Pointing to Jesus

This is the fourth article in a series on Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have considered the extraordinary ways in which she is addressed at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and we have considered her song of praise. This week, we will consider two places in the gospels that showcase her role in pointing others to obey Jesus.

The first occurs in Luke 8.19-21. Luke tells us, “Then His mother and His brothers came to Him, but they could not reach Him because of the crowd. And He was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But He answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” Jesus repeats His message of radical obedience in Luke 9.57-62 and in 11.27-28, which also obliquely mentions Mary: “As He said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But He said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’”

Luke 8.19-21 and 11.27-28 are the passages which Mary’s detractors most commonly cite. In Luke 8, Jesus seems to disown Mary as His mother. John’s description of the crucifixion contradicts that notion: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19.25-27).

In Luke 11, Jesus seems to invalidate the blessings heaped on Mary in Luke 1. One can imagine Jesus contradicting Mary’s words or even the words of Gabriel, but it is impossible that Jesus is contradicting the words of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1.42. Mary is indeed “blessed among women.”

So what is Jesus doing in these passages in Luke? First, He is emphasizing the radical obedience needed to be called His disciple. Obedience to God trumps all other concerns and obligations—to family, to self, to anybody or anything. He is also declaring the extraordinary promises of God to those who obey Him.

Who is Jesus’ mother? He says in Luke 8 that His mother is the one who hears the word of God and does it. Who is blessed? Jesus says in Luke 11, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Now, who is Mary? She is the one who heard the word of God and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). By Jesus’ own words, Mary is His blessed mother.

The woman in Luke 11 offers Jesus’ mother a compliment. Jesus reframes the woman’s compliment by explaining that Mary’s obedience to God was what really made her blessed. He then makes an astounding promise: anyone who hears God and obeys Him will receive similar blessings.

Far from invalidating the blessedness of Mary, Luke is showing us how Mary was a forerunner of the Faith. When she told Gabriel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she was pointing the way forward to obedience under her Son. She was setting the example for every believer to receive the blessings of God in the kingdom of her Son.

Mary again points to obedience in her Son in John 2, where John records Jesus’ first miracle. John tells us that “there was a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with His disciples.” In an odd twist for John, he places Mary at the center of the action. He reports first that Mary was there, then that Jesus and His disciples were also there. Mary initiates the action: “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’”

Jesus responds cryptically, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ terse response gives commentators fits and has resulted in much ink spilled, but Mary cuts through it all with simple faith and a call to obedience: “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’” The servants listen to Mary. The obey Jesus. John tells us the result at the end of the story: “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.” All because Mary pointed others to her Son.

Mary’s example invites us to consider our own faith: are we directing others to her Son? We can point to Jesus with our words and with our own lives, just as Mary did. For those of us who are Christians, the first step is to follow Mary’s instructions to the servants at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.” If we are obedient, we will show others the Kingdom, and Jesus promises us the blessings of His Father.

Continue reading “Pointing to Jesus”

The Magnificat

This is the third article in a series considering what the Bible teaches about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We considered Gabriel’s appearance to Mary to announce the birth of Christ (Luke 1.26-38) and Elizabeth’s words to Mary under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.39-45). Today, we will consider Mary’s response in Luke 1.46-55. Her hymn of praise is commonly known as the Magnificat, the first word of the hymn in Latin.

Luke gives Mary’s hymn pride of place in his account of Jesus’ life. He first uses the hymn to introduce the other hymns in the birth narrative. Then, he uses it to introduce the central themes of Jesus’ ministry, which is to say that one can understand the entire Gospel of Luke in terms of Mary’s words.

Luke uses Mary’s hymn to set the tone for the other three hymns in his birth narrative. Last week, we noted that Mary’s statement, “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” redounds to God’s glory, “for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” In other words, to confess Mary’s blessedness is to confess the glory of God who blessed her. Mary points to God, as do all the faithful. Thus, the first line of Mary’s hymn, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” is mirrored in the first lines of the other three hymns of Luke’s birth narrative: Zechariah’s (1.68-79), “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;” the angels’ (2.14), “Glory to God in the highest;” and Simeon’s (2.29-32), “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” Luke has Mary set the pattern and tone.

Mary’s hymn also lays the groundwork for the rest of Luke’s gospel. Jesus begins His public ministry in Luke 4.16-27 by reading from Isaiah 61, and His message sounds strikingly like Mary’s hymn: He has come “to proclaim good news to the poor, …to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Here’s Mary, proclaiming the same things three chapters earlier: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Like her Son, Mary has a keen understanding of the way that God is fulfilling the promises that He made in the Law and the Prophets. She understands from the Law that God’s promise to Abraham points to Jesus (cf. Gen 17.19, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him”), decades before Paul makes the same point in Gal 3.16. She understands from the prophets that God’s kingdom consists in dramatic reversals of fortune—”Things shall not remain as they are. Exalt that which is low, and bring low that which is exalted” (Ezk 21.26)—not in empowering the earthly kingdom of Israel in earthly ways.

