The matter of the names of children is very sensitive, so sensitive in fact, that I am reluctant to tell any stories about children being given unusual names. The names of children have different kinds of significance, depending upon the particular culture. In the “white” culture with which I am most familiar the only major consideration is that the name must “sound” right, match the sex of the child, and not have any unpleasant connotations. For example, my wife may suggest a particular name which I find unacceptable, only because I knew (or know) a person with that name, which gives the name a bad reputation.
In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant. God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus. The drama of our text has to do with a family argument over the name which was to be given the child of Zacharias and Elizabeth. When Gabriel informed Zacharias that he and his wife would have a child in their old age, the first thing he did was to instruct this priest as to what the child’s name would be:
“… your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John” (Luke 1:13).
It is not until the events of our text, which occur at the time of John’s circumcision, that this divinely given instruction causes any difficulty. Suddenly, the naming of John ends up in what appears to be a rather emotional issue, with Elizabeth standing her ground against an unnamed group of observer-participants, who are insisting that the boy be named after his father.
The question which we must bear in mind as we approach our study of this passage is, “Why would Luke bother to include the account of a family argument over the name of a child?” It is only in Luke’s Gospel that the births of John and Jesus are recorded. It is only in Matthew and Luke that any events in the early life of these two boys is recorded. Why, then, when there is so much that could have been reported about the early life of these two men, is this account selected by the author? I believe that this question provides us with the approach which will prove to be the key to understanding the interpretation and the application of our text. Our purpose in this study will be to try to understand what was taking place at the circumcision of John, and why Luke thought this event was worthy of being included in his history (and, as would become the case, the Bible). I believe that there are some very important principles to be learned here, which are as relevant to contemporary Christians as they were to John and his parents. Let is look to the Spirit of God to guide us in understanding this text as He meant us to.
The structure of our passage may be summarized as follows:
(1) The “Family Feud” Over the Name of John—vv. 57-66
(2) Zachariah’s Psalm of Praise —vv. 67-79
(3) Conclusion—John’s growth and development, in seclusion and solitude—v. 80
Overall, the passage of Scripture which we are studying falls into two major parts. The first segment deals with the “family feud” over the naming of John and its aftermath (vv. 57-66). The second segment records the praise of Zacharias, when the power of speech is once again given to him (vv. 67-79), with verse 80 summing up the early life of John as a concluding statement.
Luke’s gospel began with an introductory preface (vv. 1-4), which explained his reasons for writing this account even though a number of others had already done so. Immediately after his introduction, Luke begins to give an account of the births of both John and Jesus, inter-twined in a way which accurately reflected the historical reality of the interrelationship of the ministries of these two men. The birth of John, who is the forerunner of Christ, is announced first by Gabriel, to his parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias. Both are elderly, both are descendants of Aaron, and both are righteous in the Old Testament sense, living in accordance with the Law of Moses. Together, they have had no children.
While Zacharias was carrying out the privileged priestly task of offering incense in the holy place, Gabriel appeared to him, announcing the birth of a child to him and his wife, a child who was to be named John, and who would be the promised forerunner of Messiah, even as prophesied by Malachi, in the last prophecy of the last book of the Old Testament canon.
Out of doubt, Zacharias asked for a confirming sign, perhaps because he wanted some proof to offer those to whom he would have to make this announcement. He was rebuked by Gabriel, and was struck dumb. By his silence, rather than by his speech, Zacharias became a sign to the people, as he attempted to communicate with them by making signs. The people grasped the fact that Zacharias had seen a vision. No doubt there was a sense of wonder and expectation as a result of this.
Zacharias went back home (to his unnamed town) after completing his priestly duties, and his wife became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said. Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months, and in her sixth month she was visited by Mary, who had just received the announcement from Gabriel that she was to bear the Messiah, who would be miraculously conceived in the womb of this virgin. The two expressed their marvelous grasp of God’s Word and of His work in their praises, and they fellowshipped together for three months, after which time Mary returned home, pregnant (or so it would seem).
