1:1 Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 1:2 like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. 1:3 So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 1:4 so that you may know for certain the things you were taught.
Luke’s and John’s statements of purpose
It is instructive to compare Luke 1:1-4 with Jn 20:30f
(Eugene E. Lemcio, in Dunn & McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research)
Note the absolute conviction expressed here concerning the truthfulness of what is about to be related:- ‘Things which have been fulfilled among us … from the beginning … eyewitnesses … ministers of the word … a perfect understanding of all things from the very first … an orderly account … that you may know the certainty … of those things in which you were instructed.’
Bock (IVPNTC) notes four things about Luke’s approach:-
- he investigated (parēkolouthēkoti) the story. This appears to refer to the fact he studied his topic. Luke was not himself an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. So only his study could produce such a work. But we should not think of Luke in a library here. He would have traveled through the community gathering information, both from recorded texts and from conversations with others who had seen Jesus.
- he went back to the beginning (anōthen). This is why the story starts with John the Baptist. This Jewish prophet was the starting point of the renewal of God’s activity, as Luke 1–2 will make clear.
- his study was thorough: he says he studied everything (pasin). Though what we have in Luke is surely a select collection of material, the Gospel writer wants it known that he did his homework. Luke was very concerned to get the story right, to be accurate in his portrayal of Jesus.
- Luke did his work carefully (akribōs). As the Gospel itself reveals, Luke’s work is thought out and precise in its development of the story.
Many have undertaken – Much emphasis has been placed on the reliability or otherwise of oral tradition in passing down accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. But ‘there is no a priori reason why written records of Jesus’ teaching and actions may not have been preserved from shortly after the events themselves. Most scholars in fact speak of a written source or sources (in addition to Mark) used by Matthew and Luke. It is not clear why this lost ‘document’ (known for convenience as ‘Q’) should be the only or the earliest such record. May we not give more weight to Luke’s statement (Lk 1:1) that ‘many’ had already attempted to compile accounts of Jesus’ ministry?’ (R.T. France)
Things that have been fulfilled among us – They have not merely ‘happened’; they have been ‘fulfilled’. Luke shows his awareness at the outset of God’s redemptive purpose. This signals that he will have a theological interest as well as a historical interest. More specifically, what has been ‘fulfilled’ are God’s promises as recorded in the prophecies, patterns and types of the Old Testament. Luke shows a keen interest in the OT, with his first two chapters being steeped in Scripture, and his last giving us Jesus’ own confirmation of how ‘all Scripture’ testifies to him.
For many years, scholars have debated whether a Gospel should be considered a form of ancient biography. Although there may be something to be said for this, Luke here places stress not on the life of Jesus per se, but on ‘the things that have been fulfilled among us’ (cf. Acts 2:11) (Garland).
Scholars are undecided on whether the ‘things that have been fulfilled among us’ covers Acts as well as Luke’s Gospel. However, it appears clear enough that by the time Luke reached the end of his Gospel he already had his second volume in mind.
‘Among us’ tells us this this did not happen in a corner. There were plenty of witnesses, many of whom were still alive at the time of writing. ‘Unlike Mohammed, who claimed to have received his revelations privately in a cave, or Joseph Smith, who based his new religion on his supposed discovery of inscribed plates that conveniently went missing after he translated them, Jesus was a public figure whose life and works were lived out in the open.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary) Luke’s claims would have been open to scrutiny then (“If you don’t believe me, ask them”), and they are open to critical appraisal now.
Handed down is the language of oral tradition, and the same expression is used in 1 Cor 15:1-3,23.
This expression ‘is likely a technical term borrowed from the rabbinic practice of carefully entrusting sacred traditions to students of religion who were in turn charged with preserving and passing them on for future generations. Great emphasis was laid on keeping the accounts accurate.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)
Luke makes it clear that he is using three main sources: eyewitness accounts, oral traditions, and documentary material.
Eyewitnesses – αὐτοπται, autoptai. The source of our word ‘autopsy’. Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) explains that the word does not have a forensic connotation in the Greek, but simply refers to ‘firsthand observers of the events’. It refers to the disciples who were with Jesus throughout his ministry and also to those who witnessed the various events that took place both in his infancy and his adult life. Cf. 2 Pet 1:16, where the word used is epoptes. See also Jn 1:14; Acts 1:1-3, 21-22; John 15:27; 1 Cor 15:1-8; Heb 2:3-4; 1 Pet 5:1-4; 1 Jn 1:1-4.
On eyewitness testimony generally in the NT, see Luke 1:1–3; John 19:35; 20:30–31; 21:24; Acts 10:39–42; 1 Cor. 15:6–8; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1–3).
‘Luke’s sources may include Peter (Lk 5:3–8; 24:34), the women who followed Jesus from *Galilee (Lk 8:2–3; 23:49) and other principal eyewitnesses to the story of Jesus such as Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, *Mary the mother of Jesus (Lk 1:5–80), *John the Baptist (Lk 3:1–20) and the *apostles who bore ongoing witness to Jesus subsequent to his departure (Lk 22:48; cf. Acts 1:21–22).’ (DJG, 2nd ed , art. ‘Witness’)
It is reasonable to assume, with Bauckham, that Luke includes Mark’s Gospel under this heading, since he would have regarded that Gospel as consisting substantially of the eyewitnesses testimony of Peter. In fact, around 40% of Luke’s Gospel overlaps with Mark.
Bauckham further argues that the material that is peculiar to Luke is based on the eyewitness testimony of those women disciples who accompanied Jesus during his ministry (see esp. Lk 8:1-3) and were witnesses to his resurrection, Lk 24:10.
‘Eyewitness testimony was highly regarded in his day, for many ordinary purposes and especially in Roman law. There was a time, too, when eyewitness testimony was highly regarded by historical researchers. It was an important feature of Thucydides history, for example, that he himself played a leading part in the earlier stages of the Peloponnesian War which he records.’ (F.F. Bruce, in Jesus of Nazareth, Saviour and Lord)
Writing in the 2nd ed. of DJG, Joel Green questions whether Luke was intending to stress historical veracity: ‘Someone might claim that Luke 1:1–4 evidences Luke’s concern with eyewitnesses (autoptai) and historical veracity, but this is a consequence of reading Luke’s preface within the boundaries of modern history writing; in antiquity, his reference to autoptai would signify not seeking or sifting eyewitness testimony, but rather firsthand experience of the sites of historical incidents, and his preface would mark his commitment to unveiling the significance (not the veracity) of the narrative he had penned.’ Unfortunately, Green does not explain how he arrives at this interpretation, nor (although he does provide some references to other works) does he state what the underlying evidence might be.
They were eyewitnesses from the first, or ‘from the beginning’: that is to say, Luke’s witnesses could go back to the very first events that he records. However, Bauckham thinks that these events begin with the ministry of John the Baptist (chapter 3), and regards chapters 1 and 2 as a preliminary account, designed to give his story background and context.
‘If a reader were then to read the Gospel keeping an eye out for who these eyewitnesses might be, the first point at which he or she would find a character who continues to appear through the narrative would be Luke’s first reference to Peter (4:38). The eyewitnesses of Luke’s preface must include Peter as at least prominent among them.’ (Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 2nd ed.)
Servants – A hyperetes is, in Lk 4:20, an official in charge of the synagogue scrolls. In the more informal setting of the early Christian community, he was probably an accredited witness to the traditions. Paul alludes to such accredited witnesses when he says that he faithfully passed on the traditions he had received, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23; 15:1–3. ‘It was only with the major social disruption of the Jewish-Roman war that the normal life, and story-telling, of the primitive Palestinian Christian communities would have been broken up. That, of course—rather than the usual explanation that the world had not after all come to an end—provides the perfect reason, sociologically and historically, for the committing of the traditions to writing.’ (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God).
Bauckham thinks it almost certain that ‘eyewitnesses’ and ‘servants of the word’ refers to one group of people, not two. Cf. Acts 1:21f, where those who have been eyewitnesses are thereby qualified to be ministers of the word. Comparing the two passages, it is likely that the scope of Lk 1:2 includes members of the Twelve, even if it is not limited to them.
I…have carefully investigated – This claim by Luke is regarded by Moslems as weighing heavily against the inspiration of Scripture. For them, inspiration implies divine dictation, and is therefore incompatible with careful research. The biblical doctrine of inspiration, on the other hand, allows for a fully human, as well as a fully divine aspect to Scripture.
Bauckham cites recent scholarship to the effect that ‘investigated’ is probably a mistranslation of the underlying Greek. The word literally means ‘followed’, and Luke’s meaning is that he has thoroughly understood all that the eyewitnesses have passed on to him. Still, it is clear from everything else that Luke says that he has the testimony of eyewitnesses as well as written sources at his disposal.
From the beginning – starting his account, not from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, or even from his birth, but from the end of the 400-year silence and the announcement of the birth of the forerunner.
According to John J. Rice, M.C. Tenney (and most other scholars) mistranslated anōthen, asserting that it does not mean ‘from the beginning’, but, ‘from above.’ ‘Hence Luke is saying that the source of his material is God himself, who gave it “from above,” not earthly people who guarded the traditions from the beginning and passed them on to Luke.’ The thrust of Rice’s argument was that Tenney over-stressed the human element in Holy Scripture. It is pretty clear, however, that Rice himself held to a virtually dictationist theory of inspiration. (See Bible Interpreters of the 20th Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices, art. Merrill Chapin Tenney). Although it is true that anōthen can mean ‘from above’ (as in Jn 3:3), the parallelism with v2 (‘from the beginning’), along with the general tenor of what Luke says here, undermines Rice’s theory.
According to A. J. Köstenberger, ‘the term anōthen can mean either “from above,” whether figuratively (Jn 3:7, 31; 19:11; Jas 1:17; 3:15, 17) or literally (“from top to bottom” [Mt 27:15 par.; Jn 19:23]), or “from the beginning” (Lk 1:3; Acts 26:5; Gal 4:9).’ (DJG, 2nd ed., art. ‘New Birth’.
An orderly account – ‘We must carefully observe that this expression does not imply that Luke followed the chronological order of the chief events in our Lord’s history, more than the other Evangelists. It rather signifies that he grouped together, and classified in an orderly way, the principal facts which he was inspired to record. Watson remarks, “Luke has less regard to chronological order than Matthew or Mark, and rather classifies the events, than narrates them in a series – a method of composing history not uncommon with the writers of antiquity.” A. Clarke gives an example of this in the life of Augustus, by Suetonius. Cambell says that the word translated ‘in order,’ does not necessarily relate to time. The proper import of it is ‘distinctly, particularly, as opposed to confusedly, generally.” (J.C. Ryle)
Luke’s account is ‘orderly’ in a variety of ways, including that the progression from Galilee to Jerusalem dominates the structure of the narrative.
