Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 1:39-56

[39] At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, [40] where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. [41] When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. [42] In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! [43] But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? [44] As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. [45] Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

[46] And Mary said:

"My soul glorifies the Lord
[47] and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
[48] for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
[49] for the Mighty One has done great things for me --
holy is his name.
[50] His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
[51] He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
[52] He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
[53] He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
[54] He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
[55] to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

[56] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.


Exposition

Mary has just been visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will bear a son, Jesus, who will "be great and will be called the Son of the Most High," and heir to the ancient throne of David. She has been told that the Holy Spirit will conceive in her -- a virgin -- this child. And she has assented: "I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said." (1:26-38)

A Hurried Trip to the Hill Country of Judea (1:39-40)

"At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth." (1:39-40)

Mary is confused -- at least you would be if you were Mary. Who can she talk to about this? Her mother? Her rabbi? The only person she knows who will be able to understand her is relative Elizabeth. The angel has told Mary: "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." (1:36-37)

And so Mary hurriedly prepares for a trip to see Elizabeth. The Greek uses the noun spoude, which can mean "haste, speed," but also can carry the idea of "eagerness, diligence, enthusiasm, zeal."[1] Mary is in a hurry to go, that is clear, though I don't think she is primarily motivated by fear. But still, she is just a young teenager, and this is pretty overwhelming. She needs steadying, guidance. But she is probably eager, as well. This whole experience can't help but be exciting.

We don't know the name of the town where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. Guesses at the identity of the town include Jutta, about five miles south of Hebron in Edomite territory, and Ain Karim, five miles from Jerusalem, considered the traditional site since the sixth century.[2] The journey was about 80 to 100 miles and would probably take Mary three to four days.

Now she seeks out Zechariah's home in the tiny village, and greets her kinswoman Elizabeth. It the town is near Jerusalem, it's likely that Mary has visited here before when her family has come to Jerusalem for Passover or another feast day. Elizabeth, now six months pregnant, comes to the door and sees her niece. She hasn't expected her, but now Mary greets her. The Greek word is aspazomai, "greet." For the Jews greeting is an important ceremony.[3] While Jesus censures the Pharisees and teachers of the law for seeking to attract public greetings to honor them (20:46; 11:43), he instructs his disciples to offer a greeting of "Peace to you," in homes that they enter (10:5). This word of peace, when received, functions like a powerful blessing upon the householder.

The Baby Leaped in Elizabeth's Womb (1:41)

While we don't know the greeting Mary brings to Elizabeth, it had an effect so powerful that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and begins to speak out prophetically.

"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." (1:41)

John the Baptist, in Elizabeth's womb, also responds to the presence of the Messiah inside of Mary. Elizabeth interprets this stirring within her as motivated by joy -- and why not? That is how the Angel saw it: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (2:10).

Blessed Are You Among Women (1:42-44)

"In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.' " (1:42-44)

Elizabeth's response is anything but quiet and reserved. Our passage mentions her loudness. The text says that "she cried out (anaphoneo) with a loud (megas) cry (krauge)." You know what it is like when someone greets you unexpectedly, a beloved person whom you haven't seen for a long time. I see Elizabeth embracing young Mary, and almost shrieking in joy. But her greeting is more than loud, it is spiritual and Spirit-filled. When Luke uses the phrase, "was filled with the Holy Spirit," it is usually of prophets or others who are about to speak out in prophesy under the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:67; 4:1; Acts 2:4; 4:8; 6:3; 7:55).

The first sentence that Elizabeth utters is familiar to many, since it is also found in the second clause of the Roman Catholic "Hail Mary" or "Ave Maria" prayer: "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus...."[4]

Elizabeth offers two blessings (Greek eulogeo) under divine inspiration, first upon Mary herself, as being blessed above all other women, and then upon the fetus of Jesus within her, probably only a few weeks along at this point in time. Then she wonders out loud why "the mother of my Lord" would come to visit her. How could Elizabeth know that Mary's child was the Lord? The power of the Holy Spirit upon her gave her special knowledge of Mary's condition, and blessedness, and faith.

Blessed Is Mary the Believer (1:45)

Elizabeth has sudden insight also into Mary's faith: "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (1:45). While Elizabeth's husband had doubted what the Lord had told him -- and was mute because of it -- Mary had believed. This very trip south to Judea was evidence of her belief, for she was acting it out, coming to visit the one person whom God had prepared to help her -- Elizabeth.

The Magnificat: Praise for God's Blessing (1:46-49)

Now, Mary, too, breaks out in Spirit-inspired speech. Her first words are an utterance of praise to God for his awesome blessings to her, and sound very similar to the inspired Psalms of the Old Testament. She, who was a peasant girl in a provincial village -- that's pretty humble -- is now one whom all generations will remember and give thanks for:

"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me --
holy is his name." (1:46-49)

The focus is on "the Lord," "God my Savior," "the Mighty One." The first verb in this paean of praise is Greek megaluno, "make large or long, magnify." It is used figuratively here: "exalt, glorify, praise, extol."[5] The first word of this passage in Latin, magnificat, has become the name of Mary's psalm of praise. While the words "soul" (pseuche) and "spirit" (pneuma) are used, we should look at this as an example of Hebrew poetic parallelism, rather than denoting separate elements of Mary's psycho-spiritual makeup.

