Two Women Talking Theology


Luke 1:39-45

Text Comment
v.39     It is hardly surprising in one way that Mary, having received the remarkable revelation of her miraculous pregnancy from Gabriel himself, went immediately to visit Elizabeth, whose pregnancy Gabriel had also announced to Mary. Elizabeth was a relative of some kind, and who better to understand the news Mary had received from Gabriel or to sympathize with her in her predicament. We read in v. 56 that Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months. Two women who virtually alone in the world understood that something phenomenal was about to happen spent three months together pondering the utterly improbable news each had received.
            All of that makes sense. But if Mary was but a maid, a girl in her early teens perhaps, how did she make that trip? How did she secure permission from her father to make such a long trip? Did she go by herself? Did her father or did Joseph send someone along to safeguard her journey or did he accompany her, having already been visited by Gabriel himself? We’d love to know!
            We read that Mary made haste. Still the journey of some 80 to one hundred miles (we are not told precisely where in the hill country of Judea Zechariah and Elizabeth lived) would have taken her some three or four days on foot. But the fact that she left Nazareth immediately indicates at least how seriously she took the message that Gabriel brought to her.
v.41     The impression appears to be that Elizabeth did not realize who Mary was until the baby leapt in her womb. [Bock, i, 136] Again, there is so much we do not know. Had these two people ever met before? Had Mary known of Elizabeth’s childlessness? They were relatives – though we don’t know precisely what the relation was; I have relatives I’ve never met, children of cousins and the like – but notwithstanding their family relation they lived a long way from one another in a day when almost all travel was by foot. Was Zechariah the priest in the family that everyone knew about? He was of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron; certainly Joseph and Mary also it appears were of the tribe of Judah. So how were they related and how close were the families? Again, we don’t know.
v.44     As you mothers know, babies are moving in the womb all the time. But Elizabeth wasn’t simply imagining the significance of this particular movement. Her interpretation was from the Holy Spirit. She spoke as one filled with the Holy Spirit as we read in v. 41. That is to say, Elizabeth was functioning here as a prophetess, as Anna will later in chapter 2. In other words she had been given supernatural insight into the meaning of what had happened within her. John as an infant in the womb was already beginning his forerunner’s work.
            It is worth taking time to note the spiritual life that already existed in Elizabeth’s baby while still in his mother’s womb. It is not so much the teaching of this text as it is the presupposition of it, but it is no less important for that reason. John at six months in his mother’s womb (remember, in those days they reckoned pregnancy to last on average 10 months because they counted months by the moon) I say Elizabeth’s baby, slightly more than halfway through her pregnancy, is not a lifeless, impersonal fetus; not a blob of fetal tissue as pro-abortion folk are wont to describe the baby in the womb. John is already a human being, a spiritual person. He is susceptible to the influences of the Holy Spirit. It is joy we are told, that John the baby is feeling. You see how babies laugh and sometimes belly laugh when they are very, very young. They won’t remember that particular tickling you gave them and their laughing at it, but it is real laughter. It’s real joy that they experience. Infants are capable of joy! This is a very important text for our understanding of how vast multitudes of the children of Christian parents – far and away the largest group of Christians throughout Christian history – have come to faith. Like John, they were possessors of new life in Christ very early, perhaps already in their mother’s womb.
            The real difference between human beings, between the saved and the lost is, of course, the supernatural re-creative work of the Holy Spirit giving those who are being saved a new heart, a new nature. In John 3 Jesus famously said that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again and then goes on to describe the new birth as a secret work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God can accomplish that new birth, that spiritual renewal, when and as he pleases and in the Bible and in the testimony of untold numbers of Christians through the ages, that work is often done at the headwaters of life. Faith may be present only in the seed, but the new birth has already occurred. Few Christian theologians have ever doubted that infants who die in infancy can be saved or that untold multitudes of people now in heaven lived but a very short time on earth. But to believe that absolutely requires that it be possible that God should accomplish a saving work in an infant even an infant in the womb. This statement about John leaping for joy in his mother’s womb is one of several magnificent demonstrations the Bible affords us of God’s saving work in infants. Indeed there is much in the Bible to suggest that it is a work the Holy Spirit regularly performs. In any case, what better demonstration can there be that salvation is all of grace and all of God than the fact that helpless infants possess it.
v.45     Twice Elizabeth called Mary blessed in this short conversation. Notice the humility on the older woman’s part. She is happy with her own blessing and able to revel in the greater blessing granted this Galilean maid. [Morris, 92] She counts it an honor to have any place in these events. [Bock, i, 137] She is not troubled by the fact that hers is not the first place. We have pointed out on several occasions in previous sermons that the faith of those to whom God makes the announcement of the coming of the Messiah is a prominent emphasis in the birth narrative. And it certainly is here. The climactic statement in this short section, what we have learned to call the author’s evaluative viewpoint is a celebration of Mary’s faith in the Word of God that was delivered to her. Mary believed and that is the reason for her great blessing.