Luke does give many indications of time in his Gospel, Lk 1:5,26,36,56,59; 2:42; 3:23; 9:28; 22:1,7 etc. But at other times his account is orderly in the sense that he maintains a logical and thematic unity in presenting his material.
‘Ancient biographers and historians did not feel constrained to write from detached and so-called objective viewpoints. They did not give equal treatment to all periods of an individual’s life. They felt free to write in topical as well as chronological sequence. They were highly selective in the material they included, choosing that which reinforced the morals they wished to inculcate. In an era which knew neither quotation marks nor plagiarism, speakers’ words were abbreviated, explained, paraphrased and contemporized in whatever ways individual authors deemed beneficial for their audiences. All of these features occur in the Gospels, and none of them detracts from the Evangelists’ integrity.’ (Blomberg, DJG, 1st ed.)
‘The primary cultural milieu for the gospels is Jewish, and prominent among Jewish literary techniques of the early Christian period is midrash. This category has been applied to the gospels, with the suggestion that the source of much that they attribute to Jesus is a scripturally-inspired imagination rather than historical tradition. It must be insisted, however, (a) that ‘midrash’ (however that slippery word is defined) was far from being the dominant factor in Jewish writing about recent history, however strongly it may have influenced their retelling of ancient, sacred stories, and (b) that while the framework around which midrash was composed was a pre-existing sacred text, the framework of the gospels is a narrative about Jesus, into which scriptural elements may be introduced as the narrative suggests them, rather than vice versa. There may be much to be learned by comparing the gospel writers’ methods with those of midrashists, but there is no meaningful sense in which the gospels in themselves can be described in literary terms as midrash.
It is in fact widely agreed that there is no pre-existing literary category into which the gospels will fit. While they may use elements of existing techniques, and may in various respects resemble other genres, in themselves they are sui generis, a specifically Christian literary development. This means that their aims and methods are to be assessed not by extrapolation from those of other literature, but by studying them in their own terms.’ (R.T. France)
Most excellent Theophilus – It is the same expression which Paul used in addressing Felix and Festus, Acts 24:3; 26:5. Although we know nothing else about Theophilus, it is clear from Luke’s form of address that he was a person of high social standing.
‘Theophilus, likely the patron who financed Luke’s research and the publication of Luke-Acts, was apparently an interested observer in the life of Christ or perhaps even a disciple. He may have come to fear that the persecution of the church described in Acts was God’s judgment against the church for having taken an originally Jewish message out to Gentiles in too loose a manner. If this was his suspicion, Luke assured him that the Gentile mission was God’s plan and not a compromise. In addition, in the ancient world a new religious movement was generally less well-received because it was not time tested. Innovation in religion was frowned upon. Luke showed that though the Christian faith seemed new, it was rooted in promises that went back deep into the ancient past. Luke’s efforts were aimed at supplying Theophilus (and by extension you and me) with a true, reliable “narrative about the events” Jesus fulfilled among first-century observers in Israel.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)
So that you may know the certainty of the things – ‘Some writers may toy with the fancy of a “Christ-myth,” but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the “Christ-myth”.’ (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents)
This is a clear claim to accuracy. ‘[Luke] may not have used footnotes as we do today, nor did he have a tape recorder to record Jesus’ speeches, but he lived in a community that passed on tradition with care and was sensitive to telling the story accurately in a summarized form.’ (Bock, NIVAC)
The things you have been taught – Suggesting that Theophilus had already received some instruction in the Christian faith. France says that the underlying word came to be used for Christian catachesis, and so it is possible that the teaching referred to here was systematic pre-baptismal teaching to Theophilus as a new convert.
‘The amount of detail in Luke-Acts devoted to faithfulness, Jewish-Gentile relations and clinging to the hope of Jesus’ return suggests a Gentile who was experiencing doubt about his association with the new community. This setting is also suggested in the controversy over table fellowship, the issue of Gentile inclusion, the detailed examples of how rejection was faced in the early church and the amount of attention devoted to ethical exhortation. Theophilus appears to be a man of rank. (Lk 1:3) Having associated himself with the church, he is undergoing doubt whether in fact he really belongs in this racially mixed and heavily persecuted community. The Gospel openly includes Theophilus in the new community, calling him to remain faithful, committed and expectant, even in the midst of intense Jewish rejection.’ (DJG)
It is, of course, quite wrong to regard Luke’s Gospel (or any of the others) as biographies in the modern sense. Luke’s purpose is not so much to present a complete account of the life of Jesus, nor yet to write a piece of apologetics, but, as he states in v4, to provide sufficient information about the life, teaching and work of Jesus that his reader(s) may be convinced of the truth of what they have already been taught.
What Luke sets before us, then, is not merely ‘the reasonableness or the truth of ethical and spiritual ideas, nor even the holiness and beauty of a life, but the testimony of a religious society to one in whom redemption had been experienced, and for whom faith, obedience, love and worship are unqualifiedly claimed.’ (W. Manson, Q by Geldenhuys)
‘Gospel studies have often introduced a false dichotomy between history and theology. One group of scholars seeks to harmonize all of the data of the four Gospels in order to create a composite, comprehensive life of Christ which blurs the unique emphases of each Gospel in its own right. Another group so emphasizes the theological distinctives of each individual Evangelist that it rejects the possibility of constructing any kind of plausible harmony. The two clearest statements in the Gospels about their authors’ own intentions suggest that history and theology both played important roles. (Lk 1:1-4; Jn 20:31) In fact, it is often precisely when one recognizes the theological emphases of a particular Gospel that one can understand why it differs from the others and can see those differences as complementary rather than contradictory.’ (Blomberg, DJG)
Birth Announcement of John the Baptist
1:5 During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and he had a wife named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 1:7 But they did not have a child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.
Wilcock (BST) remarks that the stories with which this Gospel introduces its universal message have an exotic flavour. ‘It is as though one were to arrive at a great international airport, to find all its directions signs posted up in Hebrew only.’ Wilcock lists two of these features:-
- Supernatural beliefs. Luke, careful historian that he was, does not hesitate to tell us of angels, predictions, and miracles. And, with the frequent mention of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:15, 35, 41f., 67, ‘here, unmistakably, is another world breaking into this one.’
- Alien culture. From 1:5 onwards in these early passages, Luke’s language has a very Jewish flavour. He transports us back to the Judaean kingdom of Herod, and clothes his characters in Jewish religious practices, complete with priests, temple-worship, and circumcision.
But it is precisely in its supernatural character, and its Jewishness, that the gospel both challenges and is challenged. The gospel is a supernatural breaking-in to our world, but one that is rooted in the particularity of a certain time and a certain nation.
Although some scholars think that Luke’s Gospel originally began at Lk 3:1, and that these birth stories are later editions, their content is entirely consistent with the rest of the Gospel. Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that ‘these early stories introduce many Lucan themes: continuity with Judaism, the line of David, God’s favor on the poor and oppressed, and the importance of Jerusalem and the Temple.’
Whereas Matthew explicitly quotes from the OT to argue for the truth of the Christian gospel, Luke deals much more in allusions. Chapter 1 contains many such allusions, including Exod. 30:7; Dan. 10:7, 12; Num. 6:3; Mal. 3:1, 4-5; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; and Judg. 5:24. (Harper’s Bible Commentary).
Luke wants us to know that
- John and Jesus are ‘twin agents of God’s salvation’.
- John is Jesus’ forerunner, in every respect and from conception onwards.
- Jesus is superior to John in every respect. John’s birth is unusual; Jesus’ is altogether unique. John will be ‘great’ before the Lord, Lk 1:15; Jesus will be called Lord, Lk 2:11.
Maximus of Turin links the beginning and end of John’s life: ‘I do not know what is the most important thing that we should preach—that he [John the Baptist] was wonderfully born or more wonderfully slain—for he was born as a prophecy and murdered for truth. By his birth he announced the coming of the Savior, and by his death he condemned the incest of Herod. This holy and righteous man, who was born in an uncommon way as the result of a promise, merited from God that he should depart this world by an uncommon death—that he should by confessing the Lord lay aside his body, which he had received as a gift from the Lord. Therefore John did everything by the will of God, since he was born and died for the sake of God’s work.’ (ACCS)
Here begins the ‘orderly account’ that Luke has promised. This new section ‘is separated from the dedicatory preface (1:1-4) by a shift both from literary Greek to heavily Semitic Greek and from studied secularity to a tone of intense Jewish piety.’ (WBC) The author launches into a comparison of John and Jesus, showing how both represent the fulfillment of promises made by God. John the Baptist is like Elijah, (Lk 1:17) but Jesus has Davidic roles to fulfill and possesses a unique supernatural origin (Lk 1:31-35). John is forerunner, but Jesus is fulfillment. Everything in Luke 1-2 points to the superiority of Jesus.
In fact, the contrast between the classical Greek of Lk 1:1-4 and the Hebraic style of Lk 1:5-2:40 suggests that one or more Semitic sources underly the latter passage (DJG, art. ‘Birth of Jesus’; see also the discussion in Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed., p47).
Jesus’ birth takes place in humble circumstances, but all the figures surrounding his birth are pious and responsive to the hope of God. Only the word of Simeon to Mary gives an ominous ring. (Lk 2:34-35) Jesus is the salvation of God (Lk 2:30), but in the midst of hope is the reality that fulfillment comes mixed with pain. This section, dominated by OT allusions, opens the Gospel with the twin themes of fulfillment and divine direction. These themes continue throughout the Gospel.’ (DJG)
The passage which begins here and goes on to the end of ch 2 is said to be the most Hebraistic (Aramaic) in Luke’s writings. This would be consistent with a use of written or oral sources, such as Mary herself might have provided. Luke, as a doctor, would have been particularly interest in the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. Accordingly, Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Mary’s point of view, whereas Matthew gives an account from Joseph’s perspective.
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel form a diptych which demonstrates the parallels between John and Jesus but also the subordination of the former to the latter.
