The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

Luke 1: 5-25

DIG: What stands out to you about Zechariah and Elizabeth? Barrenness was seen as a sign of God’s disfavor and a legitimate reason for divorce. How do you think Elizabeth felt about herself? How do you think Zechariah felt about her? Why? What were the odds that Zechariah would be chosen to offer the incense on the golden alter in the Holy Place? How, then, did it happen? How would the birth of this son impact Z’kharyah and Elisheva? How would you describe his mission in your own words? Why might Zechariah doubt?

REFLECT: How has ADONAI kept His oath or promise to you? Do you feel spiritually barren in any way? How might this account of Elizabeth and Zechariah affect your feelings of barrenness? Of the major characters in this account – John, Z’kharyah and Elisheva – which one do you identify with the most? Why? With whom do you identify with the least? Why? How is John’s mission a model for your mission today? How might you “prepare people for the Lord?” When was the last time you doubted God? What caused your doubt? How did you overcome it?

It was the time of the morning sacrifice. As the massive Temple gates slowly swung on their hinges, three blasts from the silver trumpets of the priests seemed to waken the City, as if the voice of God, to the life of another day. The ministering Levites, who acted as the representatives of Isra’el, hurried to their duties. For already the first blush of dawn, for which the priest on the highest pinnacle of the Temple had watched as a signal to begin the morning sacrifice, could then be seen. Within the courts below all had long been busy. There were probably about fifty priests on duty each day. First they divided into two parties to make an inspection of the Temple by torchlight well before dawn. Then they all met at the well-known Hall of Polished Stones where the Sanhedrin met (see Lg – The Great Sanhedrin), and there they drew lots for their sacred duties for that day.

In First Chronicles 24, King David divided the Tribe of Levi into twenty-four divisions. Each division would take turns for a period of two weeks to take care of the daily functions of the Temple rituals twice a year. During the major pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot, all the divisions served. There was one high priest, below him were twenty chief priests and under them were the members of the twenty-four courses, who were the common priests. Zechariah was a common priest who belonged to the priestly course of Abihah. The duties of the common priests were chosen by lot. There were so many Levites, however, that they usually had only one chance in their whole lifetime to serve. Nevertheless, Z’kharyah went up from his home to take part in the sacred tasks of service five times each year at the Temple.38

Lots were drawn four times that day, twice before the great Temple gates were opened and twice afterwards. This arrangement had been made necessary because of the over zealousness that some of the priests had demonstrated for service. This is how the lots were chosen: the common priests stood in a circle around the high priest, who for a moment removed the headgear of one of their number, to show that he would begin counting. Then all held up one, two or more fingers – since the Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) said it was unlawful to count persons – and the high priest called out a random number, say sixty, and began counting fingers until he reached that number, which meant that the lot had fallen on that particular priest.39

The first lot chosen was for the cleansing and preparation of the bronze altar in the courtyard (see my commentary on Exodus Fa – The Bronze Altar in the Tabernacle: A Shadow of the Good Things to Come). This was done before dawn as the priests stirred the coals on the altar and added new wood so the flame wouldnot go out (Leveticus 6:12-13).

It was barely dawn when the priests met again in the great Hall of Polished Stones to draw the second lot. Some of those who were chosen would take part in the burnt offering sacrifice on the bronze altar (see my commentary on Exodus Fe – The Burnt Offering), while the others trimmed the golden lampstand and made ready the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place (see my commentary on Exodus Fn – The Lampstand in the Sanctuary: Christ, the Light of the World). Once the bronze altar and the altar of incense were ready, dawn had broken and nothing more remained before the gates to the Temple were opened and the worshipers entered the Temple courts.

Once the sacrifice was made, all was ready for the most solemn part of the day’s service – the offering of incense on the golden altar within the Holy Place. The priests meet again for the third lot. It was the most important lot of the day because it determined who was to offer the incense on the golden altar (see my commentary on Exodus Fp – The Altar of Incense in the Sanctuary: Christ, Our Advocate with the Father). Only once in a lifetime might any one enjoy that privilege.