            We might wonder from time to time what would have happened if Mary had scoffed at Gabriel’s announcement. But, of course, that could never have happened. She was prepared for her great work by the sanctifying work of the Spirit granting her a strong faith in the Lord long before she was to know that she would bear the Savior of the world.
This passage is more extraordinary than you know. It was an utterly unprecedented event in human literature up to the time of the Lord’s birth and, frankly, would be an utterly unprecedented event in most human cultures until our own time, for women to figure so prominently in the narrative of great, world-changing events. Luke 1 is dominated by two women and so is Luke 2. At this most critical juncture of history we have women everywhere. And it is by no means only here. In the narrative of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and then in the narrative of his resurrection from the dead, women are equally prominent. We have here the conversation of two women, two perceptive and theologically aware women, or better an older woman and a girl. Perhaps in this day and age that doesn’t strike you as anything particularly unusual, but that is only because you are not well read in the literature of the ancient world. In that literature nothing ever hangs on the intelligence, the perception, or the conviction of women.
Indeed, Christian people need to appreciate that the world they live in is like no other in human history. I read just the other day a review of a new book Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. The elite political establishment, as you know, still fawns over the Kennedy mystique, as it is called. ABC aired a two-hour special on the book several weeks ago. But there is much in these reminiscences that the elite culture will not like and will have to ignore. For example, at one point Mrs. Kennedy remarked, “I suppose women are terribly emotional, and you never want to speak to anyone again who said something mean against your husband.”  She boasted that she got all her political opinions from her husband. She was annoyed at women who asserted themselves in the world of politics.
“Why are these women like her and Clare Luce, who both obviously are attractive to men, why are they – why do they have this queer thing for power?”
On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos selected one of Mrs. Kennedy’s remarks for comment:
“I think women should never be in politics. We’re just not suited for it.”
It wasn’t long ago that such an opinion was utterly conventional and uncontroversial. So read the Bible on women with an appreciation for the remarkable place they occupy in the narrative of God’s work in the world.
This is a way in which the Bible is utterly unconventional. It teaches us to take seriously the God-given differences between men and women – even here these women figure as they do at this critical turning point in the history of the world because they are mothers – but it everywhere treats them as human beings whose lives are fully as consequential as those of men, whose callings are as important, and whose gifts and graces as much to be admired and just as necessary for the kingdom of God.
And it was so from the beginning in the Bible at least. You remember the account in Genesis 21 of Hagar being driven away from Abraham’s home because of Sarah’s jealousy and finding herself and Ishmael her son alone, without water in the desert. And God himself called to Hagar and provided water for her and her boy and then told her of his plans for Ishmael. The modern reader is likely to miss the significance of that conversation. It is the only instance in all of the many thousands of ancient Near Eastern texts where a deity or his messenger calls a woman by name and thereby invests her with real dignity. [B.Waltke, “The Role of Women in Worship in the Old Testament,” 7] From Sarah and Hagar to the Samaritan woman in John 4, from Deborah and Hannah to Mary and Priscilla, the Bible is littered with women of substance who make vital contributions to the kingdom of God.
So, insofar as the Christian faith has produced a multitude of formidable women, it is entirely consistent that the narrative of the birth of the Savior of the world should be populated by thoughtful, grace-filled, and perceptive women whom the Lord considered worthy of a special place in human history and a special place among the great events that were to change human history.
Again and again through Christian history we are going to encounter women like Elizabeth and Mary. Far from being unique, however unique their role in the history of the incarnation, as believing women they have had hosts of sisters and daughters. Such women are found among the martyrs, among the missionaries, among the poets and hymn writers, among the saints, and like both of these women they have been the human instrument of the spiritual development and preparation of the vast majority of the church’s great men. We might as well have found Monica, the mother of Augustine, or Anthousa, the mother of John Chrysostom, both strong-minded, theologically literate, godly women, in that house in the hill country of Judea. Or we might just as well have found Catherine of Siena, or Theresa of Avila, or Christina Rossetti or Amy Carmichael in that Judean house. Or we might have found those delightful women in 17th century Bedford, England who entranced John Bunyan, a yet unconverted man, as they sat on a stoop in the morning sun speaking of Christ and the new life he gives to those who trust in him.
