By J.C. Ryle
The Gospel of Luke, which we now begin, contains many precious things which are not recorded in the other three Gospels. Such, for instance, are the histories of Zachariah and Elizabeth, the angel's announcement to the Virgin Mary--and, to speak generally, the whole contents of the first two chapters. Such, again, are the narratives of the conversion of Zaccheus and of the penitent thief--the walk to Emmaus, and the famous parables of the Pharisee and Tax-collector, the rich man and Lazarus, and the Prodigal Son. These are portions of Scripture for which every well-instructed Christian feels peculiarly thankful. And for these we are indebted to the Gospel of Luke.
The short preface which we have now read is a peculiar feature of Luke's Gospel. But we shall find, on examination, that it is full of most useful instruction.
In the first place, Luke gives us a short, but valuable, sketch of the nature of a Gospel. He calls it, "a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us." It is a narrative of facts about Jesus Christ.
Christianity is a religion built upon facts. Let us never lose sight of this. It came before mankind at first in this shape. The first preachers did not go up and down the world, proclaiming an elaborate, artificial system of abstruse doctrines and deep principles. They made it their first business to tell men great plain facts. They went about telling a sin-laden world, that the Son of God had come down to earth, and lived for us, and died for us, and risen again. The Gospel, at its first publication, was far more simple than many make it now. It was neither more nor less than the history of Christ.
Let us aim at greater simplicity in our own personal religion. Let Christ and His Person be the sun of our system, and let the main desire of our souls be to live the life of faith in Him, and daily know Him better. This was Paul's Christianity. "To me to live is Christ." (Philipp. 1:21.)
In the second place, Luke draws a beautiful picture of the true position of the apostles in the early church. He calls them, "eye-witnesses and servants of the word."
There is an instructive humility in this expression. There is an utter absence of that man-exalting tone which has so often crept into the Church. Luke gives the apostles no flattering titles. He affords not the slightest excuse to those who speak of them with idolatrous veneration, because of their office and nearness to our Lord.
He describes them as "eye-witnesses." They told men what they had seen with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears. (1 John 1:1.) He describes them as "servants of the word." They were servants of the word of the Gospel. They were men who counted it their highest privilege to carry about, as messengers, the tidings of God's love to a sinful world, and to tell the story of the cross.
Well would it have been for the Church and the world, if Christian ministers had never laid claim to higher dignity and honor than the apostles claimed for themselves. It is a mournful fact, that ordained men have constantly exalted themselves and their office to a most unscriptural position. It is a no less mournful fact, that people have constantly helped forward the evil, by a lazy acceptance of the demands of priest-craft, and by contenting themselves with a mere vicarious religion. There have been faults on both sides. Let us remember this, and be on our guard.
In the third place, Luke describes his own qualifications for the work of writing a Gospel. He says that he "had perfect understanding of all things from the very first."
It would be mere waste of time to inquire from what source Luke obtained the information which he has given us in his Gospel. We have no good reason for supposing that he saw our Lord work miracles, or heard Him teach. To say that he obtained his information from the Virgin Mary, or any of the apostles, is mere conjecture and speculation. Enough for us to know that Luke wrote by inspiration of God. Unquestionably he did not neglect the ordinary means of getting knowledge. But the Holy Spirit guided him, no less than all other writers of the Bible, in his choice of matter. The Holy Spirit supplied him with thoughts, arrangement, sentences, and even words. And the result is, that what Luke wrote is not to be read as the "word of man," but the "word of God." (1 Thess. 2:13.)
Let us carefully hold fast the great doctrine of the plenary inspiration of every word of the Bible. Let us never allow that any writer of the Old or New Testament could make even the slightest verbal mistake or error, when, writing as he was "moved by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:21.) Let it be a settled principle with us in reading the Bible, that when we cannot understand a passage, or reconcile it with some other passage, the fault is not in the Book, but in ourselves. The adoption of this principle will place our feet upon a rock. To give it up is to stand upon a quicksand, and to fill our minds with endless uncertainties and doubts.
Finally, Luke informs us of one main object he had in view in writing his Gospel. It was that Theophilus "might know the certainty of those things wherein he had been instructed."
There is no encouragement here for those who place confidence in unwritten traditions, and the voice of the church. Luke knew well the weakness of man's memory, and the readiness with which a history alters its shape both by additions and alterations, when it depends only on word of mouth and report. What therefore does he do? He takes care to "write."
There is no encouragement here for those who are opposed to the spread of religious knowledge, and talk of ignorance, as the "mother of devotion." Luke does not wish his friend to remain in doubt on any matter of his faith. He tells him that he wants him to "know the certainty of those things wherein he had been instructed."
Let us close the passage with thankfulness for the Bible. Let us bless God daily that we are not left dependent on man's traditions, and need not be led astray by ministers' mistakes. We have a written volume, which is "able to make us wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim. 3:15.)
Let us begin Luke's Gospel with an earnest desire to know more ourselves of the truth as it is in Jesus, and with a hearty determination to do what in us lies to spread the knowledge of that truth throughout the world.
THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST FORETOLD
The first event recorded in Luke's Gospel, is the sudden appearance of an angel to a Jewish priest, named Zachariah. The angel announces to him that a son is about to be born to him, by a miraculous interposition, and that this son is to be the forerunner of the long-promised Messiah. The word of God had plainly foretold that when Messiah came, someone would go before him to prepare his way. (Malachi 3:1.) The wisdom of God provided that when this forerunner appeared, he would be born in the family of a priest.
We can form very little idea, at this period of the world, of the immense importance of this angel's announcement. To the mind of a pious Jew, it must have been glad tidings of great joy. It was the first communication from God to Israel since the days of Malachi. It broke the long silence of four hundred years. It told the believing Israelite that the prophetic weeks of Daniel were at length fulfilled, (Dan. 9:25,)--that God's choicest promise was at length going to be accomplished--and that "the seed" was about to appear in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed. (Gen. 22:18.) We must place ourselves in imagination in the position of Zachariah, in order to give the verses before us their due weight.
