Luke 1:5-17

Text Comment

v.5       These things happened, as we learn later, near the end of Herod’s reign. There were many priests but only one temple, so the priests served on a roster. They were divided into 24 divisions of which that of Abijah was the 8th, as you can read in 1 Chron. 24:10. Only four of the 24 divisions returned from the exile in Babylon, but those four divisions were subdivided again to make up 24 again and were given the old names. Each division was on duty at the temple twice a year for a week at a time.

            Priests were required in the Law of Moses to marry a virgin daughter of Israel but not necessarily one from a priestly family. The point of mentioning Elizabeth’s ancestry seems to be to indicate that Zechariah was doubly blessed. [Morris, 85]

v.6       This idea of “blamelessness” is one that I think is often confusing to Christians today. It is important for you to get an understanding of this idea because it appears from the beginning of the Bible – Abraham was a blameless man – to the end of the Bible (so was Paul). It is a term we find used in the Bible to describe, as here, those who live in obedience to God’s law. An elder, Paul says, must be “blameless” or “without fault” (Titus1:6). Paul exhorts us to be “blameless” in our conduct (Phil. 2:15). Obviously the term does not mean “sinless”. It describes a person who is a faithful Christian, one who is walking with the Lord, and who in sincerity is seeking to honor the Lord with his or her life. It is one of the glories of God’s grace that he should call people like ourselves, wholly aware of how imperfect we are, blameless. God’s grace by this means is shown to enable sinful and weak people like you and me genuinely to live lives that deserve to be called righteous.

v.10     There were so many priests that even when a priest’s division was on duty at the temple there were not enough sacred duties to go around. The offering of incense, which, of course, required the priest to enter the Holy Place, the outermost of the two rooms in the temple, was a privilege and so assignments were, as it were, drawn from a hat. Some priests at this time never enjoyed the privilege and no one was allowed to do it more than once so this was a momentous day in Zechariah’s life, the life of a priest. The incense represented the prayers of the people and, once it had been burned, the priest would come out to bless the people.

v.11     Since directions in respect to the temple were ordinarily given from the vantage point of someone looking east (as the temple did itself) the angel was probably on the south side of the altar, between it and the golden candlestick.

            You may be surprised to realize that angels appear only rarely even in the miracle-filled life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. They will appear, of course, at the announcement of his birth, many years later they will appear at the beginning of his ministry after his temptation in the wilderness, they will appear at the end of his ministry at Gethsemane, and you know they are associated with his resurrection and his ascension to heaven. to him in the wilderness after his temptation, and at Gethsemane, and then we will find them in connection with his resurrection and ascension. It is only to be expected, after all, that if angels were to appear at any time, this would be the time, when the living God entered the world. Dorothy Sayers said of the history of the incarnation, “this is the only thing that ever happened.” She meant that in comparison to this event, its significance, its wonder, there are no other happenings worthy to be called happenings. That is what G.K. Chesterton meant when he referred to the coming of the Son of God as “that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.” So we will not be surprised to find angels appearing when the Lord Jesus comes again. Yet even commentators who believe some of the supernatural events reported in the Gospels stumble here, at the report of the appearance of an angel; but if there is a real incarnation, why wouldn’t we expect angels to announce it?

v.12     It is a point worth pondering in our sentimental and superficial age, that whenever in Holy Scripture men come face to face with the supernatural world, they are terrified by it.

v.13     The obvious question raised by the angel’s response is: what prayer? Did Zechariah use the occasion of his offering incense in the temple to pray once again for a child? Frankly, v. 7 makes it seem likely that Zechariah and Elizabeth had stopped praying for a child long before this. Or, perhaps more likely, did he pray for the redemption of Israel as a priest might think it his duty to do on such an occasion? If so, the granting of their private prayer and their long sought blessing was both a second gift and a sign of the first: the redeemer of Israel is about to appear.

            “John” appropriately means “the Lord is gracious.” (The name is longer in Greek than it is in English!)

v.14     “Joy” and “delight” will be frequent themes in Luke. Here the joy anticipated is the happiness of godly parents whose child grows up to love and serve the Lord.

v.15     It is not said that John would be a lifelong Nazirite, as Samson was. Nothing here is said of his never cutting his hair, for example. But the separation from wine – remember priests were prohibited from drinking wine while on duty and during the period of a Nazirite vow no wine could be drunk – indicates that John had a special calling. He had been set apart to a life of special service. And to meet that calling he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Remember Paul’s contrast between being drunk with wine and being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18.

