Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

Introducing the Introducer

Introduction:  Today I want to begin a new preaching series that will probably take us through the entire year of 1997 except for a couple of short interruptions.  The series will be on the life of Christ.  The recent preaching Paul and I have done on a few of the parables of Jesus whetted my appetite to dig deeper.  We are going to use the gospel of Luke as the basis for this series, though we will borrow from Matthew and Mark at points where they fill in gaps in Luke’s account.  This will allow us to focus on the birth narratives in Luke 1 and 2 during Advent season, which starts today. Next Sunday, for example, we will be looking at the annunciation of the birth of Jesus.

This morning, however, we will be examining one of the most unusual characters in Bible history.  If I were to ask you, “Who was the greatest man who ever lived, apart from Jesus, of course?” who would you suggest?  I’m sure the top ten candidates would include such familiar names as Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Peter, and Paul.  But listen to what Jesus says in Luke 7:28: “Among those born of women (and that includes everyone, as far as I know) there is no one greater than John.”  That’s quite a commendation for one who seems to be known more for his eccentricity than for anything else.

The average believer knows very little about John the Baptist.  Some may know he wore a camel’s hair coat and ate locusts and wild honey.  More may know he’s the one who baptized Jesus.  A few may be aware he was beheaded when a drunken king made a rash promise to a dancing girl.  But that is about it.  We tend to confuse John the Baptist with John the Evangelist, and we are often unsure which “John” is referred to as we read the New Testament.

If Jesus placed such a high estimate of value on John, I think we should try to learn more about him.  And the best place to begin may be with the fact that John was the human link between the Old and New Testaments.  Let me explain—and an open Bible and careful concentration will help you follow me here.  The Old Testament concludes with the prophecy of Malachi about four centuries before the events unfolding in Luke chapter 1.  The people of God were accustomed to hearing from God through his prophets.  They didn’t always listen to them; in fact, sometimes they persecuted and even killed them, but at least their presence was evidence that God had not abandoned his people.  But for nearly 400 years after Malachi there were no prophets of God; heaven was silent.  In fact, the period is known as the “four hundred silent years.”

Israel shouldn’t have been surprised that God quit speaking to them.  Several hundred years before Malachi God had warned the people of coming disaster because of their sin.  A number of the prophets, including Isaiah and Habakkuk, predicted the Babylonian captivity and the total destruction of the nation.  And, of course, when the people refused to repent, everything the prophets predicted came to pass.  Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in 587 B.C., destroyed the magnificent Solomonic temple, and carted off the vast majority of the people to be slaves in Babylon.

But the Babylonian captivity was not to spell the demise of the Jewish nation.  In fact, in the same prophecy Isaiah predicted a better day for his people after the Babylonian captivity.  So certain was he that a better day would come that he even spoke of it in the past tense.  Please turn with me to Isaiah chapter 40, beginning in verse 1:

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  

A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  (Isaiah 40:1-5)

The better day will occur only when Israel’s sin has been paid for through the sacrifice of Messiah.  His coming, in turn, will be introduced by the voice of one calling the people to repentance.

Now turn with me to the very end of the Old Testament.  The Babylonian Captivity has come and gone, and a remnant of exiled Jews have returned to Jerusalem and built a new temple, albeit nothing like the Solomonic temple.  Malachi looks way into the distance—beyond even where Isaiah looked—and predicts a judgment upon Israel that is far worse than the Babylonian Captivity.  But just like Isaiah, Malachi includes a promise with his warning: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.  Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1).

Now look at Malachi 4, verse 5: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”  Here the Prophet is predicting a final judgment of God upon mankind, but before that judgment falls, God will send the prophet Elijah, already dead for hundreds of years, to bring about a revival.  

Now keeping all that in mind, turn with me to Matthew 11, beginning in verse 7, where Jesus speaks about John the Baptist as they are both in their early 30’s:

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see?  A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see?  A man dressed in fine clothes?  No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.  Then what did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”  (In other words, John is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 4:5!).

“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.  For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.  And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (So John is also the fulfillment, or at least could have been the fulfillment, of Malachi 4).  “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 11:7-15).

Now what have we learned from this little excursion through the prophets?  We’ve learned that God promised terrible judgment upon his people for their sin.  But he also promised that he would forgive those who turned to him in repentance and faith.  The One who would provide forgiveness for their sin is Messiah.  However, he would be preceded and would be introduced by one who is “a voice” calling people to repentance and one who is a spiritual replica of the great prophet Elijah.  With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where the introducer is introduced beginning in verse 5:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.  Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.  But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.  Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  

The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple.  When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.  

