Getting Ready for the Savior

| Luke 1:5-7,11-13,57-60,65-66,76-79

Biblical Truth: God can use faithful believers to prepare others to believe in the Savior.

Exemplify Faithfulness:  Luke 1:5-7,11-13.

[5]  In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6]  They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. [7]  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. [11]  And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. [12]  Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. [13]  But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.”

 [NASU]

[5]  The meaning of Zechariah’s name, “Yahweh has remembered again,” fits the account, but Luke makes no effort to exploit the point, since he offers no translation for his audience, which included Gentiles. The name is common, especially in the Old Testament. Zechariah was a righteous and faithful Jewish servant of God. As a priest, he served in the temple for two one-week periods each year, excluding festival periods. Elizabeth was also of priestly blood, since she was a daughter of Aaron. It was very common for a Jewish priest to have a wife of the same background, and such a union was regarded as a sign of special privilege. The mention of Elizabeth’s lineage underlines her pious origins and strengthens the pedigree behind John the Baptist. The meaning of Elizabeth’s name is disputed. It means either “my God is the one by whom I swear” or “my God is my fortune”. The choice is not certain, but both possibilities indicate trust in God.

[6]  This couple not only had the right heritage, they also had a commendable spirituality. Both were righteous before God, an expression describing a moral righteousness that conforms to God’s standards, as the following reference to a blameless conduct shows. This use of righteous is different from Paul’s use of the term to refer to those who are positionally righteous before God [Rom. 3:21-31]. The righteousness described here is from the perspective of God’s law. In contrast to Pauline justification, righteousness here is concrete and visible and is seen in consistent acts. The phrase, sight of God, depicts God’s positive evaluation of their lives. They are faithful saints who have an approved walk before Him. The participle, walking, describes how John’s parents were obedient: they faithfully and consistently obeyed God. The adjective, all, shows that this couple’s righteousness covered the full range of God’s commandments. But this righteousness does not mean that they were without sin [see 1:19-20]. It just means that they lived a consistent life of obedience before God’s law.

[7]  The pious couple lacked children and were troubled as a result. The absence of children was generally seen as a reproach in Judaism and in the Old Testament. But the couple’s righteousness shows that their barrenness was not the result of judgment nor unrepentant sin. Rather, God had something special in mind, as He had with many of the great Old Testament saints who were born under similar conditions. They were childless because Elizabeth was barren. To make matters worse, both were now old. The age factor makes this account parallel to the Abraham-Sarah-Isaac birth account. There, as here, the birth is seen as God’s act, since the child is born despite the excessive age of the parents. The indications of the situation leading up to the announcement of John’s birth prompt the reader to expect great things from God’s hand as He begins the execution of the things accomplished [1:1]. God’s action now parallels the way God often introduced the greats of the Old Testament. A new great period begins with God’s grace toward this faithful couple.

[11]  The account returns to Zechariah, and the drama begins in earnest. As Zechariah goes to place the incense on the altar and offer up a prayer, an angel appears to him. He stands at the right of the altar, the side of favor. This position places the angel between the altar and candlestick in the Holy Place. The verb, appeared, is frequently used in Luke of supernatural appearances. The angelic report to announce a birth recalls Old Testament figures like Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and Samson. But those appearances were usually to the mothers of the children, not the fathers. The similarity with this Old Testament motif does, however, show that God is active for His people again.

[12]  When Zechariah saw the angel, he was terrified with fear. In the Scriptures, an encounter with the Divine or His agents usually produces fear. And Luke consistently records this response to God’s presence, His activity, or the presence of His messengers [Luke 1:29-30,65; 2:9; 5:8-10; 9:34; Acts 5:5,11]. The priest’s response is real terror, as is indicated by the verb, he was afraid. This response reveals that Zechariah is taken aback by the angel’s appearance. He does not expect it, nor does he view it as a common occurrence. Rather it places him in deep anxiety. The angel’s presence heightens the drama. God is at work.