Our text begins at this point. Elizabeth bears the promised “miracle child,” and her neighbors rejoice with her in this blessing. It is at the circumcision of the boy that his name will be given. Under normal circumstances, his name would unquestionably be Zacharias, but Elizabeth insisted that it must be John. The resolution of this standoff comes with the pronouncement of Zacharias, as it is written on a tablet.
The “family feud” occurred at the time of John’s circumcision. We know that this ceremony took place on the child’s eighth day (Luke 1:59). Normally, it would seem that the father took the leading role in the ceremony, but since Zacharias was dumb, and perhaps deaf as well,22 he seems to have been much less involved in the ceremony. The occasion may very well have taken place at the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth. We are told that “they” came to circumcise the child, and that “they” were going to call him Zacharias (1:59). I now understand this to mean that the people referred to by the term “they” are the same. A certain group of people came to the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth to witness and to take part in the circumcision ceremony (did a doctor or specialist come, who would perform the circumcision?). They same group seemed intent on naming the child Zacharias. I would understand that this group of people was composed of close friends and relatives, who would have had a personal interest in John’s circumcision. It would be something like a christening service today.
Somewhere in the ceremony, when the name of Zacharias was being given, Elizabeth interrupted, insisting that the child’s name was to be John. Since this was not the name of the father, nor was it the name of a relative,23 there was a strong reaction to Elizabeth’s demands. Zacharias was made aware of the problem, and given the opportunity to decide upon the name of the child. If he had heard none of the “discussion” it would have been an even greater marvel to the assembled witnesses that he, too, chose the name John.
One of the first and strongest impressions we gain from these verses is the sense of the prominence of Elizabeth, and of her determination for her son to be named “John” rather than “Zacharias.” Her actions may well have been considered inappropriate by those who observed her. Thus, for Elizabeth to be outspoken and insistent may have shocked them as totally “out of place” for a woman. Nevertheless, Elizabeth did so, and Luke strongly implies that she was both godly and right in so doing.
The role of Zacharias is certainly more passive and silent than normal. Whether this was solely due to his divinely imposed physical limitations, or whether this reflects some natural reticence and hesitation is a point over which we may disagree. I am inclined to view Zacharias as the quiet, retiring type, who was neither aggressive nor outspoken. Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to have been more outspoken, especially in those matters which she viewed as godly and right. When Zacharias is made aware of the dispute and when he is asked to “cast the deciding vote,” he writes that the name John will be given to his son. This was truly shocking to those who stood by.
Why was the naming of the child so important, and so emotional? And why was naming the child John such a bone of contention? The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would “walk in the steps of his father,” that he would carry on the father’s name, and thus his work as well. Had John been named “Little Zach,” he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. He would thus have gone about with his father as he carried out his priestly duties, learning how to do things, just like his daddy did them.
To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s steps. He would not learn to do what his father did. He would not be a priest. This, of course, was precisely the case, and thus the reason for the name John. It isn’t the meaning of the name “John” which is so important, then, but the message implied by having any name other than Zacharias which is such an emotional issue. If many of those gathered at the circumcision ceremony were relatives, Elizabeth’s insistence that the boy be named John was to renounce the family, its work, and its perpetuation through the next generation.
When Zacharias wrote the words, “His name is John,” on that tablet, he once again was given the power of speech. At that moment, his tongue was loosed and he began to praise God. The record of the praise of Zacharias is delayed a few verses, so that Luke can parenthetically report the impact of these things on those who watched, and on those who heard from those who watched. Verses 65 & 66 thus report the “gospel by gossip” which was spread abroad the “hill country of Judea” (v. 65). As “strange events” began to pile up, all related to this child, John, the expectation of the people in the area began to grow. It is little wonder that John was thought by many to be the Messiah, a thought which John persisted to deny (cf. 3:15-17).
The statement, “For the hand of God was certainly with him” (v. 66), may indicate that there were a number of other unusual or miraculous incidents associated with John in his childhood which testified to his unusual origin and mission in life. Luke must be selective, and thus he gives us but this general statement, suggesting that much more could have been written. The outcome of all of these things was a sense of expectancy among the people of that area.
