The Song of Mary
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The Song of Mary

Luke 1:39–56  (ID: 2056)

After the Old Testament prophets, the Holy Spirit was silent for four hundred years. When Elizabeth greeted Mary, that silence was broken. Alistair Begg teaches us that Mary’s song of response to the news of Jesus continues a long line of prophetic songs proclaiming the great things God has done. God’s power brings down the mighty from their thrones, but in His mercy, He redeems the lowly and those who cannot redeem themselves.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 1

God with Us Luke 1:1–2:52 Series ID: 14201

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me again to the portion of Scripture that we read earlier from Luke’s Gospel. And indeed, if you care to have your Bibles open or to use one of the pew Bibles around you, you will be served by being able to cast your eye down to the text as I make mention of it and to ensure that what I’m actually saying is there.

Our focus is on the Song of Mary, which, of course, begins in the forty-fifth verse, is it? But there is a little section that precedes that that we daren’t pass over lightly. It is the prenatal conversation between Elizabeth and Mary, something that women are very familiar with and men should usually stay out of as much as possible—conversations that involve kicking and hiccupping and various personal and private interaction that we as men may only wonder at and mainly recoil from. But ladies understand a little section like this, insofar as the humanity of it is obvious.

However, even the most casual of readings of these six verses makes clear to us that this is something more significant than two expectant mothers comparing notes. The context has arisen because with the words of the angel ringing in her ears, Mary has chosen to make a journey of some seventy miles into the Judean hill country, primarily to link up with her cousin Elizabeth, about whom she had heard from the angel this dramatic news that Elizabeth, who was known as the barren one, the one who was never going to have a child, was, in fact, expecting a baby. And so she hastens to the home of Elizabeth and greets her.

This may seem as nothing very important, but in point of fact, the way in which greetings took place in Eastern custom was and is very important. Elizabeth was the senior—should have been greeted by the junior, and she was. Elizabeth was the daughter of Aaron, from the priestly line, and therefore, she had some stature which Mary did not have, and therefore, Mary should be greeting her—which, of course, she did.

But within a very quick moment, the greeting of Mary seems to be swallowed up by the loud voice of Elizabeth as she gives this dramatic exclamation, which, of course, must have filled the mind of Mary with profound wonder. Having come from an incredible encounter with this angel, who had delivered her the news of her expectancy and the nature of it, she now finds herself going, for whatever reason from a human perspective, to the home of her cousin and on the receiving end of a reinforcement of this dramatic news. Because if you look carefully at the text, you will see that Elizabeth, upon hearing Mary’s greeting, speaking out “in a loud voice,” displays a knowledge of things that clearly did not come by deduction. Without having seen or heard anything about Mary at all, she finds herself possessed of perfect clarity, and her words are in concurrence with the earlier statement of Gabriel. She is also extolling Mary for her favored status, which, of course, the angel had done in verse 28, earlier on.

Now, how did this come about? How is it that this lady, well on in years—who herself is expecting a child who is to be the forerunner (namely, John the Baptist)—how is it that she, upon the arrival of this young slip of a girl, is able to make these statements? The answer is: by the Holy Spirit. She “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and “in a loud voice … exclaimed.” In other words, it was as a result of the ministry of God the Holy Spirit that she was enabled to speak in this way.

Now, that, of course, could provide for us a significant detour on the doctrine of the third person of the Trinity and his ministry throughout the course of the Old and the New Testaments. I resist any temptation to go there at the moment, except to say that this little doggerel is as true of the Spirit’s ministry as it is of other areas: that the New—when we think of the Old and the New Testaments—the New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed, so that what we have in a shadowy way in the Old Testament finds its expression in the New, and things that we find in their fullness in the unfolding revelation of God in the New Testament we can then find in sketchy outline in the Old Testament.

Lenski says, “When the one mother,” Elizabeth, “recognized the other mother,” Mary, “the unborn forerunner felt his Master’s presence and was himself filled with the Spirit, and that Spirit then [also filled] his mother.”[1] You remember, we’ve already seen that the angel says of this John the Baptist that he will be “filled with the Spirit … from birth.”[2] And here in this dramatic encounter, these things are unfolding.

Now, some of the ladies listening, you say, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about this. After all, when we have these kind of prenatal discussions, we often talk to one another about whether the baby’s kicking, and when it’s kicking, and whether the music was playing, and ‘My baby always kicks when Mozart plays,’ and all that kind of stuff.” I recognize that these things are common, and it’s also quite common for an emotional response on the part of the woman to cause movement in the baby. It is quite another for a miraculous expression of emotion on the part of the unborn child to have an impact on the mother. And that’s what is said is taking place here. You’ve got to look at your Bible carefully.