‘Taken alone, the Baptist infancy material would celebrate the greatness of John and his connections with the eschatological purposes of God. But Luke does not allow us even for a moment to take them alone. He interrupts the Baptist account immediately after its first episode to set alongside it the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, follows this up with the meeting of the two mothers, and has the prophecy of Zechariah to be more a celebration of the Davidic savior than of his prophetic precursor, John. The significance of the account of John’s origins is controlled by being clamped closely together with that of Jesus’ origins (the two promised sons represent the one purpose of God). By this means, at every stage, as the accounts are allowed to unfold in parallel, it is shown that this one than whom none greater has been born of woman (Lk 7:28) is, nevertheless, to be totally overshadowed by the coming of the one who is mightier than he (Lk 3:16).’ (WBC)
Nevertheless, as France says, ‘the prominence of John the Baptist in this introductory section (as indeed in the rest of the Gospel [Lk 3:1–20; 7:18–35; 9:7–9, 19; 16:16; 20:1–8]) warns us against the common tendency to treat him merely as a “warm-up act” before the main character comes on the stage.’
Herod king of Judea – Herod the Great reigned from 37-4 BC. He was only half Jewish, and was installed by the Roman senate as king of the Jews. Eager to please the Romans, he beautified the temple in Jerusalem, but placed a Roman eagle over the entrance. It was this Herod who ordered the massacre of children in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus, who was being heralded as the new ‘king of the Jews’, Mt 2:16-18. The time referred to here was probably around 7 or 6 BC.
The reference to Herod is, of course, partly to fix the historical background to the events surrounding the births of John and Jesus. But also, it is to show how far the sceptre had departed from Judah, before Shiloh should come, Gen 49:10; how low the family of David had sunk, prior to the coming of the Messiah, Isa 53:2. We should not despair of spiritual revival, even when the true faith has long ceased to be nationally recognised or protected.
A Jewish priest was employed at the temple, managing its upkeep, teaching the Scriptures, and leading worship. There were at this time around 20,000 priests in the country. Therefore, they served on a roster, 1 Chron 24:1-6.
The division of Abijah – From the time of David, the priests were organised into 24 divisions, Abija being the head of one of these priestly families, Ne 12:12. Actually, only four of these divisions, or courses, had returned from the Exile, Ezr 2:36-39, but these had been divided up to make the 24 again, retaining the old names. Each division was on duty twice a year, for a week at a time.
Elizabeth was also of priestly descent. To be a priest and married to the daughter of a priest was a double honour for Zacharias.
Upright – As the context makes clear, they are righteous in the sense that ‘they embody genuine religion according to the norms of the Old Covenant’ (EDBT)
Blamelessly – Of course, they were not sinless (as Lk 1:18-20 shows). But Luke mentions their relative blamelessness in order to indicate that their childlessness was not due to sin.
‘The terms Luke uses to describe Zechariah and Elizabeth are the same that the Old Testament used for some other righteous people, such as Noah (Gen 6:9), Abraham (Gen 17:1) and Job (Job 1:1). One who reads those narratives understands that although they may not have been morally perfect (Gen 9:21) or complete (Job 42:3–6), they did not violate any stated commandments in the law. Thus Luke uses these terms to challenge the misconception that could arise from conventional wisdom concerning barrenness (Lk 1:7).’ (IVP Background Commentary)
Bock (IVP Application Commentary) notes that Elizabeth felt ‘disgrace’, v25, but not bitterness. When good people suffer disappointment, they need to rely even more on God. ‘Whether it be the loss of a child to premature death, a financial collapse, dealing with a child who falls into calamity or serious sin, or an unfortunate accident, the hard times are not always self-explanatory. God never guarantees that life will come without pain and disappointment. The central issue is how we handle it. Bitterness will yield the fruit of anger and frustration, sapping the joy from life. Trust and dependence will cause us to find fulfillment in ways we would not even have considered otherwise. For example, how many childless couples have made a life out of ministering to other children, either through service in the church or adopting a child who no longer had parents who cared? Sometimes a roadblock is not a dead end, but a fresh turn in the road.’
See here that individual faith can still flourish when a nation is at a low ebb. Heaven had been silent for 400 years; there had been no prophetic word, no new revelation. This couple had grace and faith when such qualities were rare. They observed the ancient ceremonies from the heart, when the great majority had reduced them to their mere outward form. Indeed, their piety must mean that, like Simeon and Anna in the next chapter, they were looking for the ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ (Lk 2:25, 38).
France: ‘The prominence of John the Baptist in this introductory section (as indeed in the rest of the Gospel [Lk 3:1–20; 7:18–35; 9:7–9, 19; 16:16; 20:1–8]) warns us against the common tendency to treat him merely as a “warm-up act” before the main character comes on the stage.’
‘Such a household as that of Zacharias and Elisabeth would have all that was beautiful in the religion of the time: devotion towards God; a home of affection and purity; reverence towards all that was sacred in things Divine and human; ungrudging, self-denying, loving charity to the poor; and tenderest regard for the feelings of others…above all, intense faith and hope in the higher and better future of Israel.’ (Edersheim)
Often, although not invariably, great men and women of God are born of godly parents. So Augustine, Luther, and Wesley.
Well along in years – could mean 60 years of age or more.
A number of notable Bible characters were born to relatively aged parents: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, Samuel, and John. In this way God makes the child especially precious to the parents. In keeping his people waiting for a long-for blessing, God sometimes rewards their patience by doubling its worth when it comes.
1:8 Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 1:9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense.
Here is the background to the scene, derived principally from Edersheim. It was the time of the Morning Sacrifice. As the great gates of the temple swung open, a triple blast from the silver trumpets of the Priests awakened the city from its slumber. The Priest on the highest pinnacle of the temple had watched for the first light of dawn, and then given the signal for the daily services to begin. There would have been about 50 priests on duty, their various responsibilities apportioned by lot.
He was serving as priest before God – JFB remark that heavenly visitations usually come to us while we are discharging our duty. So it was with Elijah and Elisha, 2 King 2:11, and the two on the road to Emmaus, Lk 24:50f.
There were as many as 18,000 priests, and the opportunity to serve in this way would only occur once in a life-time. It was, accordingly, a great privilege.
One of the duties of the priest was to burn incense twice a day on the altar in the temple. The altar was situated inside the sanctuary, in the holy place (not the holy of holies). For any one individual, this privilege occurred very infrequently, and sometimes never, since it was determined by lot. On this particular day Zechariah had been chosen to burn the incense. This was the biggest moment of his life. When the incense burned, the people prayed, the smoke of the incense symbolising the rising of the prayers to heaven.
Luke has a number of temple passages peculiar to himself: Lk 1:5-23; 2:22-35,36-38,41-51; 18:9-14; 21:37-38; 24:53.
1:10 Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering.
Incense – A mixture of aromatic spices prepared to be burned in connection with the offering of sacrifices. (Ex 25:6) The word also refers to the smoke produced by the burning. The incense used in worship was to be prepared according to exacting specifications and was to be offered only by the high priest.
The assembled worshipers – Probably faithful Jews who expressed their piety by waiting outside the temple while the sacrifice was offered.
1:11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him. 1:12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 1:14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 1:15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 1:16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 1:17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”
An angel of the Lord appeared to him – soon to identify himself as Gabriel. See Dan 10, where the same angel appears with a similar message.
The coming of John the Baptist was announced by a supernatural visitor. We should appreciate the importance of the appearance of the angel and of his message. To any pious Jew, it was a momentous event. It was the first communication from God to Israel for four centuries. It was the harbinger of the long-expected Messiah, the seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
Angels appear quite frequently in the OT to announce important births, Gen 16:10–11; 17:15–19; 18:10–15; 25:23; Judg 13:3–21. The present case is unusual, however, in that it is to the father, rather than to the mother, that the angel appeared.
‘[Angels] take a deep interest in the work of Christ, and the salvation which Christ has provided. They sung high praise when the Son of God came down to make peace by his own blood between God and man. They rejoice when sinners repent, and sons are born again to our Father in heaven. They delight to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation. Let us strive to be like them, while we are upon earth, – to be of their mind and to share their joys.’ (Ryle)
Augustine: ‘The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah, not to Elizabeth. Why? Because it was through Zechariah that John was going to be in Elizabeth. The angel, in announcing that John was going to come by being born, went not to the receptacle of the womb but to the source of the seed. He announced they would both have a son, but he made the announcement to the father. John, after all, was going to come from the marriage of male and female. And once more the same Gabriel came to Mary—not to Joseph. The angel came to the one from whom that flesh was to begin, from whom it was to take its starting point.’ (ACCS)
Standing at the right side – suggestive of favour and blessing, rather than threat or foreboding (Stein, NAC).
Ryle quotes Bishop Hall as saying, “The presence of angels is no novelty, but their apparition. They are always with us, but rarely seen, that we may awfully respect their messages when they are seen.”
The ministry of angels is a deep and mysterious subject. Of the Gospel writers, it is Luke who takes particular notice of them. From him we learn that angels were very active during the time of our Lord’s earthly life, and especially at the time of his entry into this world. This fact testifies eloquently to the uniqueness of the person and work of the Lord Jesus. If these mighty beings take such interest in the birth, life, and sufferings of Christ, then so should we. If angels rejoice to see a sinner repenting, then so should we.
‘God comes at last when we think he is farthest off.’
‘God comes to see without ringing the doorbell.’ Spanish Proverb
The altar of incense – It was of cedar, overlaid with gold 1 Kings 6:20 1 Chron 28:18 was a cubit (about two feet) in length and breadth, and two cubits high; it stood in the Holy Place before the veil which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.
‘The celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him – somewhat further away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar – that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated, that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighbourhood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship, in which record of past deliverance, longing for mercies promised in the future, and entreaty for present blessing and peace, seemed the ingredients of the incense, that rose in a fragrant cloud of praise and prayer. Deep silence had fallen on the worshippers, as if they watched to heaven the prayers of Israel, ascending in the cloud of “odours” that rose from the golden altar to the Holy Place. (Rev 5:8 8:1-4) Zachariah waited, until he saw the incense kindling. Then he also would have “bowed down in worship,” and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps. On the right (or south) side of the altar, between it and the golden candlestick, stood what he could not but recognise as an Angelic form. (Edersheim)
Fear fell upon him – such was the reaction of Moses at the burning bush, of Daniel at the river of Hiddekel, of the women at the tomb, of John on the island of Patmos. To come face to face with a messenger from God leads to a sense of awe arising from a feeling of weakness and sinfulness.
Matthew Henry wisely comments: ‘Ever since man sinned, his mind has been unable to bear the glory of such revelations and his conscience afraid of evil tidings brought by them; even Daniel himself could not bear it, Dan. 10:8. And for this reason God chooses to speak to us by men like ourselves, whose terror shall not make us afraid.’
Ryle reminds us that Moses, Daniel, the women at Jesus’ tomb, and John on Patmos, all showed fear in the presence of an angel. ‘If even the righteous are troubled by a sudden vision of friendly spirit, where will the ungodly appear, when the angels come forth to father them like tares for the burning? The fears of the saints are groundless, and endure but for a little season. The fears of the lost, when once aroused, will prove well-grounded, and will endure for evermore.’
