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Luke 1:5-1:25
Key Verse: 1:6

Thank God that we began Acts’ study and have studied up to chapter 4. Since the author of Luke and Acts is the same, it seems to be suitable to study Christmas passages in Luke’s gospel for consistency. Luke did not begin his gospel right away with the story of Jesus, even with Jesus’ birth. In the first chapter of Luke, he recounts the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. They are the people God used for his Son Jesus’ coming into this world. Before Jesus came, his forerunner John the Baptist had to come. So the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is written first in Luke’s gospel. In today’s passage we can think about the lives of faith of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the greatness of John announced even before his birth.

First, Zechariah and Elizabeth (5-7). Look at verse 5. “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 descendant of Aaron.” Here we see three names: Herod, Zechariah, and Elizabeth. Herod’s name comes first, but it is written in the adverb phrase, not in the main clause. His name is written to introduce Zechariah and Elizabeth. In world history he is known as “Herod the Great” and nobody seems to know who Zechariah and Elizabeth were. But God’s history is different. Herod, though he was king of Judea, was the backdrop for the stage where Zechariah and Elizabeth were the main characters.

Herod called himself “Herod the Great.” But in fact he was Herod the horrible (diabolical monster). He even strangled his wife and his own two sons, suspecting that they were his possible opponents. He was the one who, when he heard that Jesus the king of the Jews was born, ordered that all the boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed. He was nominated king of Judea by the Roman Senate in the year 40 B.C. He ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. While he ruled, it was really a dark, ominous and calamitous time in the history of Israel.

Yet, in that dark time the lamp of God was not extinguished. Look at verse 5 again. “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 descendant of Aaron.” Zechariah and Elizabeth were a priestly couple. In the Old Testament, the tribe of Levi among 12 tribes was set apart to serve the Lord. Even among the Levites, only the descendants of Aaron could be priests. Not only Zechariah but also his wife Elizabeth was from the priestly line as a descendant of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were a privileged couple in God. Luke, however, did not just talk about their priesthood. Luke had to say something remarkable about them apart from their priesthood. Look at verse 6. “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” This is the author’s evaluation of the couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. Of course, their priesthood did not make them upright in the sight of God. In this evaluation, human title, degree, wealth, or health, such things were not involved at all. Such things can be counted before people, but not before God. We know that true evaluation should be done before God. In verse 6, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God.” What can be a greater evaluation than this? Yet, it does not mean that they were perfect and sinless. It must have meant that both of them lived before God and kept a right relationship with God, repenting of their sins whenever they realized them. They did not compromise, rationalize or make excuses for their sins. How could they live before the invisible God? It was by observing the Lord’s commandments and regulations. A commandment is an underlying principle and a regulation is its application to concrete life situations. Their observing the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly shows the degree of their spiritual life. For them their fellowship with God was most important each day. And they studied the Bible until the words of God were carved on the tablets of their hearts so that they could live by them as manuals of their life. It is different from just obtaining a lot of Bible knowledge. Their purpose of Scripture study was to know God and obey God’ words very personally.

Definitely, their life of living by the words of God also signifies that they lived against the trend of the world. They did not conform to the pattern of the world. The time they lived was a dark time. There were no prophets for the last 400 years. Under Herod’s ruling, people were anxious and fearful. When the people of Jerusalem heard the news of the king of the Jews being born, they were all disturbed along with King Herod. They wanted to stay in their comfort zones, even in that dark and tragic period. This shows the spiritual condition of that time. Most people did not have the promise of God’s words in their hearts, particularly in regard to the promised Messiah. They just lived day to day life. But Zechariah and Elizabeth were different. They had the promise of God concerning the Messiah in their hearts. They were waiting people along with Simeon and Anna. They were like Noah who lived differently from all the people of the world obeying God’s words and building the ark of salvation, and was finally saved together with all his family members, while all other people perished in the flood judgment.

That they lived differently did not mean that they were separated from the people of the world and lived like hermits. No. They loved God and loved their neighbours as themselves, which are the key point of all the commandments of God, so the greatest commandment according to Jesus (Mt 22:37-39). Out of love for God they took care of the people around them, knowing their needs, spiritual and physical. Thus the couple Zechariah and Elizabeth were a blessing to the townspeople and to their own people of Israel.

Some young people say, “I can live like them when I become old and have nothing to do in the world, but not right now when I am young.” That is sheer ignorance of the spiritual world. In living a godly life, forming positive habits is very important. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Godly habit should be formed when one is young. Apostle Paul said to young Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim 4:7). Godly training or discipline is essential for children and youth for their formation of godly habit which can run through all the days of their lives.

Look at verse 7. “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren.” Humanly speaking, what a sorrowful situation! At that time no children meant “no blessing” from God. People may have even judged that the priests’ family were terribly wrong with God, thinking, “How come they have no children, even one, while ordinary families had children so easily. But Zechariah and Elizabeth did not think in that way. They did not doubt God’s love for them. Their trust in God’s love was not fluctuated by such visible blessings. Their love relationship with God was certain and solid. Yet, undoubtedly having no children was a fatal part of their lives. Then with their fatalistic element of life they prayed in the assurance of God’s love. Through prayer they did not let their weak part of life rule their hearts. Their prayer was unceasing and unyielding. They wanted to have a child not just to continue their family line. More than that, they must have wanted to have a son who could serve God’s purpose in that generation. Then they were both well along in years. Their lives were truly beautiful. That’s why the author did not hesitate to say, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God.” We can see how much God was pleased with them and blessed them.

