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The Gospel of Luke sets the Lord before us in the character of Son of man,
revealing God in delivering grace among men. Hence the present operation of
grace and its effect are more referred to, and even the present time
prophetically, not the substitution of other dispensations as in Matthew,
but of saving heavenly grace. At first, no doubt (and just because He is to
be revealed as man, and in grace to men), we find Him, in a prefatory part
in which we have the most exquisite picture of the godly remnant, presented
to Israel, to whom He had been promised, and in relationship with whom He
came into this world; but afterwards this Gospel presents moral principles
which apply to man, whosoever he may be, whilst yet manifesting Christ for
the moment in the midst of that people. This power of God in grace is
displayed in various ways in its application to the wants of men. After the
transfiguration, which is recounted earlier in the narration by Luke
[see note #1]
than in the other Gospels, we find the judgment of those who rejected the
Lord, and the heavenly character of the grace which, because it is grace,
addresses itself to the nations, to sinners, without any particular
reference to the Jews, overturning the legal principles according to which
the latter pretended to be, and as to their external standing were
originally called at Sinai to be, in connection with God. Unconditional
promises to Abraham, etc., and prophetic confirmation of them, are another
thing. They will be accomplished in grace, and were to be laid hold of by
faith. After this, we find that which should happen to the Jews according
to the righteous government of God; and, at the end, the account of the
death and resurrection of the Lord, accomplishing the work of redemption.
We must observe that Luke (who morally sets aside the Jewish system, and
who introduces the Son of man as the man before God, presenting Him as the
One who is filled with all the fulness of God dwelling in Him bodily, as
the man before God, according to His own heart, and thus as Mediator
between God and man, and centre of a moral system much more vast than that
of Messiah among the Jews)-we must observe, I repeat, that Luke, who is
occupied with these new relations (ancient, in fact, as to the counsels of
God), gives us the facts belonging to the Lord's connection with the Jews,
owned in the pious remnant of that people, with much more development than
the other evangelists, as well as the proofs of His mission to that people,
in coming into the world-proofs which ought to have gained their attention,
and fixed it upon the child who was born to them.
In Luke, I add, that which especially characterises the narrative and gives
its peculiar interest to this Gospel is, that it sets before us that which
Christ is Himself. It is not His official glory, a relative position that
He assumed; neither is it the revelation of His divine nature, in itself;
nor His mission as the great Prophet. It is Himself, as He was, a man on
the earth-the Person whom I should have met every day had I lived at that
time in Judea, or in Galilee.
I would add a remark as to the style of Luke, which may facilitate the
study of this Gospel to the reader. He often brings a mass of facts into
one short general statement, and then expatiates at length on some isolated
fact, where moral principles and grace are displayed.
Many had undertaken to give an account of that which was historically
received among Christians, as related to them by the companions of Jesus;
and Luke thought it well-having followed these things from the beginning,
and thus obtained exact knowledge respecting them-to write methodically to
Theophilus, in order that he might have the certainty of those things in
which he had been instructed. It is thus that God has provided for the
instruction of the whole church, in the doctrine contained in the picture
of the Lord's life furnished by this man of God; who, personally moved by
christian motives, was directed and inspired by the Holy Ghost for the good
of all believers.
[see note #2]
At verse 5 the evangelist begins with the first revelations of the Spirit
of God respecting these events, on which the condition of God's people and
that of the world entirely depended; and in which God was to glorify
Himself to all eternity.
But we immediately find ourselves in the atmosphere of Jewish
circumstances. The Jewish ordinances of the Old Testament, and the thoughts
and expectations connected with them, are the framework in which this great
and solemn event is set. Herod, king of Judea, furnishes the date; and it
is a priest, righteous and blameless, belonging to one of the twenty-four
classes, whom we find on the first step of our way. His wife was of the
daughters of Aaron; and these two upright persons walked in all the
commandments and ordinances of the Lord (Jehovah) without blame. All was
right before God, according to His law in the Jewish sense. But they did
not enjoy the blessing that every Jew desired; they had no child.
