We began our study of the Gospel of Luke by looking at some introductory matters and Luke’s Preface in 1:1-4. We won’t review the introductory matters; but in Luke 1:1-4, we learned a great deal about how Luke wrote his Gospel. First, we learned that he was not the first person to write a Gospel. Second, we learned that he was not himself an eyewitness to the events he was about to record; but rather he received the information from those who were eyewitnesses. Third, we learned that Luke did a careful, thorough, accurate, and orderly job of researching and writing his Gospel. And fourth we saw that Luke was not totally satisfied with the previous attempts to write Gospels.
As we continue with chapter one, we see that Luke begins his Gospel with the story of Jesus’ birth. Interestingly, the narrative is interwoven with the story of the birth of the Messianic Forerunner, John the Baptist. John was the one destined to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. Thus in 1:5-7 Luke begins his story with a prophecy of the Baptist’s birth.
Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah, which was the eighth of the 24 divisions set up back in King David’s time to tend to the tabernacle (1 Chron. 24:10). His wife, Elizabeth, also was a descendant of Aaron. That is, Like Zechariah, she was from a priestly family. Notice that both of them were “righteous” (NIV “upright”), which in those days meant that they kept the Mosaic Law. “But they had no children.”
In the Jewish culture of the day, children were a great blessing; and to be childless was considered displeasing to God and perhaps even punishment from God for sin. In the case of Zachariah and Elizabeth, Luke makes it clear that the issue was not sin. They were “righteous.” It simply was a matter of barrenness on the part of Elizabeth. And like Abraham and Sarah, they had the additional problem of being too old for children.
Each of the 24 divisions of priests was on duty only once every six months. The Law required the on-duty priests to make incense offerings every morning and evening (Ex. 30:7-8) as well as morning and evening blood sacrifices. It was considered to be a great honor to be the priest who entered the holy place to make the incense offering. So priests were chosen by lot to do it, and they could have the privilege only once in their lifetime.
As verses 8-9 indicate, once when Zechariah’s division was on duty, he “won the lottery” so to speak and was chosen to make the incense offering. Because the offering of incense symbolized prayer (Ps. 141:2), the people who had come to the temple that day were praying outside (v. 10). Zachariah’s duty would have been to place incense on the hot altar, which was located in the middle of the holy place, and to prostrate himself in prayer (Talmud 6:3). Presumably, it was at this point that Zechariah had the vision of an angel of the Lord standing by the altar. And as we see, Zechariah reacted with terror.
Verses 13-17 contain the angel’s message to Zechariah. Notice that the angel immediately reassured Zechariah. He has nothing to fear, and his prayer (exactly what he prayed is unknown) had been heard. Then the angel told Zachariah that his wife, Elizabeth would bear a son; and they were to name him John. The name John in Hebrew means “the Lord has been gracious.” The angel also indicates that they will have joy and that the rejoicing will extend beyond the limits of their family. “Many will rejoice at his birth.”
Then in verses 15-17 we see why. This child is a very special child. First, he will be great before the Lord (v. 15). Second, he is “never to drink wine or strong drink.” Some believe that this meant that John was to be a Nazirite from birth. Those who took a Nazirite vow, either for life or for a stated period, did not drink alcoholic beverages, cut their hair, or ever come in contact with a dead body (Num. 6:1-21). But it is not clear from this limited description that John was to be a Nazirite. Third, John is to be filled with the Spirit from before his birth, that is to say, in the womb. Clearly the hand of God was preparing this child for a crucial mission in the world.
In verses 16-17 we see what the mission is. First, he will turn his people back to the Lord. And second, he will prepare a people for the Lord. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Mal. 3:1, which reads, “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord.” Malachi went on in his prophecy, in chapter four, verse five, to declare, “Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Notice that the angel used some of the same language when speaking to Zechariah. Now the angel does not say that John is Elijah, but he does say that as John fulfills Malachi’s prophecy, he will do so “with the spirit and power of Elijah.”
