Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 2)

December 9, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

In recounting the story of Jesus’ birth, the book of Luke begins by first telling the story of the birth of John the Baptist, who is both a relative of Jesus and the forerunner of the Messiah. Luke brings in numerous ties to the Old Testament, making the connection between God’s promises to Israel and the fulfillment of those promises in the birth of Jesus.

We learn about a priest named Zechariah whose wife, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron—the brother of Moses and the first priest of Israel.1 Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.2

In biblical times, childlessness was often perceived as a sign of divine punishment and a source of shame.3 However, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation is an echo of the righteous couples throughout Israel’s history who were also barren but through the intervention of God bore a child: Abraham and Sarah,4 Elkanah and Hannah,5 Isaac and Rebekah,6 Jacob and Rachel,7 and the parents of Samson.8

As a priest, Zechariah ministered in the temple twice a year. The priesthood was divided into twenty-four orders or courses. Each course would serve in the temple on a rotating basis for one week every six months. As a result, at any given time one would find only a subdivision of priests on duty in the temple.9

This year, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.10 Part of the daily routine at the temple was incense offerings before the morning sacrifice and following the evening sacrifice. The incense offerings were offered in the sanctuary known as the Holy Place, which in terms of holiness was second only to the Holy of Holies. It was a great honor for a priest to offer this sacrifice, and each was only eligible to do it once in his lifetime. The manner of choosing the priest for this honor was the casting of lots, and thus the priest chosen was considered chosen by God. While five priests were involved in the service, only one was chosen to offer incense.

The altar of incense was located in the sanctuary itself and was separated from the Holy of Holies—the place where God was understood to dwell—by a very thick curtain. Only the High Priest was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies, and only once each year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Zechariah’s opportunity to offer the incense, separated only by the curtain from the Holy of Holies, put him as close to the presence of God as any person other than the High Priest might ever come. It was a great honor.11

While Zechariah was in the Holy Place, there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.12 The “right side” was considered a place of honor, which could denote the importance of the angel, who later is revealed to be Gabriel—the same angel who visited Mary and who brought a message to Daniel centuries before. Zechariah’s reaction was similar to Daniel’s, who said: I heard a man's voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, Gabriel, make this man understand the vision. So he came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face.13

The angel said to Zechariah, Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.14 In the Old Testament, when God named a child it was often someone who had some significance in salvation history. Saying that many would rejoice at his birth and that he would be great before the Lord reinforced the idea that he would have an important role in God’s plan of salvation.

Zechariah is instructed that his son must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.15 When the priests were serving in the temple, they abstained from alcoholic beverages, as did those who took a Nazarite vow.16 Refusing to drink alcohol was associated with separation from normal life for a divine task, whether for a temporary specified period or for life. In this we see that John is chosen by God even before his conception.17

The angel tells Zechariah something about the child’s future.

He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.18

John’s role will be that of a prophet whose task is to bring spiritual reconciliation to the nation by turning many to the Lord. His coming in the spirit of Elijah echoes God’s promise made about 400 years earlier in the book of Malachi:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.19

John’s purpose is to ready a people for the Lord’s coming by bringing them to repentance. The period of waiting for the Messiah, for deliverance, is drawing to a close. God is on the move.20

At this point, Zechariah questions the angel:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.21

This denotes some doubt on Zechariah’s part, and the angel responds:

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.22

As a confirmatory sign, Gabriel declares that Zechariah will be silent, meaning mute and probably also deaf,23 until all of what he’s been told comes to pass.24

Throughout the Old Testament we see God giving signs to His people, as in the case of Abraham,25 Moses,26 Gideon,27 Hezekiah,28 and Ahaz.29 Just as with the Old Testament signs, the sign given to Zechariah is a guarantee of God’s promise, but in this case it was also a chastisement for his unbelief. In Luke’s gospel, God gives signs through His own initiative,30 but requests for signs are seen negatively.31 32

At the end of his days of service, Zechariah returns home, and we learn that after some time his wife Elizabeth conceives—just as Gabriel had said she would. Upon realizing she is pregnant, Elizabeth responds with praise and gratitude, saying, Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.33 One can imagine the joy she experienced.

We’re told that Elizabeth remained secluded in her home for five months. The reason for doing so isn’t explained, but it could be that she remained at home until it was obvious to everyone that she was pregnant, in order to avoid five more months of the public disgrace that she had been accustomed to all of her married life. After five months, it would have been very clear to everyone who saw her that God had looked favorably upon her.34

The story then moves forward six months from the time of the angel Gabriel’s visitation to Zechariah. Gabriel is now sent to the region of Galilee, north of Judea, to the village of Nazareth, to bring Mary the message that she would become mother to the Messiah.