When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.  “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

The principal characters in this drama

Herod, King of Judea.  He was the first king to sit on the throne of Israel since the days of Nebuchadnezzar.  For six hundred years the Jews had been dominated by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.  But even Herod was not a real king; he was merely a puppet, a vassal put there by the Roman Emperor.  Furthermore, he was a godless and wicked man.  For 32 years he maintained his throne through political intrigue, corruption, and even murder.  He sold priestly offices to the highest bidder and allowed the temple to be desecrated.  Imagine how devout souls must have felt.  Has God forgotten them?  Are they hopeless?  But as always, a faithful remnant remains.

Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They are both of priestly families, but more importantly they are upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they have a problem—they have no children, and both are getting well along in years.  People who have never had a problem with infertility have no idea of the pain this can bring into a person’s life.  Especially was that true in the culture of that day, when barrenness was considered by many to be a curse, a sure sign of God’s displeasure. 

It was Zechariah’s turn to serve in the temple in Jerusalem.  The priests throughout the country were divided into 24 groups, and each group was allowed to serve at the temple two weeks out of the year.  Within each group, lots were cast to decide which priest would get to go into the Holy Place and offer incense at the altar that stood before the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.  No priest was allowed to do this more than once during his lifetime.  But this day the lot fell on Zechariah.  He stood before the altar and burned the incense that was a powerful, beautiful symbol of the prayers of Israel rising to God.  As he stood there, he offered prayers for the deliverance of Israel, prayers of intercession in behalf of the people, and prayers for himself and his wife.  As he did so, a large group of devout worshipers gathered outside the Holy Place, praying with the priest who represented them before God.

An angel named Gabriel.  Gabriel is one of the few angels given a name in the Scriptures.  He appeared twice to Daniel, once here to Zechariah, and again later in this chapter to a virgin named Mary.  Each time he brings a message of great import from the throne room of God.  His appearance is not described for us, but the effect of his appearance is profound on Zechariah, who is startled and gripped with fear.

A God who answers prayer.  Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, “Do not be afraidyour prayer has been heard.”  He had undoubtedly offered up many prayers, but the one Gabriel focuses on is Zechariah’s personal petition to God for a son.  One can only imagine how often that prayer had been lifted by Zechariah and Elizabeth over the decades before.  There is no explanation as to why it is answered now, rather than before.  Divine timing is totally beyond our comprehension.  But what is indisputable is the fact that God does answer prayer.  The petitions and intercessions of God’s people move His heart and He responds, not always as we choose, but always to our benefit.  

However, it is not only the prayer for a son that is in the process of being answered, but also Zechariah’s prayers for deliverance of the nation, for the angel goes on to announce that this son to be born to him will be used by God to prepare his people for their Messiah.

The birth of John the Baptist foretold

The angel’s annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth.  Among the facts revealed by Gabriel to Zechariah and Elizabeth are these:

Their son’s birth will be in response to prayer.

His name will be John.

He will bring joy and delight to his parents, as well as to others.

He will be great in the sight of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit from 

birth, and effective in bringing revival to the people of God.

His ministry will be that of Forerunner or Introducer to prepare the people 

for Messiah Jesus.

In essence what Gabriel announces is that God would speak to Israel through a prophet for the first time in 400 years!  God is about to do something amazing!  The stage is being set for a major new unfolding of his plan and purpose!

The reaction of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah’s initial reaction is fear, but fear gives way to unbelief.  Zechariah asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  I find it difficult to be too judgmental of Zechariah.  When my wife told me we were expecting at age 40, after years of praying for another child, my response was not, “I knew it!  I just knew it!”  It was more like, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?  I can’t believe it!”

But friends, God is not pleased when his children respond with unbelief to clear evidence of divine communication.  A healthy dose of skepticism may be necessary in a day and time when there are all kinds of false messiahs and numerous bogus claims of divine phenomena, but the fact remains that Zechariah had no doubt in his mind that he had seen an angel from God.  The skepticism he exhibited was unwarranted.  So the angel announces a chastisement, not harsh but memorable: Zechariah would not be able to speak until the day this miracle is fulfilled.

