Two Joyful Testimonies

Sermon Series
Book of the Bible
Luke 1:39–56

Two Joyful Testimonies (Luke 1:39–56) from South Woods Baptist Church on Vimeo.

On some occasions I hold an immeasurable joy deep in my heart. As a pastor, there will be a member that will give me a heads-up on some wonderful news: a marriage proposal, a long-awaited pregnancy, a new job borne out of prayer, a special recognition or honor, a call to a pastorate. And I have to sit on that kind of news, waiting until that member goes public. In those settings joy bounces around my inner being until the time it’s made known.

While good news is meant to be shared, its timing is important. One must not announce a marriage proposal until the bride has accepted! Those knowing the details beforehand feel a depth of joy as they wait until others share that joy.

That’s something of what we find in this familiar story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth. Both held good news in their hearts. And yet here was no ordinary joy that others could claim from time to time. Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age—joyous enough—but she bore a special son prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi as the one that would prepare for and announce the arrival of the Messiah (Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1; 4:5–6). No other mother in human history could make that claim. That’s a lot of joy held in the heart!

And then there is Mary, a teenage girl from the obscure village of Nazareth in the region of Galilee that had just encountered the angel Gabriel who announced to her the best of the good news. She would conceive in her womb by the overshadowing work of the Holy Spirit, and carry for nine months the Son of God that would be given the throne of David and rule over an eternal kingdom. At that point, no one else on the face of the earth knew what God had done in the virgin’s womb. No one. Yet she held that best of good news with intense joy in her heart.

Within days of the virginal conception, Mary came to Elizabeth’s home some 80–100 miles and three to five days journey away. As soon as Mary offered her greeting, joy exploded, as these two women became the only two people living on the earth that knew what God was doing. Certainly, they didn’t understand everything happening, as Luke bears out, but they understood that the promises of God made centuries earlier to redeem a people for Himself were being answered. God had sent His Son as Savior and Lord. Mary and Elizabeth knew that joy while the rest of humanity waited for the good news to be unleashed like a joy-filled torrent that would change the human race, undo the effects of the fall, and restore image-bearers in a renewed world.

That’s the context for “two joyful testimonies” that we consider. Here’s what they discovered. God accomplishes the needed by doing the unexpected. The story is not about Mary and Elizabeth but about the God that accomplished man’s greatest need in the most unexpected way. What happened when they saw what God had done? For that matter, what happens when we see and believe what God has done? Let’s think about it together.

1. Converging joys

In an ancient culture dominated by men with women crushed under the arrogance of supposed-male superiority, God made known His eternal plans to two ladies: one old and barren, but now with child; the other young and a virgin, with child by the Holy Spirit. Luke’s record serves notice that God doesn’t countenance the prideful ways of mankind.

We’re accustomed to those governing us knowing things that the rest of us don’t. So leaks drift out to get the pulse of public opinion on whatever it might be. Tell-all books later inform us of what we didn’t know. Those kinds of things don’t meet with joy.

But here we see joy happening so fast that it is recorded in God’s Word for us to ponder as we think of the hearing of the “good news” of Jesus Christ.

Act on God’s declaration: While Zacharias wallowed for a bit in unbelief, Elizabeth and Mary both acted by faith on the divine declarations given through the angel Gabriel. We see this in verse 39. “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah.” No sooner had Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her womb with the conception of God’s Son, than she made her plans, and hastily began the three to five day journey to a village outside of Jerusalem where Elizabeth lived. She went because the angel told her about God’s power at work in Elizabeth for her to conceive. Seeing Elizabeth would encourage Mary’s faith.

By that time, Mary’s conception had taken place. No one else knew. Joseph would later discover the truth about Mary but that would be a time when it was physically obvious that she was pregnant, and so he sought to break the engagement (betrothal) in a quiet way (Matt 1:18–25). So the conception took place and within a few days she’s off to this little village to meet up with her relative Elizabeth.

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” A six-months pregnant woman knows the experience of her baby kicking and moving. But something unusual happened simultaneously with Mary’s greeting. “The baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” As some of the older writers point out, John the Baptist preached his first sermon without words! Phil Ryken quips, “John the Baptist was the only child ever to use a womb for a pulpit.”[1] By leaping in the womb, he testified of Jesus the Messiah having come into the world. And his mother believed his lively message.

Gabriel had told Zacharias that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15)—an obviously unusual act by God that demonstrated John’s special office as the Messiah’s forerunner. His leaping led to Elizabeth’s recognition that Messiah had come, and that led to the Lord God acting with confirmation upon her faith in God’s promise of Christ by filling her with the Spirit. John the Apostle wrote many years later that those believing in Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39). What happened to Elizabeth with the indwelling and filling of the Spirit happens to all believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. While she didn’t fully grasp everything about Christ that believers thirty years later would begin to understand, without question, the Spirit testified of Elizabeth’s faith that Christ had come.

