[Note: On Thursdays I am sharing notes from my recently completed study of Luke.]
Announcement of John’s Birth (Luke 1:5-25)
“In the days of King Herod of Judea.” This was Herod the Great who was king of Judea from 37-4 BCE. The setting of the story in a historical context reminds us that God works in and through the structures and events of history.
“A priest named Zechariah.” The name Zechariah was common in Hebrew and means “God remembers.” He was a member of one of the 24 divisions of the priests that were named for the sons of Aaron. His wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron; thus they were both from priestly families.
An interesting contemporary footnote: The AP reported on July 6, 2003, that a Greek inscription had been found on a funerary monument known as Absalom’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mt. of Olives. It reads, “This is the tomb of Zachariah, martyr, very pious priest, father of John.” The inscription was probably made by Byzantine Christians (so-called because of the name of the Greek colony on which Constantine established the “second Rome,” Byzantium, in Asia Minor) in the 4th or 5th century and Zechariah may not even be buried there. It nonetheless reveals an early tradition regarding Zechariah and John.
They were good and righteous people in every way that a person of their time could have been. Yet they were childless, a very negative circumstance in their culture. Elizabeth was “barren,” like many great women of the OT who later became mothers (Sarah, Rachel, Hannah) and the couple was old, like Abraham and Sarah. Anyone familiar with the OT narratives and thus with how God works would know that something big was about to happen.
The priestly divisions served in two week rotations in Jerusalem in addition to their service during the great feasts. Zechariah’s division was on duty and he had been chosen to perform the incense offering on this particular day. People engaged in prayer during the offering and waited for the priest to come back out and offer a blessing.
Zechariah experienced an angelic visitation that served as an announcement from the Lord. Gabriel was one of the seven archangels in Jewish tradition and he often functioned as God’s messenger (Craddock, Luke, p. 25).
Zechariah was afraid, which is no surprise.
The words of the angel are filled with encouragement and good news. They tell Zechariah that Elizabeth is going to have son whom they will name John. The result of his birth and life will be joy and gladness, not only for his parents but for many people. The reason is that he will play a vital part in bringing about God’s plan of salvation. He was to be set apart as a prophet; even before he is born he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He would cause people to turn to the Lord through the kind of prophetic power that his predecessor Elijah had. He would prepare people for the coming of the Lord. The Gospels see John’s ministry as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6.
Zechariah questions how such a thing could happen given that he and his wife were advanced in years. Gabriel, who in Jewish tradition was one of the seven archangels of God, kind of got an attitude about it, didn’t he? As a result of Zechariah’s disbelief, he was struck mute until the child would be born.
The passage ends in silence, waiting, and wonder. So it should be after a direct encounter with God.
Obviously, though, something is going on. God is taking steps to work his purposes out. Luke presents his story in the language and thought forms of the Greek Old Testament, which is his way of saying that what God was doing through John and later through Jesus is part of the old, old story that had been developing for a very long time. As Craddock points out, Luke also shows God working through the established Jewish institutions (temple, priesthood, etc.). He is working in continuity with what he has done before.
Some closing observations:
1. We are still a part of that old, old story.
2. Sometimes we have to sit in silence, waiting, and wonder, too.
3. It is exciting, though, because we are always waiting for what God will do.