The scene opens. Mary had just told the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . . May it be done to me as you have said” (NIV translation). She has agreed to be the mother of the Messiah, and the angel Gabriel has just left her to return to the presence of God in heaven. She is now alone, with her mind filled with thoughts and her heart filled with emotions. “What do I do now?” “Has the angel’s announcement already happened?” “Am I already pregnant?” “How will I know?” “Who can I share all these amazing occurrences with?”
That’s where we begin our study of Luke 1:39-56. The answers to those questions, and what happens next, are all found in this passage of Scripture.
I. THE JOY OF ELIZABETH (verses 39-45)
Once Mary is able to gain some control over her thoughts and emotions, she remembers the angel’s words about Elizabeth. “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was barren is now in her sixth month.” From the response that follows, Mary may have thought, “Elizabeth is having a supernatural pregnancy also! We have that in common! She’s the only person I can talk to about these things that the angel told me. I can’t tell Joseph since I’m not sure it has happened yet or when it will happen. Her home will be a place of safety for me, and I can be of service to her.” Are you getting the picture of Mary’s dilemma?
Verse 39 says, “Now at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country to a city of Judah”. Mary probably grabbed a few necessities for the trip, and may have left a note for her parents and for Joseph explaining that she had gone to Elizabeth to help her in the final trimester of her pregnancy. Then she took off “in haste” to avoid any conversations and questions from family, friends, and neighbors. The home of Zacharias and Elizabeth was 80 miles away, a journey of four to five days on foot. In her haste to get there, Mary may have arrived in four days or even less. She had plenty to think about along the way! But all the travelling is going to be worth the effort on her part. Her visit with Elizabeth and Zacharias is going to be beyond her highest expectations! The Spirit of God is going to do some amazing things!
As Mary reaches the hill country of Judah and the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth is in sight, she has been rehearsing in her mind what she is going to say to Elizabeth and how she is going to say it. There is probably some uneasiness about how this information is going to be received and the responses she might get. However, when she enters their house and greets Elizabeth, the Spirit of God takes it from there and performs a miracle to her amazement. Verse 41 says, “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” I’m not sure that Mary observed those two things happening to Elizabeth, but she certainly heard the results. The Holy Spirit immediately informed Elizabeth that Mary was pregnant with the Messiah, and then the Spirit took control of her voice as she described what happened and why it happened. Verse 42 says, “And she (Elizabeth) cried out with a loud voice, and said, ‘Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.” Her voice was ecstatic and loud. Notice that Elizabeth says “blessed among women”, not blessed above women. It is a place of unmerited privilege, not a place of veneration or worship. Her words were a confirmation to Mary that she was already pregnant. “But how could she have known that information?”, Mary wonders. “I haven’t told anyone that information and the news couldn’t have travelled that fast. God must have told her.”
The answer comes in Elizabeth’s next statement in verse 43: “And how is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth not only knows that Mary is pregnant, but also that she is pregnant with the Messiah. This is a second confirmation of the angel Gabriel words to her. In verse 44, Elizabeth describes to Mary what happened within her womb when she heard her voice. “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”
You mothers know what it looks like and feels like when your baby has moved around in your womb, especially when you are close to term. Fathers and older brothers and sisters have watched wide-eyed. and with bursts of laughter, when the baby’s arm, elbow, or foot, protrudes in your belly. It’s an amazing sight to watch and enjoy!
What Elizabeth described to Mary went well beyond the usual occurrence. You might say that her experience was a miracle in itself. It makes you wonder what it must have felt like when it happened! I wonder whether the unborn John the Baptist was not only jumping for joy, but also assuming a position of worship before the Messiah in Mary’s womb. Just a thought.
Finally, Elizabeth says in verse 45: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” The Holy Spirit had even given Elizabeth insight into Mary’s heart, and Mary’s faith in God’s promise. Because Elizabeth is saying these things under the control of the Spirit, this commendation of Mary comes not only from Elizabeth but also from God Himself.
II. THE JOY OF MARY (verses 46-56)
After hearing these words from Elizabeth, Mary’s heart is overflowing with praise and thanksgiving to God. She responds with one of the most beautiful and worshipful prayers or declarations of praise to God in the Scriptures. It is often called the Magnificat. The Latin Vulgate translation begins with the words “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“My soul magnifies the Lord”). The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible states: “Some of the greatest works of Christian art have been produced around the Magnificat themes. Artists, poets and musicians have celebrated its theme of joy at the salvation now graciously offered mankind through the gift of the Messiah.”
