THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST FORETOLD
Luke 1:1-25 (key verse: 1:13)
“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 give him the name John.’”
In these days, there are so many versions of the Bible, and at any time we can find the holy Bible. However, in 1st century, there was no written Bible book of New Testament, but just small portion of Old Testament scrolls. Mostly, Jesus’ story about his life and work and his words were handed down by his disciples orally, who were the eyewitnesses of God’s works and his words. Luke, the historian and evangelist, realized the need of writing Jesus’ salvation works and his living words, and assumed the task of compiling the story about Jesus’ life and his words. In doing so, he carefully investigated everything from the beginning and wrote an orderly account about Jesus’ life (1-4).
Luke’s gospel begins with a unique story of the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth to bear John the Baptist, who was the herald of Messiah Jesus. Many people want to become ‘a historic and legendary person’ in God’s salvation history, establishing a great ministry as an honorable missionary. In most cases, the outstanding and historic persons are remembered but many people behind the scene who sacrificed their lives and worked for God silently could be forgotten. But at the beginning of his gospel, Luke introduces the priest and parent of the historic man of God John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, as real source of God’s works. Through this opening passage of Luke’s gospel, we want to know what pattern of lives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived and how God used them in his salvation works.
- Zechariah and Elizabeth’s Life of Faith (5-13)
Look at v. 5-6. “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 descendent of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” King Herod ruled over all Judea from 40 B.C. to 4 B.C. with an iron fist. For his tyranny, he strangled his two sons, suspecting that they would be his possible political opponents. He also killed his loving wife Miriame because of his paranoia not trusting anybody. In order to strengthen his political legitimacy, he rebuilt gorgeous temple and extended grand Hellenistic culture, working the people hard. He even controlled the temple blatantly and manipulated the high priesthood for his own political purposes. In politics, there is an axiom, saying “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “In the time of Herod king of Judea,” thus points to a period of tragedy in the history of Israel.
Into this context Luke introduces Zechariah and Elizabeth, a priestly couple, as the lamp of God, shining in this dark period. As a “priest” and member of the order of Abijah, Zechariah himself is a descendant of Aaron, and he adds to this qualification his marriage to a daughter of Aaron. According to the priesthood genealogy, they were like a through-bred horse of Kentucky. Among us, Jon Deibert is the grand-grandchild of Charles Finney, who was the great/legendary preacher and religious revolutionary at 3rd Awakening Movement in US. Kenneth Daniels III also is the descendant of Puritans from England. (Anyone else?) However their spiritual qualification doesn’t end there. More than their ancestral purity both of them lived lives of moral excellence, “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” It is notable that both of them were upright/perfect before God, because it is not easy. In many cases, one of them is excellent, then the other one gets behind; think about Job and his wife. When Job, perfect in his faith, was in severe suffering, she cursed him, “Curse God and die.” (If my wife said like that, I would divorce her.) Even John Wesley, who was the founder of Methodist and perfect in his religious life, traveling the world, preaching so many times, but his wife had some psychological problems, so he normally wanted to stay out of his house. His comrade priests were bribed to follow Herod’s schemes and the secular ways of life. But he walked with God in this dark age just as Noah did. On the basis of his ‘Song of Praise’ in vv. 68-79, he was waiting for the promised Messiah earnestly and trusted in God’s upcoming salvation for his people. In the same way, we cannot walk with God, observing all the Lord’s commands, through our effort and human wills, but only through our hope for Jesus’ Second Coming and his promises. 2Pet 3:10-12 says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar…(Then) what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Are you waiting for the Lord’s Coming in your hearts?
According to Deuteronomic covenant of Deut 28:4, 11, it promised, saying “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today…The fruit of your womb will be blessed…The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground…” But Look at v. 7. “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” How awkward situation? Sometimes, we question, “Why God? How could happen this?” But we should know God’s sovereignty is good and his own schedule/time is different from our knowledge. The Jewish community at that time was “Honor and Shame” society. As a priest without any child, it was a great shame to him, and when he taught God’s blessings and his words to people they would sneer at him behind his back and say, “Hmm…He did something wrong, probably some hidden sins…ttzzzzz” When his comrade priests enjoyed and watched their grandchildren’s cute things in the playground beside synagogue, Zechariah would watch the wrinkled face of Elizabeth in his empty house. Furthermore, they were both “very old” and there was no hope to have baby biologically. Humanly speaking, Zechariah and Elizabeth were the forgotten ones before God and people, and their labors in the Lord seemed to be in vain totally.
