The Birth of John

The two angelic announcements in 1:11–17 and 1:26–37 are now followed by accounts of their fulfillment in the birth of John and (in the next section) the birth of Jesus. Linking this passage closely with the opening scene of the Gospel are the return of Zechariah’s power of speech, lost at the time of Gabriel’s announcement (1:20–22) and recovered at the very moment of its fulfillment (cf. 1:20); the countercultural choice of the name “John,” given by Gabriel (1:13); and the rejoicing at John’s birth (cf. 1:14).
The fact that the second of Luke’s Spirit-inspired canticles (cf. the Magnificat [1:46–55] and the Nunc Dimittis [2:29–32]) is uttered in relation to the birth of John rather than that of Jesus underlines the close connection between the two men and their future ministries and locates John firmly in the center of God’s fulfillment of his Old Testament promises.

Outline/Structure

As in the previous section, a short narrative sets the scene for a lengthy prophetic utterance. Zechariah’s song thus dominates this section. It celebrates the birth of John, suggesting an answer to the people’s question “What then is this child going to be?” but it does not relate closely to the actual circumstances of his birth and naming narrated in 1:57–66.
See the previous section for the character of the three canticles. Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, falls into two parts, the first (1:68–75) speaking in more general terms of God’s fulfillment of his promise of salvation for his people, the second (1:76–79) focusing more specifically on John’s role in this process.

Historical and Cultural Background

The naming of a boy on the occasion of his circumcision is not otherwise attested at this period, but Luke will repeat the pattern for Jesus in 2:21. “John” was a common Jewish name, especially in priestly families, though apparently not in Zechariah’s family. But names were sometimes chosen for their apparent meaning, in relation to the circumstances of the child’s birth. “John” (Greek Iōannēs, representing the Hebrew Yohanan) was understood to mean “God is/has been gracious,” and Zechariah’s song takes up that theme. The announcement of this symbolic name by Gabriel superseded family tradition.
The language of the Benedictus is as full of Old Testament echoes as the Magnificat, though it does not have so clear a single model. It is a typical Jewish hymn of praise, which in its first part recalls God’s blessings to his people in connection with the key figures of David and Abraham.

Key Themes of Luke 1:57–80
■ Zechariah and Elizabeth’s insistence on the name “John,” given by the angel, shows that this child is not an ordinary member of the family.
■ The restoration of Zechariah’s speech marks a new beginning.
■ Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus) continues Mary’s theme of God’s fulfillment of his saving purpose.
■ John’s own role is again described as the forerunner of God’s salvation; he prepares people for the true dawn that is coming.

Interpretive Insights

1:60 He is to be called John. Zechariah, despite his inability to speak, apparently has been able to share with Elizabeth what the angel had said, including the choice of the child’s name (1:13). His dramatic confirmation in 1:63 of his wife’s unexpected intervention reinforces the sense of specialness: this is not just a family matter.
1:62 they made signs. This suggests that Zechariah had become deaf as well as dumb; in that case, the visitors would be the more surprised at his agreement with his wife, whose words he would not have heard.
1:64 he began to speak. There is little point in speculating as to the medical cause of the nine months of dumbness (and deafness?) followed by sudden restoration of speech. Luke invites us to see this as God’s direct intervention, which both adds to the astonishment of the neighbors and sets the scene for the prophetic utterance that follows, an appropriate first use of his restored voice.
1:65 people were talking about all these things. In chapter 3 Luke will describe a large, popular movement inspired by John’s preaching. The widespread gossip at this point, some thirty years earlier, helps to explain that popular enthusiasm: John was already established in the folk memory as a man with a special mission.

Zechariah answers the question of his son’s name by communicating with a writing tablet. This was a wooden board with a depressed area into which wax was poured. A sharp object like these styluses would then be used to scratch a message or drawing into the wax on its surface. The writing boards shown here are bound together as a book and still show Greek school exercises. The boards date from the fourth to fifth century AD, and the styluses are dated to the first and second centuries AD.

