The birth of John the baptist.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 November 2015

John’s birth both fulfilled and inspired prophecy.

Luke 1.57-80

When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and announced he’d have a son, the confirmation of its prophecy was Zechariah would be mute áhri is iméras géniti távta/“until the day this one is born.” Lk 1.19

Problem is, if you’re a biblical literalist—you insist the bible be interpreted as literally as possible—it’s not literally what happened. Zechariah was mute for more than a week after John’s birth, and didn’t speak till his circumcision. Doesn’t matter what logical gymnastics you use to prove Gabriel didn’t really mean John’s birthday, or that “the day this one is born” can be fudged to mean a week or so (an exactitude such people won’t apply to the six days of creation). Gabriel’s prophecy was fulfilled, but not with the precision any literalist demands. As is true of every prophecy—and all of scripture.

But let’s not poke that bear any further. On to the bible!

Luke 1.57-61 KWL
57 Time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she had a son.
58 Her neighbors and relatives heard God had shown her great mercy, and rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day it happened that the family came to circumcise the baby.
They were calling him by Zechariah, his father’s name.
60 In reply his mother said, “No; he’ll be called John.”
61 They told her, “None of your relatives are called by that name.”

First-century circumcision.

God mandated circumcision, ritually cutting the foreskin off the penis, for every male who was in a covenant, a formal relationship, with him. If you weren’t circumcised, you had no such relationship. Ge 17.14 For women, who’ve no foreskin to remove, it’s a non-issue. (The barbaric practice mislabeled “female circumcision,” cutting off the clitoris, isn’t circumcision at all.)

Circumcision is considered such an important part of Jewish identity, Pharisee Christians even tried to make it a mandatory part of Christian identity as well: If you’re not circumcised, you’re not in the kingdom, grace or no grace. Ac 15.1 The subsequent Council of Jerusalem Ac 15.1-31 ruled God’s grace trumps circumcision—we have a relationship with him regardless. Ga 5.6 Paul added that if we think we have to be circumcised, or obey any other command lest our Christianity no longer count, we’re trusting our good deeds to save us, and not Jesus. Ga 5.2-4

As a result most Christians are never circumcised. The United States is an exception: American boys are routinely circumcised for reasons of health, hygiene, or custom. (Usually the custom is if the dad is circumcised, the boy gets circumcised too; if not then not. Fathers want their sons to have matching penises. I’m not gonna touch the psychology behind that.) Since it’s not mandatory for Christians, we don’t do it out of religious obligation. Jews and Muslims will.

Jews today practice circumcision differently. In the first century it was performed by the father. If the father wasn’t up to it (and understandably, some of ’em weren’t) another male family member would step in, usually someone who’d done it before. It was performed eight days after birth, even if it was Sabbath. Jn 7.22-23 You could delay it up to 12 days after birth for various reasons—the baby was sick, or born at twilight (and since days began at twilight, it might not be 100 percent certain which day he was born on, so to be on the safe side they’d circumcise on the ninth day), or born on Sabbath, or Rosh Hashanah took priority.

Custom was to baptize the baby—ritually wash the baby by fully immersing him, clothes and all, in running water. Then they’d give him a little wine, which was pretty much the only anesthetic they had. For John, wine wasn’t an option, Lk 1.15 so he had to feel everything. Well, sometimes life is pain.

There’d be a prayer, dedicating the baby to God. The father would proclaim the baby’s name, often for the very first time. Then the father would slice off the tiny foreskin with an extremely sharp iron knife. The wound was cleaned by sucking the blood out with his lips. The baby would be baptized again, and a poultice (usually made with wine, oil, and cumin) would be wrapped around the penis. The baby would be sprinkled with water. Then everyone would have a nice dinner. (Well, as nice as a screaming baby will allow.)

Zechariah, being mute, was unable to do a lot of this. Couldn’t do the prayer. Couldn’t declare the baby’s name. So it seems he handed the circumcision off to another relative, who proclaimed the baby’s name Zechariah.