But God works in his time with his own way. Look at vv. 8-10. “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.” At that time, the division of the priesthood was twenty-four orders, and each order would serve at the temple on a rotating basis during two separate weeks each year just as our 7 fellowships serve ‘center management’ monthly on a rotating basis. Among many priests of division of Abijah, “he was chosen by lot” to go into the temple of the Lord for offering incense at holy altar. Do you know the one who was chosen by lot to jump into the sea? Jonah! (a hundred and twenty thousand people of Nineveh) This emphasizes the fact that the selection of Zechariah to offer incense was no “arbitrary decision,” but the divine will of God and his intervention. God has chosen Zechariah for entering into the glorious place of God on only one day each year, the Day of Atonement, like the high priest.
One of the main themes of Luke’s Gospel is “God’s faithfulness to his people and to his covenant.” The name of Zechariah means “Yahweh has remembered.” Of course, in this passage the language of remembrance is absent from this immediate context, but the undertone of God’s remembrance flows deeply. The people of Israel seemed to be forgotten from God for 400 years. The life of faith of Zechariah seemed to be forgotten from God and nobody remembered him. But God has remembered the plight of Israel and has remembered Zechariah’s labor of prayer and his faith. God remembered the covenant with Abraham to give him a son named Isaac at his 100-years-old. God remembered the agony of his people at Egypt to send Moses as their redeemer. (Exod 3:7-8) God remembered Hannah, who had prayed for a son, and she conceived and bore a son Samuel. (1 Sam 1:11, 19-20)
When I was suffering with pains and severe floating in my eyes, M. Joseph Chun, remembering my birthday, gave me an eye drops of $7 as a present. I was impressed with his remembrance of me, even though it was the $7 present. All of us want to be remembered by someone, not forgotten ones, especially by God. Though we devoted wholeheartedly to God’s works and became childless, we seems to be forgotten ones. Though we served God faithfully but earned disease and the financial condition got worse, we get depressed with sorrow. Over and over we prayed but there has been no response to our prayer, we feel it will be all in vain. But God remembers our agony in disease and suffering for his kingdom works. God never forgets our prayers and our struggles to follow God’s words. Fred Naikal, who has been faithful and royal to God, had no child for 5 years after his marriage with Esther Naikal. He confessed his agony and pains during 5 years frankly, but he did not waver through unbelief, serving God’s ministry faithfully. Finally God remembered his family and Esther bore new-born baby, Lydia. So at every Sunday worship we can meet Esther Naikal who smiles happily and proudly with her baby at the entrance of church. (you deserve to laugh proudly.) Rom 8:26 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” The Holy Spirit remembers us and intercedes for us through wordless groans in our weakness. Let’s remember God’s faithfulness to his people and to us and keep our faith before God continually wherever we are now. Amen.
Look at vv. 11-13. When Zechariah was alone in the temple burning incense, an angel of the Lord appeared. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear (12), for the Hebrew people thought that they would die if they saw God with their own eyes. “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.” (13) The angel said that God remembered him and heard his prayers in heaven. He was not the forgotten one, but God remembered him and responded his prayers now. This event reveals about how Zechariah’s prayer life goes along. He would probably pray for his people and his nations as his priestly duty faithfully, but also prayed for himself, “O Lord, give me a son!” Maybe he began to pray for a son right after marriage with Elizabeth. Then he prayed for a son for three years, but there was no sign at his wife’s stomach. He prayed another 3 more years, but still he saw no sign. During these times, on the power-point of prayer topics at the synagogue there disappeared other prayer topics one by one year by year. M. Abraham Bae’s name disappeared on Green Card and Sarah Seo’s name also disappeared on job search in prayer topic power-point. However, for 50 years Zechariah’s prayer topic did not disappear, rather always appeared as the immovable number 1 prayer topic, “Lord, give a son for Zechariah.” But Zechariah neither got remarried with other woman nor changed his job of a priest, and furthermore he did not give up his prayer life for a son. “Your prayer has been heard.” This reflects how faithfully he devoted himself to prayer life and how earnestly he prayed before God. God hears our prayers with persistence and faithfulness and responds in his time with his own way.
How frequently does our prayer life waver, depending on the situations? May God help us to learn Zechariah’s life of prayer with faithfulness. In Greek, the word of faith is πίστις, (pistis) which occurs 243 times in the New Testament. Did you know that the word faith can mean either faith or faithfulness? If we have faith in God, it should manifest as faithfulness in our life of prayer also. 1Cor 4:1-2 says that servant of Christ who was entrusted with the mysteries of God must prove “faithful.” If we pray with faithfulness for our prayer topics of 170 SWS, 20/20 vision, and the kingdom of priest, God will hear our prayer and respond in his time. When the priest prays faithfully, and the church community prays earnestly outside (10), there will happen God’s miraculous works. In the Scripture, the clear definition of “faith” appears in Heb 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” But there is no definition of “prayer” in the Scripture (for example, breath of life, conversation, two wings), but indirectly James 5:16b defines it, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Prayer is the mighty working power, not just the mantra of Budhist monk. Do you have your life-long prayer topics? Do you give up your prayer topics already? Let’s keep up our prayer again until God hears our voice of prayer in heaven. Amen!
