1. The Silence is Shattered (Luke 1:1-38)
Introduction to the Gospel of Luke
The very last words of the last book of the Old Testament read:
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).
The gospel of Luke is but one of four gospels, but it is surely one of the great books of the Bible. The events of the early chapters of Luke’s gospel shatter a silence which has lasted for 400 years. He commences his gospel with the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Zacharias, an elderly priest, that he and his wife will have a son, a son who will come in the spirit of Elijah the prophet, and who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and will prepare the way of the Lord.
Before we get into this exciting announcement, however, let us take note of the uniqueness of Luke’s gospel, which will greatly enhance our study of this book, especially in helping us to appreciate its uniqueness as compared to the other three gospel accounts. We will begin by pointing out several unique features of Luke, and then go on to consider Luke’s unique purpose in writing this gospel, as stated by the author himself in verses 1-4. Once we have considered these introductory matters, we will then turn our attention to the announcement of Gabriel to Zacharias.
The Gospel of Luke and the Other Gospels
Several features of Luke’s gospel point out its contribution to biblical revelation.
(1) The gospel of Luke is the longest book in the New Testament. I was surprised to discover this fact from reading Wilcock’s commentary,1 but a little investigation will bear out the fact that this is the case.
(2) The gospel of Luke is unique in what is reported.
Over 50 percent of Luke’s gospel is unique, containing materials found nowhere else. Without Luke, certain periods of Christ’s life and ministry would be unknown to us. Luke alone gives certain important chronological notations (2:1; 3:2; 3:23). Luke has a greater focus on individuals than do the other gospels. For example, Luke mentions thirteen women not found in the other gospels. It can also be said that Luke’s gospel has more comprehensive range than the others. It begins with the announcements concerning the births of John the Baptist and Jesus and ends with a reference to the ascension of Christ.2
It is impossible to say how many miracles Jesus Christ performed during His ministry, because many are referred to collectively. There are about a dozen passages in the gospels where miracles are summarized for us. There are thirty-five miracles specifically detailed in the gospels, twenty of which are found in Luke. Of the twenty in Luke, seven are unique to this gospel alone.3
… there are some fifty-one ‘parables’ spoken by Christ. Needless to say, this number is not fixed, since there is much disagreement as to what constitutes a parable. However, of the fifty-one so classified, thirty-five are found in Luke, and nineteen of those are unique to this gospel.4
On page 13, Benware lists 29 events in the life of Christ which are not included by any other gospel writer, other than Luke.
(3) Luke alone focuses on the artistic in his gospel.
It is striking that Luke alone, the educated and artistically disposed Greek, has committed to writing the songs of Elisabeth, Mary, Zacharias and Simeon and the hymn of the angels. ‘Luke, the artist, has gathered and collected, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the stories which reveal the fact that when Jesus came into the world poetry expressed itself and music was reborn’ (Morgan, in loc.).5
(4) Luke’s gospel is unique in portraying intimate information about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. Luke, for example, informs us that “Mary treasured these things in her heart,” (Luke 2:51; cf. 1:29). The innermost thoughts, fears, and reflections of people are reported in this gospel, which are not recorded elsewhere.
From Luke’s point of view, it is the uniqueness of his gospel which justifies the effort he has taken to write it. This is explained in his introduction to the book, recorded in verses 1-4:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
In these verses Luke informs us that he is aware that a good many other gospels have been written. These would include, but not be restricted to, the other three gospel accounts. Luke has not written because others have failed to do so, but because other accounts have not included things which he feels are essential. What are these things which have shaped Luke’s gospel, which are missing elsewhere? From his own words, these would include:
(1) Accuracy in accounting the facts and focus of the gospel. We would not in any way suggest that the other gospels included in our New Testament were inaccurate. I suspect that many of the extra-biblical accounts suffered greatly in accuracy. This is one of Luke’s stated purposes: to give an accurate, consecutive, account of the gospel. As this relates to the other biblical gospels, Luke includes details that are not included in them, thus providing a more “accurate” account of the life and times of our Lord.
Luke seems intent on presenting a carefully arranged sequence of events, from the very beginning, something which cannot be claimed by other gospel accounts. Furthermore, Luke, as a historian, deals with the “roots” of Jesus’ ministry. A comparative chart of the early chapters of the four gospels, included at the conclusion of this message, points out the unique contribution of Luke to the biblical record of the earliest events in the life and ministry of John the Baptist and our Lord.