The meaning of verses 17 is not perfectly clear, though we can understand the thrust of it. Turning “the hearts of parents to their children” seems to indicate a restoration of good family relationships. At least that was Malachi’s meaning. And the turning of “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” seems to indicate the restoration of people to God. Thus the verse suggests that these two things taken together, restoration of good family relationships and restoration of people to God, will constitute John’s preparation of the people for the coming of the Lord.
Zechariah’s immediate response to the angel’s message is unbelief. He wants to know how he will know the truth of this. In other words, he asks for a sign. After all, he and Elizabeth both are old (v. 18). Then the angel identifies himself as the archangel, Gabriel, and announces that Zechariah will be temporarily mute until the prophesied events come to pass. It is uncertain why Zechariah is punished in this way when others, for example Abraham and Hezekiah, asked for signs and were not punished. Perhaps the appearance of Gabriel was sign enough for Zachariah to believe. At any rate, the muteness becomes the sign for which Zachariah asked.
Meanwhile the crowd outside becomes uneasy, because Zechariah was taking longer than normal to complete his duties. Then when he comes out and is unable to speak, they surmise that he has seen a vision (vv. 21-22). After Zechariah returns home (v. 23), Elizabeth conceives as the angel predicted. And she credits God with taking away her reproach (vv. 23-24). However, for some unexplained reason, she secludes herself for five months. All sorts of speculations have been advanced to explain why, but that is all they are, speculations.
Next, in verses 26-29, comes the prophecy of Jesus’ birth, which in a literary sense parallels that of John’s. First of all, take note of how Luke intentionally ties together the two stories. He carefully notes that this story about Jesus and his mother, Mary, takes place in Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, and that the same angel who appeared to Zachariah appears to Mary. In addition, the structure of the two narratives is the same: an appearance by Gabriel, a message from Gabriel, and the results. And clearly both babies are miracle babies. John is a miracle child by normal human means (like Isaac), and Jesus is a miracle child by means of God’s direct creative activity (like Adam; indeed Paul later calls him a second Adam).
Mary was a very young virgin, probably in her early teens. She was engaged to a man named Joseph, who likely was much older than Mary. Joseph was of the house of David, and some scholars argue that Mary was as well. Thus Mary’s baby was from the royal family in contrast to John who was from a priestly family. In that culture engagements often took place as early as age 12, and they usually lasted about a year. The engagement was as binding as marriage and could only be broken by divorce. However no sex took place until the marriage.
Notice that Gabriel in his greeting declared Mary to be a “favored one.” She certainly was that, not only because God was with her, but also because, as we shall see, God chose her to be the mother of the Messiah.
Next, in verses 30-33, we see the angel’s message to Mary. The Church traditionally has called this the Annunciation, because it is Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of the great role for which God chose her. She is to give birth to a son, whom she is to name Jesus, which in Hebrew means “Yahweh saves”. Gabriel says that he will be great, that he will be the Son of the Most High (that is the Son of God), that he will reestablish the throne of David (that is the Messianic King), and that his reign will be eternal. Thus, although John will be great, Jesus will be much greater. Of course when we read this story, we cannot help but realize that this is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isa. 7:14, that a virgin would bear a son who would be Immanuel, God with us.
Finally, in verses 34-38, we see the results. Like Zachariah, Mary questions the angel’s revelation, but she does so in innocent faith. Gabriel explains to her that it will be a holy miracle, and that the child will be the Son of God. The angel then gives her a sign, namely, the pregnancy of her aged relative, Elizabeth. The point was that nothing is impossible with God. And with that, Mary yields herself to the will of God.
Turning to application, the most compelling points for me are two. First is the point that nothing is impossible with God. The pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary are similar, yet different miracles. In the case of Elizabeth, God miraculously opened the womb of a woman past the age of childbearing so that a pregnancy could occur. In the case of Mary, God miraculously created a pregnancy within her. Both pregnancies were miraculous. Although much mystery surrounds God’s use of his miracle-working power, we are encouraged by the fact that it always is available to him.
A second, related point is that no one ever is too old or too young for God to use. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, but God used them to bring into the world and raise the forerunner of the Messiah. Mary was quite young, but God used her to become the mother of the Messiah.