This week we focus our attention on the Christmas prophet, the forerunner to Jesus. We begin in the first chapter of Luke. Where are we in the whole story of the Bible? These events mark the end of the silence between the end of the Old Testament and beginning of the New. After a 400 year period of silence, God was beginning again His work to bring about the fulfillment of His promises first made in the OT.
(A) The Great Christmas Prophet (v.1-7)
Luke begins his account of the gospel with a short description of intent in verses 1-4. He did not immediately delve into describing the events of the first Christmas story. Luke stated explicitly to Theophilus that he has prepared this "orderly account" (v.3) in order that he may have certainty of the things that have been taught (v.4). This is very much the same for us today! We don't have to go very far, as even in this first chapter, we will be led to see that promises made a long time ago are being fulfilled, and this gives us certainty.
Luke introduces the story in verses 5-7. He begins with a historic marker, detailing the king of the time, King Herod of Judea. This was to build credibility. He also went into details about who Zechariah and his wife were (v.5). All these are verifiable facts ordered and recorded by Luke.
Yet, he also sets up a problem for us. Zechariah and Elizabeth were described as "righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord" (v.6), "but they had no child" (v.7) and probably had no hope of ever having one, for "Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years" (v.7). Where have we seen such a situation before? The OT was full of such characters -- Sarah, Hannah etc. The narrative opens with a familiar problem -- seemingly righteous people not being blessed by God. In this impossible situation, God began to work, and continues his work of using weak and unlikely things of the world to accomplish His purposes.
(B) The Unbelievable Message of the Christmas Prophet (v.8-25)
We are told that an angel makes an announcement to Zechariah as He was carrying out his priestly duties, standing in between the people and God as mediator (v.8-11). Zechariah was fearful, but received reassurance from the angel (v.12). The angel gives him a specific announcement:
Child's name (v.13)
He will have a son, and Zechariah was to call him "John" (v.13). John means "graced by God" or "God is gracious", an apt description not only of the way God has answered the prayers of this old couple, but also how God was going to bring about His plan of salvation and redemption. We've also seen elsewhere that when God names a child, that child is especially significant in God's plan (c.f. Isaac in Gen 17:19, Josiah in 1 Kings 13:2, Jesus in Matt 1:21)
Response to the child (v.14)
This child will bring Zechariah and Elizabeth much joy and gladness, for he fulfills a personal desire of this couple. Yet, many will also rejoice at his birth. His birth will bring about an outpouring of blessing beyond just this small family unit.
Position and character of the child (v.15)
This child will be "great before the Lord", and subsequently in Luke 7:28, Jesus says the same thing of John. John was also told specifically not to drink wine, as a sign of special consecration (c.f. 1 Sam 1:11). This child will also be "filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb". This was special because it marked an intensification of the Spirit's presence. Like many of the OT prophets that have come before him, John would be filled with the Spirit because only then could he accomplish the work required of him.
Mission of the child (v.16-17)
He has a specific mission. John will turn the people to God and prepare the people for the Lord. We see here that his identity and name was bound up in his message. There was no question about what he was born to do. The Christmas Prophet is all about this -- turning stray hearts back to God. What about us? Have our hearts been turned? What do people who turn look like?
How did Zechariah respond to this announcement. Verse 18 tells us that he did not believe what was told to him. It sounded too good to be true, and impossible and Zechariah knew this. He knew that age and biology worked against him and his wife. Isn't this familiar? We've seen this in another old couple -- Abraham and Sarah. Frankly, sometimes it is also very easy for us to be as cynical as Zechariah. Have you been unable to believe that what God says can be true, because sometimes it can seem too good to be true?
The angel responded to Zechariah's disbelief with a declaration of his name and who he came from! The angel was sent from the presence of God specifically to speak to Zechariah and to bring him this good news (v.19), yet he did not believe and as a result, he will be mute until all that has been said is fulfilled (v.20). Was this harsh? Realise also where these were taking place. At this point in the narrative, Zechariah was a priest who entered the presence of God. He was supposed to represent the people to God, and serve as their mediator. Yet, he did not believe the words of this God that he is serving.
(C) The Prophetic Christmas Hope (v.57-80)
Finally, it was time for Elizaben to give birth, and Luke emphasises certain things about John's birth here (v.57-66). Indeed, as prophesied, his birth brought great rejoicing among her family and neighbours. Luke describes his birth as a demonstration of God's "great mercy" and kindness to Elizabeth. John's birth to this old barren woman, who was not perceived as righteous by those around her, was a great gift and vindication. This is not a cruel God.
Verses 60-65 tell us about a debate about the naming of the baby. Zechariah received his speech again when he names his baby John, and as he did so, proclaimed his belief and faith that God is gracious! Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesised and let us pay careful attention to all the verbs he used (v.67-74):
- visited (v.68)
- redeemed (v.68)
- raised up a horn of salvation (v.69) [Note: Biblical language for raising an agent of power/dominion. The idea that God puts in place and executes perfectly what He has promised.]
- spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets (v.70)
- saved (v.71)
- show the mercy ... remember his holy covenant (v.72)
- grant us ... (v.73)
- Who is this God that Zechariah describes? Is this how you would describe Him? Does this passage give you a desire for Him?
Zechariah closes with a description of his son's special role in this. He knows that John will "go before the Lord to prepare his ways" and to "give knowledge of salvation to his people" (v.76-77). These are the two things that John's life will be about. As the prophet of the Most High, he will not go somewhere that His Lord will not go, but merely moves a few steps ahead to prepare the way for the Lord. His ministry will have a specific message. There is a specific content to the salvation message, things to know, to study and declare and proclaim.
This chapter closes with a poetic description of God's work and plan of salvation. All Zechariah knew at this point was that his son would be the prophet of the Most High, but he did not know what we do -- how God was going to accomplish everything in Jesus. He only knew what the angel told him, and hearing this whisper of a Savior comforted him so much. The end of his prophecy contains beautiful words inspired by the Spirit. He sings of the visitation of the tender mercy of God, the visitation of the sunrise from on high, gentle and glowing. Yet it also reminds of our true state, living in a fallen world. Without His tender mercy, we, and all who live in it, sit in darkness and sit in the shadow of death (v.79a). God showed his tender mercy not merely in blessing this old couple with a special baby with a special message and mission. God ultimately showed his great mercy by giving the Light of the World to a world that is shrouded in darkness and living in the shadow of death.
What about us today? For us, unlike Zechariah, we are not waiting for the sunrise but the sun has already risen and we are living in the blazing glory of its glow. Let us live as children of the light, and not as children in darkness! The story of the Christmas prophet is a story of hope for us. It's story this Advent is to prepare our hearts for the One that Christmas is about.