by far the most wonderful exhibition of Divine power is in the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ. To exert a transforming power on one intelligent, free, disloyal spirit; to conquer a rebellious, to win an estranged, soul; to raise a fallen nature, and uplift it to a height of holy excellence; to make that which had lowered itself to the basest fit for the society of the holiest in heaven; to do this not in one individual case but in the case of “ten thousand times ten thousand;” to introduce a power which can elevate and ennoble families, communities, nations; which is changing the character and condition of the entire race;—this is “the power of God,” this is the doing of him “that is mighty.”
II. HIS DIVINE HOLINESS. “Holy is his Name” (ver. 49); “He hath scattered the proud,” etc. (vers. 51, 52). God’s holiness is shown in his providential interpositions, in his humbling the haughty, in his scattering the cruel and the profane, in his raising the lowly and the pure and the true. Thus he has been revealing his righteousness in every nation and in every age. But nowhere does his holiness appear as it is seen in (1) the mission of his Son, who came to put away sin; in (2) the life and language of his Son, who illustrated all purity and condemned all iniquity; in (3) the death of his Son, who by the sacrifice of himself uttered God’s thought and feeling about sin as nothing else could speak it, and struck it such a death-blow as nothing else could strike it.
III. HIS DIVINE MERCY. (Ver. 50.) Many are the testimonies borne by Old Testament saints to the pity, the patience, the mercy, of the Lord. But in Jesus Christ—in his spirit, in his example, and more particularly in his redeeming death and work—is the manifestation of the grace of God. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In the gospel of Christ the pity, the patience, the magnanimity, of God rise to their fullest height, reach to their noblest breadth.
IV. HIS DIVINE FAITHFULNESS. (Vers. 53–55.) God, who made us for himself and for truth and righteousness, who has made our hearts to hunger for the highest good, does not leave us to pine and perish; he fills us with the “rich provision” of his truth and grace in Jesus Christ. “As he spake unto our fathers,” so he has done, granting not only such a One as they hoped for, but One that has been to the whole race of man a glorious Redeemer, in whom all nations are blessed with a blessing immeasurably transcending the most sanguine hopes of his ancient people.
1. Let our souls be so filled with the greatness and the goodness of God as thus revealed, that we shall break forth into grateful song, magnifying his Name. 2. Let us return at once to him, if we yet remain at a distance from him; for we have no right to hope, and no reason to expect, that he will ever manifest himself to us in more attractive features than as we see him in the Son that was born of the lowly Virgin.—C.
Vers. 58, 66, 67.—Joy and awe at a human birth. When John was born his mother’s heart was filled with great joy, and her neighbours rejoiced with her. And when the little child, a week old, was introduced into the Jewish commonwealth, a feeling of awe filled the hearts of those present, and there was much wonderment concerning him. “Fear came on them all,” and every one was asking, “What manner of child shall this be?” No doubt the exceptional character of the circumstances attending his birth and his circumcision accounted for the joy and also for the fear; but apart from all that was unusual, there was reason enough for both sentiments to be felt and shown. At any ordinary human birth there is—
I. OCCASION FOR HOPEFULNESS AND GLADNESS OF HEART. “The mother remembereth no more her anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world,” said our Lord (John 16:21). And why rejoice on this occasion? Because of: 1. The love which the little child will cherish. Not, indeed, to be manifested in its very earliest days, but to be felt and shown before long—the beautiful, clinging, whole-hearted love of childhood; a love which it is fair to see and most precious to receive. 2. The love which the little child will call forth—the love which is parental, fraternal; the love of those who serve as well as that of kindred and friends,—this, too, is one of the most goodly sights on which the eye of purity and wisdom rests; it is one of the sweetest and most wholesome ingredients in the cup of earthly good. 3. The discipline which the coming of the child will involve. All parents have an invaluable privilege, from which they ought to derive the greatest benefit. They may be so slow to learn, so unimpressionable, so obdurate, that they are none the wiser or better for their parentage; and in that case they will be something or even much the worse. But if the “little child” does not “lead” us, it is our own fault and folly. The child’s dependency on his parent, trustfulness in his parent, obedience to his parent,—do these not speak eloquently of our dependence upon, our trustfulness in, our obedience to our heavenly Father? The love we feel for our little child, the care we take of him, the profound regret we should feel if he went astray, the sacrifice we are ready to make for his recovery,—does not all this summon us, with touching and even thrilling voice, to realize the love God has for us his human children, the care he has taken of us day and night through all our years, the profound Divine regret with which he has seen us go astray from himself, the wonderful sacrifice he made for us when he spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all, in order to restore us to himself and reinstate us in our heritage? And the labour we are necessitated to bestow, the patience to exercise, and the selfdenial and sacrifice to show,—these are essential factors in the forming of our character. We should not choose them, but we may well be most thankful for them. 4. The excellency to which he may attain; it may be that (1) of physical beauty, or (2) of intellectual ability, or (3) of spiritual worth, or (4) of valuable service. Who can tell what lies latent in that helpless infant? what sources of power and blessing are in that little cradle?
II OCCASION FOR REVERENT AWE. It may well be that “fear” comes on all those who hold their own children in their arms. For they who are entrusted with a little child receive therewith a most grave responsibility. It is true that nothing can remove the accountableness of each soul to its Creator for what it has become; but it is also true that parents are very seriously responsible for the character and career of their children. Our children will believe what we teach them, will form the habits in which we train them, will follow the example we set them, will imbibe the spirit which we are breathing in their presence. What shall this child be? That depends on ourselves. If we are only true and wise and kind, our children will almost certainly become what we ourselves are—what we long and pray that they may be. Joy and awe are therefore the two appropriate sentiments at every human birth. When a child is born into the home, there enters that which may be the source of the greatest gladness to the heart; there also enters that which should make life a far more serious and solemn thing.—C.
Vers. 74, 75.—The course of the Christian life. These words of Zacharias will very well indicate the course through which a Christian life passes from its commencement to its close.
I. IT BEGINS IN SPIRITUAL EMANCIPATION. “We being delivered out of the hand of our enemies.” In order to “walk in newness of life,” we must be rescued from the thraldom of sin. And there is a twofold deliverance that we need. One is from the condemnation of our guilt; for we cannot rest and rejoice in the love of God while we are under a troubled sense of the Divine displeasure, while we feel and know that our “sin has separated between” ourselves and our heavenly Father. The other is from the bondage of evil. So long as we are “held in the cords of our sins,” we are helplessly disobedient; it is only when we have learnt to hate sin, and, loathing it, to leave it behind us, that we are free to walk in the path of righteousness. This double emancipation is wrought for us by the Lord whose way the son of Zacharias was to prepare. By faith in him, the great Propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2), we have full and free forgiveness, so that all the guilty past may be removed from our sight; and in the presence of a crucified Redeemer “the flesh and its affections are crucified,” we die to our old self and our old iniquities, the tolerance of sin is slain, we hate that which we loved and embraced before, we are “delivered out of the hand of our enemies.”