Once the incense was burned, the priests met one last time in the Hall of Polished Stones. The fourth lot fixed those who were to burn the pieces of the slaughtered lamb on the altar, and to perform the concluding portions of the service. Except for burning the incense, the morning lots also held good for the evening service.40

God’s announcement to Z’kharyah took place in the time of Herod the Great, king of Judea,who died in 4 BC. The political condition of the people of Isra’el was deplorable and their spiritual condition was in decline. Herod, a monster of crime, oppressed them, and their faith under pharisaic Judaism had become an empty system of ceremonies and rituals. But in the midst of that spiritual drought there was a priest from the tribe of Levi named Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth who was also a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5).41 Great care was taken in the selection of wives for the priests, so that the family line might be kept unblemished in every respect.42 So Z’kharyah was doublyblessed because the rabbis taught that to be a priest was an honor, but to be married to the daughter of a priest was a double honor. Yochanan, therefore, was a priest by lineage. Zechariah means God remembers, and Elisheva means the oath of God. So together their names mean God remembers His oath.

Both of them were members of the believing Jewish remnant of that day; and therefore, righteous in the sight of God. As evidence of their righteousness they observed all of ADONAI’s commands and decrees blamelessly (Luke 1:6). They loved the LORD, their fellow man, and they trusted in His Word. But they had no children because Elisheva was barren. Barrenness was seen as a sign of Ha’Shem’s displeasure and would have been a constant embarrassment to Elizabeth as is evident from her statement that the LORD had taken away her disgrace when she finally gave birth to John (Luke 1:25). In the Jewish culture the wife was always blamed for barrenness because at that time they did not understand that the male could be the infertile spouse. Because barrenness was a legitimate reason for divorce, we can only surmise that Z’kharyah loved her very much. Most likely he felt more sorry for her than he did for himself that she was disgraced. And they were both very old, which meant that they were probably over sixty years old (Luke 1:7), and they probably prayed year after year after year for a child. Thus, the stage was set for another series of miraculous births of important men that began with Isaac to 100-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah (Genesis 18:1-5, 21:1-7), Sampson to Manoah and his wife (Judges 13) and Samuel to Elkanah and Hannah (First Samuel 1:1 to 2:10). After the birth of Yochanan to Elizabeth, the series concludes with the birth of Yeshua the Messiah to the virgin Miryam. But on that bright autumn morning in the Temple, Z’kharyah had something more pressing to think about.43

Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God. For the first and last time in his life he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the Temple of the LORD and burn incense before Him (Luke 1:8-9). What were the odds that he would be chosen? The sovereignty of Ha’Shem was clearly in control of this event.All his attention needed to be focused on the task at hand.

For two weeks, twice a day, Zechariah’s duty was to take a burning coal from the bronze altar in the courtyard into the Holy Place within the Temple, and place it on the altar of incense that stood before the curtain (see Lw – Accompanying Signs of Jesus’ Death) that separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. After setting the coal down upon the golden altar of incense, he would then drop some of the incense on it causing a sweet-smelling smoke of incense to rise and penetrate through the thick curtain into the Most Holy Place to be a sweet-smelling aroma, a sacrifice to ADONAI.

Because of an incident that occurred in Leviticus 10 when the two sons of Aaron burned the incense improperly and were struck dead on the spot, the rabbis taught that if the priest burned the incense improperly, he would also die on the spot. But before death, an angel, the angel of Death, would appear standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Z’kharyah was not to use strange fire for his sacrifice or he would be killed instantly. Therefore, if God accepted the offering, Zechariah would come out of the Holy Place alive, if not, he would die right where he was standing.

And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside (Luke 1:10). At that moment Zechariah was the focal point of the entire Jewish nation. Then, just at the climax of his priestly life, as the cloud of incense began to rise an angel of ADONAI appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar. When Z’kharyah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear, literally fear fell on him. But the message of the angel was not one of judgment and death, but of blessing and a new life to come. The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elisheva will bear you a son, and you are to call him Yochanan” (Luke 1:11-13). The Hebrew word for John means grace, pointing to the new dispensation of grace (see my commentary on Hebrews). The angel Gabriel not only gave the name of the son, but also detailed six aspects of John’s character:

1. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth (Luke 1:14). Luke frequently uses the word joy and links it to salvation. In Luke 15, he used the words joy and rejoicing three times when something that was lost had been found, a picture of salvation. Thus, Yochanan’s ministry would bring joy to the Israelites who would have faith in his message of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.

2. He will be great in the sight of ADONAI. The expression enopion, or: in the sight of, is typical of Luke. Although it appears thirty-five times in Luke and Acts, John 20:30 is the only other time it is used in the Gospels.

