The first Baptist
Dear Theophilus1A lot of people have started writing down the stories about what happened here, where we live. 2They got their information firsthand, from eyewitnesses such as the original disciples. 3It seems like a good idea for me to write down what I know, too, because I’ve carefully researched what happened since it all started. I’ll write this down for you, honorable Theophilus, organizing it as best I can. 4I’m doing this so you’ll know that everything you’ve been told is true.
Angel predicts John the Baptist’s birth5When King Herod ruled Judea, there was a priest name Zechariah. He served in an order of priests who descended from Abijah. Zechariah was married to Elizabeth, who came from the family of Aaron. 6Zechariah and Elizabeth both loved God, and it showed in the way they lived. They obeyed God’s laws, and God considered them good-hearted people because of it.
7Elizabeth wasn’t able to have children. So they didn’t have any. They were up there in years by this time. 8It just so happened that during one of Zechariah’s rotations of working at the Temple 9he was randomly selected to be the only priest that day who would go inside the Temple sanctuary and burn the incense offering. 10A crowd of worshippers prayed and waited outside while he went in to burn the incense as an offering to God.
11While he was in there, an angel from God appeared to him. The angel stood on the right side of the altar where priests burned the incense. 12The angel startled Zechariah, and then terrified him. 13“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said. “I want you to know that your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son. Name him John. 14Joy is coming to your house—incredible happiness. Many people are going to cheer the birth of this little boy. 15He’s going to be important to God. He won’t drink any wine or hard liquor. He’ll be filled up, however, with the Holy Spirit—even while he’s still growing inside his mother. 16He will become a spiritual guide who leads many Jews back to the Lord their God. 17He will grow up to become the Lord’s advance man. Filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, he will prepare people for the Lord’s coming. Your son will inspire fathers to make peace with their children. And he will convince rebellious souls to listen to the wise advice of godly people and to change their way of living so they’re ready when the Lord comes.”
18“How can I know that what you’re saying will really happen?” Zechariah asked. “I’m an old man, and my wife is up there in years, too.”
19“I am Gabriel,” the angel answered. “I report directly to God. I have been sent to give you this wonderful news and to talk with you about it. 20Now listen to me. Because you didn’t believe what I had to say, you are not going to have anything to say until your son is born. You won’t be able to speak.” 21Outside, the people were still waiting for Zechariah – and wondering what was taking him so long inside the Temple.
22When he finally came back outside, he couldn’t talk. He made signs with his hands, trying to communicate, but he couldn’t get a word out of his mouth. The people soon realized he had seen a vision inside the Temple. 23When his ministry rotation in the Temple was over, he went back home.
24His wife Elizabeth got pregnant. She stayed in seclusion for five months. She said, 25“Look what the Lord has done for me. The disgrace I have felt all of these years as I have lived among these people – it’s gone. God has taken it away.”
Angel returns, predicting Jesus’ birth26Elizabeth was six months pregnant when God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee. 27There, Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph, descended from King David.
28“Hello,” the angel said. “God is with you. And he has singled you out for a wonderful blessing.” 29Mary thought that was an odd way to greet someone. She couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.
30“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel said. “God is delighted with you. 31Listen, you are going to get pregnant and give birth to a son. You are to call him Jesus. 32He will be no ordinary man. He will be great. People will call him Son of the Greatest God. The Lord God will make sure he inherits the throne of his ancestor David, 33and that he will rule the descendants of Jacob for the rest of time. His kingdom will never end.”
34“How is this possible,” Mary asked, “since I am a virgin?”
35The angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come to you. Power Most High will cover you. This child will be holy, and called the Son of God. 36Listen, even your elderly relative Elizabeth has gotten pregnant. She’s carrying a boy. That’s right, the woman everyone thought was infertile is now into her sixth month of pregnancy. 37Nothing is impossible for God.”
38Mary said, “I’m completely devoted to the Lord. So all of those things you said would happen to me—let them happen.” The angel left.
Two pregnant women39As soon as she could, Mary got out of town. She took to the hills and went to a town in Judea.