Let us mark, for one thing, in this passage, the high testimony which is borne to the character of Zachariah and Elizabeth. We are told that they were "both righteous before God," and that "they walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless."
It matters little whether we interpret this "righteousness" as that which is imputed to all believers for their justification, or that which is wrought inwardly in believers by the operation of the Holy Spirit, for their sanctification. The two sorts of righteousness are never disjoined. There are none justified who are not sanctified, and there are none sanctified who are not justified. Suffice it for us to know that Zachariah and Elizabeth had grace when grace was very rare, and kept all the burdensome observances of the ceremonial law with devout conscientiousness, when few Israelites cared for them excepting in name and form.
The main thing that concerns us all, is the example which this holy pair hold up to Christians. Let us all strive to serve God faithfully, and live fully up to our light, even as they did. Let us not forget the plain words of Scripture, "He that does righteousness is righteous." (1 John 3:7.) Happy are those Christian families in which it can be reported that both husband and wife are "righteous," and exercise themselves to have a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men. (Acts 24:16.)
Let us mark, for another thing, in this passage, the heavy trial which God was pleased to lay on Zachariah and Elizabeth. We are told that "they had no child." The full force of these words can hardly be understood by a modern Christian. To an ancient Jew they would convey the idea of a very weighty affliction. To be childless was one of the bitterest of sorrows. (1 Sam. 1:10.)
The grace of God exempts no one from trouble. "Righteous" as this holy priest and his wife were, they had a "crook in their lot." Let us remember this, if we serve Christ, and let us count trial no strange thing. Let us rather believe that a hand of perfect wisdom is measuring out all our portion, and that when God chastises us, it is to make us "partakers of his holiness." (Heb. 12:10.) If afflictions drive us nearer to Christ, the Bible, and prayer, they are positive blessings. We may not think so now. But we shall think so when we wake up in another world.
Let us mark, for another thing, in this passage, the means by which God announced the coming birth of John the Baptist. We are told that "an ANGEL of the Lord appeared to Zachariah."
The ministry of angels is undoubtedly a deep subject. Nowhere in the Bible do we find such frequent mention of them, as in the period of our Lord's earthly ministry. At no time do we read of so many appearances of angels, as about the time of our Lord's incarnation and entrance into the world. The meaning of this circumstance is sufficiently clear. It was meant to teach the church that Messiah was no angel, but the Lord of angels, as well as of men. Angels announced His coming. Angels proclaimed His birth. Angels rejoiced at his appearing. And by so doing they made it plain that He who came to die for sinners, was not one of themselves, but one far above them, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
One thing, at all events, about angels, we must never forget. They take a deep interest in the work of Christ, and the salvation which Christ has provided. They sang high praise when the Son of God came down to make peace by His own blood between God and man. They rejoice when sinners repent, and sons are born again to our Father in heaven. They delight to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation. Let us strive to be like them, while we are upon earth--to be of their mind, and to share their joys. This is the way to be in tune for heaven. It is written of those who enter in there, that they shall be "as the angels." (Mark 12:25.)
Let us mark, lastly, in this passage, the effect which the appearance of an angel produced on the mind of Zachariah. We are told that he "was troubled, and fear fell upon him."
The experience of this righteous man here, tallies exactly with that of other saints under similar circumstances. Moses at the burning bush, and Daniel at the river of Hiddekel--the women at the sepulcher, and John at the isle of Patmos--all showed like fear to that of Zachariah. Like him, when they saw visions of things belonging to another world, they trembled and were afraid.
How are we to account for this fear? To that question there is only one answer. It arises from our inward sense of weakness, guilt, and corruption. The vision of an inhabitant of heaven reminds us forcibly of our own imperfection, and of our natural unfitness to stand before God. If angels are so great and terrible, what must the Lord of angels be?
Let us bless God, that we have a mighty Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. Believing on Him, we may draw near to God with boldness, and look forward to the day of judgment without fear. When the mighty angels shall go forth to gather together God's elect, the elect will have no cause to be afraid. To them the angels are fellow-servants and friends. (Rev. 22:9.)
Let us tremble when we think of the terror of the wicked at the last day. If even the righteous are troubled by a sudden vision of friendly spirits, where will the ungodly appear, when the angels come forth to gather them like tares for the burning? The fears of the saints are groundless, and endure but for a little season. The fears of the lost, when once aroused, will prove well-grounded, and will endure for evermore.
We have, in these verses, the words of the angel who appeared to Zachariah. They are words full of deep spiritual instruction.
We learn here, for one thing, that prayers are not necessarily rejected because the answer is long delayed. Zachariah, no doubt, had often prayed for the blessing of children, and, to all appearance, had prayed in vain. At his advanced time of life, he had probably long ceased to mention the subject before God, and had given up all hope of being a father. Yet the very first words of the angel show plainly that the bygone prayers of Zachariah had not been forgotten--"Your prayer is heard--your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son."
We shall do well to remember this fact, whenever we kneel down to pray. We must beware of hastily concluding that our supplications are useless, and specially in the matter of intercessory prayer in behalf of others. It is not for us to prescribe either the time or the way in which our requests are to be answered. He who knows best the time for people to be born, knows also the time for them to be born again. Let us rather "continue in prayer," "watch unto prayer," "pray always, and not faint." "Delay of answer," says an old divine, "must not discourage our faith. It may be, God has long granted, before we shall know of His grant."
We learn, in the second place, that no children cause such true joy, as those who have the grace of God. It was a child about to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to whose father it was said, "You shall have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth."
Grace is the principal portion that we should desire for our children. It is a thousand times better for them than beauty, riches, honors, rank, or high connections. Until they have grace we never know what they may do. They may make us weary of our life, and bring down our grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. When they are converted, and not until then, they are provided for, both for time and eternity. "A wise son makes a glad father." (Prov. 10:1.) Whatever we seek for our sons and daughters, let us first seek that they may have a place in the covenant, and a name in the book of life.
We learn, in the third place, the nature of true greatness. The angel describes it, when he tells Zachariah that his son "shall be great in the sight of the Lord."
