Date: June 23, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Series: The Gospel according to Luke
Scripture: Luke 1:5–1:25
I know it’s the middle of June, but I’d like to ask you to think this morning about Christmas, or more specifically, Christmas Eve. Growing up, I thought Christmas Eve was one of the best days of the year. From the moment we woke up, my siblings and I would talk excitedly, asking questions like “What’s in that big box under the tree?” “I wonder if Dad will like his present this year.” There was so much expectation wrapped up in the day. But if you think about it. my siblings and I weren’t really excited for Christmas Eve. We were excited that something better was coming tomorrow. In fact, that’s why Christmas Eve is noteworthy at all, isn’t it? It’s because there is this expectation that something better, something greater even is just around the corner.
As we come to Luke chapter 1, we find a similar dynamic at work in our passage this morning. As you heard in our reading, something significant is happening in Israel. An angel announces the birth of a very important child – John the Baptist. All of the Gospel accounts include this man, John the Baptist. Jesus himself will say that among those born among women, none is greater than John. And it all starts here in Luke chapter 1. It should be quite clear to us that something significant is happening in Israel, and his name is John.
And yet, just the like expectation of Christmas Eve, John is significant only because he signals that something – or we should say Someone – greater is coming. That is the key feature of this passage. For all the excitement – and it is exciting – there is also this clear sense that John is not ultimate. He will be great – there’s no mistaking that – but even then, John is only a supporting actor in the unfolding plan of God. The main man, the center of attention is yet to come.
As we begin to consider this passage, I think the word expectation captures the theme very well. The overall tone of this text is expectant. There is the expectation that something greater is happening. With that theme in mind, let’s work through these verses by noting together four expectations in the promise of John’s birth. #1 – there is the expectation that God is at work. That’s vv5-10. #2 – the expectation that God is preparing the way, from 11-17. #3 – we have the expectation that God is to be trusted. That’s vv18-23. And then #4 – the expectation that God is near to his people, from vv24-25.
The Expectation that God is at Work
We begin, then, in vv5-10 with the Expectation that God is at Work. The passage opens by introducing us to an Israelite couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and in even these few verses, there are a number of things that stand out about them.
You’ll notice, first of all, that both husband and wife come from priestly families. Zechariah is a priest we learn in v5, and his wife, Elizabeth, also comes from priestly lineage. Now, the priests in Israel were divided into twenty-four divisions, with each division serving for a week twice during the year. But since there were so many priests, lots were cast to determine which priest would have the privilege of offering the sacrifices and prayers.
And in v9, we learn that Zechariah’s lot had been chosen. This means that we meet Zechariah on what is likely the most important day of his religious life. He has been chosen to offer incense in the temple sanctuary, and this was something a priest was allowed to do only once in his lifetime. It was a high, holy day for God’s people, and for the priest in particular. That’s why the people, in v10, are eagerly praying outside as Zechariah prepares to offer his service.
From the start, do you feel the gravity of the moment? Zechariah is going in to pray, a multitude of people are outside praying – you can sense the gravity, the expectation even. Here we meet not only a priest and his wife, but a priest that is preparing for perhaps his most important day of ministry.
But Luke’s description continues, as we also learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful. V6 says they were righteous before God, and they walked blamelessly in his commandments. Now, we have to be careful that we not misunderstand Luke’s point. He is not saying Zechariah and Elizabeth were sinless, perfect people. Neither is he saying that their works somehow saved them from God’s wrath. Rather, Luke’s point is that Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful. They feared God. They revered his Word. They obeyed his commands. This is not a sinless couple – you won’t find one of those in Scripture – but this is a faithful couple. And Luke’s goes out of his way to highlight their obedience.
But it is the last detail about Zechariah and Elizabeth that grabs our attention. They are childless. Elizabeth, we are told, is barren, and by this point, both husband and wife are old, well past the years you would expect to have children. How long have they waited and prayed? We don’t know, but honestly, it’s not hard to sympathize with them. Whether it’s a child or some other answer to prayer, we know what it’s like to ask and wait, don’t we? We know what’s it like to listen and hear what seems like only silence.
And for Zechariah and Elizabeth, this situation would have been particularly painful. There were some strands of thought in Judaism that said barrenness was a sign of God’s judgment. That’s a misreading of the OT, but still, some people thought that way. And that’s why Luke goes out of his way to highlight this couple’s faithful character. They weren’t hiding some sin. They weren’t suffering the judgment of God. It’s actually the opposite! This is a couple that has remained faithful, even as the years wore on.
