ALLUSIONS TO THE BIRTHS OF ISAAC AND JESUS.
The allusions in this story to the births of Isaac, John, and Jesus are many:
ISAAC: “Sarai was barren. She had no child” (Genesis 11:30).
JOHN: “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren” (Luke 1:7).
JESUS: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32).
JOHN: “And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76).
ISAAC: “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1).
JOHN: “”Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard” (Luke 1:13).
JESUS: “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).
ISAAC: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children” (Genesis 16:1).
JOHN: “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren” (Luke 1:7).
ISAAC: “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you. You will be the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).
JOHN: “to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he spoke to Abraham, our father” (Luke 1:72-73).
ISAAC: “He who is eight days old will be circumcised among you” (Genesis 17:12).
JOHN: “On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of the father” (Luke 1:59).
JESUS: “When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Jesus” (Luke 2:21).
ISAAC: “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her” (Genesis 17:16).
JOHN: “your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13).
JESUS: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and give birth to a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus'” (Luke 1:31).
ISAAC: “Will a child be born to him who is one hundred years old? Will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?” (Genesis 17:17).
JOHN: “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years” (Luke 1:18).
ISAAC: “Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:2).
JOHN: “Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she gave birth to a son” (Luke 1:57).
ISAAC: “The child grew, and was weaned” (Genesis 21:8).
JOHN: “The child was growing, and becoming strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80).
JESUS: “The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit” (Luke 2:40).
Luke’s Gospel (except for a brief introduction addressed to Theophilus) begins with an account of an angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah foretelling the birth of John (vv. 5-24). In that account, the angel tells Zechariah to name the baby John (v. 13) and says that the son must never drink wine or strong drink (v. 15). The angel promises that the son will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will have a powerful ministry (vv. 15-17). Zechariah asks how he will know that this is so, for he and his wife are elderly (v. 18), and the angel strikes him mute for not believing (v. 20). That account tells of Elizabeth conceiving and remaining in seclusion (v. 24).
That account is followed immediately by the angel visitation to Mary foretelling the birth of Jesus (vv. 26-38)—Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (vv. 39-45)—and Mary’s song of praise, usually known today as the Magnificat (vv. 46-56).
The births and lives of John and Jesus are intertwined from the beginning:
• An angel foretells the birth of John to Zechariah (1:5-25), and then an angel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary (1:26-38).
• The pregnant Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s child leaps for joy at Mary’s greeting (1:39-45).
• Mary’s song of praise, commonly known as the Magnificat (1:46-56) is followed by the birth of John (1:57-66) and Zechariah’s joyful prophecy, commonly known as the Benedictus (1:67-79).
• John grows strong (1:80). Then Jesus is born (2:1-7) and increases “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (2:52).
• John proclaims a ” baptism of repentance for remission of sins” (1:77; 3:3) and calls people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance (3:8-14). He then baptizes Jesus (3:21-22), who will also call people to repent (5:32; 13:3, 5).
LUKE 1:57-58. NOW ELIZABETH’S TIME WAS FULFILLED
57Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she brought forth a son. 58Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her, and they rejoiced with her.
“Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she brought forth a son” (v. 57).
We have not heard from Zechariah since he went home after becoming mute (vv. 20-23), and we will not hear from him again until the people seek his opinion about the baby’s name (v. 63).
“Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her” (v. 58a). Based on verse 24 and this verse, some scholars suggest that the baby’s birth has come as a surprise to these neighbors and relatives. However, her seclusion was only for five months (v. 24), and this verse is thin evidence that Elizabeth maintained a secret of her pregnancy until the end.
“and they rejoiced with her” (v. 58b). This is a natural response on the part of neighbors and relatives who knew how painfully Elizabeth had suffered her barrenness. It also fulfills the angel’s promise, “You will have joy and gladness; and many will rejoice at his birth” (v. 14).
LUKE 1:59-66. ON THE EIGHTH DAY
59 On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of the father. 60 His mother answered, “Not so; but he will be called John.”
61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” 62 They made signs to his father, what he would have him called.
63 He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”
They all marveled. 64 His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.
65 Fear came on all who lived around them, and all these sayings were talked about throughout all the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, “What then will this child be?” The hand of the Lord was with him.
“On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child” (v. 59a). God commanded both Abraham and Moses to circumcise male babies when they are eight days old (Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 12:3). John’s circumcision, while routine, nevertheless marks Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful in their observance of Jewish law. That is to be expected, of course, given that Zechariah is a priest (v. 5; see also v. 6).
“and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of his father” (v. 59b). Names are important in that culture, and are supposed to embody something of the importance or character of the person—or to make some sort of statement—or to express some sort of faith. The naming of a child would normally be a parental function, but these neighbors and relatives try to influence this naming—to honor Zacharias by naming the child after him.
It would be unusual to name a son after his father, because sons are usually known by their given name plus son of their father’s name—as in “Simon, son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). If Elizabeth were to name the baby Zechariah, he would be known as Zechariah, son of Zechariah, an awkward phrasing (Stein, 97). These neighbors and relatives are willing to ignore that problem to honor Zechariah, probably out of their pity at his muteness.
