The Birth of John The Baptist
When Elizabeth gave birth to John there was great rejoicing, for all of her friends and neighbors knew this was an act of God, giving a child to a woman who was past child bearing years and had never had a child. It was also fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy to Zechariah: And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth”. (Luke 1:14) However, they probably did not realize how important this birth was.
Zechariah and Elizabeth brought John to be circumcised when he was eight days old. (59) This was in obedience to God’s covenant based command.
The command goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 17, we see that Abraham was 99 years old when God came and told him he would become the father of a multitude of nations. The covenant would extend to Abraham’s offsprings throughout the generations and God would be their God. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant.
As part of the covenant, God required the Abraham, his male offspring, and every male living with them be circumcised. In Leviticus 12:3, God further specified that the circumcision would be done on the eighth day. It was a sign that the child was born into the covenant family.
John was born of Hebrew parents who obeyed the law, another way of saying they kept the covenant. So, they circumcised their son.
It also appears that a custom had developed to name the child at the time of circumcision. This is the only time such a practice is mentioned. Since the boy was the only son, the people assumed he would be named Zechariah, continuing his father’s name.
But Elizabeth told them his name would be John. (60) This indicates that Zechariah had communicated some of the angel’s message to Elizabeth. He may have written it down or made sign language, but somehow he had let her know.
So the people did not believe Elizabeth and went to Zechariah to ask him about the name. Sometimes cultural customs get in our way of obeying God’s word.
It is a bit funny, for they made hand signs to Zechariah. The angel must have made Zechariah deaf as well as mute, because the people could not communicate with him verbally. At any rate, he wrote on a tablet that the boy’s name was indeed John. (63) (The tablet was probably wax or clay covered in wax. They wrote on it with a stylus.) “John” means God is merciful.
After writing that the boy’s name was John, Zechariah was able to speak. This is because he spoke in belief, obeying God’s command through the angel to name his son John even though it went against custom.
Notice this means John had nine months to think about his lack of faith and the message of the angel. By doubting, he missed out on being able to talk and share joy with Elizabeth over her pregnancy, to speak to his friends about God’s word spoken through an angel. It is always better to take God at his word and to act in faith, not doubt.
In faith, we experience the pleasure of God in our obedience and our own joy as we see his promises fulfilled. Also, we are not in need of God’s discipline for our lack of faith.
Also, as Zechariah began to speak, he began to bless God. As he had with Elizabeth and Mary, the Holy Spirit filled Zechariah and led him to prophesy, speaking the word of God. This brought fear on the people. They knew it was God at work.
As Mary had, Zechariah spoke praise to God. He blessed God in terms of God’s visiting and redeeming his people. (68) Since the first word of this praise is “blessed”, many call it the Benedictus, from the Latin word for blessed. This praise is a song, a thanksgiving hymn. It has two parts. The first part is a blessing for God and the second part is a blessing for John.
Zechariah blessed God for coming to save his people (68-75). He “visited” his people. The promise of Isaiah 7:14 was that a virgin would have a child called Immanuel, which means “God with us”. God visited his people in the form of Jesus who came and dwelt with us for a time, a visit. John 1:14 captures the same thought: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Holy Spirit, through John, was saying that the birth of John (and the impending birth of Jesus) signaled the coming of salvation to Israel. (69) He called it the house of David, referring to God’s covenant with David to bring Messiah through his line. (2 Samuel 7) Jesus was a descendant of David (of the house of David).
This brings up a note of interpretation. God refers to Israel by several names. For example, he uses “descendants of Abraham”, “house of Jacob” and “house of David”. Noticing the name used helps us understand what God is saying to them and to us.
Zechariah said that the Old Testament prophets had spoken of this time when salvation would come, saying God spoke by his holy prophets of old. (70) This is the Holy Spirit declaring that the prophecies about the coming of Messiah and salvation are being fulfilled, starting with the birth of John.
Zechariah’s song has many references to the Old Testament. You would expect that since the Holy Spirit inspired the Old Testament writings just as he did this song of Zechariah.
For example, “horn of salvation” is a term used in Psalm 148:14:
“He has raised up a horn of this people,
praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord.”
The horn was a symbol of power. It is what an animal uses to express its power and strength. Jesus is God’s horn of salvation.
Zechariah specifically put the event in terms of the covenant. He said God remembered his holy covenant (72) He referred to God’s oath to Abraham discussed above.
Finally, Zechariah mentioned God’s purpose. It is “so that we might serve him with out fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days”. (75) Salvation is not just a get out of hell free card. It is salvation from sins to serve God in freedom from sin and guilt. It is for us to bring glory to God, serving him and each other. He gave us grace to live for his glory.
Zechariah also prophesied to and blessed the baby John, saying he would be called the prophet of God (the Most High), that he would go before the Lord to prepare the way, and to convey the knowledge of salvation to Israel. (77) Since there had been no prophetic word since Malachi, several hundred years, this is an important prophecy.
Zechariah’s word that John would go before the Lord to prepare the way is the Holy Spirit saying John is the messenger the Lord spoke of in Malachi 3: “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me”.
Although Zechariah spoke of deliverance from enemies, he stated that salvation was in the forgiveness of sins through the mercy of God. (78) Through this mercy the Messiah (the sunrise) would visit from heaven (on high) and give light to those in darkness. (79) This is a reference to Malachi 4:2, which says “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” John would preach the need for confession of sin and repentance to be ready of the arrival of redemption in Christ.
This story closes with Luke telling us John grew up strong in spirit. At some point he went into the wilderness to wait for the time of his public appearance as prophet and herald of the Messiah, Jesus.