When God calls us to play a supportive role.
John’s birth and Zechariah’s prophecy
Luke 1: 57 -80
With Peter Veysie
George Methodist Church
9.30am online due to COVID-19
I spoke to someone about the devastation that the world causes especially young people if they are not at the top of their game. It’s interesting that in the OLYMPICS there are only three places – 1st 2nd and 3rd on the podium. For the rest if you have trained your guts out and possibly broken records you will not really be remembered. In some areas of business there is one who always gets all the glory but meanwhile there is a huge smaller team who have worked in the background to get that person to where they are.
It’s not always about being in the spotlight, but rather being one who has been able to take a place of significance in the background so that the plans and purposes of God can be fulfilled. Many of you in this church and in other walks of life have done exactly that and you may not get all the accolades and praise but you are just as important as the one who takes centre stage.
For Zechariah, it must have been really challenging that he could not pass his name down to his son which was the tradition of the time and also to know that he would be the one to prepare the way for the Messiah rather than to be the One who would save the world. John later humbly declares that he is not the Kinsman Redeemer but rather that Jesus is is when he says that he is not worthy even to untie his sandal. (The Story of Boaz as the kinsman redeemer and Ruth makes this clear)
The Birth of the Prophet John
57 When Elizabeth’s pregnancy was full term, she gave birth to a son. 58All her family, friends, and neighbors heard about it, and they too were overjoyed, for they realized that the Lord had showered such wonderful mercy upon her.
59When the baby was eight days old, according to their custom, all the family and friends came together for the circumcision ceremony. Everyone was convinced that the parents would name the baby Zechariah, after his father. 60But Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No, he has to be named John!”
61“What?” they exclaimed. “No one in your family line has that name!”
62So they gestured to the baby’s father to ask what to name the child. 63After motioning for a writing tablet, in amazement of all, he wrote, “His name is John.”
64 Instantly Zechariah could speak again. And his first words were praises to the Lord.
65The fear of God then fell on the people of their village, and the news of this astounding event traveled throughout the hill country of Judea. Everyone was in awe over it!
66All who heard this news were astonished and wondered, “If a miracle brought his birth, what on earth will this child become? Clearly, God’s presence is upon this child in a powerful way!”
67Then Zechariah was filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied, saying:
68“Praise be to the exalted Lord God of Israel,
for he has seen us through eyes of grace,
and he comes as our Hero-God to set us free!
69He appears to us as a mighty Savior,
a trumpet of redemption from the house of David, his servant,
70Just as he promised long ago
by the words of his holy prophets.
71They prophesied he would come one day and save us
from every one of our enemies
and from the power of those who hate us.
72Now he has shown us the mercy promised to our ancestors,
for he has remembered his holy covenant.
73-75He has rescued us from the power of our enemies!
This fulfills the sacred oath he made with our father Abraham.
Now we can boldly worship God with holy lives,
living in purity as priests in his presence every day!
76And to you I prophesy, my little son,
you will be known as the prophet of the glorious God.
For you will be a forerunner,
going before the face of the Master, Yahweh,
to prepare hearts to embrace his ways.
77You will preach to his people the revelation of salvation life,
the cancellation of all our sins, to bring us back to God.
78The splendor light of heaven’s glorious sunrise
is about to break upon us in holy visitation,
all because the merciful heart of our God is so very tender.
79The word from heaven will come to us
with dazzling light to shine upon those
who live in darkness, near death’s dark shadow.
And he will illuminate the path that leads to the way of peace.”
80 Afterward, their son grew up and was strengthened by the Holy Spirit and he grew in his love for God. John chose to live in the lonely wilderness until the day came when he was to be displayed publicly to Israel.
Let’s unpack the story:
- Zechariah and the naming of John.
Zechariah doubted so he asked for a sign of confirmation to validate this promise. God did grant a sign, but it was in the form of a rebuke due to his lack of faith, his disbelief. He was not able to speak. He lived for the full length of the pregnancy, nine months, with the promise and the sign, without any full realization of the fulfillment of the promise. Elizabeth knew this was only a work of the grace of God, and uttered “the Lord has done this for me” (1:25).
After nine months, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, and everyone shared their joy. Eight days later they brought the baby boy to be circumcised and to name him. Others wanted to name him after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that he be called John (1:59-60). When they asked Zechariah, he asked for a writing tablet and wrote “His name is John” (1:63).
His name was divinely given. It was to be “John” (Lk. 1:13), which derives from a Hebrew term signifying “Jehovah is gracious.”
This was a well known recorded name in the Old Testament –
1 Chronicles 3:15 Johanan son of Josiah
1 Chronicles 3:16 Johoichin
Jeremiah 42:8 Johanan son of Kareah
Nehemiah 12:22 Johanan from the family of the Levites( Priests)
He was known familiarly as “the Baptist” (bearing no relation to the modern sect), which simply means “an immerser, one who administers the rite of immersion” (see Mt. 3:1; 11:11; etc.). The Jewish historian Josephus even refers to John by this designation (Antiquities 18.5.2).
