THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
THE BIRTH NARRATIVES
The Announcement and Birth of John the Baptist; Announcement of Birth of Christ
The message and theme of the entire Bible is the kingdom of God and Jesus' integral relationship to it. Whereas the NT spells out clearly that Jesus is the king who has brought in the kingdom of God, the OT likewise foretells the coming of this king called "the Christ." According to the OT the kingdom of God would not just simply appear. Rather God would anoint a special person with His Spirit who would bring in the kingdom of God by suffering, dying, and rising from the dead. The key characteristic of this "Anointed One" (literally "Messiah" in the Hebrew and "Christ" in the Greek") would be that He was anointed with God's Spirit.
The coming of God's King, the Christ (Messiah), in many ways would resemble the coming of an earthly king. Earthly kings/queens do not simply appear on the scene. Rather they send envoys or forerunners to make arrangements for their coming. In the same way before the King in the Kingdom of God appears, a forerunner would come to prepare His way (Isaiah 40:3). He would prepare the way of the Messiah/Christ by turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers (Mal. 4:5-6). The coming of the Holy Spirit and the coming of the forerunner of the Christ would mean only one thing--the Christ, the King was on His way.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE BIRTH OF THE FORERUNNER (1:5-25)
After a brief prologue in which Luke says that he is basing his Gospel upon eye-witness reports and that he has written a logical account in order to persuade Theophilus, he launches into the story of the announcement of the birth of the forerunner of the Christ (Messiah), John the Baptist. The angel of the Lord appeared to a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division called Abijah. He and his wife Elizabeth were advanced in years. They were barren. They had no hope of ever conceiving a child because of their age. The priests assigned to care for the temple drew lots to determine who would offer the evening prayers and the evening sacrifice of incense in the holy place. The lot fell to Zechariah.
This was going to be a momentous time for Zechariah. During the 1st century BC/AD over 18,000 priests ministered in the temple. Only one priest each day offered the evening sacrifice in the holy place. The sheer number of priests meant that not every priest got to offer the evening sacrifice, and if he did, he got to do it only once in his lifetime.
As Zechariah is offering the sacrifice, the angel who is standing at the right of the altar, the place of honor, addresses Zechariah. Because Zechariah is terrified at the sight of the angel, the angel commands him not to be afraid. Although this is the first time this command is given in Luke, it is not the last. It is understandable that anybody who beholds an angel would be afraid; yet there is no cause for fear according to the angel. The angel has come not to harm mankind but to announce that salvation is coming. Instead of fear, people should experience joy because of the news he is bringing. The day of fear is over.
The angel specifically informs Zechariah his prayer has been answered--specifically the prayer for a son. It is interesting that Zechariah would be praying this prayer while in the holy place because he was supposed to be interceding on behalf of Israel. He was supposed to be praying for Israel's salvation, for the coming of the Christ. The fact though may be that he was praying both these prayers while in the holy place. He might have been praying for the salvation of Israel and might have been using this momentous occasion to ask God for a son. Little did he realize that God was going to grant both these requests in a way he had never imagined. God was going to begin the process of salvation by sending Zechariah's son to Israel.
(This story begins a series of episodes in Luke-Acts which show that before God does anything marvelous, prayer is in operation. Other examples in Luke/Acts include Luke 6:12--Jesus choosing His disciples; Acts 1:14--prayer before the coming of the Holy Spirit, and 12:5--prayer for Peter in prison, etc. Prayer is not just one thing among many Christians engage in; it is one of the most important things Christians engage in. It is critical for a successful Christian life.)
The angel informs Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth are going to have a son. Instead of fear, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have joy and gladness, in other words, double joy. Moreover, many will rejoice over his birth, in other words, triple joy is coming. Whatever else characterizes the kingdom of God, joy should be one of its chief characteristics, joy that salvation has come, joy that God has come to the earth to love us, joy that one day all the sorrows of life will end and we will experience unbridled joy, joy that we will experience a family reunion unparalleled in the history of the world, joy that we shall see the loving Father of the universe face to face. Moping has no place in the kingdom of God. To be sure sadness is a real feature of life here on earth; yet it is certainly tempered by the joy which comes from realizing all the blessings God is giving us now and has in store for us when Jesus returns.
Why will this son bring Elizabeth and Zechariah joy? (1) He will be great in the sight of the Lord; (2) he will be so special to the Lord that he will not drink any alcoholic beverage; (3) he will be filled with the Holy Spirit; (4) he will bring many of the Jews back to God; (5) he will serve as the forerunner to the Christ/Messiah; and (6) he will prepare the people for the coming of God by reconciling sons to fathers and by bringing the disobedient to an attitude of obedience.