Exult in God’s revelation. One of the most obvious signs of hearing and believing the good news of the gospel that Jesus Christ the Savior has come is joy—unfettered, uninhibited, and often unexplainable joy. The scene in Elizabeth’s house gives evidence of that happening. Again, neither of these women understood with precision at that point what John the Apostle explained with detail in John 19–21 or Paul expounded in Romans 1–12, but they knew the promise of God and believed Him. Sometimes we think that before we can believe God’s promise in Christ that we must have a mature understanding of every detail. But the New Testament kicks that view to the curb. We see the thief on the cross looking to Christ, as we do Cornelius and the Philippian jailer, with none having deep theological understanding. Instead, they believed God’s promise in Christ and looked to Christ and were saved. The same happened with these ladies. So they exulted in God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.

The Greek is cumbersome in verse 42 in order to make the point. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, “exclaimed shouting loudly and said: ‘How blessed [by God] are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’”[2] Then showing deepest humility in her grasp that the Messiah had come to her, even though only conceived a few days before, said, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She felt the weightiness of her sinfulness in the presence of the Son of God in Mary’s womb. By the way, the word “baby” describing the six-month in-utero John doesn’t mean a mass of inhuman tissue or an unviable fetus, but a baby.[3] Elizabeth recognized that the week or two old fetus in Mary’s womb was not a blob of tissue but a living person that she called, “My Lord.” So one baby leaps with joy and preaches a silent but undeniably effective sermon in the womb, and the other is exulted in as the Sovereign Lord.

Elizabeth explained, “Look! Just as the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped with extreme joy!” Then she exults in the revelation of God made to Mary: “And how happy is the one that believed in the fulfillment of the things that have been spoken to her from the Lord.”
Mary believed that God would fulfill what He promised, so much so, that the series of verbs that follow describing God’s actions are in the past tense. God’s promises in Christ are so sure that she can speak of them as though already completed. That’s why she magnifies the Lord or enlarges on and praises who He is and what He has done. From the depths of her being (that’s what’s meant by soul and spirit in vv. 46–47), she “rejoices in God my Savior.” To her, God’s promise was enough. He’s faithful to do what He has declared. The prophetic OT word that had nurtured her young life had now come to fruition in the Lord Jesus that she carried in her womb. That’s also why we believe the good news of Jesus as the Son of God bearing our sins on the cross and being raised from the dead. God revealed it, declaring it in His Word, and now we believe. And when we do, just like those ladies, faith leads to joy!

2. Confession of God’s greatness

The Song of Mary, often called the Magnificat for the first word in the Latin translation, begins with her personal elation in God’s actions revealed. She felt her unworthiness, “for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” As Matt pointed out last week, Mary was not chosen to bear the Son of God in her womb due to personal merit. Instead, as a sinner in need of the Savior that she carried and later bore, God chose to set her apart as the mother of Jesus Christ. For that reason, “all generations will call me blessed,” she sang. But she clarifies. She is not blessed because of her merit but “because the Magnificent One has done great things for me.” It’s not Mary that’s full of grace but Mary’s God that is full of grace! It’s not to Mary that we come to find favor with God but to God’s Son who mediates the way to God for us through His atoning death.

The “Song of Mary” is not about Mary but about her God. That’s why we narrow the focus of this text into this one statement: God accomplishes the needed by doing the unexpected. Who would have thought that God would redeem a people for Himself, crush the proud and arrogant rebels of this world, and recreate the world in utter beauty and holiness through that little life burrowed in Mary’s uterus? How unexpected! Yet that’s God’s purpose in accomplishing what is needed to save a people and fulfill His saving promises. He would do it through the unexpected. This teenage virgin from the obscure, unimpressive village of Nazareth would contain in her womb the massive life of the God who created the heavens and the earth, now come to us as a helpless baby carried in Mary’s womb for nine months before delivering Him in a Bethlehem stable.

The typical Israelite thought that God’s deliverance would be through political and economic power. But although the world indicates that politics and economy top everything, God was pleased to reveal Himself through a baby, whose very presence caused Elizabeth to confess Him as Lord. God accomplishes the needed by the unexpected. Maybe you keep looking for some big sign, like the Jews did, or some big act that makes the stars seem dim. That’s not how He acts. He has satisfied His judgment through the little baby in the womb, born in Bethlehem, as Jesus endured the cross as the sin-bearer.

Here’s how Mary sums that up in her song. God is a God of power: “for he who is mighty has done great things for me.” The “great things” refers to the virginal conception. God sent His Son to be born of the virgin. God is a God of holiness: “and holy is his name.” So why did He send His Son to be born of the virgin? The Holy One sent His Son to transform unholy people into His holy people. But that required a sinless life in conformity to the law and the cross where everything unholy—demanding judgment—that Jesus bore on our behalf. God is a God of covenant mercy: “And his mercy [covenant mercy, chesed] is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” That OT concept of mercy is more often translated as “lovingkindness,” (Ps 103:17, “the lovingkindness of the Lord”) or by a more familiar term, “grace.” God gives grace to those trusting Him. It’s not grace given so that we can do better and earn our way to God. Rather grace is given so that we might believe Him.