Mary is told that her son will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.35 This information and the title Son of the Most High were probably understood by Mary to mean that her son would become the king of Israel.36 As His life unfolds, it becomes clear that His role is to be very different from the standard expectation of the awaited Jewish Messiah. We find that He is instead the Son of God.

Since Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel and comments on that text were covered in the previous article, we’ll move forward to Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth. Soon after Gabriel’s visit, having made the decision to accept to miraculously become the mother of the Savior, we’re told that Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.37

Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, is about 70 miles north of Jerusalem, which lies in the region of Judah. It’s interesting to note that the angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple in Jerusalem, in the Holy Place, right next to the Holy of Holies. However, the appearance to Mary was in Nazareth, in Galilee, far from the center of the Jewish faith. God was doing a new thing, and as the gospel story progresses, we'll see the focus move away from the temple and onto God’s Son. As Brown says:

If the appearance to Zechariah, a priest, took place in the Jerusalem Temple as a sign of continuity with Old Testament institutions, the coming of Gabriel to Mary takes place in Nazareth, a town to which no Old Testament expectation was attached, as a sign of the total newness of what God is doing.38

Upon Mary’s arrival she greeted Elizabeth; and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.39

Mary greets Elizabeth as would be proper, since Elizabeth is her elder, a daughter of Aaron, the wife of a priest, and blessed of God through a divinely assisted pregnancy. Upon hearing the greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped in the womb, causing her, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to cry out with a blessing both for Mary and the child in her womb. What the angel had told Mary when he appeared to her is now confirmed to the reader of the gospel—Mary is pregnant. While Elizabeth is considered Mary’s superior, she now places herself in a servant’s role by honoring her guest and recognizing her as the mother of my Lord and calling her blessed among women, affirming Gabriel’s message of Mary’s favored status.40

Mary responds with a beautiful hymn of praise, known today as the Magnificat.

Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.41

Like other hymns of praise in the Psalms, this one has three parts: 1) an introduction of praise to God; 2) the body of the hymn giving the reasons for praise, which often begins with “because;” and 3) the conclusion.

Mary’s introduction of praise begins with, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.42 It continues with the body of the hymn (verses 48–53), starting with for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.43 The Greek word translated here as “for” is translated as “because” 173 times in the New Testament. The motive (or the “because”) for the praise involves God’s attributes (mighty, holy, merciful), and deeds (shown strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, filled the hungry). The conclusion summarizes God's deeds (He has helped His servant Israel) and attributes (in remembrance of His mercy) in light of helping His servant Israel.44

Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months, most likely helping her in her last months of pregnancy. It’s not clear if she left before or after Elizabeth gave birth; it could have been either. These two women who played such an important role in the history of salvation were able to be a comfort and help to one another preceding the birth of their children. The time with Elizabeth most likely strengthened Mary for what she was going to face when she returned to her home and explained to Joseph that she was pregnant.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah Vols 1,2. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Charlesworth, James H., editor. JesusJewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering JesusGenius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2007.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 18:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2010.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of JesusTeachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest (Exodus 40:12–13).

2 Luke 1:6–7.

3 Genesis 16:4; 29:31; 30:1, 22–23; 1 Samuel 1:5–6.

4 Genesis 18:11–14.

5 1 Samuel 1:1–2.

6 Genesis 25:21.

7 Genesis 30:22–23.

8 Judges 13:2–3.

9 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 68.

10 Luke 1:9.

11 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 70.

12 Luke 1:11–12.

13 Daniel 8:16–17.

14 Luke 1:13–15.

15 Luke 1:15.

16 Numbers 6:1–4.

17 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 75.

18 Luke 1:16–17.

19 Malachi 4:5–6.

20 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 76, 78.

21 Luke 1:18.

22 Luke 1:19–20.

23 Luke 1:62–63.

24 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 59.

25 Genesis 15:7–17.

26 Exodus 4:1–17.

27 Judges 6:36–40.

28 2 Kings 20:1–11.

29 Isaiah 7:10–17.

30 Luke 1:36; 2:12.

31 Luke 11:16, 29–30; 23:8.

32 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 79.

33 Luke 1:25.

34 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 81.

35 Luke 1:32–33.

36 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 81, 60.

37 Luke 1:39–40.

38 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.

39 Luke 1:41–45.

40 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 81, 94.

41 Luke 1:46–55.

42 Luke 1:46–47.

43 Luke 1:48.

44 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 355–56.