We do not know whether he shared the angel’s message with his wife when he returned home from Jerusalem.  He couldn’t tell her because he couldn’t talk, but it is possible he wrote it out, for in verse 63 he did that very thing when it came time to name the baby.  But whether Elizabeth was forewarned or simply realized she was pregnant for the first time in her life, her reaction contrasts with his.  It is a reaction of thankfulness and faith.  In verse 25 she says, “The Lord has done this for me.  In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

John the Baptist is born.

Please read with me verses 57-66 of chapter 1:

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.  

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’  

They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’  

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.  He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God.  The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things.  Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.

Three factors are highlighted here:

The joy produced by the child.  Almost every child brings joy to a family, but this situation must have been unique.  Not only had Zechariah and Elizabeth waited for an incredibly long time, but this child was to be a unique instrument in the hand of God.  Imagine having a baby that was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth!  I’m not even sure what that means in practical terms, for I know John was not sinless, but he certainly was special. 

The naming of the child.  At his circumcision, the extended family all got involved.  They wanted to honor Zechariah and his long wait by naming the child after him.  The mother said, “No! He is to be called John.”  They argued with her that it was a dumb name for someone who had no relatives with that name.  But Zechariah, still mute, wrote on a tablet to the astonishment of everyone, “His name is John.”  Argument over.  

The removal of Zechariah’s chastisement.  Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, he was able to speak, and the first words out of his mouth were praises to God.  The question in everyone’s mind was, “What, then, is this child going to be?”  With all these strange happenings, God must be doing something unique!  

The Benedictus

Zechariah offers a prophetic song under the filling of the Holy Spirit, to answer their question.  The Church has long referred to it as “The Benedictus” because that is the first word of this song in the Latin translation of the Bible.  It means “blessed” or “praised.”  I wish we had time this morning to examine it in detail, for it is full of profound theology, but I want us simply to read it and then point out three key elements:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.  He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us — to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham:  to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”  (Luke 1:68-79)

Praise to God for his redemption. The plan of redemption is about to unfold in all its glory.  The Lord has already come.  At the very moment Zechariah speaks Messiah is smaller than a human finger, only three months old in the womb of his mother Mary, but He has come!  And He has come to redeem his people.  All the holy prophets predicted this would happen, and now it is unfolding before their very eyes.

Place of John as prophet and preparer.  John would be called a prophet of the Most High, which is a tremendous honor, but Zechariah is very clear about the limits of his place.  He will “go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”  And how will John do that?  By giving “his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (verse 77).  John could not save them; he could not forgive them.  But he could give them the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins by pointing to Jesus.  Someone has said, “That day was so spiritually dark that when Light came into the world, God had to send someone to say, ‘That’s light.’”

John’s importance was not in who he was; his importance was found in the fact that he was the way-preparer, the one who was to introduce the Savior.  When he began his ministry at about the age of 30, John fully recognized his place.  When people were giving him more attention than Jesus, he said to them, “One more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie…. He must become greater; I must become less.” (Luke 3:16, John 3:30)

Finally, Zechariah offers praise that peace with God is now available.

Peace with God is now available.  In verse 78 he speaks of “the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun (that’s Messiah Jesus) will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”  Peace is a rare commodity in this world—whether you’re talking about international peace, religious peace, labor peace, political peace, racial peace, or personal peace.  Many of us had our sense of peace stretched nearly to the breaking point by the tragic events of this past week.

Yet as I observed the incredible strength Dennis Beldner and his family exhibited as they laid to rest three of their dear loved ones on Wednesday, I was struck by the fact that this cannot be explained merely as resolve, or courage, or strength of character.  It cannot be explained by saying they are in shock.  This can only be explained as the peace of God mediated by the Holy Spirit of God.  As I sat down at Thanksgiving dinner with my family, I not only had a renewed gratitude for Jan and Andy and Eddie and Cindy, and our extended families, but also a renewed sense that God is in control.  The plan of salvation he set into motion when a simple priest named Zechariah walked into the Holy Place 2,000 years ago is still bringing peace to the lives of God’s people today.

The Lord’s Table:  As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, I want us to approach it as a holy place.  It is a place where we can bring our petitions to a God who answers prayer.  We don’t have to look forward to a redeemer, as Zechariah did; we can look back at the fact that God has already provided redemption in the person of his Son.  But because of that, we can also pray as Paul did, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).  Let’s pray.


John the Baptist



The Benedictus

Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:1-4