[13]  The angel announces the child’s arrival with a word of comfort. The call not to fear is typical of an annunciation scene and seeks to relieve the anxiety that the encounter with God or His messenger has produced. As Zechariah is about to find out, there is no need to fear what the angel will say or do. He brings good news [1:19]. The reason that Zechariah need not fear is that his prayer has been heard. The birth announcement reflects Old Testament announcements. The father usually names a child; God’s naming a child shows that the child is important to His work. Luke is not concerned with the meaning of John’s name; but the name is appropriate enough, seeing that it means “Yahweh has been gracious.” The child is special and significant, as the angel’s further explanation will reveal.

Recognize God’s Activity:  Luke 1:57-60,65-66.

[57]  Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. [58]  Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. [59]  And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. [60]  But his mother answered and said, "No indeed; but he shall be called John." [65]  Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. [66]  All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, "What then will this child turn out to be?" For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.  [NASU]

[57-58]  The time of fulfillment has come. Elizabeth gives birth to the predicted son. The verse gives the first note of fulfillment of Gabriel’s words about the prophet-son’s arrival [1:13], even repeating the term bore. Word about the baby’s arrival draws a joyous crowd. They rejoice that God has removed Elizabeth’s barrenness. The idea of the Lord magnifying His mercy has Old Testament precedent [Gen. 19:19]. Both elements, the magnifying and the mercy of God, are key concepts in the infancy section. Earlier in this chapter, Mary magnified the Lord and His salvation in her hymn [46]. But here the emphasis is on God’s action in magnifying or displaying His mercy to Elizabeth by allowing her to bear a child. The theme of God’s mercy, which refers to His loving action, is repeated several times in this section [50,54,72]. God’s word is coming to pass, and some are rejoicing in it. Joy and praise run from the beginning of the infancy section to the end.

[59-60]  The time to name the child comes, and it yields a surprise for the gathered witnesses. The naming takes place in conjunction with the circumcision on the eighth day. The crowd’s expectation that the child might be named Zechariah is not surprising. A child was customarily named after a relative, usually the father or the grandfather. The Lord chose a different name, so that the custom of parents’ choosing did not apply. Elizabeth knows what the child is to be called and surprises the crowd. She rejects the crowd’s suggestion and shows her obedience to Gabriel’s giving of the name [13]. The passage highlights the family’s obedience in the face of societal custom. As with significant figures in the Old Testament, this is a special child, so he receives a special name.

[65-66]  The birth, the unusual name given to John, and the return of Zechariah’s speech brought a twofold response: fear and discussion. The realization that God was near produced the fear. Such a response to God’s presence is common. Word of the events that surrounded the birth spread through Judea. Another reaction follows. In addition to the neighborhood fear and the regional report, a question lingered for those who heard about these events. They set them in their heart, an expression that all who heard about the events had a strong and deep emotional reaction to the news. But along with the events’ lasting impression, they also raised a question about what role this child would have in God’s plan. To the popular response, Luke adds an explanatory note: the hand of the Lord was certainly with him. The figure of God’s hand is common in the Old Testament, especially when depicting deliverance. God’s power and guidance are with John, who is a special instrument for His service. God is at work, doing something very special, and the crowd senses it.

Help People Know About Salvation:  Luke 1:76-79.

[76]  "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE LORD TO PREPARE HIS WAYS; [77]  To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, [78]  Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, [79]  TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, to guide our feet into the way of peace."     [NASU]

[76]  Zechariah now turns his attention to his child. John prepares the way for God, who Himself comes to His people through Jesus’ messianic visitation. This verse begins the second major unit of the hymn, as the topic shifts from what God is doing for the righteous, to what He will do through John and the Messiah. The sectional shift is indicated by the change of topic and by the shift from aorist tenses to future tenses. This child shall be known as the prophet of the Most High. The Most High refers to God as the exalted transcendent deity and repeats the reference to him found in 1:32. Whereas Jesus is the Son, John is a prophet. Thus John’s subordination to Jesus is clear. The topic of John as a prophet reappears in 7:26-35, where the point is made that John is more than a prophet, because he has a special role. The latter text stresses that John is the last of the line of prophets who looked forward to Messiah’s coming. John, as a prophet, heralds the arrival of salvation and introduces the figure of this new era. The explanation of this prophet’s role comes next. John will go before the Lord for the purpose of preparing the way for Him. The verbs of 1:76, called and go, reflect Old Testament wording concerning the prophet.