II. IT PROCEEDS ALONG THE PATH OF FILIAL SERVICE. We “serve him without fear.” Here are two elements—obedience and happiness. As soon as we unite ourselves to our Lord and Saviour, we live to serve. “None of us liveth to himself;” “We thus judge, … that we who live should not live unto ourselves, but unto him who died for us” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). And this is the only true life of man. The animal may live for itself, though even the higher animals live rather for others than for themselves. But all whom we should care to emulate live to serve. It is not the sentence passed, it is the heritage conferred upon us, that in Christ Jesus we live to serve God—to serve him by direct worship and obedience, and also, indirectly, by serving the children of his love and the creatures of his care. And we serve in love; and therefore without fear—without that fear which means bondage; for “perfect love casteth out fear.” It is with no hesitating and reluctant step that we walk in the ways of God; it is our joy to do his bidding; we “delight to do his will: yea, his Law is within our heart” (Ps. 40:8). “We have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear;” our spirit is the spirit of happy childhood, which runs to fulfil its Father’s word.
III. IT MOVES TOWARDS PERFECT EXCELLENCE OF CHARACTER. “In holiness and righteousness before him.” Here are three elements of the Christian life. 1. A holy hatred of evil; leading us to condemn it in ourselves and in others, and prompting us to expel and extirpate it to the utmost of our power. 2. The pursuit and practice of all that is equitable; endeavouring to do and to promote that which is just in all the relations in which we stand to others, or they to one another. 3. Piety; doing every right thing as unto Christ our Lord; living consciously “before him;” so that all our rectitude of heart and excellency of behaviour is something more than a habit of life; it is a sacrifice unto our Saviour.
IV. IT PERSEVERES EVEN TO THE END. “All our days.” There is no break in our course. Our upward and onward path may be undulating, but it is continuous, and is ever making for the summit. We do not retire, or resign, or abdicate, in this noblest work, in this sacred office of being “servant of the Lord,” “king and priest unto God.” Having loved his own, our Master loved them unto the end (John 13:1); and loving him whom we have not seen, and rejoicing in him with unspeakable joy, we are faithful unto death, and we know that

“To him that overcometh
A crown of life shall be;
He with the King of glory
Shall reign eternally.”

Ver. 79.—Christ our Light. To whom and to what extent the Messiah should “give light” probably Zacharias did not know. He may have limited the blessing, in his mind, to the people of Israel; or, inspired and illumined of God, he may have had a larger and truer outlook. We, at any rate, are unable to confine our thoughts to Jewry; we see in the Sun of Righteousness, in the Dayspring from on high, a celestial luminary “whose going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.” To us it is “the Light which, coming into the world, enlighteneth every one.”
I. THE DEGREES OF DARKNESS in which the world was shrouded when the Day-spring rose. It was a dark hour when Jesus Christ was born. “Darkness covered the earth.” But the shadows were deeper in some lands than in others; some minds were more lost and buried in the thick darkness than others were. 1. The dim twilight of Judaism—a twilight, not of the morning, but of the evening. For Judaism had passed out of its manhood into its dotage, out of its strength and spirituality into a dreary and lifeless formalism. It had, indeed, escaped from idolatry, and it was free from the worst excesses of the pagan world; but of a pure piety, a spiritual and acceptable service, it knew but little. Compared, however, with surrounding peoples, the Jews may be said to have stood in the twilight of truth. 2. The darkness of philosophy. For philosophy was groping in the darkness; it had felt or was feeling its way out of the absurdities of polytheism and idolatry; it touched—but only here and there—the grand truth of monotheism; but it was peering in the direction of pantheism and atheism. “The world by wisdom knew not God.” And even where it did reach the idea of one living God, it could not tell how he was to be worshipped, how his favour was to be won, what were the relations he desired to sustain to mankind. 3. The thick darkness of paganism. If the philosophers “sat in darkness,” the idolaters of uncivilized communities were “in the shadow of death.” What a death in life is the existence of those who are buried in the most blighting superstitions and the most debasing habits! There indeed “the light is as darkness;” it moves us to a profound pit as we think of it. We are not surprised to read in the text of—
II. THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER OF MEN IN VIEW OF IT. “The tender mercy of our God” was called forth by the sad spectacle of a world in deep shadow, a race without the Light of life. At their best, men were far enough from truth, from righteousness, from the love of God; at their worst, they had utterly gone astray, “stumbling on the dark mountains” of error and of iniquity. Well might the God of all pity compassionate such a lost race as this.
III. THE VISIT OF THE HEAVENLY DAYSPRING. “The Dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light.” Jesus Christ came to be the “Light of the world;” and such he is. He has illumined all the way from the blackness of darkness of sin to the light and glory of heaven. What precious rays of light has the Divine Teacher shed on (1) the nature and the disposition of God, our Father; on (2) the character and the consequences of sin; on (3) the way back to God and righteousness; on (4) the transcendent value of the human soul; on (5) the beauty and blessedness of the life of consecration; on (6) the certainty of future glory to the good and faithful! Let us draw near to him who is the Light of the human world, let us walk in the light of his reviving truth, “that we may be the children of light,” and dwell in immortal glory.—C.
Ver. 79.—Christ our Peace. “To guide our feet into the way of peace.” And how far has the mission of the Dayspring succeeded? How far has he guided the feet of men into the way of peace? Judged by the outward appearance, the answer would be quite unsatisfactory. To-day, after eighteen centuries of Christianity, there are four millions of men under arms in Europe only; and if another great war does not break out, it is not from humane or Christian considerations that it is suppressed. How do we explain the fact? 1. Christianity has had no fair chance of showing what it is in it to do. It has been so wretchedly misrepresented through whole centuries of time. 2. It has done much to moderate and mitigate the severities of war; amongst other things, it has carried the “red cross” of succour right into the heart of the battle-field. 3. It is impregnating the minds of statesmen with the truth that an unnecessary war is a heinous crime against God and man. 4. It has been leading the souls of men into a profounder peace. For there is a spiritual sphere in which there is strife and unrest worse by far than any physical contests can be. It is there that peace has been most missed, and that its absence has wrought the saddest evil. This worst restlessness has resulted from two things—
I. FROM MAN SEEKING HIS SATISFACTION WHERE HE CANNOT FIND IT. 1. What a vain thing is it to seek satisfaction in a life of pleasure, in living to be amused, in hunting happiness over the field of enjoyment! 2. What an unssatisfying thing is life lived on any lower plane, whatever it may be! Alas for those millions to whom it is a dreary and monotonous round of toil! And to those who move in the higher social circles, is it so very much better? When the veil is lifted, as it is occasionally by some honest memoirs or frank autobiography, how often do we find it full of disappointment, of disillusion, of wretched rivalry, of hunger and heart-ache! There is no peace or rest there that is worthy of the name. Where, then, shall rest be found? We shall gain it from him and find it in him who “knew what was in man,” and who alone knew what would satisfy the hunger of his soul; it was he who came to guide our feet into the way of peace. We shall find it in his friendship, in his service, in his cause. When we have come to ourselves, and have returned unto the Lord our God; when we have lost sight of ourselves, and have entered his holy and happy service; then have we left disquietude and unrest behind us, then have we entered into a true, deep, and enduring peace.
