Luke has introduced his gospel with two unexpected birth announcements. Here, those two stories literally meet and the moment is strikingly human and yet, Luke is indicating that something dramatically unique is also happening. As an aside, it is likely that Luke is drawing all of these early accounts directly from Mary or at least from Peter’s record of Mary’s account (Lk. 1:2, cf. Acts 1:14). This explains the highly personal, intimate, and authentic details of these opening scenes.
A New Ark
We already noted the charged language of Gabriel to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). It is already striking for Gabriel to show up in the countryside of Galilee, a good distance from the temple, but now he has also announced that the same Glory-Spirit of God that descended on Mt. Sinai and on the tabernacle and temple is going to come down upon Mary and overshadow her. And therefore of course the child she conceives will be holy – this is what God’s presence always effected, and this is what Israel, the son of God, was always called to be. But this was also always a rather terrifying experience.
But Luke goes even further: He tells this episode with Mary and Elizabeth with a number of curious details meant to underline this point even more, particularly echoing 2 Samuel 6 where David began the task of bringing the ark back to Jerusalem. Both stories begin when David/Mary “arose and journeyed” (2 Sam. 6:2, Lk. 1:39); both the ark and Mary are greeted with “shouts” of joy (2 Sam. 12, 15, Lk. 1:42,44); the verb used for Elizabeth’s greeting in Lk. 1:42 is only used in the Septuagint in connection with worship at the ark (e.g. 1 Chron. 15:28); “blessing” is explicitly mentioned in both (2 Sam. 6:10-12, Lk. 1:41, 43-44); there are similar questions asked in both stories: “How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam. 6:9) and “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43); and finally both stories end with the statement that the ark/Mary remain for three months (2 Sam. 6:11, Lk. 1:56). Luke is saying that what God did in the Old Testament with the ark, He is now doing in a new way inside Mary.
Two Nations in Two Wombs
This is not the first time that the center of the action in a scene has been on unborn children. Way back in Genesis, we have the story of another barren woman named Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, and she conceives twins and they “leap” inside her womb (Gen. 25:22). The leaping is so troubling that Rebekah asks the Lord what’s going on, and He explains that there are two nations in her womb and the older will serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). Not only is John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, but we already know that he (the older) will serve Jesus (the younger). In fact, John’s leaping is already performing that very purpose, Elizabeth knows exactly why John is leaping and immediately calls Mary’s child her “Lord” (Lk. 1:43). The same word is also used in Psalm 114 to describe the quaking of the mountains at the presence of the Lord when He brought Israel out of Egypt (Ps. 114:4, 6) and again in Malachi 4:2 to describe the effect the “Sun of Righteousness” will have when He comes: “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Putting this together, John and Elizabeth are behaving exactly the way you would behave if the God of Israel showed up. The older/younger motif also matches what Gabriel said about John’s ministry: turning the hearts of the fathers to the children (Lk. 1:17). Ultimately this is the story of salvation: all people are born in Adam, the old humanity, and they must be born again as children to enter the Kingdom of the new Adam, Jesus Christ. These two “nations” are at war in the world but they often wrestle within Christians themselves (Gal. 4:19, 5:17). This is one of the ways you know the Spirit is at work.
Excursus on the Value of Unborn Life
It’s worth noting here that the Bible sees no difference between young children and unborn children. They are all treated as fully human with inherent value and dignity and subject to all legal protections afforded any other human being. The same Greek word is used to describe unborn and already born children. Here in this scene, the unborn John is paying homage to the very recently conceived Jesus. The full value and significance of unborn children is also affirmed by Elizabeth’s recognition of the meaning of John leaping in her womb. Finally, Gabriel had promised that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Lk. 1:15). God dignifies John’s full humanity by filling him with His presence before he is born, and God dignifies Jesus’ full humanity at conception by John’s response to Mary’s greeting. To Christians who persist in claiming that a newly conceived fetus is not fully human, we ask whether it would have been permissible for Mary to abort Jesus at this early stage of pregnancy.
Not entirely unrelated is the implication that the Lord may choose to save anyone as early as He likes. John no doubt did not remember this moment (as none of us do of our in utero experiences) and that is why it is not necessary to remember your conversion either. It is not necessary to know the moment the Holy Spirit first filled you (cf. Ps. 22:9-10). Rather, what you must know is that He has. You don’t have to remember being born to know that you were.
Notice that when the Holy Spirit shows up it’s a moment of profound joy and celebration (Lk. 1:44). This is why David prayed after he sinned that God would restore the joy of salvation to him and uphold him by the Spirit (Ps. 51:12, cf. Ps. 32). Later in Acts the disciples are filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52). Paul frequently reminds his people that joy and the Holy Spirit go together in the Kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17, 1 Thess. 1:6). But notice that the Holy Spirit shows up as a response to Jesus showing up. You cannot have the joy of the Holy Spirit without meeting and knowing Jesus. Like Elizabeth, we ordinarily meet Jesus in His people. A Christian is someone who, like Mary, has surrendered to God and His word and now has Jesus living inside of them (2 Cor. 13:5, Eph. 3:17). And now, when believers speak, God causes the Spirit to fill those around them, causing them to leap for joy.