[77]  John prepares the way for God through the message of salvation that he brings, a message that declares the forgiveness of sins. As Zechariah describes it, John’s basic task is to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people. The verb, give, connects to the end of verse 76 and explains how John is to prepare the way. Though the wording about salvation here has no exact Old Testament parallel, most see in the spiritual emphasis an allusion to the new covenant. The stress of the verse is on the intimate connection between salvation and forgiveness of sins. John brings an experience of forgiveness with his message, an experience his baptism portrayed, not because of the rite, but because of what the person brought to the rite – a repentant heart. In Luke’s eyes, the emphasis on forgiveness is also a major part of Jesus’ ministry. Luke presents the messages of John, Jesus, and the apostles as being in essential continuity with regard to a call to repentance. However, Jesus and the apostles have additional details because of the revelation associated with Jesus’ ministry.

[78]  One word, mercy, characterizes the entire plan. Both the forerunner’s and Messiah’s tasks are the concrete expression of God’s mercy. The phrase tender mercy of our God relates to the description of John’s call. As 1:78b also makes clear, the entirety of Messiah’s coming also occurs in the context of God’s mercy. Mercy as the ground of God’s actions repeats a key theme [1:50,54,72; Eph. 2:4]. Salvation is ultimately an act of God’s mercy, but the sphere of Messiah’s ministry is also the mercy of God. The visit of the Sunrise from on high introduces a new figure. By God’s mercy, God’s regal Messiah visits and serves people as a guiding heavenly light, leading them into God’s way of peace.

[79]  Zechariah concludes the hymn and describes Messiah’s mission of guiding the lost, those dwelling in darkness, into God’s way. The task is presented by the two verbs: shine and guide. Both verbs explain the role of the rising sun’s visitation, but in addition they seem to describe in particular the purpose for his coming. The Old Testament commonly pictures God as a light who shines on His people and enlightens them. The image of light appearing in the darkness to aid people is also common, whether the light is God Himself or an agent of God. The idea of Messiah’s shining describes his coming to humans, his teaching on their behalf, and his ministering to them. The need for such ministry is described in bleak terms. People sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. These Old Testament images appear to refer to those who are oppressed spiritually and physically, like Israel before the exodus. They refer to people locked up in ignorance, on the edge of death. Threatened with rejection, they lack righteousness, do not demonstrate justice, and stand in need of release and forgiveness.

Messiah’s task also involves guidance. The purpose of his appearing is to lead others to God, into the way of peace. The consequence of deliverance is a full life, which is able to serve God. The description of salvation in terms of peace is another common theme in Luke. The Old Testament idea of peace refers to a person’s total well-being as a result of being in harmony with God. Luke’s picture differs little from the Old Testament. For Israel, the way to peace was through the guidance provided by the Messiah.

In 1:76-79, John and Jesus come by God’s mercy to God’s people. John will prepare the way for God’s visitation in Messiah. He will instruct them about salvation and the forgiveness of sins. But Messiah will go beyond John. For he will serve like a bright guiding light that takes the people out of the darkness and brings them into God’s way. John will proclaim salvation, but Jesus can take them into it.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does Luke mean when he describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as righteous and walking blamelessly in verse 1:6? Is he saying that they are without sin?

2.         Compare Zechariah’s response in 1:12,18-20 and in 1:64. What caused the change? What was the twofold response of the crowd to these events? What was lacking in the crowd’s response to the way God was magnifying His mercy?

3.         Look at Zechariah’s prophecy in 1:76-79. What was the role that John was to play in relation to the coming of the Messiah?

4.         How do the two verbs, shine and guide, in verse 79 describe the mission of the Messiah?

5.         Why does Luke emphasize that God’s tender mercy must characterize His entire plan of salvation?

References:

Luke, Darrell Bock, Baker Books.

Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Norval Geldenhuys, Eerdmans.

Gospel According to Luke, William Hendriksen, Baker Books.