The Gospel of Luke does not let us celebrate Jesus' birth without celebrating John the Baptist's birth. This morning we started a two-part sermon on the comparison of the births of John and Jesus. Here are the background notes for Part 1. You can also download and print a copy here.
Key Background Information about the Gospel of Luke:
Ancient sources external to the Bible unanimously attest to Luke’s authorship of the Gospel of Luke.
Luke wrote his Gospel and the Book of Acts for the church sometime between 67-90 AD, and it was sponsored by a person named Theophilus.
Theophilus may or may not have been his real name. The name means “friend of God.” Luke may have used that name to protect the person’s identity from outsiders.
This friend was a social elite, thus Luke describes him as “most excellent Theophilus.”
Luke’s mention of Theophilus was the common way of acknowledging a benefactor who sponsored the writing.
Theophilus had the finances to pay for the two-volume production of Luke and Acts. This could have cost roughly the equivalent of $20,000 to produce.1
Luke Celebrated Two Births at Christmas
The Gospel of Luke does not let us view the birth of Jesus apart from the birth of John the Baptist. John’s family and Jesus’ family are held up along side each other like adjacent pages in a photo album. On the left page, we find John the Baptist’s family, and on the right is Jesus’ family. Below are larger parallels. They are simply parallels and not in the order that we see them in the text.
Once in a Lifetime (Luke 1:5-17) Zechariah was chosen by lot to serve that day in the Temple to offer the afternoon incense during the Tamid service. The way the priestly system worked, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Further, he was chosen by lot, which was not a process of chance and probability. Casting lots was a spiritual practice that was used to reveal the will of God (or the gods). Notice its use in Leviticus 16:8, Joshua 18:6-10, Jonah 1:7, Acts 1:21-26, and many more examples. These are examples where God made His will known as it pertained to which person or tribe He chose for a task. When the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garment (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke23:34; John 19:24 - prophesied in Psalm 22:18), they were using a spiritual practice for a petty purpose, and they were calling upon false gods. The casting of lots among the priests determined which priest God chose each day for each duty in His temple. Zechariah was chosen by God to be in the Temple on that day.
While Zechariah was carrying out this task, there was a multitude of people outside praying (Luke 1:8-10). Incense represented prayer (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4). Zechariah would have two assistants with him at first. One assistant carried the pan of embers from the altar to the incense altar. (For a description of the incense altar, see Exodus 30:1-10.) After placing the pan, he would prostrate himself in prayer and then leave. The other assistant lit the lamps, then prostrated himself in prayer and left. Zechariah was to offer the incense (a mixture of spices specified in Exodus 30:34-38). After he offered it, he prostrated himself in prayer. (This process is recorded with some detail in the Mishnah - Tamid, an ancient Jewish writing reflecting the practices of the time.)
The angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the incense altar, and the right side is the side of honor and favor. This is a favorable visit, letting Zechariah know that his prayer (previous prayer for a son, or prayer for the Messiah to come, or both) has been answered with “yes.”
Parallels of Two Miraculous Births
Temple v. Galilee / Man v. Woman
The birth announcement follows the pattern of birth announcements in the Old Testament (Genesis 16:7-13; 17:1-21; 18:1-15). The locations of these announcements would take the original audience off guard. They would have expected that the birth announcement of the Messiah would take place in the Temple, a sacred and honorable place. Instead, the announcement of Jesus’ birth takes place “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Galilee. Galilee was not viewed with high regard among the elite of Jewish society. Galilee is removed from the seat of national power, and Mary had a lower social status and honor rating than a Law-abiding priest in Judea.
This is a clear indicator that God’s presence will no longer be limited to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah was a man of village status (1:39) like Mary, but his status as a priest from a solid priestly family line gave him a higher status than her. However, Zechariah and his wife bore a dishonor and inconsistency in their lives. They were righteous and blameless in the Law, yet they had no child. Elizabeth’s barrenness was known and a social disgrace in their culture (1:36). This would have been seen as a tragedy and dishonor for them. Of all the priests God could choose, the culture would wonder, “Why him?” He was childless and not even among the elite priests in Jerusalem. They were so old that having a child was likely impossible, but even if they did, it was dangerous for Elizabeth.
Yet, nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37). God’s choice is always the best choice, and He is not subject to human preferences or limitations.
