The Lord's Day Morning
December 28, 2008
“Communion in God's Providence”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter one, as we continue our way through this Gospel. The text of the beautiful song that was just sung is not only appropriate for the end of the year, it's appropriate for the passage we're about to read, because just as the text that was just sung speaks of our resting and trusting confidently in God's providence, these two godly women — one young, one much, much older — are communing together in God's providence and rejoicing in what the Lord is doing in their lives.
Let me remind you of a few things before we read this passage together. The first is that this is the first of five songs recorded for us in Luke 1 and 2. The first song sung at the advent of the Messiah in this world was not sung by angels, and it wasn't even sung by Mary. It was sung by Elizabeth. Now you may not pick this up as you’re reading through your text, because in many of your Bibles they will not break Elizabeth's song out as a poem. But if you look about half-way through verse 42 and down to verse 45, what you have is highly poetic language which is clearly a song. It's the first of five songs. God gave to Elizabeth the privilege of singing the first Christmas carol, if I can put it that way. It would be Elizabeth who would sing the first song of praise to the Messiah, even when He was a tiny, tiny little child in the womb of His mother Mary.
The second thing I want you to see about this passage is that it has the fingerprints of the Trinity all over it. Just be on the lookout for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their respective roles in this passage: the Father speaking through the angel a word to Mary, which leads her to go and see her cousin Elizabeth (far, far away, in the first place); the Holy Spirit opening Elizabeth's eyes to — whom? To Jesus, the Son. So be on the lookout for this in the passage as we read it.
One last thing as we look at the passage. Be on the lookout for this: two major aspects of God's plan of redemption are highlighted in this passage. The first of course is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. His divinity, His lordship and His messiahship are all borne witness to in the words of Elizabeth and in the response of John, even in the womb, and so the person of the Redeemer is clearly the focus of this whole passage. In the end it's not Mary, it's not Elizabeth, and it's not John who are the focus of this passage. It's Jesus who is the focus of this passage and song.
The second major aspect of God's redemptive plan that is revealed in a marvelous way in this passage is that here we have come to the intersecting point of the old covenant and the new covenant. Have you ever thought about that? In Elizabeth's house the old covenant meets the new covenant. In the old covenant the Messiah is prophesied. Every old covenant prophet essentially has this message: God will send His Son into this world to bear the penalty for the forgiving of your sin. Every old covenant prophet ultimately had that message, and John was going to be the very last prophet who would ever speak that message.
And here in Elizabeth's house, the last prophet of the old covenant with that message will meet the one about whom that message had been given, the Messiah. And so the old covenant and the new covenant meet in Elizabeth's house.
Now when that happens you would expect electricity, and you will get it aplenty as you will see and hear as we read God's word. Well, let's look to Him and ask for His help and blessing as we read His word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and it is just as needful to us as food. For man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So help us to receive this Your word as heavenly food from above. Grant, O God, that we would taste it and inwardly digest it, and receive it deep into our hearts and souls, believing You, trusting Your word; and not simply being hearers, but becoming doers of the truth. For this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
The church fathers and theologians ever since have called this passage and the event that it describes the visitation. You remember the last time we were together in Luke we were looking at the passage where the angel came to Mary to tell her the enormous blessing that God had given to her, and describing to her the role that she would play in God's plan of redemption. That passage is often called the annunciation, the announcement of God through the angel to Mary as His plan of redemption through Jesus Christ. Well, this passage is the visitation, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, but perhaps even more deeply the visitation of the Savior to Elizabeth and to her son, John the Baptist, and it's a remarkable story.
Here's Mary. You remember we said that in Mary's day and age the average age of betrothal was probably about 12 Ѕ. Now we don't know how old Mary was, but she was probably a very, very, very young teenager–thirteen, fourteen years old perhaps. And she's visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who is old enough to be her great-grandmother. And they’re both pregnant at the same time. [Now that's just a little weird!] And she's traveled almost a hundred miles, all the way from Nazareth in Galilee, all the way down into the hill country of Judah, and they are going to commune together a little bit. They’re going to experience some fellowship: not just the fellowship of cousins, not just the fellowship of kin, not just the fellowship of two women who are expecting children; but communion, fellowship in God's providence for their lives because they have been called to fulfill the promise of God in Genesis 3:15 that a Messiah is going to be sent into the world — the seed of the woman, who is going to crush the serpent's head. They are going to be respectively the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah and the mother of the Messiah, and they needed to have words and they needed to have fellowship, and they needed to commune in that glorious (and no doubt overwhelming) reality.
