Why So Much Talk of God Being High?
The Third Gospel employs the general term “high” or “highest” (hypsos and other similar terms) far more than any Gospel or book of the New Testament. It’s not even close. Luke often describes God as the “most High” (1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28) and refers to heaven as the “highest” or “on high” (1:78; 2:14; 19:38; 24:49). On the other hand, downward movement is also pronounced. Mary states that God has “brought down [katheilen] the mighty” (1:52). Jesus asserts that Capernaum will be “brought down [katabēsē] to Hades” (10:15), and a few verses later he states, “I saw Satan fall [pesonta] like lightning from heaven” (10:18). Why such a vertical concern?
The answer lies in Mary’s praise in the well-known Magnificat (1:46– 55). Embedded within this song, Luke’s vertical emphasis surfaces:
He [God] has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate. (1:52)
Let us now attempt to carve out Luke’s concern for the exaltation of the humble and the humiliation of the proud. Christ’s humiliation in his life and especially in the cross qualifies him to be exalted to the Father’s right hand.
Prophecies of Humiliation and Exaltation
The first two chapters of the Third Gospel establish the central themes of the book. Raymond Brown expresses this outlook when he states, “In the first two chapters of the Gospel [of Luke] there is a transition from the story of Israel to the story of Jesus. There appear, almost from the pages of the Old Testament, characters like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, who are the final representatives of the piety of Israel.”1 The births of John and Jesus, then, flow from the larger story of Israel. Luke’s Gospel uniquely contains four hymns: 1:46–55 (the Magnificat), 1:68–79 (the Benedictus), 2:14 (Gloria in Excelsis), and 2:29–32 (the Nunc Dimittis). Each is named after the first few words in the Latin translation. These hymns, like those found elsewhere in Scripture, generally summarize the message of the Third Gospel (see, e.g., Dan. 2:20–23; 4:1–3, 34–35; 6:25–27). The first and the fourth hymns cry out for reflection.
Much could be said about the Magnificat, but we will focus on two interrelated themes: (1) the overthrow of the mighty and the exaltation of the humble; (2) fulfillment of messianic expectations. A cursory read through the hymn reminds the reader of Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of her son, Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1–10). The similarities between Hannah and Mary are striking, perhaps warranting a case of typology.
Darrell Bock argues, “The strongest literary parallel to the hymn is Hannah’s word of praise in 1 Sam. 2:1–10.”2 If Luke intends Mary’s prayer to be modeled after Hannah’s, then perhaps we should push a bit deeper into the immediate context of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2. Hannah confesses,
There is none holy like the Lord:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God. (1 Sam. 2:2)
Then, based on his utter uniqueness, the Lord reverses present realities. He alone possesses the right and authority to bring down “mighty” warriors in judgment, and he “exalts” the weak to a lofty position of authority (1 Sam. 2:4, 7–8). In addition to a great reversal, we can also discern royal overtones woven throughout Hannah’s prayer. According to 1 Samuel 2:8, God takes the “poor from the dust” and makes them “sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” The word here for “seat” is probably better rendered as “throne” (see LXX, CSB, NIV), suggesting that the poor will inherit a prominent place of rule in the kingdom of God, perhaps at the end of history (cf. Ps. 113:7–8; Dan. 4:17). The final verse in the prayer zeroes in on the Lord’s judgment falling on Israel’s enemies through a royal figure:
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:10; cf. Ps. 2:9)
While the readers aren’t yet privy to the precise identification of this successful “king,” they will soon discover that, at least initially, the referent is none other than King David.
As we compare and contrast Hannah’s and Mary’s prayers, several points of contact are worthy of consideration. But before we contemplate the two, let’s take a moment to consider the incredible exchange between Mary and Elizabeth immediately before the Magnificat. According to Luke 1:41–43, Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” acknowledges that Jesus is her “Lord” (kyriou). Luke has employed the term “Lord” (kyrios) ten times up to this point in the narrative, and each occurrence unambiguously refers to Israel’s God (e.g., Luke 1:6, 9, 11, 16, 32). So, when Elizabeth confesses that the unborn Jesus is her “Lord,” Luke has thoughtfully and carefully identified Jesus as Israel’s Lord incarnate. Luke applies the term “Lord” to Jesus and to Israel’s God, inviting the reader to bring both figures together. Further, Mary’s declaration that she’s a “servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), then, means that she is none other than a servant of her unborn baby.