Note that God does not announce the coming of the King, or of His forerunner in the Temple (save for Simeon and Anna), nor in Jerusalem (save in the visit of Jesus to the Temple at age 12), but in the “hill country of Judea.” It is not to the mighty or to the religious elite, but to the humble that the announcements of the nearness of Messiah’s appearance are made. This is but a prototype of the ministry of John and of Jesus, who came not to the “healthy,” but to the “sick;” not to the “righteous,” but to sinners (cf. Luke 4:16-21; 6:20ff.; Mark 2:15-17).
Rather than to record the inspired praise of Zachariah precisely when it was spoken, Luke includes the parenthetical comments of verses 65 & 66 so that this psalm serves to conclude the section, as it summarizes the impact of John’s ministry, and of Messiah’s ministry, of whom he is the forerunner.
Zacharias’ psalm has two major sections. The first section, contained in verses 67-75, is praise directed toward Messiah, in the light of His ministry. In this section, Zacharias directs His praise toward God in the light of the benefits of Messiah’s ministry for the nation Israel. If Mary’s “Magnificat” majored on the social implications of Messiah’s appearance, Zacharias’ praise highlights the political blessings which the nation Israel will experience. Note the frequent emphasis on the nation Israel in these verses:
“the God of Israel”
“He has come … and redeemed His people”—v. 68
“in the house of His servant David”—v. 69
“as He said through his holy prophets”—v. 70
“salvation from our enemies”—v. 71
“to show mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant,
which He swore to our father Abraham”—vv. 72-73
“to rescue us from the hand of our enemies” “to enable us to serve Him”—v. 74
As I presently understand Luke’s gospel, everyone in his account who praises God for Messiah’s coming does so in the light of their own circumstances, and in the light of their own hopes and aspirations. Messiah’s ministry is many-faceted, like the many facets of an expensive gem. Each psalm of praise tends to focus on one facet, and all of them together point out the manifold blessings of God manifested through His Messiah.
The second section, contained in verses 76-79, focuses on the messenger, John, and on the impact of his ministry. As Zacharias was informed by Gabriel, John will be the forerunner of Messiah, whose task will be to prepare men and women for His coming, by preaching of sin and of forgiveness for sins. In both the praises of Mary and of Zacharias, there seems to be more emphasis on the results of the Christ’s second coming, than His first.
Verse 80 serves as the conclusion to Luke’s account of the birth and childhood of John the Baptist. In my opinion, it is the key to understanding our text:
And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel (Luke 1:80).
Here, Luke gives us his reason for including the account of John’s childhood, even though his public ministry was to begin many years later. In addition, Luke here informs us as to his reason for including the account of the “family feud” in conjunction with the naming of John. Let me point out several important elements in this very brief concluding statement.
(1) This statement capsulizes and summarizes the entire period of John’s life prior to his public ministry. In less than 30 words, approximately 30 years of John’s life are characterized.
(2) This statement speaks of John’s physical, but especially of his spiritual growth during his growing-up years. Luke tells us that John “became strong in spirit.”
(3) This statement speaks of John’s preparation for public ministry. While John’s physical and spiritual growth is of great importance to his own walk with God, Luke’s purpose is to inform us that he was being prepared for the day of his public appearance, for the time of his public ministry as the forerunner of Messiah. In other words, John’s spiritual growth was essential for his spiritual ministry.
(4) Finally, and most importantly, Luke informs us that John was being prepared for his public ministry in solitude. John’s spiritual growth and development, Luke tells us, took place “in the deserts.”
I do not think that John’s living in the desert was incidental to his spiritual growth and development, but that it was a fundamental part of his growth process. Luke, as a meticulous and thoughtful historian, was a man who thought in terms of processes, and who saw history revealing a continuity, because behind it all God is bringing about His purposes and fulfilling His promises. Thus, for Luke, the ministries of John and Jesus did not commence at their public presentation, but at the time of the announcement of their births. Luke is concerned that we see the formulating factors in their ministries, which took place in their earliest years, as well as the ministries which resulted. And so while the other gospel writers begin with the public proclamation of John’s message, Luke begins with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, and with the experiences in John’s life which shaped him spiritually, in preparation for his ministry.
