There is a symphony of Christmas that soothes so many sorrows at once. Among the music of angelic hosts in the sky, there is the joyful song of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.
It happened this way: Mary traveled from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea. One commentator wrote, “[Mary] probably traveled 50 to 70 miles from Nazareth to Zechariah’s home in Judea, a major trip…”1Rushing to tell Elizabeth, Mary found another surprise. Elizabeth, though beyond childbearing years, was expecting a child of her own!
God was up to something big! God was going to save the world, but in the process He also bent low to answer the prayers of two elderly servants. How very beautiful. How very familiar. How very comforting.
When Elizabeth met Mary and heard what God was doing, the unborn child in her womb leapt for joy. This is the first instance of the ministry of John the Baptist! In responding to the news of the coming of Messiah, the unborn John the Baptist testified to his own mother, and the Holy Spirit came upon her!
Elizabeth then broke out in joyful exclamation! How Zechariah (stricken mute) must have wished he, too, could sing with his wife about the news!
This is a blessed song—a happy song that spoke of the absolute fulfillment in the marvelous conception of Jesus Christ to people aware of their need for a Savior. In Elizabeth’s song, we are given a Spirit-filled reply to Mary, which focuses on the blessed consequences of God’s grace in sending Jesus for every believer.
The First Consequence of Christ’s Coming: A Blessing on Womankind
When she heard that her relative Mary was carrying the Messiah of God, Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
This one verse has been used by some—erroneously, I believe—to substantiate a view that Mary herself was without sin. There is no such suggestion in the text. What is being taught here is the truth that in Mary, womankind, previously under condemnation for her role in the fall will be liberated. There are a couple of passages that need examination at this point.
One verse under consideration is Genesis 3:15, in which God spoke to Satan, who had led her astray, and said there would be great enmity between woman and that fallen angel. A day is coming when the seed of the woman (and note no man is mentioned in connection with this event) shall bruise Satan’s head. Here we see God’s Word providing an early warning to Satan and a happy Word of hope for the woman: The Messiah was to come from a woman.
The Lord also spoke to woman in the next verse (v. 16) saying, “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
In verse 15, we have a word of hope for woman; in verse 16, we are given the reason for the hope: That woman, in her fallen state, would endure sorrow, pain and oppression.
We don’t have the time for an essay on the whole matter, but it is enough to reiterate that woman—prior to the coming of Jesus Christ—led an ignoble existence at best and absolute degradation at worst. There are myriad tales of the mistreatment of women, and their descriptions are horrible. Women have been dehumanized and treated as property. This has been the case for women without Messiah and remains so in many parts of the world today.
However, in Mary bearing the Son of God, we have a fulfillment of the prophecy and the beginning of the reversal of the fallen condition. I say the beginning because until the second coming of Christ, we will continue to see the sinful consequences of the fall in some measure in this present evil age. In the coming of Christ, through a woman, we see a signaled departure from the old order to the degree that Elizabeth sang this first verse, “Blessed are you among women!”
So far from exalting Mary to a co-redemptive position with Jesus, which is a “classic example of the bad development of doctrine, of the way in which unscriptural if not pagan devotional practices can become dogma”2—this first stanza of the song of Elizabeth accents her God-ordained role as the fulfillment of divine prophecy concerning women.
I want to say something as your pastor. If you are a woman here today, who has struggled with oppression in your life—and I have come to believe though experience that whenever I speak to any group with women, there are at least some who have endured some sort of pain simply due to having been born a woman—I want to point you to a loving heavenly Father. He does not condone the mistreatment of women, and His heart is toward His own creation.
He chose a young woman named Mary to bear Emmanuel in part to begin the healing of the soul of His cherished creation. The greatest single thing you can do for the healing of your own soul simply is come to Jesus Christ right now, to open your heart to Jesus who came to set you free and bring liberty and freedom that the world offers but never can deliver.
Elizabeth’s song begins with the first consequence of Christ’s coming: a blessing to women because of the fruit of Mary’s womb, the Lord Jesus.
The Second Consequence of Christ’s Coming: A Blessing on Humble Servants
You can observe her humble spirit as she moves from blessing Mary to being humbled by Mary’s presence. This humility before Mary is notable especially for Protestants. Under the first point, I had to say there have been wrong views of Mary propagated, but Elizabeth called us to repent of haughtiness toward the Virgin Mary. She is neither a co-redemptor with Christ nor the queen of heaven, but she’s also not just another woman. She was chosen by the Lord to bear the Son of God, and as Elizabeth regarded her with honor, so must we.
It would miss Scripture’s point if we thought Elizabeth simply was giving honor to Mary alone. The situation is that humble Elizabeth was blessed that such news of the Messiah should come to her. She was a type of person envisioned by Isaiah when he wrote, “Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 29:19).
This is a powerful blessing for you and me and all who see themselves as unworthy, as poor in spirit, as needy people. The humble are blessed by the coming of the Lord. The Psalmist wrote, “You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty” (Ps. 18.27).
The Lord Jesus taught the disciples this truth. We read in Luke 18:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).
There is something else here that is worthy of our interest. Not only was Elizabeth humbled by the coming of Mary and her news, but note that she understood that she was chosen to receive this news: “But why is this granted to me?”
Clearly, Elizabeth understood the Almighty had discriminated in bringing the news to her and not to another. Her humility was all the more underscored by her understanding of this truth.
God sent Mary to her. God sent John the Baptist to her. God sent His Son to the lost sheep of Israel. God sent the elect sheep of Israel to Asia Minor, to Europe and ultimately to every corner of the globe. God has sent His message of salvation to you, as well.