Jews today consider it bad luck to name children after living relatives. But custom in the Roman Empire was to give the eldest son his father’s name. It came in handy when the son inherited his father’s estate,: If the father was Marcus Junius Titus, and the son was also Marcus Junius Titus, you didn’t have to change any names on anything official. The officiant at John’s circumcision just assumed they’d do the same with John. When Elizabeth objected ’cause John was the name they were going with, the family pointed out it’s not a family name: You’re overcomplicating his inheritance.

Naming the baby.

Luke 1.62-66 KWL
62 They signed to his father, “What might you want to call him?”
63 Asking for a wax tablet, he wrote, “John is his name.” Everyone wondered.
64 On the spot, Zechariah’s mouth and tongue were opened,
and he spoke blessings to God.
65 It caused fear in everyone who lived near them,
and throughout the Judean highlands everyone discussed this event.
66 It gripped the imagination of all who heard of it, who said, “What sort of child is this?”
For the Lord’s hand was in it.

In that culture, Elizabeth’s objection didn’t count; the father named the children, not the mother. So the family turned to Zechariah.

They knew he was mute. Maybe deaf too; we don’t really know. His family must’ve thought he was deaf—it’s part of a package, right?—which is why they signed at him. He requested a pinakidion/“little plate,” a small wooden tablet on which wax was melted for you to scratch notes into. Onto this, Zechariah wrote, “John is his name”—and suddenly talked. The man who was struck dumb in temple nine months ago, was talking again.

Luke wrote, “He spoke blessings to God.” Lk 1.64 Perhaps this means he took over the circumcision service from there—offering the prayer himself, even circumcising John.

So news of an old woman giving birth, of a mute becoming able to speak, of Zechariah’s subsequent prophecy—this spread all over the highlands, as people began to wonder what on earth this all meant. The conclusion they came to was “the Lord’s hand was in it,” a bit usually translated “the Lord’s hand was on him,” meaning John. It could mean either. Either way, God was up to something.

Zechariah’s prophecy.

While it’s more dramatic to imagine Zechariah spontaneously said this prophecy the instant his mouth opened, it’s far more likely he wrote it down and shared it with lots of people, in order to thank God and bless John. Betcha John kept a copy of it too.

Luke 1.67-75 KWL
67 John’s father Zechariah was Holy Spirit-filled.
He prophesied, saying, 68 “Praise the Lord God of Israel:
He looked over, and made restitution, for his people.
69 He raised up a saving horn for us in his child David’s house,
70 just as he spoke through the mouths of holy people,
back during the time of his prophets:
71 Rescue from our enemies, from the hand of everyone who detests us.
72 Mercy for our fathers, remembering his holy relationship—
73 an oath he swore to give our father Abraham,
74 to us who were rescued from enemy hands to worship him fearlessly,
75 in holiness and morality before him for all our days.”

Zechariah said God made restitution, aorist tense, rather than will restore, future tense. This isn’t one of those prophetic changes of perspective, where prophets talk about the future as if they’re already in the future, seeing it happen before their eyes, and forget where (or when) they are. Nor is it one of those prophetic statements of certainty, where one of God’s promises is so certain, it’s as good as happened already, so you may as well describe it in past tense. (Aorist isn’t past tense anyway.) Nope; Zechariah was stating God had already saved his people. ’Cause God had.

Salvation history doesn’t begin with Jesus. Or even the birth of his forerunner, John. It began the instant God decided to save us, and set his plan into motion. He didn’t just freak out when the first humans sinned, then sit on his hands waiting for just the right time to shrink himself down to an embryo and enter human history. And in the meanwhile, muck around with Moses and the Hebrews, giving them the Law till he could invent a better system. He was implementing the better system:

  1. The relationship with Abraham, whose trust in the LORD made him righteous.
  2. The exodus, where the LORD followed through with his promises to Abraham and Jacob and saved their descendants.
  3. The Law, where the LORD told his newly-saved people how he expected them to live.
  4. The prophets, whom the LORD inspired to point back to his expectations.
  5. Jesus, who saves not just Israel from Egypt, but the world from sin and death—and who clarifies everything which has been taught before.

Many Christians still read Genesis so we can see how sin ruined the world, then skip forward to Matthew and see how Jesus saved it. Some of us poke around the Old Testament ’cause it’s got interesting stories, nice poems, Messianic prophecies, and bits we can pull out of context and claim they’re biblical principles or End Times predictions. But the Old Testament is salvation history. God saved Israel from Egypt. Then for the next 15 centuries, he encouraged his saved people to follow him… or reject him and their salvation.

