Luke 1

Luke 1:5ff.10

That the Gospel of Luke has a special aspect towards men at large, that it displays the grace of God towards the Gentiles who had been so long forgotten, or seemed to be so in the outward dealings of God, is very plain. Nevertheless some have found, as they thought, an insuperable difficulty to their admitting this to be the characteristic business of Luke, because we find, for instance, at the very beginning a striking occupation of the writer’s mind with the circumstances of the Jewish people before, at, and after the birth of Christ. In fact, none of the Gospels introduces us so thoroughly into the whole routine of their state and worship, with their relation to the worldly powers: first of all to the king that then ruled over them, Herod the Great; and, in the next chapter, to the Roman Empire.

But I think it will be found, if we look below the surface, that there is no real inconsistency between such a preface as we have in Luke and the general regard that he pays to the Gentiles in the rest of his Gospel. In fact, it answers closely to what we find in the ministry of the apostle who had Luke for his companion in labours. For although Paul was so emphatically the apostle of the Gentiles, the uncircumcision being delivered over to him as the circumcision was to Peter; none the less was it Paul’s habit in every place first to visit the Jews, or, as he says himself, “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.” So it is precisely that Luke begins with the Jew, discloses God working in the midst of the remnant of that people before we find the intimations of His mercy towards the Gentiles. So far from inconsistency on the part of Luke with his purpose, this very introduction of the Jews in the beginning of his Gospel seems even to be morally necessary; because God could not, so to speak, go out to the Gentiles according to the analogy of His dealings from the beginning and His promises to the Jewish people, unless there were first the manifestation of His goodness there and the unheeded effect of it as far as the Jews were concerned. God proves amply His mercy towards Israel before He turns to the nations. Israel would have none of Him or His Kingdom: the Gentiles would hear.

Hence we find that, although Luke’s be the Gentile Gospel, there is first this full and bold outline presented to us of the working of God’s grace among the Jews.

Luke 1:5-6.

“There was in the days of Herod the king of Judea,19 a certain priest by name Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elisabeth.” Thus we have the living picture of the state of things then going on in Israel. There might be a foreign prince over them — an Edomite, and high priests in strange confusion, as we shall see shortly; but for all that there was a priest duly married to one of the daughters of Aaron, Zacharias, of the course of Abia. “And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the LORD blameless.” Low as the state was in Israel and outwardly most irregular, nevertheless, in the midst of all there were godly ones: and the only thing that enabled any to walk after such a sort in Israel was the faith of the coming Messiah: this at least had not disappeared. On the contrary, God’s Spirit was working in the hearts of a few, preparing them for the One Who was coming. Zacharias and Elisabeth were among these few. They were expecting in faith, the effect of which, where it is real, is to give power of walking rightly. The only souls who walked well, even according to the law, were those who looked beyond the law to Christ. Those who merely rested in the law broke it, though the law might be their boast. On the contrary, such as looked for the Messiah were faithful, “walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the LORD blameless.”

It is the same thing in principle now. There are those who cry up the law as a rule of life, but such never carry themselves well even according to that standard. On the contrary, those who go forward in the sense of God’s grace, knowing the full deliverance of the believer in the redemption that is in Christ, do really manifest the righteousness of the law; as it is said, “What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Rom. 8:3. If I am walking after the law, I do not fulfil it; if I am walking after the Spirit, I do. The same doctrine appears in Galatians 5. If we walk according to the Spirit, there are good fruits: “against such there is no law.” Gal. 5:23. On the contrary, the law justifies the fruits of the Spirit, but the Spirit never justifies the ways of any man who finds his rule of life in the law, which is and must be to a sinful man a rule of condemnation and death. There is no power of grace, unless Christ be the Object of the heart.

Such was the case with this godly pair in Israel. The aged priest and his wife were really (i.e., believingly) looking for the Messiah. Their hope was no fleshly desire to exalt themselves or their nation in earthly power; though it remains true that Israel will then be the head and the Gentiles the tail, (Deut. 28:13.) when Messiah comes to close their last fiery tribulation and deliver them from their foes. But in that day the hearts of the godly remnant will be lifted above pride or vanity, they will bear to be exalted above all other peoples of the earth. Such is the Divine counsel according to prophecy which God will surely accomplish in its season.