(Notice the significance of turning the hearts of the sons to their fathers. The relationship of the son to the father is pivotal in the life of the son because in many ways his relationship to his dad reflects his relationship to God. Our dads are shadowy reflections of our true Father. In many cases our problem is not with the person who fulfills the role of dad in our lives; our problem is with the fact that we do have a dad in our lives, a dad who does not always agree with us, a dad who sometimes disciplines us when we don't think it right, a dad who won't always let us go our own way. If we think that we have problems with our earthly fathers because of these characteristics, then we are certainly going to have problems with our heavenly Father who definitely does not always agree with us, who does discipline us at times when we don't think we deserve it, and who does not always let us go our own way. Before trying to get right with God, many times we need to get right with our dads so that we can get right with our heavenly Father.)
Zechariah is incredulous at this announcement. This is too hard to believe because of how old Zechariah and Elizabeth are. Zechariah makes a terrible mistake here. In analyzing the situation, Zechariah looks at the enormity of the obstacle--their advanced age and Elizabeth's barrenness, and not at the power of God which is greater than any human obstacle. Moreover, Zechariah should have known better. The OT is replete with stories of women who had been barren and who had been touched by God to bring forth sons: Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. There was no excuse for this response.
Gabriel's response demonstrates that Zechariah's response was inexcusable. It is as if Gabriel is saying: "Just who do you think I am? I am no mere underling. I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of the Lord. I speak for the Lord. Your response to me is nothing less than your response to God. You have not dishonored me; you have dishonored God. I will give you a sign to show to you that this will come to pass. From henceforth until the day the child is born, you will be mute. [Although Gabriel does not say it, it turns out that Zechariah also becomes deaf--Luke 1:62.]"
Zechariah exits the holy place, returning to the place where the people have gathered for evening prayers in the temple compound. By his being mute, they realize that he has experienced a divine visitation. He returns home, and true to Gabriel's word Elizabeth gets pregnant. The name given to John especially applies to Elizabeth's new condition. The name "John" literally means "the Lord is GRACious." She picks up on this and claims that because of her pregnancy, God has removed her disGRACE.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE BIRTH OF THE CHRIST (1:26-38)
The scene now shifts north to a little village in Galilee called Nazareth. This small village was nestled up the side of a hill overlooking the valley of Jezreel, Armageddon. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph who was of the line of David. (Engagement in ancient Israel was a legal union that could be dissolved only by a divorce. The only differences between engagement and marriage was that the couple did not live together and did not engage in sex. Otherwise, they were considered as married as those who did live together.)
Gabriel addresses Mary as "the Favored One." She is favored because the Lord is with her. Mary naturally like Zechariah is afraid because of the angel's appearance. Gabriel exhorts her not to be afraid. Instead he reiterates that she has found favor with God. The reason she has found favor with God is that she is about to conceive a son whom she is to call Jesus, "the Lord is salvation." He will (1) be great, (2) be called the Son of the Most High, that is, the Son of God, (3) ascend David's throne, and (4) reign forever and ever.
Many claim that the Bible cannot be trusted because people in the ancient world believed in miracles. The people in the ancient world believed in miracles to such an extent that they had no problems with making up these kinds of stories. Mary's reaction shows that the ancients were more modern than we have assumed. She replies that she doesn't know how this can happen since she is a virgin. Even she, even the ancient world, knew that virgins can't get pregnant without having sexual relations.
Gabriel informs her though that the Spirit of God is going to overshadow her. By this operation of the Spirit she will conceive a son. By this operation her son shall be the Son of God. Moreover, Gabriel informs her that her cousin Elizabeth has already experienced a miracle from God; she too, though advanced in years, is going to bear a son. Elizabeth's miraculous conception should assure Mary that she too will miraculously conceive a son. These 2 experiences show that 400 years of silence are over. God is now breaking again into human history. Nothing will be impossible because God is now operating.
Mary's response? Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word." No wonder God chose her to be the mother of His Son. She is about to suffer humiliation. Who is going to believe her son was immaculately conceived? Yet she submits totally to the Father's will.