Mary’s words are similar to the words of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, where Hannah praises and thanks God for giving her a son (Samuel). You might want to read that passage of Scripture and compare the two prayers.
This declaration of praise to God reveals much to us about Mary’s character, her knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, her concept of God, and her trust in Him. Let’s take a closer look at her words as she declares the greatness of God’s character, and His wonderful deeds. Before we study the individual verses of Mary’s declaration of praises, let’s look at all ten verses of the Magnificat so that you can see the whole prayer at once.
“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble estate of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me. And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm.
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever”
That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? With just a few modifications we could turn that into our own declaration of praise to God. As we see, this young lady (Mary) must have spent a lot of time meditating on God’s Word.
Mary begins by expressing the source of her praise and joy. In verse 46 she refers to God as Lord, and in verse 47 she calls Him my Savior. She is echoing the words of Hannah in I Samuel 2, and the words of David in Psalm 35:9. Like everyone else, Mary had to acknowledge Him as Lord, repent of her sins, and receive His salvation.
In verses 48 and 49, Mary rejoices in what God has done for her personally. Though she is the least of His servants, God has blessed her with the undeserved privilege of being the mother of the Messiah, who is now in her womb, and every generation will acknowledge this blessing of God upon her. The focus of her attention is on God, and not on herself. He is the one who has done these things. As she says in verse 49: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” I am impressed by Mary’s humility and her willing surrender to God’s will, as well as her concept of God’s power and holiness.
In the next section of her song, Mary includes those who are in the same socio-economic condition as herself (poor, humble and despised followers of Him). Quoting from Psalms 103, 98, and 118, she praises God for His faithful mercies as He scatters the proud, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty-handed. Quoting from Job 5, Mary declares how God has exalted the humble and brought down rulers from their thrones. Mary knows the Word of God, and her praise and confidence in Him is based upon God’s faithfulness to keep His Word.
Lastly, Mary gives praise to God for the things He has done for His people Israel. In her prayer of praise she recalls to her mind Genesis 17:7 and 17:19, declaring God’s forever-promises to Abraham and his descendants: the land, the seed, and the blessing to all nations. Many other passages in the book of Genesis are included in these promises.
After Mary finishes her hymn of praise, the Gospel writer Luke writes these words: “And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home” (verse 56). “Three months” – so for three months Mary and Elizabeth were praising God together for what God was doing in their lives. Zacharias was praising God also. We just don’t have any word from him. He was speechless until after his son was born.
HAVE YOU FOUND REASONS TO REJOICE?
I think my favorite definition of worship is the one written by William Temple. He was an Anglican minister, an advocate for social reform, and served as an archbishop for many years. We have a William Temple House and a William Temple Thrift Store here in Portland, Oregon. He says: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.” As I look at Mary’s prayer again, I find that she employed all of those characteristics of worship. Mary declares God’s holiness and quotes from God’s Word several times. She focuses on God’s character (His mercy, power, sovereignty, provision, and faithfulness). As she expresses these words you can tell that her heart is filled with love for Him, and she counts it a privilege to serve Him.
Beloved, do you find it hard at times, as I do, to express praise and worship to God? Do frustrations and distractions put you out-of-focus sometimes and rob you of joy and thankfulness to God? What has often helped to restore my focus on God and an attitude of worship and praise has been to read one or more of the Psalms and reflect upon the character of God and His concern for us. As a result of this study, I’m also adding the prayer of Mary and the prayer of Hannah to my list of Scripture passages to read in order to prepare my heart for worship. Many recording artists have recorded renditions of the psalms and other passages on YouTube. Esther Mui, for example sings beautifully many of the psalms as well as other worshipful passages of Scripture. You can read the lyrics as she sings and the photos are awesome. She is one of many artists who have placed their songs on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.
I hope that you have found reasons to rejoice and worship God. If not, let’s start finding resources today. I’ve given you a place to start. I hope you will carry your quest for an attitude of worship and praise beyond my suggestions, and give some suggestions to me as well.
An illustration I just read caused me to realize that we will know when we are truly worshipping and praising God in our hearts because we will feel the nearness of His presence and experience the joy of His presence. Here is the illustration: After attending church one Sunday morning, a little boy knelt at his bedside and prayed, “Dear God, we had a good time at church today — but I wish you had been there!”
May you experience the nearness of God’s presence and the joy of His presence today as you take time to praise and worship Him.