One heck of a birth announcement.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 November

In the other gospels John just shows up. In Luke he’s miraculous.

Luke 1.5-25

Most Christians vastly underestimate the importance and significance of the prophet John bar Zechariah, whom we more commonly know as St. John the baptist.

Largely it’s because we see John as a minor figure, and kinda weird. He showed up, made a lot of noise, preached obedience and repentance… and once Jesus showed up, he faded away. (Or got arrested and beheaded. Same difference.) His only purpose was to point to, and baptize, Jesus, and that done, he died.

Others figure John’s a much bigger deal than that. But only because they believe—incorrectly—that John was the first prophet to appear in 400 years. Supposedly after Malachi finished the Old Testament, God went dark. For four centuries he said nothing and did nothing. Then John shows up, and wham: Prophecy’s back! Revelation is back! The miracles turned back on! God is up to something.

Yeah, that’s entirely wrong. ’Cause

  1. The apocrypha, the “extra books” in non-Protestant bibles, tell of historical events which God was obviously involved in.
  2. Josephus, the first-century Pharisee historian, also told of miracles in those 400 years.
  3. Two, count ’em two, prophets show up to proclaim baby Jesus: Simeon and Anna. Lk 2.25-38 Both of ’em are described as old (Anna was 84) and had likely been prophesying for decades before Jesus was born.

Not to mention the obvious prophetic abilities of Jesus’s parents Joseph and Mary, or John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. In fact everybody with a speaking role in the nativity story (save Herod, of course) was a prophet! But, as usual, cessationist dogma trumps basic reading comprehension.

God has always been talking. There have always been prophets. John didn’t stand out because he was the first prophet of the New Testament era. He stood out because he was an extremely significant prophet: He was Messiah’s herald. And his story begins with an angel, who stands before God’s presence, actually heralding him. Even Messiah’s herald gets the royal treatment. But that’s just a hint as to how important John was, and is.

What was Zechariah doing in temple?

Luke 1.5-11 KWL
5 It was in the reign of Herod, king of Judea,
there was a priest named Zechariah of the Abijah division.
His wife, named Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron.
6 They were both right with God, solid followers of the Lord’s every command and practice.
7 Elizabeth, being sterile, had no child, and both were growing older in days.
8 It was during Zechariah’s divisional turn to minister before God.
9 Picked by lot according to the priests’ custom, he entered the Lord’s shrine to burn incense.
10 At the time of incense, a crowd of all the people prayed outside.
11 The Lord’s angel was seen standing at the right of the incense altar.

By design, the tribe of Levi was landless: They weren’t farmers, but city-dwellers, serving their fellow Israelis as priests. Three times a year, each of their divisions—determined by family—went to serve at temple in Jerusalem. This’d be the men, from ages 25 to 50. Nu 8.24-25 (Meaning Zechariah wasn’t that elderly; in his late forties. Still, if Elizabeth was roughly the same age, older than people expected you to be.) The rest of the year, Levites lived in their cities and earned a living, same as any other city-dweller: Selling goods or services.

There were 24 divisions. Abijah was eighth, meaning Abijah’s descendants served one week in Iyar (late May), during Sukkot (mid-October), and in Marcheshvan (late October). There was no shortage of priests, so when it came time to do his priestly duty, Zechariah ordinarily wouldn’t have much to do other than handle crowd control, sing, mop up blood (sacrifices were really messy, y’know), or otherwise tidy up the temple area. But jobs were decided by lot: Every once in a while, he might get a significant job.

This year, probably 7 BC, Zechariah drew the lot to burn incense. The incense altar was in the primary temple building, the naós/“shrine,” in the front part just outside the curtain which covered the Holiest Place. Incense represented prayers to God, so incense was burned twice a day, during morning and evening prayer time. Hence the big crowd of “prayer warriors,” ’cause same as today, a lot of religious people consider it their duty to God to pray constantly.

One of the things the crowd prayed for, was the guy burning incense. Y’see, once two of Aaron’s sons got liquored up, used the wrong incense, and burned to death. Lv 10.1-2 So custom was to pray for the priest, lest he do it wrong and God strike him down.