Observe how faith leads to faithfulness. Those who merely look to the law (i.e., as much as God requires) never accomplish His righteous requirement. In every case one must be above any obligations in order to fulfil them. I ‘ must have faith in God’s object in order to fulfil God’s will. If my mind is occupied with Christ, I shall be able in the same measure to glorify God.

Luke 1:7-14.

Thus it was with Zacharias and his wife. They looked in faith for the Messiah: hence they were righteous, and walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. Nevertheless they had a disappointment of heart which answered to the state of things in Israel. “They had no child, because Elisabeth was barren; and they were both advanced in years.” They had prayed about it, as we find afterwards. Though Zacharias seems even to have lost sight of his own prayer, yet God had not. And so “it came to pass, as he fulfilled his priestly service before God in the order of his course” - for here he was faithful to the requisition of daily duty — “it fell to him by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter into the temple of the LORD to burn incense. And all the multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense.” We have thus a full and lively setting, forth of what was actually going on then in Israel. “And an angel of [the] LORD appeared to him standing on the right of the altar of incense.” In this form such a visit was unknown for a long while. It was a gracious intervention of God (not merely betimes, as we find in another Gospel, for the healing of sicknesses and weaknesses of the people, but) for the more glorious purpose of announcing the forerunner of the Messiah Himself. Was it so strange after all that he was to be born beyond nature of this godly couple? One could not have anticipated such a thing; but once announced as God’s intention, how wise and suitable our hearts see it to be! When Zacharias saw the angel he “was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, Fear not, Zacharias, because thy supplication has been heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (i.e., the gift of God). “And he shall be to thee joy and rejoicing: and many shall rejoice at his birth.”20 It was calculated to strike the eye and heart of any godly Israelite, being manifestly God’s gift. The LORD was faithful to His people and His purposes. There were many who at this time were looking for the Messiah. We know even from heathen authors that there was a strong, general, and ancient tradition (no doubt derived from Balaam of old, and Daniel later, and the Septuagint), that at this time a great prince was to be born in Israel, who would lead that nation on to supremacy. Hence they would naturally heed this extraordinary birth, and the singular course of life which John the Baptist ever followed, as well as his preaching when the time for it was come.

Luke 1:15-17.

“He shall be great before [the] LORD,11 and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with [the] Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb.” He should be a Nazarite, separated to the LORD, not only in outward separation, but with inward and special power of God.21 “And many of the sons of Israel shall he turn to [the] LORD their God.” This would be the characteristic aim of his mission — to recall them to God from whom they had departed. “And he shall go before him in [the] spirit and power of Elias, to turn hearts of fathers to children, and disobedient ones to [the] thoughts of just [men]15 to make ready for [the] LORD a prepared people.” Elijah was the prophet who took up the broken obligations of the people. Hence it is that he went to Horeb. Thence it was that Elias had his great commission from before God; there he went through the scene we have so strikingly described in his history. Horeb was the place where the law was given, and Elias went back thither, feeling how deeply the people had departed from God. John should now recall the people in the spirit and power of Elias. It is repentance; it is not of course the great work of God in putting away sin — that could only be done by one, even Jesus the Lord. Neither is it the power of the Holy Ghost shed upon Israel. This also could only be done by Christ. He is, as we find in John, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.” John 1:29, 33. But John could at least do his own work by God’s grace given to him; he should go “before him in the spirit and power of Elias.” This is a remarkable testimony: first, because it is said he shall go before the LORD, i.e., before Jehovah; a plain statement of the dignity of Jesus. He was really Jehovah; and this messenger of His should go before His face, next, “in [the] spirit and power of Elias, to turn hearts of fathers to children.” There was no union, but alienation: everything was broken in Israel. Sin always produces such dislocations. But John should “turn the hearts of fathers to children”; that is, he would be used of God to unite them in affection, and also to instruct them morally, or lead “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.”22 Hence, in all respects, both in affection and in moral power and wisdom, his mission was “to make ready for the LORD a prepared people.” Such would be John’s work — “to make ready for the LORD a prepared people.”