Elizabeth is enabled to translate her baby’s tumbling into theology, and this as a result of divine revelation. And so she reiterates the truths that we have already discovered as coming from the lips of the angel. And she gives explanation of what is going on in verse 44: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leap[t] for joy.” And then she makes this summary statement: “Blessed is she,” using the third person, “who has believed … what the Lord has said to her[: it] will be accomplished.”

Now, we might be tempted to say, “Well, this is a very interesting anecdotal piece of information, sort of a little parenthetical thing that is off in the corner from the larger issues that are before us in Luke’s narrative.” To do so would be to make a dreadful mistake. And I’ll tell you why.

Consider when this is taking place. This is taking place at the end of centuries of prophetic silence. The Old Testament has concluded with the prophecy of Malachi, and hundreds of years have elapsed since Malachi spoke. For example, if you just turn to that—and let me reinforce it for you—in Malachi 4:2: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness”—this is God speaking through Malachi—“the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” And in verse 5 (and we’ll come to this later): “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Isn’t it interesting that the word of the prophet is that people will go around and “leap” when “the sun of righteousness” rises “with healing in [his] wings”? And the very same verb is used concerning what is happening to this child in the womb of the mother. It “leap[t] for joy.”

Elizabeth is enabled to translate her baby’s tumbling into theology, and this as a result of divine revelation.

Now, the significance is simply this: that the generations that had lived between the Testaments, in what we refer to as the intertestamental period, would have continually rehearsed the promises of God to one another. The parents would have told the children, and the children would have sat on the knees of the grandparents, and the grandparents would have said, “You know, there is coming a day, Son, there’s a-coming a day, my lassie, when the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” And the grandchildren would have said, “And what does that mean? And when will that be? And will it be today, Grandpa? Do you think it’ll be tomorrow, Grandpa?” And Grandpa would have to say, “Honey, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I know it’s definitely going to be.”

And one generation would go to their death. And another generation would arise, reading the same Scriptures, reading the prophecy of Ezekiel: “I will put my Spirit [with]in you”;[3] reading the prophecy of Joel: “Afterward, I will pour out my Spirit [up]on all people. [And] your sons and [your] daughters will prophesy.”[4] And the prophetic voice had been silenced for four hundred years. So the people of God, who were tuned into the promises of God and the unfolding plan of God, would be constantly on the lookout to say to themselves, “Is this, then, the day of the Lord? Is this the Old Testament day that God has promised, which is to be the day of his Spirit?” And what Luke is announcing here in his narrative is yes, that is exactly what has happened.

In the announcement of John the Baptist we have the return of the prophetic voice. He’s filled with the Spirit. In the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit we have the beginning of the new creation. Elizabeth and Zechariah are both filled with the Spirit. And Luke is announcing that in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the day of the Spirit has finally dawned—not yet in all of its fullness, but nevertheless, it has arrived.

Now, the significance of this is vast. Some would have said to one another, “God has forgotten his promise to Abraham.” And someone would have said, “Well, what was his promise to Abraham?” And they would have quoted from the book of Genesis chapter 12 and how God had come and made a covenant with Abraham and said, you know, “Your seed will be as the sand of the seashore in its vastness, as the stars of the sky. And through your seed, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”[5] And people are saying, “Well, then where is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham?” in the same way that scoffers today say, “Well, where is the promise of the return of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? After all, everything continues the same as it has always been.”

But when the time comes, God displays the fact that he has not forgotten his promise to Abraham. God always remembers. And in making Mary the mother of the Messiah, he has declared his mercy.

Now, I could say more, but I daren’t for the sake of time. Elizabeth’s words reinforced the reality of Mary’s faith. She has “believed,” verse 45. She has trusted. She has come to rely upon what the Lord has said.

Now, think about that. What did she have to go on? Only the word of God. What do you have to go on? The exact same thing. What, then, is the spirit of dependent faith? It is the spirit which takes God at his word. And this little section reinforces the reality of Mary’s faith, reinforces the certainty of God’s promise, that “what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” The seed of David “will reign” on the throne “of Jacob forever,” and “his kingdom,” verse 33, “will never [come to an] end.” And Luke provides for us this wonderful point of continuity between the Old Testament expectation and the New Testament realization.