Nevertheless, it was according, we may say, to the ordinary ways of God in
the government of His people, to accomplish His blessing while manifesting
the weakness of the instrument-a weakness that took away all hope according
to human principles. Such had been the history of the Sarahs, the Rebeccas,
the Hannahs, and many more, of whom the word tells us for our instruction
in the ways of God.
This blessing was often prayed for by the pious priest; but until now the
answer had been delayed. Now, however, when, at the moment of exercising
his regular ministry, Zacharias drew near to burn incense, which, according
to the law, was to go up as a sweet savour before God (type of the Lord's
intercession), and while the people were praying outside the holy place,
the angel of the Lord appears to the priest on the right side of the altar
of incense. At the sight of this glorious personage Zacharias is troubled,
but the angel encourages him by declaring himself to be the bearer of good
news; announcing to him that his prayers, so long apparently addressed in
vain to God, were granted. Elizabeth should bear a son, and the name by
which he should be called was, "The favour of the Lord," a source of joy
and gladness to Zacharias, and whose birth should be the occasion of
thanksgiving to many. But this was not merely as the son of Zacharias. The
child was the Lord's gift, and should be great before Him; he should be a
Nazarite, and filled with the Holy Ghost, from his mother's womb: and many
of the children of Israel should he turn to the Lord their God. He should
go before Him in the spirit of Elias, and with the same power to
re-establish moral order in Israel, even in its sources, and to bring back
the disobedient to the wisdom of the just-to make ready a people prepared
for the Lord.
The spirit of Elias was a stedfast and ardent zeal for the glory of
Jehovah, and for the establishment, or re-establishment by repentance, of
the relations between Israel and Jehovah. His heart clung to this link
between the people and their God, according to the strength and glory of
the link itself, but in the sense of their fallen condition, and according
to the rights of God in connection with these relationships. The spirit of
Elias-although indeed the grace of God towards His people had sent him-was
in a certain sense a legal spirit. He asserted the rights of Jehovah in
judgment. It was grace opening the door to repentance, but not the
sovereign grace of salvation, though what prepared the way to it. It is in
the moral force of his call to repentance that John is here compared to
Elias, in bringing back Israel to Jehovah. And in fact Jesus was Jehovah.
But the faith of Zacharias in God and in His goodness did not come up to
the height of his petition (alas! too common a case), and when it is
granted at a moment that required the intervention of God to accomplish his
desire, he is not able to walk in the steps of an Abraham or a Hannah, and
he asks how this thing can now take place.
God, in His goodness, turns His servant's want of faith into an instructive
chastisement for himself, and into a proof for the people that Zacharias
had been visited from on high. He is dumb until the word of the Lord is
fulfilled; and the signs which he makes to the people, who marvel at his
staying so long in the sanctuary, explain to them the reason.
But the word of God is accomplished in blessing towards him; and Elizabeth,
recognising the good hand of God upon her with a tact that belongs to her
piety, goes into retirement. The grace which blessed her did not make her
insensible to that which was a shame in Israel, and which, although
removed, left its traces as to man in the superhuman circumstances through
which it was accomplished. There was a rightmindedness in this, which
became a holy woman. But that which is rightly concealed from man has all
its value before God, and Elizabeth is visited in her retreat by the mother
of the Lord. But here the scene changes, to introduce the Lord Himself into
this marvellous history which unfolds before our eyes.
God, who had prepared all beforehand, sends now to announce the Saviour's
birth to Mary. In the last place that man would have chosen for the purpose
of God-a place whose name in the eyes of the world, sufficed to condemn
those who came from thence-a maiden, unknown to all whom the world
recognised, was betrothed to a poor carpenter. Her name was Mary. But
everything was in confusion in Israel: the carpenter was of the house of
David. The promises of God-who never forgets them, and never overlooks
those who are their object-found here the sphere for their accomplishment.
Here the power and the affections of God are directed, according to their
divine energy. Whether Nazareth was small or great was of no importance,
except to shew that God does not expect from man, but man from God. Gabriel
is sent to Nazareth, to a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David.
The gift of John to Zacharias was an answer to his prayers-God faithful in
His goodness towards His people who wait upon Him.
