Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

6. The Birth of John (Luke 1:56-80)

Since there was a baby on the way, of course Mary stayed on at the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth until he was born and, no doubt, until the time of his naming and circumcision. It is impossible to think otherwise.

The birth of a baby is always a time of great rejoicing, and on this occasion it was specially so, for was he not a child of old age, as Isaac had been? Also, it would be surprising if Zacharias and Elisabeth had kept entirely to themselves the burden of Gabriel’s prophecy concerning the child. Their friends “heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her.” Once again the word “mercy”, which has such frequent association with the covenants of promise, is used here as meaning: “God had kept His promise”, the promise of the birth of a son, together with a clear token that he was to help forward the fulfilment of the Covenants.

His Name?

It was natural enough to expect that the baby’s name would be Zacharias, both for family reasons and also to commemorate the old priest’s unique experience in the temple. Besides, what could be more appropriate to a child of old age than a name meaning “Remembered by Jehovah”?

So it was all settled, until Elisabeth startled them, the men as well as the women, by interrupting the usual circumcision prayer: “Blessed be the Lord our God who hath sanctified us by his precepts, and hath commanded us to enter the child into the covenant of Abraham our father” (hence v.73). She insisted: ‘His name must be John’. This created universal surprise, not only that the mother of the baby should assert herself in the presence of the men assembled there, but also because that name did not run in the family — not within living memory.

Reference to Zacharias soon settled the question. That poor old man, deaf and dumb, incommunicado, had been left out of the lively discussion. Now they incoherently tried to put the issue before him, and after a while, helped by Elisabeth no doubt, their meaning went home. With a gesture he signified his need for writing materials. As they all looked on expectantly Zacharias wrote: “John is his name.” Thus the last written word of the O.T.-”curse”-was foil owed at long last by the first written word of the NT. -”John”, the blessing or grace of the Lord. It is perhaps worth noting here, also, that the Old Testament, starting from Eden, and ending with “curse”, is written in Hebrew from right to left. But the New Testament is in Greek from left to right, and ends with Paradise restored.

Even as all present marvelled over this act of Zacharias, the ejaculations of surprise were reduced to an awe-stricken astonishment when the old priest broke his long silence, first by saying the words as well, and then by reciting the circumcision prayer himself. Probably he followed this with a sonorous psalm of praise to God, thanking Him for the encouragement of faith which the birth of the infant John afforded. There is parable here. Without faith (v.20) the man of Law is deaf and dumb. With faith he praises God and celebrates redemption through His Messiah, the fulfilment of the great promises to Abraham and David (allusions to these in v. 69,72,73,78).

A Psalm with Pattern

It is not certain whether Zacharias was led to utter his Benedictus at the circumcision ceremony or in later days to John (v.76,80) when, as a growing boy, he began to show exceptional promise.

But certainly, this psalm has many singular features. It is so intensely Hebraistic in form and phrasing as to encourage belief that it was originally spoken in Hebrew. Also, Bullinger draws attention to its remarkable structure:

A. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.

B. And hath raised up a horn of salvation for us...

C. As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets...

D. That we should be saved from our enemies...

E. To perform the mercy promised to our fathers...

E. The oath which he sware to our father Abraham.

D. That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies...

C. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest...

B. To give knowledge of salvation unto his people...
A. Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.

This repetition with introversion is an impressive device for emphasizing the salient ideas in the psalm. But is it conceivable that Zacharias planned it this way? Here, surely is a watermark of inspiration. The altogether unacceptable alternative, coined by the critics, is that this psalm is Luke’s composition, representing what he thought Zacharias might have said. This is vetoed by the evident priestly character of the language, so appropriate to Zacharias, so inappropriate to Luke the physician. For example:

Would such a man as Luke have composed a psalm with such characteristics as these?

Personal Allusions

The next thing to be observed is the relatively small place given here to personal references. Since John was a child of promise, born in most exceptional circumstances, and since Zacharias himself was a living witness to the miraculous power at work in this family, it would be natural to expect a good deal of stress on these phenomena. But is it there? There is the apostrophe to the week-old child: “Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord (cp. v.43) to prepare his ways” (v.76). To the English reader this is all.

But there is traceable also a delightful play on the names of this God-centred family: “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers (John means “Mercy or grace of the lord”), and to remember his holy covenant (this is “Zacharias”); the oath which he sware to our father Abraham (Elisabeth means “God sware).” In this lovely fashion the intense personal emotions of the participants are kept subject to the grander theme of redemption which the work of John was to inaugurate.

The Main Ideas

The development of ideas is very simple. First, the “salvation” theme is concisely expressed: “He hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (v.68,69), not a horn of destruction and desolation such as the Book of Daniel specialises in. This is explicitly stated to be according to “the holy prophets which have been since the world began” (v.70). The first to be designated “prophet” in the Old Testament was Abraham! (v.73; Gen. 20:7; Ps. 105:15). What an entail John was heir to!

Next, the ultimate blessings of this glorious divine purpose are given at length in a succession of Old Testament scriptures. It is worth while to spend a little time considering these.