The measure of greatness which is common among men is utterly false and deceptive. Princes and potentates, conquerors and leaders of armies, statesmen and philosophers, artists and authors--these are the kind of men whom the world calls "great." Such greatness is not recognized among the angels of God. Those who do great things for God, they reckon great. Those who do little for God, they reckon little. They measure and value every man according to the position in which he is likely to stand at the last day.
Let us not be ashamed to make the angels of God our example in this matter. Let us seek for ourselves and our children that true greatness which will be owned and recognized in another world. It is a greatness which is within the reach of all--of the poor as well as the rich--of the servant as well as of the master. It does not depend on power or patronage, on money or on friends. It is the free gift of God to all who seek it at the Lord Jesus Christ's hands. It is the portion of all who hear Christ's voice and follow Him--who fight Christ's battle and do Christ's work in the world. Such may receive little honor in this life. But great shall be their reward at the last day.
We learn, in the fourth place, that children are never too young to receive the grace of God. Zachariah is informed that his son "shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb."
There is no greater mistake than to suppose that infants, by reason of their tender age, are incapable of being operated upon by the Holy Spirit. The manner of His work upon a little child's heart, is undoubtedly mysterious and incomprehensible. But so also are all His works upon the sons of men. Let us beware of limiting God's power and compassion. He is a merciful God. With Him nothing is impossible.
Let us remember these things in connection with the subject of infant baptism. It is a feeble objection to say that infants ought not to be baptized, because they cannot repent and believe. If an infant can be filled with the Holy Spirit, he is surely not unworthy to be admitted into the visible church. Let us remember these things specially in the training of young children. We should always deal with them as responsible to God. We should never allow ourselves to suppose that they are too young to have any religion. Of course we must be reasonable in our expectations. We must not look for evidences of grace, unsuitable to their age and capacities. But we must never forget that the heart which is not too young to sin, is also not too young to be filled with the grace of God.
We learn, in the last place, from these verses, the character of a really great and successful minister of God. The picture is set before us in a striking manner by the angel's description of John the Baptist. He is one who will "turn hearts"--turn them from ignorance to knowledge, from carelessness to thoughtfulness, from sin to God. He is one who will "go before the Lord"--he will delight in nothing so much as being the messenger and herald of Jesus Christ. He is one who "will make ready a people for the Lord." He will strive to gather out of the world a company of believers, who will be ready to meet the Lord in the day of His appearing.
For such ministers let us pray night and day. They are the true pillars of a Church, the true salt of the earth, the true light of the world. Happy is that Church, and happy is that nation, which has many such men. Without such men, learning, titles, endowments, and splendid buildings, will keep no Church alive. Souls will not be saved--good will not be done--Christ will not be glorified, excepting by men full of the Holy Spirit.
We see in this passage, the power of unbelief in a good man. Righteous and holy as Zachariah was, the announcement of the angel appears to him incredible. He cannot think it possible that an old man like himself should have a son. "How shall I know this?" he says, "for I am an old man, and my wife well along in years."
A well-instructed Jew, like Zachariah, ought not to have raised such a question. No doubt he was well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures. He ought to have remembered the wonderful births of Isaac, and Samson, and Samuel in old times. He ought to have remembered that what God has done once, He can do again, and that with Him nothing is impossible. But he forgot all this. He thought of nothing but the arguments of mere human reason and sense. And it often happens in religious matters, that where reason begins, faith ends.
Let us learn in wisdom from the fault of Zachariah. It is a fault to which God's people in every age have been sadly liable. The histories of Abraham, and Isaac, and Moses, and Hezekiah, and Jehoshaphat, will all show us that a true believer may sometimes be overtaken by unbelief. It is one of the first corruptions which came into man's heart in the day of the fall, when Eve believed the devil rather than God. It is one of the most deep-rooted sins by which a saint is plagued, and from which he is never entirely freed until he dies. Let us pray daily, "Lord increase my faith." Let us not doubt that when God says a thing, that thing shall be fulfilled.
We see furthermore, in these verses, the privilege and portion of God's angels. They carry messages to God's Church. They enjoy God's immediate presence. The heavenly messenger who appears to Zachariah, rebukes his unbelief by telling him who he is--"I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God--and am sent to speak unto you."
The name "Gabriel" would doubtless fill the mind of Zachariah with humiliation and self-abasement. He would remember it was that same Gabriel, who 490 years before had brought to Daniel the prophecy of the seventy weeks, and had told him how Messiah should be cut off. (Dan. 9:26.) He would doubtless contrast his own sad unbelief, when peaceably ministering as a priest in God's temple, with the faith of holy Daniel when dwelling a captive at Babylon, while the temple at Jerusalem was in ruins. Zachariah learned a lesson that day which he never forgot.
The account which Gabriel gives of his own office, should raise in our minds great searchings of heart. This mighty spirit, far greater in power and intelligence than we are, counts it his highest honor to "stand in God's presence" and do His will. Let our aims and desires be in the same direction. Let us strive so to live, that we may one day stand with boldness before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. The way to this high and holy position is open before us. Christ has consecrated it for us by the offering of His own body and blood. May we endeavor to walk in it during the short time of this present life, that so we may stand in our lot with God's elect angels in the endless ages of eternity. (Dan. 12:13.)
We see, finally, in this passage, how exceeding sinful is the sin of unbelief in the sight of God. The doubts and questionings of Zachariah brought down upon him a heavy chastisement. "You shall be silent," says the angel, "and not able to speak, because you believe not my words." It was a chastisement peculiarly suitable to the offence. The tongue that was not ready to speak the language of believing praise was struck speechless. It was a chastisement of long continuance. For nine long months at least, Zachariah was condemned to silence, and was daily reminded, that by unbelief he had offended God.
Few sins appear to be so peculiarly provoking to God as the sin of unbelief. None certainly have called down such heavy judgments on men. It is a practical denial of God's Almighty power, to doubt whether He can do a thing, when He undertakes to do it. It is giving the lie to God to doubt whether He means to do a thing, when He has plainly promised that it shall be done. The forty years wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, should never be forgotten by professing Christians. The words of Paul are very solemn--"They could not enter in because of unbelief." (Heb. 3:19.)