But this is a visitation of sovereign grace. Mary, a chosen vessel for this
purpose, had found grace in God's sight. She was favoured
[see note #3]
by sovereign grace-blessed among women. She should conceive and bring forth
a son: she should call Him Jesus. He should be great, and should be called
the Son of the Highest. God should give Him the throne of His father David.
He should reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and His kingdom should
have no end.
It will be observed here, that the subject which the Holy Ghost sets before
us is the birth of the child, as He would be down here in this world, as
brought forth by Mary-of Him who should be born.
The instruction given by the Holy Ghost on this point is divided into two
parts: first, that which the child to be born should be; secondly, the
manner of His conception, and the glory which would be its result. It is
not simply the divine nature of Jesus that is presented, the Word which was
God, the Word made flesh; but that which was born of Mary, and the way in
which it should take place. We know well that it is the same precious and
divine Saviour of whom John speaks that is in question; but He is here
presented to us under another aspect, which is of infinite interest to us;
and we must consider Him as the Holy Ghost presents Him, as born of the
virgin Mary in this world of tears.
To take first the verses 31-33.
It was a child really conceived in Mary's womb, who brought forth this
child at the time which God had Himself appointed for human nature. The
usual time elapsed before its birth. As yet this tells us nothing of the
manner. It is the fact itself, which has an importance that can neither be
measured nor exaggerated. He was really and truly man, born of a woman as
we are-not as to the source nor as to the manner of His conception, of
which we are not yet speaking, but as to the reality of His existence as
man. He was really and truly a human being. But there were other things
connected with the Person of the One who should be born that are also set
before us. His name should be called Jesus, that is, Jehovah the Saviour.
He should be manifested in this character and with this power. He was so.
This is not connected here with the fact, "for he shall save his people
from their sins," as in Matthew, where it was the manifestation to Israel
of the power of Jehovah, of their God, in fulfilment of the promises made
to that people. Here we see that He has a right to this name; but this
divine title lies hidden under the form of a personal name; for it is the
Son of man who is presented in this Gospel, whatever His divine power might
be. Here we are told, "He"-the One who should be born-"should be great,"
and (born into this world) "should be called the Son of the Highest." He
had been the Son of the Father before the world was; but this child, born
on earth, should be called-such as He was down here-the Son of the Highest:
a title to which He would thoroughly prove His right by His acts, and by
all that manifested what He was. A precious thought to us and full of
glory, a child born of a woman legitimately bears this name, "Son of the
Highest"-supremely glorious for One who is in the position of a man and
really was such before God.
But other things still were connected with the One that should be born. God
would give Him the throne of His father David. Here again we plainly see
that He is considered as born, as man, in this world. The throne of His
father David belongs to Him. God will give it Him. By right of birth He is
heir to the promises, to the earthly promises which, as to the kingdom
appertained to the family of David; but it should be according to the
counsels and the power of God. He should reign over the house of Jacob-not
only over Judah, and in the weakness of a transitory power and an ephemeral
life, but throughout the ages; and of His kingdom there should be no end.
As indeed Daniel had predicted, it should never be taken by another. It
should never be transferred to another people. It should be established
according to the counsels of God which are unchangeable, and His power
which never fails. Until He delivered up the kingdom to God the Father, He
should exercise a royalty that nothing could dispute; which He would
deliver up (all things being fulfilled) to God, but the royal glory of
which should never be tarnished in His hands.
Such should be the child born-truly, though miraculously born as man. To
those who could understand His name it was Jehovah the Saviour.
He should be King over the house of Jacob according to a power that should
never decay and never fail, until blended with the eternal power of God as
The grand subject of the revelation is, that the child should be conceived and born; the remainder is the glory that should belong to Him, being born.
But it is the conception that Mary does not understand. God permits her to
ask the angel how this should be. Her question was according to God. I do
not think there was any want of faith here. Zacharias had constantly asked
for a son-it was only a question of the goodness and the power of God to
perform his request-and was brought by the positive declaration of God to a
point at which he had only to trust in it. He did not trust to the promise
of God. It was only the exercise of the extraordinary power of God in the
natural order of things. Mary asks, with holy confidence, since God thus
favoured her, how the thing should be accomplished, outside the natural
order. Of its accomplishment she has no doubt (see verse 45; "Blessed,"
said Elizabeth, "is she that believed.") She inquires how it shall be
accomplished, since it must be done outside the order of nature. The angel
proceeds with his commission, making known to her the answer of God to this
question also. In the purposes of God, this question gave occasion (by the
answer it received) to the revelation of the miraculous conception.