            It is, by the way, something to be noted that children, covenant children, are susceptible to sanctification already in the womb. More on that later in Luke 1.

v.17     Referring to the prophecy of the return of Elijah before the coming of the day of the Lord in Malachi 4, the angel prophesies that John will be the cause of many Israelites returning to the Lord. There has been a great deal of discussion of late in NT scholarship about the theology of second temple Judaism, the period of time that is under review in the Gospels. There are many who are arguing that second temple Judaism was not as legalistic as Paul seems to make it out to be and so on. But there can be no doubt that, in the judgment of the NT, Israel had fallen away from the Lord in largest part and needed to be called back to him. All four Gospels bear repeated witness to the spiritual and theological declension of Judaism at the time first John and then the Lord Jesus made his appearance.

            It is also clear here that John is not the Lord but the forerunner of the Lord. His being likened to Elijah, the greatest and most representative of Israel’s prophets, indicated the greatness of his mission.

            The statement that John’s preaching will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children is also taken from Malachi 4:6 but is somewhat harder to interpret. It refers either to the restoration of godly families among the Jews or the reconciliation of her patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and so on, to this generation that had betrayed their ancient faith. We have such a thought, for example, in Isaiah 29:22-24. It is certainly true that in times of moral degradation family ties languish and in times of spiritual renewal the family is always an immediate beneficiary. Perhaps both ideas are present: the families of Israel needing spiritual renewal and Israel as a family needing the same.

Understandably, a text like this, narrating as it does the beginnings of the greatest things that have ever happened in the world fairly bristles with remarkable lessons and applications. For example, some of the church fathers point out that the appearance of the angel to Zechariah is a historical demonstration of the historical and theological fact that salvation absolutely requires God making himself known to man. [Irenaeus and Origen in Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 19-20]. Man does not find God by searching for him as most human beings think. He is found by God. Man cannot figure God out by the power of his reason; God comes to man and reveals himself. Such is salvation and such it must be given the great distance that separates the holy God from sinful men.

But there is another emphasis in this text that is more obvious still in my view. It concerns the fact that the appearance of the angel ended a very long period of waiting in Israel. One of the reasons why it struck people dumb is because they had grown so tired, they had grown weary of believing this day would every come. They had flagged in their faith. They weren’t expecting anything to happen. Christianity is a “waiting” faith, in a very distinct and striking way it is a “waiting” faith, and Christians are a “waiting” people. It has always been so and remains so today. In my reading of the Psalms this summer I was struck by how often “wait” and “waiting” serve as synonyms for “faith” and “trust” in those ancient hymns and prayers.

“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” [Ps. 27:14]

“Trust in the Lord…. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” [37:3-9]

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.” [40:1]

“For God alone my soul waits in silence…” [62:1]

And even when the word is not used, the idea is clearly present.

“As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the yes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.”

Ours is a waiting faith. Things do not come to us from the Lord right away; indeed they may not come for a very long time. Every Christian sooner or later has to come to terms with the fact that the things we long for most, the things we ask God for, we must often wait to receive.

In this history the point is made in two quite separate but equally important ways or, better, we find the waiting taking place on two distinct levels. The first is that of the history of redemption itself.

How many centuries or even millennia passed between the time the promise of a coming redeemer was made to Adam and the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise in the covenant God made with Abraham? Just a few chapters in our Bible, but those few chapters represent generation after generation after generation of believing people who were waiting for something to happen in their lifetime and it never did. Centuries passed between God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would live in the Promised Land and their settling there under Joshua. Four hundred years were spent in Egypt alone. And then a thousand years were to pass between the promise Yahweh made to David that his descendant would sit forever on his throne and the appearance of that promised king. A thousand years is a long time to wait! When Zechariah lived Abraham had been dead nearly two thousand years, Moses nearly 1400, David a thousand. The great prophets that had stirred the blood of believers in ancient days were now figures of the very distant past.

