Luke 1:39–56 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

The Worship of Two Women Disciples

In the Jewish world of Luke's days, there was much that women couldn't do or weren't allowed to do. Men assumed the leadership roles, especially in spiritual matters. Women seemed only fit for fixing meals and bearing children. Perhaps a few women, "blessed" by financial prosperity and social standing, may have been able to enjoy some of the benefits of the male world. While there's some truth in that rather dismal picture, we need to read the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs to see that women, at least biblically, were given privileges and responsibilities. The degree to which women were degraded was determined how low their husbands and their culture stooped.

Luke is well-known for his high regard for women. In chapter 1 of his gospel he spotlights two godly women: Elizabeth, the soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother-to-be of the Messiah. While truly great and godly women, both were humble women lacking social or economic standing. Elizabeth was the wife of an obscure priest; the couple bore the added social stigma of having no children, likely suggesting to some that they were being punished by God for some sin(s). Mary, too, was a humble, young peasant girl without social standing. Yet both women can be honored and seen as models of true disciples of our Lord.

In last week's study, we learned that Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her that she'd be the mother of Israel's Messiah. By the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit she'd become pregnant; her holy child would be called the "Son of God" (v. 35). Mary's response was an elegant expression of faith (v. 38a).

The immediate faith and submission of Mary to the will of God is contrasted with the hesitant request of Zechariah the priest for a sign. Just as Mary's response surpasses that of Zechariah, so the greatness of the miracle of the virgin birth of Messiah will exceed the miracle that produces a son for the elderly priest and his wife. So, too, will the greatness of the Messiah and his ministry surpass that of John the Baptist, the Messiah's forerunner.

Elizabeth's Magnificence (vv. 39–45)

When Gabriel announced the Messiah's miraculous virgin birth through Mary, he informed her of cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy, indicating that this was a sign of God's ability to achieve the impossible (v. 36–37). While no instruction was given here, the inference was clear: Elizabeth would be an encouragement to Mary; she'd be one who'd understand what God was doing in the virgin's life. Thus, Mary quickly left to visit her relative who lived in an unnamed village in the hill country of Judah (v. 39, shown below). While Mary is clearly the principle character in this section, Cousin Elizabeth is also shown to be a remarkable women. We'll focus first on Elizabeth, as Luke does, and her response to their "visitation." Several observations concerning Elizabeth's response to the arrival of Mary will help us grasp the magnificence of this woman.

Characteristics of Elizabeth's Praise

1-  Elizabeth seems to praise Mary before Mary has the opportunity to explain anything to her.  Mary left promptly for Elizabeth and Zechariah's home. Luke informs us that Mary was told only that her elderly relative had conceived (testifying that nothing was impossible for God). We aren't told if the angel informed Mary that Elizabeth's child was to be the Messiah's forerunner.

2-  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in a divinely inspired utterance.  Gabriel informed Zechariah that his child would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother's womb (v. 15). Apparently, both mother and child were simultaneously filled with the Holy Spirit. John "spoke" by leaping in the womb (v. 41) while Elizabeth seems almost to speak loudly for John.

3-  Elizabeth's praise isn't for her personal fulfillment and blessing in childbirth; it's in the blessing bestowed on her by Mary's visit.  Mary, not Elizabeth, is the focus. We'll explore the basis for Elizabeth's blessing of Mary later; now we simply see that Mary's visit is the occasion for Elizabeth's praise, not John's upcoming birth.

4-  Elizabeth's words served primarily as an encouragement to Mary.  Rather than having to try to explain to Elizabeth what the angel had said to her about the virgin birth of her son, Mary learned that Elizabeth had already known. Thus, Elizabeth's praise served as further confirmation of Gabriel's words. Mary was free to unhesitatingly share the details of the angel's revelation, while Elizabeth already knew, believed, and rejoiced in the truth of God, spoken through Gabriel.

5-  Elizabeth praises God for much more than what Zechariah was told.  Looking back at Luke's report (see week 2) of what Zechariah was told by Gabriel, we see that the son, who God was giving him and his wife, would be the one who'd announce the Messiah's coming. Luke's account doesn't reveal how Elizabeth might have known that Jesus would be born of a virgin nor that her cousin Mary was that virgin. It's possible that Elizabeth knew from the Scriptures that Christ Jesus would be both human and divine and born of a virgin. By the Holy Spirit's illumination of the Scriptures, Elizabeth became informed, perhaps at that very moment, that Mary was the one.

