Luke’s Emphasis on God’s Words
There’s an easily overlooked thread woven into Luke’s incarnation narrative. My previous post explored Matthew’s use of the magi to illustrate a variety of emphases that color the theology of his gospel. Luke does something similar with an emphasis on the absolute reliability of the divine word — a theme made all the more impressive by the fact that it punctuates some of the most impossible human circumstances conceivable.* But as Gabriel himself once said, “No word from God is impossible.” And archangelic authority is hard to beat!
In the interest of space and in deference to the season, I’m limiting this study to Luke 1-2. The first instance of this theme appears in Gabriel’s words to Zacharias (Lk 1:19-20). After clarifying that it was God who sent him with the message of John’s birth, he pronounced nine months of muteness on the godly, aged priest because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time. Impossible as it sounded after decades of infertility and now the additional biological impediment of old age (Lk 1:7), if God says you’re going to have a child then you’re going to have a child, not because he’s omnipotent but because he says so and because what he says happens. Always. If you doubt that’s the point Gabriel is making, keep reading.
The next example surfaces when Gabriel again affirms, this time to Mary, that the impossible is possible when God says so (Lk 1:37). The text literally reads, For no word from God will be impossible.** The NIV captures it most closely: For no word from God will ever fail. Don’t miss the connection to v. 36 (“For”). This is not just Gabriel’s explanation for what will happen to Mary; it’s his explanation for what has already happened to Elizabeth (Lk 1:36-37). Gabriel offers Elizabeth as proof that the impossible is certain when God says so. Gabriel’s point is not an affirmation of God’s omnipotence to do the miraculous but, rather, a categorical “denial of the impotency of any word of God” (Joel Green, Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 92). First and foremost, v. 37 “means that God can and will perform his word. His promise can be trusted” (Darrell Bock, Luke, NIV Application Commentary, 58). This verse is universally used as a proof text for divine omnipotence, but contextually it’s a proof text for divine integrity and the infallibility of God’s words (cf. Isa 55:10-11).
Mary’s unhesitating embrace of so impossible a promise (may it be to me according to your word, Lk 1:38) is beatified by Elizabeth when she greets the pregnant virgin (Lk 1:45). Her words can be read in two ways: Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of that which was spoken to her from the Lord, or, Blessed is she who believed that there will be a fulfillment of that which was spoken to her from the Lord. If Elizabeth meant the latter, one can almost hear a latent reference to Zacharias (Blessed is she who believed what was spoken to her from the Lord . . . unlike my husband, bless his heart!). Either way, it is the reliability of God’s words that is certified and celebrated.
Mary’s Magnificat reflects on the fact that these miraculous interventions are nothing more or less than God’s keeping his words as he spoke to our fathers (Lk 1:55). And once Zacharias finds his voice again (Lk 1:64, just as Gabriel had said, Lk 1:20), he likewise exalts God’s intervention just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets (Lk 1:70) and according to the oath which he swore to Abraham (Lk 1:73). God keeps his promises. Always.
This theme of the reliability of God’s words also finds expression in the mouths of the shepherds. After the angelic host fades from view, their response is immediate: Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing [literally, this saying] that has come to pass,which the Lord has made known to us (Lk 2:15). And afterward, they praised God that they had found everything exactly as it was told to them (Lk 2:20). God never misinforms. Ever.
The aged saint Simeon had received a unique divine promise that he would live to see the Messiah’s arrival (Lk 2:26). Holding Mary’s infant in the temple he exclaims, Now you are dismissing your servant in peace, Master, according to your word (Lk 2:29). God does exactly what he says. Always.
Of course, these events involve God’s omnipotence (e.g., Lk 1:49). But divine omnipotence is in the background; it’s merely the engine that accomplishes the fulfillment of his words. Divine omnipotence affirms that God can do anything — a comfort to any child of God, to be sure. But divine integrity affirms that God will do everything that he says, exactly as he says — an encouragement to every child of God to ransack the Scriptures and to count on every word of God as absolutely reliable, no matter how impossible it may sound.
Christmas is a celebration of God’s love, God’s sacrifice, and God’s power. But it is also very much a celebration of the God who speaks and then infallibly keeps his words, down to every last jot and tittle. And that’s something to be merry about!
* For a discussion of the Lukan theme of divine reliability, specifically in the form of fulfillment of Scripture, see Craig Blomberg’s recent A New Testament Theology (Baylor University Press, 2018), 385ff.
** Of the 70 times the Greek word ῥῆμα (word,saying) appears in the NT, 19 (27%) are in Luke’s gospel (only 6 in Mt and 2 in Mk). Like the Hebrew dabar, this word is often translated “thing” when translators aren’t sure what else to do with it. But in both Hebrew and Greek, poke around the context long enough and you usually discover that the “thing” being referred to is (as it is here) a spoken thing, a saying, a word. If you want to test this out, take a look at all the other occurrences of ῥῆμα just in Luke 1-2 (1:38, 65; 2:15, 17, 19, 29, 50, 51).
Photo: Bethlehem Hills by Layton Talbert (edited by Isaac Talbert)