“Do not be afraid” – We often find angels beginning their messages in this way.
Your prayer has been heard – lit. ‘was heard’. This prayer may have been his oft-repeated prayer for a child, or the prayer that would have been just uttered, for the redemption of Israel. Certainly, much of the angel’s message deals the the latter. But perhaps both are meant, for, as it turns out, they are intimately connected with one another. God deals with two requests – one national and the other personal – in one (Bock).
Zachariah, now being well advanced in years, had perhaps long since ceased to pray for offspring. God always answers prayer in his own way and in his own time. Prayers are not necessarily rejected, because their answers are long delayed. We should remember this when we kneel down to pray. God used an ‘impossible’ situation not only to deal graciously with Zachariah and Elizabeth, but to bring the forerunner of Christ into the world.
‘The awesome once-in-a-lifetime privilege of serving in the temple must have carried Zechariah’s mind beyond the personal tragedy of childlessness to the even more poignant longings of the nation to which he belonged. In short, we may take it that his prayer was for the coming of Israel’s Saviour; and the ‘good news’ which the angel brings is not so much that Elizabeth shall bear a son, as that she shall bear a son who is to announce the Saviour’s immediate coming.’ (Wilcock)
‘Prayers of faith are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten, though the thing prayed for is not presently given in. Prayers made when we were young and coming into the world may be answered when we are old and going out of the world.’ (Henry)
The words of the Angel, 13-15, are poetic in style, like Lk 1:30-33,35-37,42-45,46-55,68-70; 2:10-12,14,29-32,34-35. It is quite possible that these early stories were turned into hymns by early believers and it is these sources that Luke has collected and collated.
“You are to give him the name John” – The name means ‘the Lord has been gracious’. Luke, however, does not show any interest in the etymology: he introduces the name here in order to prepare the ground for what he will later record about John’s life and ministry (Lk 3:1–20; 5:33; 7:18–35; 9:7–9; 11:1; 16:16; 20:4–6).
Many will rejoice because of his birth – That is to say, because of his coming on to the scene as the forerunner of the Messiah (Stein, NAC)
‘Mercies that have been long waited for, when they come at last, are the more acceptable.’ (MHC)
“He will be great in the sight of the Lord” – This is the meaning and measure of true greatness. The world calls great those who have power, money, intellect, skill. Such greatness is not recognised by God. True greatness is to do great things for the Lord. See Mt 11:11. Yet John’s was not an ostentatious greatness: he knew how to retire into the background, Jn 3:30. Jesus himself always links true greatness with humility, Lk 7:6,9 9:46-48.
Jesus refers to John’s greatness in Lk 7:28. He was great in his fearlessness as a prophet, and great in that he was the forerunner of Christ. Indeed, John was so ‘great’ that some would find it difficult to transfer their allegiance from him to Jesus, who was still greater, Lk 3:16.
“He is never to take wine or other fermented drink” – Some infer from this John would be a Nazirite, Num 6:1-4; as were Samson, Jud 13:4-6, and Samuel, 1 Sam 1:11. Certainly, the language recalls the description of Samuel, the first of the prophets. ‘John’s adherence to this ascetic model was to mark him out in distinction from Jesus, who, as Luke will later note, was known to enjoy eating and drinking wine (Lk 7:33–34).’ (France)
“He will be filled with the Holy Spirit” – the first mention of the Holy Spirit by Luke, who mentions him more than any other Gospel writer. For the opposition of wine and the Holy Spirit, see also Acts 2:15-17; Eph 5:18. The Holy Spirit would be even more evidently at work in the life of Jesus.
But this expression also harks back to the OT prophets. They too knew the Holy Spirit’s power (cf. 1 Sam 10:10; 2 Kings 2:9–16; Is 61:1; Ezek 11:5; Joel 2:28. The new era is rooted in the old.
According to JFB, this expression can hardly refer to any miraculous gifts, for John possessed none (Jn 10:41). Nor does it seem to refer to a gift of inspired utterance, because that appears to have come upon John at the commencement of his public ministry (Lk 3:2). It is, rather, ‘sanctification from the womb-a truth of high import in personal Christianity, of weighty bearing on the standing of the infants of believers in the Church of God, and ministering precious encouragement to religious parents.’
JFB again: ‘If the heart is ready to sink when the thin partitions between heaven and earth are, even in a small degree, rent asunder, how re-assuring is it to find such exceptional visitations only confirming the teaching of Moses and the prophets, and strengthening the expectations built upon them!’
“From birth” – or, ‘while still in the womb’ (cf. Lk 1:41).
This description of John and his ministry is paralleled by the description given to Mary of Jesus (Lk 1:32f). This is just one element in the constant comparison that is implied between John and Jesus.
In the spirit and power of Elijah – John resembled Elijah in his appearance, manner and life-style. But he would also be a prophet of repentance, as Elijah had been, Mal 4:5-6. Indeed, many Jewish people believed that Elijah would return as a prelude to God’s coming in judgment. John will deny that he is actually Elijah in person, as they expected, (Jn 1:21) but Jesus will call him Elijah in spirit. (Mk 9:12 Mt 17:12)
Bede: ‘Both Elijah and John were celibate. Both wore rough dress. Both spent their lives in the wilderness. Both were heralds of the truth. Both underwent persecution for justice’s sake at the hands of a king and queen—the former at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel, the latter at the hands of Herod and Herodias.28 The former, lest he be killed by the wicked, was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot. The latter, lest he be overcome by the wicked, sought the heavenly kingdom by his martyrdom, which was accomplished in spiritual combat.’ (ACCS)
Ambrose: ‘“In the spirit and power of Elijah,” it says, perhaps because holy Elijah had great power and grace. Power so that he turned the spirits of the people back from unbelief to faith, the power of abstinence and patience, and the Spirit of prophecy.… Elijah divided the Jordan, John made it the font of salvation. John walks with the Lord on earth, Elijah appears with the Lord in glory. Elijah is a herald of the first coming of the Lord, and John of the second. Elijah after three years watered the earth with rain, John after three years sprinkled the arid soil of our body with the stream of faith.’ (ACCS)
“To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” – See Mal 4:6 in its context. Perhaps, figuratively, the patriarchs will look with pleasure on the repentance brought about by John’s preaching to the current generation. Or, (but less probable), the preaching of repentance would restore harmony between parents and children.
“A people prepared for the Lord” – fulfilling Isa 40:3-5. Cf. Lk 3:4-6. ‘”People” (laos) is a significant word in Luke and usually refers to Israel as the elect nation of God. This suggestion accords with Luke’s interest in Jewish origins of Christianity. The “people prepared for the Lord” ultimately includes, however, not only these initial Jewish hearers but also the Gentiles.’ (EBC)
‘This John did. This is a marvellous forecast of the character and career of John the Baptist, one that should have caught the faith of Zacharias.’ (A.T. Robertson) This mission was successful in part, but, of course, both the forerunner and the Messiah himself would be hounded to death.
‘God is gracious in seemingly mysterious ways. Sometimes we are deprived of something because God has better things awaiting us down the road. When we wait patiently on the Lord, he often gives us more than we imagined possible. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a child; what they got was a prophet.’ (Bock, NIVAC)
‘Echoes of the Old Testament throughout this passage combine with the angelic pronouncement to inform us that when Elizabeth’s child has grown up and begins his mission of spiritual restoration, the long-promised “day of the Lord” will have arrived. Christians naturally think of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, but nothing has been said so far about a human messiah. Malachi’s prophecy was that Elijah would come before God himself came to visit his people; the same implication will be found in Isaiah 40:3–5, quoted by Luke in 3:4–6. From this prophetic perspective, the coming of Jesus will be in effect the coming of God himself.’ (France)
1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” 1:19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 1:20 And now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.”
“How can I be sure of this?” – This question seems little different to that of Mary, Lk 1:34. But her question arose from faith, Lk 1:45, whereas his arose from doubt, Lk 1:20. Zechariah’s attitude was not so far from that which is described in Lk 11:29.
The best of men are prone to doubt the word of God. Zechariah asked for a sign, as had Abraham, Gen 15:8; Gideon, Jud 6:17; and Hezekiah, 2 Kings 20:8. He had prayed for this, and now he doubted that his prayer could possibly have been answered. When we are similarly tempted to think that what God has promised in impossible, we should remember what he has already achieved in history, and how he has achieved it. God is not bound by the narrowness of our vision or by our human failings and limitations.
An apocryphal writer would, no doubt, have given a very different and much more enthusiastic account of the reaction of Zacharias. Edersheim reminds us that ‘there are moments of moral faintness, so to speak, when the vital powers of the spiritual heart are depressed, and, as in the the case of the Disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane, the physical part of our being and all that is weakest in us assert their power.’
‘Let us note that there is a wide distinction between this question asked by Zacharias, and that asked by the Virgin Mary, at verse 34. The question of Zacharias implies a doubt of the whole thing announced by the angel. The question of Mary implies no doubt of the event, but is only directed to the manner of its accomplishment.’ (J.C. Ryle)
Examples of similar scepticism are found in Gen 3:6; 2 Kings 2:16-18; Lk 24:37-38; Jn 20:24; Acts 12:12-15; 2 Pet 3:4.
‘Sometimes underestimating God is as dangerous as rebelling against him. Our sin may not be a matter of doing overt wrong but of being hesitant to pursue righteousness and to trust fully in the Lord. Once God speaks, we should respond.’ (Bock, IVP Application Commentary)
“Gabriel” – the name means ‘God is my hero’, or ‘Mighty man of God.’ See Dan 8:16 9:21. Michael is the only other angel named in Scripture, Dan 10:13,21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7. Michael is the destroyer, the champion of God against evil, the minister of wrath. Gabriel is the messenger of peace and restoration. ‘The former is the forerunner of Jehovah the Judge; the latter of Jehovah the Savior’ (Godet).
“I stand in the Presence of God” – A place of honour, just as it was an honour to be allowed to be in the presence of a king. This description of himself is a rebuke to the disbelief of Zacharias. The very word of such a messenger should have been sign enough. According to Mt 18:10 other (possibly all) angels behold the face of the Father in heaven.
