"The Forerunner's Mother"
Character Study of Elizabeth, primarily from Luke 1
(Delivered Mother's Day Sunday, May 11, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Each Mother's Day, we consider the life-story of some great mother of faith from the Bible. The mother that I'd like us to think about to today might be an easy one to pass by; mostly because her life-story is so often interwoven with the life-story of another great mother of faith.
Without question, Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, rightly deserves the title of the greatest mother of all time. She was, after all, the one who was called the "highly favored one", and "blessed among women" by an angel sent from God.
But we shouldn't ignore the lessons we can learn from her godly cousin Elizabeth.
After all, if ever there was a mother who could justly be proud of her son—second, of course, to Mary—it would certainly be the mother of John the Baptist. Of her son, the Lord Jesus Himself once said, "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11).
I believe Elizabeth should hold a place of honor as one of the greatest heroines of faith in all of Scripture. Such a mother as her certainly deserves our attention on Mother's Day.
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Elizabeth's story is primarily given to us in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. And some of the first few verses of that first chapter tell us some important things about her background.
We learn there, for example, that she was married to a man named Zacharias; who was a priest "of the division of Abijah". A responsibility had fallen upon Zacharias that very few men in biblical history had the honor of receiving—a responsibility that a man who had received it could only perform once in his lifetime. Zacharias was one of the priests who had the honor of being sent into the holy place of the temple, and of offering incense on the altar before the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Once a man had performed that duty, he was held in high esteem among the people for the rest of his life. No doubt Elizabeth would have been very proud of her husband.
And Elizabeth's own heritage would have been something to be proud of too. She herself was of a priestly heritage—being a daughter not only of the priestly tribe of Levi, but specifically of the lineage of the tribe of Levi that God had set apart to serve in the sacred work of the temple—the lineage of Aaron. What a godly heritage she grew up under! It must have been that her priestly father and mother wanted her to retain a sense of the significance of that heritage, because they gave her a name that meant "God is my oath".
Elizabeth and Zacharias will forever go down in sacred history with this wonderful testimony in God's holy word concerning them: "And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). What an honorable thing it must have been—to have God say those things about them in His word! And yet, there was an element of sadness to their lives; for the very next verse tells us, "But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years" (v. 7).
Little did they know, though, that God was about to prove Himself true to Elizabeth's name—that God was indeed the keeper of all His oaths. Because it was through her that He would keep a promise that He had made to the nation of Israel centuries before her time!
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Now; to really appreciate the lessons we can learn from her life, we need to go back and consider that ancient promise that God was about to keep through her. In doing so, we learn something of . . .
1. HER PLACE IN PROVIDENTIAL HISTORY.
This great promise is first hinted at in Isaiah 40—written almost seven centuries before Elizabeth was born. It's a promise that concerned the coming of the Messiah; and along with making that promise, God also promised that someone would precede the Messiah and serve as His "forerunner"—someone who would announce His coming to the people of Israel.
Isaiah 40:3-5 tells us specifically of that promise:
As we know from the New Testament, John the Baptist was that "voice" that was "crying in the wilderness"—calling his kinsmen to prepare for the coming of the Lord (John 1:23).
And this great promise was hinted at again, about two-and-one-half centuries later. In the closing book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, God promises;
And as we know, Jesus Himself said that this also referred to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10).
John had the great distinction, then, of being the promised "forerunner"—the herald to the people of Israel of the long-awaited, promised Messiah. It was John's duty to point people to Jesus and say, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29); and to call them to repent of their sins and believe on Him And it was Elizabeth's great honor to be the mother of that "forerunner"—to be the one through whom God provided the witness-bearer of the Savior to the world!
Before John was conceived in her womb, an angel had announced that he would be the fulfillment of the closing words of the Old Testament—that her son would be the one who would go before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17; see also Malachi 4:5-6).
When John was born, and she said, "Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked upon me, to take away my reproach among people" (Luke 1:25), she was rejoicing in more than just the fact that she was having a baby. She was rejoicing over the fact that even though she had lived with the sorrow of barrenness for many years—even into her old age—it turned out that God had bigger plans for her than she or anyone else could have imagined. It turned out that she held a very privileged place in God's providential history.
