Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 3)
December 16, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 3)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Luke informs the readers of some of the events which transpired during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and then tells us that Mary returned to her home. Removing Mary from the scene, he moves into describing the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist.
We’re told that Elizabeth gave birth to a son in fulfillment of God’s promise and that her neighbors and relatives, hearing of God’s great mercy, rejoiced with her. In accordance with the laws of Moses, on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. Circumcision was commanded by God as the sign of inclusion in the covenant made between Him and Abraham1 and became formalized in the Mosaic law.2 The circumcision of John—who would play an important role as the prophet of the coming of the Lord—confirms his Jewishness, and this confirmation makes the point that God is bringing redemption to Israel and the world from within Israel.3 This is what God promised Abraham when He told him, In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.4
The neighbors and relatives who were present at the ceremony would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.5
Elizabeth pushed back against the wishes of those attending the circumcision and stated that the boy would be named John. Zechariah concurred. As soon as he wrote on the wax tablet that the child was to be named John, immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed. He could speak again, fulfilling what Gabriel had originally declared: you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place.6 His first action was, appropriately, to bless God. Luke tells us that fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?”7
These mysterious events surrounding the birth of John, his father receiving a message from an angel and then becoming mute and probably deaf,8 his elderly mother becoming pregnant, his mother and father deciding to name him John, and his father recovering his speech, were the talk of the area.
Luke recorded the following prophecy/praise song of Zechariah, known today as the Benedictus, which sheds some light on the “what will this child be?” question.9 The Benedictus gives an indication of John’s role in God’s plan of salvation, and also links past events in Israel’s history with the way God is moving at this point in time.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.10
The prophecy reaches back in time to the prophets,11 to the ancestors,12 to Abraham and God’s covenant with him.13 Visiting His people is reminiscent of the Exodus;14 redeeming His people, of the Year of Jubilee;15 raising up the horn of David16 is a connection to King David, and rising or dawning light and those sitting in darkness are references to familiar verses from the book of Isaiah.17 By linking these past people and events to Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and their sons, this prophecy forges the connection between God’s promises and His movement throughout Israel’s history to this time of the birth of Jesus, when God is beginning to fulfill His promise of redemption and salvation.
Zechariah’s prophecy then specifically speaks to John:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.18
The references in the prophecy to verses from the books of Isaiah19 and Malachi20 provide glimpses of John’s future work of preparing the way for the Savior. As the prophet of the Most High, John would go before the Lord. Later, during His ministry, Jesus confirmed that John was a prophet, and indicated that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets.
The Benedictus ends with the theme of the light which will guide our feet into the way of peace,24 something Luke will pick up in the beginning of the next chapter as he describes the birth of Jesus.25
Luke ends the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John by briefly touching on John’s life from the day of his birth until the time of his public appearance. He tells us that the child grew and became strong in spirit.26 This anticipates John’s return later in the Gospel. Luke indicates years of growth and maturation, and that the Spirit of God—who has filled John since the womb—is preparing him for his prophetic ministry decades later. He then moves John off the scene, changing the focus of attention away from John and onto Jesus.
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.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9–14).
2 Leviticus 12:3.
3 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 108.
4 Genesis 12:3.
5 Luke 1:59–63.
6 Luke 1:20.
7 Luke 1:65–66.
8 Seemingly he [Zechariah] became deaf as well as mute, for the people have to communicate with him in signs (Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 263).
9 Luke 1:67–79.
10 Luke 1:68–75.
11 Luke 1:70.
12 Luke 1:72.
13 Luke 1:73.
14 Exodus 4:31.
15 Leviticus 25:52.
16 Psalm 132:17; Ezekiel 29:21.
17 Isaiah 9:2; 42:6–7.
18 Luke 1:76–79.
19 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
20 Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:1).
21 Luke 7:26.
22 Luke 16:16.
23 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 389.
24 Luke 1:79.
25 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 391.
26 Luke 1:80.