‘Angels serve as God’s messengers. Angels are spirit beings who live in God’s presence and do his will. Only two angels are mentioned by name in Scripture-Michael and Gabriel-but there are many who act as God’s messengers. Here, Gabriel delivered a special message to Zechariah (1:19). This was not a dream or a vision. The angel appeared in visible form and spoke audible words to the priest.’ (HBA)
“I have been sent” – ‘The angels are “ministering spirits” sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation,” Heb 1:7,14. They delight to do the will of God, and one way of doing that will is by aiding his children here, by succoring the afflicted, and by defending those who are in danger.’ (Barnes)
“This good news” – euangelion, ‘gospel’.
“You will be mute” – Zecharias would get a sign, but not the one he expected. One effect of this would be that Zecharias would not be able to spread doubt about God’s word. There is a sober reminder for us not to doubt what God has promised, however unlikely it may seem to our human understanding. More positively, it also gave him time to reflect: Lk 1:56-79 shows that he used this time well.
‘Zechariah graciously was given a sign as an aid to faith even though the sign also was a rebuke for lack of faith.’ (Stein, NAC)
But the judgement was temporary, for God’s justice is mixed with mercy.
1:21 Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place. 1:22 When he came out, he was not able to speak to them. They realized that he had seen a vision in the holy place, because he was making signs to them and remained unable to speak. 1:23 When his time of service was over, he went to his home.
They were waiting for him to come out from the Holy of Holies and pronounce the Aaronic Blessing, Nu 6:24-26. According to the Talmud, the priests, especially the chief priests, were accustomed to spend only a short time in the sanctuary, otherwise it was feared that they had been slain by God for unworthiness or transgression.
‘The incense was burned and the offering made in the inmost court of the Temple, the Court of the Priests. While the sacrifice was being made, the congregation thronged the next court, the Court of the Israelites. It was the privilege of the priest at the evening sacrifice to come to the rail between the two courts after the incense had been burned in order to bless the people.’ (DSB)
He could not speak – They perceived this immediately from his inability to pronounce the Aaronic Blessing (Num 6:24-26). It seems from verse 62 that he was rendered deaf as well.
The time of his service – each priest was responsible for a week of service at the temple every six months. The underlying Gk expression has come down to us as the word ‘liturgy’.
‘Because his term of service was only two weeks a year, and he had no son to support him in his old age, Zechariah probably worked a small farm or did other work in the hill country of Judah. (Priests were supposed to be supported by others’ tithes, not by working the land, but high taxes on the poor and unfair practices by the priestly aristocracy—especially in the decades just prior to a.d. 66—combined to make it harder on less wealthy priests.)’ (IVP NT Background Commentary)
1:24 After some time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. She said, 1:25 “This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.”
His wife Elizabeth became pregnant – It has been pointed that the number of gynaecological words used by Luke, is almost as large as that used by Hippocrates. Compare Lk 1:31 1:24 2:5 1:7 20:28. All of these, except 1:24, are peculiar to himself, and all were in common use among medical writers.
For five months remained in seclusion – Until such time as her pregnancy was noticeable, and it would be obvious to all that God had taken away her reproach, v25.
“The Lord has done this for me” – ‘Blessings should not only be counted. They should be traced to the Giver, so that acknowledgement and thanksgiving may result.’ (Hendriksen)
“My disgrace” – Childlessness was not only a social disgrace; it was regarded as a sign of divine disfavour. Compare: Sarai: Gen 16:2; Rebekah: Gen 25:21; Rachel: Gen 30:23; Hannah: 1 Sam 1:1-18.
Stein (NAC) comments: ‘Readers may deny the historicity of the events Luke described, but they cannot deny he was asserting that these events were a part of universal history. To describe them as myth is to confuse a critical evaluation of a historical account—which takes place at a specific time in history (the time of Herod the Great), at a historical place (the temple in Jerusalem), involves specific people (a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth), and concerns the birth of a historical person (John the Baptist)—with a literary genre called myth. What we have in Luke 1:5–25 is not the literary form one finds in an ancient myth.’
‘Elizabeth’s dilemma is different from modern expectations in one important way. She would not have had the type of concerns modern people do about self-fulfillment through her bearing a child. In the ancient world, particularly given the hazards of having children, the issue is more related to expectation of having heirs and building a family that can share in its responsibilities.’ (Bock, IVP Application Commentary)
Wright: ‘This story, preparing us for the even more remarkable conception and birth of Jesus himself, reminds us of something important. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is – the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us in so many ways throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of smaller human concerns as well. The drama which now takes centre stage is truly the story of God, the world, and every ordinary human being who has ever lived in it.’
In summing up the theological message of vv5-25, France remarks that the main theme is the dawn of the age of fulfilment. The many echoes of the OT, together with the message of the angel, herald the arrival of ‘the day of the Lord’. Although we think of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, nothing has been said about that so far: Luke accordingly wants us to know that the coming of Jesus will in fact be the coming of God. As Matthew will make clear, Jesus is indeed ‘God with us’.
Drawing on France’s suggestions, we can say that preaching from this passage should bring out both John’s greatness (Lk 7:26,28) and also his subordinate role in relation to Christ (Jn 3:30). The expositor should emphasise that the long period of waiting is over, and that in the coming of Jesus, God himself has come.
France adds: ‘In this opening scene Luke’s concern is to get us to recognize that John brings the end of the period of preparation and the dawn of the age of salvation. In doing this, John fulfills several strands of Old Testament prophecy, and in particular the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return to prepare people for the “day of the Lord.” The promise of his birth by God’s special power conforms to the pattern of other great figures in the story of salvation, especially Isaac, Samson, and Samuel.’
France says that a subsidiary message may be derived from the experiences and reactions of Zechariah and Elizabeth: ‘Elizabeth, in the “disgrace” of her inability to bear children, represents human helplessness, which is to be joyfully overcome by the power of God; despair gives way to praise. Zechariah, whose big day is suddenly turned upside down by the appearance of the angel, represents human slowness to accept God’s power to change things (even though he apparently had been praying for precisely this outcome [Lk 1:13]) and contrasts with Mary’s ready acceptance of a similar challenge to faith in 1:38. Compare Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 17:17–18; 18:10–15.’
Birth Announcement of Jesus the Messiah
1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – John the Baptist was, accordingly approximately six months older than Jesus. This sheds light on the (independent) statement of the Baptist recorded in Jn 1:15 – ‘John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ ”’
God sent the angel Gabriel – The good angels are characterised by unfailing readiness to do God’s will. Recall the picture in Ezekiel, of each cherub with four faces, their chariot having ‘wheels within wheels’: the idea is that these angels are willing move immediately in any direction in response to God’s bidding. Hendriksen draws a parallel with the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.’
Nazareth – a humble town, not even mentioned in the OT.
On the humility of Mary and her background, cf. 1 Sam 16:7.
This verse, and those that follow, remind us of the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. He was to be born in an obscure town, of a woman of no social standing. Time and again, God takes the side of the poor and afflicted of this world. And nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the incarnation, 2 Cor 8:9. Let us admire his condescending love, and seek to imitate him in his voluntary humility.
Betrothal usually lasted a year. It was a solemn promise made before witnesses and to break it required divorce. Unfaithfulness on the part of the bride was punished with death. (Deut 23:24-25)
1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!”
The translation of these words as, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” is misleading, suggesting that Mary is a source of grace to other people, whereas the meaning is simply that God’s favour rests upon her. “Rejoice, so highly favoured!” (JB). The Vulgate ‘gratiae plena’ “is right, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast received’; wrong, if it means ‘full of grace which thou hast to bestow”‘ (Plummer)
These words of the angel Gabriel to Mary are taken by Roman Catholics to be equivalent to, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” This is then taken to set Mary apart from the rest of the human race, and to support the doctrine of her ‘immaculate conception’ (i.e. that she was born without original sin). This is, of course, to drastically misunderstand the biblical concept of ‘grace’, which does not refer to goodness or purity in the individual, but rather (as the NIV quite rightly indicates) to God’s (unmerited) favour. This point may receive further support from Lk 1:47, where Mary refers to God as her ‘Saviour’ (although, to be fair, this could be taken in context to refer to God as her ‘deliverer’ and not have any direct reference to salvation from sin).
‘The angel salutes the virgin; he prays not to her. He salutes her, as a saint; he prays not to her as a goddess. For us to salute her as he did wer gross presumption, for neither are we as he was, neither is she as she was. If he that was a spirit, saluted her that was flesh and blood here on earth, it is not for us that are flesh and blood to salute her which is a glorious spirit in heaven. For us to pray to her in the angel’s salutation, were to abuse the virgin, the angel, and the salutation.’ (Bishop Hall)
There is no warrant for the exaggerated claims made by the Roman Catholic church, who insist on Mary’s immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and assumption. Catholics find ‘implicit’ support in this verse for the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception (meaning that she was entirely without original sin; that she was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence’) in this verse (see Catholic Answers). But the text provides no such support.
Still, we should not forget the immense privilege accorded to Mary. No woman has ever been so highly honoured. But, again, whover does the will of God, is Christ’s brother, sister and mother, and, blessed as the womb was that bore the Son of God, more blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it (Mk 3:35; Lk 11:27.
1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God!
Mary was greatly troubled = ‘greatly troubled or agitated’. Shocked partly by the appearance of this shining angel, but even more so that she, a young woman of humble social position, should be singled out by the Lord as the object of special favour. But see Ps 138:6; Isa 57:15.
“Found favour” – ‘Same root as chair (rejoice) and charito in verse 28. To find favour is a common O.T. phrase. ChariV is a very ancient and common word with a variety of applied meanings. They all come from the notion of sweetness, charm, loveliness, joy, delight, like words of grace, Lk 4:22, growing grace, Eph 4:29, with grace, Col 4:6. The notion of kindness is in it also, especially of God towards men as here. It is a favourite word for Christianity, the Gospel of the grace of God (Ac 20:24) in contrast with law or works. (Jn 1:16) Gratitude is expressed also, (Lk 6:32) especially to God.’ (Rom 6:17) (RWP)
1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
“…and you are to give him the name Jesus” – ‘JESUS! the name that refreshes the fainting spirits of humbled sinners; sweet to speak and sweet to hear, Jesus, a Saviour! We know not his riches and our own poverty, therefore we run not to him; we perceive not that we are lost and perishing, therefore a Saviour is a word of little relish. Were we convinced of the huge mass of guilt that lies upon us, and the wrath that hangs over us for it, ready to fall upon us, it would be our continual thought, Is the Saviour mine? And that we might find him so, we should trample on all that hinders our way to him.’ (MHCC)
“He will be great” – a greater prophet than Moses; a greater priest than Aaron; a greater king than David.
“The throne of his father David” – a confirmation of his descent from David, from the human point of view.
