Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 1:57-80

[57] When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. [58] Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

[59] On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, [60] but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."

[61] They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who has that name."

[62] Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. [63] He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, "His name is John." [64] Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. [65] The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. [66] Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, "What then is this child going to be?" For the Lord's hand was with him.

[67] His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

[68] "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
[69] He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
[70] (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
[71] salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us --
[72] to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
[73] the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
[74] to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
[75] in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
[76] And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
[77] to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
[78] because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
[79] to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace."

[80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.


Exposition

Mary may have been present for the birth of John the Baptist before returning to her home in Bethlehem -- we don't know for sure. But had she been present at John's circumcision and naming ceremony, what a blessing she would have received.

This passage is important to us Christians because it lays a foundation of understanding of what God is doing in sending John the Baptist and then Jesus the Messiah within six months of each other. As we study the prophecies, we begin to get a glimmer of what God has in mind.

John's Birth (1:57-58)

"When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy." (1:57-58)

Elizabeth, the elderly, barren woman, has given birth. What an amazing sign of God's mercy to her and Zechariah. "Mercy" is the Greek noun eleos, "kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency."[1] We see the same word in Zechariah's prophecy in 1:78.

Naming the Child (1:59-63)

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision on the eighth day after birth represents placing the sign of the Covenant upon each male child that becomes part of the nation (Genesis 17:11; Leviticus 12:3). In some ways, as a naming ceremony, it corresponds to christening practiced by many Christian groups.[2]

"On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, 'No! He is to be called John.'
They said to her, 'There is no one among your relatives who has that name.'
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, 'His name is John.'" (1:59-63)

Apparently, Zechariah was seen by the townspeople as both dumb AND deaf, though the angel had said only that he would be unable to speak until the child's birth (1:20). How Elizabeth knew the child's name was to be John we aren't told, but likely Zechariah had communicated this to her. At any rate, the townspeople won't take Elizabeth's word for it. They go to Zechariah, who requests a "little (wooden) writing tablet, especially of a writing-tablet for notes "(Greek pinakidion)."[3] When he writes "John" they are all dumbfounded that he confirms Elizabeth's name. "Astonishment" (NIV) or "marvelled" (KJV) is the common Greek verb thaumazo, "to be extraordinarily impressed or disturbed by something, "wonder, marvel, be astonished."[4]

Zechariah Begins to Speak (1:64-66)

That Zechariah gave the same name as Elizabeth may have been a sign to the townspeople, but suddenly a much greater sign is given. After bestowing the name the Angel had given to him -- John, "beloved" (1:13) -- Zechariah now begins to speak after at least nine months of silence.

"Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?' For the Lord's hand was with him." (1:64-66)

Zechariah's first reaction is audible praise. "Praised" is the verb eulogeo, "speak well of, praise, extol."[5] The townspeople's reaction is "awe" (NIV) or "fear" (KJV, Greek phobos).

Zechariah's Prophecy Regarding the Messiah (1:67-75)

The first part of the prophecy concerns the Messiah, which is what the Jews would have understood by the phrase "in the house of his servant David," since they believed the Messiah would be a descendant of David.

"His father Zechariah is filled (pimplemi) with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come (episkeptomai) and has redeemed (lutrosis) his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation (soteria) for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation (soteria) from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us --
to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue (rhuomai) us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.'" (1:67-75)

The idea of being filled by the Spirit in order to speak by the Holy Spirit is found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 34:9; Micah 3:8; cf. Numbers 11:25; 2 Samuel 23:2; Joel 2:28; etc.) as well as the New (Luke 1:15, 41, 67 and Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9). "Filled" in verse 67 is the Greek verb pimplemi, "to cause to be completely full, fill."[6] What a marvelous description of the Holy Spirit's presence within a person -- filled! Too often we take for granted the Holy Spirit's presence within us disciples and have no clue to His power that can be displayed in and through us.

The prophecy begins with praise, and then begins to detail reasons for the praise. Note that the first part of the prophecy seems to refer to God's work through the coming Messiah (1:67-75), while the second half is directed to the work of Messiah's forerunner, John (1:76-79). I'd like to highlight just a few of the themes touched on in the prophecy.

"Come" (NIV) or "visited" (KJV) in verse 68 is the verb episkeptomai, "to exercise oversight on behalf of, look after, make an appearance to help."[7] God is Israel's sovereign and protector. Now he comes to set them free from their captivity and liberate them.