Jesus is God and man. In the incarnation, the preexistent one added humanity to his deity.
This baby is the eternal Lord and the God of Israel. This is the same Lord whom Hannah extols in her prayer. If we reread 1 Samuel 2:2 in light of Luke 1, the result is incredible:
There is none holy like the Lord [Jesus];
for there is none beside you;
there is no rock like our God. (1 Sam. 2:2)
Luke has placed Jesus squarely in an explicit, Israelite monotheistic confession. Further, and in this vein, Luke’s readers should also assume that Israel’s Lord who breaks the “bows of the mighty,” “exalts” the “poor,” and places his people among the “princes” (1 Sam. 2:4, 7–8) is none other than the preexistent Jesus—the second person of the Trinity. This identification doesn’t exclude the other two persons of the Trinity, but it does include Jesus in Hannah’s prayer. The mystery of the incarnation comes to the foreground in the Magnificat. How can the Lord, the God of Israel, the one who miraculously superintended the birth of Samuel and the virgin birth, be the same God as the unborn Jesus? As difficult as it is to wrap our heads around both of these truths, we must affirm both. Jesus is God and man. In the incarnation, the preexistent one added humanity to his deity. This may explain why Luke mentions that Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she identifies Jesus as “Lord.” Such incredible insight can only come from above.
According to Luke 1:51–53, Mary reaffirms Hannah’s prayer of the great reversal of fortunes:3
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he 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.
Luke puts his finger on the defeat of powers and the exaltation of the poor—an emphasis that runs throughout all of Luke-Acts. The Evangelist also explains how the Lord will do so: just as God redeemed Israel from the clutches of Egyptian slavery, he will deliver Israel once more and with great finality. The combination of words and expressions in the hymn, such as “the Mighty One” (1:49 CSB), “great things” (1:49), “holy is his name” (1:49), “strength” (1:51), “arm” (1:51), “scattered” (1:51), “thrones” (1:52), and “his servant Israel” (1:54), brings to mind the first exodus.4 But, unlike the first exodus, God promises Mary that he will not redeem Israel primarily from political might but from the powers of sin and the devil.2 Consummate redemption will occur only at the second coming of Christ, not at his first coming.
We would also do well to contemplate the larger context of Hannah’s prayer and the overall thrust of 1–2 Samuel. The prophet Samuel played no small role in the establishment of the Davidic dynasty (e.g., 1 Sam. 16:1–13). But while David was certainly remarkable on several levels, internal strife and personal sins dogged his reign. King David was not Israel’s solution to defeating God’s enemies and overcoming wickedness—that is reserved for one of his descendants (2 Sam. 7). A faithful, pristine Adam figure remained a future reality. In the end, Hannah’s prayer goes beyond David (and Solomon), finding its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of David (see Luke 1:32–33). In sum, God will bring down all forms of rule, physical and spiritual, through King Jesus and redeem his people in the second exodus.
- The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image, 1977), 242.
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 148.
- One interpretative difficulty is wrestling with the six aorist verbs in 1:51–53. Several options exist. For example, do the aorist verbs refer to past events? Or do they refer to what will transpire in the future? Bock rightly argues that they are “prophetic aorists,” verbs that are “portraying the ultimate eschatological events tied to Jesus’ final victory” (Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 155). I contend, though, that these prophetic aorists are initially fulfilled throughout the totality of Christ’s ministry, particularly in the wilderness temptation and not simply in his death and resurrection (see discussion below).
- See the discussion in David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 261–62. François Bovon even connects the Magnificat to Exodus 15: “The model of all songs of praise in Israel remains the hymn recounting the miraculous parting of the Red Sea” (Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, Hermeneia, trans. Christine M. Thomas [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002], 57).
- Raymond Brown suggests, “The poverty and hunger of the oppressed in the Magnificat are primarily spiritual” (The Birth of the Messiah, 363).
This article is adapted from From the Manger to the Throne: Theology of Luke *by Benjamin L. Gladd.
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