Luke 1: 5 – 25 The birth of John the Baptist foretold
In 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. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. But 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. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for 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. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And 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.’
Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’
The 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. 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.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’
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Before anything else, I suggest that you read yesterday’s post if you haven’t already done so, because it gives a brief introduction to St Luke and what to bear in mind when reading his gospel. You can find the post by clicking here.
We have a decision to make on how we read today’s passage. Is it the literal truth? Was there really an angel announcing the forthcoming pregnancy of an old and childless woman?
What is the origin of this story? Would St Luke have heard about it from an eye-witness? How did he know about Zechariah’s dumbness, and the subsequent birth of John to Elizabeth his wife? We don’t know. It’s a story that is unique to St Luke, which relies on source, L. Some scholars believe this source is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Another way we can read the passage is as a literary device to make a theological point.
There is certainly good reason for viewing it as making a theological point. Look at the list of barren women who gave birth to sons who went on to play a big role in God’s plan:
- Way back in Genesis, Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren. God intervened, and with Abraham at 100 years old and Sarah at 90, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21: 1 – 7);
- Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed to the Lord, after which she conceived twin boys, Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25: 21 – 26);
- Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was barren but later conceived and bore Joseph (Genesis 30: 22 – 24)
- Manoah’s wife, who is not named in the bible, was barren. She had an encounter with angels who told her that she must abstain from alcohol, and would give birth to a son. who would be a Nazirite (i.e. someone dedicated to God who, as a sign of his dedication, would never drink alcohol, nor allow his head to be touched by a razor.) She later gave birth to Samson. (Judges 13: 1 – 25)
- Hannah was barren. She prayed to God and promised that if he gave her a son she would dedicate the child to God as a Nazirite. She subsequently gave birth to Samuel. (1 Samuel 1: 1 – 20)
When St Luke writes about the prophecy of John the Baptist’s birth, he is placing him firmly in the old Jewish covenant as one of God’s chosen champions.
Does it matter whether this account is literally true? In some ways, no. The important messages are:
- that John the Baptist is part of God’s plan for redemption;
- that God is intervening supernaturally;
- that the life of Jesus arises out of the ongoing revelation to the Jews. He is the Messiah.
In other ways, though, it’s important to know the manner in which a narrative is true. If we write down this passage as only a literary device, how does that affect our subsequent reading of miracles – for example, the resurrection of Jesus?
I believe God has occasionally spoken directly and specifically to me; indeed, this blog is a result of his prompting. I believe I have seen him heal people. Consequently, I believe he works in a supernatural way when it’s necessary to achieve his ends. However, for this passage, I have just a niggling doubt in my mind about the physical reality of this story. I don’t say that I don’t believe it; I think it could be literally true; but I think it’s more likely to be a metaphor for the spiritual truths it reveals. They don’t depend upon the account being literally true. (If I’m wrong about that, please forgive me, Lord).
Thank you for calling me to study your word. Please guide me in understanding what you are saying to me. When I am mistaken in what I think I hear, please forgive me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen