[December 21, 2008] Our author, Luke, prepared his gospel to be read in the new churches that had sprung up in pagan lands, lands where many pagans—such as Luke was—used to sit in on synagogue services and listen to the readings and even worship the remarkable God of Israel. The Jews were a peculiar people because they refused to worship anyone else’s god, worshiping only the imageless God whose temple was in Jerusalem. Yet what a remarkable God this was! For this God, who would not allow His people to worship any other god, claimed to be the God of all people. And this God made remarkable promises in ages past, promises that until now had been unfulfilled, the fulfillment of which every Jew eagerly awaited.
In the land of Judea, an old priest and his wife had also waited for something—they had waited for a child. Now Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth were well past childbearing years and had long given up those hopes and dreams. Then one day, in the Temple in Jerusalem, an angel appeared to old Zachariah and told him that his wife was going to become pregnant, and that the child to be born to them was going to be empowered with the Spirit of God from the womb and be like the prophet Elijah, and would get the people ready for the coming of God. Zachariah was taken by surprise and stumbled on the mere possibility of it. This could happen in Biblical days, to Abraham and Sarah, and to the mother of Samuel, but who was he? Yet his shock did not prevent the angel from assuring him that these words were going to be fulfilled in their time. Zachariah walked out of the temple unable to speak. (He was deaf as well.)
After that, Zachariah and his elderly wife retired to their home in the hill country in silence, Zachariah not being able to say a word. Sure enough, Elizabeth became pregnant, but they kept the news to themselves for five months. All this time they must have wondered night and day what all of this meant.
Then a teenage relative of Elizabeth, the young girl Mary, also received a visit from the same angel. The angel who had appeared to Zachariah just outside the curtain of the Holy of Holies in the great Temple in Jerusalem, standing beside the altar of incense where it was imagined Israel’s prayers ascended to God—this angel appeared to Mary in the rural town of Nazareth in north Israel, in Galilee. She was just a young girl, betrothed but not even married. Yet what the angel said to her was far more remarkable than what he said to Zachariah. The Presence of God would overshadow her—as it overshadowed the Holy of Holies in the Temple—and she would conceive a child without a man, and this child would be the Messiah who would sit on the throne of King David—who was the first king of Israel—and reign forever. He would be the Son of God, or, in other words, the coming of God for which all Israel awaited.
Mary did not tell anyone but went straight to Elizabeth (on the information that the angel had given her), to spilled it all to her and Zachariah. But before she could say anything, the Holy Spirit came upon the baby in Elizabeth’s womb and it leapt for joy at Mary’s presence. Without even being told, Elizabeth knew what was going on and exclaimed to this young teenager, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Indeed, how did this happen? Behind the curtain of history, without the public’s knowledge, indeed without anyone else knowing, this was going on among otherwise insignificant people. Apart from the remarkable visitation in the Temple, it was all taking place in the little villages of Israel among poor people whom no one had heard of—an elderly couple and now a teenage girl. These were private experiences, very personal. Yet what was taking place in the bellies of the women, unknown to anyone else, was the event for which all Israel had been awaiting since God first appeared to Abraham and Sarah some two thousand years earlier.
Mary stayed on until Elizabeth gave birth. Years later Mary related these events to Luke, the beloved physician of the apostle Paul, when he came to visit her in the country of the Jews. She herself was Luke’s eyewitness source for these stories.
Rejoicing at the Birth (1:57-63)
Just like the birth of Isaac, this birth takes place with great joy. It is a home birth in the hill country, and the people who rejoice are the neighbors and relatives. The circumcision too takes place at the local synagogue. This miraculous event takes place in obscurity. Like in our own lives, God was working quietly—yet remarkably.
God had waited in Abraham’s case until Abraham and Sarah were way past the age when either of them could still have children. Then Isaac was born and given a name at his circumcision, a name that means “Laughter,” because Sarah could only laugh at the mere possibility of what had in fact happened. This child too was to have a special name that points to the miracle of his birth, John, which means, “The Lord is gracious.”
They rejoice, as the angel Gabriel said they would (1:14), just as the baby rejoiced when Mary appeared at the door (1:44) and as Mary rejoiced in response (1:47). There will be more rejoicing. The angels who announced Mary’s childbearing to the shepherds had news of great joy (2:10). When Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Son of David, the people rejoiced (19:37). When the people believed on the day of Pentecost, they rejoiced (Acts 2:46). When the believers in Christ were persecuted, they rejoiced (Luke 6:23; Acts 5:41). And when the Gentiles believed and received the Holy Spirit, they rejoiced (Acts 10:46). Why all this rejoicing (other than the fact that the birth itself was remarkable)? Luke highlights the rejoicing because to him these are eureka moments.