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And a lesson I believe we can learn from this is a very encouraging and practical one. Our sovereign God—the almighty God who works above time and beyond the centuries to fulfill His plans for the good of His people—may yet have a place for some of us in His providential plan that is greater than we could possibly imagine.
You may not feel as if you have much to offer in God's kingdom right now. You may feel small and insignificant in the scheme of things. You may even feel that you hardly make a noticeable difference at all in your own time. And yet, we should never let such a feeling keep us from trusting Him, and thanking Him for the place He has given us, and living faithfully and fully for Him in the 'here and now' that He has given us.
I believe we should each keep three great Bible promises in mind. Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." Romans 8:29 says, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." And Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever."
We should keep those three spiritual certainties before us by faith—that God purposes good for His people, that He sovereignly works through all things to bring about that good, that He is even able to reach beyond centuries of time in order to do so. We can live faithfully for Him in the day and age He has placed us; knowing that we may well be the very instrument He has chosen to use to fulfill His purpose for some other day and age way beyond our own; or that we may very well be the fulfillment of a promise He made to someone else in some day and age long in the past!
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So then; Elizabeth was given a privileged place in God's providential history. She was used by Him to fulfill a very great promise He made to the people of Israel centuries before her time.
But this didn't happen in a spiritual vacuum. She was a remarkably godly woman, and she faithfully lived the kind of life that God could see fit to use in a great way.
And this leads us next to highlight . . .
2. HER PATTERN OF RIGHTEOUS LIVING.
Think of how God's word testified that she was "righteous before God". We're told that she and her husband walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord "blameless".
But doesn't that seem to contradict what the Bible tells us elsewhere? Doesn't the Bible tell us that "a man is not justified [that is, made 'righteous'] by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 3:16)? How is it that Elizabeth was "righteous before God" in a "blameless" way when the Christ had not yet been born?
I suggest that the answer is found in the very next chapter of Luke. In Luke 2:25, we're told of another person that God's word testified to be "just" or "righteous". His name is Simeon. He was the old man who saw the baby Jesus when He was brought into the temple to be circumcised by Joseph and Mary. The Bible tells us that "this man [Simeon] was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel . . ." The "Consolation" or "Comfort" of Israel was simply another name for the hope that characterized every godly Jewish man or woman—the confident hope in the coming of the Messiah. So; this godly man had faith in the promises of God concerning the coming of the Christ—long before he ever heard of Jesus' birth. He was what we often call an 'Old Testament saint'—that is, someone who was a believer in the Christ by virtue of faith in the foreword-looking prophecies and promises of God in the Scriptures concerning the Christ who was yet to come. As Habakkuk 2:4 says, "But the just shall live by his faith"; and this was true of the "just" in Old Testament times as well as the "just" in New Testament times.
So; I suggest to you that Elizabeth was "righteous" on the same basis as Simeon. She and her husband had faith in God's Old Testament promises to provide the Messiah; and they both looked ahead—as best they understood to do so—to the promised Messiah as their Savior.
What a thrill it must have been to know that her own son was going to be a significant part in the fulfillment of that expectation!
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And what's more, she also lived a life of righteousness on the basis of that faith. She no doubt grown up in a very pious atmosphere—having been the daughter of a priestly father; and having married a man of an esteemed priestly order. But it's clear that it wasn't just a matter of externals for her. She lived a 'just' life before God that was the natural outflow her 'justifying' faith in God's promise. As God's word testifies, she 'walked' in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord' in a 'blameless' way.
I believe you can see something of her faith in action as the story unfolds. Luke tells us this about her husband;
What a remarkable child it is that's being promised! But that's when unbelief struck even such a great man as Zacharias. Luke writes;
Luke goes on to tell us that the people stood outside the temple; concerned that Zacharias was taking so long. And when he came out, though he could no longer speak, they were able to determine that something very significant had happened in the temple—that he had seen an angel. He couldn't speak; but he could gesture and write notes. And we can be sure that he communicated everything—as best he could—to Elizabeth; and shared both the good news of the promise, and the failure of his own belief.
And not long afterwards, the miracle happened. Elizabeth—the barren woman well past the age of child bearing—conceived and gave birth to a baby boy.