God accomplishes the needed by doing the unexpected. Have you believed Him?

3. Faith in God’s actions

Using anthropomorphic language, Mary sings, “he has shown strength with his arm.” It’s not a literal arm that she means but rather this is the way that she poetically helps us to understand what God does to accomplish His purposes. As you may have noticed (from our Scriptural call to worship in 1 Sam 2:1–10), there is a parallel in Mary’s Song with that of Hannah, the mother of the mighty prophet Samuel, recorded in 1 Samuel 2. Both exulted in the Lord and rejoiced in the salvation found in and provided by the Lord God. While Hannah thanks the Lord for countering the assaults of Israel’s enemies, Mary spends more time just thanking the Lord for who He is. Then both of them express faith in God’s actions, evident by Him doing the unexpected.

One would think that if God wanted to have a go at people following Him that He would try to convince the mighty and powerful people in the world to follow Him. In other words, this God would need rulers on the throne and powerful people to help Him out. The poor and needy would be overlooked in place of the wealthy and powerful. But not so with the God that accomplishes the needed by doing the unexpected!

Instead, our God brings low the proud: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” We can imagine the scene in ancient Israel of the ruling class dressed in the finest linen and wool, dining sumptuously on the best food, using the power of Rome to keep the people subdued and working for their desires, fleecing the powerless to advance their purposes. Mary confesses that the Lord God not only doesn’t need them or their influence, but that the day will come when He will bring them low. He will judge them for their haughtiness, arrogance, and pride. He will expose their idolatry of self in thinking that they were so well off and so well positioned that they didn’t need the baby born of Mary to reign over them as Lord.

For most, the biggest obstacle to humbly and joyously trusting in Christ is between their ears. By that, I don’t mean their intelligence but the way that they think. Mary identifies those “arrogant in the reasoning of their hearts,” as those bowing to the desires of self instead of bowing the knee to confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:1–11). But the same Lord Jesus that they think they do not need to put them right with God and to give them life, will one day scatter and bring them down in judgment (Rom 14:11–12).

The God who brings low the proud also lifts up the humble: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” What’s the picture? Alexander Maclaren explained it 150 years ago. “The condition of receiving anything from Him is the humble recognition of emptiness and need.”[4] That’s true for those whom the world has crushed in its power, whether by political heavy-handedness or economic-greed or social-injustice. It’s in humility that we come to Christ and receive from Him, finding that Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Lord, is more than sufficient for us than all the world’s power and wealth. He is far more satisfying than if we ruled a thousand kingdoms. Humbly confessing your need of Him, your emptiness without Him, He’s ready to receive you and bring you into the joy of forgiveness and relationship to Him.

Does that mean that the mighty and the rich have no hope? Maclaren adds, “If princes on their thrones will come to Him just in the same way as the beggar on the dunghill does, they will very probably be allowed to stay on; and if the rich man will come to Him as poor and in need of all things he will not be ‘sent empty away.’”[5] While Jesus saved the outcast leper and helpless blind man, He also saved Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. All come to Him the same way: in helplessness, need, and humility, confessing, “All I need is Christ.”

Mary’s Song continues as she echoes God’s faithfulness to His promises. In one sense, that’s the theme of not only the Gospel of Luke but also the entire New Testament. While He has done and continues to do countless things throughout the universe, He really has one great aim: God has chosen to reveal Himself through His Son, born of Mary, crucified for our sins, and resurrected in triumph, He has exalted as Lord and King, so that He might save a people that will be with Him and enjoy His glory forever. Here’s how Mary poetically expresses it, “He has helped his servant [or child] Israel, in remembrance of his mercy [covenant faithfulness], as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” She confesses that the Child carried in her womb was none other than the singular aim of God’s OT promises. God has acted in history to bring about His saving, redemptive purposes through Christ. He has “helped” or ‘come to the aid of’ His children. Martin Luther clarifies, “For God did not accept Israel on account of its merits but because of his own promise,” and that promise centered in Jesus Christ the Savior.[6]

God accomplished what was needed—sending His Son to be the Savior of the world; and He did it by the unexpected—a baby born in Bethlehem forced there by a Roman census, wrapped in cloths and laid in a feeding trough. The exalted Lord of glory humbled Himself to take on humanity, and to bear our sins at the cross. God promised Abraham that one of his descendants would bless every nation of the world (Gen 12:3). That One Elizabeth rejoiced in, John in the womb leaped with joy, and Mary magnified the Lord God.

Have you believed that God accomplished the needed (your deepest need) by doing the unexpected (in sending His Son)?

[1] Philip Ryken, Luke (Reformed Expository Commentary; 2 vols.), 1:42.

[2] My translations are normal script with ESV in bold.

[3] Moulton & Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, 117 (#1025, brephos).

[4] Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, 9:23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 21:351–52, in Beth Kreitzer, ed., Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, III: 32.

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