The birth of Him who has walked upon this earth was the thing in
question-His birth of the virgin Mary. He was God, He became man; but here
it is the manner of His conception in becoming a man upon the earth. It is
not what He was that is declared. It is He who was born, such as He was in
the world, of whose miraculous conception we here read. The Holy Ghost
should come upon her-should act in power upon this earthen vessel, without
its own will or the will of any man. God is the source of the life of the
child promised to Mary, as born in this world and by His power. He is born
of Mary-of this woman chosen by God. The power of the Highest should
overshadow her, and therefore that which should be born of her should be
called the Son of God. Holy in His birth, conceived by the intervention of
the power of God acting upon Mary (a power which was the divine source of
His existence on the earth, as man), that which thus received its being
from Mary, the fruit of her womb, should even in this sense have the title
of Son of God. The holy thing which should be born of Mary should be called
the Son of God. It is not here the doctrine of the eternal relationship of
the Son with the Father. The Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews,
that to the Colossians, establish this precious truth, and demonstrate its
importance; but here it is that which was born by virtue of the miraculous
conception, which on that ground is called the Son of God.
The angel announces to her the blessing bestowed on Elizabeth through the
almighty power of God; and Mary bows to the will of her God-the submissive
vessel of His purpose, and in her piety acknowledges a height and greatness
in these purposes which only left to her, their passive instrument, her
place of subjection to the will of God. This was her glory, through the
favour of her God.
It was befitting that wonders should accompany, and bear a just testimony
to, this marvellous intervention of God. The communication of the angel was
not without fruit in the heart of Mary; and by her visit to Elizabeth, she
goes to acknowledge the wonderful dealings of God. The piety of the virgin
displays itself here in a touching manner. The marvellous intervention of
God humbled her, instead of lifting her up. She saw God in that which had
taken place, and not herself; on the contrary the greatness of these
marvels brought God so near her as to hide her from herself. She yields
herself to His holy will: but God has too large a place in her thoughts in
this matter to leave any room for self-importance.
The visit of the mother of her Lord to Elizabeth was a natural thing to
herself, for the Lord had visited the wife of Zacharias. The angel has made
it known to her. She is concerned in these things of God, for God was near
her heart by the grace that had visited her. Led by the Holy Ghost in heart
and affection, the glory that belonged to Mary, in virtue of the grace of
God who had elected her to be the mother of her Lord, is recognised by
Elizabeth, speaking by the Holy Ghost. She also acknowledges the pious
faith of Mary, and announces to her the fulfilment of the promise she had
received (all that took place being a signal testimony given to Him who
should be born in Israel and among men).
The heart of Mary is then poured out in thanksgiving. She owns God her
Saviour in the grace that has filled her with joy, and her own low estate-a
figure of the condition of the remnant of Israel-and that gave occasion to
the intervention of God's greatness, with a full testimony that all was of
Himself. Whatever might be the piety suitable to the instrument whom He
employed, and which was found indeed in Mary, it was in proportion as she
hid herself that she was great; for then God was all, and it was through
her that He intervened for the manifestation of His marvellous ways. She
lost her place if she made anything of herself, but in truth she did not.
The grace of God preserved her, in order that His glory might be fully
displayed in this divine event. She recognises His grace, but she
acknowledges that all is grace towards her.
It will be remarked here that, in the character and the application of the
thoughts that fill her heart, all is Jewish. We may compare the song of
Hannah, who prophetically celebrated this same intervention; and see also
verses 54, 55. But, observe, she goes back to the promises made to the
fathers, not to Moses, and she embraces all Israel. It is the power of God,
which works in the midst of weakness, when there is no resource, and all is
contrary to it. Such is the moment that suits God, and, to the same end,
instruments that are null, that God may be all.
It is remarkable that we are not told that Mary was full of the Holy Ghost.