Luke 1:18-20.

“And Zacharias said to the angel, How shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife advanced in years?” Unbelief works just when God was about to accomplish this signal mercy - a remarkable but by no means infrequent case which we would do well to apply to our souls. That is, when God means mercy to us, we are too apt to limit the Lord; to doubt Him even when the blessing comes very close to us; to put some difficulty in the way, yielding to the suggestions of the enemy and the unbelief of our own hearts. Zacharias accordingly asks how he should know it.

The angel answers, “I am Gabriel23 who stand before God; and I have been sent to speak to thee and to bring these glad tidings to thee. And, behold, thou shall be silent, and not able to speak, till the day in which these things shall take place, because thou hast not believed my words, such as shall be fulfilled in their time.” A measure of chastening was thus put upon Zacharias — a sign to others, but at the same time a rebuke to himself. The very fact that he was struck suddenly dumb would awaken the attention of the people. They would see that an extraordinary occurrence had taken place and might be led to think about it. On the other hand, when God had sent His angel to tell him that these things should be done, Zacharias showed his unbelief in requiring another sign. Hence his chastening. God’s words should be fulfilled in their season spite of his unbelief. Mercy removes the stroke in due season.

Luke 1:21-25.

“And the people were awaiting Zacharias, and they wondered at his delaying in the temple. But when he came out he could not speak to them: and they recognised that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he was making signs to them and continued dumb. And it came to pass, when the days of his service were completed, he departed to his house.” Each priest had to serve in his course from Sabbath to Sabbath; so when the week was up, he leaves. “Now after these days Elisabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus has the LORD done to me in [these] days in which he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” The feeling of Elisabeth under the circumstances was just as godly as the unbelief. of Zacharias was a striking witness of what is so natural to us all.24

This closes the opening incidents which the Spirit of God gives us by Luke.

Luke 1:26-38.

It was the angel Gabriel who was sent to Daniel to make known of old the Messiah’s coming and cutting off in the famous prophecy of the seventy weeks. (Dan. 9:26.) Now he comes to Mary, the espoused of Joseph, and announces to her, “the virgin” of a still older prophet, (Isa. 7:14) the birth of that Messiah.25 No wonder that he salutes her as a favoured one, with whom the Lord was. Blessed was she among women!12 Mary,26 though troubled, pondered what might be the meaning of this salutation. The angel bids her not fear, for she has found favour with God. She is the chosen channel of the wondrous purposes which should yet fill the world as well as her own people with blessing — the appointed mother she is to be of One in Whom God was about to solve all the difficulties that sin had brought into the world by a righteous triumph over it — nay, to make it possible for God to bless those who believed, sinners though they had been, and to make them righteously triumph through and with Himself.

Therefore he says, “Behold, thou shalt conceive in the womb, and bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus” — a Divine Saviour.2713 “He shall be great, and shall be called Son of [the] Highest,28 and the Lord God shall give him the throne of David his father.” This is another and quite different glory, which evidently combines with saving power His title of Messiah. “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for the ages; and of his kingdom there shall not be an end.” Even in the lowest domain, how far is His Kingdom from being a mere human dominion!

“But Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I know not a man?” She does not doubt, but she asks confidingly. Hence there is no smiting dumb nor any sign of unbelief, as in the case of Zacharias, who asked, “Whereby shall I know this?” There maybe a question in the spirit which needs an answer, but betrays no lack of faith. There might be one not so dissimilar in form, but which really sprang from unbelief. God does not judge according to appearance, but the heart.