Now, as we come to the Song of Mary, there exists a very real danger—actually, a number of real dangers—mainly in the way in which we deal with the text. Some of us are familiar with this as the Magnificat. We’ve come from a background where we used to sing it, magnificat being the first word of the Latin translation of this song. And we have tended to think of it in a certain way. And because we think of it in that way, we find it very, very difficult to come to it with freshness. We need to ask the Lord to help us.

But there is a real danger in approaching it in a way that is simply devotional. And believe me, I can do this without any difficulty at all. I can preach a devotional sermon on the Song of Mary without any study during the week whatsoever. And I don’t say that to impress you with my ability but simply to let you know how dreadful the sermon would be. Not that there is not devotion in it, but it is not there for our devotional acceptance. The Bible does not exist primarily so that men and women can sit in Cleveland and say, “What does this mean to me?” and impress one another with a sort of existential unfolding of these truths: “Well, I think it means this,” and “It means that to me,” and “I discovered this.” That’s not the issue. You may be completely wrong. The question is: What does this mean? And after we’ve discovered what it means, then we can think about “to me,” but not until. And there is a real danger in a devotional approach to it.

The other danger is that we’d approach it as a kind of revolutionary treatise, as many have. And twentieth-century theologians in South America have used this as a doctrine for political liberation—that “this is the God who overturns the mighty” and so on, “and we will take him at his word, and we’ll go out and seek to do that.” Of course, the very point is that it is not man who is overturning these institutions, but it is God himself who is doing it. So there would be a real danger in using it as a diatribe for political revolution.

Luke provides for us a wonderful point of continuity between the Old Testament expectation and the New Testament realization.

Thirdly, the danger is that we focus on Mary rather than on the song and we laud her for her virtue and for her merit instead of concentrating on that which she makes much of—namely, her low estate and her need of God’s kindness in salvation.

So we’re not going to approach it devotionally. We’re not going to approach it revolutionarily. And we’re not going to approach it in terms of Mariolatry. For Mariolatry is the worship of Mary, which emerges from Mariology, which is a theology which has no basis in the Bible at all which sees the Virgin Mary as a co-redemptress along with Jesus Christ. That’s why people pray to her, that’s why people seek her: because they have been taught that she fulfills that role. The way to find the antidote to such teaching is simply to read your Bible. You’re sensible people. See if that’s what it is saying.

Now, setting those things aside, I found it helpful to view the song this week in my study as a song of God’s mercy. As a song of God’s mercy. And I want to draw a line through it by means of this one word, “mercy.” It is the English translation of the Hebrew hesed, which you will find on the signposts of at least one synagogue here on the east side of Cleveland, one of the ones that’s on South Woodland.

And the word “mercy” speaks of God’s devotion to his covenant. It is expressive of God’s covenant love, the kind of love that is steady and is persistent and refuses to wash one’s hands of those who even deny the covenant. It is expressive of compassion to those who are in need, those who understand themself to be helpless or in distress, those who recognize their debt and at the same time know that they have no claim whatsoever to any kind of favorable treatment. It is that work of God whereby he takes the initiative in the lives of men and women. “It is because of your great mercy,” says Jeremiah, “that we have not been consumed”—Lamentations 3. “Great is your faithfulness.”[6]

Now, this song is a song of God’s mercy. If grace is concern for men as guilty, then mercy is concern for men as being miserable. In fact, we could combine the two and say that God’s mercy is his love towards those who are in misery as a result of their sin and their guilt.

God’s Mercy to Mary

First, then, notice God’s mercy to Mary. God’s mercy to Mary.

Notice, first of all, that she stood in need of mercy. That’s the first and obvious thing to notice. Why did Mary stand in need of mercy? Because she was a sinner like all the rest. That’s why she “rejoices,” verse 47, “in God,” who is the “Savior.” In glorifying God and rejoicing in his person, Mary extols this child as Savior.

And we don’t want to camp here, but we don’t want to miss the point. And throughout the wonder of her motherhood of Christ, whether it is when he is a boy in the temple[7] or whether it is at the wedding of Cana in Galilee, when she comes to him and says that they’ve run out of the wine and he does the miraculous event, but he says to her, “Woman, … my time has not yet come,”[8] and she continues to ponder all of that in her heart,[9] leading her eventually to the place beneath the cross where she looks up on her Son, the Christ,[10] and she recognizes that there he bears her sin “in his [own] body on the tree.”[11] God’s mercy to her was a necessary mercy.

It was a mercy, notice, that extended to her humble circumstances—verse 48. God could have come and found a rich, noble, powerful queen, but instead he came to this poor, despised, lowly maiden. “He[’s] been mindful of the humble [e]state of his servant.” “And,” says Mary, “his mercy towards me will not be forgotten with the passing of generations. From now on all generations will call me blessed.”

And our very study of this song this morning is a fulfillment of her word. We’re here looking at the very text that she gave by inspiration in this moment in time. And we extol the circumstances because of “the Mighty One” doing “great things for me—holy is his name.” Notice Mary’s focus. It doesn’t say “The Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is my name.” “The Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.” You always find Mary looking away to the Christ.

What are the “great things” that he has done? Well, he has sent Gabriel, he has chosen Mary, he has caused her conception, he has revealed the mystery to her cousin Elizabeth and enabled her to speak as she has done, and he has, at the bottom line, shown her her need of a Savior. So, God’s mercy is there made plain to Mary.

God’s Mercy to Those Who Fear Him

When you go to verse 50, you realize that God’s “mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Now, what, then, is this fear? And how would we know that there is this fear of God which is an awareness of his mercy?

Well, when the Bible uses “fear,” it does it in different ways, but the fear to which Mary refers here is that kind of fear which is revealed in awe. It fills the hearts of those who recognize God’s majesty and his might and his holiness. It’s the kind of reverence that bows before his power and his righteousness, which deters individuals from treating God and his commandments lightly and by setting them aside by their disobedience. Men and women who declare themselves to fear God in this way and live in a direct violation of God’s plain statements in the Bible are at least walking contradictions, if not flat-out liars. Because the mercy of God extends to those who understand his love and his grace and his goodness, and it moves them to honor him and to obey his commands in childlike reverence.

Now, “he has performed” for these individuals “mighty deeds with his arm.” Well, God doesn’t have an arm. God is invisible. So what does it mean, “He has done mighty things with his arm”? Well, it’s an anthropomorphism. It is the attributing of human likeness to the divine form as an accommodation to our puny little minds in order that we might have something of a picture, in the same way that a child would understand in the strong arm of a father or of a forebear that the father is intervening on their behalf. So God, in the unfolding of salvation history, has bared his arm. It is always a picture of his intervention.

So, in Exodus chapter 6, for example, where God has come to his servant Moses and has given him the courage to go and say “Let my people go,” he has undergirded that with the statement “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”[12] And in revealing his plan of redemption, he is revealed as both a mighty warrior and as a merciful Savior.

And indeed, if you want to study your Bibles with those two motifs, then you will be able to open a page with the heading “Mighty Warrior,” and you will be able to open another page—I’m sounding like a computer here—open another with “Merciful Savior,” and you can then go through your Bible, and you can put down under each the indications of God’s manifestation of himself, and you will find that when you do a page merge, they fit together with perfect wonder. For there is no incongruity in the fact that he is a mighty warrior and he is at the same time a merciful Savior.

His might is established without question—verse 51b. What are these “mighty deeds” he has “performed … with his arm”? Well, “he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”

The mercy of God extends to those who understand his love and his grace and his goodness, and it moves them to honor him and to obey his commands in childlike reverence.

It’s a striking statement, isn’t it? “The fool [has said] in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”[13] Man stands up and calls God in question. I even listened this morning, as I drove here, to a minister in the city asking questions about God and saying, “Well, is God like this?” or
“Is God like that?” or “God is going to have to answer for this,” or “God is going to have to make himself explained.” And I said to myself, “You know, it’s a mystery to me that his voice doesn’t just drain the radio’s power down and he has stones in the street sing out his glory.[14] What is this nonsense, this proud man speaking of God in this way?”

He scatters the proud, the arrogant skeptic. God is not impoverished by the skeptic, nor by the haughty scientist who struts and frets his hour upon the stage of his laboratory (to mix metaphors) and says, you know, “There is no God, and if there is a God, I know what he’s like, and I know where he came from.” And God says, “I remember that ‘you are [dust] and to dust you will return.’”[15] He takes the bogus, supercilious philosophers and all their minions, all their imitators, all the small fry who get a charge out of attacking God and attacking the Bible and attacking the church and saying “This isn’t true” and “That isn’t true” and so on, and hoping that we will all go away and huddle down in a corner and hope that Y2K works out for us.