Messiah, whom we call Christ, was this “saving horn”—a Hebrew metaphor for fighting power, ’cause animals tend to fight or threaten with their horns. David’s “house,” his descendants, one in particular, would rescue Israel from its enemies. Most first-century Jews assumed this’d be the Romans and Greeks, but God always meant Israel’s true enemies, sin and death. It was never the foreigners who oppressed and conquered Israel; it was Israel’s tendency to follow their own desires (and follow the pagan gods which indulged their desires) rather than the LORD. The Romans were just a symptom. Sin was the disease.

All those Old Testament commands which Christians skip over, or assume aren’t valid? They describe God’s kingdom—the system Jesus intends to rule the world by. Not through legalism, where it’s forced upon us under pain of death. But by love, where we obey because we want to, because it’s natural to, because it reflects the Spirit’s fruit. The Law was only step 3, but Jesus completed the steps.

John’s mission.

Now for John. Zechariah spelled out what God expected him to do: Prepare God’s people to meet their Master. That’s it; God’d do the rest.

Luke 1.76-79 KWL
76 “And you, child, will be called the Most High’s prophet.
For you’ll precede the Master, preparing his path,
77 giving his people knowledge of salvation, the pardon of their sins.
78 Our God, through his merciful feelings,
will break out on us like the sunrise 79 appearing to the darkness,
and to those of us sitting in death’s shadow, redirecting us on peace’s path.”

Zechariah’s prophecy ended with some imagery we also find in Isaiah:

Isaiah 9.2 KWL
Those people walking in darkness see a great light.
Those living in a land of deep darkness: A bright light is over you.

Isaiah’s message was actually directed towards the Galilee: Towards the pagans who lived there in his era. Did Zechariah have those pagans in mind when he said this?—did he realize God wasn’t just gonna save Israel, but extend his kingdom to gentiles and save the world? Dunno. Maybe. Prophets don’t always realize just how big their own prophecies are. We get tunnel vision; we assume God’s messages to us only apply to our people in our day. After all, they usually do. But sometimes they’re much bigger than that, ’cause God has much grander ideas in mind.

For God’s merciful feelings—his grace—were gonna break out on the world. Thus far they’d largely been revealed to only Israel. But God sent his son to save the world, Jn 3.17 and let everyone know his grace extends to all. John was the beginning of this message, which he’d preach to Jews and Romans alike. Lk 3.10-14 Being a descendant of Abraham didn’t matter, and never did; God could make such people out of rocks. Lk 3.8 What God wants are repentant people of every race, and for all flesh to see his salvation. Lk 3.6 And that was John’s job.

John’s entire childhood, in one verse.

Luke 1.80 KWL
The child was growing, becoming spiritually strong.
He stayed away from civilization till the day of his revealing to Israel.

John lived apart from civilization, en erímis/“in the wilderness,” or the undeveloped countryside. In southern Israel this tended to be desert. The “day of his revealing to Israel” came once he was an adult, when he began to proclaim the kingdom had arrived. Although you notice he still tended to stay away from civilization.

For some reason Christians assume John began his ministry round the same time as Jesus: Our Lord was in his 30s, and since John was roughly six months older, he had a six-month head start or so. But we actually have no idea when John began to preach. Some speculate “his revealing to Israel” was when John achieved adulthood–which in the first century meant when he reached age 13. So he actually could’ve been prophesying about two decades before Jesus made the scene.

The gospels don’t say how long John worked, but they do say John was a big deal. Loads of people turned to God through his ministry. To some degree it was worldwide influence: The Ephesians were baptized John-style before Paul had ever met them. Ac 19.1-4 The Pharisees considered him competition, the Sadducees considered him nuts, and Antipas Herod considered him an annoyance to lock up and later behead. But Jesus considered him the second coming of Elijah, Mt 11.14 and the greatest prophet ever. Mt 11.11 It’s for this reason we need to give John more attention than Christians tend to do. He’s not just some guy whose minor baptismal ministry was quickly overshadowed by Jesus. He’s the Most High’s prophet, whose message still applies to us.