Can you imagine how it would have been when Luke came to Mary and said, ‘You know, Mary, Mark hasn't written down much about this time, and Matthew hasn't written much down about this time. And one of the things that I really want to do is I want to write down some of the things that happened in these days that have not yet been recorded for the edification of God's people.’ And can you imagine Mary saying, ‘Well, Luke…’ [now as a much older woman, closing in on fifty perhaps] ‘…Luke, let me tell you what happened. After the angel came to me, I went to see my cousin Elizabeth, and this is what happened.’ And we're party, by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit, to that amazing event, the visitation.
Well, there are so many things to learn from it that I don't have time to do justice to it today, but I want to draw your attention to six or seven things just very briefly.
First of all, I want you to look at the fellowship that Mary and Elizabeth shared. Then, I want you to see the fruit of the Spirit in Elizabeth's life. Then I want you to consider the humility of Elizabeth and the example that she is to us. And then I want you to think about the person of Jesus Christ, because it is Jesus who is the focus of Elizabeth's song of praise to God. Then I want you to think about the promise and fulfillment which is displayed before our very eyes in the birth of John and the birth of Jesus, and their coming together in close proximity in Mary and Elizabeth's meeting. Then I want you to think about the faith of Mary, because Elizabeth draws attention to it. And, finally, I want you to think a little bit about God himself, and especially about how the Triune God is so clearly manifest in this passage.
Well, very briefly let's walk through these things together.
I. The fellowship that Mary and Elizabeth shared.
First of all, I want to think about the fellowship. If you look at verses 39-40, you’re told that “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country to a town in Judah, and entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Now later in this passage you’re going to be told that Mary spent about three months with Elizabeth. Mary was barely expecting. Elizabeth was six months pregnant. And Mary stayed there until right before John the Baptist was born, so she had almost three months with this much older cousin. And who knows all of the conversations that were had by those two godly women, but two very important parts of their conversations are recorded in Luke. We’ll study the first part this week and the next part next week, God willing.
But I want you to see something about their fellowship.
Their fellowship was not just the fellowship of kin. This isn't just female cousins coming together. It's not just female cousins who were expecting coming together. These are two women who have deep communion in God's providence, and they have deep communion in the gospel. These are two believing women. One of the things that Luke emphasizes is that these women believed the word of God. These women believed the promise of God. These women had a communion in the gospel, and that communion that they had in God's purposes and that communion in the gospel, it spanned every other difference that existed between them. I mean, think about it! What would it be like to be pregnant at the same time that your great-grandmother was pregnant? Well, Elizabeth was a cousin, she wasn't a great-grandmother, but she was old enough to be Mary's great-grandmother. And yet grace spans and unites these generations.
And I want to pause and say right now, young people, don't discount that fact. Grace spans and unites the generations. There's no generation gap between Mary and Elizabeth. She's barely a teenager. Elizabeth is what? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? Sarah was 75 when she had Isaac. How old was Elizabeth? I don't know, but she was [how can I put this delicately?] on up there for a lady having her first child! And yet these two immediately clicked. There is gospel fellowship. And, my friends, that's how the gospel always works. I understand that Mary and Elizabeth are a very, very special case, but do you understand that that's how the gospel always works? It unites the generations. I'm so glad that we have a vibrant ministry to students in our congregation and we have a wonderful fellowship of young people. But, young people, don't fail to take advantage of the enormous blessing of spending time and fellowship with older saints who aren't like you, and who come from a different era. They will bless you, and you will bless them.
After the early service, Tricia Walters reminded me that she joined this congregation alone as a teenager…the only member of her family joining this congregation. And she said that to this day she can remember Mr. Bob Kennington coming over and stretching out… [and she said that to her he looked like Methuselah!] She said he probably wasn't that old back when she joined, but he stretched out his old withered hand and shook hands with her, and he said to her, “Tricia, there is no generation gap in the gospel.” And without her knowing, he made a special point of looking out for her for the rest of the time she was a young woman in the church to make sure that she was being cared for and included and ministered to in our midst.
And I want to say, young people, take advantage! There is wisdom to be learned and blessing to be gotten from your relationship with older saints in this congregation. Surely that's one of the by-products and the side benefits of studying this passage, to see this young, young believer fellowshipping with this much more seasoned saint.
