We explored John's birth and that we need to include this in our Christmas tradition. Here are the background notes for this message. You can also download them here.
John’s birth is sandwiched between Mary’s psalm and Zechariah’s prophecy (Lk 1:39-80). Mary’s psalm is often referred to as Mary’s Magnificat. Magnificat is Latin for “magnify,” from the first line of her psalm (Lk 1:46). Her psalm of praise is similar to ones seen in the Old Testament where people celebrate God’s mighty deeds (e.g., Moses, Exod 15:1-18; Miriam, Exod 15:19-21; Deborah, Judg 5:1-31; Hannah, 1 Sam 2:1-10; etc.).
Zechariah’s Response vs. Mary’s Response
After receiving the divine message from Gabriel (Luke 1:23-25, 39-56):
Elizabeth hides herself for five months after becoming pregnant (Lk 1:24-25, see more below).
Gabriel speaks to Mary in the sixth month, and Mary travels to see Elizabeth (Lk 1:26, 39-40).
Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months (Lk 1:56).
Mary likely witnessed the birth of John (Lk 1:57-58).
Mary returns to Nazareth three to four months pregnant.
Honor and Shame
Understanding honor and shame is important to understanding the culture of the Bible. While Zechariah and Elizabeth had a certain level of honor being from a priestly family, they really had a higher degree of shame since they were childless. Israelites were under the covenant God made with Abraham in which Abraham’s descendants would be numbered like the stars. Couples who could not produce offspring were not participating in that part of the covenant. Their peers would likely have assumed there was some hidden sin in their lives preventing them from having children. They were being reproached publicly, as indicated in Luke 1:25.
Zechariah’s honor has been diminished further by his inability to speak (Lk 1:18-23). As a man, speech was one way to defend his honor. He lost his speech because he dishonored Gabriel during the birth announcement (see notes in Part 1). His social standing was going down.
Elizabeth hid herself for the first five months of her pregnancy (Lk 1:24-25). The Greek word means to “conceal all around.” This likely means she did everything possible to conceal the pregnancy. She would stay in more than usual, conceal with clothing, and not reveal to anyone her pregnancy. There is no known custom for doing this in the ancient world. This would have been challenging in village life as they all lived in close proximity. Her motive is not given directly. However, with Zechariah being unable to speak, perhaps she did not want to diminish him further, since it was likely that the father should be the one to announce their pregnancy to the village. He was unable to do so, so she hides the pregnancy until it is impossible to conceal any longer.
Mary’s honor is high from God’s perspective (“o favored one…” Lk 1:28), but her honor is in jeopardy from her culture’s perspective. She will be a mother out of wedlock. This will bring dishonor on her, on her family, on Joseph, on Joseph’s family, and on her village. Mary will face ostracism and loss of her identity.
Joseph’s response is not recorded in Luke. Perhaps Luke’s readers knew already that Joseph was told in a dream to not be afraid to marry her (Mt 1:18-25). Joseph willingly accepted shame to marry Mary and adopt Jesus as his son.
John’s parents and Jesus’ parents had to deny themselves to be obedient to God’s plan. Jesus would ultimately deny Himself and take upon Himself the dishonor of our sins. Death on a cross in the first-century was the most shameful, mocking way to die. Jesus embraced our shame to set us free.
Why Was John So Important?
Obviously, God could have brought about Jesus’ birth without John’s birth. Why is John so important? The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be born, and that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:16-17). Luke was quoting a portion of Malachi’s last words (Malachi 4:5-6).
In that oracle, Malachi quotes God, declaring that the Day of the Lord is coming. Before that day comes, God will send Elijah the prophet. Elijah had already “died” (bodily taken to heaven - 2 Kings 2:9-12) and was already in heaven at the time of Malachi’s writing. John the Baptist is a fulfillment of God’s promise to send Elijah. Jesus confirmed that John operated as Elijah, but leaves room for Elijah to return later in history (Matthew 11:11-15; 17:10-13). John was NOT Elijah reincarnated, especially since Elijah doesn’t need to be reincarnated; he still has his body in heaven! This is why John said he was not Elijah when asked (John 1:19-28). John meant that he was not the original, historical Elijah. Yet, he was Elijah in the fact that he operated in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:16-17).