6-  Elizabeth's praise suggests that she may have possessed a greater depth of spiritual and scriptural insight than her husband.  Luke's account, introducing Zechariah as an elderly and godly priest, isn't as favorable as what he writes about Elizabeth. Possibly, this was Luke's way of informing readers that some women surpass men spiritually. Elizabeth's praise surpasses Zechariah's petition for a sign; her words far surpass the revelation that Gabriel gave to Zechariah. Women may be limited regarding their public ministry, but not regarding their spirituality and intimacy with God. Elizabeth is a magnificent woman of God, in Luke's opinion.

Mary's Magnificent Magnificat (vv. 46–56)

Mary seems to respond immediately to Elizabeth's praise by offering her own praise to God. While we're not specifically told that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit when she spoke these words, let's assume so. Here, Elizabeth spoke with "a loud voice" (v. 42); Mary was perhaps more sedate. Regardless, let's ponder her beautiful words, a.k.a. the Magnificat).

1-  Mary's psalm of praise reveals a repeated use of Old Testament terminology and theology.  Mary's praise psalm — often called the Magnificat — is a magnificent masterpiece. Mary dwells on the character of God, particularly his grace to be bestowed on the humble and the oppressed. Because all pious Israelites knew by heart, from their childhood days, songs from the Old Testament, often singing them in a home circle and at celebrations, Mary was steeped in the poetical literature of her nation; accordingly, her hymn bears unmistakable signs of it.

2-  Mary's praise begins with her grateful response to God's grace shown to her, a humble servant of the Lord.  In vv. 46–49, Mary praises God for being merciful toward her. She rejoices in God, her Savior (v. 47). God looked upon her humble estate with compassion; consequently she'll be esteemed blessed by future generations (v. 48). God's compassion for her reveals his power and holiness ("Mighty One," "holy is His name," v. 49).

3-  Mary's praise broadens (v. 50), viewing God's grace to her as a reflection of his gracious purposes for his chosen people, Israel.  Mary saw her blessing as an illustration of God's grace, which leads her to praise God for his grace to all who fear him, from generation to generation.

4-  Mary's praise focuses on God's faithfulness (vv. 51–55). She declares that he's faithful to his promises and purposes, especially his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. While v. 50 spells out the principle behind God continuing to bless his people, vv. 51–55 give specific ways in which this has and will be done.

5-  Mary's praise focuses on the Father who'll send us his Messiah. It's very significant that her praise doesn't focus on the child that she'll bear. We'd expect Mary to be taken with the fact that she'll have a baby, and it will be the Son of God. While this is certainly true, Mary chose to focus on what the child would be and accomplish as an adult — as the Messiah, not on how adorable her child would be as a child.

6-  Mary's theology is vastly superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, who'd become our Lord's archenemies.  The theology in Mary's Magnificat appears similar to what we know of her Son Jesus' theology; likewise, it was quite different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. Mary didn't mention the Law of Moses, but only God's promise to Abraham (vv. 54–55), understanding that Israel's hope was rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, not in the Mosaic. However, the scribes and Pharisees seemed to think and talk only in terms of Moses' Law. Mary viewed all of God's dealings in the light of his grace, while the religious leaders thought only in terms of human works. Thankfully, Mary provides us with a model of discipleship.

Concluding Considerations

Elizabeth and Mary's praises provide us with a model for our own worship and praise. The praise of the two for God went much further than childbirth gratitude. Mary's praise began with her own experience; but it quickly highlighted God's character, plans, and actions in the past and his covenant and promises for the future.

How shallow our prayers and praise seem when compared with that of these two godly women. Our praise tends to be based almost exclusively on our pleasurable experiences, focusing primarily on what God has done for us. Instead, our praise ought to be patterned after that of Mary, who didn't focus on the tiny baby she'd soon hold in her arms, but in the God who sent the Messiah, and in the goal of his coming to earth: immediate redemption and salvation, including the "setting right" of those unjust and evil things. Amen!

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  How is Mary's faith an example to you?
  • Q. 2  In Mary's song, for what does she praise God?
  • Q. 3  Who are the "proud," the "rulers," and the "rich," whose overthrow she celebrates?
  • Q. 4  How will Jesus fulfill the themes of her song?

This Week's Passage
Luke 1:39–56 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to this chapter.]

Mary Visits Elizabeth

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

Mary's Song

46And Mary said:
My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
    From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has
    scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be
    merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

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