(2) Luke appears to be a Gentile, and to be writing his gospel to a Gentile, thus making this gospel unique in its Gentile perspective.6 Theophilus appears to be a Gentile man of some position:
Apparently he was an official of some kind, for he was called most excellent (cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25, which use the same Gr. term, kratiste).7
As Gentile Christians, the gospel of Luke will therefore have a particular interest and importance to us.
(3) Luke’s gospel is derived from eye witness accounts. Luke also tells us about his sources. He informs us that while he was not a witness to all these events, he has obtained his information from eye witnesses and “servants of the Word” (v. 2). Eye witnesses would include individuals such as Mary, and the “servants of the Word” would be the apostles, who were God’s accredited witnesses (cf. Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 6:2,4; Heb. 2:3-4).
The Book of Luke is therefore one which can greatly bless and benefit us in our Christian lives. Let us approach our study of Luke with eager anticipation.
The Appearances of John and Jesus
As we begin our actual study of Luke’s gospel, note the inter-twining of the lives of John and Jesus, even in the actual account of Luke. This can best be seen by a comparison of parallels of the two, when placed side-by-side, as provided by the chart at the end of this lesson.
Luke, as we have already noted, begins at precisely the place where the prophet Malachi left off. The final words of our Old Testament speak of the coming of one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Luke starts his account of the gospel with the report of Gabriel’s announcement of the birth of John to Zacharias.
An Introduction of Zacharias and Elizabeth
Zacharias and Elizabeth,8 the parents of John the Baptist, are introduced in verses 5-7. There are two different emphases to be found here, as I understand Luke’s account. On the one hand, the description of this couple reveals those characteristics which would have made them unacceptable to their contemporaries in Judaism. On the other hand, we are given those positive qualities for which they found favor with God, and which were the basis for God’s selection of them as the parents of John. We will look at the “negative” qualities first.
(1) So far as Judaism was concerned, Zacharias and Elizabeth were obscure and insignificant people, who were not of sufficient social or economic standing to have been granted the privilege of being the parents of John. Edersheim takes note of this when he writes,
In many respects he seemed different from those around. His home was not in either of the great priest-centres—the Ophel-quarter in Jerusalem, nor in Jericho—but in some small town in those uplands, south of Jerusalem: the historic ‘hill-country of Judaea.’9
Zacharias was a priest, but not one of great renown. Neither by his training nor by his place of residence was Zacharias set apart as a cut above his peers. In our terminology, this couple was from the “Ozarks,” a hillbilly priest and his wife. And where one came from did matter to the Jews. You will recall Nathaniel’s response upon learning that Jesus was from Nazareth:
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
(2) Zacharias and Elizabeth were elderly and without children. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children, one which the woman probably felt most keenly. It may well have been thought that their predicament was the “judgment of God,” for some sin they had committed (cf. John 9:2). This fact would also have weighed very heavily against Zacharias and Elizabeth, if the choice of John’s parents were the decision of their peers, and not the sovereign choice of God.
In contrast to the negative factors which would have disinclined a Jew of standing to have expected the parents of John to be this elderly couple, there were two characteristics which Luke records which weighed heavily in their favor:
(1) Zacharias was a priest, and both he and his wife were of the tribe of Aaron (Luke 1:5). It seems to have been important to God that John be of the priestly line, even though his function was largely prophetic.
(2) More important than their physical lineage was their spiritual devotion. Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were described by Luke as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (1:6). Not only was this a priestly couple, but they were a pious couple as well. Their lives were lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. This would not have been perfect obedience, but an obedience which met the requirements of Judaism. It did not save them any more than Paul’s religious piety was sufficient to save him (cf. Phil. 3:4-9). It did, however, set them apart from their peers. From a New Testament view (and O. T., too) their good works did not save them, but from the perspective of the Mosaic Covenant, their devotion to God expressed by their obedience to the Law, did make it possible for God to bless them through the birth of John.
An Angelic Appearance and Announcement
There were many priests in those days and thus the priestly duties were allocated according to divisions of priests (cf. 1 Chronicles 24). When it came time for the order of Abijah’s division (cf. vv. 5, 8) to perform the temple duties, Zacharias went to Jerusalem.10 There, he was chosen for the very high privilege of burning the incense, which he would have done either in the morning or the evening. This was such a high privilege it could be done by a priest only once in a lifetime. It was a very coveted task.11
One can only imagine the feelings which Zacharias must have experienced the evening before his duty was performed. On the one hand, he must have rejoiced in the high privilege which was his, which he had hoped for all his life. On the other hand, he must have reflected on Leviticus chapter 10, which records the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, for carrying out this ritual in a wrong manner. Thus, there were the mixed feelings of rejoicing and fear. He probably carefully rehearsed in his mind exactly how he would perform his duty, so that he would emerge from the holy place alive.