II. FROM OUR SENSE OF SIN AGAINST GOD. There is no peace for man without reconciliation to God. He has left the home of his Father, has become estranged from him, has come under his righteous condemnation, and he can find no peace until he has been forgiven and restored. Apathy, indifference, the unconcern of a stolid ignorance, there may be; but that is not peace. Peace is a well-grounded assurance that all is well with us. This we can only obtain by knowing the truth concerning ourselves, and by taking the path which leads us home to God. It is just this we have in Jesus Christ. He (1) makes plain to the understanding and makes grievous to the soul our own great unworthiness and guilt; and then he (2) offers himself to us as our all-sufficient Saviour. Then “being justified by faith [in him] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And abiding in him, we continue in the path of peace—a path which leads on to holy joy and up to heavenly glory.—C.
Ver. 80.—The service of solitude. “And was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.” John the Baptist had a long period of retirement before he began the active work of life; and we may be sure that the time spent in the wilderness was not lost. The communion he had there with God, and his prolonged reflection on the worth and purpose of human life, must have had much to do with the character he formed and the work he afterwards accomplished. Then good seed was sown which bore much fruit in later years. We should do well to “be in the desert” more than we are—to seek the solitary place where we are alone with God and with ourselves more than we do. “The world is too much with us.” We cannot hear the stiller and deeper voices that speak to us, for its perpetual sound is in our ear—the hum of its activity, the rattle of its pleasures, the wail of its distress. Solitude would render an essential service if we would but ensure it and employ it.
I. THE SERVICES SOLITUDE WOULD RENDER US. 1. It would bring God near to us. When man is quite removed from us, and his voice is completely hushed; when we are alone, whether it be in the folds of the hill, or in the depth of the valley, or in our own chamber;—we have a sense of God’s nearness to us which we have not amid the crowd. And what an inestimable advantage it would be to us to let the consciousness of God’s own presence often fill our soul, and then to hold sustained communion with him! 2. It would place our past in full view before our soul. It is not well to be very often looking back on that which has gone. There is deep wisdom in “forgetting those things which are behind,” both past follies and past successes. Yet is it well sometimes to review the way we have been taking—to consider how much there is that should humble us, and how much that should teach us our weakness and cast us on the mercy and the help of God 3. It would confront us with the future. It would make us ask whither we are going, what there remains for us to do before we die, how well we are prepared for death and the great day of account. 4. It would lead us to estimate our present spiritual condition—how good a use we have made of our privileges, whether we have been progressing or receding in our course, whether we are what our Divine Lord would have us be, how we stand in the sight of perfect truth and purity.
II. THE OCCASIONS WHEN IT IS MOST APPROPRIATE. 1. Between the night and the morning; when the soul has to address itself to new duties, new difficulties, new opportunities. 2. Between the evening and the night; before a man commits himself to the “great Guardian of his sleeping hours,” his hours of utter helplessness and unconsciousness. 3. Before leaving the shelter of the home; when the young heart goes forth into deeper waters—who shall say how deep?—of temptation and trial; when all, and far more than all, its resources will be required for the stern struggle before it. 4. In the crises of our career; when in the innermost chamber of the soul it is determined whether the heart and life shall be yielded to the holy Saviour and rightful Sovereign, or shall be withheld from him. 5. At the time of religious avowal; when a human being takes upon himself the vows of God, and makes open declaration of attachment to the Lord his Redeemer. 6. Before special services which demand the full strength of the soul to meet them bravely and to render them worthily. At such times as these does it most become us to shut our doors upon ourselves and be long alone with God.—C.
Vers. 1–4.—The absolute certainty of the Christian religion. In this prologue by Luke we have an insight into the conditions and purposes of his publication. In an age without the art of printing, it was useful to obtain the patronage of the wealthy, and thus secure the production of such a number of “copies” as would save the volume from oblivion. Hence in the classic world dedications to rich men were the rule with authors rather than the exception. Luke’s Gospel, which is the “classic” Gospel in the series, is thus written for Theophilus, presumably a rich convert, with whom the writer has had most intimate relations. It is to the same patron he dedicates the second volume of the life of Christ, which is commonly, though inaccurately, called “The Acts of the Apostles,” but which is really a second volume of the acts of the Lord, accomplished in and through his apostles. The Gospel, as Luke tells us in the prologue to the Acts, was an account of all that Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1). Our Lord’s earthly life was thus, in Luke’s view, only a first stage in an everlasting history. But while Luke, like other authors in the classical world, may have had the interests of his book in view in dedicating it to Theophilus, he had at the same time a nobler purpose, even to confirm Theophilus in the Christian faith. He proposes consequently to display the basis on which this convert has been building, and how absolutely certain the Christian faith is. It is well to revise the foundations. We ought to “walk about Zion, and go round about her;” we ought to “tell the towers thereof, and mark well her bulwarks, and consider her palaces; that we may tell it to the generation following” (Ps. 48:12, 13). What, then, does Luke present to Theophilus as an account of the Christian faith?
I. THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS NOT A SPECULATIVE SYSTEM. Man, left to himself, evolves out of his consciousness a system more or less complete, and calls upon his fellows to accept of it as their religious faith. But such an evolution of religion has proved a failure. Into the interesting study of comparative religion we cannot here enter at any length, but two tendencies in speculation may be noticed in passing. The first is the outward, or idealistic tendency, which may be found developed in the Indian religions; the second is the inward, or self-reliant tendency, which may be seen carried to its issues in Hellenism and the speculations of the West. Thus the tendency of the Oriental mind was and is to contemplate Nature and to reverence her underlying forces; while the tendency of the Occidental mind was to contemplate man or human nature, and to find in his individuality, his freedom, and his power the true unit and substance of thought. The Oriental mind consequently lost itself in speculations on the absolute, which became to the dreamers of the East an abstraction without personality, intelligence, or limitation, just as he has become of late to certain of our dreamers in the West; and the climax of being is in the Nirvâna, the utter extinction of human personality through absorption into the universal Spirit. The Western, or Grecian mind, on the other hand, held to man and human nature, cultivated a boundless self-reliance, and a supreme confidence in human nature and its powers. His gods and goddesses were but deified men and women; Olympus only a Greece enjoying larger latitude and more abundant sunlight; and reason and self the ultimate objects of trust. The issue, as we might expect, was “intense worldliness of spirit, that dread of death, that doubt of immortality, that decay of the religious sentiment, which finally covered classical life with such deep gloom and despair.” The two tendencies, Oriental and Occidental—the one making man nothing, the other making man all in all—had, before Christ’s time, ample opportunity to prove their insufficiency. They had in Buddhism and in Platonism checks, but they were unequal to the needful reformation. It remained for a better faith to furnish man with certainty. Hence we remark—
II. THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS FOUNDED ON THE HISTORY OF A PERSON. The gospel, as Luke here indicates, consists in the history of a Person whose advent is essential to the salvation of the world. Hence the substance of the Christian faith is historical, not speculative. Whatever certainty attaches to historical evidence as superior to speculation attaches, therefore, to the Christian faith. And here we have to notice: 1. That the history rests on the testimony of eye-witnesses. This is asserted by Luke in ver. 2. Facts consequently appealing to the senses of the apostles constitute the foundation of the faith. And if it be insinuated that they were “interested witnesses,” we reply with Luke: 2. That the witnesses gained nothing in the worldly sense by their testimony. As ministers of the Word, they were persecuted, in many cases killed; in all cases life was much less comfortable in consequence of their testimony than if they had said nothing about the Saviour who died and rose again. 3. Luke sifted the facts as carefully as he could. It is significant that he makes no claim to inspiration in his prologue. And this is the rule with the sacred writers. Some have supposed that because the writers do not each and all put in a categorical claim to inspiration, it is superfluous to suppose that they are all inspired. But we reply that it is far better for writers to show that they are inspired than to say they are. Inspiration, like all other good gifts of God, is to be “known by its fruits.” This prologue shows that many tried their hands at writing lives of Jesus; but there has been a “survival of the fittest” in this case at all events, to the great advantage of mankind. Instead of asserting his inspiration, Luke used his best endeavours to sift the material and produce a careful and “classic” work. Instead of the Spirit of God despising means, he owns them and blesses them.
III. THE HISTORY OF CHRIST HAS A PERSONAL BEARING UPON EACH ONE OF US. Theophilus had been taught this, just as we require to be taught it. Now, we may see the application of Christ’s life to our individual need by the two tendencies already referred to. The human mind is idealizing in its character. It can be shown that we owe even our scientific progress to the idealists, the Pythagoreans in Greece and the Platonists in Alexandria being the only men in the old world who really advanced seience. Now, Jesus supplies us, in his own perfect and sinless Person, with the “ideal” we individually need to satisfy the cravings and longings of the heart. He is, in fact,“altogether lovely.” So that by his realized Personality we are saved from occupation with a pure abstraction, called the “absolute,” and the self-effacement to which the Indian dreamers and others are led, as the hope and consequence of their speculation. The definiteness of the historic Person is thus placed in antagonism to the dreamy indefiniteness of speculation about the absolute. Again, the human mind is introspective and self-reliant in its tendencies. Jesus Christ again applies the requisite check and antagonism to the dangerous tendency. His perfect life shows us by contrast how imperfect our lives are; his mission as Saviour demonstrates our spiritual need; and so we end by taking up self-suspicion in place of self-confidence, and we delight ourselves in the Lord alone. Thus it may be seen that the life of Jesus, especially when we remember his Divinity and omnipotence, becomes a personal interest and a reforming power?
IV. THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IS THE RESULT OF THE PERSONAL CHRIST INFLUENCING AS THEY NEEDED IT THE WILLING SONS OF MEN. The Book of the Acts has to be taken as the development of the Gospel. In it we see the Lord adding to the Church of such as shall be saved, and accomplishing his sacred purposes through human instrumentalities. The people are made willing in the day of his Pentecostal power (Ps. 110:3). The great Personality is thus seen to be moulding men. It has been said truly that Christianity has been a progress through antagonism (of. Hebberd, ut supra). Paganism was a development; Christianity has been a history of restraint. It has curbed men’s passions, and conducted them through antagonism to their goal. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal. 5:17). This policy of restraint or antagonism may be traced through Church histroy. Only an outline can be here suggested. Mohammedanism was a providential restraint upon the growing superstitions of the early centuries. Catholicism again was a restraint upon the vandalism of the Germanic tribes, and by the establishment of feudalism it changed nomadic nations into settled and sympathizing patriots. Protestantism followed, to restrain the “spiritual despotism” which accompanied Catholicism, and secure freedom and the rights of the individual. Even the scientific spirit, as can easily be shown, is due to Protestantism, and if it threatens us, as it does, with unspiritual developments, Christianity will take a new start and antagonize that spirit with a wholesome assertion of the spiritual nature and rights of man (cf. Hebberd, ut supra). A great restraining Saviour is thus seen to be moving among men and using their freedom to serve his glorious designs. The Christian faith is simple trust in this historic yet immortal Person, who can consider and consult at once the majestic cycles of human progress and the minutest needs of those who trust him. We have certainty at the foundation of our faith, and a living Lord continually at our side.—R. M. E.
Vers. 5–25.—The inauguration of the dispensation of grace. From the prologue about the historic certainty of the Christian faith, we now proceed to the first stage of the wonderful history in the annunciation of the birth of the Baptist. In this we have Luke mounting higher than either Matthew or Mark. We can understand this since he was writing for a Gentile audience, and the speculative turn of Grecian minds would certainly lead to inquiries as to the origin of the leaders in the dispensation of grace. Luke satisfies all just demands, and with that exquisite taste which should regulate thought upon such themes. Let us notice the facts as presented to us.
I. THE LORD UTILIZED EXISTING ORGANIZATIONS. Just as we believe the New Testament eldership was based upon the Old Testament office of elder, so here we have the great reformer taken from the Aaronic priesthood. Once more is honour put upon the line of Aaron. The parents of the forerunner both belonged to the priestly tribe. They are, moreover, godly people, being “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (ver. 6). By which could not be meant that they were sinlessly perfect, especially since in such a case the ritual through which they regularly passed would have been strangely unmeaning. They were a pious, God-fearing pair, walking before the Lord, and striving to be perfect. And here we may draw attention to the advantage John thus had in pious parents. It is, we believe, a physical advantage to be the offspring of those who have learned by God’s grace to subdue their passions, and who may otherwise be healthy. Other things being equal, their physical development must be superior to that of those whose parents may be addicted to any forms of sinful indulgence.