It had been four hundred years or more since the last prophet had ministered in Israel, since the Lord had spoken authoritatively to his people in living voice. It is an interesting fact, by the way, that the people of Israel generally understood that prophecy had ceased. There was something objective about the credentials and the authority of the prophets of the Lord that made it possible to tell that there was no such prophet among them and hadn’t been since the days of Malachi. This, to be sure, was a conviction not universally shared. At Qumran they believed in continuing prophecy but it was the view of the rabbis that prophecy had ceased, of Josephus, and of the people generally. [cf. J. Edwards, Mark, 35n; J. Jeremias, NT Theol., 80-81; W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums…, 394 (with citations)]

In any case, four hundred years is a long time to wait. Four hundred years ago the pilgrims had not yet set foot on Plymouth Rock. King James I was king of England. It would be still almost 200 years before the American Revolution. You get the point: four hundred years is a long time and a long time to wait.

And after centuries of waiting and praying and hoping, what was Israel’s situation? It is summed up in the opening phrase of v. 5: “In the days of Herod the king…” That says it all. Israel was in subjection to Rome. An occupying army was quartered in her land and she made to pay the expense of it. Galling! She was, no matter her glorious history and the promised future in which some still believed, a minor client state, a backwater of the great empire of Rome. The days of Israel’s political power and military glory lay far behind her now.

To make matters worse, Rome’s client king was the hated Herod. He was in many respects a very able man, he was a builder, he had brought great glory to Jerusalem by rebuilding its temple in a grand style. But, though supposedly a Jew by religion, he was as happy to build pagan temples as he was to build the Jews’ temple in Jerusalem. He was not a pure Jew, he was Idumean in descent. He was cruel, he was given to luxury that could be paid for only by exorbitant taxes imposed upon a citizenry that was already very highly taxed by Rome, he was a despot who meddled in all manner of things that offended the Jews, including their worship, and, at this particular moment, he was losing his mind. He had already executed two of his sons whom he imagined to have designs on his throne. It was Augustus, now Emperor of Rome, who once said of Herod whom he knew quite well, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his boy.”

The prospects for Israel were horrible in fact. There was nothing to suggest that her redemption was drawing near or that great events were about to unfold that would change the face of history. Incense had been offered by a great many priests every day for months and years and even centuries; the priest inside and the people outside had prayed for the deliverance of their nation and the vindication of their faith, but nothing had happened, their prayers had not been answered. Things actually seemed much worse, not even slightly better. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, literally the blue smoke of the burning incense, came the voice of the Lord.

You cannot be a Christian and not immediately see the similarity of our situation to that of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the other faithful folk among the Jews who were waiting for the consolation of Israel. Here you and I sit in the year of our Lord 2011, two-thousand years later than the events of which we just read.

The situation of the church is very different in some respects, world-wide as she is, persecuted terribly in some places and growing greatly in others. But in this respect our circumstances are very like those of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We are as far removed from the first coming of Christ on this side as they were from Abraham on the other side. Generations have come and gone before us, all waiting in hope for the return of the Lord Jesus and the triumph of his kingdom. But each has come and gone with that hope unfulfilled.

And, as the NT is honest enough to admit, scoffers ask “where is the sign of his coming?” just as so many made fun of the Jews in those long ago days, those people with such grandiose ideas of their own importance upon whose neck we Romans have placed our foot. And so today. No one can see the saints in heaven and sinners in hell. Christians die in the same numbers as non-Christians. They have the same kind of troubles – sickness, unemployment, difficult relationships, even, alas, sometimes moral failures – that unbelievers have and some problems that unbelievers do not have, all the more if they are courageous in standing up for their faith. It is easy to be an unbeliever in the United States of American in the year of our Lord 2011 when it is hardly obvious that the Christian church is the vanguard of the eternal future. How few think to themselves: “I had better join those Christians or I’ll be left behind when the Lord returns!”

When the unbeliever taunts us: where is the proof of your faith? Where is the demonstration of it? Where is the Lord who was supposed to return soon to the earth? What is, what can be our reply, except: “we shall see, won’t we?” But then, we say, they waited before, believers like us, and they were not disappointed. There came a day, a day no one expected to be different than any other day, when the Lord appeared, or an angel on his behalf, and great events began to unfold that were the proof of their faith and the fulfillment of all their longings. That day will come again as surely as it came once before. As Peter reminds us, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

But there is a second way in which ours is a waiting faith and true faith is in fact simply a form of waiting, a theologically and spiritually informed form of waiting. This dimension, much more personal and individually experienced is highlighted in the poignant description of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s private woe in v. 7:

“…they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

A few words that sum up a lifetime of immense disappointment, of nights of tears, of spiritual confusion, and of endless days of aching sorrow. The fact that this is what is said of them indicates clearly enough that it was in many ways for them at least the defining characteristic of their lives. [Green, 63] They were loyal followers of the Lord and t hey were childless. What is more striking is the fact that this account of their purest longing unfulfilled follows hard on the account of their blamelessness and their righteous way of life. They were very good people from whom the Lord had withheld the desires of their hearts.