Let us watch and pray daily against this soul-ruining sin. Concessions to it rob believers of their inward peace--weaken their hands in the day of battle--bring clouds over their hopes--make their chariot wheels drive heavily. According to the degree of our faith will be our enjoyment of Christ's salvation--our patience in the day of trial--our victory over the world. Unbelief, in short, is the true cause of a thousand spiritual diseases, and once allowed to nestle in our hearts, will eat as does a canker. "If you will not believe, you shall not be established." (Isaiah 7:9.) In all that respects the pardon of our sins, and the acceptance of our souls--the duties of our peculiar station and the trials of our daily life, let it be a settled maxim in our religion, to trust every word of God implicitly, and to beware of unbelief.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS FORETOLD
We have, in these verses, the announcement of the most marvelous event that ever happened in this world--the incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a passage which we should always read with mingled wonder, love and praise.
We should notice, in the first place, the lowly and unassuming manner in which the Savior of mankind came among us. The angel who announced His advent, was sent to an obscure town of Galilee, named Nazareth. The woman who was honored to be our Lord's mother, was evidently in a humble position of life. Both in her station and her dwelling-place, there was an utter absence of what the world calls "greatness."
We need not hesitate to conclude, that there was a wise providence in all this arrangement. The Almighty counsel, which orders all things in heaven and earth, could just as easily have appointed Jerusalem to be the place of Mary's residence as Nazareth, or could as easily have chosen the daughter of some rich scribe to be our Lord's mother, as a poor woman. But it seemed good that it should not be so. The first advent of Messiah was to be an advent of humiliation. That humiliation was to begin even from the time of His conception and birth.
Let us beware of despising poverty in others, and of being ashamed of it if God lays it upon ourselves. The condition of life which Jesus voluntarily chose, ought always to be regarded with holy reverence. The common tendency of the day to bow down before rich men, and make an idol of money, ought to be carefully resisted and discouraged. The example of our Lord is a sufficient answer to a thousand groveling maxims about wealth, which pass current among men. "Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor." (2 Cor. 8:9.)
Let us admire the amazing condescension of the Son of God. The Heir of all things not only took our nature upon Him, but took it in the most humbling form in which it could have been assumed. It would have been condescension to come on earth as a king and reign. It was a miracle of mercy passing our comprehension to come on earth as a poor man, to be despised, and suffer, and die. Let His love constrain us to live not to ourselves, but to Him. Let His example daily bring home to our conscience the precept of Scripture--"Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate." (Rom. 12:16.)
We should notice, in the second place, the high privilege of the Virgin Mary. The language which the angel Gabriel addresses to her is very remarkable. He calls her "highly favored." He tells her that "the Lord is with her." He says to her, "Blessed are you among women."
It is a well-known fact, that the Roman Catholic Church pays an honor to the Virgin Mary, hardly inferior to that which it pays to her blessed Son. She is formally declared by the Roman Catholic Church to have been "conceived without sin." She is held up to Roman Catholics as an object of worship, and prayed to as a mediator between God and man, no less powerful than Christ Himself. For all this, be it remembered, there is not the slightest warrant in Scripture. There is no warrant in the verses before us now. There is no warrant in any other part of God's word.
But while we say this, we must in fairness admit, that no woman was ever so highly honored as the mother of our Lord. It is evident that one woman only out of the countless millions of the human race, could be the means whereby God could be "manifest in the flesh," and the Virgin Mary had the mighty privilege of being that one. By one woman, sin and death were brought into the world at the beginning. By the child-bearing of one woman, life and immortality were brought to light when Christ was born. No wonder that this one woman was called "highly favored" and "blessed."
One thing in connection with this subject should never be forgotten by Christians. There is a relationship to Christ within reach of us all--a relationship far nearer than that of flesh and blood--a relationship which belongs to all who repent and believe. "Whoever shall do the will of God," says Jesus, "the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." "Blessed is the womb that bare you," was the saying of a woman one day. But what was the reply? "Yes! rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it." (Mark 3:35; Luke 11:27.)
We should notice, finally, in these verses, the glorious account of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the angel gives to Mary. Every part of the account is full of deep meaning, and deserves close attention.
Jesus "shall be great," says Gabriel. Of His greatness we know something already. He has brought in a great salvation. He has shown Himself a Prophet greater than Moses. He is a great High Priest. And He shall be greater still when He shall be owned as a King.
Jesus "shall be called the Son of the Highest," says Gabriel. He was so before He came into the world. Equal to the Father in all things, He was from all eternity the Son of God. But He was to be known and acknowledged as such by the Church. The Messiah was to be recognized and worshiped as nothing less than very God.
"The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of his father David," says Gabriel, "and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever." The literal fulfillment of this part of the promise is yet to come. Israel is yet to be gathered. The Jews are yet to be restored to their own land, and to look to Him whom they once pierced, as their King and their God. Though the accomplishment of this prediction tarry, we may confidently wait for it. It shall surely come one day and not tarry. (Hab. 2:3.)
Finally, says Gabriel, "Of the kingdom of Jesus there shall be no end." Before His glorious kingdom, the empires of this world shall one day go down and pass away. Like Nineveh, and Babylon, and Tyre, and Carthage, they shall all come to nothing one day, and the saints of the most high shall take the kingdom. Before Jesus, every knee shall one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord. His kingdom alone shall prove an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion that which shall not pass away. (Dan. 7:14, 27.)
The true Christian should often dwell on this glorious promise and take comfort in its contents. He has no cause to be ashamed of his Master. Poor and despised as he may often be for the Gospel's sake, he may feel assured that he is on the conquering side. The kingdoms of this world shall yet become the kingdoms of Christ. Yet a little time and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry. (Heb. 10:37.) For that blessed day let us patiently wait, and watch, and pray. Now is the time for carrying the cross, and for fellowship with Christ's sufferings. The day draws near when Christ shall take His great power and reign; and when all who have served Him faithfully shall exchange a cross for a crown.