And here's where we see Elizabeth's faith on display. Luke goes on to say;
Elizabeth was faithful to what God had told them. She and Zacharias were committed to name the child as the angel had said! And when the pressure came upon her to name him something else, she refused to do so—keeping true instead to what God had said.
What a woman of righteous faith she was! What confidence she had in God's promise concerning her son! What an example she sets of not only believing what God says (making her "righteous" in His sight); but also of acting on it (showing her to be not only a hearer of the word, but a doer of it).
God bless mothers and grandmothers who follow her example of practical faith!
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I note that Elizabeth not only put her own faith into action, but also encouraged and built up the faith of others. She was, in fact, a great mother remarkably used by God to encourage another even greater mother through . . .
3. HER PRAISE OF OBEDIENT FAITH.
While John was still growing in the womb of Elizabeth, something else of unspeakably greater significance was going on. Listen very carefully to the details as Luke tells us;
Many of the things spoken of in this passage are wonderful beyond words. But as great as they are, I ask you to particularly notice the words of confirmation that angel then said to Mary;
Luke let's us know that Mary believed the words of the angel and humbly submitted to them. She said, "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word" (v. 38). And with that, the angel left.
The news that had just been told to her about Elizabeth was, no doubt, meant to confirm Mary's faith in the promise that she herself had just received. So, we're told that Mary rose in those days and went into the hill country "with haste" to the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth in order to see for herself. And as soon as Mary entered the home and greeted her cousin Elizabeth, the baby John leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb!
And before Mary could say a single word, Elizabeth—filled with the Holy Spirit—spoke with "a loud voice" a miraculous praise of Mary's faith in the angels' message:
Mary went to see the "lesser" miracle of Elizabeth's pregnancy in order to have a confirmation of the "greater" miracle of conception of the Son of God in her own womb! And when she got there, the very child in Elizabeth's womb confirmed it! Then, Elizabeth confirmed the very same blessing that Mary alone had heard from the angel, confirmed the identity of the child in Mary's womb as "Lord", confirmed Mary's own blessedness for believing the promise, and confirmed that there would be the fulfillment of all that had been told her.
Praise God for mothers and grandmothers who are used by God to confirm and strengthen the faiths of others around them! What an example Elizabeth sets!
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Elizabeth and Zacharias were old at the time of John's birth; and it may be that they left this earth before they could see him begin his powerful ministry to the Jewish people. But we can be sure that, for as long as she and Zacharias lived, they taught him what the angel had said about him.
When John was born, his father—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—said;
We're told that John "grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel" (v. 80). And I suspect that those words spoke through his father were repeated to him many times as he grew up; don't you?
And here's were we close with just one more hint of Elizabeth's exemplary influence . . .
4. HER PROVISION OF REVERENT NURTURE.
Do you remember that when the angel appeared to Zacharias, he said that John would be "great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink" (v. 15). In the Old Testament (Num. 6:1-21); we're told that a Jewish man could uniquely set himself apart unto God for a period of time in his life—consecrating himself as a "Nazarite" (from the Hebrew word nāzar; which means "to vow"). It seems clear that the angel was saying that John would live a very strict and set-apart life, under a Nazarite vow, his whole life long.
And at the end of John's adult life, Jesus testified to the Jewish people that John came to them "neither eating nor drinking"—so much so, in fact, that they said John was "mad" (Matthew 11:18).
In other words, Elizabeth kept true to her duty to raise her son to be a man "strong in spirit"; who lived apart from the common sphere of men, and who kept himself separate unto God his whole life long.
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Someone has said that behind every great man is a surprised mother-in-law. Well; I don't know if that's true. I certainly hope not! But we can be sure that, among those born of women in his time, no one had risen greater than John the Baptist. And we can also say that among mothers who had given birth to great men, few woman of faith have shined brighter than Elizabeth.
She is an example of a great faith and godly character in that she grasped her privilege position in God's redemptive providence, lived the sort of life of holiness that God could bless, spoke her faith in such a way as to encourage and bless the faith of others, and served in such a way as to influence a mighty servant of God for his time.
May God give us mother's who follow her example in our time too.
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