3. He will be a Nazirite from birth (Numbers 6:1-21), and will never take wine or other fermented drink to perhaps show the urgency of his message.Normally a person would choose this for himself, but, in the TaNaKh, God chose two men to be set apart as a Nazirite from birth: Samuel and Sampson. Samuel was faithful but Sampson was not. Later, Yochanan voluntarily took the Nazirite vow upon himself and refused to drink anything fermented, because those who are Nazarites had to totally abstain from anything having to do with grapes. Another way he emphasized the urgency of his message was to dress, act and eat like the prophet Elijah (Second Kings 1:8; Matthew 1:8).

4. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (Luke 1:15). When Mary visited Elizabeth before John was born, the baby leaped in her womb. The ministry of the Ruach HaKodesh was important to Luke, and he often went to great lengths to show His empowering and enabling ministry. Both Z’kharyah and Elisheva were filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41 and 67). Sometimes people make a big deal between being filled or baptized (Luke 3:16b) with the Ruach HaKodesh, as opposed to being filled by the Spirit, or in the Spirit. They might say, “Well, you might be filled by the Spirit, but are you filled with the Spirit.” Those distinctions, however, are not seen in the original language. The phrase, en pneumati, has a semantic range that can be translated, in, by or withthe Ruach HaKodesh. Therefore, New Covenant believers are baptized in/by/with the Holy Spirit only one time in their lives at the moment of conversion (see Bw – What God Does For Us at the Moment of Faith).

5. He will bring back many of the people of Isra’el to the LORD their God (Luke 1:16). His special task was to prepare the people of Isra’el for the Messiah and many of them did turn back to God through Yochanan’s ministry (Matthew 3:5-6; Mark 1:4-5).

6. He will go on before ADONAI (Isaiah 40:3-5), in the spirit and power of Elijah. He is not Elijah, but would minister in the spirit and power of Elijah. Evidently Z’kharyah understood that the angel Gabriel was identifying his future son with the messenger of Malachi 3:1, for in his song of praise he noted that John would go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him (Luke 1:76 and 3:4-6). He would turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the LORD (Luke 1:17). Yochanan was not Elijah, but he functioned with the same power and authority to prepare the way. Jesus affirmed that John was the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 in Mat 11:10, and stated that John would have fulfilled Malachi 4:4-5 if the nation of Isra’el had accepted his message (Matthew 11:14).

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” This question was cloaked in doubt. Faced by this astounding message, Z’kharyah responded like Abraham with a request for a sign (Genesis 15:8). He could not believe the message, saying: I am an old man and my wife is well along in years (Luke 1:18). Sometimes you need to be careful before you ask for something because you just may get it. In this case he got his sign and was struck deaf and mute because of his unbelief (Luke 1:22).

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel,” who foretold of Christ’s coming (Dan 9:25). “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this Good News” (Luke 1:19). It is interesting to note that here Muslims teach that the Bible contradicts itself. They quote Matthew 1:18 where it says: Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit, but here they say that Gabriel impregnated her. Which is obviously false. But the things of the Lord are spiritually discerned. This just goes to show how far Muslims really are in spiritual darkness. Later the angel Gabriel will tell Mary, “The Ruach HaKodesh will come over you, and the power of Ha’Elyon will overshadow you. So the holy child born to you will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

As a result of his lack of faith, the angel Gabriel told him,And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:20). Zechariah’s inability to speak until the fulfillment of Gabriel’s message was, to some degree, a punishment for his unbelief. But it was also a sign (Ezekiel 3:26 and 24:27). A sign in the TaNaKh was often associated with a confirming, observable occurrence that accompanied a word of prophecy. Subsequently, for the next nine months Z’kharyah’s attempts to speak would prove the reliability of Gabriel’s message.44

The scene then shifted to the huge crowd waiting outside in the courts of the Temple. The conversation between Zechariah and the angel had delayed him from coming out of the Holy Place in the normal amount of time. Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Z’kharyah and wondering why he stayed so long in the Temple (Luke 1:21). The prayers of the people had been offered, and their anxious gaze was directed towards the Holy Place. At last Zechariah emerged and stood on top of the steps that led from the porch to the court of the Priests [The Diagram of the Second Temple] waiting to lead the priestly benediction which preceded the daily burnt offering (see my commentary on Exodus Fe – The Burnt Offering) and the chant of the Psalms of praise, accompanied with the joyous sound of music, as the drink offering was poured out.