But this is where our theme of expectation comes in to play. As heartbreaking as this situation is, Elizabeth’s barrenness actually makes us more expectant, not less. Think about it for a moment. Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful Israelites, but where did Israel’s history begin? With an old man named Abraham and a barren woman named Sarah. And what did God do? He gave them a son, Isaac, and through that son, God established an entire nation – the nation of Israel. Barrenness led to the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Or think about that point in Israel’s history, after Joshua, after the Judges, when the nation was struggling and there was no leadership. Whom did God use at that point? He used a barren woman named Hannah, and through Hannah, God raised up the prophet Samuel, who would lead God’s people. Again, barrenness led to God’s provision.It’s actually a pattern throughout the OT, with Sarah and Hannah being prime examples. When God decided to act for the sake of his people, he often did so in precisely this way – through these very unlikely circumstances.
And what that means here in Luke chapter 1 is that we should be expectant that God is up to something. As we read v6 and hear that Zechariah is old and Elizabeth is barren, we should instantly think, “Wait, I’ve heard something like this before. It was right before God fulfilled his promise.” In fact, brothers and sisters, that is the point of these opening verses. Luke gives us all this detail so that we will see how God is already at work.
This should be a great encouragement to us, brothers and sisters, and it should remind us not to judge God’s purposes too quickly. It’s easy, isn’t it, to assume that God is silent or that God has somehow lost sight of his people? Circumstances start to pile up, the years wear on, the prayers go unanswered. It’s easy in those moments to assume, “God’s not working here.” But if we learn anything at this point it’s that God’s ways are not our ways. His timing is not our timing. What seems like silence to us may very well be the outworking of his plan. And in his grace, perhaps that moment will come when he intervenes with power to work for the sake of his people.
Won’t you trust him, brothers and sisters? I cannot guarantee that God will answer every prayer you have prayed in every way you want it answered. But the testimony of Scripture does guarantee that God will not abandon his people, and that often, he is already at work.
The Expectation that God is Preparing the Way
But as we come to v11, we find our second expectation that confirms and clarifies the first. It is the Expectation that God is Preparing the Way. We said that Elizabeth’s situation should make us expectant that God is up to something, and in v11, we find that is true. Without any advance notice, God sends an angel to speak with Zechariah. The priest, as you might expect, is afraid, v12. What might this mean? Is this a moment of judgment? Has Zechariah messed up the incense? Why is there an angel in here?
But then the angel speaks and reassures Zechariah, v13. There is no reason to be afraid. Instead, there is reason to rejoice. God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. Elizabeth will have a son, but not just any son. This son will play a significant role in God’s plan. You’ll notice in v13 that the angel instructs Zechariah to name the child John. Whenever God names someone in Scripture, it’s typically significant, and that’s the case here. The fact that God names the child tells us that this son will be set apart to God for a particular purpose. And that means we should focus in here for a few minutes and consider what we learn about this son whom we call John the Baptist.
First of all, we should notice John’s Role. In v14, the angel tells Zechariah that he will have joy and gladness at the child’s birth, and in fact, many people will rejoice when John is born. On the one hand, this makes complete sense. Zechariah and Elizabeth have waited for years for a child, and now, a son is coming. So of course they will have joy and gladness! But what about the angel saying many will rejoice? Is that a hint that perhaps something more than the natural joy of parents is at work?
Yes, that is exactly the case. If you look back to the OT prophets, you’ll find that phrase joy and gladness connected with the coming salvation of God. The prophet Isaiah is a good example. In Isaiah 35, the prophet speaks of God bringing his people back from exile, so that there is joy and gladness again. Then in Isaiah 51, the prophet looks forward to the day when God renews the waste places of the earth so they are like Eden. And when that happens, what do we find? Joy and gladness.
The OT prophets actually used this same description to capture what would happen on the day God visited his people to save them. And that is why the angel says John will bring joy and gladness to many. It’s because John’s role is to signal that God’s salvation is coming. John is the forerunner of the Messiah. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” There is joy and gladness with John because his role is declare that God is coming, and he is coming to save.
Along with John’s role, we should also note John’s Character. Look again at v15, and listen to what the angel says – “And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” The OT law prohibited priests from consuming alcohol when on duty at the temple, and the book of Numbers described a kind of vow where a person would abstain for his entire life. Those restrictions signified that a person was devoted to God, and that appears to be the case here with John. From even his conception, John is set a part as a servant of the Lord.
And in this life of devotion, John will receive divine equipping for his work. The angel says John will be filled with the Spirit from the womb. In the OT, filling with God’s Spirit was often associated with a specific task, and again, that is the case here with John. God will fill John for the purpose of ministry, and the uniqueness of being filled from the womb helps us understand John’s character. This is no ordinary child. This is, again, the forerunner of the Messiah.
That leads us naturally to consider John’s Ministry. Look again at vv16-17, where the angel describe what John will accomplish – “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him 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.” Here we have the core of John the Baptist’s ministry. It is the preaching of repentance. Again, in the OT, this was a key step in God’s plan to bring salvation to his people. God himself would send his prophet, and through that prophet’s preaching, God’s people would repent. They would turn back to God. And that repentance, then, would be seen at every level of life – from their relationship with God down to their relationships with one another, even to the most foundational level of the family. That is John’s ministry. He will come to preach repentance.
But here’s the point we need to understand. John’s ministry is itself part of God’s plan of salvation. John is not the Savior, but his message paves the way for that Savior to come. In fact, v17 here in Luke 1 quotes from Malachi chapter 4, where God promised to raise up a new Elijah, a new prophet who would minister in the power of God. And that is Luke’s emphasis here. God is fulfilling his Word. God is accomplishing his plan. John will be that new Elijah, and his ministry will once again signal that God’s salvation is coming.
And it is that note of salvation that concludes the angel’s announcement. Notice the last phrase in v17. What will be the grand purpose of John’s ministry? “To make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” John, then, comes to make God’s people ready. Ready for what, we ask? Ready for God himself to come! That is ultimately John’s role. He gets God’s people ready for God to arrive! He gets God’s people ready to receive and to respond to the Lord when he comes to save.
Understand, brothers and sisters, this announcement is the proclamation of grace and nothing but grace. At this point in Israel’s history, the people had not heard from God in centuries. The prophetic word had gone silent in Israel, and the people were left to wonder, “When will God’s salvation come? When will his Word announce his arrival?”
But now, in the temple sanctuary with an unlikely father-to-be, God speaks through his messenger. And God announces that he is raising up a prophet who will prepare the way, a prophet who will signal that God is coming, and he is bringing his salvation with him. It’s grace, nothing but grace, that God would remember his people, that God would prepare the way. John’s Role, John’s Character, John’s Ministry – all of it signals that God is preparing the way for the Savior to come.
Now, as we step back for a moment from this announcement of John’s birth, what should we take away from these verses? What is the connection with us? There is a connection with God’s faithfulness to his Word, and we’ll draw that out a bit more in the next section of verses. But for now, I want us to see what John teaches us about greatness, about significance. John is a significant figure in God’s plan. He is great in history of God’s people. And yet, why is John great? Only because he serves the Savior. Only because he points people to the Christ. As John himself will say about Jesus later in his ministry, “He must increase; I must decrease."
Listen to me, brothers and sisters. That’s true greatness. That’s what it means to be significant – it’s the willingness, the joy even, of using your life to put Christ on display. No one in here will have the ministry of John the Baptist. He is unique. But if you profess faith in Christ, then you are called to follow John’s example and pursue this kind of greatness. You are called to the only kind of significance that matters – that of pointing other people to the Savior. That’s true greatness – it’s using your tiny span of life on this earth to help others see that there is a Savior who is worthy of their lives. From how we act to how we work, from what we say to how we serve, from the things we love to the people to whom we minister – greatness is doing all of those things in a way that magnifies Christ.
I think of a quote from C.T. Studd, the pioneering Christian missionary who devoted his life to taking the gospel to unreached. Studd once said, “Only one life, it will soon be passed; only what’s done for Christ will last.” That’s true, brothers and sisters. That’s what made John the Baptist significant – he pointed the way to the Savior. The question, then, is will we live the same way?
The Expectation that God is to be Trusted
The third expectation of this text comes from Zechariah’s response in vv18-23. It’s the Expectation that God is to be Trusted. After the angel’s message, Zechariah’s response is surprising. He asks the natural question but one that expresses some doubt. Notice v18 – “And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’” Understand that Zechariah is asking for a sign that confirms the angel’s message. This is a bit different from Mary’s question that we’ll look at next week. Zechariah is not saying, “How will this work? How is this possible?” No, Zechariah is saying, “How can I believe this without a sign from God?” Zechariah wants something more than God’s word.
But notice the angel’s response in v19. The angel essentially tells Zechariah, “My appearance should be enough.” Notice v19 – “And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.’” We learn the angel is Gabriel, who has played a unique role as God’s messenger in the past. It was Gabriel whom God sent to the prophet Daniel to explain the vision Daniel received. What’s more, Gabriel is said to stand in the presence of God. For created beings, Gabriel is as close to the Almighty as you’ll find. And that means Gabriel comes with heavenly credibility. You want proof, Zechariah? Then just look at who stands in front of you.
Even so, Gabriel proceeds to tell Zechariah that God will give him a sign, so to speak, but it is a sign that also corrects the priest. Notice v20 – “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.” And then immediately, that word is fulfilled in vv21-23. Zechariah goes out to the crowd, but he cannot speak. He can only make signs. God’s word proves true.
Now, why has God done this to Zechariah? On the one hand, it is a rebuke. Zechariah should have believed Gabriel’s message, because it came from God himself and God is always trustworthy. This is a rebuke. But on the other, this is also mercy, isn’t it? When Zechariah’s lips go silent, what does that say to the priest? It says that God will keep his word. It says that God will fulfill his purpose. And therefore, if Zechariah is silent, just as God said, then Elizabeth will have a son, just as God said. Do you see it? This is mercy in the midst of rebuke. Even when God rebukes and disciplines, he does so with mercy enough to sustain our faith.
Before we move on, what should we learn from Zechariah’s doubt? What is silent Zechariah saying to the people of God today? Brothers and sisters, I would say there is a warning here, or at least a caution. We should be wary of demanding from God more than what he has given us in his Word. We’re not going to receive a divine message from an angel – that’s unique. But we do have before us, in the Scriptures, the very word of God that calls us to faith. And we should be careful that we not demand from God more than what he has given us in his Word.
I’ve said before from this pulpit that God is not afraid of your questions – that God welcomes it when we ask him how to understand his Word, or how to put the various truths of Scripture together in a way that makes sense. God is not afraid of our questions. But here’s an important clarification. There is a difference between questions rooted in faith and questions rooted in unbelief. There is way to ask questions that essentially says to God, “Your Word is not enough. I want more proof. I want you to make sense on my terms, according to my understanding, and then, I’ll believe.” And listen to me, brothers and sisters, those kinds of questions are never right, and they’re not good for us either. That’s the kind of question Zechariah asks here in v18. He says to God, “Your word is not enough. If you want me to believe, you’ve got to give me more proof.”
The caution to us is this – we should wary of demanding from God more than what he has given us in his Word. Perhaps you’re here this morning and you’re not a Christian. And maybe you’ve thought before, “I would believe all this about Christianity if God would just prove it to me.” If that’s you, friend, then I would urge to consider that God has already done everything necessary to display his trustworthiness. He’s given us his Word, and his Word never fails. Listen, becoming a Christian does not mean you have absolute knowledge so that everything in the universe makes sense to you. Only God has that kind of understanding. But becoming a Christian does mean that you walk by faith, not by sight. To follow Christ, you must take him at his Word and believe that God is faithful. Even this morning, if you’re not a Christian, my prayer is that God would open your eyes, right now, to see that his Word is true, that his promises never fail, and that in seeing those rock-solid realities, God would give you, through his Word, the faith that saves.
If you are a Christian this morning, I would simply ask you this – Are you building your life on what God has said in his Word? Or are you subtly, maybe even unconsciously, demanding more from God than what he has given you in Scripture? I often hear believers say that they wish they had stronger faith, but then, nearly as often, those same people admit that they have little connection to God’s Word. Faith feeds on the Word of God, specifically the promises of God now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Just consider this section of verses we’re looking at today. What’s going on in this passage? God is keeping his promises. In the OT, God promised a prophet to prepare the way, and now in the NT, God keeps that promise. That’s the Bible – the OT is promises made, and the NT is promises kept. God always keeps his promises. And that means, brothers and sisters, you can bank your life on God’s Word, and he will never fail – because he always keeps his Word. God is to be trusted – that’s what Zechariah’s silence is saying to us. God is to be trusted, and we can trust him because he has given us his Word to sustain us in the faith.
The Expectation that God is Near to His People
That brings us to a final expectation, and we’ll close with this. It is the Expectation that God is Near to His People. Vv24-25 give us a closing word, and it is a word that emphasizes the faithfulness of God. Look again, vv24-25 – “After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among the people.’” God keeps his word, doesn’t he? He told Zechariah he would have a son, and in God’s time, Elizabeth conceives. God keeps his word.
Why does Elizabeth keep it hidden for five months? The text doesn’t tell us. But the text does tell us that Elizabeth praised God. After the long years, and it seems even after countless comments that caused her pain, Elizabeth can say that God has looked upon her. That is, God has drawn near to her and been gracious to her.
And that is where I would like for us to end this morning – with this incredible connection between the sovereign plan of God, on the one hand, and a very personal answer to prayer, on the other. Who is John the Baptist? He is the forerunner of the Messiah. He is the prophet like Elijah who will prepare the way for the Lord. He is a key figure in the sovereign plan of God. But who is John the Baptist? He is also Elizabeth’s son. He is an answer to prayer. He is a gift to a faithful Israelite couple.
God’s sovereign plan, which cannot be stopped, is worked out in real human lives, so that the glory and goodness of God are seen not only in his majestic sovereignty but also in his kindness to draw near to his people.
And so, while we cannot guarantee that God will answer every prayer the way we would ask, we can rest assured that God delights to draw near to his people. That’s the testimony of Zechariah and Elizabeth. God keeps his word. God hears his people. But even more, that’s the testimony of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist. God has drawn near, and he has drawn near to save. Amen.