Luke’s Introduction (1:1-4)
[December 7, 2008] The Gospel according to Matthew began by showing us how Jesus, born of a virgin, was adopted by Joseph into the lineage of King David. It started with a genealogy.
Luke’s gospel starts with a prologue, like other historical books that Gentiles were used to. In the very beginning, people who had been with Jesus and who were eyewitnesses of His ministry used to recount in the gatherings of the churches what they saw and heard. They “remembered” Jesus, and listening to them was part of what the believers did when they got together. But as the churches grew in number and spread further and further out, it became necessary to (1) stabilize these reminiscences so that they remain accurate and faithful, and (2) make them reproducible by putting them in writing. Matthew was in a particularly good position to do this since he was one of the Twelve (and thus a chosen witness), could write and had a table and tools for writing, things which we take for granted.
Paul (apparently) wanted something more for churches that were established in Gentile lands, outside of Palestine and Syria. Luke, an educated physician and a convert of Paul, took it upon himself to go to Palestine, to Galilee and Judea, and search out and interview the eyewitnesses and do his own investigation into the Jesus story, and to lay this out in an orderly fashion. He claims his gospel is accurate and follows a plausible, smooth and cohesive chronological sequence (kathex?s), as opposed to other people’s well-intentioned but haphazard accounts and Matthew’s gospel, which was arranged according to themes (like the Mishnah). Luke’s work should be able to instill in us full confidence in the reliability of the body of teaching that we believers have received. Like Matthew, Luke’s gospel was also written to be read in church gatherings.
Hellenistic writings were often addressed to someone (like a dedication in the front of a book), whether such a person would actually read it or not. Theophilus may or may not be a real person. The name means “friend of God.”
Old and Barren (1:5-7)
Luke assumes that we know the Old Testament pretty well, but he does not suppose that we are Jewish or have lived in Palestine. If our background is pagan, we have no problem imagining what goes on in a temple, and we take the supernatural for granted.
Luke begins his gospel with parallel stories of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. We immediately get into the personal lives of the families. Israel had twelve tribes. One of these tribes, the tribe of Levi, is dedicated to the service of God. Within the tribe of Levi are the priests who serve the temple. The priesthood is hereditary. Both Zachariah and Elizabeth come from priestly families. They live in the hill country south of Jerusalem and have been faithfully serving God their whole life, probably according to the best of the teachings of the Pharisees. But they have been childless. Having children was very important for everyone who got married in those days, but it was particularly important for the Jews. In fact, for a wife not to bear children was grounds for divorce, and if the husband should die before he had children, his brother was to marry his wife and keep trying. Yet Zachariah and Elizabeth stuck it out, year after year, praying to God, until they found themselves sitting alone at home too old to have children any more. They no longer even prayed for it.
They represented the faithful of Israel, those who were waiting for the future—for the consolation of Israel and the people’s redemption. The prophets of Israel made wonderful promises about the coming Age, but year after year their spiritual exile had continued. The Jews continued to be faithful to the commandments and worship of God even though day-to-day life was the same, with the same ups-and-downs year after year. The barrenness of Elizabeth was a physical picture of this feeling. Israel itself was spiritually barren. It seemed as though humanly nothing was any longer possible.
Does it not seem that way in the church? Yes, some churches are large and in some parts of the country church attendance is high. But we all know the direction things are going. We are becoming a radically secular society and few people who call themselves Christians go to church anymore or even have a basic idea of what the Christian faith is (and worse, they do not even know it). We are becoming like Europe in this regard, even though outwardly we still seem to be a religious society. In some ways it is worse here. There is a temptation for Christians in this country to become so acculturated that the churches in the international community have to disassociate themselves from us. The Bible and the creeds have become mere symbols and historical artifacts. Denominations are collapsing, and their members act as if unaware of it. As things continue to change, Christians will become a religious minority and we will no longer have the property or the money that we once had.
All this may not be so bad, because a lot of what we had was based on false premises, but it also means that the mission of the church has become much more difficult. The misconceptions about Christianity, and cultural bias against Christians, are growing. And we seem barren. Our human resources are coming to an end.