II. The fruit of the Spirit of Elizabeth.
There's a second thing I want you to see, though. You see it beginning in verse 41. You see something of the fruit of the Spirit in Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb, and for the rest of the time Elizabeth is alive with joy and praise and adoration of God and faith in His truth, and love for Mary and for Jesus and for God. You see the panoply of the fruit of the Spirit displayed in her.
Think of it, ladies. If you were having your firstborn son at 50 or 60 or 70…I really can't put myself in your place; I really can't put myself in Elizabeth's place, but maybe you sisters in Christ can think some of the things that would have been running through your mind. But surely if you were expecting your firstborn son at that age, you’d want to talk about him a little bit. I mean, if we whip out pictures and say, “Let me show you my grandchildren,” what would she have wanted to do when Mary shows up at her doorstep? But it's all about God. It's all about her joy over the fulfillment of God's promises. It's all about Jesus. There is this display of the fruit of the Spirit.
She knows…did you catch that? She knows that this is her Messiah's mother who has come to visit her. She is humble. All the focus is on Him. She's grateful for what God is doing. She's filled with joy. She has a very clear love for Mary. She displays faith in God's promises. The fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and she displays about half of them just right here! Indeed she was filled with the Holy Spirit; and being filled with the Holy Spirit, she displayed the fruit of the Spirit. The focus is not on her, the focus is on God. It's on Mary. It's on Jesus. It's on everywhere else. You would expect this woman to be focusing on the fact that she's about to have her firstborn son, and no doubt she did talk about those things with Mary. But that's not the emphasis when Mary walks through the door. Don't you see the fruit of the Spirit in this woman Elizabeth, and don't you want to see that kind of fruit displayed in your own life?
III. The humility of Elizabeth.
Well, that leads me to a third thing, and following on the fruit of the Spirit, I want to zero in on one of them: humility. Look at verse 42: “Blessed are you,” she says [Elizabeth to Mary]. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Do you see the humility of Elizabeth? An angel has come to her husband to tell her that she will be the bearer of the forerunner of the Messiah. An angel has come to her husband and told her that in her son… the prophecies of Malachi and Elijah, and Isaiah and Jeremiah…the prophecies of these great Old Testament prophets will be fulfilled in the person of her son. And Mary walks in the door, and Elizabeth has nothing to say about herself. Just this: “Blessed are you among women.” And it struck me, my friends, as I was reading this passage, that Elizabeth's son was just like her. Here's Elizabeth, and she could have said, ‘Mary, let me tell you how I'm going to be used of the Lord!’ But for Elizabeth, it's all about Jesus. ‘Blessed are you among women, Mary, because you’re going to bear the Messiah. You’re going to be the mother of my Lord.’ It's all about Jesus. And that's just how John was. You remember John? “He must increase; I must decrease.” It struck me as I was reading this passage that John's humility did not materialize ex nihilo. He learned it from someone. He was just like his mother. The humility, the self-denial, the focus on Christ that is displayed in the ministry of John, it's evident in the heart of Elizabeth! Mary walks in the door, and it's all about Jesus.
My friends, we could learn something from that. For so many of us “it's all about me…all about mine…let me tell you about me…let me tell you what I've done.” Not with Elizabeth. All the focus is on Jesus. All the encouragement is to Mary, who's going to be the one who's going to bear the Messiah. None of Elizabeth; all of Jesus. What an example of humility she is to us.
IV. The person of Jesus.
And then in verse 43, you see her with a bulls-eye point us to Jesus Christ: “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Think of it, my friends! The child in Mary's womb is days or weeks old, at most. Tee-nintsy! Indetectable! She's not even gotten to her eleven- or twelve-week sonogram! And already Elizabeth acknowledges that that tiny, tiny life en utero is “my Lord.” That's my God, that's my Master, that's my Messiah, that's my Savior! The mother of my Lord has come to me! And notice again the humility: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord would come and visit me?”
It struck me again that just as something that John the Baptist is about to do is going to foreshadow everything that he did in his life and ministry, so this also foreshadows Jesus, because Jesus doesn't wait for us to come to Him. He comes to us. And here He is in the womb, coming to Elizabeth, coming to His cousin John. And Elizabeth knows it! ‘My Lord has visited me in His mother! Who am I to have such a guest in my humble house?’ She focuses all our attention, all her attention, all her praise, all her hopes, all her dreams on the Lord Jesus who is her Master, her God, and her Messiah, her Savior, her Prophet, Priest, and King; her soul, her life, her hope, her all.