No, we won’t! No. Psalm 2 says God looks from the heavens and he laughs.[16] He laughs—in the way in children’s cartoons where you have the big giant and the defiant wee rascal. And the wee rascal comes up and tells the giant everything he’s going to do. And the giant, who could go like that and just pfft flick that little character into oblivion, doesn’t do anything at all. He just goes “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” That’s all that needs to happen. And every child knows that wee guy is a chancer, doing that before that big giant. He didn’t even have to do. He just laughed and he blew them away. It’s the mighty warrior: scatters the proud.

He brings down the rulers. Nebuchadnezzar stands on the parapet of his great palace in Babylon, the way some of us are tempted to do with the little petty empires we think we have built, whether they are financial empires or whether they are social empires or whether they’re ecclesiastical or church empires, and we’re tempted to stand up and say to ourself, “And is this not the great thing that I have built?” And the servants are asking, “Who is it that’s crawling in the grass and mooing like a cow out there?” And somewhat diffidently they’re saying to one another, “That’s Nebuchadnezzar that’s down there.” “Well, what’s he doing down there?” “That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves. We were so used to him up here, saying, ‘Here I am, Nebuchadnezzar, and look what I have done!’ And now he’s mooing like a cow and eating grass. How does that happen?”[17] God not only scatters the proud, but he brings down the rulers.

And he “sen[ds] the rich away empty.” He doesn’t have to take the riches away from them to send them away empty. He just allows them to get richer and richer and richer, and the richer they become, the more they understand their emptiness. Because the completeness of their venture reveals the ultimate disappointment of stuff. Isn’t that true? It doesn’t matter how many zeroes are on it, I don’t think. ’Cause I can remember when I had no money, and then I had a wee bit of money, and then a wee bit more money, and a wee bit more than I had the last time, but it doesn’t matter; there’s no amount of money that satisfies the soul, that gives significance to the individual. In fact, this is a staggering message for a bourgeois congregation like this on the east side of Cleveland, is it not?

Some of you are here, and this is your life before you. You’ve been coming, and I don’t want to be unkind to you, but you’re fairly proud of what you’ve done. You’re saying to yourself, “You know, I studied hard, and I did well, and I did this, and I did that, and I did the next thing. And I mean, when I send my resume out, people are impressed with it. I just had a review at the end of the year, and I could tell that everybody thought that I was wonderful. And frankly, you know, I am. And I’m no longer on the third floor; I’m up here on the nineteenth floor. I have one of those cards. I go everywhere in this building now. And you know what? Those stock options are absolutely fantastic. Just yesterday afternoon I had a coffee, and I calculated exactly where I am, and I can’t believe where I am. You know what I think I’ll do? I think I’ll go down to that Parkside Church. There’s people there—I don’t know what they’re into, but I’d like to add a little, you know, Jesus into the thing, a little spirituality, a little, you know… Because I got everything else taken care of now. You know, I’m basically in a position of power, and I have possessions, and frankly, I’m quite proud of it.”

Jesus Christ will not accommodate you. He will not accommodate you. He scatters the proud, he brings down the rulers, and he sends the rich people away empty.

Well then, what in the world am I supposed to do? Is God, then, as a mighty warrior, unkind? No, he is absolutely merciful. He brings you to a circumstance like this, where you’re thinking simply to create a little context in your portfolio where you can add the spiritual dimension—everything else is taken care of; you’ll just slot this in—and he brings you here to say, “You’re going to have to fall down on your face and acknowledge that I am God and there is no other,[18] that everything that you have and are is owed to me. And if you would be humble enough to do that and hungry enough to seek me, then I will lift you up in your humility, and I will feed you in your hunger.”

But you see, proud, ruling, rich people are not by nature humble and have no sense of hunger. That’s why “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of [heaven].”[19] Because the whole ethos of that individual’s life is to believe that by self-endeavor and self-generation, he or she has put themselves in a position whereby there is no club they cannot attend, there is no ticket they cannot get, there is no loge in which they cannot sit, and therefore, by golly, they will have their place in heaven as well. And God laughs in the heavens.

That is why when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he says, “Consider yourselves, folks. There’s not many among you were mighty. There’s not many among you were powerful. There’s not many among you were rich.”[20] Why not? Because those are the very things that prevent an individual from admitting their hunger and their spiritual poverty and their need of God.

Now, the flip side is so wonderful too. He does lift up the humble. He does fill the hungry. But those are the prerequisites.