John set the stage for Jesus. John’s birth points to God’s faithfulness to do what He promises. Further, John is the herald that goes before the king, “the voice calling in the wilderness,” preparing the way, making the path straight for the King’s arrival (Lk 3:4-6). John’s identity speaks to Jesus’ identity, and vice versa.
Mary & Elizabeth - Luke 1:39-45
Mary went to Elizabeth after Gabriel’s visit. Mary’s choice to travel to Judea was an act of faith. Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth’s advanced maternal age pregnancy would be a sign to her. Thus, Mary travels to see this sign. Upon entering Zechariah’s house, Mary greets the family and Elizabeth felt John “leap” in her womb. Elizabeth interpreted the baby’s movement as “joy” (1:44). This same verb for “leap” will be used one other place outside of this passage (Luke 6:23) in relation to the beatitudes.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”
– Luke 6:22-23 ESV
John’s life will certainly be one in which he will experience exclusion, reviling, spurning, and accusations on account of the ministry to which God called him. John leapt for joy in the womb and the Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth who then declares a beatitude of her own:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42)
Later in Luke’s Gospel, a woman in a crowd will cry out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which you nursed!” Jesus corrected that woman, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28). Mary is not blessed simply because she had Jesus. Rather she is blessed (i.e. raised in honor status) because she believed and obeyed God. Elizabeth gives a second beatitude that confirms this truth, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
But how did Elizabeth know that Mary was pregnant? The presumption is that Elizabeth has divine insight now that the Holy Spirit has filled her. This divine insight also helps her rejoice over Mary and her baby instead of compete for her own son’s position and advancement. She refers to the fetal Jesus as her Lord (1:43).
What impact would this have on Mary? This would further confirm that what Gabriel said to her was true. At this point, Mary was in the first couple of weeks of her pregnancy. There likely would have been few physical signs to confirm her pregnancy at this point. Perhaps headaches, cramping, or mood swings, but certainly Elizabeth’s inspired response was confirming to Mary. Mary reacts by immediately goes into a prophetic utterance herself.
John’s Birth Framed with Prophetic Utterance
Mary’s Magnificat (from the Latin word for “magnify” in the first sentence) was a psalm of praise that was Spirit filled even though Luke does state that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had already come upon her in a unique way prior to her journey to Judea.
Mary’s psalm celebrates God and His work in her life and in the world, not only in that moment, but for all time. The psalm celebrates how God takes a lowly person and transforms their life and identity.
Mary Describes God’s Work in Her (Luke 1:46-49a)
Mary’s soul (i.e. her life) magnifies God, not herself, and rejoices in Him as her Lord and Savior. (She is not a savior!) - Lk 1:46
God’s work, not hers, in her life has elevated her status (“humble estate” refers to her social status). - Luke 1:47 Mary refers to herself as God’s slave / servant (Lk 1:48).
God’s work in her life will have impact on all generations to come. (Lk 1:48)
He is mighty and He did great things for her. She has not done great things for Him (Lk 1:49a).
Mary Describes God’s Work in Israel (Luke 1:49a-55)
His name (i.e. character and attributes), not hers, is holy. God is set apart from all other things and people. (Lk 1:49b)
His mercy is for those who fear Him (e.g. revere) and this truth will not change for all time (Lk 1:50)
(Why should anyone who rejects God expect His mercy?)
(Mary looks forward to the future (1:48), all time (1:50), and the past (1:51-53)).
God has shown strength in His arm (arm = OT military reference of deliverance) - Lk 1:51a
He scatters the proud, whose thoughts are haughty (Lk 1:51b).
He brought down the mighty from their thrones (Lk 1:52a)
He exalts the humble (Lk 1:52b)
He fills the hungry with good things (Lk 1:53a)
He sends the rich away empty (Lk 1:53b)
God has kept His promises to Abraham and to Israel (1:54-55).
The verb “brought down” ("He brought down the mighty from their thrones") is used in Luke 23:53 when Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus down from the cross.
Mary referred to God as mighty, which means He is in no need of salvation or others. When humans are “mighty,” they are trying to be self-sufficient and not recognize their need of God. “The contrast between the mighty being taken down from their thrones is striking. Jesus is taken down as ‘King of the Jews’ from a throne of degradation [i.e. the cross] only to be exalted to an eternal throne because of his obedience.”1 Ultimately, Mary’s psalm celebrates God’s mercy and fulfillment of His promises to Israel.
John’s Birth Narrative (Luke 1:57-66)
The story tells us that Elizabeth’s time to give birth came, and Luke used the typical language, “and she bore a son.” This seems redundant to the reader since we already know that she was having a son, yet it emphasizes the fulfillment of Gabriel’s words to Zechariah. Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives are present and rejoicing with her, and likely this included Mary who stayed with Elizabeth for three months (month 6 - month 9 of the pregnancy). It seems doubtful that Mary would leave just before Elizabeth gave birth.
So, Zechariah was struck mute for his challenge of Gabriel’s honor and word. Gabriel said he would regain his voice when all that Gabriel said came to pass. Thus, when Elizabeth conceived in her old age, Zechariah still had no voice. In the fifth and sixth month, when it became public that Elizabeth was pregnant, Zechariah still had no voice. John is born, yet Zechariah still could not speak. Eight days after John’s birth he was to be circumcised and named. Contrary to the assumptions of her family and neighbors (Lk 1:59-60), Elizabeth clearly states he is to be named John. Still, Zechariah cannot speak. The onlookers asked Zechariah what the name was, and he confirmed Elizabeth’s words by writing John’s name on a tablet. The onlookers were amazed because this seemed to them that he was to submitting to his wife on the name of the child. Actually, Zechariah was submitting to God. Only once Zechariah submits, writing John’s name on a tablet, does he regain his speech. The first thing from Zechariah’s mouth was to bless God, recorded in the next portion of the text (1:67-79). This moment was readily recognized by the witnesses as being from God (1:66), and the event was spoken of throughout the region (1:65).
John is born and Zechariah blessed God. This prophetic utterance responds to the neighbors’ question, “What then will this child be?” Zechariah’s psalm is held up in parallel to Mary’s psalm of praise. Zechariah’s has two parts like Mary’s, but in reverse. Mary praised God for His work in her, then praised God for His work in Israel. Zechariah speaks of God’s work in Israel, then God’s work through John. In other words, the first section (Luke 1:68-75) is about Jesus. The second section (Luke 1:76-79) is about John. Zechariah stitches together phrases from Psalms 41, 111, 132, 105,106, and Micah 7. This “ability to create such a mosaic implied extensive, detailed knowledge of the tradition [Scripture] and brought great honor to the speaker able to pull it off."2
Zechariah Describes God and His Work (Luke 1:67-75)
Blessed be (i.e. honored and revered) be the Lord God of Israel
He (i.e. the Lord / Jesus) has visited
and redeemed His people.
and because ...
He raised a horn of salvation for Israel in the house of David, His servant
as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets of old,
salvation - from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
for the purpose of ...
to show the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember His holy covenant,
the oath that He swore to our father Abraham to give to us.
resulting in ...
that we, being delivered from the hand our our enemies, might serve Him
in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
Zechariah Describes John and His Work (Luke 1:76-79)
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High
why is John called this?
for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to His people in forgiveness of their sins
why is John doing this?
because of the tender mercy of God whereby the sunrise shall visit us from
for the purpose of ...
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John was part of God’s work in the redemptive plan. He was used by God to herald Jesus’ arrival, both as a baby and as an adult. John, even before birth, embraced the ministry God gave him, leaping for joy at the opportunity to serve God's redemptive plan. Have we even said "Yes" to God's plan in our own lives, much less leap for joy over it?
1. David E. Garland, Luke in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament vol. 3, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 96.
2. Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992) loc. 4916.