Growing up, I’ve heard loads of preachers mix up Zechariah’s job with that of the head priest. His job was to enter the Holiest Place once a year—and as usual, the crowd prayed for him lest he do his job wrong and drop dead. There’s a fun story about how other priests would tie a rope round the head priest’s waist so that, if God struck him down, they could drag his corpse out… and not enter the Holiest Place, and get themselves struck dead. The reason this mixup gets perpetuated is because it is such an amusing story—ha ha, God likes to kill bad priests!—but it’s an apocryphal one, and appeals to our legalistic tendencies more than it does God’s grace.

Anywho. When Zechariah went in, there was Gabriel, the angel from Daniel, Da 8.16, 9.21 the angel of the End Times. And Zechariah freaked out. Maybe he thought he had burned the incense wrong, and had died instantly, and now here was an angel to take him to paradise. Maybe he didn’t recognize Gabriel was an angel, and thought someone snuck into the building, and now they were both dead meat. Maybe Gabriel, unlike in Daniel didn’t look like a man, but looked like one of those other angels—freaky burning six-winged serpents covered in eyes. Who knows what went through Zechariah’s head. Or loincloth.

A son for Zechariah, and a prophet for Judea.

Luke 1.12-17 KWL
12 Seeing it, Zechariah was overwhelmed with fear.
13 The angel told him, “Don’t fear, Zechariah,
for your request has been heard:
Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son, and you’ll name him John.
14 He’ll be happiness and joy to you,
and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he’ll be great before the Lord.
He may never drink wine or liquor:
He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb,
16 and many of Israel’s children will turn back to the Lord their God.
17 He’ll precede him in Elijah’s spirit and power,
‘to turn back fathers’ hearts to their children,’ Ml 4.6
and rebels back to orthodox thinking—
to get the people ready for the Lord.”

Gabriel informed Zechariah he’d finally have a son. Now, if you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to have kids, you know how big a deal this is.

And people in the Christian culture give people just as much grief about not having kids as in the ancient Jewish culture: Not having children was a big, big deal. God’s very first command, you know, was to be fruitful and multiply. Ge 1.28 Ancient Jews took it seriously: If you didn’t have kids, you weren’t obeying.

More than that: Must be something wrong with you. And, as humans do, they figured your infertility was your own fault. Either you weren’t trying hard enough to make kids, or you were somehow cursed, and God kept you from having kids because you displeased him or something. So the fact Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t have kids was a real sore spot.

On the up side—if there’s any up side—it might’ve spurred them to follow God better than usual. If you’re ever in ministry, you might notice how ministers tend to get complacent about following God. After all, following God is your job; it’s not something you always volunteer to do. And it should be. Being a priest might make you figure you’re automatically right with God just ’cause you serve him; being a suffering priest would make you realize you still need God’s help. This is why a lot of ministers recognize there’s value in suffering. 2Co 12.9

Gabriel instructed Zechariah to name his boy John. Back then, Roman custom was to give your firstborn your own name. And while Zechariah wasn’t necessarily Roman, a lot of priests—especially the Sadducees—were heavily influenced by Roman customs, and tended to mimic them. Giving your firstborn your name came in handy: When the eldest inherited his father’s estate, someone with the very same name would pick up where the father left off. Marcus Cato would take over from his father, Marcus Cato. And as you’ll notice later, that’s precisely what Zechariah’s family expected would happen. Lk 1.59 But Gabriel said he’d be named John. In Hebrew that’s Yokhánan/“God is gracious.” John was an expression of God’s grace.

John was forbidden wine or liquor. It meant he’d likely live under the Nazirite oath Nu 6.1-21 —no grapes, no haircuts nor shaving, no touching anyone dead. This indicated a life particularly dedicated to God. Other folks might take that oath temporarily; for John it’d be lifelong. (And the no-liquor rule was probably necessary: Now nobody could accuse you of worshiping under the influence.)

And John’d be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. In the Old Testament, the only folks who were filled with the Holy Spirit were prophets. In the New Testament, every Christian receives the Holy Spirit—’cause every Christian is called to prophesy. John represents the beginning of that era. Gabriel quoted Malachi:

Malachi 4.5-6 KWL
5 “Look: I send the prophet Elijah to you
when the great, fearful LORD’s Day comes.
6 He’ll restore the parents’ hearts to their children,
and the children’s hearts to their parents,
—or I’ll come and smite the land with my Ban.”

