As I spent time in preparation for this study, I was encouraged by the Lord regarding the privilege of having and considering a sacred text. Christians are tremendously privileged to have access to the very Word of God. The world has no equivalent to this sacred text. While Christians spend time on Sunday mornings reflecting on God’s holy Word, unbelievers might be spending time in the Sunday newspaper. The world is full of cheap, angry and cynical words, opinions tinged with hopelessness and despair, and a multitude of throw-away opinions that fill the working week.
But thanks be to God for His Word—inspired, without error and sufficient for our eternal good!
Our text passage describes two days on either end of a week (along with some summary statements). The first is the day of birth of the second greatest person ever born (recall the words of Jesus regarding John in Matthew 11:11), and the second is the day of his circumcision ceremony (with all that this involved) a week later.
What can this little sliver of time, and these words of historical description, teach us?
The truth is, these verses give us food for thought in some areas that we will not take a whole lot of time to consider in this particular study.
For example, these verses give us pause to consider the myriad of cultural issues and pressures around the naming of a child. It seems fairly simple that parents ought to be the ones to name their children, but family pressure often plays into this. In our text, the family was unhappy that Zechariah and Elizabeth chose the name John because it was not a family name. They thought he ought to be named after his father, and it took some resolution on behalf of the parents for the newborn to be given the name John (vv. 57-63).
This is an experience that is frequently repeated in our own day. I know personally of such pressure. When my wife and I named our son Anton, we were virtually written out of the will. Anton is not a family name, and it was deemed inappropriate by many to give him a name that was not in some way connected with family heritage. We had to stand firm on the name that we chose.
There is sometimes even naming disagreements between the two parents—particularly, perhaps, if your wife (like mine) is a school teacher! Names can become associated with particular people, and so while a father may like a particular name, the mother may have strong feelings to the contrary, because of an association of that name with some person she knows.
Names in the Bible are significant. God sometimes specifically told parents what they were to call their children. At other times, God saw fit to change names. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. These name changes were not arbitrary, but symbolically significant for the ministries that the individuals would be called to fulfil.
A second preliminary consideration from this text might be the issue of playing gesturing games, such as the popular Charades. When my sister visited from the United States some years ago, she brought along three board games for the family here—one for each household. Since we were the first family that she visited after she landed, we had first choice of which game we wanted. We chose a game called Guesstures—a somewhat ramped up version of Charades—with which we were unfamiliar, but which has brought us great fun in the intervening years.
Zechariah spent nine months playing Charades. In fact, it appears from the fact that “they made signs to his father, enquiring what he wanted him to be called” (v. 62) that Isaiah was both mute and deaf during this time, so that the game of Charades was played by both parties in any conversation with Zechariah.
A third preliminary consideration might be a historical-redemptive reality. Having been struck dumb for nine months, Zechariah opened his mouth in praise in our text. After darkness, there was (as was said of the Reformation) light.
We rejoice in the blessing of the sunrise and the light of dawn following and replacing the oppressive darkness and danger of the night. The need for forgiveness is only seen when sin and judgement are identified for what they are!
But these, as I say, are preliminary considerations, in which we cannot spend significant time in this study.
Lesson 1: God’s Kindness in Childbirth
The first lesson to which I wish to draw your attention is in v. 57: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” Notice that Elizabeth’s pregnancy ended in a live and healthy birth. This must not be taken for granted! The Lord had shown great mercy to her.
We live in a day and age in which—at least in the West—childbirth is considered to be a relatively safe occurrence. Because of God’s kindness, medical progress has been made so that many complications that were common in other generations have become avoidable in our own. We are so accustomed to healthy births that we sometimes forget that this was not always the case—nor is it always the case in less developed parts of the world.
When Mary had first learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy she went to stay with her relative. Elizabeth was at that point six months pregnant (v. 36), and Mary stayed with her for another three months (v. 56). It appears that either shortly before or immediately after John’s birth, Mary returned home, herself now three months pregnant. We don’t know why she didn’t stay to help Elizabeth after the birth, though she probably had some preparation of her own to do back home.
Regardless, we should learn from this text to rejoice in the mercy of safe arrivals of babies. Our church knows something of the reality of this. I don’t think that there has been a time in the last ten years in the church in which someone has not been pregnant—and usually more than one at a time! It has been a tremendous joy, several times a year, to receive text messages from parents rejoicing in the birth of their children. By God’s kindness, the vast majority of pregnancies in our church have ended in healthy births.
But there has also been great sadness due to some infant deaths, stillbirths and miscarriages in the church. One of the enduring prayer requests on our weekly bulletin for the past few years has been expectant mothers. We don’t want to take for granted that every pregnancy will necessarily end in a healthy birth, and we ought to petition God much for this.
Lesson 2: Rejoicing With Those Who Rejoice
In v. 58 we read, “And her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
One of the blessings of community is the sweet kindness shown by neighbours who share our joy. We should understand that God did not create us to live private lives. In fact, the contemporary Western insistence on privacy is something that is fairly unique to our own day and age. God did not create us to be individualists; He always intended for us to live in community.
There is a powerful and lasting effect in sharing a timely word of consolation or congratulations. The simplest thing for many of us is to simply say nothing, but I would suggest that we ought to strive to be a blessing to others by sharing in their joys and sorrows. Romans 12:15 instructs us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.” There is a danger of us being so taken with our own reality that we struggle to fully enter into the experiences of those around us.
When a family or church member experiences the joy of childbirth, do you make the effort to congratulate them? When testimony is given of answered prayer, do you make your joy known to the one to whom God has been so kind? I would suggest that we ought to do so! Do you accept invitations to attend weddings, even if it costs you the price of a wedding gift? This is what it means to share in the joys of others.