Holiness of God’s Angel - Fear and Reassurance
Regardless of their social status or gender, both Zechariah and Mary are afraid in the numinous presence of God’s angel.
God’s holiness has a way of putting all people on the same level.
Gabriel reassured both Zechariah and Mary with the same words, “Do not be afraid.” In Zechariah’s case, his fear should be abated because God heard his prayer, and he will have a son (1:13). In Mary’s case, her fear should be abated as she has found favor with God and will have a son (1:28, 30). (For more information on Gabriel, see Daniel 8:15-17, 9:20-23. Notably, Gabriel came to Daniel during prayer at the time of the evening sacrifice like he did for Zechariah.)
Gabriel simply refers to Zechariah by name. He does not mention Zechariah’s position or status. In contrast, Gabriel mentions Mary’s name and gives her a title of “favored one.” This grammar of this Greek participle indicates that grace was placed upon her and not something she achieved for herself.
Grace by definition must come as a gift from God, not by works, so that no one can boast. In a real way, Gabriel is elevating Mary’s status above Zechariah’s status.
The Divine Message
The basic divine message to both Zechariah and Mary was:
1) that they would have a son;
2) the name they will give their son (1:13 and 1:31);
3) their son has a specific purpose (1:14-17 and 1:32-33).
Giving the son a name was the right of the father. Eight days after birth, the son would be circumcised and the father would name him. This was officially known as “adoption.” All biological children in Jewish culture were “adopted” when they were named. Slaves could also be adopted into the family. Notice how Paul references both of these norms as metaphors for what it means to be a believer (Romans 8:12-17 - slave adoption; Romans 8:22-23 - birth adoption). God takes over the right of naming, declaring that John and Jesus are His sons and under His authority. They are set apart to His purposes.
Yet, every believer is a child of God and under His authority. Every believer is set apart to God’s purpose. We are to no longer be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 2:10). We are to labor obediently and effectively to live out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is the holy, almighty God of the universe who is working in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
Due to his special purpose, John will abstain from alcoholic drink (1:15). This may remind us of the Nazirite vows (see Num 6:2-5; Judg 13:4-5; 1 Sam 1:11), but the other requirements, such as not cutting his hair, is not required of John. Noticeably, Jesus is not required to abstain from wine. Jesus himself will mention this in response to His critics, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet, wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35; see also Matthew 11:18-19).
Instead, John will be filled with the Holy Spirit while he is still in the womb. We are reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 where we are called to be “imitators of God, as beloved children,” and to “understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” (Eph 5:1, 18). John was set apart from before birth and adopted by God before birth for a specific mission.
John’s ministry will turn the “children of Israel” (i.e. descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to the Lord their God. His ministry is described as:
He will turn many to the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
He will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah
to turn the hearts of fathers to the children
[and to turn] the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous
and make ready for the Lord a prepared people.
Jesus did not introduce a “new” religion. The coming of Jesus does not separate the Israelites who believe in Him from their history, but in fact, fulfills their history. Ultimately, John’s ministry is to make ready a prepared people for the Lord.
This Greek term for a “prepared people” indicates people who are not simply ready for the Lord to show up, but are ready to become what the Lord wants them to be and to do what He wants them to do.3 Are we a “prepared people?”
Jesus’ mission is eternal and messianic in contrast to John’s whose is preparatory and temporary. John is the one to turn many in Israel to God, which is to say to turn and trust in Jesus. Jesus is the King from the line of David, and His reign will never end. John’s ministry will be empowered by the Spirit to be prophetic, yet Jesus will demonstrate the Spirit’s power in speech and miracles.
Doubt v. Trust
Both Zechariah and Mary questioned Gabriel’s announcement, but Zechariah exhibited doubt while Mary exhibited trust. Luke’s choice of Greek words highlight this, but some English translations obscure this by phrasing both questions with “How…?” Zechariah literally asked, “According to what will I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18). Zechariah is looking for a sign of confirmation. The angel of the Lord showing up at prayer time in the Temple apparently was not sign enough! Mary, by contrast, asked, “How will this happen, since I am a virgin?” In other words, in what manner will this occur? Mary was not doubting. If anything, she is asking what she needs to do. Mary was not yet married, and as a woman, marriage was not something she had the authority to arrange in her culture. She is asking Gabriel what the next step is.
