The Meaning of the Magnificat
Text: Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
How many sermons have you ever heard on Mary?
Probably not too many, I would guess. It’s too bad. We should never let the abuse of something cause us to reject its legitimate use, and we Protestants shouldn’t run away from Mary. After all, she is a central figure in the birth stories of Jesus. Luke devotes a good deal of space to her in the beginning of his gospel. Our text today is one such space, her famous “song,” the Magnificat, which has held a special place in Christian history. I’d like for us to take a look at it today.
As we will see, the Magnificat is Mary’s response of joy and worship to the announcement of God’s salvation. That He would choose her as a vessel of His grace overwhelms her soul. She praises His name. In this song, Mary shows us how to receive God’s grace. She explains how God always works. She teaches us that God uses the small and weak to bring about His strength and glory. She ties this to God’s covenant. And, most of all, she believes.
The Setting (vs. 39-45)
To understand Mary’s song, we need to put it in context. It’s actually a response to what Elizabeth says about Mary. In the preceding verses, Mary has just gone to visit Elizabeth who is herself pregnant. Elizabeth has John the Baptist in her womb. When Mary enters the home, also pregnant, with Jesus in her womb, John recognizes the presence of Christ. How does He do this? We can’t begin to know, but he senses the presence of God. Somehow, this unborn child—this fetus!—knows when God is in the room. He leaps in the womb, which alerts Elizabeth that something special is going on. She then tells Mary:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord. (Luke 1:42-45)
That’s really quite the scene. Imagine something like it happening today. We see how God uses the agency of the smallest of human creatures, indeed the weak and dependent fetus in the womb, to testify to His glory. He continues to do this today, and this is becomes the main theme of Mary’s song.
“Magnify the Lord” when we are blessed (46-49)
The “Magnificat” is actually Mary’s response to this amazing scene. After Elizabeth blesses her, she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This expression means that Mary’s soul, her innermost being, exalts the Lord. She makes His name great. She gives Him glory.
Mary immediately adds to this that, “my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” She glorifies God, and then she rejoices in Him. She rejoices because God has saved her. Indeed, “He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant.” Mary is rejoicing in God’s salvation, and she is clear that she is the passive recipient of His grace. She, like each of us, is the object of divine redemption.
In fact, this is the reason that “all generations” will call Mary “blessed.” Not because she is necessarily so great, but because “He who is mighty had done great things” for her. We bless Mary because God has blessed Her. He has saved Her, and He has chosen to give her the great privilege of bearing the messiah.
God Uses the Weak (50-53)
Mary goes beyond noting her personal blessing, though. She adds that God is treating her the way He has always treated His people. He is keeping His covenant promise, and He is doing it in a surprising way. Rather than choosing the mighty and powerful, God picks the poor and lowly to bring about His plans. He reverses the wisdom of this world and makes His strength perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
“His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). This expression could be taken from any number of Old Testament verses. It reminds me of the end of 2nd Commandment. “The Lord will show mercy to thousands, to those who Love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:6). There’s also Psalm 103:17, “The mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting, on those who fear Him.” This shows us both how we may be assured of our salvation—by continuing to cultivate a holy fear of God—and how we may be assured of our children’s salvation—by teaching them to fear God and then trusting in His multi-generational promise.
This is why God chooses the poor and lowly, by the way. They are those who most understand what it means to fear God. The proud boast in themselves. They look around and say, “Look what I have built by my might power…” (Dan. 4:30). They have no need of God, and thus they have no fear of Him. And so God pulls them down from their thrones. Instead, He exalts the lowly.
Again, we learn that God resists the proud but favors the humble (James 4:6). He uses the powerless in order to magnify His own power. This is one of the main reasons for His grace. And this is how God has always worked. He worked this way with Mary. He worked this way with Israel. He works this way with us.
God Keeps His Covenant (50, 54-55)
Mary connects this theme of God working through the weak with His covenant. Notice how she ties it to Abraham and to Israel:
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever. (vs. 54-55)
God is actually not trying something wholly new when He sends Jesus to be born of Mary. He is acting consistently with His covenantal plan from generations earlier. He has always favored the poor, chosen the younger, and magnified His own strength through human weakness.
Consider Abraham. Abraham was a man with no children, and God saw fit to name Him, “Great father.” He promised Abraham that he would have children, but that it would not come through his own power. No, Abraham must wait on God.
Something similar was true of Israel. Israel the man was Jacob. He was the younger brother who was blessed purely because of God’s gracious choice. And though he lived a life of affliction and suffering, He was promised to become a great nation. His children would become the tribes of Israel. But what did that look like in his own life? It wasn’t initially very good. His sons were scoundrels. They fought against one another. Israel had to trust God’s promises.
And when Israel became a nation, the same thing was true. They were continually trying to seize greatness through their own power and learning their folly. Saul looked the part, but was not. David was a man after God’s own heart, but he too struggled with pride and desire. Solomon saw great heights but ultimately ran after false gods, and therefore his children wandered.
Yet through all of this, God was faithful. He kept His covenant and choose to use this damaged and erring people to bring about the salvation of the world. He gave them the Seed of the woman, and He did so through a young woman of no consequence. He sent the messiah and the savior of the world through Mary. He kept His promise.
Blessed is She Who Believed
The fact that Mary can say all of this shows us that she was a woman of faith. She knew the history of Israel. She knew the Scriptures. She knew the covenant promise. And when Gabriel visited her, she received the message in faith. Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45).
So in this too Mary is an example to us. She is an example of humility. She is an example of gratitude and worship. And she is an example of faith. Unlike Sarah, who laughed at God’s unbelievable promise, Mary rejoiced. And think about that comparison. Sarah was old, this is true, but at least she had access to the normal biological means to have children. Yet she didn’t believe it. Mary is in a much more difficult situation than Sarah. She isn’t barren. She is a virgin. For her to have a child in this condition really would be impossible. But all things are possible with God.
Mary rejoiced and accepted Gabriel’s message with faith. She saw that God was keeping His covenant and that He was working in the way that He promised to work. He was blessing the poor when He gave her Jesus. He was overturning the wisdom of the world when He sent the Son of God to be born of a virgin. He was showing His power and glory. So she believed and magnified Him. We ought to respond the same way.
Mary teaches us how to respond to good news, especially the good news of our salvation. She is an example of gratitude. She shows us how we should thank God for His mercy and grace. She first magnifies His name, blessing Him and granting Him worship. Then she explains how He saves us, by reversing the wisdom of the world and showing grace to the poor and lowly. She wraps up by pointing us to God’s covenant, showing His faithfulness through all generations, keeping His promise to Abraham to redeem Israel. And she believes.
Mary is also an example of someone who understands how God works. She shows us that He does not save us because we are so great. He does not choose us because we are rich and mighty. He doesn’t even ask us to save ourselves with His help. He chooses the weak and helpless, and He gives them a gift that transforms them. He gives them Christ.
If we understand Mary’s role in the Bible, she will always take us to Jesus. She understood God’s covenant, and she expresses that belief in her song. She looks to God in faith, and the result will be Jesus Himself. Now we should do the same, looking now to the fulfillment. We know that Christ has come to lift us up from our low state, to forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil, and finally to glorify God’s name by keeping His covenant. Let us then believe, and let us magnify the Lord.