It appears to me that this is an honourable distinction for her. The Holy
Ghost visited Elizabeth and Zacharias in an exceptional manner. But,
although we cannot doubt that Mary was under the influence of the Spirit of
God, it was a more inward effect, more connected with her own faith, with
her piety, with the more habitual relations of her heart with God (that
were formed by this faith and by this piety), and which consequently
expressed itself more as her own sentiments. It is thankfulness for the
grace and favour conferred on her the lowly one, and that in connection
with the hopes and blessing of Israel. In all this there appears to me a
very striking harmony in connection with the wondrous favour bestowed upon
her. I repeat it, Mary is great inasmuch as she is nothing; but she is
favoured by God in a way that is unparalleled, and all generations shall
call her blessed.
But her piety, and its expression in this song, being more personal, an
answer to God rather than a revelation on His part, it is clearly limited
to that which was necessarily for her the sphere of this piety-to Israel,
to the hopes and promises given to Israel. It goes back, as we have seen,
to the farthest point of God's relations with Israel-and they were in grace
and promise, not law-but it does not go outside them.
Mary abides three months with the woman whom God had blessed, the mother of
him who was to be the voice of God in the wilderness; and she returns to
follow humbly her own path, that the purposes of God may be accomplished.
Nothing more beautiful of its kind than this picture of the intercourse
between these pious women, unknown to the world, but the instruments of
God's grace for the accomplishment of His purpose, glorious and infinite in
their results. They hide themselves, moving in a scene into which nothing
enters but piety and grace; but God is there, as little known to the world
as were these poor women, yet preparing and accomplishing that which the
angels desire to fathom in its depths. This takes place in the hill
country, where these pious relatives dwelt. They hid themselves; but their
hearts, visited by God and touched by His grace, responded by their mutual
piety to these wondrous visits from above; and the grace of God was truly
reflected in the calmness of a heart that recognised His hand and His
greatness, trusting in His goodness and submitting to His will. We are
favoured in being admitted into a scene, from which the world was excluded
by its unbelief and alienation from God, and in which God thus acted.
But that which piety recognised in secret, through faith in the visitations
of God, must at length be made public, and be fulfilled before the eyes of
men. The son of Zacharias and Elizabeth is born, and Zacharias (who,
obedient to the word of the angel, ceases to be dumb) announces the coming
of the Branch of David, the horn of Israel's salvation, in the house of
God's elect King, to accomplish all the promises made to the fathers, and
all the prophecies by which God had proclaimed the future blessing of His
people. The child whom God had given to Zacharias and Elizabeth should go
before the face of Jehovah to prepare His ways; for the Son of David was
Jehovah, who came according to the promises, and according to the word by
which God had proclaimed the manifestation of His glory.
The visitation of Israel by Jehovah, celebrated by the mouth of Zacharias,
embraces all the blessing of the millennium. This is connected with the
presence of Jesus, who brings in His own Person all this blessing. All the
promises are Yea and Amen in Him. All the prophecies encircle Him with the
glory then to be realised, and make Him the source from which it springs.
Abraham rejoiced to see the glorious day of Christ.
The Holy Ghost always does this, when His subject is the fulfilment of the
promise in power. He goes on to the full effect which God will accomplish
at the end. The difference here is, that it is no longer the announcement
of joys in a distant future, when a Christ should be born, when a child
should be brought forth, to bring in their joys in days still obscured by
the distance at which they were seen. The Christ is now at the door, and it
is the effect of His presence that is celebrated. We know that, having been
rejected, and being now absent, the accomplishment of these things is
necessarily put off until He returns; but His presence will bring their
fulfilment, and it is announced as being connected with that presence.
We may remark here, that this chapter confines itself within the strict
limits of the promises made to Israel, that is to say, to the fathers. We
have the priests, the Messiah, His forerunner, the promises made to
Abraham, the covenant of promise, the oath of God. It is not the law; it is
the hope of Israel-founded on the promise, the covenant, the oath of God,
and confirmed by the prophets-which has its realisation in the birth of
Jesus, of the Son of David. It is not, I again say, the law. It is Israel
under blessing, not indeed yet accomplished, but Israel in the relationship
of faith with God who would. accomplish it. It is only God and Israel who
are in question, and that which had taken place in grace between Him and
His people alone.