Gabriel’s Visitation (1:8-22)
Then something happened in the lives of Zachariah and Elizabeth. The priests were divided into twenty-four courses so that only one course was on duty at a time. Each day they drew lots to see who would enter the Holy Place and burn the incense. A priest only got to do this once in his life time, so everyone who had already done this was excluded from the lot. Zachariah was now an old man and he had never had the privilege. Now the lot finally fell to him.
In the outside court of the Temple was the altar where sacrifices were offered to God. Inside the Temple were two rooms. The innermost room was the Holiest Place (or Holy of Holies) where the Ark of the Covenant was. Only the High Priest could enter it, and only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kipper). It was covered by a thick curtain. The other room was called the Holy Place. As you enter, on your left was the seven-branched golden candlestick and on your right was the table of showbread. In the center, on the far end, right in front of the heavy curtain that covered the Holiest Place, was the altar of incense. An assistant would take hot coals from the sacrificial altar outside and spread them on this altar. He would leave, walking backwards, and the chosen priest, in this case, Zachariah, with a golden censer in his hand, would be alone. He now spreads the incense on the altar, and as the fragrant cloud rises he offers a prayer for Israel.
Suddenly an angel appears between the altar of incense and the candlestick (the right of the altar of incense but on Zachariah’s left). This had never happened before (one high priest claimed an angel accompanied him into the Holiest Place on the Day of Atonement), and certainly not to an ordinary priest. Zachariah is unprepared.
The angel announces that his prayer has been answered. Which prayer? His old prayer for a son or the prayer he just prayed? Both. Elizabeth will have a son and they shall name him John (Jochanan, meaning The Lord is gracious). The Lord is gracious to Zachariah and Elizabeth but also to Israel. Zachariah is stunned. The pregnancy is itself a sign that God is now acting—since the humanity of Zachariah and Elizabeth has run dry; they can no longer be productive; they are past hope—humanly speaking. But grace means that God acts without our help, when we are no longer able to. Grace does not depend on us. Grace depends entirely on the goodness, the generosity, the mercy and love of God. This gives us hope.
John will not only be a priest (and therefore dedicated to the service of God by heredity), but he will be a Nazarite from birth—someone voluntarily dedicated to God, like Samson and Samuel. That is what the abstention from wine and liquor is about (see Numbers 6). And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the power of God to carry out God’s work, from within the womb.
Notice that he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. There is alienation between them. The fathers had hoped and the children had disappointed. But God will work now with the children and the hearts of the fathers (who are the ones who had disappointed—disobeyed—God) will turn towards them.
Not only will John be strong like Samson, and be like Samuel who anointed King David, but he will be like Elijah who called people to repentance. He will go in front of the Lord their God and call people to repentance, to prepare them, to make them ready, for God’s coming (verses 16-17). In other words, this is the beginning of the fulfillment of all that the prophets had said would come to pass. Just as God made way for the coming of King David by sending Samuel, and God prepared Samuel by answering the prayer of Hannah his mother, who was also barren, so it is now. God did not begin with Jesus Himself, when He approached the Jordan to be baptized. He began with the elderly and with the poor, before the infants were even born. We may not see what God is doing—why there is barrenness, why there is hardship and poverty. But God is making the way for the future in His own way.
Zachariah is so stunned he can only question how it can even be possible. After so many years of praying, and having given up praying, he no longer can conceive of their prayer being answered. Gabriel identifies himself (his name means “The Might of God”) as an angel of the Presence, who stands in the very Presence of God, which the Holiest Place only symbolizes.
Zachariah asked for a sign and Gabriel gives him a sign. He will become mute, so that he cannot even tell people what has happened until Gabriel’s words are fulfilled. When Zachariah walked out of the temple, he was supposed to pronounce the blessing of Aaron (Numbers 6:24-26) over the people but he is unable to.
Silent Waiting (1:23-25)
For nine months Zachariah remained in silence unable to speak. Elizabeth stayed secluded for five months. She too was silent, unable to speak to her husband. Alone with God and the murmuring of their hearts, they had long months to meditate on what had happened and what it all means. For Elizabeth, with a child growing in her womb from God, it was as if she herself had been in the Holy Place in front of the innermost Presence when Gabriel spoke.
May we too learn to meditate in silence on God’s promises.