God’s Mercy to Abraham and His Descendants Forever

Now, let me come to my third expression of mercy. Mercy to Mary, mercy to those who fear him, and mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever. Notice that: he has “remember[ed] to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

You see, we can only understand the Song of Mary when we put it in this much larger picture—and I mean a much larger frame than most of us are tempted to consider it in. Because it is by means of looking with favor on this young girl, Mary, that “he has helped his servant Israel.” It is through this girl that God has chosen to fulfill the purpose of his covenant and his promise—that what he had said to Abraham all these years ago about making him what he made him and of making his seed as significant as he did is being answered now in these dramatic events, here in this context. And indeed, he says, the effect of this would have ramifications for all of “his descendants forever [and ever], even as he [promised] to our [fore]fathers.”

“Well,” you say, “but what, then, has this got to do with me? Because who, then, are the descendants of Abraham? Is this not simply a statement somehow about Israel that has got kind of messed up with the passage of time?” No!

I want you to turn to Romans chapter 9, and I’ll show you why not. Romans 9:6. Paul, speaking of his concern for his own people, his own ethnic background, says in Romans 9:6, “It[’s] not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” What does that mean? Remember, the prophet said to them, “The outward marks implanted upon you ritualistically that designate your ethnicity cannot be equated with the circumcision of heart which is necessary for genuine, dependent faith.”[21] Therefore, not all who have the ethnic background and the benefits that accrue to them in that—vis-à-vis Saul of Tarsus—are themselves Israel in the sense of those who are the very fulfillment of God’s promises.

Read on: “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’”[22] In other words, it’s not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

So, the mercy of God in the Song of Mary is not simply a mercy that extends to Mary and extends to those who fear him in a way that is far off and gone or extends to his covenant people in Israel in a way that we might stand as gentile bystanders and look at it, but it is a mercy which includes you and me. It is that in this song that Mary sings, the unfolding plan of God from all of eternity finds its focus. Galatians 3:9 reiterates the same truth. Verse 6: “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, … it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.”

You remember the conversation with Jesus and the Pharisees in John chapter 8: “We’re the children of Abraham. Abraham was our father; we needn’t be enslaved to anybody.” Jesus said, “If Abraham was your father, you would do what Abraham did. But as it is, Abraham is not your father, and you are like your father, and your father is the devil. He’s the father of lies. And you are, frankly, lying through your teeth.”[23] Sounds like the mighty warrior, doesn’t it?—who scatters the proud, brings down the rulers, sends people who are rich in their own religious exercises away empty.

“The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and [he] announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.”[24] There’s a wonderful statement, isn’t it? “‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”[25] What does it mean, he “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham”? Well, it’s a colon, you will notice, and then it’s quotes. And he’s quoting from Genesis 12:3. Paul says, “This was the gospel that God announced to Abraham. In the making of his covenant, he said, ‘Listen, all the nations will be blessed through you.’ So,” verse 9, “those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

In other words, this Song of Mary is like a whole bunch of other songs that you find throughout the Bible. This is not the first hit, if you like. There have been a number of hit songs similar to this. For example, Moses had a hit in Exodus 15. His sister Miriam followed it up with a hit of her own in the same chapter. Deborah, in the book of Judges, had a wonderful hit song,[26] and Asaph in 1 Chronicles 16. Hannah had a beauty in 1 Samuel chapter 2. And now Mary has a hit song here in Luke chapter 1.

And when you review the charts, you discover that all of these songs in the Old Testament were leading forward to this wonderful song, which would not only reflect the songs already sung but would pick up all the pieces of the mosaic of God’s covenantal purpose and would focus it in a quite unbelievable fashion so that we could study it this morning. And what Luke is doing in his narrative is showing that this event here is in direct continuity with the story that has been unfolding since the beginning of Genesis.

Now, I recognize that some of you are already long gone. But for the three of you who are still left, I’m going to take you on a whistle-wind tour of the Old Testament to try and make my point. The very inadequacy of it will make the point as clear as I can.

First of all, Genesis chapter 3. And this will be a whistle-stop tour. Don’t worry that I’m starting at Genesis 3 and we’re going the whole way through the Bible. We are, but don’t worry about it. Genesis 3:15. In the fall of man, the word of God to the Serpent, to the Evil One: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Okay? This is God speaking to the Evil One.

And from that point, the Evil One sets out an historic struggle to defeat, if he could, the advance of the messianic line, to endeavor somehow to intercept even one link in the chain of God’s unfolding plan, to overthrow God’s purpose of redemption, to raise up enemies from outside and to raise up others from inside by means of intermarriage and apostasy so as to ensure that the word of God would not be fulfilled: “He will crush your head.”