Though John didn’t consider himself this “Elijah,” Jn 1.21 Jesus certainly did. Mt 11.14

Some Pharisees believed this “second coming of Elijah” would “push out by force those who were brought near, and to bring near those who were pushed out by force.” Mishnah, Eduyyot 8.7c This was their way of teaching “Elijah” would drive out the Romans, and bring the scattered Jews back to Israel. But others taught, “Not push out, nor bring near, but make peace in the world,” Eduyyot 8.7i repeating this idea from Malachi 4: “Elijah” would prepare people for the LORD’s Day—or as we nowadays call it, the End Times—which was triggered by Messiah coming.

In the first century, the Pharisees didn’t realize Messiah would have both a first and second coming. So they mixed ’em up a lot. They thought when Messiah came, the End came. Likely Zechariah believed John was gonna bring the End Times with him. But that’s not what Gabriel said. John would be “great before the Lord,” triggering a great national revival, getting people to turn back to God, and “get the people ready for the Lord”—literally, “prepare for the Lord a people who have been prepared.” But not prepare them for the End, but for the Lord. For Jesus.

Want proof? Okay, you’re mute.

Luke 1.18-20 KWL
18 Zechariah told the angel, “How will I know this’ll happen? I’m old. My wife is elderly.”
19 In reply the angel told him, “I’m Gabriel, who has stood before God.
I was sent to speak to you, and proclaim this good news to you.
20 Look: You will be silenced, unable to speak until the day this child is born,
because you didn’t believe my words, which will be fulfilled in its time.”

Zechariah’s response to this annunciation was he wanted proof. So did Mary, when Gabriel later appeared to her. Lk 1.34 But Gabriel’s response to their requests for proof were very different. For Mary, it was her pregnant relative Elizabeth. For Zechariah, it was getting struck mute.

A lot of Christians assume, and teach, that muteness was a punishment for Zechariah’s doubt. In part that’s true. But compare it with Mary’s response. Zechariah wanted to know how it was possible, seeing as he and his wife were old; Mary wanted to know how it was possible, seeing as she hadn’t been with a man. Both reasonable questions. Both reasonable doubts, if we wanna go there. Zechariah correctly asked for confirmation, as any good prophet should. After all, what proof was there that this was really the Gabriel, from the bible? Might be a devil pretending to be Gabriel. You might remember Muhammad claimed Gabriel appeared to him too.

But it part it wasn’t punishment. It was a sign of confirmation. One not only Zechariah could see, but everyone could see. ’Cause once he was done with offering incense, he was supposed to go back outside the shrine and lead prayer… and now he couldn’t.

Luke 1.21-23 KWL
21 Meanwhile the people, waiting for Zechariah, wondered about his delay in the shrine.
22 Upon coming out, he was unable to speak to them.
They knew he’d seen a vision in the shrine.
He gestured at them, but remained mute.
23 Once his service time was over, he went home.

This immediately became a sign to the people outside: Something significant had happened to Zechariah in the shrine. Yeah, he could’ve had a stroke. But he might also have seen an angel, and that’s the conclusion they quickly jumped to. Because, contrary to the cessationists, they knew God still spoke in visions.

Being mute disqualified Zechariah from serving at the altar: Priests were required to be physically perfect. So Zechariah, unable to do much for the rest of his week, went home once his time was up, and soon after, Elizabeth was pregnant.

Luke 1.24-25 KWL
24 After this happened, his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she stayed at home five months, saying this: 25 “The Lord did this:
He decided to take away my public disgrace.”

Some Christians teach Zechariah’s muteness, and Elizabeth’s seclusion (Greek peri-krýbo/“hide entirely”), meant they were trying to keep John secret. Seems unlikely. If Elizabeth were in hiding, she wouldn’t have rejoiced about the end of her public disgrace. The reason I translated peri-krýbo as “stayed at home” was ’cause I suspect Elizabeth was taking no chances with her out-of-the-ordinary pregnancy. Sterility could mean she had no children, but it could just as well mean she lost all her children, to miscarriage. So she was gonna do her part to make sure Gabriel’s prophecy came true. And she fulfilled part of it early: She rejoiced over what was going to happen.

So, that’s the backstory of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Next, Mary.