Luke informs us of several preparatory factors in the life of John, even in this very brief account of his birth and childhood. First, Luke tells us of John’s calling, as indicated by the announcement of Gabriel, before the child was even conceived. God’s purpose for John was announced, even before his conception, so that his parents might raise him in the light of those purposes, thus helping to prepare him for this ministry. Second, John was filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth, so that his spiritual growth would be enhanced, during his childhood, in preparation for his ministry. Finally, John was prepared for his ministry by being separated from his family, culture, and religious system.
John’s early preparation is not something novel or unique. We will see from the next chapter of Luke that Jesus was also being prepared before and after his birth, for the ministry which God had called Him to perform. In the Old Testament, the accounts of men like Joseph, Samuel, David, and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5), show that God was working in their early lives to prepare them for later ministry. Other texts, such as Psalm 139, indicate that God’s preparation begins in the womb. So, too, in the New Testament, Paul spoke of his calling before his birth (Gal. 1:11-17). He also reminded Timothy of the preparation which God had worked in his life through his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5-7).
Here, however, Luke makes a special point of the fact that John’s growth and development involved a separation, from his family, from his culture, and from the Jewish religious system, of which he could have been (indeed, should have been!) a priest, like his father.
Let me very quickly point out that I believe there were many positive contributions to John’s growth and development which came from his parents, family, society, and religious system. I believe that I see a great deal of Elizabeth (though not so much of Zacharias) in John. But this is not Luke’s emphasis. Luke chooses to emphasize the separation of John from his “world,” not his identification with it.
When he was given the name “John,” rather than “Zacharias” (“little Zach”), God was indicating to all who were involved that John would not be carrying on his father’s name, nor his work. Think of the ways in which John became very different from his father, which was symbolized by his non-family name. Zacharias was a priest; John was a prophet. John was a Nazarite; his father was not. Zacharias lived among the people; John lived in the solitude of the people. Zacharias was a part of the old religious system; John was not—he stood apart from it. Zacharias, as evidenced by his psalm of praise, spoke as an Israelite, but John, being somewhat removed from typical Israelite life and the religious system of the day, was able to see the errors which had developed:
“Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).
Zacharias, as a part of the religious system, identified with it, while John was able to stand apart from it and to see its many errors and perversions (cf. John 1:19ff.). The boldness and clarity with which John spoke out against the evils of his day was, to a great extent, the result of John’s separation from the system and its sins, which he condemned. In contrast to Zacharias, who seemed reticent to speak, John spoke out boldly.
Thus, Luke would have the reader to know that separation from his society, even from his parents, played a key role in John’s preparation for ministry.
As we consider the preparation of John for his ministry, I believe that we find a very important principle underscored here, which is just as relevant to us and just as important in our preparation for ministry as it was for John. The principle is this: To represent Christ, we must stand apart from sin and from the world, which hates Him.
If there is one thing which characterized John it was that he was a man who was set apart. He was set apart by his calling before his birth, by his unusual birth, by his life as a Nazarite, by his name, and by his childhood spent in the desert, where he lived apart from his “world,” wore distinct clothing, and ate very different food. It was his separation from his “world” which facilitated his ability to see its sins, to stand firmly against them, and to speak out boldly in condemning them.
I believe that separation is just as essential for Christians today, if we would serve God as we should, and live up to our “calling.” Separation was essential for God’s people in the Old Testament. For example, we read,
“‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel’” (Exod. 19:5-6).
“‘For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy’” (Lev. 11:45).
God chose Israel to represent Him, to reveal His holiness to the other nations. It was therefore necessary for the Israelites to stand apart from the evils of their day. They were not to live like the Canaanites or the other peoples. Thus, God gave them a special calling, a special covenant, and special commandments which, if obeyed, would set them apart from the nations.
This same holiness, this same separation, is required of New Testament saints as well:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is that you abstain from sexual immorality; … For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3, 7).
