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Top Ten #9 // Behold! God becomes an unborn child

Top Ten Pro-life Passages // Luke 1

But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. [Luke 1:13-15 NIV]

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. [Luke 1:41-44 NIV]

Luke’s Gospel begins with a long infancy narrative, which takes up two chapters or roughly ten percent of the overall book. Echoes of Old Testament episodes, characters and promises are everywhere, with the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Hannah looming large. Women – Elizabeth, Mary and Anna – are prominent, with a large part of chapter 1 revolving around a conversation between two pregnant women. In fact Luke “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) uses nearly as wide a range of vocabulary for pregnancy as Hippocrates[1] and Luke 1–2 displays a “high interest in infant and fetal life.”[2]

Before Jesus is conceived, Gabriel appears to the aged priest Zechariah:

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.

As with Isaac’s conception and birth, the announcement is made to the father on this occasion, and as with Abraham and Sarah, the good news is met with a degree of scepticism, as a result of which Zechariah is rendered mute until John’s birth! John is named before he is even conceived, putting him in some pretty august company (e.g., Ishmael: Gen 16:11; Isaac: Gen 17:15–19; Solomon: 2 Chr 22:9 and Josiah: 1 Kgs 13:2).

John’s vocation as forerunner is reiterated once he is born (Luke 1:76) – whether before or after his birth John’s calling does not change. The alcoholic prohibition has precedent in Samson’s conception (Judges 13:4, 7) and suggests that John is akin to a Nazirite (compare 1 Samuel 1:11). What elevates John above Samson and even Samuel is that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while inside Elizabeth’s womb. The prophet Jeremiah was consecrated by God in utero (Jeremiah 1:5), but John is unique in that his prophetic ministry actually begins as an unborn child. As the first person to be filled with the Holy Spirit in Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 1:41, 67; 4:1), the humanity of the unborn child is also underlined.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – time now being reckoned according to gestational development – Gabriel is sent to Mary who conceives Jesus by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26–38). There is mystery here and Luke does not attempt to explain how this happens. Rather his language suggests something like the “surprise of creation”[3] with the Spirit’s involvement recalling Genesis 1:2. The other main allusion is to God’s Spirit filling the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35). And it is possible to interpret the pregnant Mary’s journey into the hill country of Judea as paralleling the journey of the ark of God in 2 Samuel 6:1–16, except that now God’s presence is manifested in the embryonic Jesus.

Once Mary reaches her destination Luke zooms in on this happy domestic scene, where the two women and their unborn children meet. It is important to note that John is twice described as a brephos here (Luke 1:41, 44), a word that can equally be used of new-born infants, in fact it next refers to Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:12, 16). This suggests a strong sense of continuity between the child in the womb and the infant once born, as well as connecting John and Jesus within Luke’s narrative purpose.

41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

Finding himself in the presence of Jesus, who is possibly just days old at this point, John, already filled with God’s Spirit, responds exuberantly. This is more than a baby kicking in the womb, John’s movements primarily serve a theological purpose: the incarnation has occurred and the Lord Jesus is already bringing gladness to his people. Luke employs a verb, meaning to leap or skip, which is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for Jacob and Esau’s uterine jostling (Genesis 25:22). This demonstrates that John’s character as witness begins within the womb, just as Jacob’s personality first emerged there, but it also indicates that a new age has dawned: conflict and strife have been replaced by adoration and joy.

Elizabeth’s loud exclamation here is matched by the Jesus’ utterance at the end of his life (Luke 23:46).[4] Elizabeth’s shout heralding the incarnation and Jesus’ cry at the culmination of his ministry bookend Jesus’ life, quite literally from the womb to his tomb. Elizabeth describes Jesus both as the “fruit of the womb” and as “Lord,” kurios. Kurios has previously been used 10x by Luke in chapter 1 to refer to God, here it indicates the unborn Jesus, as it will the new-born Christ in Luke 2:11. What becomes Luke’s favourite title for describing Jesus – “Lord” – is thus first utilised when he introduces Jesus as unborn child.

In short, there was never a moment of his earthly existence when Jesus was not the incarnate Saviour, the very embodiment of Israel’s God. But in the same way, there was no moment of his earthly existence when Jesus was not a fully human person. His life, like ours, began at conception, being like us in every way save sin (Hebrews 2:14, 17). In the Old Testament God creates and loves the unborn child; in the New Testament God becomes an unborn child. This, more than any other factor, should settle the question of abortion for Christians. How can one who claims to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus, end a life in the womb, a stage of our existence which has been made holy by the Lord himself?

[1] William K. Hobart, The Medical Language of St. Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954, repr. ed.), 91. [2] John T. Noonan Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History” in The Morality of Abortion, ed. John T. Noonan, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 8. [3] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (rev. ed., New York: Doubleday, 1993), 314. [4] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), 72.

When Jesus blesses the babies

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