1:68 he has come to his people. The Greek word translated here as “come” (episkeptomai) echoes the frequent accounts in the Old Testament of how God “visited” his people in order to save and bless them (cf. 7:16). It is a term full of the sense of divine grace. It occurs again in 1:78 in reference to how the rising sun will “come” from heaven. It is in the coming of Jesus the Messiah that God will come to his people. But the past tense here indicates that already in the birth of John God’s saving program has begun.
1:69 a horn of salvation. The phrase, drawn from Psalm 18:2, denotes God’s saving power, as an ox’s horns symbolize its physical strength.
in the house of his servant David. Zechariah and Elizabeth belonged to the priestly tribe of Levi, but God’s salvation is to come not through their son John, but through Jesus, whose Davidic descent is repeatedly emphasized in these opening chapters (1:27, 32; 2:4, 11), since Old Testament prophecy had declared that the messianic king was to be a “son of David.”
1:73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham (and the oath by which it was confirmed) was the essential basis of Israel’s self-understanding as the special people of God. The oath focused on Abraham’s descendants and on the possession of the land of Canaan (Gen. 22:16–18; Ps. 105:8–11), but the latter involved protection from their enemies. Zechariah here understands the covenant blessings in more spiritual terms. The covenant with Abraham included the blessing of all nations through Israel (Gen. 12:3; 22:18); that theme is not reflected in this canticle, but it will be central to the Nunc Dimittis (2:31–32).
1:76 a prophet of the Most High. John’s role as the last and greatest of the prophets will be declared in 7:26–28. Here, as there, the emphasis falls on his role in preparing the way—but for whom? For Jesus, we naturally reply, but we noticed in 1:17 that the identification of John’s role with that of Elijah means that he is to prepare the way for God’s coming, and that is now made more explicit: he is to prepare the way of the Lord. Later Christians came to speak of Jesus as “the Lord,” but for Zechariah, the title could refer only to God himself. Thus the impression grows stronger that when Jesus comes, God himself is visiting his people.
1:78 the rising sun. The KJV rendering “the dayspring from on high hath visited us” leads some to think that “dayspring” is a title for the coming Messiah, and indeed the Greek word anatolē was used in the LXX to translate the messianic title “Branch” in Zechariah 3:8; 6:12; Jeremiah 23:5. But anatolē itself simply means “the rising,” usually with reference to sunrise. The expression speaks of the coming of light into the world, a light that derives from heaven and dispels earth’s darkness. Zechariah does not link this light specifically with Jesus, but Luke’s reader is by now well prepared to recognize that God’s visitation (see on 1:68) for which John prepares will take place through the birth of his Son.
1:79 those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. This is an echo of Isaiah 9:2, the opening of the oracle that speaks of the child to be born to reign on David’s throne, whose titles will include “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6–7). Matthew too drew attention to this passage as a prophecy of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee (Matt. 4:12–16).
1:80 he lived in the wilderness. John’s wilderness location will be further described in 3:2–6. The uninhabited area down near the Jordan was favored by those who wished to escape from normal society for a period of asceticism and spiritual retreat. The “wilderness” also featured in Israel’s hopes of a new beginning, just as they had first got to know God in the wilderness (e.g., Isa. 40:3; Jer. 2:2–3; Hosea 2:14–15).

Theological Insights

The word “covenant” (1:72) occurs elsewhere in the Gospels only in Jesus’s words at the Last Supper about a “new covenant” (22:20; cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24) through his death. But Zechariah’s song here links the coming work of salvation with God’s promises of blessing to his people throughout their history, and by going back to Abraham (rather than to the renewal of the covenant at Sinai) it makes clear the consistency of God’s purpose from the beginning. Here, as in the Magnificat, the emphasis is on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel; his ministry to the whole world will come into focus later.
Whereas the covenant blessings promised in the Old Testament were primarily this-worldly (descendants, land, victory), Zechariah’s song, like the rest of the New Testament, offers a less material and more spiritual perspective. His people will be enabled to serve him in “holiness and righteousness,” they will have the “knowledge (experience) of salvation” through the “forgiveness of sins,” they will see light in the darkness and know the blessings of “peace.” Such a vision of God’s purpose opens the way for the blessings of Israel to be made available to the whole world.

The wilderness in which John lived was most likely the area west of the Dead Sea near the mouth of the Jordan River. It was a desolate, barren region, as this photograph illustrates.

Teaching the Text

The account of the birth of John (1:57–66) focuses on the themes of the faithfulness and obedience of his parents in naming the child and the recognition by all that God is uniquely at work in this child. A sermon or lesson on this material could touch on Zechariah’s obedient response and “recovery” after his initial skepticism and the ensuing discipline by God (1:18–20). We all have times of doubt and skepticism that can give way to faith and obedience. The greater theme, however, is the special role that John will play in God’s plan and the recognition by the townspeople that God is at work. The awe and praise that accompany the restoration of Zechariah’s speech is a recognition that the child is unique and will be a key player in God’s plan of salvation. At the climax of the narrative, everyone asks, “What then is this child going to be?” and the narrator adds, “For the Lord’s hand was with him” (1:66). In the broader context of Luke’s Gospel, John’s coming confirms that the prophetic voice—silent for all these years—has now been renewed in Israel and announces that God is about to visit and redeem his people through the coming of Jesus the Messiah (1:68, 76; cf. 3:4–6).

When Zechariah praises God because “he has raised up a horn of salvation” (1:69), he is referencing Psalm 18:2, which describes God’s power. Because horns on an animal such as a bull or ox made these large animals even more formidable and dangerous, reliefs and statues throughout the ancient Near East often depicted gods and even kings wearing horned helmets to emphasize their might. In this plaque from Mesopotamia, a storm god wears a horned helmet and stands on top of a horned bull.

The Benedictus (1:67–80), in turn, develops this theme by inviting us to reflect on the relationship between the old and new covenants, and on John’s position as the transitional figure between the two eras. This hymn of praise is steeped in Old Testament language, describing Jesus as the promised Messiah from David’s line, the “horn of salvation … in the house of his servant David” (1:69). This is the fulfillment of the covenants made with Abraham and with David. A sermon or lesson here should remind hearers that God is always faithful to his covenant promises and that, no matter what difficulties or challenges we face in life or how dark the night, the “rising sun” has come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (1:78–79). The dawn of God’s end-time salvation gives us hope for the future and peace in the present.

R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 26–30.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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