The sign of Z’kharyah, however, was also to be a sign to the nation of Isra'el as well. The pieces of the sacrifice had already been arranged in the proper order on the bronze altar, the priests stood on the steps of the porch, and the aged priest had the attention of the nation as he came out of the Holy Place.45 The rabbis teach that the priest coming out of the Holy Place was expected to pronounce a blessing upon the people (Numbers 6:24-26). But when he came out, he could not speak to them. The people realized, however, that he had seen a vision in the Temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak (Luke 1:22).

Zechariah was not one of the “learned” priests, nor was he what the rabbis would call a model priest. They would have described him as an idiot priest. When the term idiot is mentioned in conjunction with the word priest, it usually means a common priest, in distinction to the high priest. However, the word unquestionably also signifies someone who is vulgar, ignorant, and illiterate.46

When his time of service was completed, he returned home to the hill country of Judah. But ADONAI had fulfilled the word that He had spoken by His angel. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for the last five months of her pregnancy, she remained in complete seclusion (Luke 1:23-24). This secrecy ensured that the revelation of her pregnancy would first be made to Mary five months later (Luke 1:26, 36 and 56). As a result, the divine timetable was maintained.47 Elisheva interpreted her pregnancy as a gracious act of God. ADONAI has done this for me, she said: in these days He has shown His favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (Luke 1:25). The perfect tense used here indicates a completed action with continuing results. Elizabeth brought into play the words of Rachel, another woman of the Scriptures whose barrenness was also ended by Ha’Shem’s direct involvement (Genesis 30:22-23).48 And like Rachel, there can be no doubt that Elisheva was overjoyed that her and her husband’s prayers were answered. After many years they were finally able to have a baby.

For many of us, trusting in ADONAI is fine as long as our trust is something you believe can actually happen. It’s funny that sometimes we find ourselves content to let God handle the ordinary things in life like giving us an opportunity to do well on a job interview or score well on a test. But, when it really comes to the hard things, the things that really seem impossible, many times our faith shrinks and we are often tempted to trust our own means rather than give the problem up to God (like Sarai suggesting that Abram have a child with Hagar to be her own). Being content to wait on the Lord for the impossible is something that most believers just simply have a hard time doing. We can all relate.

Why are we so reluctant to give God the impossible things and then sit back and wait for an answer? We know that Ha’Elyon has done the impossible in the past. He created something from nothing (Genesis 1:1). How impossible can you get? Even the simpler things like parting the waters of the Red Sea and sending manna and quail to His children in the desert were accomplished without so much as a bat of a Holy eyelash. Yet, when it comes to our impossible, the things that have us so stymied that we are at a total loss for a solution, we often find ourselves thinking that intellectually we know the LORD could do it, but it seems so far-fetched that He would. So we fight on alone, trusting that somehow luck or pluck will get the job done.

Perhaps it’s just because we might feel we don’t want to bother God with hard tasks. Perhaps it’s because we feel foolish asking for really “big” things. More likely, however, it’s because we have a schedule for things to happen and the hard things, the impossible things, need to be gotten out of the way quickly so that we can move on with our lives. We know that ADONAI has a solution for every problem in life. The problem is we often find ourselves reluctant to match our schedules with His timetable. It’s like the man who fell off a cliff, but managed to grab a tree limb on the way down. He looks upward and yells: “Is anyone up there?” Then he hears a voice.

“I Am here. I Am the Lord. Do you believe me?”

“Yes, Lord, I believe. I really believe,” the man says earnestly.

“But I can’t hang on much longer.”

“That’s all right,” came the Lord’s reply. “If you really believe you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch.”

There was a pause for a moment, and then he said, “Is anyone else up there?” (adapted--Bits & Pieces, June 24, 1993, p. 3.)

Zechariah found out the hard way that Ha’Shem answers prayer as long as we are willing to leave the hard things, the impossible things, totally up to Him. Z’kharyah and his wife Elisheva had prayed for a child for a long time and now they were elderly and her womb was shut up. Yet, she bore a child because of God’s willingness to grant the impossible if only we relegate the impossible to Him in the first place. The LORD is willing and able to reach down and make the impossible happen in our lives as well. It is easier said than done, but we need to believe God is willing and, most importantly, we need to be willing to endure what might be a wait in order to see the fruits of our prayers. When faced with the impossible it is often best to let go of our reluctance to trust in ourselves and give ADONAI the space He needs to work the miracles that He is so willing to do in our lives.


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