II. NOTICE THE TRIAL OF THEIR FAITH. This consisted in their having no child. With the Jews there was, added to the natural desire of husband and wife for children, the stimulus arising from the Messianic promises. A Deliverer is expected: why not in my family? Thus Jewish mothers were kept in an expectant attitude, not knowing but that the Messiah was to be their Son. We see in such psalms as 127, 128, etc., evidence how the Divine blessing was associated with fruitfulness. Zacharias and Elisabeth had hitherto been denied the blessing of any child, and, though they had continued to pray about it, they had ceased really to hope. Just like the people who prayed for the release of Peter, and then would not believe it was he when he came knocking at the door (Acts 12:12–16), so the aged priest and his wife seem to have kept up the form of prayer for a son long after they had ceased to expect such a gift. God keeps us waiting till we are hopeless, and then he surprises us with his blessings.
III. NOTICE NEXT THE PRAYING MULTITUDE AND THE OFFICIATING PRIEST. Zacharias belonged to the eighth of the priestly courses, and had consequently to come up twice a year for eight days’ attendance at the temple. Those belonging to the same course met and cast lots for the privilege of officiating at the golden altar. So soon as a priest secured the privilege once, he retired from the contest, as once during the sojourn at Jerusalem was deemed ample honour. Zacharias happened to be successful; the Lord’s will was that he should officiate on a given day. The lot left the destiny of each absolutely in the hands of the Lord. It is quite a different matter when people make an appeal to him in games of chance and such like. Into the sanctuary (ναὸν) of the Lord accordingly he went, to burn incense at the morning hour, as seems most probable. And while he burned the pure perfume within, the multitude of the people prayed without. It was an acknowledgment that their prayers required something to make them acceptable. They could not ascend alone. And was this not the idea of the arrangement? Man’s prayers needed to be supplemented by a divinely arranged perfume, just as we now expect our prayers to be accepted only through the merits of Jesus Christ. Again, must we not suppose that the people were praying for deliverance and the advent of the Deliverer? Their prayers and the aged priest’s were really one. There was unison and harmony, even though presented from different standpoints. The people without and the priest within were acting in “pre-established harmony.”
IV. THE ANGEL OF JOY APPEARS IN THE SANCTUARY. It was upon the path of duty Zacharias met the angel, just as Jacob had done long before at Mahanaim (Gen. 32:1). Gabriel’s visit at first terrified the solitary priest. But as the angel of glad tidings and so, as he has been called, “of evangelization” (cf. Godet, in loc.), he soon reassures Zacharias. He tells him that his wife is to bear him a son, and his name is to be called “John.” 1. This itself is significant. The word “John” is derived from הָנַן, and means “Jehovah giveth grace.” It thus signalized the dispensation. The Baptist was really the morning star of the gospel dispensation. 2. He was to be morally great. The gracious name would not belie his character. He would be “great in the sight of the Lord,” who “looketh on the heart.” 3. He was to be separated from the world as a true Nazarite. He was not to drink either wine or strong drink. 4. He was to be inspired from the womb. The inspiration from wine was needless, when he was to be borne upwards and constantly exhilarated by the Spirit of God (cf. Eph. 5:18). 5. He shall be correspondingly successful. “Many of the Jews shall he turn to the Lord their God.” 6. His reformation is to resemble that of Elias. Elijah lived to turn the nation to the worship of the true God; his work was preparatory, like the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, before the still small voice. So was it to be with John. He was by stern and solitary moral grandeur to bring the people to a sense of sin, and thus prepare them for the advent of the Saviour. No father ever got a more magnificent future laid before his son. The angel sketched a destiny which was fitted to make the old priest glad.
V. UNBELIEF INSISTING ON A FURTHER SIGN. The appearance of Gabriel, the transparent honesty of his words, the holy place, the whole circumstance of the vision, ought to have assured Zacharias and rebuked his unbelief. Here, after four hundred years of silence, a message has come again from God; and surely it should have been believed. But no! Zacharias asks for a further sign. Has he forgotten Abraham and Sarah? Has he forgotten Isaac and Rebecca? Surely the priest, though aged and with an aged wife, had every reason to believe the angel-brought promise of his God? His unbelief was criminal. He deserves a chastisement. The demand for miracles at the present day is on the part of some just as unreasonable. Unless some additional sign is granted, then faith will be withheld. There is a scepticism which deserves chastisement instead of sympathy or encouragement. And Zacharias is struck dumb. He is doomed to speechlessness for the most of a year. His dumbness was to be a sign of his unbelief and a pure judgment from God. We may compare his case with that of the man born blind (John 9:2, etc.). In this case the deprivation was to be the basis of Divine mercy; in the case of Zacharias it was a clear note of Divine displeasure. Yet with judgment there is mixed mercy. He is promised a release on the day of the birth of John. For God’s “anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).
VI. THE PATIENT WORSHIPPERS AND THE DUMB PRIEST. The burning of incense occupied usually a certain length of time. But Zacharias tarries long beyond this. The people wait, but marvel as they wait. They wish his benediction. But when he at length appears, he can only make signs to them, and dismiss them without a word. And yet a sign is there for them. They see that a vision has been vouchsafed in the temple. If the priest is silent, it is because God has spoken. Better that man should be dumb before God, than that Heaven should be silent for ever! Zacharias’s judgment is to the people a merciful sign. The week of temple-work was no sooner over than he went home to his house in the hill-country of Judæ. His affliction must have been very painful and humiliating. He would be regarded by his friends as one “smitten of the Lord.” But in due season the mercy and grace of God are realized in the Baptist’s conception. If Zacharias mourned over his unbelief and its chastisement, Elisabeth was enabled to rejoice over her good fortune and the removal of her reproach.
We have thus gone over the announcement of a great man’s advent. Are not the truly great the gracious gifts of God? They should be called “John,” as indicating whence the true heroes come, and to whom we should ascribe the blessing of their lives. A recent writer says that society has progressed mainly through a succession of great men, and he adds, “Society makes only so much of the great man as goes to the composition of the average man, leaving an overplus which is not to be put to the credit of society or previous human acquisition, but which is a gift from nature—from the Unknown. It makes all of the great man except his special genius, which is afterwards to improve society.” If in this quotation we substitute for “nature,” nature’s God, we shall have the true idea. Great men are God’s gifts, and though the world may, as in this case, misuse and murder them, they confer, through confession and martyrdom, incalculable blessing upon the race. It is only right for us to recognize in God the Source of great souls, and to use them for his glory.—R. M. E.