- The Greatness of John the Baptist (14-25)
Now the angel’s message transits from Zechariah to the birth of John and his greatness in the presence of God. John will be a joy and delight to Zechariah personally, and also many will rejoice because of his birth. (14) Look at vv. 15-17. “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.” The reason why John is a joy and delight to all is his “greatness in the sight of the Lord.”
In any era, the greatness of the leader brings a joy and happiness to his people. In the United States, we do not hesitate to call Abraham Lincoln as the greatest leader and President in the history. He was a man of prayer and a man of truth who led the people to become a united nation. Finally he carried out the great mission of Emancipation, overcoming the severe suffering of Civil War. Jesus also did not hesitate to call John the Baptist as the greatest one among those born of women. (Matt 11:11)
Then in what senses was John the great one? Firstly, he was great because of his position in the salvation history. Of course, in the OT there have been the great prophets such as Isaiah, Moses, and Daniel, but John the Baptist was the herald of the Messiah, bridging the OT and the NT. Secondly, he was great because of his character and personality. In the corrupt generation, he is never to take wine or to attend animalistic drinking parties, but rather kept himself as a pure vessel of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is the strong instrument of God’s works (2 Tim 2:21). In many cases, drinking was the starting point of all the evil-doings. Historically, in Dan 5 King Belshazzar gave a great drinking banquet for his nobles and lost his reasons with proud mind, blaspheming God’s glory and his holy name. The hand of God appeared and wrote on the wall, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN”, and that very night he was slain. (Eph 5:18, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”) The Nazarite to God Samson, being dedicated to God with holy power, lost his mighty power when he lost his holiness to God. Finally, John was great because of his holy mission to return his people to God. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, particularly to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. (16-17) The parents discarded their children and family, treating them harshly; the young ones were rebellious to God and truth, indulged in drinking parties and orgies, and sexual immorality was rampant. John’s mission was to lead them to God’s wisdom and repentance. Dan 12:3 says, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”
At that time, the name of king Herod was called as ‘king Herod the Great’, but in the sight of God he was just ‘king Herod the Ugly.’ John’s life of mission ended with imprisonment and martyrdom at 30-years-old, but the Scripture calls him “a great man in the sight of God.” The trend of this generation is not much different from that era of John. People do not cherish our lives of holiness, but rather ridicule us. People do not value us or give a big salary to us when we guide the young generation to truth with God’s words. But God cherishes us and calls us to be great in the sight of God. Let’s keep our holiness in this corrupt generation like John. Like John let’s live a life of mission to lead this rebellious generation to God’s truth. May God bless each one of us to know God’s true greatness. Amen!
In vv. 18-25, God trains Zechariah because of his unbelief. After hearing the powerful and good news message of archangel Gabriel, Zechariah responded with “Nomen! It is impossible.” “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (18) Look at vv. 19-20. Now archangel Gabriel rebuked him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God…And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens.” Though Zechariah had received enough training through his childless situation, he needed more training in order to have faith in God’s words. Regarding God’s training there is no limit and exception of age, even old man and woman. For this, God gave him mute training—training not to speak for nine months. Dr. Phillip Won says that when we speak, our vocal cord vibrates “buzzzzzz…..”and then the sound exits through our mouth, but in this case the angel touched his vocal cord not to vibrate anymore.
Verse 22 says, when Zechariah came out to the people, suddenly he became a pantomime artist; he kept making signs but remained unable to speak. [ gestures… ] What do you think about how many words we speak in a day? Normally, women speak about 20,000 words a day— some 13,000 more than the average man. While the number of words the average person speaks in a day can depend on age, culture and other factors, a University of Arizona study found that most people speak around 16,000 words in a day. Imagine how painful it was Zechariah could not speak a single word for 9 months! (totally, 4,320,000 words) However, God wanted him to be a man of faith in God’s words at any circumstance. Sometimes when we fall into the pit of doubt about God’s words, it is better to keep silent and to pray for faith in God deeply. Silence in the presence of God can lead us to the deeper and wider world of faith in God.
After this, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. Contrary to Zechariah, she confessed her faith in God’s mighty works, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (25) Our Lord does his mighty works finally for those who have faith in God and walk with God. Our Lord shows his favor and takes away disgrace for those who always pray and maintain their faith faithfully.
May God bless us to keep our faith and prayer in the corrupt generation like Zechariah and Elizabeth. May God bless us to remember God’s faithfulness for us in any circumstance. In this Christmas season May Jesus Christ be born again in our hearts.