For Luke the Christmas story is not about children as it is for us today. It is for old people with broken dreams. It is about divine faithfulness revealed to a weary faith. It is about faithful men and women who had prayed for their entire lives but had found the heavens as brass above them. It is the wonderful end of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, godly people, over whose lives hung a dark shadow. She had never born a child in a day when that was even a greater burden and stigma and sorrow than it is even today for a godly woman. How many times had those two on their knees together pled for a child? How often had Elizabeth wept for the son or daughter that never was? How many times had her loving husband tried to comfort her: “Elizabeth, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” And, of course, he had no more success in lifting the burden off his dear wife’s heart than Elkanah had before him.

But because they were righteous and blameless, hard as it was for them, they said to themselves over and over again, “Our prayer has not been heard. The Lord has not seen fit to give us what we have asked of him. The Lord’s will be done. It is now for us to direct our energies to other things.” And they sought to live out their remaining days in faithfulness to the Lord, trying hard to rejoice in everyone else’s babies while still aching for the child they never had.

And is that not also our life? For many Christians the defining feature of their life, at least as they have experienced it, is the blessing that they have so long sought from the Lord and he has so long been unwilling to give. And for all of us it is this waiting and waiting and waiting in respect to some important, precious matters of our lives: waiting for love, waiting for better health, waiting for a job, waiting for a calling, waiting for our children to embrace the faith for themselves with zeal and abandon, waiting for our husband or for our wife, waiting for unsaved friends or loved ones, waiting, perhaps above all, for victory over those sins that have bedeviled us since we were very young. Read Thomas Boston’s immortal Memoirs, and hear him bemoaning the fact that sins he has struggled with all his life remain with him at the end. He was a man waiting for the day when he would be like the Lord Jesus because he would see him as he is.

Now the idea of waiting in the Bible is not passive; it is in fact very energetic. The waiting of the Christian faith is not that of man reading a newspaper at the bus stop. It is rather the old image of the father, pacing the floor of the hospital waiting room, continually glancing at the clock and at the double doors through which soon he hopes someone will come to report that his wife has safely delivered their baby. According to Richard Sibbes, the 16th and 17th century Anglican Puritan, in this waiting, this constant looking to God even in deep disappointment, we can find the difference between a Christian and an unbeliever.

“[In this waiting] we may discern,” Sibbes wrote, “a main difference betwixt a Christian and a carnal man, who is short-spirited, and all for the present. He will have his good here, whereas a saint of God continues still waiting, though all things seem contrary to what he expects.”

And why do believers wait when everything seems to suggest that waiting is pointless? “You’re not going to get it. It’s not coming, why wait?” Because the Lord will come and in his own way and in his own time he will fulfill the longings of his people, more wonderfully than they could ever have imagined. Because, that is, it will be worth the wait!

Zechariah and Elizabeth had no idea through the long years of sorrowing disappointment that their prayers could not be answered until the time had fully come. They never imagined that Elizabeth could not become pregnant because the son she was to bear was himself to be a mighty sign in the history of salvation; that she couldn’t bear her baby boy until a Jewish lass from Nazareth was ready to bear her son a few months later; that none of this could happen until Herod was nearly mad and nearly dead, until the census was being taken in Palestine, and until an angel had appeared to Zechariah.

Why then after all the years of sorrow? The Lord had his reasons and they were not known to this dear couple. to us. But, ask yourself this. When all was said and done, do you think that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have wanted it to be different than it proved to be? Do you think she would rather have had a child when she was young, but not the baby boy who would become the forerunner of the Messiah and, as the King of Kings would one day describe him, the greatest man ever born of woman?

God’s help is always sure,
His method seldom guessed;
Delay will make our pleasure pure,
Surprise will give it zest.

His wisdom is sublime,
His heart profoundly kind,
God never is before his time,
And never is behind.

Or as the psalm writer has it:

“I waited for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”