“He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” –
Ryle says: ‘Let us beware of spiritualizing away the full meaning of these words. “The House of Jacob” does not mean all Christians. The “Throne of David” does not mean the office of a Saviour to all Gentile believers. The words will yet receive a literal fulfilment, when the Lord Jesus comes the second time, and the Jews are converted. The promise of Gabriel is parallel with Jer 30:9. The kingdom of which he speaks, is the glorious kingdom foretold in Dan 7:27, before which all other kingdoms are finally to be overthrown at Christ’s second coming.’
But these expressions – with all their Jewishness – are expressions of the Messianic hope, which begins with ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Mt 15:34), and then extends ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). As Garland notes, ‘the continuation of the narrative will also reveal that his reign is not limited to “the house of Jacob” (Israel).’
“His kingdom will never end” – not an earthly kingdom, of course, but the rule of God in people’s hearts and lives – ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,’ Rom 14:17. The ultimate manifestation of this kingdom will be the new heaven and earth. This is an eternal kingdom: ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we first begun.’
1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
Zechariah’s response to Gabriel was one of disbelief; Mary’s is one of puzzlement. ‘In the context (esp. v 45) Mary’s question is not understood to be colored by doubt in the way that Zechariah’s had been.’ (Nolland)
Some suggest that this verse reflects a vow to remain a life-long virgin. But this is to read a meaning into the text which is not there, and which is contradicted by what we read about the brothers of the Lord. Moreover, she would hardly have become betrothed at all if she had vowed perpetual virginity. Macleod, noting the likely impact of this bombshell, suggests that Mary was simply finding it difficult to process what she had just been told (cf. Lk 9:33): “Why are we talking about children when I’m not even married?” (The Person of Christ, 28f)
Macleod (p31) points out that Luke, having in his introduction emphasised the historical nature of his narrative, would hardly proceed to deal in legends: ‘He must have been convinced that the tradition of the birgin birth was well attested.’
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” – ‘This delicate expression rules out crude ideas of a ‘mating’ of the Holy Spirit with Mary.’ (Morris)
Marshall notes that the verb ‘to overshadow’ is ‘used of God’s presence resting on the tabernacle in the cloud’, Ex 40:35, and ‘metaphorically protecting his people’, Ps 91:4 140:7, and concludes: ‘The description culminates in the phrase Son of God, here undoubtedly in it sfull sense of one begotten by God.’ (Quoted by Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 138)
The manner of the virginal conception is spoken of with great reverence and discreetness. There is no question of some crude mating between Mary and the Holy Spirit, such as was common in the Greek myths. The nearest allusion is the the Shekinah glory, which spoke of the awesome presence of God. We also think of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters at the time of creation, Gen 1:2. But here is a mystery, and we do well to avoid speculation beyond what has been revealed. Even natural conception is shrouded in mystery, Ps 139:13-16. It is enough for us to know that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, Jn 1:14; that he took on our flesh and blood, Heb 2:14; that he was born of a woman, Gal 4:4. But beyond this we may not go. The method by which these things took place has been hidden from us. True faith must of necessity contain mystery, and the incarnation is one of these.
‘The child born to Mary is to be hailed Son of the Most High and given the eschatological throne of David (1:32-33), because he will be no child of ordinary wedlock (1:35). As Fitzmyer now admits, following the semi-miraculous conception of John the Baptist to his aged parents in 1:5-25, the ascending parallelism of the narrative requires that this means a virginal conception of Jesus by the creative activity of the Holy Spirit. The angelic oracle asserts that through the action of the Spirit (perceived as the new creation “power of the Most High” cf. 1:35b) that which is born shall be “holy, the Son of God.” As G. Schneider puts it: “Jesus is not merely filled with the Spirit, like John, rather his very being is attributed to the Spirit”. (DJG)
‘There is no emphasis on the absence of human paternity; nor on the activity of God the Father. In fact, one has the impression of a studied avoidance of any language which might suggest that Mary’s child was begotten by God. Luke uses the language of creation, not of generation.’ (Macleod, The Person of Christ, p32f)
‘The language used with regard to Jesus’ humanity is extremely careful. There is no suggestion of any kind of physical relationship between God the Father and the virgin mother. Indeed, the Father’s role is not even prominent. It is the activity of the Holy Spirit that is emphasised (Matt.1:18, 20, Luke 1:35). The exclusion of human paternity does not by itself explain the birth of Jesus. It merely creates space for the work of the Holy Spirit, who ‘overshadows’ the virgin (Luke 1:35).’ (Macleod, Jesus is Lord: Christology Yesterday and Today, p165)
“The Son of God” – It is the title used by the Father at the baptism (Lk 3:22) and on the Mount of Transfiguration. (Lk 9:35)
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age—although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
“Elizabeth your relative” – we know that Elizabeth was descended from Aaron, v5, and that Mary was descended from David v32. May may therefore suppose that one of Mary’s parents was of Aaron’s family and one of David’s.
‘We should mark how graciously the angel helps the faith of the Virgin Mary, by telling her of a fact which may serve to assist her in receiving his message. This is the manner of God’s dealings. He knows our weakness. It is like our Lord calling for meat, and eating of a broiled fish and honey-comb, to satisfy his disciples of the material reality of his risen body.’ (J.C. Ryle)
1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
“I am the Lord’s servant” – The word means ‘slave’. We see here Mary’s complete acquiscence in the will of God.
“May it be to me as you have said” – There is amazing faith expressed here. She was not yet married, and Joseph did indeed think of divorcing her, Mt 1:19. The penalty for adultery was death, although it seems that this may not have been enforced very frequently. Still, Mary could expect to suffer, if not to die. But she rested in the will of God. Contrast with the reaction of Zecharias, Lk 1:18.
Mary and Elizabeth
1:39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah, 1:40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 1:42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 1:43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 1:44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 1:45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Mary responds to the angel’s message by hurrying to see Elizabeth.
The celebrated Methodist preacher Leslie Weatherhead held the extraordinary view that Mary became pregnant during this visit, by Zechariah. This theory later became adopted by the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. See this discussion by the arch-sceptic Robert M. Price.
‘What an honoured roof was that which for the period of three months overarched those holy women, whose progeny-though the one was but the herald of the other-have made the world new! And yet not a trace of it is now to be seen, nor can it even be known, except by inference, what “city of Juda” is meant to which the Virgin hid her to visit her relative.’ (JFB)
The baby leaped in her womb – ‘Both Testaments refer to the fetus in terms routinely applied to the young child, (Gen 25:22; 38:27-30; Job 1:21; 3:3,11-16; 10:18-19; 31:15; Ps 51:5; Isa 49:5; Jer 20:14-18; Hos 12:3; Lk 1:15,41,44; Rom 9:10-11) implying continuity between the two and distinct individuality for the fetus. Alongside birth, conception and gestation stand as important parts of one’s personal history. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the prebirth rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and in the encounter between John and Jesus recorded in Luke’s birth narrative. Jacob’s struggle with Esau in the womb prophetically anticipated events later in life, (Ge 25:21-26) and when John the Baptist, as a fetus of six months, leapt in the presence of the newly conceived Jesus, he inaugurated his witness to the one who is to come. (Lk 1:39-45) Finally, there is evidence from the incarnation itself. As the Word become flesh (Jn 1:14) and the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; cf. Lk 1:22 Rom 5:14), Jesus fully embraced humanity to redeem it. But unlike the first Adam who emerged fully formed from the earth, Jesus’ entrance into humanity was as a zygote in Mary’s womb. The incarnation took place not in a Bethlehem stable but nine months earlier in Nazareth, as the Holy Spirit caused a virgin to conceive.
‘It is natural that sudden joy, on the part of a pregnant woman, should cause a motion of the child in her womb; but Luke intended to express an extraordinary occurrence. No good purpose would be served by involving ourselves in intricate questions, if the child was aware of the presence of Christ, or felt an emotion of piety: it is enough for us that the babe started by a secret movement of the Spirit. Luke does not say that the feeling belonged to the child, but rather intimates that this part of the Divine operation took place in the mother herself, that the babe started in her womb. The expression, she was filled with the Holy Ghost, means that she was suddenly endued with the gift of prophecy to an unusual extent: for the gifts of the Spirit had not formerly been wanting in her, but their power then appeared more abundant and extraordinary.’ (Calvin)
All of this strongly affirms the humanity of the unborn and portrays a God hard at work forming and protecting preborn life. Attempts to thwart this divine process would clearly be attempts to usurp God’s role by destroying the human life God has begun to create and hence morally wrong.’ (EDBT)
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit – ‘Luke develops several distinctive themes of the Spirit’s work. Most characteristic are his references to people whom the Spirit “fills.” Consistently such individuals quickly proceed to speak inspired words or otherwise boldly proclaim God’s Word. With Elizabeth, (Lk 1:41) Zechariah, (Lk 1:67) and Simeon, (Lk 2:25-27) the Spirit comes with temporary power as in the Old Testament. From Pentecost on, however, the Spirit becomes a permanent possession of God’s people, yet believers may still be repeatedly “filled” in order to speak courageously for Christ (the 120 – Acts 2:4 Peter Acts 4:8; all Jerusalem believers – Acts 4:31; Saul – Acts 9:17 13:9). On the other hand, Luke reserves the expression “full of the Spirit” to refer to a mature, godly character (the first “deacons” – Acts 6:3,5; Barnabas – 11:24).’ (EDBT)
She spoke out with a loud voice – Elizabeth’s mood is one of great excitement. Mary’s by contrast will be one of calmer joyousness.
“Blessed are you among women” – A hebraism for “most blessed of women.” Note the complete absence of jealousy in Elizabeth’s attitude. She had been signally blessed by God, but Mary had been yet more highly favoured. But Elizabeth showed no resentment.
“The mother of my Lord” – Only divine inspiration could have told her this.
But John would not recognise Jesus as Messiah until the baptism, Jn 1:32-33.
Mary’s Hymn of Praise
1:46 And Mary said,
“My soul exalts the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
1:48a because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
The name comes from the Vulgate, as is the case with the other hymns in Lk 1-2.
The wording of the song may possibly belong to some later poet. However, the four days’ journey to see Elizabeth would have provided the opportunity for reflection on the story of Hannah and for her to compose her own inspired song. Luke clearly wishes us to know that it is Mary’s prophecy, and came substantially her Mary’s lips.
Kenneth Bailey notes that Luke ‘affirmed Mary as a teacher of theology and social ethics for the entire church for as long as his Gospel is read.’ (Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes)
Consider this hymn with respect to Mary’s faith.