Let us mark, in these verses, the reverent and discreet manner in which the angel Gabriel speaks of the great mystery of Christ's incarnation. In reply to the question of the Virgin "How shall this be?" he uses these remarkable words--"The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you."
We shall do well to follow the example of the angel in all our reflections on this deep subject. Let us ever regard it with holy reverence, and abstain from those improper and unprofitable speculations upon it, in which some have unhappily indulged. Enough for us to know that "the Word was made flesh," and that when the Son of God came into the world, a real "body was prepared for Him," so that He "took part of our flesh and blood," and was "made of a woman." (John 1:14; Heb.10:5; Heb. 2:14; Gal. 4:4.) Here we must stop. The manner in which all this was effected is wisely hidden from us. If we attempt to pry beyond this point, we shall but darken counsel by words without knowledge, and rush in where angels fear to tread. In a religion which really comes down from heaven there must needs be mysteries. Of such mysteries in Christianity, the incarnation is one.
Let us mark, in the second place, the prominent place assigned to the Holy Spirit in the great mystery of the incarnation. We find it written, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon you."
An intelligent reader of the Bible will probably not fail to remember, that the honor here given to the Spirit is in precise harmony with the teaching of Scripture in other places. In every step of the great work of man's redemption, we shall find special mention of the work of the Holy Spirit. Did Jesus die to make atonement for our sins? It is written that "through the eternal Spirit He offered himself without spot to God." (Heb. 9:14.) Did He rise again for our justification? It is written that He "was quickened by the Spirit." (1 Peter 3:18.) Does He supply His disciples with comfort between the time of His first and second advent? It is written that the Comforter, whom He promised to send is "the Spirit of truth." (John 14:17.)
Let us take heed that we give the Holy Spirit the same place in our personal religion, which we find Him occupying in God's word. Let us remember, that all that believers have, and are, and enjoy under the Gospel, they owe to the inward teaching of the Holy Spirit. The work of each of the three Persons of the Trinity is equally and entirely needful to the salvation of every saved soul. The ELECTION of God the Father, the REDEMPTION of God the Son, and the SANCTIFICATION of God the Spirit, ought never to be separated in our Christianity.
Let us mark, in the third place, the mighty principle which the angel Gabriel lays down to silence all objections about the incarnation. "With God nothing shall be impossible."
A hearty reception of this great principle is of immense importance to our own inward peace. Questions and doubts will often arise in men's minds about many subjects in religion. They are the natural result of our fallen estate of soul. Our faith at the best is very feeble. Our knowledge at its highest is clouded with much infirmity. And among many antidotes to a doubting, anxious, questioning state of mind, few will be found more useful than that before us now--a thorough conviction of the almighty power of God. With Him who called the world into being and formed it out of nothing, everything is possible. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.
There is no sin too black and bad to be pardoned. The blood of Christ cleanses from all sin. There is no heart too hard and wicked to be changed. The heart of stone can be made a heart of flesh. There is no work too hard for a believer to do. We may do all things through Christ strengthening us. There is no trial too hard to be borne. The grace of God is sufficient for us. There is no promise too great to be fulfilled. Christ's words never pass away, and what He has promised He is able to perform. There is no difficulty too great for a believer to overcome. When God is for us who shall be against us? The mountain shall become a plain. Let principles like these be continually before our minds. The angel's receipt is an invaluable remedy. Faith never rests so calmly and peacefully as when it lays its head on the pillow of God's omnipotence.
Let us mark, in the last place, the meek and ready acquiescence of the Virgin Mary in God's revealed will concerning her. She says to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word."
There is far more of admirable grace in this answer than at first sight appears. A moment's reflection will show us, that it was no light matter to become the mother of our Lord in this unheard of and mysterious way. It brought with it, no doubt, at a distant period great honor; but it brought with it for the present no small danger to Mary's reputation, and no small trial to Mary's faith. All this danger and trial the holy Virgin was willing and ready to risk. She asks no further questions. She raises no further objections. She accepts the honor laid upon her with all its attendant perils and inconveniences. "Behold," she says, "the handmaid of the Lord."
Let us seek in our daily practical Christianity to exercise the same blessed spirit of faith which we see here in the Virgin Mary. Let us be willing to go anywhere, and do anything, and be anything, whatever be the present and immediate inconvenience, so long as God's will is clear and the path of duty is plain. The words of good Bishop Hall on this passage are worth remembering. "All disputations with God after His will is known, arise from infidelity. There is not a more noble proof of faith than to captivate all the powers of our understanding and will to our Creator, and without any questionings to go blindfold where He will lead us."
MARY VISITS ELIZABETH
We should observe in this passage, the benefit of fellowship and communion between believers. We read of a visit paid by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. We are told in a striking manner how the hearts of both these holy women were cheered, and their minds lifted up by this interview. Without this visit, Elizabeth might never have been so filled with the Holy Spirit, as we are here told she was; and Mary might never have uttered that song of praise which is now known all over the Church of Christ. The words of an old divine are deep and true--"Happiness communicated doubles itself. Grief grows greater by concealing--joy by expression."
We should always regard communion with other believers as an eminent means of grace. It is a refreshing break in our journey along the narrow way to exchange experience with our fellow travelers. It helps us insensibly and it helps them, and so is a mutual gain. It is the nearest approach that we can make on earth to the joy of heaven. "As iron sharpens iron, so does the countenance of a man his friend." We need reminding of this. The subject does not receive sufficient attention, and the souls of believers suffer in consequence. There are many who fear the Lord and think upon His name, and yet forget to speak often one to another. (Malachi 3:16.) First let us seek the face of God. Then let us seek the face of God's friends. If we did this more, and were more careful about the company we keep, we would oftener know what it is to feel filled with the Holy Spirit.
We should observe in this passage, the clear spiritual knowledge which appears in the language of Elizabeth. She uses an expression about the Virgin Mary which shows that she herself was deeply taught of God. She calls her "the mother of my Lord."