40When she arrived at the home of Zechariah, Elizabeth welcomed her. 41At the mere sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child jumped inside of her, and the Holy Spirit filled her. 42In a loud and happy voice Elizabeth sang out, “You are blessed more than any other woman. And the child inside you is blessed, as well. 43Think of it. The mother of my Lord has come to visit me. How could I be so fortunate? 44Look, when I heard nothing more than your greeting, the baby inside me jumped for joy. 45You are blessed indeed because you believed the Lord would do what he said he would do.”
Mary’s magnificent song46Mary said,
“I can’t keep quiet about the Lord.
48Look at me. A servant. Not important at all. Yet important to God. From now on, people will call me blessed. <
49Mighty God, the Holy One, has done amazing things for me.
50For others, too. He shows mercy to people of every generation,
to those who respect him.
51He’s a powerful God, no doubt about that.
Powerful enough to send the proud and the vain into hiding.
52Powerful enough to unseat the world’s top officials, who are soon forgotten.
Powerful enough to write humble souls into world history, never to be forgotten.
53He feeds the hungry with food for body and soul.
He serves the callous rich a cold shoulder and invites them to leave.
54God has treated his people of Israel to mercy.
55He does it—and will keep on doing it forever—
because of promises he made long ago to our ancestors:
to Abraham and to all of his descendants.” 56Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months before going back home.
Birth of the first Baptist57When it came time for Elizabeth to give birth, she had a son. 58Neighbors and relatives heard the news that the Lord had shown her this incredible mercy, and they were celebrating with her.
59When it came time to circumcise the boy, on the eighth day after he was born, everyone seemed to think his parents would name him after his father, Zechariah. 60“Absolutely not,” his mother said. “We’re going to call him John.”
61The family and friends couldn’t understand why. They said, “There’s no one in your family with that name.” 62They turned to Zechariah and made hand motions, to ask what he wanted to name the boy. 63Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. He wrote, “His name is John.” The people thought that was pretty amazing.
64Suddenly, Zechariah was able to talk. And the first thing he did was to praise God. 65This terrified everyone living nearby. News of what happened spread all over the hill country of Judea, and became a popular topic of conversation. 66When people heard this incredible story they said, “I wonder what’s going to come of this boy when he grows up?” This much was clear to the people: the Lord’s divine fingerprints were all over this.
Zechariah’s happy song67The Holy Spirit filled the boy’s father, Zechariah, who began to prophesy.
“Thanks be to the Lord God of Israel
for he has come to us and he has already freed his people.
who was the Lord’s devoted servant.
70He told us through his prophets long ago
71he would save us from our enemies—
from everyone who hates us and who would try to hurt us.
72He showed this kind of mercy to our ancestors,
just as he promised he would in the binding agreement
73he made with our father Abraham.
74God saved us from enemies who would hurt us.
He did this so we could serve him without being afraid.
75Now we can focus on staying completely devoted to him for the rest of our life.
76As for you, my little boy, people will one day call you the prophet of God Most High.
You will become the Lord’s advance man preparing the way for him.
77You will teach his people about how they can be forgiven of their sins and saved.
78It’s because of the tender mercy of our God
that the Son of Heaven will come to us
79to shine on those who sit in darkness and under the shadow of death,
so we can find our way to the path of peace.” 80John grew up. He grew spiritually strong, as well. He lived in the dry badlands until he started his public ministry to Israel.
The identity of “honorable Theophilus” remains a mystery. One guess: he was a Roman official – perhaps someone involved in the trial of Paul in Rome. Luke may have been making the case that neither Paul nor the Christian movement he was helping lead were a threat to the Roman Empire. Other guesses: Theophilus may have been a new Christian, or perhaps a patron who hired Luke to write the story of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. The name in Greek means “one who loves God.” Some theorize Theophilus may be a fake name invented to represent all Christians.
Priests were divided into 24 family groups. Priest Abijah led group eight, made up of his relatives (1 Chronicles 24:10). Zechariah was one of his descendants. Because there were so many priests, estimated in the thousands, each group took a turn working in the Jerusalem Temple—one week at a time, twice a year.
Aaron was the brother of Moses and Israel’s first high priest.
He was chosen by casting lots, perhaps dice-like objects priests used to get a yes or no answer from God, since they believed God controlled everything that happened. “We may throw the dice [cast the lots], but the LORD determines how they fall” (Proverbs 16:33 New Living Translation).