On the day of his duty, Zacharias went into the holy place, where he was to burn the incense. Meanwhile, outside a crowd assembled for prayer. I would take it that the prayers of the people were both for the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, that is for the coming of the King and the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom. Included as well, perhaps, were prayers for the safety of Zacharias, as the dangers of his duty were well known.
Can you imagine the sense of awe and wonder Zacharias must have felt as he entered into the semi-darkness of the holy place, illuminated only by the light of the lampstand? Think how you would have felt in that awesome place, where you alone were allowed, when you suddenly realized that there was another person present with you. If the angel Gabriel appeared in a burst of light and splendor (cf. Luke 2:9), then the experience would have been all the more frightening.
The angel’s first words were of comfort. He assured Zacharias that he need not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard (v. 13). That prayer (singular) I understand to be his official prayer as a priest, representing the people of Israel. It would be a prayer that God’s kingdom would come. A prayer with which the people outside would be in agreement as they prayed. While I used to think that the prayer referred to was Zachariah’s prayer for a son, I no longer think this to be so. First of all, it would not be in keeping with Zachariah’s priestly duty. Second, I think that Zacharias may have prayed such a prayer earlier, but now that its fulfillment seemed impossible, I believe that he had given up all hope, and that he no longer made this request. He request for a sign seems to confirm this. Thus, the angel’s words are to the effect that Zachariah’s prayer for Messiah’s coming have been answered, and in such a way that his own son, born miraculously to this elderly couple, will have a part in announcing the Messiah’s arrival.
The name of this son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb, and who will cause many Israelites to repent, in preparation for Messiah’s arrival, was to be John. John, as the angel’s words make clear, was to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s final prophecy (Mal. 3:5-6). John would be great in the sight of the Lord, and was not to drink wine or liquor (v. 15). I believe that this was to assure those who beheld his ministry that his “inspiration” was from the Spirit of God and not from the “spirits” of strong drink, a not unfamiliar charge in those days (cf. Acts 2:13; Eph. 5:18).
A Request and a Rebuke
In spite of Zacharias’ godliness, his obedience to the Law, and his lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise. There in the shadow of this angel’s splendour, Zacharias made a request of the angel, that he provide some sign, which would assure him that this promise would be fulfilled. He was given a sign, or should I say he himself became a sign, and in fact the sign was indicated by his speaking in “sign” language (1:22).
A friend of mine has suggested that Zacharias was struck dumb by Gabriel because his fear was of saying something stupid—a pretty good possibility in my opinion. You see, when the priest emerged from the temple, he was to pronounce a blessing on the people. Zacharias must have known that he would have to explain what had happened inside the holy place, and was afraid that no one would believe what he was promised; thus he asked for a sign. His speechlessness was an appropriate discipline for Zacharias, and it served to “announce” that something wonderful was about to happen. What Zacharias could have announced with his tongue, God announced through his dumbness.
The sad thing about the unbelief of Zacharias is that there were a number of examples of supernatural births in the Old Testament. God was not promising to do something for Zacharias and Elizabeth which he had not done for others before them. Abraham and Sarah had a son in their old age, as did Hannah and the parents of Samson. The virgin birth, on the other hand, was something entirely new, but Zacharias was not asked to believe this, only that he and his wife would have a son in their old age.
The angel Gabriel only now gives Zacharias his name, and he seems somewhat perturbed to have to do so. In effect, Gabriel is saying, “Good grief, man, do you not know who is telling you that you and your wife will have a son? I am Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence. When I speak, I speak for God. To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself.” With this rebuke, Zacharias was struck dumb.
The task which Zacharias was to perform was one which should have been accomplished in a relatively brief period. The longer the delay in his return, the greater the concern of the crowd assembled outside. They may have wondered if Zacharias had been struck dead by God, just as Nadab and Abihu had been. I can imagine that members of the crowd began to whisper to one another. When Zacharias did emerge, the people waited for him to pronounce a blessing, as he would have customarily done.12 It must have taken a while for the people to grasp that the priests contortions and hand motions were an attempt to communicate and that he had been rendered unable to speak. When this realization struck home, the crowds knew they he had seen a vision in the temple and that God was about to do something marvelous in their midst (v. 22).