Those words "my Lord" are so familiar to our ears, that we miss the fullness of their meaning. At the time they were spoken they implied far more than we are apt to suppose. They were nothing less than a distinct declaration that the child who was to be born of the Virgin Mary was the long promised Messiah, the "Lord" of whom David in spirit had prophesied, the Christ of God. Viewed in this light, the expression is a wonderful example of faith. It is a confession worthy to be placed by the side of that of Peter, when he said to Jesus, "You are the Christ."
Let us remember the deep meaning of the words, "the Lord," and beware of using them lightly and carelessly. Let us consider that they rightly apply to none but Him who was crucified for our sins on Calvary. Let the recollection of this fact invest the words with a holy reverence, and make us careful how we let them fall from our lips. There are two texts connected with the expression which should often come to our minds. In one it is written, "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Spirit." In the other it is written, "Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (1 Cor. 12:3. Philipp. 2:11.)
Finally, we should observe in these verses, the high praise which Elizabeth bestows upon the grace of faith. "Blessed," she says, "is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" We need not wonder that this holy woman should thus commend faith. No doubt she was well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures. She knew the great things that faith had done. What is the whole history of God's saints in every age but a record of men and women who obtained a good report by faith? What is the simple story of all from Abel downwards but a narrative of redeemed sinners who believed, and so were blessed? By faith they embraced promises. By faith they lived. By faith they walked. By faith they endured hardships. By faith they looked to an unseen Savior, and good things yet to come. By faith they battled with the world, the flesh, and the devil. By faith they overcame, and got safely home. Of this goodly company the Virgin Mary was proving herself one. No wonder that Elizabeth said, "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"
Do we know anything of this precious faith? This, after all, is the question that concerns us. Do we know anything of the faith of God's elect, the faith which is the working of God? (Titus 1:2. Col. ii. 12.) Let us never rest until we know it by experience. Once knowing it, let us never cease to pray that our faith may grow exceedingly. Better a thousand times be rich in faith than rich in gold. Gold will be worthless in the unseen world to which we are all traveling. Faith will be owned in that world before God the Father and the holy angels. When the great white throne is set, and the books are opened, when the dead are called from their graves, and receiving their final sentence, the value of faith will at length be fully known. Men will learn then, if they never learned before, how true are the words, "Blessed are those who believed."
These verses contain the Virgin Mary's famous hymn of praise, in the prospect of becoming the "mother of our Lord." Next to the Lord's Prayer, perhaps, few passages of Scripture are better known than this. Wherever the Church of England Prayer-book is used, this hymn forms part of the evening service. And we need not wonder that the compilers of that Prayer-book gave it so prominent a place. No words can express more aptly the praise for redeeming mercy which ought to form part of the public worship of every branch of Christ's Church.
Let us mark, firstly, the full acquaintance with Scripture which this hymn exhibits. We are reminded as we read it, of many expressions in the book of Psalms. Above all, we are reminded of the song of Hannah, in the book of Samuel. (1 Sam. 2) It is evident that the memory of the Blessed Virgin was stored with Scripture. She was familiar, whether by hearing or by reading, with the Old Testament. And so, when out of the abundance of her heart her mouth spoke, she gave vent to her feelings in Scriptural language. Moved by the Holy Spirit to break forth into praise, she chooses language which the Holy Spirit had already consecrated and used.
Let us strive, every year we live, to become more deeply acquainted with Scripture. Let us study it, search into it, dig into it, meditate on it, until it dwell in us richly. (Coloss. 3:16.) In particular, let us labor to make ourselves familiar with those parts of the Bible which, like the book of Psalms, describe the experience of the saints of old. We shall find it most helpful to us in all our approaches to God. It will supply us with the best and most suitable language both for the expression of our needs and thanksgivings. Such knowledge of the Bible can doubtless never be attained without regular, daily study. But the time spent on such study is never mis-spent. It will bear fruit after many days.
Let us mark, secondly, in this hymn of praise, the Virgin Mary's deep humility. She who was chosen of God to the high honor of being Messiah's mother, speaks of her own "low estate," and acknowledges her need of a "Savior." She does not let fall a word to show that she regarded herself as a sinless, "immaculate" person. On the contrary, she uses the language of one who has been taught by the grace of God to feel her own sins, and so far from being able to save others, requires a Savior for her own soul. We may safely affirm that none would be more forward to reprove the honor paid by the Romish Church to the Virgin Mary, than the Virgin Mary herself.
Let us copy this holy humility of our Lord's mother, while we steadfastly refuse to regard her as a mediator, or to pray to her. Like her, let us be lowly in our own eyes, and think little of ourselves. Humility is the highest grace that can adorn the Christian character. It is a true saying of an old divine, that "a man has just so much Christianity as he has humility." It is the grace, which of all is most suiting to human nature. Above all, it is the grace which is within the reach of every converted person. All are not rich. All are not learned. All are not highly gifted. All are not preachers. But all children of God may be clothed with humility.
Let us mark, thirdly, the lively thankfulness of the Virgin Mary. It stands out prominently in all the early part of her hymn. Her "soul magnifies the Lord." Her "spirit rejoices in God." "All generations shall call her blessed." "Great things have been done for her." We can scarcely enter into the full extent of feelings which a holy Jewess would experience on finding herself in Mary's position. But we should try to recollect them as we read her repeated expressions of praise.
We too shall do well to walk in Mary's steps in this matter, and cultivate a thankful spirit. It has ever been a mark of God's most distinguished saints in every age. David, in the Old Testament, and Paul, in the New, are remarkable for their thankfulness. We seldom read much of their writings without finding them blessing and praising God. Let us rise from our beds every morning with a deep conviction that we are debtors, and that every day we have more mercies than we deserve. Let us look around us every week, as we travel through the world, and see whether we have not much to thank God for. If our hearts are in the right place, we shall never find any difficulty in building an Ebenezer. Well would it be if our prayers and supplications were more mingled with thanksgiving. (1 Sam. 7:12. Phil. 4:6.)