Holiness in the life of the Christian, that is, separation from sin, is necessary for several reasons; Holiness is required if we are to represent and reflect a holy God to men. We cannot be God-like if we live in sin, but only if we live apart from sin. We must be holy, we must stand apart from sin in order to be sensitive to sin, to recognize it and to sense how evil and offensive it is to God. And we must stand apart from sin if we are to condemn it and to plead with others to forsake sin. John’s separation from sin was essential to his personal walk with God and to his ministry. So, too, our separation from sin is also essential.
There is, I believe, a sense in which John’s “separation” was unique, and not a pattern form every Christian. John’s separation was somewhat extreme, in that he was physically removed from his family, his society, and his religious heritage. There are still those today who would strive to be separate from the world by attempting to live in some remote place, away from people.
I do not think that our Lord has commanded Christians to be physically separated from others as the norm.24 In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord taught that we should be “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:10-16), both of which speak of our penetration into the world, rather than of our fleeing from the world. It is also said that such penetration with the gospel and holy living will likely result in persecution, which is the broader context of the passage (cf. Matt. 5:10ff.). Thus, our separation, while it should be as thorough in spirit as that of John, will manifest itself differently than John’s did. What is the nature of our separation? Let us briefly consider some of the biblical guidelines for New Testament holiness.
First, we must separate ourselves from sinful thinking. There is a sinful “mind,” a wrong way of looking at things and thinking about them. The natural “mind” is “set on the things of the flesh” and leads to death (Rom. 8:6) because it is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7). Thus, we must be “renewed in the spirit of our mind” (Rom. 12:2), which to a large degree is done through intense and prolonged exposure to the Word of God.
Second, we must be separate from the sinful inclinations of our own fleshly desires. The seventh chapter of Romans deals with these, as does Galatians 5:19-21. The only way to overcome these inclinations and to live righteously is to “walk in the Spirit,” to walk according to the promptings and the power of the Holy Spirit of God (Rom. 8:1ff.; Gal. 5:16ff.).
Third, we must be separate from the world. Here, it is not by a physical removal, which is impossible by any means other than death (1 Cor. 5:9-10). We must be separate from the world by thinking differently, by recognizing its evil inclinations and solicitations, and by refusing to participate in any of its sins. We also find great encouragement and strength from the church, from a body of like-minded believers, who encourage us in practicing and persisting in righteousness (cf. Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14; 15:14; Heb. 10:19-25).
Finally, we must be separate by recognizing and removing ourselves from the sins of our family and even of our religion, which are not in keeping with the Word of God. The New Testament has much to say on these subjects, which time will not permit us to pursue in detail, but let me encourage you to study those texts which warn us about false teaching and teachers (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:1-5). Also, we should be mindful that even in the most godly of homes (such as that of Zacharias and Elizabeth) there is still sin and sinful patterns, which we should recognize as sin and put off, so that our lives will conform to the Word of God.
Let us be a separate people, so that we may represent a holy God to an unholy world.
22 Edersheim, among others, suggests that Zacharias was both deaf and dumb, which would explain the people’s efforts to communicate with him by signs (1:62), just as he did with them (1:22). Edersheim contends that the Hebrew term which might underlie the text was understood in this way by the Rabbis. Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 158, fn. 2. I do not think this has to be the case, although it is possible, and it would explain why Zacharias himself did not initially protest the giving of the name Zacharias to the child. He could not protest that which he did not hear. It may also be an appropriate disciplinary “sign” for Zacharias, since he was unwilling to “hear” the promise of God.
“Wunsche reiterates the groundless objection of Rabbi Low (u.s. p. 96), that a family-name was only given in remembrance of the grandfather, deceased father, or other member of the family! Strange, that such a statement should ever have been hazarded; stranger still, that it should be repeated after having been fully refuted by Delitzsch. It certainly is contrary to Josephus (War iv. 3,9), and to the circumstance that both the father and the brother of Josephus bore the name of Matthias.” Edersheim, I, pp. 157-158, fn. 3.