1. Mary’s knowledge of Scripture. There are a number of parallels with the song of Hannah, 1 Sam 2:1-10. ‘Every idea here occurs in the Old Testament, showing that Mary’s mind was full of the spiritual message of God’s word.’ (Robertson; JFB make a similar observation) Mary was not a scholar, yet her mind was stored with Scripture. So it was natural for her to vent her feelings in scriptural language. We, too, should strive so that God’s word would dwell in us richly, Col 2:16.
2. Mary’s joy and thankfulness. “My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” – The note of thankfulness is very dominant in the Magnificat: Mary praises God on her own behalf, for he has shown great favour to her, but also on behalf of others. So it is in the writings of David, 1 Sam 7:12, and of Paul, Php 4:6. We ought to cultivate an habitual attitude of thankfulness.
‘Let us not fail to notice the Virgin Mary’s expression of need of salvation. It would be difficult to find a more complete answer to the Romish doctrine respecting her, and especially the doctrine of the immaculate conception, than her language in this hymn.’ (Ryle)
The theme of joy is dominant in the early part of Luke’s Gospel, Lk 1:48–55; 1:68–79, 2:14; 2:29–32). The gospel is, after all, ‘good news of great joy’ (Lk 2:10).
3. Mary’s humility. “He has has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” – Such is God’s habit and pattern, to lift up to himself those who are brought down in, and by, the world. So Leah, Gen 29:31; Hannah, 1 Sam 1:19.
An outcry of injustice? ‘One scholar argues that Mary’s reference to “humiliation” in the Magnificat (Lk 1:48) is an outcry of injustice that recalls the rape and seduction of a betrothed virgin in Deut 22:23–27. This cannot represent Luke’s intention. A virginal conception, though not clearly stated, is clearly implied. Mary is called a virgin twice in v. 27, and in v. 34 she questions how she can become pregnant apart from sexual intercourse. Luke’s later allusion to Jesus as the “supposed” son of p 47 Joseph (Lk 3:23) implies a nonnatural conception. Elizabeth’s pregnancy is due to divine intervention (Lk 1:13), and Mary’s can scarcely be considered less so. Above all, Mary’s response in v. 38 is not an outcry of injustice but a believing and humble submission to Gabriel’s pronouncement. Nothing in the account supports a theory of divine sexual violation.’ (Edwards, on v33)
1:48b For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
1:49 because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
1:50 from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
“All generations will call me blessed” – To called Mary ‘blessed’ is a very different thing from worshipping her. The word for ‘blessed’ is makarizo (to pronounce or esteem fortunate), not eulogetos (worthy of adoration). Cf. 1:45; 11:27.
4. Mary’s awareness of God’s ways with men. She meditates on three of the divine attributes: (a) power; (b) holiness; (c) mercy. Let us study God’s former acts, for what he has done in the past, he is likely to do in the future.
His mercy – ‘The OT record of God’s mercy forms the context for its manifestation in the NT. His steadfast, covenantal, electing love for Israel is conspicously reflected in the Lukan infancy canticles. The birth of the Messiah reveals God’s covenantal mercy and faithfulness to save his unworthy people (Lk 1:50,54,72,78; cf. Ps 103:17).’ (ISBE)
Those who fear him – Reverential awe, as in Acts 10:2; Col 3:22. Such fear sums up the OT idea of spirituality.
1:51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
“He has…” – Note the repeated past tense. It is typical of the Messianic prophecies that future divine acts are viewed as though that had already taken place. ‘God’s promises are as good as ready money any day.’
“His arm” – Ryle quotes Whitby as saying, ‘God’s great power is represented by his finger, – his greater by his hand, – his greatest by his arm. The production of lice was by the finger of God. Ex 8:19; – his other miracles in Egypt were wrought by his hand: Ex 3:20; – the destruction of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, by his arm. Ex 15:6.’
“Scattters those whose price…” – The proud think they are so important, so secure, but God ‘scatters them’.
‘God will deal with the proud. His arm will be raised against them. (Deut 4:34 Ps 44:3 89:13 118:15) The promise of God’s judgment here recalls the exodus, when God exercised his power in total judgment. (Ex 6:1,6 Deut 3:24 7:19) Whatever earthly authority exists, it is nothing before the mighty, decisive exercise of divine authority. He has brought down rulers (Ps 68:1 89:10) but has lifted up the humble. (1 Sam 2:7 Ps 147:6) he has filled the hungry with good things (1 Sam 2:5 Ps 107:9 146:7) but has sent the rich away empty. (1 Sam 2:5 Job 15:29 Jer 17:11) Here is God working on behalf of the pious downtrodden, a group the Old Testament called the.’ (Ps 9:11-12,17-20 10:1-4 12:1-5 18:25-29) (IVP NT Commentary)
Rulers – Gk. dunastes, from which we get our word ‘dynasty’. Such people feel invulnerable, but God ‘puts them down’.
The hungry…the rich – we should think particularly of spiritual hunger and riches, Mt 5:6 Rev 3:17. God acts not only disappoints the expectations of the proud and the great in this world, but exceeds those of the poor and the humble. So with the scribes and the pharisees on the one hand, and the publicans and sinners on the other. Through Mary, God in his love gave the most valuable of all treasures – his own Son into the world to be its Saviour, Jn 3:16.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
1:55 as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
He has helped his servant Israel – ‘Those that were sunk under the burdens of a broken covenant of innocency are helped up by the blessings of a renewed covenant of grace’ (Henry). There is a distinctive Christian interpretation of themes such as ‘Israel’, Lk 24:21-26 Jn 12:23 Acts 1:6 Rom 9:6; ‘servant’, and ‘seed’, Jn 8:39 Gal 3:16 29, which would not have been lost on Luke and his readers. The national deliverance of Israel from human oppressors ‘is a recurrent note in pre-Christian messianism. The New Testament writers do not deny it, but they redefine in and transfer it to Messiah’s parousia’ (Ellis).
5. Mary’s trust in God’s promises. “As he said to our fathers” – Mary had a firm grasp of Bible promises, and evidently regarded the great promise to Abraham, Gen 12:3; 17:7-8; 22:17-18, as about to receive its fulfilment in the birth of her Son.
1:56 So Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
Looking back over this passage, JFB remark: ‘How beautiful does womanhood appear in the light of the foregoing scenes-the grace of God making the “spices” of modesty, simplicity, and religious susceptibility, which are the characteristics of the sex, so charmingly to “flow out!” And yet these are but premonitions of what we shall meet with throughout all this History of Him to whom woman owes not only the common salvation but the recovery of her proper relation to the other sex.’
The Birth of John
1:57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. 1:58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
When it was time – Edwards remarks that the literal wording is, ‘When the time was fulfilled’, pointing readers forward to the birth of Jesus as described in Lk 2:6 and Gal 4:6.
She gave birth to a son – ‘In Palestine the birth of a boy was an occasion of great joy. When the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians gathered near the house. When the birth was announced and it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulation and rejoicing. If it was a girl the musicians went silently and regretfully away! There was a saying, “The birth of a male child causes universal joy, but the birth of a female child causes universal sorrow.” So in Elizabeth’s house there was double joy. At last she had a child and that child was a son.’ (DSB)
Her neighbours and relatives heard – ‘Since Elizabeth had hidden herself and Zechariah was mute, the news of the birth comes as a sudden surprise for the neighbors and kin.’ (Garland)
The Lord had shown her great mercy – ‘Though these events are cosmic in their reach, they involve the divinity’s personal touch.’ (Bock)
They shared her joy – in part-fulfillment of Lk 1:14. Cf. also the shepherds’ joy at Jesus’ birth, Lk 2:10.
1:59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. 1:60 But his mother replied, “No! He must be named John.” 1:61 They said to her, “But none of your relatives bears this name.” 1:62 So they made signs to the baby’s father, inquiring what he wanted to name his son. 1:63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 1:64 Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God. 1
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child – Cf. Lk 2:21. Here we have a reminder of the deeply Jewish roots of our Christian faith. Circumcision was so important that it would be carried out even if the eighth day fell on a Sabbath.
Edwards explains that although the OT does not specify why circumcision became a sign of the covenant, it probably has to do with distancing God’s people from pagan cults, which frequently used both male and female prostitution in association with their idolatrous worship: ‘It signified that human sexuality in Israel, contrary to its ubiquitous practice in pagan cultures, was not the means of accessing divine powers and properties. Rather, like all human capacities and abilities, sexuality also belonged to the one saving covenant of the God of Israel, the sign of which was circumcision.’
Previous Jewish custom had been to name a child at birth (cf. Gen 21:3; 25:25f). Naming at the time of circumcision became usual practice later.
They were going to name him after his father Zechariah – It would have been unusual to name a son after his father, because the usual pattern of address would have been ‘X bar [son of] Y’, and ‘Zechariah-bar-Zechariah’ would have been odd. More commonly, a son would have been named after his grandfather. On this occasion, it is possible that the neighbours and relatives wished to recognise that Zechariah (due to his advanced age) was the virtual patriarch of the family.
‘In Palestine names were descriptive. They sometimes described a circumstance attending the birth as Esau and Jacob do (Gen 25:25-26). They sometimes described the child. Laban, for instance, means white or blonde. Sometimes the child received the parental name. Often the name described the parents’ joy. Saul and Samuel, for instance, both mean “asked for.” Sometimes the name was a declaration of the parents’ faith. Elijah for instance, means “Jehovah is my God.” Thus, in a time of Baal-worship, Elijah’s parents asserted their faith in the true God.’ (DSB)
“He is to be called John” – Presumably, her husband had communicated the name to her (cf. v13) in the same was that he was about to confirm the name to the crowd, v62f. Pace Harper’s Bible commentary, ‘we need not infer that Elizabeth, like Zechariah, knows the child’s name by divine revelation. Even in his muteness Zechariah surely communicated the name and its importance to his wife.’ (Edwards)
This indicates that he was made temporarily deaf as well as dumb. Edwards says that this is confirmed by the exact wording of Lk 1:22.
‘Having once disbelieved the angelic word (1:20), a chastened and more experienced Zechariah in confident faith now fulfills the angelic word by naming the child. He is John, not Zechariah.’ (Nolland)
Quite a day, then, for Zechariah. He receives no less than four notable gifts: (a) a son; (b) his voice; (c) the Holy Spirit; and (d) the gift of prophecy.
Zechariah acts against the the crowd, and with the angel’s command. The lesson of trust and obedience has been learned.
Praising God – See also v68ff. Luke often draws attention to praise and worship, Lk 1:68; 2:28; 9:16; 13:35; 19:38; 24:30, 53; cf. also Lk 1:42; 2:34; 6:28; 24:50–51.