Now, for anybody who had ever read the Old Testament and for the Jew today who reads the Pentateuch, he has to say, “Who in the world is it that crushes the head of the serpent?” Because from that moment on, every mother that was ever born as a Jewish child must have said, “Perhaps I will give birth to the one who will crush the serpent’s head.”

So, for example, when Cain is born, it’s not outlandish to wonder that Eve said to herself, “Here we go! Genesis 3:15: ‘He will crush your head.’ Here comes Cain. Maybe he’s the one who will crush the head of the serpent.” And what does Cain do? He steps up on the stage of human history, and he kills Abel, whom Jesus refers to in [Luke 11] as the first great prophet of Israel.[27] And the war is engaged, and the battle is there, which ensues all the way through the corridors of history.

God replaces Abel with Seth. Seth does pretty good. Corruption sets in. It’s manifold chaos, and it’s time for Noah—Noah and his ark. He stands up as “a preacher of righteousness,”[28] brings the people on board, comes out of that situation, and his bad son, Ham, is expelled. Shem, the good boy, stays on, pioneers the position, and eventually, corruption sets in.

And looking down through of all of this, God looks for a man and picks out Abram from Ur of the Chaldees. Abram, then, to Isaac. God works at just the right time. Isaac to Esau and Jacob. Who’s the natural person to fulfill the line? Esau. Why? Because he is morally superior, and he is also the older. What is Jacob? He’s a schemer. Who does God use? Jacob, the schemer. To reveal what? To reveal the wonder of God’s covenant of grace: that nobody ever merited it freely but always received it as a result of God’s own mercy, which he manifests to whomsoever he chooses. And that’s what he’s doing in the choice of Jacob. He’s saying, “Jacob’s my boy.” And people stand back and say, “Jacob shouldn’t be your boy. Esau should be your boy, because after all…” God says, “Jacob is my man.”

You see, it’s a wonder, is it not? Then we have Jacob’s Ladder; forget that for the moment. Then it goes to Joseph. What about Joseph? Second youngest of the boys, but he’s God’s man. Again, a flat-out human contradiction. Who are you going to take? Presumably one of the top guys. Doesn’t do that. Takes Joseph.

Then we go to Moses. Egyptian slavery. Pharaoh is not liking the fact that the Hebrews are proliferating. So he says, “Let’s just cut this nonsense out. We will take all the firstborn Hebrew children, and we will drown them in the river Nile.” And God looks down and lays hold of a slip of a girl called Moses’s mother. She’s not mighty and powerful. She’s got no status in life. She’s not particularly significant. And God says to her, “Hey,” he says, “you’re my girl. This is what you should do.” And she takes him, and she puts him in the Nile, but she puts him in a basket. And God oversees things providentially, and suddenly, the daughter of the guy who’s trying to kill all the kids becomes the kind of stepmother of the one boy who’s going to be the fulfillment of the next stage of God’s purpose.

And Moses stands up and says, “Let my people go,”[29] and they go, and they get out. And we have the Ten Commandments, but you no sooner have that going on than you have the golden calf. Then they’re in the wilderness and the process of purification. Then you have Joshua, ’cause Moses doesn’t get to go in, but Joshua, whose name means “The Lord is the one who saves”—he gets to go in.

Then who steps up? Rahab. What was she? A prostitute. What’s she doing there? Forget that! What are you doing there? What am I doing there? What does God do with Rahab? He points out the very principle of his covenant of grace: he extends his mercy to those who are humble and who are hungry and who fear him. He doesn’t come to the mighty and the proud and the rich. And she hangs the scarlet cord, symbolic of the incorporation of the gentiles into the great plan of God in the scheme of redemption.

And they go into the land. And they have judges, and they have prophets. And they have restlessness, and they have corruption. And they have Abimelech, who was a mainline rascal, who orders this great massacre and kills seventy of his brothers. And only one of them escapes, Jotham, the youngest. And Abimelech, in all of his pride and all of his might, is involved in the taking of a city. And the lady goes up in a tower and drops a millstone, and it lands on Abimelech’s head and cracks his skull. And Abimelech runs over to one of his commanders, and he says, “Run me through with a sword. I don’t want it ever to be said that I was killed by a woman!”[30] And Jotham is God’s man, and he steps onto the stage of human history.

And then you have human kings. “We want kings,” say the people of God,[31] so he gives them Saul, and he has divided loyalty. He gives them David, and he’s an adulterer. And the royal line is continually threatened by apostasy. Ahab establishes Baal worship right in the heart of the whole operation. His wife Jezebel is a mainline rascal. And God raises up Elijah and through him drives out the prophets of Baal, condemns Ahab, and remains loyal to his covenant.