Mary both glorifies (megaluno) and rejoices (agalliao). The Greek word agalliao means "rejoice, be overjoyed, exalt," the same word used of Jesus when joy swells up in him at his disciples' report of the demons being subject to them on their preaching trip (10:21). The focus of Mary's joy is "God my Savior," that is "God, who is the one who brings me salvation and rescues me from every trouble." Mary is caught up in joy in the Lord!

She contrasts her "humble state" as a "servant" (Greek doule, "female slave, handmaid") with God's greatness. She refers to him as the Mighty One, dunatos, an adjective meaning "powerful, strong, mighty, able."[6] And she concludes by affirming his holiness: "-- holy is his name!" What a wonderful psalm of praise.

Mary's Magnificat is strongly reminiscent of Hannah's song of praise (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Hannah had been barren, but God answered her prayer, and now she brings her young boy, Samuel, to the temple and dedicates him to the Lord, to live in God's house. Compare the first line of Hannah's psalm to Mary's and you can see the similarity, as both women exalt in God at the miraculous birth of a child:

"My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.
(1 Samuel 2:1)

"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant." (1:46-48a)

The Magnificat: Praise for God's Salvation for His People (1:49-55)

While the first section of Mary's psalm of praise gives praise to God, the second recounts some of the examples of God's saving acts towards Israel:

"His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers." (1:49-55)

One theme is displacing the proud, mighty, and wealthy from their high estate, and in their place exalting the humble, the hungry, and poor. It sounds much like Jesus' own mission, "to preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).

The other theme is God's faithfulness to those who trust him, or, in Old Testament language, "to those who fear him." God's salvation is an outworking of remembering and acting on his own promise to Abraham nearly two thousand years before -- the faithful God showing mercy and salvation to those who trust him.

Mary Returns Home (1:56)

"Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home." (1:56)

Though Mary's return home is mentioned prior to Luke's account of the birth, I think it is likely that she remained with Elizabeth until the baby was born, and then returned home. By this time, Mary own pregnancy was showing, or was about to.

Mary had certainly been an encouragement to Elizabeth and Zechariah, but I think God had planned it especially for Mary's benefit. Upon returning home, Mary would be subject to cruel taunts and slander, here she was safe. Upon returning home, Mary would have to stand on her own spiritual feet, lonely, misunderstood, rejected. Here she was loved and accepted.

Spiritual Mentors

Elizabeth had asked, "Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1:44). God provided Elizabeth to Mary as a kind of spiritual grandmother -- a pregnant grandmother at that! -- who would nurture her and encourage her in the Lord. Elizabeth was her instructor and teacher, her friend and confidant, her mentor and advocate. God gave Elizabeth to Mary for a special period of time and a special purpose.

As we conclude this lesson, I can't help but think that God may have these roles for each of us, too.

Perhaps you are a new Christian, struggling hard to understand and make your way. I believe God has someone for you who can help and guide you. It's likely that you'll find this mentor at church -- that's where God-loving, mature believers usually congregate -- or perhaps a small group meeting related to the church. I encourage you to pray that God would enable you find an Elizabeth to help you out during this period of your spiritual journey.

You may be a more mature Christian that God is preparing to be an Elizabeth to some Mary out there. You've been through your own share of pain and struggle. You can understand. You can sympathize. But have now found how to walk with the Lord, how to call upon him in need, how to pray. There's a Mary out there who needs you. Be on the lookout for her, when God sends her along. You have your struggles, to be sure, but Mary needs to watch you meet them with the Lord's help.

Mentor-protege relationships don't usually last for decades, unless they mature into a more equal partnership. Mentorships may last for a few months or a few years at most. And then they end, sometimes painfully, but sometimes because the protege has received what she needs and now must move on and try her wings on her own. Things change. Elizabeth was now a mother -- for her glorious first time -- and it was time for Mary to go home.

Don't mourn the end of a mentorship, rejoice in it. Rejoice for how God has blessed you, and that God could use you for that special, intimate time. And pray that the gifts and understanding of God that you've passed onto your Mary might bear fruit in her life, and in her children's lives forever.


Prayer

Father, I thank you for those whom you've used to mentor to me -- my Dad, my grandfather, Philip Stanley, Joe and others. You've been very gracious to me. And I thank you for those I've been privileged to mentor for a time. Bless them today in Christ, I pray. I ask you for my brothers and sisters, who, like me, are studying your Word and seeking to be used by you. I ask you to enable them to be godly mentors to many through your grace. In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43-44)

"My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." (Luke 1:46-47)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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  1. Why do you think Mary wanted to see her kinswoman Elizabeth? What do you think Mary hoped to get out of the visit?
  2. In what sense is Mary blessed among women?
  3. Mary "believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." How did her actions demonstrate this?
  4. How does saying psalms of praise bring benefit to God? How do psalms of praise benefit us?
  5. In what ways do you think Elizabeth acted as a mentor to Mary? How has someone mentored you in the Lord? How has God used you to mentor others?


References

Common Abbreviations http://jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. Shorter Lexicon, p. 185. Günther Harder, "spoudazo, ktl.," TDNT 7:559-568.
  2. Marshall, p. 80. James F. Driscoll, "Carem," Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), vol 3, discusses the various possibilities. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03345b.htm
  3. Hans Windisch, "aspazomai, ktl.," TDNT 1:496-502.
  4. Herbert Thurston, "Hail Mary," Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), vol. 7. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07110b.htm
  5. Shorter Lexicon, p. 123.
  6. Shorter Lexicon, p. 52.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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