‘A Zechariah from whom all skepticism has been drained away blesses God with his freshly restored faculties.’ (Nolland)
‘A totally unlikely pregnancy, a strange insistence on a completely unexpected name, and the subsequent instantaneous recovery of Zechariah combine to produce that involuntary response of fear in the presence of the divine activity which Luke is so fond of noting (cf. Lk 5:26; 7:16; 8:37; etc).’ (Nolland)
As Wiersbe remarks, Zechariah had said nothing for nine months, but now he makes up for that in style!
1:65 All their neighbors were filled with fear, and throughout the entire hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. 1:66 All who heard these things kept them in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the Lord’s hand was indeed with him.
Awe – ‘phobos‘, lit. ‘fear’. ‘This word regularly describes the fear and reverence that befall humans in the immanence of the spiritual world.’ (Edwards)
‘Awe, or fear, is the proper reverent attitude which those who witness a heavenly intervention or manifestation of divine power should express. It may begin as a terrifying fear of judgment or wrath, but it progresses to a holy awe of God and a recognition of his otherness, which leads to “glorifying and praising God” (cf. Lk 2:10, 20; 5:26; 7:16). This experience at John’s birth is paralleled at Jesus’ birth (Lk 2:17–18).’ (Stein)
“What then is this child going to be?” – The crowd senses that this is not the end, but the beginning, of something remarkable. As Stein points out, the question ‘What?’ stresses his future role (whereas ‘Who?’ would have stressed his personality. His role would be to go before one greater than himself, preparing the way.
This amazed expectation may help to explain why, some twenty or so years later, John was able to gather such crowds, Lk 3:7, etc.
As Zechariah’s hymn makes plain, John is going to be:-
- a prophet, v76 – fearlessly proclaiming the word of God. Cf. Lk 3:2 – ‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.’ This would break a 400-year silence.
- a forerunner, v76. He followed after Abraham, v73, David, v69, and Elijah, v17, 76 (cf. Mal 3:1). We can also picture John as like the Best Man at a wedding: making sure that the couple get hitched, and that he does nothing to get in the way!
- a herald. This is described in terms of redemption, v68 (the release of prisoners); victory, v69f (the defeat of enemies); remission, v76f (the cancelling of a debt); and a new dawn, v78f (light shining where all had been dark). Not escapist, but ‘to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all our days’, v74f
All of this points to John’s greatness (v15). Greater than all those who had gone before, because he could declare: ‘There he is!” But not greater than the least in the kingdom of God, because we can point to Christ in his fullness: his atoning death, his glorious resurrection, his triumphant ascension, his kingly enthronement, and his victorious return.
The Lord’s hand – Edwards notes that this expression is used in the NT only ever with OT connotations (where it occurs over 200 times in connected with God’s creative and redemptive power). ‘The metaphor assures readers of God’s presence with John. It does not assure the fulfillment of human hopes and expectations, however, for it can denote divine judgment and punishment (Acts 13:11), and it will not spare John from imprisonment and death (Lk 3:20; 9:9). “Hand of God” does not tell us what will happen, but it does make clear who directs the drama, which Zechariah heralds in the Benedictus.’
‘Luke is saying, in effect, “Be assured, Theophilus or any other reader of my account, that God was in these most unusual events.’ (Bock, IVPNTC)
Zechariah’s Praise and Prediction
1:67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,
1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
because he has come to help and has redeemed his people.
Zechariah’s hymn focuses on the one to whom John will point. In fact, ‘its length, sublimity, and placement distinguish it as the consummation of Luke’s long introductory chapter.’ (Edwards)
Zechariah’s song, vv68-79, is also known as the Benedictus. It is a hymn both of praise and of prophecy. It has some similarities with the song uttered by Simeon, Lk 2:29-32: both were uttered by aged representatives of the faithful Jewish community.
‘The origin of the hymn is disputed. Some conservative scholars maintain that this and the other hymns of the infancy narratives were composed by the persons named in the narrative, in this case Zechariah. Others credit the hymn to Luke himself, believing that the Evangelist, like his Greek historian models, felt free to place appropriate speeches in the mouths of his characters. Still others believe that this hymn and the John the Baptist sections of the narrative originated in circles of disciples who venerated John as the Messiah. The purpose of this part of the Gospel, according to this theory, would be to persuade those people to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah. Others believe that the hymn originated in an early Jewish-Christian community and was inserted by the Evangelist to enrich his narrative.’ (DJG)
Whether or not this song dates back to Zechariah in person, it is very doubtful that later Christians would have composed so Jewish a composition.
It is to be noted that much of the Benedictus does not focus on John at all, but on the One to whom John would point.
“He has come” – We may think of revival as a divine visitation. One way of expressing God’s gracious intervention is to say that “he has visited…his people.” (Lk 1:68) The other side of this is that revival is a return to God by his people. (Hos 6:1)
Tragically, Jerusalem did not recognise the Lord’s coming, Lk 19:44.
1:69 For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago,
1:71 that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us.
“A horn of salvation” – See Psa 18:2. ‘The horn of an animal is its weapon for defense and vengeance, its ornament and beauty too. It is used therefore in the prophetic style, to denote the power of the strongest empires. In the same sense we are to understand it here. By this image the exceeding greatness of the Redeemer’s strength, and the never-ceasing exertion of it in behalf of his church are signified.’ (Henry Venn)
“In the house of his servant David” – Morris thinks that this hints ‘that Mary probably had Davidic connections, for at this time Zechariah could not have known whether Joseph would marry her or not.’
“As he said through his holy prophets” – ‘Let us note that it is expressly said that “God spake” by the prophets. When we read their words, we read the words of God. ‘ (Ryle)
“Salvation from our enemies” – Question: Which enemies are included here? For Paul’s perspective, see 1 Cor 15:25f.
1:72 He has done this to show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant—
1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.
This oath grants
1:74 that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
may serve him without fear,
1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.
“The oath he swore to our father Abraham” – Gen 22:16-18.
‘While to the believing Gentiles – “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise” – the Gospel came with all the freshness of an over-powering novelty; it came to the devout Israelite with all the charm of ancient and oft-repeated promises at length fulfilled, of hopes, divinely kindled but long deferred, in the end unexpectedly realized. It is this latter view of the Gospel which reigns in Zacharias’ noble song, in which God is seen ‘mindful of His grace and truth’ to the house of Israel, accomplishing the high objects of the ancient economy, and introducing His people into the blessedness of a realized salvation, and the dignity of a free and fearless service of their covenant-God.’ (JFB)
“To rescue us from the hand of our enemies” – Zechariah’s (and John’s – see Lk 7:18ff) immediate hope might well have been for rescue from the hands of the Romans. But Luke knows that there is more to it than this: he knows of a victory over the powers of evil, Lk 13:10ff, and of authority over sickness, Lk 18:35ff. See also Paul’s conclusion in 1 Cor 15:26.
But the underlying thought might be of the central act of divine deliverance in Israel’s history – the exodus.
“To enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” – ‘Zechariah is not retreating from life or looking only to a future reward in heaven.’ (Bock)
1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
1:77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
“You, my child” – My may suppose that Zechariah was holding his new son in his arms as he spoke these words. All the more remarkable, then, that he focuses less on John, more on the One to whom John would point, who would himself not be born for another 6 months.
“A prophet of the Most High” – An exalted title indeed; but cf. Lk 1:32 – “Son of the Most High”.
This part of the prophecy places John very much in the line of Elijah, Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1; 4:5; cf. Lk 1:17.
“You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” – Note the implied Christology: ‘the Lord’ in Isa 40:3 and Mal 3:1 is clearly Yahweh, whereas here it is no less clearly Jesus. Mk 1:2f explicitly applies these references to Jesus.
‘The interplay of Forerunner and Fulfiller, “prophet of Most High” and “Son of Most High,” again signifies that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is not a random and unprecedented innovation of God, but the fulfillment of a purposeful chain of saving events in Israel in which John is the penultimate link.’ (Edwards)
Salvation through the forgiveness of their sins – ‘If “the remission of our sins” be the primary element of our salvation, why is it that there are so many of God’s dear children who “through fear of death are all their lifetime subject to bondage”? For if “the sting of death be [unpardoned] sin,” what else than the sense of forgiveness can dissolve that fear? And surely it cannot be God’s will that His children should have to meet the last enemy without that weapon which effectually disarms him.’ (JFB)
‘Whereas the covenant blessings promised in the Old Testament were primarily this-worldly (descendants, land, victory), Zechariah’s song, like the rest of the New Testament, offers a less material and more spiritual perspective. His people will be enabled to serve him in “holiness and righteousness,” they will have the “knowledge (experience) of salvation” through the “forgiveness of sins,” they will see light in the darkness and know the blessings of “peace.” Such a vision of God’s purpose opens the way for the blessings of Israel to be made available to the whole world.’ (France)
Stein notes that the forgiveness of sins is a distinctive emphasis in Luke’s two volumes. ‘It is mentioned in the overall summary of John the Baptist’s message in 3:3 and is mentioned in both Jesus’ sermonic summary of his mission (4:18) and his great commission to the disciples after his resurrection (24:47). It is also found in the conclusion of the introductory sermon of Acts (2:38), in the explanation of God’s having accepted the Gentiles apart from circumcision (Acts 10:43), in Paul’s defense before Agrippa (26:18), and in two other sermons in Acts (5:31; 13:38). The redemption with which God visits his people is not a political liberation but rather a salvation that involves the forgiveness of sins.’
1:78 Because of our God’s tender mercy
the dawn will break upon us from on high
1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“The dawn” – The underlying word carries a range of meanings, including the rising of a star and the shooting of a plant. The former is supported by the NIV translation.
‘This must mean Christ himself. He is called in Malachi, “the Sun of righteousness,” and in Peter, “the day-star,” and in Revelation, “the bright and morning star” (Mal 4:2, 2 Pet 1:19, Rev 22:16). All are figurative expressions, teaching the same grand truth, that “Christ is the light of the world.”‘ (Jn 8:12) (Ryle). But the expression may refer to the ‘sprout’ or ‘root’ of David, Jer 23:5; cf. Zec 3:8; 6:12. The two images are combined in Rev 22:16.
Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet, p212) thinks that Luke may be attesting to the star of Bethlehem in these verses. ‘The priest, drawing especially on Isaiah 9:2, prophesies vividly concerning the Messiah in terms of an extraordinarily bright comet that rises and descended and dispels the darkness and illuminates the earth’s residences and roads.’
1:80 And the child kept growing and becoming strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.
He was in the wilderness – Although it is too much to assert that John was a member of the Qumran community, it is not unlikely that he developed an acquaintance with the teaching of that community or one similar to it.