Mary’s hymn works as a double introduction in Luke’s gospel because Mary, Zechariah, the angels, Simeon, and Jesus are all proclaiming the same thing: the arrival of God’s kingdom. Jesus demonstrates the nature of the kingdom by ministering to the humble and the outcast—lepers, tax collectors, widows, adulteresses, and blind beggars—and He ushers the kingdom in by dying as a criminal. In her hymn, Mary points the way forward to her Son and to His work, just as she points to the glory of the Father. In a sense, she begins the work of John the Baptist while John is still in the womb.

Consider how practically no one in the gospels understands Jesus, the nature of His work, or the nature of God’s kingdom. Even His own apostles fail to understand Him properly until He opens their minds to the Scriptures after His resurrection (Luke 24.45). But Mary is a veritable prodigy, one of the select few (John the Baptist is another) to possess even a rudimentary understanding of these things, despite her being a young woman (and yes, it would shock a first-century audience to learn that a woman had such a firm grasp of theology, just as the young Jesus shocked everyone in the Temple with His understanding of the Father in Luke 2.47).

We close by noting one other extraordinary quality to Mary’s knowledge. Consider Zechariah’s hymn in Luke 1.68-79. It is the sort of hymn that one might expect from an educated priest like Zechariah. Mary produces a similar hymn with no such education (nor with the luxury of her own printed Bible). Here’s the real shocker: Luke records that the Holy Spirit inspired Zechariah to offer his hymn (Luke 1.67), just as the Spirit inspired the words of Elizabeth and Simeon. Luke provides no such notice for Mary. So how did Mary come up with her hymn? Luke doesn’t say. He leaves us to think that maybe she’s just that good.

Continue reading “The Magnificat”

The Visitation

This is the second in a series of articles on mariology, the study of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Last time, we considered how Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1.26-38 marks Mary out as an exceptional figure in God’s plan of salvation. We saw that Mary found favor in God’s sight, putting her in the same class as Noah and Moses (cf. Gen 6.8; Ex 33.17). We saw that God’s work through Mary combined and amplified the work of Noah and Moses, bringing them to fulfillment in the Incarnation of Christ. And that was just our first encounter with Mary in Luke’s gospel.

Today, we will consider what comes next in Luke’s gospel. We read in Luke 1.39-56 that Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is likewise carrying a miraculous and very special child. Luke does not explicitly tell us why Mary goes to visit. Perhaps it is to confirm what Gabriel has told her. Perhaps it is merely to witness the glory of God in His fulfilled promise. Perhaps she went to help Elizabeth around the home.

Whatever Mary’s intentions for the visit, it quickly escalates beyond a mere social call. Luke tells us, “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1.41). We must not overlook that last fact: the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and inspired her words which followed: “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” (Luke 1.42-45).

Read the text carefully. Why did John leap in Elizabeth’s womb? What blessing did Elizabeth say had been granted to her? And whom did Elizabeth bless twice under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?

If mariology makes us uncomfortable, we might be tempted to say that the proper focus of this whole account is Jesus. And, in a sense, He is one focus of the text: Elizabeth does say to Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” But Jesus is not the only focus of this passage, nor is He the primary focus of the passage. To say that the text is mainly about Jesus is to ignore the text.

The text focuses on Mary.

Why did John leap? “When the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” What blessing had been granted Elizabeth? She asks, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Whom did Elizabeth bless twice under the inspiration of the Spirit? “Blessed are you among women…. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Elizabeth and John celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, certainly, but their celebration focuses most intensely on the faithful woman who bears Him in her womb.

If there is any doubt that Mary is an extraordinary person, we should consider just how heavy-handed Luke is being in his treatment of Mary. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “righteous before God,” but they don’t receive the special treatment that Mary receives in Luke 1. The archangel Gabriel tells Mary twice that she has found God’s favor. If that weren’t enough to convince us, we then see the Holy Spirit inspire Elizabeth to bless Mary twice. And if we are not convinced by the archangel and by the Spirit of God, then what else can possibly convince us?

But Luke goes further still, for there is one more voice in Luke’s gospel to declare Mary’s praise: her own. We will consider Mary’s song of praise (often called the Magnificat) in full next week, but we will take one observation from it this week. Early in her song, Mary says, “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His Name.” Luke is forcing the question now: do we take Mary at her word, or don’t we? And if we don’t, what reason has Luke given us to think that she is wrong when she declares that all generations will call her blessed? (Notice, by the way, why Mary says that she shall be called blessed: “for He who is mighty has done great things;” in other words, any glory given to Mary redounds to God who blessed her.)

Let us finish by considering what practical difference all of this knowledge makes. All knowledge in the Faith is a matter of confession; that is, we should be willing to say (confess) what the Scriptures teach is true. What should we confess about Mary? We have read that she is “favored of God;” that she is “blessed among women;” and that “all generations shall call me blessed.” The fundamental confession about Mary is that she is blessed. Therefore we call her “Blessed Virgin Mary.”

Continue reading “The Visitation”