V. God's promises fulfilled.
Then I want you to see the promise and the fulfillment of the connection of the old covenant and the new covenant in this passage. Look at verse 44:
“For behold, when the sound of your greeting [Mary's] came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped.”
What's this leap for joy? Is this mother's reading into the movements of a six-month-old child in the womb? No. The Holy Spirit has opened Elizabeth's eyes to know why John leaped. What has just happened? The Messiah has just come into the room. What is John's one job in life? His one job is to point to the Messiah, “to prepare the way of the Lord; to call Israel to make straight their paths for the coming of the Lord.” And here in the womb at the very outset John leaps for joy at the presence of the one for whom he would spend his life, and in death would point to.
Maximus of Turin, one of the early church fathers, says: “Not yet born, John already prophesies.” He's already pointing to the Savior! In his mother's womb he's already pointing to the Savior! The church fathers used to say that John is the only child who ever turned his mother's womb into a pulpit. That's exactly what John does. With joy he responds to the presence of the Messiah. And isn't that how we're supposed to respond at the presence of the Messiah, our Savior, our Lord Jesus, the Christ? Isn't that how we're supposed to respond? And in the womb, John shows us the way.
VI. The faith of Mary.
And then Elizabeth focuses on the faith of Mary. Look at verse 45:
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Now think for a second. Whose house is this? Yes, it's Elizabeth's house. But it's Zechariah's house. And Zechariah had had an angel come to him and tell him that his wife was going to have a baby boy. And Zechariah responded by saying, ‘You've got to be kidding! She's old!’ And you remember what the angel said? ‘Okay, Zechariah. She's still going to have a baby. But you’re not going to be able to tell anybody about it. Proud papa, you’re not going to be able to speak until that baby comes into this world.’
Now let me speculate with you for a moment. Could it be that Zechariah was within earshot when Elizabeth said this to Mary? ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord…(not like Dum-Dum over here)!’ Now the last part's an adlib, I know! And I don't know whether Zechariah heard it, but I'm sure he heard it later!
Do you see? Luke is drawing our attention to this. Luke is saying, ‘Where Zechariah couldn't quite get his head and heart around what God had said, Mary had said, ‘Behold, be it done to me as you have appointed, O Lord.’’ She had embraced and accepted and believed and trusted God's word, God's promise, God's gospel. And here is Elizabeth saying, ‘Mary, you sweet young child [13-14 years old]…and you more believed God's word than an old priest. Blessed are you, dear girl, because you believed.’
Now, my friends, take it: Elizabeth's joy, John's joy, Mary's belief: faith and joy. How are you supposed to respond to Jesus? Faith and joy! They've just shown you. How do you respond to Jesus? You believe on Him for your salvation as He is offered in the gospel with joy, because Jesus himself said, “I came that your joy might be full.” And how does Mary and how does Elizabeth and how does John respond? Faith and joy to Jesus. You want to know how to respond to Jesus? There's the example.
VII. The Trinity.
Now one last thing. The fingerprints of the Trinity are all over this passage. It's the Father who sends an angel into the world to tell about the birth of Jesus and John. That message from the Father through the angel to Mary sends her into Judah to be with her cousin Elizabeth, who is indwelt and filled by the Holy Spirit, and thus able to understand what God's purposes are in the Messiah, and thus to believe on the Messiah, to believe God's word and focus on — who? Jesus the Son.
The First Person sends a message about the Second Person of the Trinity, and the Third Person of the Trinity enables belief on that message about the Second Person of the Trinity, and gives praise to the First Person of the Trinity about the Second Person of the Trinity. The Trinity is all over this passage.
The Bible's always about your God. There's no passage in the Bible that isn't about your God. Over and over and over, no matter what it's talking about, it's talking about your God. And this passage does, too.
Well, my friends, there is so much more here for us to learn, but may we have faith in the Messiah like Elizabeth did in response to His coming to visit.
Our Lord, there is nothing sweeter in a believer's ear than the sound of Jesus' name. John leaped for joy when he heard the greeting of his Lord's mother, in his mother's womb, and knew His presence. Grant that we would believe and leap for joy in our hearts as we sing the praises of the sweet name of Jesus. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.