Vers. 26–38.—“The Beginning of the creation of God.” We now enter upon another announcement, more wonderful still than that about John. It is the announcement about the advent of him who is indeed “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14). A deeper interest should gather round it than attaches to the beginning of the material universe. Both begin in mystery, but happily we see the mystery by the eye of faith safely lodged in the hand of God. Genesis gives to us the mysterious origin of the ordinary creation, and Luke gives to us the mysterious origin of the extraordinary creation of which Jesus is the real Head.
I. WE SHALL NOTICE THE SCENE OF THIS ANGEL-VISIT. We saw Gabriel last in the temple, holding intercourse beyond the first veil with Zacharias as he offered the incense. He was in “the holy place,” on the threshold of “the holy of holies.” But now, by way of contrast, he repairs to Nazareth, that city of Galilee so hidden in the hills that all who for various reasons needed a hiding-place resorted thither. It was a rendezvous for the worst of people, and became proverbial as the one place out of which no good thing need be expected (John 1:46). It was here the angel of mercy made his way to carry good tidings to one in whose veins was the blood of kings. The house of David had fallen indeed on evil days when its lineal representative was to be found in a virgin betrothed to the village carpenter. Meanwhile let us comfort ourselves with the thought that angel-visits, though reputedly few and far between, are not confined to temple-courts or palaces of earthly kings. The lowliest of situations and the lowliest hearts may be honoured by a messenger from heaven.
II. THE MESSAGE GABRIEL BROUGHT. Having sought and found the virgin who was espoused to Joseph, he first addressed to her a remarkable salutation. He salutes her as one who is (1) “highly favoured” (κεχαριτωμένη), that is, the object of special favour from God; and (2) as one enjoying God’s special presence—“The Lord is with thee.” The other clause, “Blessed art thou among women,” seems to be transferred from the subsequent salutation of Elisabeth (ver. 42; and cf. Revised Version). It was a very gracious assurance Gabriel brought to Mary. She needed all the support it gave her in her present trying position. The immediate effect upon her mind was fear. She is troubled at the unexpected apparition. But it led her to deep thoughtfulness. It has been well said that praise comes as a surprise to the meek, but as a right, or rather less than a right, to the proud. Mary was thrown by her fear into anxious thought as to what particular good fortune could be hers. Her idea was that she deserved nothing, and so she could the more thoroughly appreciate whatever came. What a relish Divine favour would be if we had Mary’s meekness! Gabriel now bids her no longer to fear, since she has found favour with God, and her good fortune is to consist in this—that she is to be the mother of an everlasting Monarch. But we must pause over Gabriel’s message. 1. The name of her Son is to be Jesus. That is, he is to be a Saviour of men from sin (cf. Matt. 1:21). The world has had Joshuas in abundance, captains of invasion, but only one Jesus as a Saviour from the curse and power of sin. 2. He is to be great. And assuredly, if moral influence and genius constitute the highest greatness, Jesus has no equal among the sons of men. 3. He is to be called the Son of the Highest. God is to be his Father in a special sense. This does not refer to his “Eternal Sonship,” but to his human sonship. He is to stand to God in the relation of son to father, so far as his human nature is concerned. Mary is thus to be the mother of God’s Son. 4. He is to succeed to the throne of his father David. Now, are we to understand this of a succession to a world-kingdom, and a “personal reign” over the Jews? If this be the meaning, then this reign is still to come, for through the rejection of Messiah this kingship was prevented. And so some interpret this (cf.Godet, in loc.). But our Lord’s own words about the unworldliness of his kingdom seem to set this idea at rest. He came to be King over a spiritual kingdom. Now, David, we should remember, was a great ecclesiastical reformer. He exercised commanding influence in the Church as well as State of his time; and he realized his vice gerency under God. Jesus succeeds David upon the spiritual lines which were the chief lines of David’s influence as king. 5. His reign and kingdom are to be everlasting. His is to be no dying dynasty, but an everlasting rule. Emperors and kings have come and gone, and left their glory behind them; but this Son of Mary commands more influence every year, and knows no decline. The kingdoms of the world run a longer or shorter course; but Christ’s kingdom outlasts them all. Such a message was fitted to overwhelm an ordinary mind. Mary is to be the mother of a new King, and he is never to be uncrowned—an everlasting Monarch! Surely an ordinary head would be turned by such tidings as these.
III. HOW MARY TAKES THE MESSAGE. She is so meek that her head is not turned. She is in amazement certainly, but there is calm dignity and purity in her reply. 1. She asks how such a birth is to come about since she is a virgin? This was not the inquiry of a doubter, but of a believer. She wanted direction. Was she to go on with her proposed marriage with Joseph? or was she to break with him? or was she to do nothing but wait? Gabriel directs her to wait passively in God’s hands, and all he has promised will come supernaturally about. Just as the Spirit overshadowed the old chaotic world, and brought the cosmos out of it, so would be overshadow Mary, and give her a holy Son. Mary was to sit still and see the salvation of God. And here we must notice that it was a “holy Child” which the world required as a Saviour, one in whom the law of sin affecting the rest of the race should be broken, who would be “holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.” David may say, “In sin did my mother conceive me;” but no such language must be heard from the lips of Christ. This moral break, this exception to the general rule, is brought about by a supernatural conception and birth. Is there not here a lesson about leaving things sometimes in God’s hands altogether? It is a great thing sometimes to sit still and do nothing; to cultivate passivity. Like the Virgin, let us simply wait. As a further direction, Gabriel suggests a visit to Elisabeth, that her faith in God’s power may be confirmed. The intercourse with her aged relative will do her a world of good in present circumstances. There in the hill-country of Judæa she will find increasing reason for trusting in God. 2. Mary accepts the situation with all its risks. Her submission is an instance of the holiest courage. She cannot but become for a time an object of suspicion to Joseph, and to many more. Her reputation will be for a time at stake. It is a terrible ordeal to encounter. But she bows to the Divine will, and asks God to do with her as he pleases. Faith alone could sustain her in such circumstances. God would vindicate her character in due season. How much are we willing to risk for our Lord? Would we risk reputation, the most precious portion of our heritage, if God clearly asked us to do so? This was what Mary was ready to do. In other words, are we ready to put God before personal reputation? Is he worthy in our eyes even of such a sacrifice?