But apart from the very important fact that the principals in this conversation are two women, a point I thought too significant not to draw your attention to, and that they represent an exalted view of women, their dignity, and the greatness of their calling that is typical of Holy Scripture and of the best of Christian history, what else are we to learn from this narrative? Why did Luke include this particular scene in his account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ? What is the significance of these few minutes of conversation that accounts for its inclusion in Holy Scripture’s account of the incarnation of God the Son? Why this particular moment, the very first moment of their three long months together?
There are so many other things Luke might have told us. There are so many other obvious questions that he might have answered. How often did these women meet in the months and years that followed? Did the boys ever meet one another during their boyhood or youth? Did the families talk about one another at the dinner table? How much of what happened when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home was told to the boys as they grew up? Was this one of the stories that John grew up hearing again and again? Or think of this: how had Mary explained her departure and long absence from Nazareth to her father and mother, to her family and friends, and, to Joseph, all the more if he had not yet been visited by Gabriel? How long did Zechariah and Elizabeth live after John was born? Were they still alive when John left home for the desert or when he came out of the desert to become a sensation in Judea as a preacher of repentance? There are innumerable questions we would love to have answered.
But we are given an account of this one moment, this one brief conversation between Elizabeth and Mary; nothing much more until the account of the birth of the two baby boys. Why?
A closer look at the account I think reveals the answer. While we have attention paid to Mary’s faith and the favor the Lord bestowed upon her as a believing woman, that is not the main point. The importance of Mary and Elizabeth’s exchange is what it tells us not about Mary but about her child. Even her great blessedness is the result of the child that she is carrying.
That of course is the significance of Mary primarily in the NT. She is an exemplar of faith, to be sure, as are many others in the NT narrative, but she is also a means by which we come to know more of the child and then the man of whom she was mother. There is nothing in the New Testament, not even the faintest whisper of the Roman Catholic doctrines that Mary herself, and not only her son, was born and lived without sin (what they call “The Immaculate Conception”), or that she remained a virgin all her life (what Catholics call her “Perpetual Virginity”), or that shortly after she died, Mary’s body was raised, reunited with her soul, and taken bodily to heaven (what in Roman Catholic dogma is referred to as “Assumption of Mary”). Obviously there is nothing of this anywhere in the New Testament; not the barest suggestion of such teaching. The simple, artless teaching of the Bible and of Mary herself is that she, like all who are saved, was a sinner saved by grace, a faithful wife and mother of more children than her firstborn son, and that she died like all believers in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life at the second coming of her son.
Nor can we imagine that a biblically minded person would ever countenance the practice of saying prayers to Mary, a mere human being.  Where is the ghost of that idea in the New Testament; praying to anyone except to God alone? We point out, naturally enough, that Mary is mentioned only a few times in the Gospels after the accounts of the Savior’s birth and is never mentioned again after Acts 1, where we read only that she was together with the Apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after the Lord’s Resurrection. Paul never mentions her, Peter never mentions her. There is nothing, not one word, in the Bible about any special place she occupies in the life of Christians.
It is doubtful, in other words, that the chief importance of this text lies with the blessedness of Mary, though that is a wonderful feature of it. And so Elizabeth. She is a wonderful woman, a faithful woman, a woman the Lord honored with the privilege of making Holy Spirit inspired utterance. But it is not chiefly about Elizabeth either that we are to learn here.
These women here and this conversation is a revelation of Jesus Christ. That is why we have this momentary conversation recorded for us in Holy Writ; that is why among all the interesting remembrances Luke might have recorded for us, we have this one.
We have this first in Elizabeth’s exclamation upon Mary’s arrival in her home:
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
We are familiar with those words, so familiar that we may not appreciate the power of them. Mary isn’t yet showing. She isn’t visibly a pregnant woman. But the first thing Elizabeth says, filled with the Holy Spirit as she is, is that the favor of God rests upon her and upon the baby she is carrying. This is conceivably the first moment that Mary actually knows that she is with child!
And, then much more, she goes on to speak of that baby as “the Lord.” Why is this great privilege granted to me, she asks, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
And, then, to seal the revelation that has been given through Elizabeth, John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary, obviously because she is bearing “the Lord,” for the appearance of whom John’s life’s work was to prepare.
