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4. An angel announces the birth of John the Baptist

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 1: Episode 4
Luke 1:5-25

John's father Zechariah was on duty in the Temple, when an angel announced the birth of a son in his old age. Zechariah hesitated to believe and was struck dumb. John's mission was to call Israel back to true faith.

John's father Zechariah was on duty in the Temple, when an angel announced the birth of a son in his old age. Zechariah hesitated to believe and was struck dumb. John's mission was to call Israel back to true faith.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 4: 'An angel announces the birth of John the Baptist'.

Introduction and Recap

We're going to be studying this exciting story from Luke 1 in just a moment but quickly let's remind ourselves what happened in the three episodes that we've studied so far. You might remember, if you've been with us on the journey, that at the very beginning of Luke's Gospel, Luke introduces his Gospel and he shows himself to be a historian who spent time studying the life of Jesus. It appears that he spent time in Israel, although he didn't live there, while he was visiting with Paul and probably interviewing eyewitnesses of the events that he recounts in his Gospel. He puts the events in an orderly fashion, as he describes it. He's going to start his storytelling right now with the story of the coming of John the Baptist. We also looked at John's 1 - that great, grand introduction in which John explains how Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of Man - how he came down to earth from heaven and became one of us, by taking on humanity. It's a wonderful big picture passage at the beginning of John's Gospel but it's noticeable in that passage that John says (in John 1: 6)

6There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

John 1:6, NIV

This is a description of John the Baptist who is a forerunner of Jesus; he's a prophet of Jesus; and he's a witness to the light of Jesus. He's orientating the Jewish people, in particular, towards Jesus in preparation for his coming. This is the story that begins to unfold in Luke's Gospel in some detail from today's episode. You'll also recall that we looked at Matthew's Gospel and his account of the ancestry of Jesus, or the genealogy. We also noticed that there is an alternative genealogy in Luke's Gospel and we came to the conclusion that Matthew describes Jesus' ancestry through his stepfather Joseph and Luke describes Jesus' ancestry through his mother Mary. Both ancestries go back to the important Jewish king, David, and we spoke about the significance of that in the last episode.

John the Baptists' Early life

We're turning our attention particularly to John the Baptist. It's remarkable how Luke gives a very detailed explanation of the origins of John the Baptist - the miracles that surrounded his birth and his early life. We're going to turn to the text, read it and find this incredible story opening up before us. It's a very surprising story.  Luke 1: 5 - 25:

5In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. 7But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. 8Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid,Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to 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.” 18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And 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.” 21Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. 23When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Luke 1:5-25, NIV

This is the first stage of a long story concerning the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it. There is a theme of God's miraculous and sudden intervention all the way through. We'll be studying, shortly, the amazing, miraculous way that Jesus came to be conceived and born. Before we even get to that, we find that John the Baptist - the prophetic voice that was going to come before Jesus in his public ministry - is also born miraculously in astonishing circumstances.

Zechariah in the Temple

Let's think about Zechariah and Elizabeth. They're both from the priestly tribe of Israel. There were twelve tribes in Israel and the tribe of Levi in the Old Testament following the first priest, Aaron, who is mentioned in the text here. The tribe of Levi were dedicated permanently to the function of priesthood in Israel. There was a hierarchy in the tribe and male members of the tribe had a responsibility to help in the public worship of Israel. This ended up being in the Jewish Temple, when it was built, and of course the Jewish Temple was there (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at this time in history. The Levitical priesthood was divided into 24 different subsections and the adult male members of these subsections were on the rota so that every so often they were called upon. It was very occasionally but, nevertheless, they were called upon to go from their town, village, or home up to Jerusalem for a period of some weeks where they would be actually functioning in the Temple worship. This is exactly what Zechariah was doing in the story that we see unfolding before us: he went up to Jerusalem and he was serving in the Temple. Temple worship involved animal sacrifice, which required quite a lot of organisation on behalf of the priests: the preparation of the animals, the killing of the animals, burning parts of the animals, the redistribution of the parts of the animals and so on. That was part of the function. One of the particular functions of the Levites was to take burning coals from the altar where sacrifices were made and to transfer them to another altar in a different part of the Temple, further inside the Temple, away from public view - less available to public view - and put these coals on another altar - not the altar of burnt offering - where sacrifices were made - but the altar of incense where incense was burned as a sign of worship and prayer. The coals were moved from one place to another. That was one of the things that Zechariah was doing. The Temple was the holiest place of Israel and we'll have many things to say about the Temple because it's a big theme of the Gospels all the way through as we'll find out as we go along. This is the first time that we're really thinking about the Jewish Temple. Jews went there three times a year, if they were able, at major festivals to make sacrifices and perform religious ceremonies. They believed, on the basis of the fact that God forgives sin through sacrifice, through the death and the shedding of blood of one person for another, or one creature for a person. They believed that their sins could be forgiven through sacrifice and through the worship that accompanied it.

It's interesting that in the Jewish Temple the miracles that precede the birth of Jesus begin to start. Clearly Zechariah and Elizabeth were a godly couple. They understood the Scriptures, they worshipped and they were very open to what God might do for them. Zechariah was in for an astonishing surprise! As he is fulfilling his function in the Temple, he has a visitation from the angel Gabriel who's named several times in Luke and Matthew concerning the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. (Only two angels are named in the Bible: the angel Michael and the angel Gabriel. We can assume the angel Gabriel had, and has, a senior and significant role as a messenger of God.) The angel Gabriel appeared to him in the Temple and gave him this extraordinary message: a child is going to be born to him, a son in his old age and that that son is going to be named John; is going to have a special name, not his family name.

The Significance of John the Baptist

In many parts of the world, even today, sons and daughters are named after members of the family of the same sex (fathers, grandfathers, uncles etcetera in the case of boys) either their main name or their middle name. But John was a different name altogether. It was a name chosen by God and the message was delivered by Gabriel. John: the word John literally means grace or, God is a gracious giver. John symbolises an age of God's grace and kindness and mercy to mankind that was just about to break out through the coming of Jesus.

What is the significance of John the Baptist? Even from this passage, even before he is born we find a number of interesting things said about him: he'll be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. That's a sign of God's special choice and special empowering. John is going to be a unique individual with a unique prophetic message. He's going to come and he's going to shake up the whole of Israel. Thousands, tens of thousands of people, are going to listen to him as he proclaims that the Messiah is coming and he points out Jesus as the Messiah. We'll see how the story unravels in subsequent episodes. He's going to be filled with the Spirit from birth and he's going to come in the spirit and power of Elijah. The Jews considered Elijah to be one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament and you can read the story of Elijah in the Old Testament. He confronted the nation of Israel in a time of extremely bad national life, when almost the whole nation had deserted their God and started worshipping other idols. Elijah came, he confronted the king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel, and he proclaimed there was going to be a drought in the land which continued for three years. He went up Mount Carmel. The King was there and some of the priests to other gods, like Baal. Elijah prophesied that rain was going to come after three years of drought and shortly afterwards there was a huge deluge of water. (I'm compressing a very challenging, exciting and long story into just a few sentences.) But what this signified was, the prophetic voice to the nation calling the nation back to the Living God - that's what Elijah did. John is going to come in the spirit and power of Elijah. He's going to be like Elijah because he's going to confront the nation of Israel, call them back to true and simple faith and point them to their Saviour, Jesus. He's going to come and prepare a remnant within Israel to receive Jesus.

Interestingly enough, it states in our passage that he was not going to drink any wine, or any other fermented or alcoholic drink. This brings an interesting question to mind: was this a general rule for all who would follow? Or was this something unique to John? The drinking of wine in a social context, and of alcohol, was a standard part of Jewish society and, interestingly enough, Jesus and his disciples participated in that process socially - in real moderation. This is not the beginning of a process that indicates that Christians should be teetotal. What it tells us is that some people are called by God to renounce certain benefits of this life (one of which, here, is alcohol) in order to pursue their calling or as a prophetic sign to other people - which is what it was in this case.

So Zechariah and Elizabeth are faced with this astonishing promise and Zechariah stumbles somewhat in his faith when the angel speaks to him so directly. He's shocked, he's a bit overwhelmed, and the promise of a child is beyond his wildest dreams. He'd long given up on the hope of being a father and on the hope of his wife being a mother and the hope of having their own biological family. He'd given up on that and so he questioned the angel and he hesitated in his conversation. This remarkable sign happened: he was literally struck dumb, unable to speak for the next nine months or so, during his wife's pregnancy, until John is born as we'll see very shortly in the next episode.

Through this story, Luke is announcing that God is on the move. God sends one of his supreme angels and messengers right there to the Jewish Temple, right in the middle of their worship, right at the centre of the nation, right in the place where they believed God would reveal himself. An angel came and spoke to a man who wasn't expecting it and prophesied a miracle: that he'd have a son in his old age. God was on the move. This is the trigger event, now, from which all the other events happen that bring about the arrival of Jesus, through other, even more miraculous, circumstances.