"Redeemed" in verse 68 reflects the Greek noun lutrosis, "experience being liberated from an oppressive situation," a transferred sense of the commercial usage "redemption of something for a price" -- "ransoming, releasing, redemption." Here it means "bring about a deliverance for the people."[8] The deliverance is to take place powerfully. "Horn" (Greek keras) in verse 69 originally referred to the horn of an animal, but then is extended figuratively to refer to "an exceptional kind of might or power."[9] Analogous to the damage that can be done by ram's or bull's horns between fighting animals, "horn" is often used in the Old Testament of military prowess. The phrase "horn of salvation" in our passage refers to a mighty act of salvation or deliverance.

Salvation for God's People

The word "salvation" occurs in this prophecy in verses 69, 71, and 77 and represents a major theme of the message. The root idea of the Greek noun soteria is "deliverance, preservation" from impending death, and then "salvation" or deliverance from any threat, enemy, or captor.[10] In the Old Testament salvation often refers to military and political deliverance from Israel's enemies. In the New Testament, however, salvation almost always refers to a spiritual concept -- salvation from the power of sin. This idea is clearly present in Zechariah's prophecy in verse 77.

This salvation is not just a whim, but is part of God's ancient covenant with Abraham (1:72-73) to care for and deliver his people. In verse 74 we see a word similar to "salvation, save" -- the verb "rescue" (rhuomai), "to rescue from danger, save, rescue, deliver, preserve someone."[11]

The purpose of Messiah's salvation is so that his people are free to live godly lives. "Serve" (Greek latreuo) in verse 74 is an interesting verb. In secular Greek literature it means "work for pay, be in servitude, render cultic service," but in the New Testament it is used exclusively in a religious sense, "to carry out religious duties," such as "to serve God."[12] God's people are to serve him "without fear," Greek aphobos, "pertaining to being without fear of what might happen, fearlessly."[13] No more are their enemies to terrorize them.

Rather, the lives of God's people given salvation by the Messiah are to reflect "holiness and righteousness" before God all their days. We live in an age that laughs at the concept of holiness and taunts anyone who seeks to live a holy life. Even some church people mock the idea. "Holiness" in verse 75 is the Greek noun hosios, "pertaining to being without fault relative to deity, devout, pious, pleasing to God, holy."[14] Righteousness is appreciated by our society more, but is often considered boring. "Righteousness" is the common Greek noun dikaiosune, "the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness."[15] But no matter what the culture thinks of godly living, God seeks consistent holiness and righteousness in our lives. We are to live for God's glory, not for society's approval.

A Ministry of Preparation (1:76)

I am particularly struck by Zechariah's prophecy of his son John as a Preparer.

"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare (hetoimazo) the way for him." (1:76)

"Prepare" in verse 76 is the Greek verb hetoimazo, "to cause to be ready, put or keep in readiness, prepare."[16] It had long been prophesied that one would come ahead of the Lord to prepare the road, the highway, upon which the King would travel. Isaiah prophesied:

"A voice of one calling:
'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.'" (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Then at the end of the Old Testament, Malachi prophesies that Elijah will come to prepare the way:

"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord Almighty." (Malachi 3:1)

John is the messenger of this covenant. When the Angel Gabriel first appeared to Zechariah in the temple he announced that the child's role would be "to make ready (hetoimazo) a people prepared for the Lord" (1:17).

Later, when John the Baptist enters his ministry, he is asked who he is. His answer: "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" (John 1:23)

Something in us wants to be recognized, acclaimed, appreciated. We usually want to get credit for the good we do (and our sins forgotten). But, if the truth be told, few get the credit they deserve. Many, like John, carry on ministries of tremendous importance to prepare for the future, but are seldom recognized for that role. If John had not prepared the people with a spiritual revival that emphasized repentance from sin, baptism, and forgiveness, Jesus' could not have built on this foundation -- he would have had to build it himself, diverting him from his chief ministry and emphasis.

You may be one of God's preparers so that the ministry of your church in the future can be more effective. It doesn't matter whether or not people appreciate you. But it does matter that you are faithful to God who called you to this ministry of preparation so that his work might go forward unimpeded.

Zechariah's Prophecy Regarding the John the Baptist (1:76-79)

Now let's consider the rest of Zechariah's prophecy concerning his son who would become John the Baptist:

"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare (hetoimazo) the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation (soteria)
through the forgiveness of their sins... (1:76-77)

The Jews were looking for salvation in political terms -- deliverance from the oppression of the Romans. That is how they saw the Messiah. But godly Zechariah prophesies of a spiritual deliverance -- "to give his people the knowledge of salvation (soteria) through the forgiveness of their sins" (1:77). Sin kept them in captivity as debtors; forgiveness would set them free. John's message would be "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2). Indeed, John came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3:3). "Forgiveness" here is the Greek noun aphesis, "the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment, pardon, cancellation."[17]

Notice how God, who brings this forgiveness, is described:

"...because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace." (1:76-79)