The importance of John in the divine scheme of things probably is summed up best in the testimony of Jesus himself. “Among them that are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11).
John’s Background and Birth
It was foretold that this child would be filled with the Spirit of God, even from his mother’s womb, and that he would be reared under the strict code of the Nazirite (cf. Num. 6:1-21), an indication of the solemnity of his role in preparing the way for the world’s Redeemer. In the Hebrew Bible, a nazirite or nazarite is one who voluntarily took a vow described in Numbers 6:1–21. “Nazarite” comes from the Hebrew word נזיר nazir meaning “consecrated” or “separated”. This vow required the person during this time to:
Abstain from all wine and anything else made from grapes.
Refrain from cutting the hair on one’s head; but to allow the locks of the head’s hair to grow.
Not to become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.
The Scriptures are silent as to the deaths of John’s parents — though legend has it that Zacharias was slain by Herod the Great, forcing Elizabeth to flee with her babe into the wilderness area of Judea.
This desert (or deserted) area “stretches from Jerusalem and Bethlehem eastward some 40km’s down to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It is a barren region of rugged hills and valleys.
2. John the Baptist in Prophecy
Any Hebrew familiar with the Old Testament could have expected the ministry of John as a preliminary measure in the divine plan, paving the way for the appearance of the Messiah. Note the following.
Isaiah’s Prophecy of John the Baptist
Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah spoke of “the voice of one that crieth,” indeed, of him who would “prepare in the wilderness the way of Jehovah,” and “make level in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3).
John, therefore, was a key figure in the preparation of the Messiah’s work.
Malachi’s Prophecy of John the Baptist
In the concluding book of the Old Testament, Malachi, on behalf of God, declared:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, who ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the Messenger of the covenant, whom ye desire, behold, he comes, saith Jehovah” (Mal. 3:1).
First, note the distinction between the “messenger” who prepares the way, and the “Messenger of the Covenant,” for whom the way is prepared. The former is a reference to John, the latter is an allusion to Christ.
Second, Malachi’s prophecy regarding the “messenger” is clearly parallel in principle to that of Isaiah (cited above), which, as we have shown, focused in the ministry of John.
Third, the prophet later refers to this “messenger” as “Elijah the prophet” (Mal. 4:4-5). In the New Testament we have the testimony of the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1:16), and that of Christ himself (Mt. 11:12-15), that this “Elijah” to come was none other than John.
Truly: “There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn. 1:6).
The Demeanor of John the Baptist
John’s clothing and eating and living habits
The description of John is brief and stark. He was arrayed in a “camel’s hair” garment, secured by a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4).
The “hair” cloak might have been a rough fabric woven from camel’s hair, or a camel skin itself. The text is ambiguous. It was, however, quite reminiscent of the adornment of certain Old Testament prophets (Zech. 13:4), particularly Elijah, who, as we have noted, foreshadowed John (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:8).
His dietary fare was that generally consumed by the poorer elements of society. He stood in bold relief to the wealthy, indulgent Jews of his day. He was a veritable walking sermon!
John was somewhat reclusive. Jesus once said:
“John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon” (Mt. 11:18).
“Eating and drinking” stood for socializing. The prophet was not a party-goer. His ascetic life-style appeared almost demonic, like those possessed of evil spirits who apparently frequented the desolate areas (cf. Mk. 5:2-3).
He did not seek out the multitudes. Rather, somehow, he attracted them.
Immediately he was able to speak and he praised God (1:63). In response he sang a beautiful
3. Zechariah’s song in two parts – the people and the child
Spirit-filled song of praise, the Benedictus.
The song praises God for His redemption, salvation, mercy, covenant, all brought about through the coming Davidic ruler, Jesus (1:68-75). It also focuses on the ministry of John (later known as the Baptist). He is the prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way (1:76), and to bring the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins (1:77), which comes through Jesus (1:78-79), the light of the world (Jn. 8:12; cf. Jn. 3:19-21).
God is praised for delivering his people (1:68-75).
God has come and redeemed his people (1:68a). God’s coming can refer to a gracious act or to judgment, often both. In this instance, the reference is to God’s gracious coming for deliverance of his people, but there is also an implicit statement about his judgement because he frees his people from the enemies who will be judged. This coming is linked with the Messiah Jesus’ coming. The Messiah’s coming means redemption for God’s people. It means deliverance from enemies, so that God’s people are free to serve the Deliverer. Redemption is release to a Redeemer, and worship of him.
