December 23, 2011
by Steve Owen
There seem to be two views of the 21st Century Christmas. The first owes something to Charles Dickens and Bing Crosby: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” It is the Christmas of jollity and plenty. “So here it is, Merry Christmas! Everybody’s having fun.” It is a time centered around an excess of food, booze and presents; a time to forget the cold weather and to have fun. The second view is quite different; it is the angst-filled Christmas. John Lennon sang, “So this is Christmas; what have you done?” It is the Christmas of Bob Geldorf, where we are urged to get out and do something. We read of ‘Crisis at Christmas’ and are confronted by images of war and starving children.
The Bible’s presentation of Christmas is quite different to either of these. It is a proclamation of good news (Luke 2:10), an announcement of what God has done for mankind (Luke 1:68). It is indeed a call to rejoice, but not a general call. It bids us rejoice in God’s fulfillment of His promises in the birth of a Saviour.
Mary’s Song or Magnificat is one of the parts of Scripture that is well-known even to non-Christians. Perhaps only the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm would be better known. We know that God inspired it (2Tim 3:16) and Mary sang it, but who wrote it? Luke was a Greek doctor (Col 4:14), and he writes in educated idiomatic Greek. Those who have learned New Testament Greek will know that he is much harder for beginners to translate than Mark or John, who were Jews and wrote much more simple Greek. But the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are written in a very different style. The poetry especially has a Hebrew and Old Testament feel to it (eg. Luke 1:68-70). There is no mention of the cross, just a Jewish anticipation of the Messiah. J. Gresham Machen, in his famous book, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1), suggests that what we are reading in Luke 1 & 2 is what we might call today the ‘Mary Diaries;’ that this is Mary’s own record of our Lord’s birth passed on to Luke perhaps by one of her other children (cf. Mark 6:3 etc.) or by the apostle John (cf. John 19:27). A contemporary account indeed!
Let us set the scene. An angel comes to Mary (Luke 1:26ff) and tells her of the amazing thing that is going to happen. At first she is confused and anxious (vs 29, 34) , but then she rallies (v37), but it seems that she still can’t take it in. It is not until she goes to see Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies (V41ff) that the whole amazing truth is made plain to her- that she is being made the vehicle by which God is going to bring salvation to His people- and she bursts into this wonderful hymn of praise.
Before looking at the Song in any detail, there are some general points that can be made. Mary is well-acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures. The Magnificat has a great similarity with the prayer of Hannah (1Sam 2:1-11), which, interestingly, is the place were the word mashiach (‘Messiah’ or ‘Anointed One’) is used for the first time, and also with some of the Psalms. Her mind is stored with the Scriptures, so when she is moved to speak, she expresses herself in sacred language. She knows who God is and what He is like. Paul would greatly have approved of her (Col 3:16).
She also has an experiential acquaintance of God’s dealings with His people (vs 50, 52). God put down Pharaoh, the Philistines, Sennacherib, Haman; and exalted Joseph, Moses (Num 12:3), Samuel, David and Esther. Never has He allowed His people to be utterly destroyed. That she knows God’s purposes in history is shown by v55 and its reference to the Messiah, the Seed of Abraham. A sound knowledge of Bible history is so valuable in building up the Christian’s faith. How important it is to read the whole Bible through regularly, especially the historical books, Joshua to Esther.
Next, we see the humility of Mary (v48, 47). She had been chosen by God to bring the Saviour of Mankind into the world, yet she is conscious of her lowly state and her own need of a Saviour. She and Joseph were very poor (compare Luke 2:24 with Lev 12:6-8), and she would have been the first to refute the idea of her being immaculately conceived and the position given to her by the church of Rome as queen of heaven and mother of God. As Protestants, we may learnof her character without in any way regarding her as a mediator. Humility is becoming to Christians (James 4:6, 10), and is within the reach of every believer. Not everyone is rich, clever or a great preacher, but all may be clothed in humility. Paul, who might have had more reason than most to be proud wrote (Eph 3:8), ‘To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given.’
Finally we see the thankfulness of Mary (v49). The great saints of God were distinguished by their thankfulness. The Apostle Peter wrote, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope….’ (1Peter 1:3). Our prayers, whatever our cares and problems may be, should be filled with gratitude to God. We always have more blessings than we deserve. Samuel, at a time of great danger for Israel, set up a stone in a prominent position and declared, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (1Sam 7:12). We too should always be able to find an Ebenezer in our own lives. At the very least we can say with Jeremiah, ‘Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not’ (Lam 3:23).
vs46-7. ‘And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.’
This verse is typical of Hebrew poetry in that the second part is an amplification of the first (cf. vs 51-52). We see it constantly in the psalms (eg. Psalm 24:1-6). When we see ‘soul’ together with ‘spirit’ the usually have a somewhat different meaning. The soul tends to be the rational part of Man- the intellect. The spirit refers more to the perception, the numinous part of man; a higher facility which includes the ability to worship. Mary is saying that every part of her mind and her feelings are taken up with worshipping God (cf. 1Cor 14:15). We have said that the reality of what God was doing through her only came home to her at this moment, and the wonder of it all drives her to praise God with every faculty.