Zacharias went home, and in the course of time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. After becoming pregnant, Elizabeth remained in seclusion for a five month period. While there have been some very pious sounding explanations for her actions, I think that there may have been two primary reasons for her seclusion. First, Elizabeth did not want to announce her pregnancy until she was so obviously pregnant that no one could deny it. Those of us who have become parents know how quickly and easily we announce our blessed upcoming event. Elizabeth knew that she would not have been taken seriously, and she would probably not have wanted to face any more cruel scorn, so seclusion was a simple answer. Second, Elizabeth would have had to serve as a spokesperson for her husband, who could not speak, and seclusion kept her from having to perform this task.
The Virgin’s Visitor
I believe that Luke’s record of the angelic announcements to Zacharias and to Mary provide us with a study in contrasts. Zacharias was a man; Mary was a woman. Zacharias and his wife were elderly; Mary was young. Zacharias and Elizabeth were married; Mary was a virgin, only engaged to be married; Zacharias doubted the angel’s message; Mary believed.
In Elizabeth’s sixth month, Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing to her that she would miraculously bear a child who would be Israel’s Messiah. Her child would be great in the sight of God, and called the “son of the Most High” (v. 32). He would reign forever on the throne of his father David (vv. 32-33).
Mary had a request of the angel Gabriel, too, but her request was not for a sign, but for clarification. Zacharias wanted some kind of proof that he and his wife would have a child in their old age. Mary wanted clarification as to what she was to do, in order to cooperate with the purposes of God, as the angel announced them to her. She wished to learn how her conception would be achieved, since she was a virgin.13 She was asking for clarification, not confirmation. There is a world of difference between her request and that of Zacharias. Hers stemmed from her faith; the question of Zacharias stemmed from his lack of faith.
Gabriel explained to Mary that she would not need to do anything, that the conception in her womb would be the result of God’s miraculous intervention It was to be a miraculous virgin conception. Therefore, the child will be called the “Son of God” (v. 35). As a further word of encouragement to Mary, Gabriel informed her that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was in her sixth month of pregnancy, which bore testimony to the fact that nothing is impossible with God (vv. 36-37).
Mary’s response is a marvelous testimony to her faith in God and her submission to His will:
“Behold the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (v. 38).
No one could have asked for any better response. What a marvelous testimony to the magnificence of Mary, a topic which we will take up more in detail in our next lesson.
Several lessons emerge from our initial study in the Luke’s gospel. Let us consider them as we conclude this lesson:
(1) We have seen some of the features of this gospel which are unique, which make it a book well worth our study.
(2) Luke’s gospel conveys a divine philosophy of history, as opposed to a merely secular approach to history. There are several features of a divine philosophy of history which set it apart from a secular outlook on history. A divine perspective of history sees all of history as a part of the divine plan. It therefore looks for a continuity of action, from the very beginning of history, to its culmination. Luke views the birth and the life of Christ as a part of God’s redemptive plan and purpose for history.
A divine philosophy of history views history in relationship to Christ. Christ is the key to history, the central theme. Thus, everything in viewed in terms of its relationship to Christ. Herod, one of the great and powerful figures of that day, is barely mentioned, for Christ meant little to him, other than to be a threat to his dominion. Herod is only a chronological point of reference to Luke. Elizabeth, Zacharias, and Mary, while they would have been given no attention by secular historians, are significant to Luke because they played an important role in the appearance and ministry of our Lord. One of the significant statements in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel is “… in the sight of the Lord.” Elizabeth and Zacharias were “righteous in the sight of the God” (1:6). John would be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). Divine history measures the greatness of men in terms of God’s evaluation, not man’s.
In the final analysis, it does not matter what men think of us, of our significance, of our contribution to mankind, of our greatness, of our goodness; it matters much what God thinks of us. Each man, woman, and child, the Bible tells us, will stand before God and be judged by Him. The purpose of Christ’s coming to earth was to reveal God’s righteousness to us, and to offer that righteousness in place of our sin and rebellion. It was to offer us salvation and eternal life, in place of condemnation and eternal death.
Where do you stand with God, my friend? Does God view you as “righteous,” as He did Zacharias and Elizabeth? Does He view you as “great,” as He did John? When all is said and done, God’s approval or God’s rejection is the only thing in life, in history, that matters. Jesus Christ came to the earth so that we could be approved by God, by accepting the righteousness of Christ in place of our unworthiness and sin. I pray that you have found favor with God, through faith in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. That is what the Gospel of Luke is all about.
Luke’s attention to those whom the Messiah’s first coming was announced is relevant to those of us who await Messiah’s second coming. There were 400 years of silence between the last words of the prophets and the first coming of Christ. Suddenly, the silence was shattered, and Messiah came. We, too, live in a period of “silence,” but God’s promises pertaining to Christ’s second coming are just as certain as those in which the godly took comfort and found hope. Thus, as we study the lives of those who awaited His coming we learn how we should be ready for His return, as New Testament prophecy (and unfulfilled O. T. prophecy) assures us.
A Comparative Chart
of the Early Chapters of the Four Gospels
Genealogy of Christ 1:1-17 Abraham to Joseph
Birth of John the Baptist Announced 1:5-25
Birth of Christ Announced (Joseph) 1:18-25
Birth of Christ Announced (Mary) 1:26-56
Birth of John the Baptist 1:57-80
Birth of Christ 2:1-7
Christ child sought by Herod & Magi 2:12
Christ child worshipped Shepherds
Infancy incident 2:13-23 To Egypt & return Slaughter of children
Christ’s Childhood 2:39-52 Jesus at the Temple
John the Baptist’s ministry, climaxed by baptism of Christ 3:1-17
John the Baptist’s ministry, climaxed by baptism of Christ 3:1-22
John the Baptist’s ministry climaxed in baptism of Christ 1:2-11
John the Baptist and Christ 1:19-34
Christ’s genealogy, traced back to Adam 3:23-28
Temptation of Christ
Temptation of Christ 4:1-13
Temptation of Christ 1:12-13
No temptation account
Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 4:12ff
Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 4:14ff
Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 1:14ff.
No emphasis on commencement of public ministry
Disciples called 4:18ff
No central text or emphasis on calling disciples Cf. Chaps. 4 & 5
Disciples called 1:16ff
Disciples called 1:35ff
Sermon on Mount
Wedding at Cana 2:1ff
6 It is interesting to note that Luke has very little emphasis on the fulfillment of Old Testament (Jewish) prophecies, which would have less impact on a Gentile, since they had not been taught these promises from childhood, as a Jewish child would have been. Thus, it is in Matthew, a very “Jewish” gospel, that we frequently find the expression, “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” In Luke, for example, even when it would have been very noteworthy to point out that Jesus must be born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill Micah 5:2, this is not pointed out, even though it would have been very easy to do so (cf. Luke 2:1-7).
10 “The division was one of 24 groups of priests, drawn up in David’s time (1 Chron. 24:7-18). The priests in each division were on duty twice a year for a week at a time. Zechariah was of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5; cf. 1 Chron. 24:10).” Martin, “Luke,” pp. 202-203.
“There were some thousands of priests at the time, and it was arranged that each course should in turn send a number of priests to the temple for a week to execute their office there. In this particular week it was the turn of the course of Abijah, and Zacharias was one of the priests of that course who had to serve. Each day the lot was cast to assign the various duties of the priests for the day. As there were so many priests, it was not allowed that a priest should burn incense more than once in his lifetime. On that particular day the lot had fallen upon Zacharias and he had to attend to the burning of the incense. This incense-offering had to be brought twice a day—early in the morning and again at about three o’clock in the afternoon (Exod. xxx. 7, 8). Thus Zacharias had entered the temple after the lot had fallen upon him. The actual temple-building or sanctuary proper consisted of the holy place and the holy of holies. Into the latter apartment only the high priest was allowed to go (and that but once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement), while the officiating priests might enter the holy place.” Geldenhuys, pp. 62-63.
11 “But the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him—somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar—that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated, that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighbourhood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship, in which record of past deliverance, longing for mercies promised in the future, and entreaty for present blessing and peace, seemed the ingredients of the incense, that rose in a fragrant cloud of praise and prayer. Deep silence had fallen on the worshippers, as if they watched to heaven the prayers of Israel, ascending in the cloud of ‘odours’ that rose from the golden altar in the Holy Place. Zacharias waited, until he saw the incense kindling. The he also would have ‘bowed down in worship,’ and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps.” Edersheim, I, pp. 137-138.
12 Cf. Edersheim, I, p. 140, where Edersheim says that this blessing, found in Numbers 6:24-26, was pronounced: ‘The LORD bless you, and keep you, The LORD make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace.’ (Num. 6:24-26)
13 The New American Standard Bible renders Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?,” but the marginal note informs us that she literally asked, “How shall this be … ?” I believe the literal (marginal) rendering should have been retained.