Well, we’ll stop at Elijah, because interestingly, it’s in Malachi 4 that Elijah’s mentioned, at the very end of the Old Testament record. But when you read in the Hebrews chapter 11, it says there were many more besides these that didn’t receive the promise.[32] They didn’t live to see the unfolding of the Song of Mary.

You see, the reason I’ve done this is to point out to you, dear ones, that if you’re going to understand this Bible, you and I are going to have to read it from Genesis all the way through to Revelation. You can’t be reading your Bible like a little zippity-dippity “Woo! There’s a nice thought!” and “Ooh! I must share that with my mother-in-law!” and “Oh! There’s a beauty—I like that one!” and everything else. Believe me, as I said, I could do a little sermon on Mary’s song this morning—“Mary’s investigation, Mary’s adoration, Mary’s contemplation,” you know, and so on—and you’d be going, “Hey,” you know, “that was nice.” But you wouldn’t know one thing better than when you walked in the door.

So, when I die, I want you to know your Bibles. I don’t really care if you’re getting blessed, first of all; I want you to know your Bibles. And I want you to get so infuriated by the little journey that I just took through the Old Testament, you’re going away saying, “I’m not sure he understands that himself, and I definitely know that I don’t, but I am going to go back. I’m going to find out what in the world he’s talking about in relationship to that thing.” That’s good! Those are always the best teachers. It’s a lousy teacher that gives you everything on a sheet of paper—all the points, all the subpoints, all the answers to all your questions—and then sets you tests so that you can give the same answers that he provided to you or she provided to you in the lecture, and there may be no mechanism whereby you understood anything at all.

And so, as in Ahab’s day, another lousy king sits on the throne, and Herod is unwilling to surrender his title to an unknown child. And in the midst of all of that cruelty, the searchlight of God fastens on Bethlehem.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee [rise]!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
[But] in [those] dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
[For] the hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.[33]

You see, that’s what Mary was singing about: the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob fulfilling the promise to the patriarchs by means of the most unlikely little girl, so that not only she would know God’s mercy, but those who fear him would know his mercy, and those who are the descendants of Abraham would know his mercy—and therefore that we would know his mercy.

Let’s pray together:

Father, thank you for the way in which you work, because otherwise we would all be in great difficulty. If we had to earn acceptance with you, state our own case, build our own bridge, as it were, we would be destined to eternal futility and loss. But we thank you for your wisest love, that sent “a second Adam to the fight,”[34] sent this one who would come to our rescue.

Confront us with our propensity to find our significance in power and in passions and in possessions, and humble us, and fill us with an ever-nagging, gnawing hunger that can only be filled by he who is the Bread of Life.[35]

Grant, then, that we might be, by your mercy and your grace and by our repentance and our faith, found amongst those who fear you. And may your grace and your mercy and your peace be our abiding portion, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Luke’s Gospel 1–11, Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1946), 78.

[2] Luke 1:15 (NIV 1984).

[3] Ezekiel 37:14 (NIV 1984).

[4] Joel 2:28 (NIV 1984).

[5] Genesis 22:17–18 (paraphrased).

[6] Lamentations 3:22–23 (paraphrased).

[7] See Luke 2:41–51.

[8] John 2:4 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Luke 2:19, 51.

[10] See John 19:25.

[11] 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV 1984).

[12] Exodus 6:6 (NIV 1984).

[13] Psalm 14:1 (NIV 1984).

[14] See Luke 19:40.

[15] Genesis 3:19 (NIV 1984).

[16] See Psalm 2:4.

[17] See Daniel 4:29–33.

[18] See Isaiah 45:5.

[19] Matthew 19:24 (NIV 1984).

[20] 1 Corinthians 1:26 (paraphrased).

[21] See Ezekiel 36:26.

[22] Romans 9:7 (NIV 1984).

[23] John 8:33, 39–44 (paraphrased).

[24] Galatians 3:8 (NIV 1984).

[25] Galatians 3:8 (NIV 1984). See also Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18.

[26] See Judges 5.

[27] See Luke 11:49–51.

[28] 2 Peter 2:5 (NIV 1984).

[29] Exodus 5:1 (NIV 1984).

[30] Judges 9:54 (paraphrased).

[31] 1 Samuel 8:19–20 (paraphrased).

[32] See Hebrews 11:39.

[33] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1868).

[34] John Henry Newman, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (1865).

[35] See John 6:35.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.