Have we really understood what God has done for us? That the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, perfect and holy in every way, should leave the magnificence and perfection of heaven to come to this sad, poor and fallen world, not to help basically good people who have just got into difficulties, but to rescue guilty sinners and rebels- those who have turned their backs upon God, rejected His righteous laws and set themselves up to rule themselves by their own corrupt standards? That’s you and me by nature (Eph 2:1-3)! We can’t recognize the greatness of what God has done for us until we know who we are- fallen sinners under Divine wrath, with no ability and no natural desire to be restored. And yet Christ died for such as us! Read Romans 5:6-8. It’s this that causes Mary to cry out, “My soul magnifies the Lord……!”
The word ‘magnifies’ causes problems for some people. A magnifying glass makes things look bigger than they really are. You can’t do that with God. The NKJV margin suggests ’declares the greatness.’ A magnifying glass helps you to see things more clearly. When Elizabeth spoke, Mary’s understanding was opened to see just how great a thing God was doing. Before, she believed, but didn’t fully understand; now she comprehends God’s gracious purposes and so she cries out in joy and wonder. The understanding is vital to Christian growth. Some charismatics say, don’t try to understand, just partake, but this is un-biblical. Paul prays for the Ephesians that they, ‘May be able to comprehend with all the saints [that’s us!] what is the width and length and depth and height- to know the love of God that passes knowledge.‘ True Christianity is not entirely cerebral- God forbid!- but it does not bypass the mind.
Mary continues, ‘My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ The word translated ‘has rejoiced’ could also be rendered ‘has exulted.’ It’s like the footballer who has scored the winning goal at Wembley. ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.’ Yes! It’s happened! The promises that God made way back in Gen 3:15, and also to Abraham, David and the prophets- they’ve taken so long; it’s been more than 400 years since God last spoke, but now at last they’re going to be fulfilled! Mary didn’t know how it was going to be done; the cross still lay in the future, but she knew that the child forming in her womb was the One through whom God’s great plan of salvation would be accomplished.
Do you know God as your Saviour? Can you rejoice as Mary did in the triune God as your salvation. Can you say with the prophet that ‘Yah, the LORD, is my strength and my song. He has also become my salvation’? If you can then ‘Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12:2-3).
Salvation starts with God the Father, who out of this fallen world has chosen from all eternity a people who should be saved- not offered salvation, but saved (1Thes 5:9; 2Thes 2:13; Eph 2:1 etc.). There is nothing in us that commends us to God, and nothing we can do to commend ourselves to Him. There is just God’s free, electing, personal love for lost sinners, and when we come to know and understand this, then we can rejoice in God the Father as our salvation.
Do you rejoice in God the Son as your Saviour? God set Him forth as a propitiation (Rom 3:25)- a sacrifice that turns away wrath. God’s justice must be satisfied, but because He loves us so much, God has poured out all His righteous anger against sin upon His own dear, spotless, innocent Son. ‘For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2Cor 5:21). And it’s personal! Christ did not die for sin indiscriminately, He died for you and me, bearing our very own sins upon that awful cross.
‘Died He for me who caused His pain? For me who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should’st die for me?
And do you know Christ in all His offices? As our Kinsman Redeemer, who took our human nature upon Himself so that He could pay the price that the law demanded? As our Good Shepherd, who will not lose even one of His flock, but lays down His life for the sheep? As our Beloved, who has made His bride spotless and radiant by washing her in His own blood? As the second Adam, obedient even unto death As our Bright Morning Star, so that when times at at their darkest, He shines in your heart by faith to tell you that the dawn cannot be far away? There is no room here to speak of Him as our Prophet, Great High Priest and King, but when we come to understand these things, then we can rejoice in God the Son as our Saviour.
Finally, do you rejoice in God the Holy Spirit as your Saviour? It is He who gives new life to those who are dead in sin (Eph 2:1). It is He who convicts us of our sinfulness (John 16:8) and makes us see that great gulf that lies between us and a holy, righteous God, so that we know how Peter felt when he cried out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But then the Spirit comes and speaks peace to us and points us to Jesus Christ (John 16:14). The Spirit also causes us to know God as Father (Rom 8:15) and He is our helper in prayer (Rom 8:26). Finally, the Spirit is the seal of ownership that God places upon believers so that we can never fall away (Eph 1:13). Do you know that you have eternal life, that nothing can ever part you from God? Do you rejoice in God the Holy Spirit as your Saviour?
‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the would to save sinners, of whom I am the chief’ (1Tim 1:15). Here is the wonder of Christmas; that the very worst of sinners can find all these things, and he needs nothing in himself in order to know them save the knowledge that he is a sinner and that the Lord Jesus Christ came to earth to save such as him. ‘The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world’ (John 1:9, NIV).
(1) The Virgin Birth of Christ by J. Gresham Machen (Baker Book House,1965. ISBN 0-8019-5885-6).