The angel accordingly explains in all grace to Mary. “[The] Holy Spirit shall come upon thee,29 and power of [the] Highest overshadow thee.” It was not to be nature, but Divine power. “Therefore the holy thing also which shall be born [of thee]14 shall be called Son of God,” and not merely Son of man. This is exceedingly important. “Son of God” is a title that belongs to our Lord both in His Divine glory before He became a man and here; for, in this place when He became a man, He did not cease to be Son of God. As incarnate He was still the Son of God. So, again, when He rose from the dead, the same thing was true; He was the Son of God as risen again. It is plain therefore that it is a title that appertains to Him in the three conditions in which Scripture represents our Lord. He was the Son of God when He was purely and simply a Divine Person; Son of God when He became a man; Son of God when risen from the dead and gone out of this world to heaven.

But there is another thing also to note, that His taking manhood did not in the smallest degree connect Him with the taint of man’s fallen nature. This was absolutely counteracted by the singularity of His conception, which was effected through the power of the Holy Ghost. “Wherefore the holy thing also which shall be born [of thee] shall be called Son of God.”30 Thus He was holy, not merely in His Divine nature, but in His humanity. He was emphatically the Holy One of God: without this not only would salvation have been impossible for us, but even His own acceptance as man would have been out of the question.”30a We have therefore in this passage the most important truth as to the birth of this wondrous Child, and the union of the Divine and human natures in the person of Christ. Much here given is peculiar to Luke. Mary is informed also of what God was doing to her cousin Elisabeth, for as the angel added “with God nothing shall be impossible.”31 She bows at once to the will of the LORD, with the words, “Behold the bondmaid of [the] LORD; be it to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”

Luke 1:39-56.

Mary then arises, enters into the house of Zacharias and salutes her kinswoman, Elisabeth, which gives occasion to the wonderful obeisance that was paid even by the unborn babe, Elisabeth’s child, to her the predestined mother of the Messiah, in honour to the Messiah himself.32 The consequence was that Elisabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost, breaks out into an acknowledgment of the place God had given Mary. “And whence [is] this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” It is remarkable how beautifully it is owned that even the child that was yet to be born was the Lord. We find just the same thing with Mary herself. She has no notion of being taken out of the place of a needy sinner, whilst the miraculous birth of John does not detract from Elisabeth’s sense of the Messiah, but rather adds to her sense of it. She owns at the same time that God has shown singular favour to Mary’s soul. “Blessed is she that has believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things spoken to her from [the]. LORD.”33 She knew that what had happened to her husband was because of unbelief, and contrasts with it Mary’s meek, because believing, heart.

Mary answers,34 “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit35 hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath looked upon the low estate of his bondmaid; for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” It is remarkable how simply Scripture has met beforehand the monstrous unbelief of man which lowers God as much as it exalts a human being. Mary had no thought of exaltation. She says, “All generations shall call me blessed,” but not a blesser. She was the object of blessing, not the giver or mediatrix of it. “For the Mighty One hath done to me great things; and holy [is] his name [not a word of her own]. And his mercy is to generations and generations15 to them that fear him [not that pray to or worship me]. He hath wrought strength with his arm; he hath scattered haughty [ones] in the thought of their heart. He hath put down rulers from thrones, and exalted the lowly” — alluding to her own place as well as Elisabeth’s. “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich empty away. He hath helped Israel, his servant, in order to remember mercy; as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” It is remarkable how Jewish the character of the joy is, and the acknowledgement of the mercy.

Luke 1:57-80.

So Mary abides with her cousin three months, and then returns to her own house.36 “But the time was fulfilled for Elisabeth that she should bring forth; and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbours and kinsfolk heard how [the] LORD had magnified his mercy with her; and they rejoiced with her.” The general thought was to call37 the child after his father’s name; but the mother, who alone can speak for it, directs. him to be called John. Zacharias is appealed to and writes, “John is his name.” And immediately the punishment of his unbelief departs from him. His tongue was loosed and he spoke and praised God; which filled all around with fear, astonishment, and anticipation of what this child would be