Similarly, though it is not always easy or comfortable to do, I would suggest that we ought to verbally express condolences to those who suffer loss. It is not necessary to offer them great words of wisdom during their time of sorrow; just expressing that you share their sorrow and are praying for them is a great encouragement. It is a great encouragement to them for you to attend the funeral of the one they have lost. This is what it means to live in community!
Gabriel promised Elizabeth that many would rejoice at John’s birth (v. 14), and here we see the fulfilment of those words.
There is evidence here of common grace: Even unbelievers can be kind, friendly and genuine in their friendship. Believers can offer more: We can be evangelistic and winsome in ours!
Let’s realise that we often benefit personally through our expressions of kindness and identity with others. Consider for a moment those who came to share in the sorrow of Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus. What was the result of them? They were eyewitnesses to a great miracle! Those who chose to stay home because it they felt “uncomfortable” and “did not know what to say” to the sisters missed the resurrection. But those who took the time to mourn with those who mourned also had first-hand opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoiced!
Bear in mind that Jesus attended weddings (John 2:1-12) and funerals (John 11). If we want to be like our Saviour, we must emulate Him even in this regard.
Lesson 3: The Benefit of Affliction
Our next lesson can be drawn from vv. 59-64:
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.
On the eighth day, baby John needed to be circumcised according to the law. The law referred to here is found in Genesis 17:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant. In obedience to God, every Jewish male infant needed to be circumcised. It was an act of faith by the parents that God would keep covenant with their children.
According to our text, the child was named at this circumcision ceremony. Since Zechariah was still deaf and mute at the ceremony, the question of the child’s name fell to Elizabeth. As we have seen above, there was opposition to her suggestion of John, but when Zechariah confirmed it in writing the name was settled.
I want you to notice that Zechariah had benefitted from his affliction. When Gabriel first appeared to him to inform him of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he had responded in unbelief. The chastening result was nine months of speechlessness (and, evidently, deafness). But now he was ready to obey. There was no question in his mind that God’s will must be done; the child must be named John. He had learned his lesson and was ready to do as instructed by the angel.
The benefit to Zechariah’s soul after nine months of quietness can perhaps be expressed in the words of Job: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). Second Chronicles 32:31 speaks of God testing Hezekiah by means of isolation. Sanctified afflictions are spiritual promotions! The sorrow that humbles us and drives us to God is a blessing and a downright gain.
Lesson 4: The Hand of the Lord
In vv. 65-66 we learn that the hand of the Lord was with little John: “And fear came on all their neighbours. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”
These verses offer us a summary statement of John’s life: “The hand of the Lord was with him.” What more could Christian parents possibly want for their children? How better can we possibly pray for our children, and for other children in our church? Surely one of our greatest burdens should be for the hand of the Lord to be with our children and those children in our church!
Lesson 5: The Benedictus
The opening chapters of Luke record several songs that are sung in praise to God. The first is Mary’s Magnificat, which we considered in our previous study. The second, as we see here, is Zechariah’s Benedictus.
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Verse 64 tells us that, when Zechariah in faith indicated that his son’s name should be John, “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” What “blessing” did he speak? The answer is here in vv. 67-79.
The term benedictus is Latin for “blessing.” According to our text, Zechariah spoke these words under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Since John was filled with the Spirit from the womb (v. 15), we see that this was a family that was submissive to the Holy Spirit—even despite Zechariah’s initial reticence to believe the word of the angel.
Let me ask: Do you desire and pray to be filled with, controlled by, and characterised by the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18)? Do you desire this for your family? Do you pray fervently to this end?
There are two parts to Zechariah’s blessing.
The first, in vv. 68-75, is thanksgiving to God. Zechariah thanks God for doing five things: (1) visiting and (2) redeeming His people (v. 68); (3) raising up a horn of salvation in the house of David (v. 69); (4) speaking to His people by the mouth of the prophets (vv. 70-72); and (5) swearing to Abraham to do certain things (v. 73). All of this designed to bring us to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness for eternity (vv. 74-75).
The second part of the blessing, in vv. 76-79, was addressed to John regarding his task in preparing the way for the Saviour (v. 76). The Saviour would forgive sins (vv. 77-78), give light to those in darkness (v. 79) and guide His people’s feet in the way of peace (v. 79). The Saviour whose way John would prepare would be the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2), the Morning Star (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 22:16) and the Light of the World (John 8:12).
Appreciating what Zechariah said about Jesus will help us to appreciate and embrace Jesus as the promised and sent Messiah.
There is a great role to be played in our lives by the activity of giving thanks, of formally thanking God for what He has done. This is true in every area of life.
You marriage may not be ideal, but have you made it a point to thank God for your spouse and for marriage as opposed to loneliness? Are you thankful for the ways in which your spouse has been used of God to make you more like Christ?
Your job is not ideal, but have you made it a point to thank God for the fact that He has given you work, in order that you might provide for your family and have extra to give to those in need?
You may consider your life not to be ideal, but have you taken the time to count your blessings and trace the finger of God?
Lesson 6: Gospel Anticipation
In the closing verse we have an anticipation of greater things to come: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (v. 80).
John was preparing for one who was greater than he. If the hand of the Lord was with John, how glorious would be the one who would come who was even greater than John!
And so we learn these lessons from the record of John’s birth and the song of Zechariah that follows. May we, like Zechariah, open our mouths in praise to God and in thankfulness for what He has done for us in Christ.