“But his mother answered, ‘Not so; but he will be called John'” (v. 60). The angel told Zechariah to name the baby John (v. 13). While Zechariah has been unable to speak, he apparently communicated this angelic command to Elizabeth, probably in writing (see v. 63). Elizabeth is faithful to the angelic command, and refuses to be influenced by her neighbors and relatives, who are well-meaning but ignorant of the command.
The name John comes from the Hebrew, yohanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious,” and her choice of a name could simply reflect her appreciation at having a son in her old age.
“They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name'” (v. 51). The neighbors and relatives are surprised at Elizabeth’s choice, because she has not chosen to name the baby after a member of the family.
“They made signs to his father, what he would have him called” (v. 62). They motion to Zechariah, as if he is deaf as well as mute. We have no evidence that he is deaf aside from this verse. People often assume that a mute person cannot hear, which is often but not always the case. That seems to be what is happening here.
“He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ They all marveled” (v. 63). There is no reason to assume that Zechariah has not told Elizabeth of the angelic command to name the child John. He could have done that by writing on a tablet. Neither is there any reason to believe that Zechariah has not overheard the conversation between the neighbors and Elizabeth.
But the neighbors, knowing nothing about the angelic command, are amazed that Zechariah endorses his wife’s choice of names. The fact that both Elizabeth and Zechariah are in such firm agreement surprises them. They would understand this birth to aged parents to be a special blessing from God. Perhaps they also understand the baby’s name as another spiritual event, which of course it is.
“His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God” (v. 64). When Zechariah is faithful to the angelic command to name the baby John, the curse of muteness that began with his unbelief is immediately lifted.
Zechariah’s first speech is to praise God—a mark of his faithfulness—a faithfulness that was first mentioned in verse 6.
“Fear came on all who lived around them” (v. 65a). Fear is a common response to the miraculous in this Gospel (1:12; 5:26; 7:16; 8:36).
“and all these sayings were talked about throughout all the hill country of Judea” (v. 65b). They talk about these things, because they perceive God’s hand in this baby’s birth and the parents’ choice of a name.
“All who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, “What then will this child be?” The hand of the Lord was with him” (v. 66). “What then will this child become?” is the key question. It will be many years before John begins his ministry, but these people already perceive that they can expect something special from him.
LUKE 1:67-75. ZECHARIAH’S BENEDICTUS
67 His father, Zacharias, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,
68 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and worked redemption for his people;
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets
who have been from of old),
71 salvation from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show mercy towards our fathers,
to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath which he spoke to Abraham, our father,
74 to grant to us that we,
being delivered out of the hand of our enemies,
should serve him without fear.
75 In holiness and righteousness before him
all the days of our life.”
“His father, Zacharias, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying” (v. 67). We have already heard that the baby will be filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 15)—and that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 41). Now we learn that Zechariah is also filled with the Holy Spirit.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit implies being equipped for a particular kind of service. John will be filled with the Holy Spirit so that he can preach repentance and baptize and point to the one who comes after him. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit so that she could recognize and acknowledge the significance of Mary and Mary’s baby. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit so that he can sing this song of praise.
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and worked redemption for his people”(v. 68). Zechariah’s song begins with praise to God. He speaks of themes common to the Old Testament scriptures: Redemption (v. 68)—God’s raising up of a savior (v.69)—the house of David (v. 69)—holy prophets (v. 70)—being saved from enemies (v. 71)—mercy (v. 72)—his holy covenant (v. 72)—the oath that he swore to Abraham (v. 73)—rescue from the hands of enemies (v. 74)—and serving God in holiness and righteousness (v. 75).
LUKE 1:76-79. YOU WILL BE CALLED THE PROPHET OF THE MOST HIGH
76 And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the face of the Lord (Greek: kurios)
to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the remission of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the dawn from on high will visit us,
79 to shine on those who sit in darkness
and the shadow of death;
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord (kuriou – from kurios) to prepare his ways” (v 76). Zechariah has been praising God for things that God has done. Now he praises God for things that God will do through this child, who will be a prophet.
The child will “go before face of the Lord (kurios) to prepare his ways.” Kurios could mean Yahweh, but we have the advantage of hindsight to know that kurios in this case means Jesus the messiah. Luke makes this clear by his statement that John fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (3:4). Jesus also makes it clear by stating that John fulfills this Isaian prophecy (7:27).
“to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (v. 77). Once again, Zechariah states a number of themes common to the Old Testament: God’s tender mercy (v. 78)—the gift of light to those in darkness (v. 79)—guidance (v. 79)—peace (v. 79).
LUKE 1:80. THE CHILD GREW
80The child was growing, and becoming strong in spirit, and was in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
“The child was growing, and becoming strong in spirit” (v. 80a). Like so many things that Luke writes about John, this verse parallels what he has to say about Jesus:
• “The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).
• “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
“and (he) was in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (v. 80b). John will be known later for preaching in the wilderness (3:4), but this verse tells us of his connection with the wilderness at an early age.
The people of Israel have a special relationship to the wilderness (a desert wilderness rather than a forest wilderness). It was in the wilderness that God tested the people and it was in the wilderness that they rebelled. It was in the wilderness that God saved them again and again, and the wilderness was the crucible where they became a nation. The wilderness was a place where people sinned—and where they also repented to restore their relationship with God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Larson, Bruce, The Preacher’s Commentary: Luke (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1983)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1 – 9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan