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7. The birth of John the Baptist

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 1: Episode 7
Luke 1:57-80

After John's birth, Zechariah confirms his name and is able to speak again. He prophesies with reference to covenants made between God and the Jewish people. Old Testament covenants are explained.

After John's birth, Zechariah confirms his name and is able to speak again. He prophesies with reference to covenants made between God and the Jewish people. Old Testament covenants are explained.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 7. This is the story of 'The birth of John the Baptist'

Introduction and Recap

We're studying in Luke 1: 57 - 80. If you've been following this series, you'll know that after three introductory episodes - where we looked at Luke's explanation of why he wrote, at John's big picture view and then Matthew's and Luke's account of the ancestry of Jesus - we then settled into Luke's account where we've been for the last three episodes; a continuous narrative that Luke gives us that tells us the story of these two remarkable and related children who were being conceived at this time: John the Baptist and his relative, Jesus.

We're now in the fourth and final part of this particular story and this is when John's birth takes place. Just a quick reminder, so you can be clear, and if you haven't read the previous episodes I hope this will help you to orientate yourself towards the story. Luke sees the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus as two parallel stories and he weaves them together in his narrative. Not only because Mary and Elizabeth, the two mothers, were related, in the same family, but because the purpose and the destiny of these two children, Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, were closely entwined. They were to function together. John the Baptist was to serve Jesus; to prepare the way for him; to be a prophet for him; and to prepare the people of Israel to receive him, as we shall see in future episodes.

We started in the Temple in Jerusalem when Zechariah, a junior priest there, was in the temple and he had an angelic visitation from the angel Gabriel telling him that he was going to be a father in his old age for the first time and that is wife Elizabeth was shortly going to become pregnant. This was a great shock to him and he temporarily lost his power of speech between that moment and the birth of his child, as he was really not sure whether he could believe what the angel said. The angel then appeared to Mary, a virgin betrothed, or engaged, to Joseph. They both lived in Nazareth in Galilee and we hear the amazing story of how the angel reveals to Mary that she is going to be the mother of Jesus and it will be, literally, a virgin birth - before she has any sexual relationship with a husband or any other man. In the last episode, we saw Luke joining these two stories together because Mary's immediate response to hearing this amazing news is to pack up her bags from her hometown of Nazareth and travel some 80 km into the Judean hills, further south, where she was going to visit her relative Elizabeth and Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah.

We saw a moving, powerful and prophetic encounter that took place as Mary and Elizabeth met. Elizabeth, heavily pregnant with John the Baptist and Mary having just become pregnant, but not visibly so. Immediately there was a recognition prophetically between them and a sort of coming together (in fellowship, friendship and common purpose) between these two mothers who knew that their two sons were going to be significant to each other and were going to have a great purpose in their lives. A purpose that went way beyond their families. They knew they were going to be sacrificing their sons to a wider life and ministry; they were going to be away from home and, of course, the reality, ultimately, turned out to be that both were executed by the authorities in the days to come. So it's a sacrificial, and yet joyful, anticipation that Elizabeth and Mary had.

We ended the last episode with Mary speaking out a wonderful hymn of praise, with lots of prophetic content in it, anticipating what God was going to do in the nation of Israel, and beyond the nation of Israel, through the coming of her son and through the coming of John, who was to become John the Baptist.

Birth of John the Baptist

We now come to the final part of this particular story and we're in verse 57 and we're going to recount the actual birth of John the Baptist and then the remarkable prophetic declaration made by John the Baptist's father upon his son's birth. It's a moving account which is really worthy of our study. Verse 57:

57When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. 59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” 61They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” 62Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord's hand was with him. 67His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69He 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), 71salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— 72to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76And 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, 77to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” 80And the child grew and became strong in spirit: and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.”

Luke 1:57-80, NIV

The birth of a baby in any community is always a cause of celebration. Neighbours, friends, relatives; we always tend to gather round the new born child, the mother and the family and we have different ways of doing it in different cultures. In rural cultures, this is often stronger than in urban cultures - people are living in community and this was the case here in the hills of Judea where Zechariah and Elizabeth were a very well known couple, very well respected. They were from the priestly family, which was a respected family, and they lived a godly life and so the birth of John was very, very exciting for them. It was a very unexpected event for the community because people knew, as they do, that they didn't have any children, that they wanted to have children, and that they were past the years of likely childbearing; they were getting old. People have an intuitive feeling about the pain and suffering and shame that that you might feel in this situation, and that's discussed in the community. Some of you may be well aware of these emotions and thoughts and ways of relating in local communities. That's exactly what happened here. When Elizabeth became pregnant, that great sense of expectation and excitement amongst the relatives and friends in the community was even greater than it might have been if she'd been 30 years younger and it would have been a more normal circumstance. Because of her advanced years, it was a remarkable circumstance. She would, almost certainly, have been the oldest mother in the community by a significant margin of years - and people were excited for them.

John's Name

As the story unfolds, we come to that key moment with infant children which is the naming In the Jewish context, with the male children naming was done in relationship to being circumcised (which was the custom of the Jews). Everyone was expecting the son to be named after the father. This was customary, as it is still in many more traditional cultures of the world today, where children take, either as a first name or as a second name, the family name or the name of the father; or in a girl's case, maybe some other family name or the name of the mother. Everyone was anticipating that this child would be Zechariah, Zechariah Jr, but no! As they were talking about this and anticipating this reality, Elizabeth declared, quite clearly, that another name was going to be given to him - that was the name of John. How did she know that? It had been revealed to Zechariah in the Temple, by the angel, that that was God's purpose: that he should be called John. The name John means grace, expressing God's grace and his mercy to the people, so it was a very significant name. Although Zechariah had not been able to speak since that remarkable encounter in the Temple with the angel, as we described in a few episodes ago, he had been able to write down messages to his wife and communicate, very clearly, what the name was going to be. She reiterated that to the people around:  “He's going to be called John.” Of course, there was a tension about this. This seemed a really odd thing, socially, to the people around. They looked to the father and, because he couldn't speak, the only thing he could do to communicate his will (and it was the father's will that was final in that social context in terms of naming a child) he wrote down, on a tablet - “His name is John.” As he wrote that, not only did it settle the question irrevocably but it released him from that temporary loss of his speaking ability, that had happened as a sign from God of the ambivalence and slight unbelief he'd had when the angel had spoken to him. Suddenly, he was restored completely. His voice - he hadn't suffered any damage to his voice, or anything like that - it wasn't a medical condition or an injury - it was just something happening physically because of things that were happening spiritually. Suddenly he could speak. The community had another thing to be amazed about, because they knew that something had happened to Zechariah in the Temple; he hadn't been able to speak for months (you couldn't have a conversation with him, he'd have to write things down, it's all a bit awkward socially); they also knew that Elizabeth was having a baby and that looked rather miraculous. Elizabeth would have told some of her friends some of the things that would have happened and the baby came - which was wonderful enough in itself - and then suddenly Zechariah speaks again. As soon as he speaks, he's going to start prophesying. His voice is going to become particularly powerful and it's very interesting that it says the people of the hill country of Judea were talking about all these things. It really was a big story in their area - such an unlikely series of events had taken place. I hope you get the feeling of the dynamics of the event. It was really quite a remarkable thing.

What isn't stated in the story, but is probably true, is that Mary was still with Elizabeth at this time. We don't know for certain when she went back to Nazareth - remember she'd been there for three months and she might have just stayed long enough for the baby to be born and then gone back to Nazareth. We'll pick up her story, very shortly, in chapter 2 which describes the birth of Jesus.

Zechariah's Prophecy

However, for the moment, our focus is on Zechariah's prophecy. The interesting thing about this prophecy, above all else, is that it refers, in several ways, to the special agreements that God had made between himself and the Jewish people - known as covenants (made on God's terms, by his initiative, binding agreements, by which he promised to do certain things and required certain responses.) There are several, direct and indirect, references to the covenants. For example, verse 69 “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” We mentioned before about the covenant with King David - which I'll come back to in a moment. In verse 73, he speaks about  “the oath he swore to our father Abraham”, which I referred to in the previous episode, we'll come back to that in a moment. In verse 77, he speaks of giving his people “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” which also relates to a particular covenant promised by the prophet Jeremiah. Now, this is a poetic prophecy, rather than any systematic teaching but I think it's fair to say that it refers, in passing, to God's covenant with King David; God's covenant with Abraham and also to the covenant promised by Jeremiah - known as the New Covenant.

Let's pause for a moment and try and reflect on this more carefully. You always have to remember, when dealing with the New Testament, that this is the continuation of a long story: many chapters have been written in the Old Testament. It's very characteristic for Christians, and those enquiring about the Christian faith, to be much more familiar with the New Testament and much more focused on the New Testament then they are on the Old Testament. However, we need to connect the two together in our minds very clearly.

Three Old Testament Covenants

Let me just say very briefly that, in the Old Testament, there are five fundamental covenants that God made that shape the destiny of mankind and point out his pathway to salvation, relationship with him, forgiveness of sins and being part of his family. The first is the covenant made with Noah, which we see back in Genesis, after the Great Flood. This is not a covenant made with the Jewish people - who weren't formally in existence at that point - but if you look at the end of chapter 8 and the early part of chapter 9 of the book of Genesis, you'll see that God promises to all mankind the stability of the natural environment; he wouldn't judge the world again by universal flood. He's basically saying there's going to be a time of stability and grace and opportunity for mankind for huge periods of time ahead - unspecified.

Then comes the second covenant, which I mentioned in the last episode - the covenant with Abraham, which forms the Jewish people. This is described in Genesis 12 onwards and it appears in stages through the subsequent chapters where we see - to summarise very briefly and simply - that God promises Abraham a name, a nation and a blessing. Three different things: a name, a nation and a blessing. He says that he'll give him a name: in other words, his family name will continue; he'll have a son and children. At that time, Abraham didn't have children and his wife was childless for a long period of time but then a promised son, Isaac, was born in their very advanced years. God gave him a family but also a name. He was also going to give him a nation: that's a national people, in a national land - that's the land of Israel. So the Jewish people in the land of Israel is a covenant promise that God gave to Abraham. He promised, thirdly, in Genesis 12 verse 3, that Abraham and his descendants would be a blessing to all the nations of the Earth. Somehow or other, Jewish people in that land would bless the whole world - and it turns out that it's going to happen through Jesus Christ, who comes from that Jewish background and lives in that Jewish land of Israel.

The first covenant is the covenant with Noah. The second is the covenant with Abraham, that forms the Jewish people and focuses it on its general destiny. The third covenant is the covenant that God makes with Moses in the time when the Jewish people are coming out from slavery in Egypt and they're just about to enter the Promised Land of Israel. This is a covenant of law and regulation and worship which sets the structure for Jewish national life.

Then comes the covenant with King David and summarised in the verse in 2 Samuel 7: 16, where God says that the monarchy that follows David will be an eternal monarchy. In other words, there will be a biological successor to David who will form a divine monarchy - or kingship; the Kingdom of God on Earth. We find out, as we discussed in the last episode, that Jesus is related biologically to David and will fulfil that role as being his agent of the Kingdom of God coming in the world.

Finally, there is what we might call the New Covenant spoken of, very clearly by Jesus later on, but is prophesied in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31: 31 - 34.

31The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,”(that's a reference to the covenant with Moses, the Mosaic Covenant) 33“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” ...“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34, NIV

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises a new covenant - a covenant that isn't about laws and regulations but a new relationship with God based on forgiveness of sins. That's exactly what Jesus comes to bring, and this forgiveness of sins was anticipated in Zechariah's remarkable prophetic song:“to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (chapter 1, verse 77). Zechariah goes on to prophesy, very particularly, about John's own work. His son John, who we know is John the Baptist. Verse 76 onwards is very significant:  “and you, my child, will be called a prophet of the most high.” So Zechariah can see he's going to be a prophet, someone who hears from God and speaks from God with authority. “You will go on before the Lord to prepare a way for him and to give his people the knowledge of salvation.” He's got a preparatory ministry: he's going to speak the word of God to the people of Israel to prepare the way for God to come through someone else, or something else - and it turns out that someone else is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God; and that something else is the New Covenant that he'll bring. John is going to be very significant in the nation of Israel.

This is a remarkable passage, a wonderful passage to read and think about. Really moving human dynamics: if you imagine the village communities in the Judean Hills, so excited about this surprising and wonderful birth to a much-respected older couple. Then Zechariah begins to speak again and prophesy and people begin to think that there's something very significant that's going to happen. The final verse says the child John “grew and became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly in Israel.” At some point he left home, we don't know when - perhaps in early adulthood, and he lived in what's described here as ‘the wilderness.’ The Judean Hills are close to a small, very small, semi- desert area known as the Judean wilderness. This is the area that John will have gone to. He lived the life of an outsider, a monastic type of life. He wasn't married, he didn't have a family, he lived very simply and lived on his own. He was waiting for God's call to re-enter national life which he did, very dramatically, in the days to come - as we'll see as we go through our studies.

Reflections

Some final reflections. This is the turning point in salvation history. The Jews have been waiting for 400 years. There's been no new authorised prophecy or writings of the Old Testament in 400 years. The nations of the world have not yet received God's salvation in any significant measure but the Old Testament covenants indicate that there'll be a king who'll bring God's Kingdom; David's son, will bring in a New Covenant and will be a blessing to all the nations of the world. The prophetic clock is beginning to tick; events are beginning to happen and John is going to be preparing the way for Jesus. We'll see how that happens in subsequent episodes.

Thanks for joining us.

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