Luke 1:46-56

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[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]


Luke 1:46-55 contains the a statement from Mary about her unborn Son. It is often referred to as the Magnificat. This is the first word of Mary’s song in the Latin Vulgate, and means “To magnify.” Mary’s song is all about magnifying Jesus. Though He has not yet been born, she wants to sing His praises and magnify His name. Her words contain numerous allusions to other similar songs from the Hebrew Scriptures, and contains many of the traits of Hebrew poetry as found in the book of Psalms.

It could be asked why Luke included Mary’s song in the narrative. It seems a bit out of place, and the narrative would flow quite naturally without it. The same can be said of Zacharias’ song in 1:68-79. There are at least three reasons Luke includes these songs from Mary and Zacharias.

First, the songs offer praise to God for sending the Messiah.

Second, the songs tie beautifully with poetry and prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures. This shows a tie between the Messiah they were hoping for and the Messiah who has come. The song of Mary is very similar to Hannah’s prayer for her miracle son (1 Samuel 2), as well as many of the Psalms (e.g., Psalms, 8, 33, 47, 100, 135, 136). Mary’s song, which is ten verses long, contains fifteen discernable quotations from the Hebrew Scripture and contains extensive parallelism, a prominent feature of Hebrew poetry (cf. Green 1997:98-101).

Third, and most importantly for the theme and flow of Luke’s gospel, the songs of Mary and Zacharias help reveal the expectations that Jewish people of that time had for the Messiah. Luke is trying to answer various questions for his reader like “Who is this Jesus? What did He do?” Near the beginning of his gospel, he wants to show what people expected the Messiah to be and do. No one can reveal this better than Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Zacharias, a priestly leader. As will be seen, they both expected Jesus to be a leader who would right wrongs, restore Israel, and reverse injustice. These Messianic expectations continue to pop up throughout Luke and Acts, and are frequently confirmed by Jesus Himself (e.g., 4:18-19; 5:12-32; 6:21-26; 14:1-33; 16:19-31; 18:9-43). However, “God’s triumph over those who oppose him it itself a redemptive act, placing his opponents in a position whereby they might elect to join God’s project” (Green 1997:102).

1:46-47. Through parallelism, Mary shows that her whole being is praising God. While it could be argued that she views the soul and spirit as separate, with the rejoicing of the spirit preceding that of the soul, her main point is that her entire inner person is actively engaged in giving glory to God for what He has done (Green, 1997:102).

Also, not too much should be read into her use the term Lord when she makes it parallel to God my Savior in close proximity Elizabeth’s use of the term Lord in 1:43. All this shows is that the term Lordcan refer to any figure of authority, whether it is the Messiah (1:43), an angel (1:45), or God Himself (1:46-47).

In the rest of her song, Mary explains why her entire being is praising God for the benefits that will come through her Son. She praises God for what He will do for her(1:48-49), what He will do for the world (1:50-53), and what He will do for Israel (1:54-55).

Verses 48-49 speak first about the benefit to Mary.

1:48. Mary understands that she was in a lowly state. This speaks not only of her low position in society, but also her low position before God. Paul uses the same term in Philippians 3:21 to speak of our body of humiliation, which is in direct contrast to the body of glorification we will receive in heaven. In using this term, Mary may be acknowledging her own sinfulness and unworthiness to be the mother of the Messiah.

Mary also refers to herself as the maidservant of God, which reveals her desire to serve Him.

Mary states that as a result of her service all generations will call me blessed. This is not a statement of pride, but is a remembrance of what the angel had already told her. When he appeared, he proclaimed, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (1:28). However, as blessed as Mary is, Jesus reveals that His followers can be even more blessed. At one point, when He is teaching, a woman shouts out from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore you…” Jesus responds by saying, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28)

1:49. Mary states the reason she will be called blessed. God has done great things for her, and holy is His name. It is not because of her holiness that she will be called blessed, but because God is holy.God gets all the praise, glory, and honor for what He has done in Mary.

1:50. Mary now moves to speak about the benefits that will come to the world through the child that she carries (1:50-53). She speaks of the blessings that will come to the world using terminology similar to how she spoke of herself. What God has done for her, He will also do for the world (Green 1997:104). In this section, she contrasts what God will do for the lowly and humble with what He will do to the proud and arrogant. The Lukan theme of reversal is evident in this section. Those whom the world exalts, God humbles, and those who are humble in the eyes of the world, God lifts up.

Luke 1:50 is probably a quote from Psalm 103:17. Mary’s song seems to be explaining, or expanding, upon this text. Through parallelism and chiasm (e.g., “humble” in v 48 and 52; “great things” in v 49 matches “mighty deeds” in v 51), this verse also seems to be her central point.

Mary begins by saying that mercy will be shown to those who fear God. Mercy is when God does not give to a person what they actually do deserve, and is a theme that is found in prophetic writings concerning the coming of the day of the Lord. Such mercy will be shown only to those who fear God, that is, live in respectful obedience to Him. Mary is certainly an example of this, but she reveals that she is not only speaking of herself, but is thinking of all those who live in the future, from generation to generation.

1:51. In contrast to those who fear God are those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts.These people think they are greater than they are, and that others should give them the praise and honor they think they deserve. They want to receive the honor and glory that is due to God. To such people, God has shown strength with His arm and He has scattered them. Mary’s words recall common themes throughout Israelite history where God tears down the proud and powerful, while raising up the humble and obedient. This has begun to happen with her own exaltation, and she expects that God will continue this process through the work of her son, the Messiah.