Let us mark, fourthly, the experimental acquaintance with God's former dealings with His people, which the Virgin Mary possessed. She speaks of God as One whose "mercy is on those who fear Him"--as One who "scatters the proud, and puts down the mighty, and sends the rich empty away"--as One who "exalts them of low degree, and fills the hungry with good things." She spoke, no doubt, in recollection of Old Testament history. She remembered how Israel's God had put down Pharaoh, and the Canaanites, and the Philistines, and Sennacherib, and Haman, and Belshazzar. She remembered how He had exalted Joseph and Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Esther, and Daniel, and never allowed His chosen people to be completely destroyed. And in all God's dealings with herself, in placing honor upon a poor woman of Nazareth--in raising up Messiah in such a dry ground as the Jewish nation seemed to have become--she traced the handiwork of Israel's covenant God.
The true Christian should always give close attention to Bible history, and the lives of individual saints. Let us often examine the "footsteps of the flock." (Cant. 1:8.) Such study throws light on God's mode of dealing with His people. He is of one mind. What He does for them, and to them, in time past, He is likely to do in time to come. Such study will teach us what to expect, check unwarrantable expectations, and encourage us when cast down. Happy is that man whose mind is well stored with such knowledge. It will make him patient and hopeful.
Let us mark, lastly, the firm grasp which the Virgin Mary had of Bible promises. She ends her hymn of praise by declaring that God has "blessed Israel in remembrance of His mercy," and that He has done "as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever." These words show clearly that she remembered the old promise made to Abraham, "In you shall all nations of the earth be blessed." And it is evident that in the approaching birth of her Son she regarded this promise as about to be fulfilled.
Let us learn from this holy woman's example, to lay firm hold on Bible promises. It is of the deepest importance to our peace to do so. Promises are, in fact, the manna that we should daily eat, and the water that we should daily drink, as we travel through the wilderness of this world. We see not yet all things put under us. We see not Christ, and heaven, and the book of life and the mansions prepared for us. We walk by faith, and this faith leans on promises. But on those promises we may lean confidently. They will bear all the weight we can lay on them. We shall find one day, like the Virgin Mary, that God keeps His word, and that what He has spoken, so He will always in due time perform.
THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
We have in this passage the history of a birth, the birth of a burning and shining light in the Church, the forerunner of Christ Himself--John the Baptist. The language in which the Holy Spirit describes the event is well worthy of remark. It is written that "The Lord showed great mercy to Elizabeth." There was mercy in bringing her safely through her time of trial. There was mercy in making her the mother of a living child. Happy are those family circles, whose births are viewed in this light--as especial instances of "the mercy" of the Lord.
We see in the conduct of Elizabeth's neighbors and cousins, a striking example of the kindness we owe to one another. It is written that "They rejoiced with her." How much more happiness there would be in this evil world, if conduct like that of Elizabeth's relations was more common! Sympathy in one another's joys and sorrows costs little, and yet is a grace of most mighty power. Like the oil on the wheels of some large engine, it may seem a trifling and unimportant thing, yet in reality it has an immense influence on the comfort and well-working of the whole machine of society. A kind word of congratulation or consolation is seldom forgotten. The heart that is warmed by good tidings, or chilled by affliction, is peculiarly susceptible, and sympathy to such a heart is often more precious than gold.
The servant of Christ will do well to remember this grace. It seems "a little one," and amid the din of controversy, and the battle about mighty doctrines, we are sadly apt to overlook it. Yet it is one of those pins of the tabernacle which we must not leave in the wilderness. It is one of those ornaments of the Christian character which make it beautiful in the eyes of men. Let us not forget that it is enforced upon us by a special precept--"Rejoice with those who do rejoice, and weep with those who weep." (Rom. 12:15.) The practice of it seems to bring down a special blessing. The Jews who came to comfort Mary and Martha at Bethany, saw the greatest miracle that Jesus ever worked. Above all, it is commended to us by the most perfect example. Our Lord was ready both to go to a marriage feast, and to weep at a grave. (John 2, John 11) Let us be ever ready to go and do likewise.
We see in the conduct of Zachariah in this passage, a striking example of the benefit of affliction. He resists the wishes of his relations to call his new-born son after his own name. He clings firmly to the name "John," by which the angel Gabriel had commanded him to be called. He shows that his nine months' dumbness had not been inflicted on him in vain. He is no longer faithless, but believing. He now believes every word that Gabriel had spoken to him, and every word of his message shall be obeyed.
We need not doubt that the past nine months had been a most profitable time to the soul of Zachariah. He had learned, probably, more about his own heart, and about God, than he ever knew before. His conduct shows it. Correction had proved instruction. He was ashamed of his unbelief. Like Job, he could say, "I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you." Like Hezekiah, when the Lord left him, he had found out what was in his heart. (Job 42:5. 2 Chron. 32:31.)
Let us take heed that affliction does us good, as it did to Zachariah. We cannot escape trouble in a sin-laden world. Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards. (Job 5:7.) But in the time of our trouble, let us make earnest prayer that we may "hear the rod and who has appointed it," that we may learn wisdom by the rod, and not harden our hearts against God. "Sanctified afflictions," says an old divine, "are spiritual promotions." The sorrow that humbles us, and drives us nearer to God, is a blessing, and a downright gain. No case is more hopeless than that of the man who, in time of affliction turns his back upon God. There is a dreadful mark set against one of the kings of Judah--"In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord." (2 Chron. 28:22.)
We see in the early history of John Baptist the nature of the blessing that we should desire for all young children. We read that "the hand of the Lord was with him."
We are not told distinctly what these words mean. We are left to gather their meaning from the promise that went before John before his birth, and the life that John lived all his days. But we need not doubt that the hand of the Lord was with John to sanctify and renew his heart--to teach and fit him for his office--to strengthen him for all his work as the forerunner of the Lamb of God--to encourage him in all his bold denunciation of men's sins--and to comfort him in his last hours, when he was beheaded in prison. We know that he was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. We need not doubt that from his earliest years the grace of the Holy Spirit appeared in his ways. In his boyhood as well as in his manhood the constraining power of a mighty principle from above appeared in him. That power was the "hand of the Lord."