Reflections

Some reflections on this moving story. First of all, I want to point out to you the importance of faithfulness. It's very easy to overlook a fact such as that Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and had been faithful followers of God - presumably all their lives. Faithfulness is very important. Life isn't always exciting: if you live a life of faith, a lot of that life can appear very ordinary. But God sees your faithfulness and he can intervene at any time and do a miracle in your life. So can I encourage you? Faithfulness is one of the most important virtues of a Christian: to continue to keep steady faith in God through good times and through hard times.

The second thing I want to comment on is here's a remarkable example of overcoming disappointment and even shame. Shame is an important thing for us to talk about because many of us live in cultures where shame shapes the way people behave. One of the things that is very shameful in many cultures is the inability of women, in particular, but married couples, in general, to have their own children. It brings shame, it brings sadness, it brings loss, it brings dislocation and, to some degree, this applied in Israel at the time of Jesus. People felt sorry for Zechariah and Elizabeth. People didn't know why they hadn't been blessed with their own children. They were now going to overcome this disappointment through a miracle. That is very remarkable because the text particularly tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah were in their old age. We don't, of course, know what that means and old age would be slightly younger then than many people consider it now because of the advance of medical technology in the modern world. But, nevertheless, one can assume that Elizabeth was past the age of childbearing in the normal course of events. This is something of a miracle.

Another point I'd like to make here is that believing for the impossible is a very hard thing to do. It looks, from the story, as though Zechariah hesitated but Elizabeth embraced the promise - we find that later on and in the subsequent narrative. The focus is particularly on Zechariah - he hesitated when impossible things were promised. I wonder whether we hesitate when we see something incredible in the Bible or we feel God speaking to us about something really impossible? Can I encourage you to go back to this story and seek to learn from the story and Zechariah's initial response.

There's one other thing that comes to my mind when we're thinking about this story and it goes back to the location of this event: the Temple. You see, when the Temple was first built, it was built by David's son, Solomon, King of Israel. You can read about it in the Old Testament. He built a huge and glorious and wonderful temple and in the inner sanctuary of the Temple, the most holy place or the Holy of Holies, God alone was supposed to be present. This was the place that he would meet the High Priest once a year and his presence was said to fill that place and then, sometimes, to fill the rest of the Temple too. That's what happened when the Temple was dedicated by Solomon. So, for a long time, when the priests went into the Temple, they genuinely felt a presence of the Living God in that building. However, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt, and we have the second Temple in the time of Jesus and the time of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We don't have any record amongst Jews that they felt the presence of God in the second Temple in the same way as they did in the first Temple. Here, God's presence comes back into the Temple: he's returning in glory, he's on the move; this is a key moment in his purposes. This is a sudden intervention in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth who were living a very stable and steady life, almost certainly living in the Judean hills and occasionally coming to Jerusalem. God made a sudden intervention into their lives. What I want to just encourage you with is the thought that God makes sudden interventions in our lives and you never know when he's going to reveal himself; show his purpose for you; give you some guidance; speak to you from the Bible; challenge you to change your life and move on through external circumstances. He makes sudden interventions. Can I say, disciples and followers of Jesus, expect God's sudden interventions and we can expect change as God continues to work in our lives. God's covenant purposes span generations, centuries, millennia and he promised the coming of the Messiah in a way that we'll describe in more detail in subsequent episodes and he's keeping his promises now as he's preparing the way for Jesus to come.

Zechariah moved from partial belief to total belief, refined when his son was born. He's suddenly able to speak again and he tells everyone the name of the child. We can move from that partial belief to a fuller belief as we open ourselves up to God.

A final comment that I'd like to make is concerning angels that appear frequently in the narrative in the next few episodes as I've already mentioned. The Bible teaches that angels are real, spiritual beings. They serve God. They're not to be worshipped. Very little is revealed about them - we're not to be seeking to find special information about them. They are ministering spirits, according to the writer of Hebrews, who are there to help those who believe. They can send messages from God and they can do his work in the world. They're largely hidden and very rarely seen by human beings. They are, as Billy Graham famously describes them, God's ‘secret agents’ they're sent to serve those who will inherit salvation. This is a very supernatural account that we've been discussing today.

But this is only the first half of the story; it comes to a glorious conclusion in the next episode which I look forward to sharing with you soon.

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