1:52. Verse 52 forms a chaism with verse 51. The same ideas are repeated, but in reverse order. Mary is speaking both of what God has done in the past, and she anticipates what God will do through the Messiah in the future. She expects God to put down the mighty from their thrones, while exaltingthe lowly. She may also be expressing a bit of surprise that God has chosen to send the Messiah, the King of Jews, not through the expected route of palaces, kings, and privilege, but through a poor and lowly young woman.

1:53. This is most likely an allusion to Psalm 107:9. In this way, Mary expresses a typical Messianic expectation, that He will fill the hungry with good things, while the rich will be sent away empty. At the time of Mary, the poor and downtrodden had few legal rights and no recourse to defend themselves against wrongs by the rich and powerful. When the Messiah comes, He would reverse all this.

1:54. Mary now moves in 1:54-55 to talking about the blessings that will come specifically to Israel as a result of the Messiah. She sees the Messiah’s arrival as God setting out to help His servant Israel.Israel had been groaning under the weight of oppression, and the expectation was that the Messiah would set them free. God had not forgotten them, but would finally act in remembrance of His mercy. Based on what Mary said about God’s mercy in verse 50, it is assumed that Israel fears and obeys God, or at least be brought to a place where God can restore the nation to it’s place among the nations.

1:55. Mary states that God will act this way, to fulfill the promises which had been spoken to thefathers and specifically the covenant promises to Abraham and to his seed forever. By mentioningAbraham and his seed the reader is reminded of God’s promise to send the Messiah through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 17:19; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). Mary believes that God will fulfill this covenant promise through the baby in her womb.

Mary’s song ends abruptly, and the narrative continues in verse 56. By ending with a statement about the Abrahamic covenant, Mary reveals her belief that the Messiah in her womb will fulfill all the covenant promises to Israel.

1:56. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months which means she probably stayed until Elizabeth had given birth to John, which is the next event Luke relates to us. After this, Mary returned to her house in Nazareth. She would have been about three months pregnant, and just beginning to show. Undoubtedly she felt some fear at facing her parents and Joseph, her betrothed, but knew that if, according to His word, God could miraculously give sons to her and Elizabeth and could also restore speech to Zacharias, then He would protect her (as He promised in 1:35) from anything she might face in Nazareth.

4 responses to Luke 1:46-56

  1. Regarding Verses 46 & 47, Can you please tell me the difference between the soul and the spirit? Thank you.

    • JR,

      Some believe there is no difference and that both simply refer to the nonmaterial aspect of humans. There are many good arguments in favor of this view.

      My current view is that there is a difference between the two. I see the soul as the life-giving aspect of mankind, that which animates the body. Soul comes from the Greek word psyche and the Hebrew word nephesh, both of which can be translated as “life.” I believe that the emotions, intellect, and will are all aspects of the soul. This helps make sense of the numerous references in the New Testament to “saving the soul from death.” It is really just talking about saving the life from physically dying.

      The spirit is the eternal aspect of humanity. Through sin, all people are spiritually dead, and so are unable to act in ways that are pleasing to God. But through faith in Christ, we are given a new Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which allows us to please God when we live according to the Spirit.

      There are, of course, numerous problem texts with my current view (as there are with the first as well). I hope to solidify my understanding in the future through this interactive, online commentary as I study the passages and interact with others like yourself on these passages.

  2. Jeremy,

    This may be a loaded question, but I wanted to pick your brain. Your view on the soul was interesting and to be honest, even in my years of Bible college, I never have done a thorough study on the subject. But, if the soul and spirit are separate, what are your thoughts on what happens in an eternal state? If our soul is linked to our physical body (giving it life/animation), does it then link to our (renewed/glorified?) spirit in heaven? In a nutshell, I’ve always been raised and taught under the umbrella of knowing when we get to heaven, we’ll have “glorified bodies and minds,” which I can see has some Biblical support. Does that mean that my current soul, that involves my personality, however full of wrong deeds as it may be, will become abandoned for a “new soul” in heaven? Since my current mind allows me to make ungodly decisions even when I’m “filled with the Holy Spirit,” does that mean that my new mind will not allow this
    much freedom (in a sense, no free will)? I realize also that I’m associating our mind/personality with our soul, which may be completely off.

    Forgive me for getting a little off topic of the passage at hand–the comments just sparked my interest.

    • Jesse,

      Great question. I need to study this much more, but here is my current way of thinking about it.

      I think that our soul is one of our eternal parts. When we believe in Jesus for eternal life, we were given a new Spirit – the Holy Spirit. After we physically die, we will be resurrected and given new, physical bodies. I think that the soul is the only part of us that gets “carried all the way through” so to speak.

      I am not sure yet how the mind and will work into all this, but maybe approaching the subject from a different perspective will help answer your question.

      The way I look at it is that the soul is the “animating principle” of our whole person. But it cannot act by itself. It acts either through our bodies (the flesh) or our spirits. When we are dead in both flesh and spirit, the soul can do nothing but sin. When we receive new spirits by faith in Jesus, the soul now has an option – it can either act through the new spirit, or it can act through the old, corrupt flesh. This is why people can still sin after they believe in Jesus.

      Once we get new, resurrected bodies, the soul will be able to act through the new spirit as well as through the new body, and so only good can result.

      So what will make us different than Adam and Eve? Three things. First, the new spirit is not a human spirit, but the Spirit of God. Adam and Eve did not have the Spirit of God. Second, our resurrected bodies will be different than their bodies. We can look at Jesus after the resurrection to see a few ways how, and there are other hints throughout Scripture. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I believe our soul will retain the knowledge of good and evil that we gained through the fall of Adam. This knowledge of the pain and horror that evil causes will keep us from ever sinning again.

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