The gravity of Zechariah’s doubt comes into full view. He has been praying for a child. While performing a once-in-a-lifetime duty in the Temple, God’s angel appears and says, “Your prayer has been answered!” Yet, Zechariah wants more proof! Prayer is not simply another task on the spiritual to-do list. Prayer is a time of surrendering to our Creator’s presence. Prayer prepares us for what the Lord wants us to be and to do. When prayer is conducted in trusting faithfulness, we are not taken off guard when those prayers are answered. Instead, we celebrate like Anna and Simeon will do in this story (Luke 2:25-38).
Zechariah has just challenged the honor of the angel of the Lord! His question was no different than when the Pharisees repeatedly asked Jesus for a sign. Culturally, Zechariah’s question was a challenge to the angel’s honor and status, and by extension, God’s honor and status. The angel reveals his name at this point to Zechariah, “I am Gabriel.” (His name means “man of God.”) The same angel who came to Daniel at the time of evening prayer (Daniel 8:15-17, 9:20-23). There, Gabriel spoke to Daniel about the appointed time of the end (Dan 8:18). Here, Gabriel will tell Zechariah that the appointed time has come (Luke 1:20). Gabriel also answers Zechariah’s honor challenge with, “I stand in the presence of God.” In other words, who does Zechariah think he is to question and challenge Gabriel? Gabriel says, “I was sent to speak to you and 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” (Luke 1:19-20).
Zechariah loses his ability to speak until John is born. The ability to speak was important to a man’s honor in their culture, and eloquence in speech was seen as honor boosting for men (see how Paul refers to this in 1 Cor 2:1-5). Zechariah will not be able to defend his honor verbally for nine months. The confirming signs for Zechariah was his loss of speech and his pregnant wife.
In contrast, Mary’s question was one of humble obedience, seeking what she needed to do. Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. There is nothing sexual in these terms, as neither Greek expression is ever used in that way. Instead, these words connote the miraculous presence and activity of God. They also mean that Mary’s son will be different than anyone else ever born. While the Holy Spirit may fill John the Baptist, even in the womb, Mary’s son will be a result of both the Holy Spirit pouring out on her and the power of God overshadowing her (i.e. God’s power, not Mary, is prominent). The answer to Mary’s question was that there was nothing she needed to do to become pregnant. Her job was simply to be obedient and carry the pregnancy to term. Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, was her relative. Elizabeth’s pregnancy would serve as a sign for her. Mary did not ask for a sign, yet God was giving her one. So, Mary would go see Elizabeth.
The conception of Jesus points to some nonnegotiable doctrines of the faith. Jesus is God in the flesh. No other person in history has ever be described in the terms Gabriel described Jesus.
Jesus is NOT a demigod like Hercules.
Jesus is fully God and fully human. He is NOT a mixture.
He fully assumed human nature. If He did not assume it, He did not save it.
Being born of the Holy Spirit instead of Joseph means He did not inherit a sinful human nature, but a pure human nature.
He was born with the freedom to avoid sin, but He had to willfully choose not to sin. He could be tempted like any other human.
Being the God-man, He has two natures: divine and human
With each nature, He has two wills: divine and human.
His human will always submitted to His divine will, thus He never sinned.
If He sinned, then He was incapable of saving anyone else, because He would have died for His own transgressions.
Humanity owes a debt to God for our sins.
The debt is infinite because we have dishonored an infinite God.
Humans are finite and incapable of paying an infinite debt.
Therefore, Jesus, being fully God and infinite was capable of paying our debt, and being fully human, He was in the proper position to pay the debt. By not ever sinning, His death was not on His own behalf, but on our behalf.
John prepared the way. Jesus provided the way. The only question is if we are willing to respond to the way.
1. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 199. Malina notes the cost for producing a document the size of the Gospel of Matthew as costing roughly the equivalent of $10,000 or more.
2. For good discussions on Luke’s reliability see: John H. Rhodes, “Josephus Misdated The Census of Quinirius,” JETS 54.1 (March 2011) 65-87 and John Lawrence, “Publius Sulpicius Quinirius and the Syrian Census,” Restoration Quarterly 34 (1992) 193-205.
3. David E. Garland, Luke in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament vol. 3, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 68.