IV. NOTICE THAT WE HAVE HERE AN INTIMATION HOW THE NEW CREATION MUST BEGIN WITHIN US. The angel-message comes to us, as to Mary, that “Christ” may be formed in us “the Hope of glory.” What we have got to do is just to wait for the overshadowing as Mary did. It comes to the waiting and expectant souls. Not the waiting of indifference, but the waiting of expectancy, secures the great blessing. Let us cease from our own efforts, let us be still, and we shall indeed see the salvation of God!—R. M. E.
Vers. 39–56.—Inspirations amid the hills of Judæa. We already have seen the angel suggesting to Mary the propriety of visiting Elisabeth. We may reasonably believe that she had no mother at this time to whom she could communicate her mighty secret, and that Elisabeth is the most likely person from whom to get the sympathy she now required. For the four days’ journey from Nazareth to the priest’s city in the south she would need some preparation; but she made her arrangements promptly, going “with haste,” and reached the home of the dumb priest without delay. If she had any fear and trembling on the way as to how she would be received, it was instantly dissipated through timely inspirations. And here let us notice—
I. THE INSPIRATION GRANTED TO ELISABETH. (Vers. 42–45.) And here we may mark the directness of the inspired address. There was no lengthened introduction, no conversation about health, or weather, or news, but an immediate mention of the all important matter which concerned the Virgin. 1. Elisabeth assures Mary of her signal blessedness in being selected to be the mother of Messiah. She was to be the blessed mother of a blessed Son. How delightful a balm this would be to Mary’s anxious hearts! Instead of suspicion, there is a salutation such as a princess might thankfully receive. 2. Elisabeth beautifully depreciates herself. It is the way the Spirit takes with those he indeed inspires. It is not boastfulness, but self-depreciation he implants within them. Elisabeth feels herself so unworthy, that she wonders the mother of Messiah deigns to visit her! A royal visit would not have been to the priest’s wife such an honour. She is Mary’s humble servant, because Mary is to be the mother of her Lord. In fact, had Mary been a queen, she could not have been more lovingly and reverentially treated. 3. A holy joy thrills through her from Mary’s advent. It was the “chief joy” of human hearts asserting his marvellous power. The Holy Ghost conducts the humble woman to the most entrancing joy. 4. Mary’s faith is recognized and encouraged. The contrast between Mary’s faith and Zacharias’s doubt must have been very marked. The poor priest is stealing about the house dumb, while Mary is in the enjoyment of all her faculties and powers. Elisabeth would rejoice that Mary, through unhesitating faith, had escaped such a judgment as her husband was enduring. The blessedness of faith in God cannot be too emphatically asserted. It is the secret of real happiness just to take him at his word. As the “faithful Promiser” he never disappoints any who put their faith in his promised aid. Not only do we who believe enter into rest (Heb. 4:3), but we also enter into blessedness (cf. μακαρία of ver. 45).
II. THE INSPIRATION OF MARY. (Vers. 46–55.) We have in the Magnificat of Mary the noblest of Christian hymns. There are traces of such earlier efforts as Hannah’s prayer; but this only brings out the continuity of the revelation, and in no way affects the originality of Mary’s inspiration. And here let us notice: 1. How God is the Source of Mary’s joy. It is not in herself she rejoices, but in God as her Saviour. This is the great fact we have all got to realize—that our Saviour, not our state, is the fountain of joy. And when we consider his power, and his revealed purposes, and the course of his redeeming love, we must acknowledge that there is in him abundant reason for our joy. Mary felt in body, soul, and spirit the joy of her Lord. 2. Mary recognizes in her own selection the condescending love of God. It is not those the world would select as instruments whom God chooses. The world selects the rich. God chooses “the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him” (Jas. 2:5); so here Mary signalizes her “low estate” as magnifying her Lord’s condescending love. How beautiful a spirit to cultivate! Instead of the honour done her unduly exalting her, it only leads her to adore the Divine condescension in stooping to such as she was. 3. She believes in her everlasting fame. She knows that the Incarnation will prove such a stupendous fact that all generations will call her blessed. As the mother of Messiah, she cannot but have the homage of all coming generations. She ought consequently to be with all of us “the blessed mother of the Christ of God.” 4. She feels herself the subject of great mercy from the Holy One. And is this not the acknowledgment which all God’s people may make? Hath he not done great things for all his people, whereof they are glad (Ps. 126:1)? 5. She takes the widest views of God’s dealings with others. Thus she recognizes: (1) That those who fear God receive his mercy in every generation. (Ver. 50.) This is the law of mercy—it is given to those who fear God. It was never meant to encourage men in recklessness or presumption. (2) The proud experience his dispersive power. (Ver. 51.) This is brought out in history. The Jewish captivities, their present dispersion, “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire,” and many a judgment since, have been illustrations of this line of procedure on the part of the Most High. (3) The deposition of rulers and the exaltation of the humble. (Ver. 52.) Mary is here speaking of the usurpers in Palestine, and the exaltation of those they despised. The law was marvellously illustrated in the case of Mary’s Son, whose exaltation above all dynasties is the greatest fact in civilization (cf. δυνάστας of ver. 52). (4) The satisfaction of the needy, and the disappointment of the rich. (Ver. 53.) Here is another aspect of the law of the Divine dealings. Those who feel their need, and hunger after satisfaction, receive it from God. Mary experienced this, and so do all who really hunger after God and righteousness. They have a beatitude always in store for them (Matt. 5:6). On the other hand, those who are rich, that is, who feel independent and will not look to the Lord for help, who have, in short, “received their consolation,” are sent empty away. Disappointment sooner or later becomes their portion. This was the experience of Pharisee and Sadducee and all the well-to-do and self-righteous classes in our Lord’s time. And undoubtedly the arrangement is just. (5) The fidelity of God to his covenant with Israel. (Vers. 54, 55.) In the Incarnation God was sending real help to his people. It was the crowning act of mercy, and the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham and his seed. Mary thus began with God’s holiness, and passed in review his power, his mercy, and finally his faithfulness. All these are illustrated pre eminently in the Incarnation.
III. THESE INSPIRATION PRESENT TO US THE CHARACTER OF THE GOSPEL. For we have before us two lowly women, deep in their self-abasement. The self-righteous spirit has been annihilated within them, and they are thus fitted to be God’s instruments. Secondly, we find them maintaining this beautiful spirit after they have become the special objects of the Divine favour. Grace does not spoil them, but provokes within them gratitude. They abound in praise, not in pride. Thirdly, they enter into hopes for their people and the world, as well as for themselves. It is so with real Christians. They become of necessity large-hearted. The inspirations received lead to outbursts of joyful anticipation for all the world. The assertion of Luke that Mary returned home (ver. 56) does not necessarily imply that she did not wait for John’s birth and circumcision. The probabilities are in favour of supposing that she did so wait, and received the additional consolations which the song of Zacharias was so fitted to bring. Strengthened by her long visit to Elisabeth, she would be the better able to go back to Nazareth and brave all suspicion there. God, by a special communication, made Joseph’s suspicion altogether to cease, and Mary was taken by him as wife, instead of being privately divorced. The Virgin’s trust in God smoothing her way was thus gloriously fulfilled (Matt. 1:18–25), and she found herself passing onwards upon a path of peace towards that signal influence and power which she has exercised among men.—R. M. E.
