Monday, March 13, 2017

Luke 1

Luke 1 (ESV): Dedication to Theophilus, Birth of John the Baptist Foretold, Birth of Jesus Foretold, Mary Visits Elizabeth, Mary’s Song of Praise: The Magnificat, The Birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s Prophecy


This is a longer set of passages than I usually blog about at once, but they’re related to each other, and there is some poetry in here (which usually takes up more space), so I went for it.

To start with, Luke begins the book by explaining to Theophilus—the man to whom he’s writing—the reason why he set out to write this book. Mainly, this person seems to have been taught many things about Jesus already—Luke mentions in verse 1 (ESV) that many people have already written accounts of these events—and Luke wants to give him certainty about what he has been taught. In other words: Luke has gone back to eyewitnesses (verse 2 (ESV)) to confirm some of these facts.

After his introduction to Theophilus, Luke begins with John the Baptist’s back story: a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are both living righteous lives, but they’ve gotten old and haven’t been able to have children. (Verse 7 (ESV) specifically says that Elizabeth is barren.) But one day Zechariah is burning incense in the temple when an angel appears to him, and tells him that he’s going to have a child, whom he is to name John. The angel also tells Zechariah that John is going to be filled with the Holy Spirit, …
… “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (verses 16–17 (ESV))
Zechariah asks the angel how he is to know that this will happen, since he and his wife are so old, but the angel doesn’t like this response:
And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (verses 19–20 (ESV))
By this point the people outside have started wondering what is taking Zechariah so long, and when he finally does come out he can’t speak, as the angel had told him would be the case. Soon after, as promised, Elizabeth conceives, and keeps herself hidden for five months.

Shortly after these events, Gabriel is sent to Mary, a virgin living in Nazareth who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. He delivers a very similar message to her: She is going to have a son, whom she is to name Jesus. This boy is going to be very special:
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (verses 32–33 (ESV))
Mary asks the angel a very similar question to what Zechariah had asked: how is this going to happen, since she is a virgin? Gabriel answers that the Holy Spirit is going to come upon her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her, and that therefore the child will be called Holy—the Son of God. He also informs her that Elizabeth—who, it turns out, is Mary’s cousin—is already pregnant in her old age, because “nothing will be impossible with God” (verse 37 (ESV)). This seems to be good enough for Mary:
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (verse 38 (ESV))
After this she goes to visit Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit:
… and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (verses 42–45 (ESV))
Then, in verses 46–55 (ESV), Mary sings a song of praise to the Lord, which we now call The Magnificat (after the first word of the song in Greek, magnificat, which means “magnifies”).

When it’s time, Elizabeth gives birth to her son, and her neighbours and relatives are rejoicing with her. When the time comes, on the eighth day, to circumcize him, they all assume that she’s going to name him Zechariah, after his father, but she corrects them, and tells them the boy is to be named John. They simply don’t believe her, since none of her relatives is named John, so the try to go “over her head” and ask Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet and writes that the child is to be named John. This causes them all to wonder, but it’s nothing compared to what happens next, because Zechariah is immediately able to speak again, and he uses his regained ability to praise God. This causes people to actually be afraid, and they wonder what this child is going to be, since clearly the hand of the Lord is with him.

Part of what Zechariah prophesied is given to us in verses 67–79 (ESV), in which he proclaims that John is going to be a prophet. And then, in verse 80 (ESV), we’re told that John is in the wilderness until “the day of his public appearance to Israel.”


Luke mentions in verse 1 that “many” have already written about these events, but the only accounts that remain to use are the four gospels we have in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Just because lots of people wrote about something, it didn’t mean that what they wrote was worth preserving; Luke, on the other hand, has taken pains to go back and talk to original sources as much as possible; he seems determined to “get it right.” He’s doing it for someone named Theophilus, but obviously we all benefit from his work. As for Theophilus himself… well, I’ll just quote the ESV Study Bible:
“Both Luke (1:3) and Acts (1:1) are addressed to ‘Theophilus,’ and there is no reason to deny that he was a real person, although attempts to identify him have been unsuccessful. Luke uses the same description ‘most excellent’ (Luke 1:3) in the book of Acts to describe the Roman governors Felix (Acts 23:26; 24:2) and Festus (Acts 26:25). Theophilus was probably a man of wealth and social standing, and ‘most excellent’ served as a respectful form of address.”
A lot of what we know about Jesus’ birth comes from this chapter. Not all of these details make it into other gospels—Mark, for example, doesn’t even start his story until John and Jesus are already adults and beginning their ministries—but they’re still very familiar to us; even non-Christians in North America would know a lot of these details, because they’re discussed so often at Christmas.

I’m not sure why Elizabeth went into hiding for those first five months, when she got pregnant, but I’m sure there’s a cultural element to it. I’m sure it would have been considered a shame that she couldn’t get pregnant—probably even a judgement from God—so she had probably had to deal with a lot of people judging her for her lack of children, so I’m assuming it’s somehow related, except I don’t get why hiding would help. In any event, according to verse 25 (ESV), she definitely recognizes that it is the Lord who has taken away her “reproach.”

It’s definitely worth comparing Zechariah’s response to Gabriel with Mary’s response, because on the surface, they’re very similar:
  • Zechariah: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
  • Mary: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
There definitely is a nuance, however, in the wording: “how will I know this” vs. “how will this be;” Zechariah seems to be looking for a sign, whereas Mary is simply curious how this is going to happen. Put another way, there is a difference in attitude: Zechariah’s attitude seems to be more along the lines of, “that can’t be right, you’ll have to prove it to me,” whereas Mary is taking Gabriel at his word, assuming that what he said is going to happen, but not understanding how.

That aside, there is a nobility in Mary’s response to Gabriel that is easy to overlook in the 21st century: I’m the Lord’s servant, I’m ready to obey. That sounds simple enough, of course she would obey the Lord… except we’ve already seen that Elizabeth seems to be getting judged for being barren, so how much more is Mary going to get judged for getting pregnant outside of marriage? Nobody is going to believe her story unless the Lord specifically grants that they’d believe it; it’s too outrageous. (This would include Joseph: only through the grace of God would he have been able to believe Mary’s story, and he also should be commended for standing by her. Even believing her story, he’d also be getting judged for this event by all of the people who didn’t believe the story.) No, she didn’t have sex outside of marriage, God made her pregnant… yeah right. Mary is not just obeying the Lord, she’s taking on a set of consequences that she’s going to have to suffer through, for no fault of her own, other than doing what was right. (This is very likely why she goes to visit Elizabeth; when a young girl gets pregnant outside of marriage, it’s not uncommon for her to leave town for a while, to avoid the gossip. Mary might know that she’s innocent, in this case, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to enjoy the judgement she’s likely to get on all sides.)

Zechariah may not have reacted properly to Gabriel’s prophecy immediately, but the Lord was definitely gracious to him later on, and he was able to celebrate the birth of his son not only as a miracle in its own right—which it was—but also to celebrate the fact that his son was going to be a prophet.

I’m not sure what it means in verse 80, when it says that John was in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel; I know that John lived in the wilderness, but does this verse indicate that he spent his whole life there?

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