This refers to a famous prophecy from the Old Testament: “I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5-6).
Each rotation lasted one week.
The Greek word, parthenos, means a person who has never had sexual intercourse. Matthew said this fulfilled the prophecy, “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!” (Matthew 1:23). Matthew was quoting Isaiah 7:14, in which the prophet 700 years earlier had used the Hebrew word almah, which could mean “virgin,” or “young woman.” But Luke and Matthew both used a Greek word that means “virgin.”
This sounds a bit like the description of the God’s Spirit in creation mode, hovering above what is about to be created: “God’s Spirit cruised through the darkness, above the water” (Genesis 1:2).
This may suggest Zechariah was deaf as well as mute, or that the people mistakenly thought he was deaf because he was mute. But it could also refer to gestures many people make when talking in general. Some folks tend to talk with their hands more than other folks do.
Probably a reference to the Messiah sent from God.
Luke wrote this Gospel as well as the book of Acts to a mysterious man named Theophilus. Bible experts can only guess who he was. One guess, based on the fact that Luke addressed him as “honorable Theophilus” (1:3), is that he was a Roman official – perhaps someone involved in the trial of Paul in Rome. Luke may have been making the case that neither Paul nor the Christian movement he was helping lead were a threat to the Roman Empire. Other theories suggest Theophilus may have been a new Christian, or perhaps a patron who hired Luke to write the story of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. Which theory do you think has most merit?
Luke doesn’t seem to have ever met Jesus or any of the original disciples. Instead, he seems to have gathered his information for this letter in the same way a news reporter would gather information for a feature article: “he carefully researched what happened since it all started” (1:3). How does that affect the way you read the Gospel of Luke?
The angel Gabriel struck Zachariah mute, and possibly deaf, some experts say, merely because Zachariah asked how it would be possible for him and his wife to have a child: “I’m an old man, and my wife is up there in years, too” (1:18). Gabriel got ticked by that. And it could seem as though he overreacted. Why do you think Gabriel struck Zachariah mute? He didn’t do that to Mary when she questioned how she could get pregnant since she was “a virgin” (1:34).
What do you think Gabriel meant when he said that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even while he’s still growing inside his mother” (1:15)?
A lot of people have trouble believing that Mary was a virgin before and after she conceived Jesus. Do you think it should be easier to believe it now that mere humans can create a virgin birth through in vitro fertilization?
Belief in the Virgin Birth is written into Christian creeds of belief, so it’s considered pretty important among Christians. Yet there are Christians who say they don’t believe the story. What difference do you think it would make? What would be the difference between a Christian who believed in the Virgin Birth and a Christian who did not?
Gabriel is vague when he explains how Mary will get pregnant: “The Holy Spirit will come to you. Power Most High will cover you” (1:35). How do you react to the footnote about this in the verse: “This sounds a bit like the description of God’s Spirit in creation mode, hovering above what is about to be created: ‘God’s Spirit cruised through the darkness, above the water (Genesis 1:2)”?
Mary sings a happy song when she greets Elizabeth (1:46-56). It’s beautifully poetic and lyrical. So is the song Zechariah sings after John is born (1:67-80). And Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-8, which some say inspired Mary’s song. The two songs of Mary and Zechariah are so well-crafted that some Bible experts say they have trouble believing that they were impromptu outbursts of joy, like those of a testimony in a church service. Instead, they wonder if Mary and Zachariah wrote them later, or if Luke wrote them as a way of expressing the joy he believed Zachariah and Mary must have felt. Or perhaps Luke adapted songs that Christians were singing about Mary and Zachariah in church meetings. Would it bother you if those songs were written later?
LIFE APPLICATION. Priests threw lots, a bit like throwing dice, to select which priest would go into the Temple sanctuary that day to burn incense. That’s how Zachariah ended up in there talking with the angel Gabriel. Jews made a lot of important decisions by tossing lots. They figured that since God controlled everything, he controlled the lots. What do you think about churches using that technique today? Should we trust God with the flip of a coin to give us the right pastor, or contractor, or color of carpet for the sanctuary?
LIFE APPLICATION. Mary and Zachariah each burst out in exuberant songs of joy because of what had happened to them. When have you felt that way, and how did you express your happiness?