Vers. 57–80.—The birth and development of the Baptist. We now pass from the inspirations of the holy women to the birth of the Baptist. We have before us what one has well denominated “a pious family in their good fortune.” As this preacher observes, we have here “the mother in her joy, the father with his song of praise, and the little child and his development.” We cannot do better than allow our thoughts to group themselves round these three persons in this order.
I. CONTEMPLATE THE MOTHER IN HER JOY. (Vers. 57–63.) A mother with a firstborn son embodies as much joy as we can well imagine in a world like this. All pain and anguish over and forgotten in the mighty fruition (cf. John 16:21). Next there would be messages sent to friends, “neighbours and cousins,” who would be expected to call with congratulations. And they gave their congratulations without stint—“They rejoiced with her.” Next came the circumcision and the naming of the child, and the idea of the neighbours was that they could not do better than call him “Zacharias,” i.e. “one whom Jehovah remembers,” after his priestly father. But the joyful mother has a new name to give her son, and, though none of her ancestors have borne it, he must be called “John,” which, as already noticed, signifies “Jehovah giveth grace.” The new name is to herald the nature of the dispensation. The friends are not satisfied, however, until they consult the dumb father. They accordingly make signs to him how he would have him called, and he, with most serious deliberation, wrote on the tablet, “His name is John.” It was a revelation to the neighbours, and they took it as such, and “marvelled all.” The joyful mother had thus the satisfaction of seeing her firstborn son introduced to the Jewish Church by the rite of circumcision, and receiving a name which was itself a promise of great grace from God. What a joy it should be to parents to have their little children thus early introduced into the Church of God, and identified with its brightening prospects!
II. CONTEMPLATE THE FATHER PRAISING GOD. (Vers. 64, 67–79.) The dumb priest now regains his speech, and no sooner is his mouth opened than he bursts into praise. Doubtless he praised God for his judgment on himself and for his mercy in the gift of the goodly child. He was able then to sing of both (cf. Ps. 101:1). Moreover, the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of prophecy filled him, so that his praise took the beautiful poetic form here given. And this song of Zacharias divides itself into two portions—first, the establishment of the theocracy under Messiah (vers. 67–75); and secondly, the apostrophe to the little child about his part in the work of reformation (vers. 75–79). To these let us devote a few thoughts. 1. The establishment of the theocracy under Messiah. As a priest, Zacharias naturally looked at the new movement from an ecclesiastical and patriotic point of view. Hence he praised God for the deliverance of his people through raising up a horn for them in the house of his servant David. This horn, the symbol of “might,” is the Messiah who is to be born of Mary. But what salvation is it to be? In the usual Jewish spirit, he speaks of it as a salvation from enemies and all that hate the people of the Lord. In other words, the inspired priest looks and longs for a national deliverance. And the true patriot can long for nothing, less. The blessing which he praises God for on his own account, he desires for all his race. At the same time, it is to be noticed that it is pious parents who are to realize the mercy—parents “who had hoped for the blessing of their seed, and had mourned over the misery of their posterity.” Such were hoping always on the covenant-promises, and now they were to have them fulfilled. But it is to be further noticed that the national deliverance expected is a means, not an end. It is only that the theocratic idea may be carried out by the emancipated people, and God served by them without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all their days. It is here that the great difference between worldly aspirations and spiritual ones is to be appreciated. If people hope for blessing that they may the better serve and please themselves, then they are simply worldly and selfish; but if they seek blessing to fit them to serve God, they are entering into the nobility of his kingdom. It is the reign of God within us and around us which we should always hope for and try to promote. 2. The priest’s apostrophe to his little child. In the father’s address to little John we see the spirituality which underlay his hope. His boy is to be a prophet of the Most High, something superadded to the priestly privileges which belonged to the family by right of birth. By word of mouth, therefore, is he to prepare his Lord’s way. But his message is to be in the first instance about “remission of sins.” In other words, the reformation hoped for is to be moral. Beginning in pardon and penitence, it will indeed be the dawn of a better day to many who have been sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, and the “guiding light” into the way of peace. John is thus to be the herald of the dawn. The Messiah is the “Sun of Righteousness,” whose presence constitutes the day. He enables us to say, “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). John is to be the voice in the desert to apprise the wandering and stumbling “caravan” of the approach of dawn and its guidance into peaceful paths. And, as we shall see, the moral reformation under John became national, so that before Messiah’s baptism “all the people were baptized” (ch. 3:21).
III. CONTEMPLATE THE LITTLE CHILD’S DEVELOPMENT. (Vers. 66, 80.) The result of such prophecies connected with the circumcision of the child was the growth of a wholesome “fear” throughout all the hill-country of Judæa. The people began to hope for important changes. And their hopes were so far confirmed by the development of John. In the first place, “the hand of the Lord,” i.e. Divine power and grace, “was with him.” He grew up a spiritually minded boy. All who saw the priest’s son concluded that God was with him in his grace and love. There are children who grow up with the stamp of heaven upon their whole lives. The Spirit of God is manifestly moving them along the true path. In the second place, he had due physical development. “He grew.” A dedicated boy, a Nazarite from his youth, he grew up robustly on his plain fare, physically fit for the life of toil which was before him. In the third place, “he waxed strong in spirit.” His whole inward man more than kept pace with outward growth. He was not only a good and growing lad, but also heroic in his mental progress. The inspired boy was getting strength to become one of God’s heroes. In the last place, he betook himself to the deserts until such times as he was manifested to Israel. It was to be a development amid the solitude of the desert down towards the Dead Sea which John was to realize. God was his Teacher. Even the poor Essenes, who lived a life of asceticism in the neighbourhood, must have kept John at a distance, and so made his loneliness the more intense. And yet it may be safely said that no one has ever done much for God who has not been much alone with him. It is the communion of the lowly spirit with the Supreme which fits for high service. A desert, and not a garden of Eden, may often be the fittest environment for the consecrated soul, seeing that he is thereby thrown more completely upon God. Like Moses and Elijah, John has his long season of solitude with God, and then he comes forth radiant for the work he has to do in Israel. May such a development as John’s be realized by many!—R. M. E.
Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Hrsg.). (1909). St. Luke (Bd. 1, S. 1–36). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.


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