Second, John the Baptist (8-17). Look at verses 8-9. “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.” It was the greatest day in Zechariah’s life for him to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. At that time there were 24 divisions of priests, each division served the temple work twice a year, for one week at each time. And there were around 20,000 priests. Only once in their lifetime the priests had a chance to do the temple work. When a division was chosen, the various functions of the priesthood were appointed by lot. The most solemn part of the entire liturgy was the burning of incense. Many priests died without having this opportunity. So it was a highlight in Zechariah’s life that he was chosen to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Twice a day this incense was offered: in the morning and in mid afternoon. All the assembled worshipers were praying outside. They were nameless people, but praying people are indispensible people in the work and history of God.

Then what happened on that special day? Look at verses 11 and 12. “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” Zechariah never experienced such a sight as an angel of the Lord standing beside him. He was startled and gripped with fear. At that moment he did not know what was going on in his life. Look at verse 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.” Such a thing is possible in God. Zechariah’s life-long prayer had been heard. God hears our prayers, especially when we pray faithfully and persistently with a clear prayer topic, particularly with a life-long prayer topic.

The name John means “the Lord (Jehovah) is gracious.” The son Elizabeth was going to bear would be indeed the gracious gift of God. The gift would be marvelous, extremely good, to them and to many people. The angel said continually, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” Then the angel said, “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 from birth.” There have been many great people in human history. But truly great people are those who are great in the sight of God. People rejoice when they see truly great people. Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Lk 7:28). What would be John’s greatness? In verse 15 wine and the Holy Spirit are contrasted. He is never to drink wine or other fermented drink. In other translations, “He must not/never drink wine or strong drink” (ESV, NRSV); in NLT “He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks.” It would be the expression of his pure life before God. Revelation 17:1,2 says, “One of the seven angels who had the seven bows came and said to him, ‘Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” Bible clearly tells us not to drink wine or other fermented drink, or even gaze at wine. It brings woe and sorrow and strife and poisons in life (Pro 23:29-35). Rather, God wants us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” In our times drinking is the norm for many young people. But we must be aware of what Bible says in regard to drinking. God wants young people to be filled with the Holy Spirit and see visions, not strange sight. John’s greatness would be from his pure life and being filled with the Holy Spirit, even from birth, definitely through the spiritual influence of his parents.

Look at verses 16,17. “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back 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 fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” This is the description of John’s mission. What can be more important and urgent than saving souls bringing them back to the Lord their God in each generation? Daniel 12:2,3 says, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 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.”

The people of Israel were God’s chosen people. But many people left the Lord their God, who loved them so dearly. They were like spiritual orphans desolate, wounded and beaten in the world of wilderness. They were bitter and depressed and hopeless. How would John carry out the great work of bringing the people of Israel back to the Lord their God? Verse 17 says, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In the time of Elizabeth almost all people left the LORD God and fell into Baal worshiping through the influence of the vilest king Ahab and his wife queen Jezebel. Baal worship was sweeping the land. No one dared to challenge the national situation, though many felt the nation’s crisis. But the prophet Elijah challenged Ahab and Jezebel and proved that the LORD is the true God letting fire fall down from heaven before all the Israelites. The spirit and power of Elijah was matchless and triumphant over any evil power. John the Baptist would discharge his grave mission with such spirit and power. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. This is written in Malachi 4:5,6, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” When Jesus’ disciples asked him about the John the Baptist, Jesus clearly said, “Elijah has already come”, meaning he was Elijah promised to come (Mt 17:2; Mk 9:13). John the Baptist would do the difficult job of the restoration of the relationship between the parents and their children. As we know, family is the first building block of society. The broken relationship in family is an indication of the sick, broken society. Irresponsible parents and disobedient and rebellious children are the main problem in each society in every generation. Adultery and divorce and Juvenile crimes all stem from this. Whenever we hear about fathers’ abandoning the families and children’s rebelling the parents, it is heart-breaking. It is likely that war is going on in many families. In our times to disobey and rebel the parents seems to be norm, and to obey the parents, something weird and abnormal. According to 2 Timothy 3:1, “people’s being disobedient to their parents is a mark of terrible times in the last days. Responsible parents and obedient children are rare to find. We know that the healing and restoration work should be done from within each family. But who would carry out such a significant and weighty work? John would be truly great as he turned the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents. His work would be heart-turning, that is true turning through repentance. It is noticeable that “bringing back the people of Israel” is written before “turning the hearts of the fathers to their children” or “turning the hearts of the children to their fathers.” When people turn to God truly, they can turn to their parents and children. “The hearts of the children to their parents” in Malachi is written in Luke “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” Obedience from the heart is the wisdom of the righteous. May God raise up responsible parents and obedient and wise children in our generation through the work of John the Baptist. The work can be possible by the power and Spirit of God. In this way a people can be prepared for the Lord.

When the Zechariah heard the angel’s message, it was too good to believe. So he momentarily got out of the track of belief, looking only at his human condition and that of his wife, saying, “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Because of this, he would receive dumb training for nine months, not to speak unbelieving words, whatsoever. This was also a part of God’s divine love for him. God would not give such training to anyone, but only those who deserve. Zechariah needed this training to be prepared to be a parent of John the Baptist, the great son from God. Later on we will see that the training was very effective and bore amazing fruit in his life.

When his time of service was completed, Zechariah returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. What a miracle! This is the New Testament version of Sarah’s having Isaac at the age of 90 in the Old Testament. God keeps his promise. For five months Elizabeth had a quiet and reflective time. Then she confessed, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.” God is really a personal God, who knows the deepest heart of each one.

In this passage Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. When they lived a life of faith in this way, God blessed the godly couple with a gracious gift of God, the son John the Baptist, who would be truly great through his pure and Spirit-filled life. He would live a life of mission bringing many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God by turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. We pray that God may raise up godly couples like Zechariah and Elizabeth and servants of God like John the Baptist in our times and so a people of God be prepared for the Lord.

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