The Birth of John the Baptist
57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
67 His 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.
69 He 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),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And 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,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
The time has now come for Elizabeth to give birth. This in itself is a miracle because she was old and past child bearing age. Another miracle was that the child was prophesied by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah to be a boy, and thus it was. In Israel, as in many cultures, it was considered a blessing to have a child to carry on the family name, and to have someone to look after you in your later years. To have a child at an old age was considered merciful on the part of God to the woman bearing the child, and what an act of mercy it was! What purpose would God have to give a child to Elizabeth? In His mercy toward her, she would get to witness the revival of God’s people to Himself, through her child. This was a call for great joy in her life.
As was custom, the child was circumcised on the eighth day. This was a tradition passed down from Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, who was given this command directly from God to set apart His people from the world (Genesis 17). Now when it came time to name the child no one was aware outside of the immediate family that Gabriel had told them what to call him. When Zechariah writes the child’s name on the tablet it signifies his faith that what Gabriel had said would happen was indeed happening, and that he was credited that faith when his tongue became loosed and he could suddenly speak. This was a sign to the people that something was different about this child, and much to everyone’s amazement something happened that hadn’t occurred in over 400 years.
Zechariah is filled with the Spirit and begins to publicly prophesy. The last prophecy given to Israel was by Malachi and it reads:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6
As we read in Luke 1:17, Gabriel had given this exact account to Zechariah on the day that his speech was taken for disbelief. Now knowing that these things were indeed coming to pass, the first words out of Zechariah’s mouth are ones of praise and amazement. In verse 68 he speaks of the Messiah directly, knowing that redemption is at hand (remember, Jesus is just about to be born). He exclaims that God is in their midst, and that He has not abandoned them. In verse 69 the prophet says that God has raised up a horn (referring to strength) of salvation from the line of David. As we have read in Matthew, Jesus does in fact fulfill this role as being in the lineage of David. Inside Zechariah’s prophecy, we are being reminded of a past prophecy, found in Psalm 132 which talks about the future Messiah and his place of birth and reign.
Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one. I will clothe his enemies with shame, but his head will be adorned with a radiant crown. – Psalm 132:17-18
Just as the psalmist said, now Zechariah states in verse 71 that this ‘horn’ will bring salvation from enemies, putting them to shame. Being on this side of the cross we can now understand that Christ did indeed come to save, and that salvation is one of protection from the evils of Satan – our ultimate enemy – but also those at enmity with God. We will see later that John needs reassurance from Jesus that He is indeed the Messiah because the Jewish nation was looking for the ‘Lion of Judah’ – not the Lamb. They were expecting to be rescued forever from their earthly enemies and did not consider that ultimate salvation that Christ came to preach.
That ultimate salvation is the salvation that Zechariah prophesies about in verses 72-75. He says that this is now coming about to show mercy to their ancestors, no doubt he had in mind the patriarchs and all those who waited patiently and expectantly for the Messiah. We must understand mercy to understand what he is saying here. Mercy is not just showing kindness to someone – it is showing kindness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. The ultimate mercy of God is His giving of Himself for our salvation and eternal security. We are not owed this salvation, as the Bible clearly states, we are by nature sinners who of our own wills are at enmity with God (Romans 5:10, Colossians 1:21-22). Mercy is undeserved grace. Grace is unmerited favor. It is this favor that was bestowed upon Abraham when God called him out of the land of Ur and made a covenant with him that he would have descendants that numbered the stars (Genesis 12&15). That oath and the covenant looked forward to a time when salvation would be realized, and when the people known as Abraham’s descendants (Romans 9) could worship God forever without fear (Hebrews 12).
It is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. – Romans 9:8
The first half of Zechariah’s prophecy was about the coming Messiah, the second part is directed to his son, John, and his mission. In verse 76 Zechariah says that John will be called a prophet of the Most High, and will go on before the Lord to prepare His way. A prophet is one of two things; either someone who tells the future through a revelation of God, or someone who is speaking on behalf of God to proclaim His will. As a person listening in the crowd who would have known the Old Testament Scriptures, this would have sounded very familiar. Another past prophecy is about to be fulfilled.
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3
As a prophet, John’s job will be to proclaim the way of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. We know that later when John comes out publicly, he begins to baptize people for the forgiveness of sins, preaching the message that One is coming who will be able to take away those sins. John’s ministry is a visual example of what Christ will do spiritually. John will make people aware of their need for salvation so that when Christ comes, their hearts have been prepared. Then we are reminded of the ‘why’ that this is all happening. What reason does God give for providing a way to salvation? The answer is: because of the tender mercy of our God. The reason is that He desires it.. for His good pleasure. How amazing is our God!
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. – Ephesians 1:4-6
John will teach that it is by God’s mercy that He (the rising sun – another hint at the Malachi passage) will come to us from Heaven. That light, or Messiah, will shine in the darkness – that is the world without desire of God – to guide us down the path of righteousness. There are so many wonderful passages of scripture that flow beautifully with these last verses of Zechariah’s prophecy. What an amazing thing to witness just before the birth of our Lord!
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. – Isaiah 60
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. – Isaiah 9:2
Finally in verse 80 we see the conclusion of the introduction to John’s mission. Just as the prophet Isaiah had said, from the wilderness will come the one preparing the way for the Lord. It’s so amazing and profound to think of all the prophecies fulfilled in the coming of Christ. What an even greater reason to celebrate this Christmas season knowing that a real Savior was born, with a real message of salvation for those who would believe in Him.