Malachi had prophesied, four hundred years before:
“I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah earlier in chapter 1 had made it unmistakably clear that the birth and ministry of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son John would be the fulfillment of that prophecy from Malachi 4 and that made Mary’s son “the Lord,” just as Elizabeth said he was. Mary was the mother of my Lord.
Now we are inclined to read “Lord” as God and Elizabeth’s statement as an assertion of the deity of Christ. I doubt that was in Elizabeth’s mind. The revelation of the triune nature of God awaited the appearance of the Lord Jesus in the flesh, his ministry, his teaching, and that of his disciples. I doubt that any pious person who figures in this narrative of the birth of Jesus would have confessed the one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The great theologian, Benjamin Warfield, made what I think is an extraordinarily perceptive observation about the revelation of God in history and in Holy Scripture.
“The great thing to be taught the ancient people of God [that is, the people of the ancient epoch, what we call the Old Testament] was that the God of all the earth is one person. Anything else would have confused them in the great battle between monotheism and polytheistic idolatry. It was not until monotheism had been firmly entrenched in the Hebrew mind that the triunity of God was revealed.” [Bibl. and Theol. Studies, 153]
They had to get clear the fact that there is but one God first and when they became sure of that they were in a position to learn that the one God exists in three persons. Otherwise they would certainly have believed not in one God but three. Here in the earliest stages of the New Testament I think it unrealistic to think that Elizabeth could have articulated the doctrine that the New Testament eventually teaches us: viz. that Christ is the second person of the triune God, having now added to his divine nature a human nature.
When she referred to Mary’s baby as “Lord,” she was almost certainly referring to him as the Messiah, as the long promised King who would sit on David’s throne. It is hardly necessary to think that at this early stage she would have known precisely who and what the Messiah would be, that his triumph on behalf of his people would take place in his crucifixion and resurrection. All of that was still to be made clear by the Lord’s own teaching and by the march of events.
But she understood this: Mary’s baby was the Messiah and the King. She knew that that baby was her Lord. Now it is extraordinarily important that you get the significance of this. To call Jesus Lord is everything. In fact, a good case could be made that the three most important words in the New Testament are Jesus is Lord.
In the book of Acts the gospel message that was proclaimed was that Jesus is Lord. To be sure, we understand his lordship in even more exalted terms than Elizabeth did. We know him to be the God/Man. We know what it was he did for us and our salvation. We know that he is coming a second time to judge the earth and to bring his people to heaven. But still for us to be a Christian is to be someone who confesses from the heart that Jesus is Lord.
What did Paul write? “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And “…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” And “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…”
What we have in Elizabeth’s remark to Mary is the first instance of a distinctly new way of professing saving faith: Jesus is Lord! This is the first time we hear it. We already know his name is going to be Jesus, the angel has told Mary that and now Elizabeth says that the Jesus is the Lord. To be sure Yahweh was always addressed as “Lord” in the OT and we are taught in the New Testament ordinarily to think that whenever Yahweh appears, the second person of the Triune God, the one who would come to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, is the one who appears. He was confessed as Lord before his incarnation, but here for the first time we are speaking of a human being, indeed, a human baby who is being confessed as Lord.
Elizabeth may not yet have understood the high mystery of the incarnation or of Christ’s two natures in one person, but she got his identity exactly right: Mary’s son was her Lord!
We tend to think of salvation as something that happens when someone confesses Jesus or receives Jesus Christ as his or her savior. And that is true enough. But in the New Testament to say that he is my savior is the same thing as saying that he is my Lord. There is no division between the two roles or titles of Jesus Christ. As the Lord he is our savior; and as our Savior he is our Lord.
Here is the great revelation of our text this morning and its epoch making importance. Here is why this conversation is included and so much else left unsaid: Jesus is Lord! Ponder the meaning of this profession in its larger context. A person who confesses Jesus as Lord, from the heart and genuinely, has found salvation. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that heals and mends a broken life. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that subdues a rebellious life. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that redeems a sinful life. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that gives point and purpose to an aimless life. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that brings a lonely life into the experience of family love. It is the confession of Jesus as Lord that puts a dying life on the road to eternal life.
This is the simplest form of the Bible’s summons and the proclamation of the gospel: you must confess Jesus Christ as Lord, as Elizabeth did, and when you do that from the heart all will be well forever. It is as simple as that!