The Birth of John
Here we have the story of the birth of the forerunner to the Messiah told in such a way as to give preeminence to the coming Messiah. John was a compelling figure who drew many people to himself. Luke wants to make clear that John’s role was to prophesy of and point toward the Messiah. It is worth remembering in any time that the messengers are not to be given pre-eminence over the subject of the message. I once heard a woman say of her pastor, “I just can’t imagine going to a church where he’s not the pastor.” So many red flags flew up in mind that she must have been able to see them through my eyes. It’s good to have mentors whom you can trust, but we must always remember that our allegiance is to Jesus Christ and not to his servants.
Mary may have stayed with Elizabeth until John was born (see v. 56—Mary had her visit from Gabriel in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy [v. 26] and stayed with Elizabeth for three months).
None of this is surprising to us, since we expect the prophecies we’ve heard to be fulfilled.
Note that family and friends rejoiced because they realized that in the birth of John the Lord had shown his mercy to Elizabeth. What they don’t realize is the way in which God had shown his mercy to all the world as well. Then as now, the masses don’t realize how God is working, but he is working all the same.
v. 59: the covenant established with Abraham stipulated that male children be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:12). Luke wants us to see that Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful adherents to Torah. Apparently the custom had arisen to name the child in conjunction with the ceremony of circumcision, and the people involved wanted to name the baby after his father. Usual custom seems to have been to name a son after his grandfather, but there is much evidence of the naming of a son after his father, as well.
vv. 60-63: Elizabeth and then Zechariah insist that he will be called John. The significance of that is that Gabriel had told Zechariah that his name would be John. Naming him John is an obedient action. Elizabeth and Zechariah are aligning themselves with God’s plan.
vv. 64-66: Zechariah is immediately enabled to speak. What does he say? He begins to praise God for what God has done. These events that enabled Zechariah to speak lead to everybody else in the area talking about what was going on. The question in v. 66 is a good one. The Lord was working in the situation and people wondered what the child was destined to be. It’s a question that could be asked of any child and it’s exciting to ponder the possibilities.
This prophetic utterance by Zechariah is traditionally known as the “Benedictus.”
It falls naturally into two sections:
vv. 68-73 focus not on the birth of John but on the still to come arrival of the Messiah. Notice the emphases: redemption (v. 68), salvation (vv. 69 & 71), fulfillment (v. 70, 72-73), and results (vv. 74-75).
vv. 76-79 are addressed to the baby John. Ultimately, the emphasis is still on the salvation to be brought about by the Messiah (vv. 78-79).
This is a transition verse that prepares us for the appearance of the adult John just before the public appearance of Jesus.
Why was he in the wilderness? What is the role of the wilderness?
Some have speculated that he was among the Essenes at Qumran, but we can’t be sure about that.
The wilderness has always played a vital role in the preparation of God’s people for service. Moses was in the wilderness before he was called to lead the people out of Egypt. The Hebrews were in the wilderness for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. Jesus spent time in the wilderness at crucial points in his life. The wilderness, then, is an opportunity.
Sometimes we stumble into the wilderness.
“By accident a friend became lost. He was traveling with a dozen companions through a broad, meandering canyon filled with shrubs, and by chance he got ahead of his friends. The others, assuming he was behind, slowed down to wait. He, certain his companions would be walking faster than he was, increased his pace. By dusk they were stretched out miles apart. Night fell and instead of the comforting sounds of dinners being prepared around him, all my friend heard was the echo of his voice against towering cliff walls. He had stumbled into solitude. He was more isolated than he had ever been, adrift in a desert of silence and stars. Later, he would not talk about the experience except to say this: ‘It was terrifying. The best night of the trip.’” (David Douglas, “Inviting Solitude: Notes in the Desert Silence,” Weavings (May/June 2001), p. 16).
Our stumbling may be because of any number of factors: physical, emotional, spiritual, vocational, etc. But the wilderness is an opportunity.
Sometimes we walk purposely into the wilderness
We need voluntary times of separation like Jesus took and like John took. They are times of preparation.
“The desert…lacks everything except the opportunity to know God” (David Rensberger, “Deserted Spaces,” Weavings (May/June 2001), pp. 8-9).