It is so easy to get caught up in the story that we tend to overlook some of the implications Luke is drawing here. One thing he is doing is contrasting the person of John the Baptist with the person of Jesus. According to Josephus, the great first-century Jewish historian, John the Baptist made a tremendous impact upon the Jewish people. The Jews considered him a great prophet. Luke's point is that although John was a great prophet, he paled in comparison to Jesus. Although John would be great in the sight of the Lord, Jesus would just be flat-out great. Although the Holy Spirit would be upon John from the time of his birth, in Jesus' case the Spirit would actually overshadow Mary thereby enabling her to have this son. As great as John was, he was just the forerunner, while Jesus was God the Son, the King who ascends the throne of His father David, and the One who will reign eternally. The Jews were hoping for a great man to come be their Messiah; what they got was God Himself.
THE FIRST PRONOUNCEMENT BY THE JOHN, THE FORERUNNER (1:39-56)
Upon hearing the news of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary rushes off to the hill country of Judea in the south in order to visit her cousin. When Elizabeth sees Mary approaching, the baby within her leaps for joy. Elizabeth greets Mary: Blessed among women are you! (In other words you are the most blessed woman on the earth.) Blessed is the fruit of your womb. How has it happened that the mother of my Lord has come to me? (In and of herself Mary is not blessed. She is blessed because she is the mother of Elizabeth's Lord, the mother of God's Son. She draws her significance from her relationship with Christ.) How do I know that you are the mother of my Lord? My son is the forerunner of the Lord, the Messiah. When he supernaturally realized that you were approaching, my son within me leapt for joy! My son has already begun his work of pronouncing the coming of the King!"
Upon hearing this, Mary launches into a song called "the Magnificat." It has received this title because the first words of this song in Latin are cognates of the word "magnificat." Once more the note of joy runs through this song. Zechariah and Elizabeth would experience great joy not only because they are going to have a son but also because they are going to be the parents of the forerunner of the king. Elizabeth has just experienced this joy with the baby leaping within her womb upon the arrival of her Lord's mother. Now Mary too is experiencing the joy that comes with the arrival of the king and His kingdom.
Mary highlights 2 major aspects of the coming of the Lord: (1) God has exalted the humble and (2) He has fulfilled His promise. How has God exalted the humble with the coming of the Lord? The Lord is not going to be born in the greatest city in the most comfortable surroundings possible. Rather He is going to be born of a virgin in a little village in the backwaters of the Roman empire. He will be raised in a village so remote and insignificant that Josephus who names so many of the cities of Israel fails even to mention Nazareth. It's not the poor God exalts; it's not the dumb God exalts. He exalts the humble. They can be rich; they can be poor. They can be dumb; they can be intelligent. They can be nobodies in society; they can be the mayors of the great cities. Whatever they are though, they must reflect Mary's attitude: "Be it done to me according to Thy word."
Second, Mary's hymn highlights the truth that God keeps His promises. In this particular instance God is keeping His word to Abraham and to David. God had promised Abraham that One of his descendants would be a blessing to all people, that is, He would bring salvation to mankind (Gen. 12:2-3). To David God promised that He would sit One of David's descendants upon his throne and that this descendant would reign eternally (2 Sam. 7:12-16). With the coming of Mary's Son, God was fulfilling these major OT promises.
Whatever else the birth of Jesus means, it means God does keep His promises. He keeps them not only for the sake of Israel, He keeps them because by nature He is a promise-keeper. As a result, whenever God promises us something in His Word, we can rest assured that He will keep His promise. It may not happen on your or my timetable, but it will happen.
Moreover, God keeps His Word in such a way that it blows our minds. The people of Israel were promised that God would send them a deliverer; what they got was nothing less than God the Son Himself. Zechariah and Elizabeth were praying for a son and asking for God to keep His promise regarding the coming of the Savior. What did they get when God kept His word? A son who was nothing less than the forerunner of the Christ. We need to be receptive to the promises God has made to us and then be open to the way that He fulfills His promises. We may not get what we were expecting or what we were even wanting. That's OK though because what we were expecting and wanting doesn't even begin to compare with the wonderful way God will fulfill His promise.
THE BIRTH OF THE FORERUNNER (1:57-80)
The word of Gabriel comes true. Elizabeth bears a son. Even though the neighbors insist otherwise, she persists in naming him "John." When the neighbors protest, Zechariah writes down on a tablet that his name is to be called John. At this point Zechariah breaks forth into song, praising God for what the birth of this child means. Because John the forerunner of the Messiah has been born, it is only a matter of time now before the Messiah Himself appears on the scene, and with the Messiah appears salvation.