Christmas is a time for singing. What better thing to sing about, especially at this time of year, than the birth of Jesus the promised Messiah? Of the two Gospels that tell of Christ’s birth and infancy, it is Luke’s Gospel which contains several songs or poems of praise of Jesus’ advent: for example, the Magnificat (Song of Mary, 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah, 1:67-79), the Gloria (Song of the Angels, 2:13-14), and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon, 2:28-32). What is the meaning of each of these songs within their context and to the overall narrative? What do they declare about Christ’s nature?
To answer such, we need first to consider why Luke wrote his Gospel. He used eyewitness reports and written accounts to provide his own orderly, trustworthy version of Christian origins (1:1-4). The purpose behind his Gospel is specifically found in 1:4 and tells us much about why he would include such songs. Luke wrote to Theophilus (and no doubt others like him) so that he might know of God’s pledge/promise (asphaleia) with respect to Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Gospel, the truthfulness of Christ’s passion, and the certainty that the Gospel would spread despite opposition. In other words, Theophilus was given a pledge reassuring him of the events surrounding Christ the Lord. And, Luke especially drove home the point that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Luke’s Gospel is indeed one of promise and fulfillment.
And Luke’s Gospel is indeed one of promise and fulfillment. For example, God promised Zechariah through an angel that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son whom they would name John (1:13). That promise was fulfilled with the birth of John the Baptist (1:57-66). Through this same angel God promised that John the Baptist would be the forerunner to the Christ, the Messiah (1:16-17). That promise came to pass in the ministry and preaching of the Baptist (3:1-20; esp. 3:3-6, 16-17). The angel Gabriel promised Mary that she would give birth to a son named Jesus (1:26-38). That promise was fulfilled of course when Jesus was born (2:6-7). An angel of the Lord proclaimed Christ’s birth to shepherds and gave them a sign: they would find the baby lying in a manger (2:8-12). Later, the shepherds found the infant lying in the feeding trough (2:16-17), just as the angel promised. Jesus stood in the synagogue at Nazareth to read Isaiah 61:1-2, an OT promise about the Messiah (4:16-22), then sat down and told those attending that particular Scripture was fulfilled in him that day (4:21). When his disciples asked about future things to come, Jesus gave them a climactic promise concerning the preaching of the Gospel, viz., as they preached Christ as the Messiah they would be brought “before governors and kings” because of him, leading to an opportunity for witness (21:12-15). Christ’s promise to them is fulfilled throughout the book of Acts as the disciples are engaged in ministry, persecuted, seized, and brought before the magistrates. The resurrected Jesus also gave his disciples the promise par excellence, the Holy Spirit, telling them to wait in the city of Jerusalem until they received power from on high (24:49). The fulfillment of that promise occurs in Acts in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).
So it is that the songs in Luke’s Gospel should be understood in context within this narrative theme that Jesus fulfills God’s promises regarding the Messiah. He brings to completion Israel’s kingdom and Messianic expectations. God’s covenant with Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Mary’s song of praise (1:46-55), also called the Magnificat because this word occurs in the opening verse of the Latin translation, reflects this promise-fulfillment theme. In response to Elizabeth’s blessing (1:45), she expressed joy at Christ’s birth and recognized God’s good favor toward her. She also praised God for His mercy toward His faithful people and for His mighty deeds. Further, she trusted that God was fulfilling His promises, particularly those made to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 17:7-8; 22:18; cf. 18:18; 26:3; Exod 2:24; etc.), through Jesus her son.
Zechariah’s song (1:67-79), called the Benedictus from the first word in the Latin translation (1:68), also reflects the promise-fulfillment theme seen in Luke. Zechariah had previously been unable to speak because he did not believe the angel Gabriel’s words that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son (1:8-20, esp. 1:18-20). He regained his speech, however, at his obedient naming of John that occurred along with his newborn son’s circumcision on the eighth day (1:59-64). Filled with the Spirit, Zechariah prophesied, praising God for the salvation promised to Abraham and Israel that was now coming to pass through the raising up of the Davidic Messiah. This hope of salvation included redemption, but also anticipated deliverance from enemies. Much of Zechariah’s praise focused on his son John’s role in this salvation (answering the question asked earlier by the crowd in 1:66). John was a prophet who would prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah who is the son of David (1:76-79).
Just prior to the Gloria (Song of the Angels, 2:13-14), an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus and giving them a sign of the birth: they would find the baby lying in a manger (2:8-12). Suddenly, a multitude of the Lord’s angels appeared, praising God in heaven for salvation in Jesus and declaring that the people to whom God draws near (cf. 1:50) will enjoy the peace/salvation and blessings that God gives to his people (2:13-14). After the angels left, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem, and there, just as was promised by the angel, they found the newborn baby lying in the feeding trough (2:16-17), confirming the truth of the angelic announcement—again, promise and fulfillment! Jesus is the Savior!
Nunc Dimittis (Simeon)
In the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon, 2:28-32), called such because of a phrase in the Latin translation’s opening, Simeon praised God for the fulfillment of his promise. He was a “righteous and devout” man (2:25) who had received a revelation by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah (2:26). The Spirit led Simeon into the temple at the time when Jesus’ parents had brought him to be dedicated before the Lord, according to the law (2:27). Upon seeing Jesus, Simeon took the child in his arms and stated he could now “depart in peace,” knowing that God had kept his promise according to his word (2:28-29). Simeon praised God because he had seen the Lord’s salvation (2:30), which he links to seeing Jesus. Simeon further described this salvation as one that God had prepared (2:31) and as light for revelation to the Gentiles/nations and for the glory of Israel (2:31-32). In other words, Jesus the Messiah came to save not only Israel, but all the people of the world!
These passages in Luke especially show that Jesus fulfills the promises of God made concerning salvation. Indeed, God acts according to His word and keeps His promises. That you can count on!
Thank you, Lord, for Your indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:15)! May we marvel anew this Christmas at the birth of Your Son!