Presbyterians are known to revel in the doctrine of election, the biblical doctrine that of His own good pleasure the Lord has chosen a number from the foundation of the Earth to be His elect people. So what is the response to this? Pride? God forbid! The response of election should be the same as Elizabeth’s response: Why me? Oh, God, what a sinner I am! Why did You send the gospel to me?
When you understand the depravity of your own sin and the depth and riches of the mercy of God on your soul, you should fall down before Him and worship Him.
The Third Consequence of Christ’s Coming: A Blessing that Defines a Family
In verse 44, Elizabeth sang forth the truth that as soon as Mary announced the good news, the unborn John the Baptist leapt in her womb. The good news of the Messiah shaped the household of Elizabeth and Zechariah and their little boy. One heard and rejoiced, and the Holy Spirit came upon the other.
Here is a glorious consequence of Christ’s coming: Every member of a family is impact by the announcement of the Lord’s salvation.
When Jesus came, He impacted families with the gospel. It is true, as the Lord would say, that when one member of the family believes, there are times when others will not, and the reception of Jesus Christ ends up dividing homes.
I thank God that in His providence, when one believes, we also see that whole families come to Christ. When one receives the good news, he or she rejoices, and the rest begin to rejoice. I thank God that in cases similar to the Philippian jailer who brought Paul home to preach to his household and the whole household believed and was baptized, we can bring the gospel to our families and claim Scripture for them.
Not only was this family defined by the gospel in terms of salvation, but note the character of their family life: “The babe leaped for joy!”
When Jesus comes into a home, He brings joy. When families yield to the Savior and embrace and follow Him as Lord of their homes, Christ sends rivers of joy through their families.
Since coming to Christ and committing my life to sharing His gospel, I have had the opportunity to visit in people’s homes. I have gone door to door in some cases, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have noticed the news of the gospel was unwanted in some homes and greatly desired in others. I also noticed that the homes where Christ was Head had a quality of peace and joy, while the homes where Christ was unwanted may have been houses of fun but of little peace and inner joy.
There is nothing more beautiful that a home where the gospel is embraced, where mothers and fathers love the Lord, where children love Christ, and where one encourages the other in the Lord. What a great consequence of hearing the good news of Jesus—that He should bring joy into our families.
As we move on to verse 45, Elizabeth’s song comes to its final verse, where we learn there is a condition to all these happy consequences.
The only Condition to the Consequences: The Blessings Begin with Faith
Elizabeth adds her final “blessed” to the song. Blessed is she who believed.
Clearly, Elizabeth was blessing Mary, but for what? For faith. What if Mary had not believed? She might not have fulfilled this specific purpose. However, God Himself had worked faith in her life, and faith brought all the joyful consequences already mentioned.
The Bible teaches us that we are saved by faith. We grow by faith. The eyes of faith look to the Lord for His mercy. The hands of faith reach out and claim the promises of Scripture.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “a little faith will bring your soul to heaven: a great faith will bring heaven to your soul.” That is a good charge to this congregation today. There are some of you who need to exercise faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You need to turn to Him and cry out to Him, saying, “O Lord, I want to be like Elizabeth, humbled before You that I should hear the gospel now; but I plead that by the finished work of Jesus Christ and by faith in Him alone that You will save me!”
Others of you desperately need to reach out the hand of faith and look to Christ to take hold of your life completely; to have a greater faith that follows Jesus no matter what, that will cause you to step out for Him, stand up for Him, reach out to others in His Name; that will begin to practice radical obedience to Him; that will trust Him with your finances, relationships, careers; and begin to enjoy Elizabeth-quality excitement and joy of being a child of God!
The Jesus Who Is
Elizabeth’s song shows us what happens when Christ comes into our lives, when the good news of the gospel crosses our paths.
I recall reading that Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones remarked that he enjoyed his holidays because they afforded him time to read without interruption. I feel sure that he didn’t have little children when he wrote that; but the Christmas season is a bit slower for me, and I found some time this week to enjoy more reading time.
As I was pouring over some authors in my own library and spending time reminiscing through previously read volumes, I picked up Frederick Buechner’s The Longing for Home. Buechner’s deeply moving book of reflection and recollection on his own life and longing for home ended with some thoughts about what he called “The Jesus Who Was and the Jesus Who Is.”
He wrote that the Jesus Who Was is a largely historical Figure who came, who lived, who died, and yes—we might add with confessional accuracy—the One who rose again from the dead. However, the Jesus Who Is is the Lord who brings vision not only to blind eyes in the gospels but to our own narrow and blurred vision. He not only is the Jesus who opened the ears of the deaf but the One who speaks to our deafened world, as Buechner put it, “a voice unlike all other voices.” Buechner said:
“The Jesus Who Is is the one whom we search for even when we do not know that we are searching and hide from even when we do not know that we are hiding.”3
This morning, we have read Elizabeth’s testimony, her song of blessings, which come to those who welcome the good news of Jesus Christ. The only thing remaining for each of us is to make certain we welcome not the “Jesus Who Was” but the “Jesus Who Is,” the Son of God, the Dayspring from on high, the Promised One for humble servants, who came, lived, died, rose again, ascended, and—right now by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit—stands in our midst, bidding needy people to open the doors of the secret places of your lives that He may come in and dwell with you.
1 NIV Commentary, Luke 1:39.
2 New Dictionary of Theology, p.416.
3 Frederick Buechner The Longing for Home, (Harper Collins, 1996), 180.
Michael A. Milton is James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina.