Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA
The first chapter of Luke is soaked with Psalms. When we put together this project, we gathered a list of times that Psalms are quoted in the Gospels. We found 38 total references. There are probably a few more, especially if we count indirect allusions (ideas that are referenced without being quoted directly), but, that list of 38 was our starting point. Of those 38, 8 happen in Luke’s first chapter. That’s 21%. We have two entries in this devotional looking at some those individual references, but, today, I want to think about what that flood of references means about the bigger picture of what’s happening in Luke 1.
First, it’s a reminder that we are listening to people whose hearts are drenched in God’s story. Mary and Zechariah both give long prophetic speeches in Luke 1. And those speeches are rich with quotations and allusions to the Psalms. They are talking about what God has done and is doing in the birth of Jesus (and his cousin, John the Baptist), and as they try to describe this revolutionary moment, the only words they can find that are adequate to the occasion are the words of Scripture – and, in particular, the words of their people’s prayer book, the Psalms. This is what happens when we allow the Bible to influence us – when we read it, and pray it, and study it, and think about it. At some point, the words of Scripture begin to shape our words – they begin to shape our minds and teach us how to speak and think. Mary and Zechariah were able to respond the way they did, in part, because they’d spent a lifetime preparing themselves for this moment.
Secondly, this flood of references to the psalms in Luke 1 is a reminder that Luke, as one of my teachers once put it, was “intentionally trying to write Scripture.” Think about it: the New Testament didn’t exist as an idea when Luke wrote his gospel in the late first century (maybe 40 or 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus). The New Testament only emerged as a thing because Christians were reading documents (letters, gospels, prophetic books) over and over as part of their worship, and eventually realized that these things they were reading about Jesus and the church should have a similar status to the other thing they read in worship: the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). So, they gathered them into what we call the New Testament, the part of the Bible that’s about Jesus and the church, and declared that they, too, were part of the Bible.
But most of the authors of the New Testament didn’t realize they were writing part of the Bible. Paul’s letters to churches, which form a big chunk of the New Testament (books like Romans, Galatians, etc.) were just that: letters that he wrote to churches to help them do church better (over the years, as Christians discovered that they remained helpful and that God was speaking through them, they came to be seen as something more). The Gospel of John, in many ways, reads like a document that was written because they eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life were beginning to die and the community needed to put their stories in print so that they wouldn’t be lost to the ages. These books were written for a variety of purposes, but not necessarily with the hope of putting them in the Bible.
But Luke seems to be doing something different. The way the book is written, its patterns of speech and the way that things are described as happening – it looks a lot like the way things happen in the Old Testament, and Luke seems to be trying to say to us that his story is a continuation of Israel’s story, that this story of Jesus should be part of the holiest book we have. Luke seems to be saying that the Bible is incomplete, unfinished, unless it includes the story of Jesus Christ.
And, so, is it any surprise that, as Luke opens his story, his language is drenched in the Psalms, in the words that his people – the people of Israel – would have prayed daily, throughout their lives. By flooding his opening chapter with these well-known, holy words, he is trying to get our attention. He’s trying to say: this Jesus story, it’s the story we’ve been waiting for. It’s the story for which the prophets were preparing us. It’s the event that we’ve been praying God would bring to pass. It’s the fulfillment of everything God has been doing – it’s what all that Scripture study was meant to prepare us to receive. Jesus is the heart of God’s story – he’s the heart and the point of the whole Bible. Luke wants us to see Jesus in the context of the whole story of Israel – to realize that the life of Jesus is the most important thing God has ever said, the most important message that we have ever received. The words on the page only matter insofar as they point us to the one who is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
So, today (and this Lent), I hope that you will dive deeply into the fountain of God’s Word. Read the words of Scripture, wrestle with the mysterious and wondrous and challenging things you find there, and let the words of the Bible become your own words. Drink from this well so that these words might flow out from you. And, may you discover that Jesus Christ, the One who is Living Water, is the most important message we could ever receive. His life, death, and resurrection are God’s ultimate message to us – a message of love for all of us, no matter what. May the Word made flesh be the message you receive, may it be the message that defines your life, and may it be the message you share with all who you meet.
In case you miss a day of our devotional, throughout the season of Lent, all of our devotional posts will be archived here.