Luke himself, like other Gentiles, had attended synagogue as an admirer of this religion. He felt drawn to it, even though he was not a Jew. This imageless God that the Jews believed in was calling him, but he did not know why. This God was ungrasp-able, shrouded in mystery. When Paul announced the Gospel to him, Luke had a eureka moment of his own. So THIS is what it is all about! Everything about Israel, all their history from Abraham through Moses and David to even the Babylonian captivity, all the words of their prophets—everything in fact—pointed forward to the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, born of Mary. The Savior of the Gentiles!
If only we would read the Old Testament with these eyes.
His Name Is John (1:59-67)
A Jewish boy is named by his father at the boy’s circumcision, which takes place on the his eighth day. Gabriel told Zachariah what to call him (1:13)—and Elizabeth told the rabbi (her husband was unable to speak), “He shall be called John.” They did not accept her word and made gestures to the father (this is why it seems that Zachariah was also deaf), and Zachariah wrote on a tablet, “John is his name.” John means “The Lord is gracious,” which has a wider significance than the gift to his parents. The baby signals God’s graciousness to Israel.
Gabriel told Zachariah that he would not be able to speak until his words came to pass. Now—through Zachariah’s act of obedience, naming the child John—his speech was immediately freed. Acts of obedience also free us when previously we were bound up. God releases the power of the Spirit when we are obedient. When Zachariah simply wrote, “John is his name,” he was filled with the Holy Spirit and at once he began to praise God. Not only did he use his new found freedom to praise God, but he prophesied, that is, God inspired his words. If we are obedient to God, we also become free.
Prophecy rarely means that we go into a trance the way King Saul did in the Old Testament. It does not mean that words mysteriously form on our lips, or words pop into our heads. It does mean that the Holy Spirit speaks through us, but the Spirit usually does this through normal, rational channels. After all, Zachariah’s words here are based on his reflecting on Gabriel’s words for nine months during his enforced silence, and he formed them from his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures. Prophecy is not some sort of shortcut whereby we can know things without having to study and meditate on them. It is not like that, though sometimes God is generous with new believers.
Zachariah studied (he was a priest), spent nine months meditating, obeyed the word, and then was filled with the Spirit and found the words to say. Mary is all the more remarkable in view of this.
The Promised One Is About to Come (1:68-75)
Except for verses 76-77, everything Zachariah says has to do with Jesus, not John. John prepares the way for Jesus but all the attention is on Jesus. Two thousand years have passed since God first visited Abraham and now He has come to fulfill His promises to Abraham and to all the prophets since then. Not the baby in Elizabeth’s arms but the Child still in the womb of an unmarried teenager who is standing nearby in the room—is the Lord, the God of Israel, visiting and accomplishing redemption for His people. This unborn Child is the “horn of salvation” who will fulfill the remarkable visions of the prophets. This One will save the people from their enemies and will accomplish mercy (Hebrew: hesed) with their fathers, the faithful love of God, the love that God swore to them by covenant. God frees His people so that they can serve (worship) Him in holiness (Hebrew: hesed, faithful love) and right and just behavior.
Zachariah’s words are limited, because he only has Israel in view, but what happens for Israel in this unformed fetus—as Luke knows—is the rising sun for the whole world (as Simeon says in 2:32), for the pagans who are “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
“And you also, little child,” in comparison to this One, will be a prophet of the Most High who will go before Him to prepare His way. You will prepare His way by giving people knowledge of salvation. This salvation will not be by demolishing their enemies but by the forgiveness of their sins. When John baptized people, it was because they believed in the One whose coming he announced. Through Jesus, by faith in Him (and turning away from all others), we have the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ coming is by the merciful compassions of our God. The forgiveness He gives clears the way for us to enter into the remarkable salvation that Luke’s gospel will present to us.
What Zachariah was seeing when he looked at his own newborn child and at the glow on Mary’s face was the coming of Jesus. He would be “the rising sun who will visit us from on high, to shine upon those sitting in darkness.” His light will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (See Simeon’s words in 2:30-32). His light leads us to peace. This peace is mentioned by the angels who spoke to the shepherds (2:14); was proclaimed by Jesus in the gospel (Acts 10:36); was to be announced in people’s homes (10:5); was announced and refused when Jesus entered Jerusalem as its King (Luke 19:38, 42); was pronounced by the resurrected Jesus (24:36); and was possessed by the early churches (Acts 9:31).
May we hear the Old Testament the way Luke did and rejoice at the coming of Christ. He is the light that guides our feet into peace.