Zacharias breaks forth into a strain of praise.38 “Blessed be [the] LORD the God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought redemption for his people, and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David, his servant.” It is remarkable the grace that does not so much look at his own house as at the house of God’s servant David. There was faith here. During the season of his dumbness Zacharias has pondered the ways of the LORD; and the Holy Ghost, as He had filled Elisabeth, as He had filled the babe from his mother’s womb, so now filled Zacharias, who prophesies the end of these wonders. “That we should be delivered from our enemies, and out of the hand of all who hate us; to fulfil39 mercy with our fathers, and remember his holy covenant; [the] oath which he swore to Abraham, our father, to give us, that, saved out of the hand of our16 enemies, we should serve him without fear.”39a It is important to observe how thoroughly this savours of Old Testament hopes. It is not a question of sins merely, but of being delivered from their enemies, which last is assuredly not, nor ought to be, the feeling of the Christian now. Does not the Christian serve God, delivered from his sins, in the midst of his enemies? So when the Lord comes, it is simply a taking him up out of the midst of his enemies when the time of deliverance comes. Here then the language is, “That we being saved out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in piety40 and righteousness before him all our days.”17 Such is the expectation of Israel according to the Psalms and the Prophets.

“And thou, child, shalt be called [the] prophet of [the] Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of [the] LORD to make ready his ways” — an allusion clearly to Malachi (Mal. 3:1) as well as to Isaiah. “To give knowledge of salvation41 to his people by [the] forgiveness of their sins.” It is not that the Jews will be without the remission of their sins; they will have that beside deliverance from their enemies. All this is “on account of [the] bowels of mercy of our God; whereby [the] day-spring from on high has visited18 us, to shine upon them who were sitting in darkness and in [the] shadow of death, to guide our feet into [the] way of peace.”

Such will be the condition in which the Jews will be finally met by God; there will be a special darkness more immediately before the light shines out upon them.

It was when they were in bitter degradation under the Gentiles, as well as in the moral darkness, that the Lord came the first time; still more will this be the case when He comes again. There will be renewed bondage under the power of the West; a stranger king will reign in the land, and a special delusive power of Satan will be there, but the Lord will appear to the discomfiture of all their foes and the full deliverance of His people Israel.

Meanwhile “the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and he was in the deserts until the day of his showing to Israel.”42 We have seen that, before the large universal character of the Gospel of Luke appears — the grace of God to man — there is the utmost care to show the goodness and forbearance of the Lord in meeting Israel as they then were. Thus they have the responsibility of refusing their Messiah, before God lays the foundation of the richest grace to man generally.

10 Cf. “Lectures introductory to the Gospels,” pp. 245-247.

11 As to the textual criticism of Luke’s Gospel, see note 17 in Appendix. - In this Gospel the authorities show considerable variation with regard to use of the definite article before “LORD.” Here it is contained in BD Δ, etc., but not in ACL Γ 33. Κύριος without the article stands regularly for Jehovah (Yahveh) of the Old Testament, as in the LXX. So in verse 16. Cf. again in verse 28.

12 “Blessed art thou amongst women.” So Treg. (text) after ACD and most later uncials, with cursives (33, 69), Syrrpesch hcl. Old Latin, Gothic, Aeth. The words (as anticipating those in verse 42) are omitted here by Edd. in general with BL, Memph. Arm.

13 See “Lectures on Matthew,” p. 30.

14 “Of thee,” after “born” is supported only by C and a few minuscules.

15 “Generations and generations”: so Edd. after BCpm L Ξ Amiat. Syrpesch Memph. with nine other uncials has “generations and generations.” Syrrsin pesch: “generation and tribe.” — ACcorr D, etc., 33, have “generations of generations.”

16 “Our”: so ACD, etc., Amiat. Syrr. Memph.; but Edd. omit, after BL 1, 69, etc.

17 “All our days”: so Edd. after ABCDL, etc., Old Lat. Vulg. Syrr. (exc. sin) Memph. — E and some other copies, with cursives 1, 69 Syrsin have “all the days of our life.”

18 “Has visited”: so T. R., retained by Tisch., Treg. (text) and Blass, after AC and some cursives with Old Lat. — Other Edd. (W. H., followed by Revv., Weiss) adopt “will visit,” as BL, Syrr. Arm.