9 September 2013Luke 1:39-47
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v. 41)
This is one of those passages where it really helps to know 'the story so far'. And the story in Luke's Gospel so far has been as much about John the Baptist as about Jesus. Indeed, John plays a very prominent part throughout the Gospel and is central to Luke's understanding of Jesus. John is introduced as the son of a priest, Zechariah, and of Elizabeth, a descendent of Aaron, the founder of the priesthood (Luke 1:1-25). So John, who becomes a prophet, was a priest by birth. And this, following Jewish tradition, identified John with the most famous Hebrew prophet of all, Elijah.
Nine hundred years before Christ, Israel, under King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, had turned away from the worship of her God ('Yahweh') and had reverted to idol worship. Elijah boldly challenged Israel to return to Yahweh, and suffered badly at the hands of the king and queen. But he survived, and rather than dying in old age, was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. And later Jews believed that Elijah would return from heaven to challenge Israel once again and to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah at the "great and terrible day of the Lord" (Malachi 4:5). This, for Luke's Gospel, was the true identity of John the Baptist: "With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17).
Filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15) the unborn baby John recognises the unborn baby Jesus as the one for whose coming he was to prepare. So John begins his work, as 'Elijah returned to life', of proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, the saviour of Israel. And Mary's response to Elizabeth is in exactly the same vein. Mary's 'hymn of praise', which we know as the 'Magnificat', is a very close paraphrase of Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, following the birth of her son, Samuel. And Samuel was the priest/prophet who anointed David as king - the first great messiah and saviour of Israel.
- This story reminds us of the essential 'Jewishness' of the original gospel message - a 1st-century Jew would have had no difficulty in understanding what Luke was saying, but how can we, in the 21st century, make sense of his central claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah?
- Is it possible to understand the 'New' Testament without first understanding the 'Old' Testament?
- Do you think John the Baptist had the right idea about Jesus? Why?