God is a God of exact justice, of righteous and holiness. But he is also merciful -- granting us forgiveness that we do not deserve and have no right to expect. "Tender mercy" translates two Greek words. "Tender" is the Greek noun splanchnon. Literally, it means "the inward parts of the body, including especially the viscera, entrails." In the ancient world, the inner parts also referred to psychological aspects of "heart" as the seat and source for love and emotion. The word is often used to express emotions such as love and affection.[18] "Mercy" is the Greek noun eleos which we saw in 1:58, "kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency."[19]

"The rising sun" (NIV) or "dayspring from on high" (KJV) is the Greek noun anatole. It refers to the rising of stars and the sun, and here refers to "the dawn" as figurative of the coming of the Messiah.[20] "Dayspring" is an picturesque English word meaning daybreak or sunrise. This shaft of early morning sun will suddenly illuminate those "living in darkness and in the shadow of death" (1:79) to turn their darkness into bright daylight. This is reminiscent of Isaiah's prophecy, later quoted in Matthew 4:16 as referring to Jesus' ministry in Galilee:

"... In the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles,
by the way of the sea, along the Jordan --
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned." (Isaiah 9:1-2)

What a marvelous prophecy Zechariah utters upon the naming of his son, John! How his neighbors must have talked for weeks and weeks.

"The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?' For the Lord's hand was with him" (1:65-66).

The phrase "were talking about" (NIV) or "were noised abroad" (KJV) is the Greek verb dialaleo, "discuss, exchange opinions or viewpoints."[21] The verb is in the imperfect sense, suggesting that the discussion continued on for some time and didn't die down right away.

John Lives in the Desert (1:80)

Our passage concludes with one sentence which covers John's life from birth until he began his ministry: "And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (1:80).

Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a village in the hill country of Judea, along the ridge of coastal mountains south of Jerusalem. The western slope receives most of the rain, but the eastern slope is dry, receiving less than 12 inches of rain per year. Much of it is barren, trackless wilderness described as "desert," Greek eremos, "an uninhabited region or locality, desert, grassland, wilderness."[22] This is where young John roams as a boy and then lives as an man -- separate, isolated from humankind. A Nazirite (1:15; Numbers 6:2-4), he lives out his vow to God in solitude and listens to God, as God prepares him to prepare a nation for the Messiah. 


Prayer

Father, thank you that you call many to be preparers for you. Sometimes this kind of work is difficult and thankless and I feel unappreciated. Forgive me for seeking people's appreciation rather than yours. Help me to be content to be a preparer of your ways where you place me. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:76-77)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. Why are the neighbors surprised at Elizabeth's choice of a name for the baby? Why are they so surprised when Zechariah writes "John" on a wooden tablet? (1:60-63)
  2. Extra credit: How does the filling of the Holy Spirit relate to prophecy? (1:67) In what sense was the "speaking in other languages" on the day of Pentecost actually prophecy? (Acts 2:4, 11, 17) (This is NOT the time to get in a discussion about the propriety of speaking in tongues for today.)
  3. Zechariah and his son John were from the house or tribe of Levi. What does it mean when the prophecy refers to "the house of his servant David"? What tribe was he from? How is his lineage significant? (See Genesis 49:10. Also Luke 2:4, 11 and Matthew 2:4-6.)
  4. How are the terms "salvation" and "rescue" used in Zechariah's prophecy? (1:69, 71, 74, 77). Do they speak of military or spiritual salvation? Extra credit: When does the Messiah bring spiritual salvation? When do we believe Messiah brings about military deliverance to his people?
  5. What is the purpose of Messiah's salvation in verses 74 and 75? What kind of lives does he expect us to live?
  6. What are John the Baptist's chief tasks as outlined in verses 76-77?
  7. What kinds of ministries of preparation do we see in the church today? Why is preparation so important for the future? Extra credit: What does the history of revivals teach us about the importance of preparation? Why do we sometimes get disillusioned with ministries of preparation?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 316.
  2. Marshall, p. 88, notes that connecting the name ceremony with circumcision isn't attested elsewhere among Judaism of this time, and isn't common until the Eighth Century AD, citing Pirqe R. Eliezer 48 (27c), in Strack and Billerback II, 107f.
  3. BDAG 814.
  4. BDAG 444-445.
  5. BDAG 407-408.
  6. BDAG 813-814.
  7. BDAG 378.
  8. BDAG 606.
  9. BDAG 540.
  10. BDAG 985-986.
  11. BDAG 907.
  12. BDAG 587.
  13. BDAG 158.
  14. BDAG 728.
  15. BDAG 247-249.
  16. BDAG 400-401.
  17. BDAG 155.
  18. BDAG 938.
  19. BDAG 316.
  20. BDAG 74.
  21. BDAG 232.
  22. BDAG 392.

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