Redemption has Old Testament roots. The divine act of deliverance from Egypt became the type for understanding God’s future acts of redemption and salvation for his people. Thus, with the coming of God in the Messiah Jesus, true liberation and redemption occur in both the physical and spiritual realms. Salvation in Christ becomes the anti-type, the fulfillment of the Egyptian experience and rather than Moses leading to the promised land, and who died before entering into it, Jesus brings us safely to the promised land.
God raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David, about which the prophets had spoken, and we were saved from our enemies (1:69-71). In the Old Testament, the term “raised” is used of significant figures – prophet (Dt. 18:15, 180, judge (Jd. 3:9, 15), priest (1 Sam. 2:35), and king (2 Sam. 23:1). In this Messiah, the one who represents God’s coming, all of these significant titles and functions converge into one person.
The Messiah is a person of power and strength. The term horn pictures the ox with horns that defeat enemies with the powerful thrust of its protected head (Dt. 33:17). It is also used of God himself (2 Sam. 22:3; Ps. 18:2). This Messiah who will be raised up is from the line and lineage of David and he fulfills the promise spoken by him (2 Sam. 7:14), and confirmed by many other prophets. There is divine unity in the biblical account: “as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (1:70). The message of the prophets is unified, though spoken by many, because the message of God’s promise remains the same throughout all ages, and its unity is guaranteed because he is the divine author. This Messiah, who is strong and fulfilled prophecy, saved and saves us from our enemies.
Salvation produces or displays God’s mercy, shown to our fathers, and faithfulness, he has remembered his covenant (1:72-73). God’s mercy and his covenant are brought together. Mercy is punishment withheld that is deserved, and grace, the other side of this twin truth, is a gift freely given undeserved. In God’s mercy, he acts. He sends the Messiah to save his people, our fathers in the faith. In doing this, he is faithful to the covenant, the original covenant given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), who is our father in the faith (Gal. 3:29). For God “to remember,” it does not mean simply to bring to mind. Rather, it refers to God bringing his promise to completion, to fulfillment. In relation to the covenant, notice, importantly, the reference both to Abraham (1:73) and David (1:69). It is important to acknowledge God sends a Messiah not primarily for us, but for him. He sends a Messiah as a result of faithfulness to his covenant, and secondarily for us.
The reason God did this, the purpose of God’s mercy, the forgiveness of sins, to remember his covenant, to rescue from enemies, was the following: The purpose of salvation (“we were rescued”) is that we might serve the Lord (worship) without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (1:74-75). God delivers his people from the hands of their enemies, he saves us, and in saving his people he fulfills the covenant, and he does all of this for his name’s sake. In response, when God delivers, redeems and saves for his sake, he does this so his people can serve him fearlessly, without fear. This expression is emphatic. If the enemy keeps people in fear of death and judgement and condemnation, God delivers from fear. This expression “without fear” is emphatic. Freed from these enemies and fears (Heb. 2:14-18), we are saved to serve, to worship, an engagement with God in all of life (cf. Rom. 12:1-2).
God is also praised for what he will do through John and Jesus (1:76-79).
And you my son :John will be called the prophet of the Most High (1:76-77).
Zechariah transitions to address John and Jesus. Most High refers to God. John is God’s prophet, whereas Jesus is God’s Son. John, though older, is subordinate to Jesus. John’s role is twofold.
First, he will prepare the way of the Lord. John is the fulfillment of promises given earlier by Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1). There is continuity between John’s and Jesus’ ministry, but when Jesus comes, John’s particular ministry is over. Jesus holds center stage in redemptive history. All that precedes points toward his coming, and all subsequent to this points back to his coming. He is the center point of all of redemptive history. The Lord is κύριος (Kurios). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), this term is used of God, translating the tetragrammaton, Yahweh. But in the coming of the Lord, God, the Lord is Jesus. This passage teaches about the deity of Christ.
John will, second, give the people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is connected with salvation. Since sin is defiance and rebellion against God, that sin must be forgiven or there will be no salvation. John will proclaim this salvation and forgiveness of sins, but it is Jesus who alone can and will provide it. This is why when John first encountered Jesus while in utero, he leaped (1:41). This also explains why when John saw Jesus later in life he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29, 36)! And understanding his role in redemptive history as the one who points to Jesus and once he arrives, his role is over and he rightly acknowledges, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
Jesus is sent as a result of God’s mercy (1:78-79). It is because of God’s tender mercy he acts for his people. The “sunrise” will visit us from “on high,” from heaven. God initiatives. Here it states he will “visit us,” a repetition from what is stated earlier about God’s having “visited and redeemed his people” (1:68). The sunrise dispels the darkness (cf. Isa. 60:1-3), and spiritually it gives the light of life and removes death and the shadow of death (Jn. 1:4-5; 8:12). Jesus comes to shine on those living in darkness. The result of his coming is that he guides us into peace.
One who prepares and works in the background is hugely significant.
“Among them that are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11).