This is the portion that we ought to seek for our children. It is the best portion, the happiest portion, the only portion that can never be lost, and will endure beyond the grave. It is good to have over them "the hand" of teachers and instructors; but it is better still to have "the hand of the Lord." We may be thankful if they obtain the patronage of the great and the rich. But we ought to care far more for their obtaining the favor of God. The hand of the Lord is a thousand times better than the hand of Herod. The one is weak, foolish, and uncertain; caressing today and beheading tomorrow. The other is almighty, all-wise, and unchangeable. Where it holds it holds for evermore. Let us bless God that the Lord never changes. What He was in John the Baptist's day, He is now. What He did for the son of Zachariah, He can do for our boys and girls. But He waits to be entreated. If we would have the hand of the Lord with our children, we must diligently seek it.
Another hymn of praise demands our attention in these verses. We have read the thanksgiving of Mary, the mother of our Lord. Let us now read the thanksgiving of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. We have heard what praises the first advent of Christ drew from the Virgin of the house of David. Let us now hear what praise it draws from an aged priest.
We should notice, firstly, the deep thankfulness of a Jewish believer's heart in the prospect of Messiah's appearing. Praise is the first word that falls from the mouth of Zachariah as soon as his speechlessness is removed, and his tongue restored. He begins with the same expression with which Paul begins several of his epistles--"Blessed be the Lord."
At this period of the world we can hardly understand the depth of this good man's feelings. We must imagine ourselves in his position. We must fancy ourselves seeing the fulfillment of the oldest promise in the Old Testament--the promise of a Savior, and beholding the accomplishment of this promise brought near to our own door. We must try to realize what a dim and imperfect view men had of the Gospel before Christ actually appeared, and the shadows and types passed away. Then perhaps we may have some idea of the feelings of Zachariah when he cried out, "Blessed be the Lord."
It may be feared that Christians have very low and inadequate conceptions of their amazing privileges in living under the full light of the Gospel. We have probably a very faint idea of the comparative dimness and twilight of the Jewish dispensation. We have a very feeble notion of what a church must have been before the incarnation of Christ. Let us open our eyes to the extent of our obligations. Let us learn from the example of Zachariah, to be more thankful.
We should notice, secondly, in this hymn of praise, how much emphasis Zachariah lays on God's fulfillment of His promises. He declares that God has "visited and redeemed his people," speaking of it in the manner of the prophets as a thing already accomplished, because sure to take place. He goes on to proclaim the instrument of this redemption--"a horn of salvation"--a strong Savior of the house of David. And then he adds that all this is done, "as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophet, to perform the mercy promised, to remember His holy covenant, and the oath which He swore to our father Abraham."
It is clear that the souls of Old Testament believers fed much on God's promises. They were obliged to walk by faith far more than we are. They knew nothing of the great facts which we know about Christ's life, and death, and resurrection. They looked forward to redemption as a thing hoped for, but not yet seen--and their only warrant for their hope was God's covenanted word. Their faith may well put us to shame. So far from disparaging Old Testament believers, as some are disposed to do, we ought to marvel that they were what they were.
Let us learn to rest on promises and embrace them as Zachariah did. Let us not doubt that every word of God about His people concerning things future, shall as surely be fulfilled as every word about them has been fulfilled concerning things past. Their safety is secured by promise. The world, the flesh, and the devil, shall never prevail against any believer. Their acquittal at the last day is secured by promise. They shall not come into condemnation, but shall be presented spotless before the Father's throne. Their final glory is secured by promise. Their Savior shall come again the second time, as surely as He came the first--to gather His saints together and to give them a crown of righteousness. Let us be persuaded of these promises. Let us embrace them and not let them go. They will never fail us. God's word is never broken. He is not a man that He should lie. We have a seal on every promise which Zachariah never saw. We have the seal of Christ's blood to assure us, that what God has promised God will perform.
We should notice, thirdly, in this hymn, what clear views of Christ's kingdom Zachariah possessed. He speaks of being "saved and delivered from the hands of enemies," as if he had in view a temporal kingdom and a temporal deliverer from Gentile power. But he does not stop here. He declares that the kingdom of Messiah, is a kingdom in which His people are to "serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him." This kingdom, he proclaimed, was drawing near. Prophets had long foretold that it would one day be set up. In the birth of his son John the Baptist, and the near approach of Christ, Zachariah saw this kingdom close at hand.
The foundation of this kingdom of Messiah was laid by the preaching of the Gospel. From that time the Lord Jesus has been continually gathering out subjects from an evil world. The full completion of the kingdom is an event yet to come. The saints of the Most High shall one day have entire dominion. The little stone of the Gospel-kingdom shall yet fill the whole earth. But whether in its incomplete or complete state, the subjects of the kingdom are always of one character. They "serve God without fear." They serve God in "holiness and righteousness."
Let us give all diligence to belong to this kingdom. Small as it seems now, it will be great and glorious one day. The men and women who have served God in "holiness and righteousness" shall one day see all things put under them. Every enemy shall be subdued, and they shall reign forever in that new heaven and earth, wherein dwells righteousness.
We should notice, finally, what clear views of doctrine Zachariah enjoyed. He ends his hymn of praise by addressing his infant son John the Baptist. He foretells that he shall "go before the face" of Messiah, and "give knowledge of the salvation" that He is about to bring in--a salvation which is all of grace and mercy--a salvation of which the leading privileges are "remission of sins," "light," and "peace."
Let us end the chapter by examining what we know of these three glorious privileges. Do we know anything of pardon? Have we turned from darkness to light? Have we tasted peace with God? These, after all, are the realities of Christianity. These are the things, without which church-membership and sacraments save no one's soul. Let us never rest until we are experimentally acquainted with them. Mercy and grace have provided them. Mercy and grace will give them to all who call on Christ's name. Let us never rest until the Spirit witnesses with our spirit that our sins are forgiven us, that we have passed from darkness to light, and that we are actually walking in the narrow way, the way of peace.