Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.

Matthew 1:18-23 – The Sign of Immanuel

In the carol Silent Night, we sing the words “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.” This well know Christmas carol was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and set to music two years later by Franz Gruber. It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818, accompanied by a guitar because the church organ was broken. The carol was translated into English in 1863 and eventually included in an English Sunday School hymn book. The song usually tops lists of “most popular” Christmas carols and has been translated into 300 languages! According to Wikipedia, it has been recorded by virtually every artist who has produced a Christmas album. (From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the Vienna Boys Choir to the metal band Anthrax, there is even a John Denver version accompanied by the Muppets!)

Silent NightIt is remarkable to me that the song remains popular because the lyrics contain rather traditional theology. When we sing this song we are reminded of the Virgin birth of Jesus, the holy son of God who is pure light, the savior who brings redeeming light into a world darkened by sin.

While it is unlikely that the instrumental versions floating around the background at the local Mall can be construed as “theology,” the idea that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin mother is part of our culture. This time of year people will point out that Jesus was born to a single mother into the world of poverty, he was homeless, etc. For doctrinal reasons the phrase “Virgin Mary” is common throughout the world, although sometimes for less-than-biblical reasons.

On the other hand, the virgin birth of Jesus is often dismissed as a lame attempt by early Christians to give their founding figure a miraculous birth, like Apollo or some other divine man. Scientifically, women do not reproduce on their own therefore this “miracle” is quickly explained away as legend. This is quite true but the point is that the birth of Jesus was supernatural, a miracle.

But the point that Matthew makes by claiming Mary was a virgin is that the origins of Jesus are different than any other great leader of Israel. Samuel, for example, was born to a woman who was barren in response to her fervent prayer (1 Samuel 1). The stories of the Patriarchs repeatedly include barren or old women giving birth because God gave them a child. The virgin birth of Jesus is the ultimate miraculous birth.

But two of the Gospels begin the story of the virgin birth, and Matthew states that the virgin birth happened “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.” In this case, the prophet is Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel. It is important to read the words of Matthew in their proper context, looking back to what God did in Isaiah’s day. In the context of Isaiah 7, God is with his people at a time when they are apathetic towards the covenant and the King is in open rebellion against his God. Yet the sign of Immanuel is given because God is still working to preserve the Davidic Dynasty.

In Matthew 1, the sign of Immanuel is given once again for the same reasons. While the details are different, the people of God are still apathetic toward the real heart of the covenant and many are in open rebellion against it – yet God is still working to preserve the people of Israel, to redeem them from their sins and to bring the real King, the Son of David into the world.

Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

BethlehemPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area. Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).

Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

NazarethPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area.  Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).