Luke 1 New Testament vrs 5–25
Reading and exploring the Bible.
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
9 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God,he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But 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. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 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. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Zacharias and Elizabeth, 8 the parents of John the Baptist, are introduced in verses 5–7. There are two different emphases to be found here, as I understand Luke’s account. On the one hand, the description of this couple reveals those characteristics which would have made them unacceptable to their contemporaries in Judaism. On the other hand, we are given those positive qualities (pious, law-abiding) for which they found favor with God, and which were the basis for God’s selection of them as the parents of John. We will look at the “negative” qualities first. So far as Judaism was concerned, Zacharias and Elizabeth were obscure and insignificant people, who were not of sufficient social or economic standing to have been granted the privilege of being the parents of John. Zacharias was a priest, but not one of great renown. Neither by his training nor by his place of residence was Zacharias set apart as a cut above his peers. In our terminology, this couple was a hillbilly priest and his wife. And where one came from did matter to the Jews? You will recall Nathaniel’s response upon learning that Jesus was from Nazareth: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Zacharias and Elizabeth were elderly and without children. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children, one which the woman probably felt most keenly. It may well have been thought that their predicament was the “judgment of God,” for some sin they had committed (cf. John 9:2). This fact would also have weighed very heavily against Zacharias and Elizabeth, if the choice of John’s parents were the decision of their peers, and not the sovereign choice of God. Zacharias was a priest, and both he and his wife were of the tribe of Aaron (Luke 1:5). It seems to have been important to God that John be of the priestly line, even though his function was largely prophetic. More important than their physical lineage was their spiritual devotion. Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were described by Luke as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (1:6). Not only was this a priestly couple, but they were a pious couple as well. Their lives were lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. This would not have been perfect obedience, but an obedience which met the requirements of Judaism. It did not save them any more than Paul’s religious piety was sufficient to save him (cf. Phil. 3:4–9). It did set them apart from their peers. From a New Testament view (and O.T. too) their good works did not save them, but from the perspective of the Mosaic Covenant, their devotion to God expressed by their obedience to the Law, did make it possible for God to bless them through the birth of John.
The priestly duties were allocated according to divisions of priests (cf. 1 Chronicles 24). When it came time for the order of Abijah’s division (cf. vv. 5, 8) to perform the temple duties, Zacharias went to Jerusalem. There, he was chosen for the very high privilege of burning the incense. This was such a high privilege it could be done by a priest only once in a lifetime. It was a very coveted task. One can only imagine the feelings which Zacharias must have experienced the evening before his duty was performed. On the one hand, he must have rejoiced in the high privilege which was his, which he had hoped for all his life. On the other hand, he must have reflected on Leviticus chapter 10, which records the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, for carrying out this ritual in a wrong manner. Thus, there were the mixed feelings of rejoicing and fear. He probably carefully rehearsed in his mind exactly how he would perform his duty, so that he would emerge from the holy place alive. On the day of his duty, Zacharias went into the holy place, where he was to burn the incense. Meanwhile, outside a crowd assembled for prayer. I would take it that the prayers of the people were both for the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, included as well prayers for the safety of Zacharias, as the dangers of his duty were well known. Can you imagine the sense of awe and wonder Zacharias must have felt as he entered into the semi-darkness of the holy place, illuminated only by the light of the lampstand? Think how you would have felt in that awesome place, where you alone were allowed, when you suddenly realized that there was another person present with you. If the angel Gabriel appeared in a burst of light and splendor (cf. Luke 2:9), then the experience would have been all the more frightening.
The angel’s first words were of comfort. He assured Zacharias that he need not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard (v. 13). It would be a prayer that God’s kingdom would come. A prayer with which the people outside would be in agreement as they prayed. While I used to think that the prayer referred to was Zachariah’s prayer for a son, I no longer think this. First of all, it would not be in keeping with Zachariah’s priestly duty. Second, I think that Zacharias may have prayed such a prayer, but now that its fulfillment seemed impossible, I believe that he had given up all hope, and that he no longer made this request. He request for a sign seems to confirm this. Thus, the angel’s words are to the effect that Zachariah’s prayer for Messiah’s coming have been answered, and in such a way that his own son, born miraculously to this elderly couple, will have a part in announcing the Messiah’s arrival.
The name of this son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb, and who will cause many Israelites to repent, in preparation for Messiah’s arrival, was to be John. John, as the angel’s words make clear, was to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s final prophecy (Mal. 3:5–6). John would be great in the sight of the Lord, and was not to drink wine or liquor (v. 15).
In spite of Zacharias’ godliness, his obedience to the Law, and his lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise. There in the shadow of this angel’s splendour, Zacharias made a request of the angel, that he provide some sign, which would assure him that this promise would be fulfilled. He was given a sign, or should I say he himself became a sign, and in fact the sign was indicated by his speaking in “sign” language (1:22).
He was afraid that no one would believe what he was promised; thus he asked for a sign. His speechlessness was an appropriate discipline for Zacharias, and it served to “announce” that something wonderful was about to happen. What Zacharias could have announced with his tongue, God announced through his silence.
Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence. When I speak, I speak for God. To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself.” With this rebuke, Zacharias was struck dumb.
The task which Zacharias was to perform was one which should have been accomplished in a relatively brief period. The longer the delay in his return, the greater the concern of the crowd assembled outside. They may have wondered if Zacharias had been struck dead by God, just as Nadab and Abihu had been. I can imagine that members of the crowd began to whisper to one another. When Zacharias did emerge, the people waited for him to pronounce a blessing, as he would have customarily done. It must have taken a while for the people to grasp that the priests contortions and hand motions were an attempt to communicate and that he had been rendered unable to speak. When they realization this, the crowds knew they he had seen a vision in the temple and that God was about to do something marvelous in their midst (v. 22).
Zacharias went home, and in the course of time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. After becoming pregnant, Elizabeth remained in seclusion for a five month period. While there have been some very pious sounding explanations for her actions, there may have been two primary reasons for her seclusion. First, Elizabeth did not want to announce her pregnancy until she was so obviously pregnant that no one could deny it. Those of us who have become parents know how quickly and easily we announce our blessed upcoming event. Elizabeth knew that she would not have been taken seriously, and she would probably not have wanted to face any more cruel scorn, so seclusion was a simple answer. Second, Elizabeth would have had to serve as a spokesperson for her husband, who could not speak, and seclusion kept her from having to perform this task.