“God hath visited and redeemed his people.” This is the language of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Ex. 3:16; 4:31). But now Zacharias looked forward to a mightier deliverance, the work of a greater than Moses. The word “redeemed” might have either of two Hebrew words at the back of it-one which .signifies “delivered”, as by Moses from Egypt, and the other which describes redemption from sin by sacrifice (as in Heb. 9:12). Either is appropriate here.


“He hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” In the Old Testament the horn is often a symbol of strength. This and mention of the house of David might well set the reader thinking of a Messianic King- El Gibbor. But “the house of David” may mean the house which David purposed to build for God and which God promised to build for him. A careful pondering of that familar prophecy (2 Sam. 7:5,11,13) will make clear that it envisages a temple composed of dedicated people.

Psalm 132 celebrated David’s bringing of the ark to Zion and his great project to erect a temple “exceeding magnifical” on Mount Moriah: “There will I make the horn of David to bud (or, sprout, shoot up)”. This comes in a context which has six separate allusions to the tabernacle. It is understandable that the mind of Zacharias the priest should run on such a theme as this.

What did he mean when he spoke of being “saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us”? These are the words of a man with the discernment to see that all the woes and hardships which had come and were yet to come upon Israel were the inevitable consequences of the nation’s lack of loyalty to God and His law: “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee” (Dt. 28:15). These things were already in train. Now only the Messiah could save Israel from dire and lamentable trouble. So Zacharias repeated this deep personal conviction (verses 74,75), but this time in the form of a prayer that God would fulfil the wondrous promises made to the Fathers (verses 72,73; Gen. 22:16-18)-a covenant which meant the forgiveness of sins and hence salvation from enemies of every sort.

John and Messiah

The great work of Zacharias’ new-born son-a role in which the old man gloried as he contemplated it-was that of heralding the salvation which Messiah was destined to bring: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord (cp. v. 17) to prepare his way”. With this quotation of familiar words from Malachi’s prophecy of the Messiah (3:1) Zacharias expressed his understanding that his son would be the spear-head of a great reforming appeal addressed to the wayward nation. Only thus could they be given “knowledge of salvation-by-the-remission-of-their-sins.”

One of Isaiah’s fine Messianic anticipations was now woven into this theme of salvation: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shine” (Is. 9:2). But instead of Isaiah’s phrase: “a great light,” this psalm and prophecy has another fine Old Testament expression: “the dayspring from on high”. There is a lovely double meaning here, for this word means, firstly, the dawn (this is Mal. 4:1; the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings), and secondly, the Branch. It is the Jeremiah prophecy about the King whose name is “The Lord our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:5) to which Zacharias specially alluded, for that has the word “visited” in its context.

The climactic phrase is: “to guide our feet into the way of peace”. In Jeremiah 23:8 this guidance is to bring Israel back to their own land. But here the words go far beyond the idea of a physical return, for in the Old Testament the dominant association of “peace” is certainly that of peace with God (Mal. 2:6). How happy Zacharias must have been to contemplate the association of this son of his with such a transforming work.

The Effect on the People

However little this inspired utterance was understood by those present, they were put in awe and expectation by what they heard. “And all these sayings were noised abroad”. The birth of John, the sudden dumbness and deafness of Zacharias and his equally sudden recovery, were marvels enough. But his prophetic utterance on this occasion dwarfed all the rest in its impressiveness. So “all these sayings were noised abroad”, for they told of the imminence of Messiah’s coming. Already the nation was being prepared. Many “laid these things up in their hearts” (cp. 2:19,51); and inevitably this miraculously-born son was under public notice from his earliest days: “What manner of child shall this be?”

As the years went by and John grew towards maturity his powers and character gave further ground for expectation: “for also the hand of the Lord was with him.” This is the Old Testament phrase for inspiration. “He was constantly held, or controlled, by the Spirit” (verse 80 should probably be read this way). Under this guidance he forsook his early training as a priest, and went into isolation.

“In the Deserts”

In recent years it has become fashionable to picture John as attached to the ascetic community of Khumran, the home of the Dead Sea scrolls, or with some similar movement. But those who have read with care the catalogue of spiritual futilities which that Essene sect went in for will recognize that a tough, wholesome, virile mind such as John’s would have no truck with that kind of thing.

But it would also be a mistake to think of him as living the entirely solitary life of a hermit. For the work that lay before him he needed a mastery of the Old Testament scriptures, and he needed also a facility in teaching. The lonely life would certainly provide the first of these, but only experience could train him for the other. So it is probably more correct to read the words: “He was in the deserts”, as meaning that he kept away from the centres of population and devoted himself to some small rural community where life was rough and exacting but where unsophisticated faith was to be found and instructed.

Notes: Luke 1:56-80

The naming of the child at circumcision springs from Gen. 17:5, 13, 14.
None of thy kindred. Therefore Zacharias was not closely related to the ruling family of chief priests, for amongst them there was a John; Acts 4:6.
His tongue loosed. With this, and v. 69, compare Ez. 29:21.
Blessed be the Lord God... Is this Ps. 72:18 (see v. 14 also), or 106:48 (see v. 4,45 also)?
Horn of salvation. Another Hannah allusion, (1 Sam. 2:10)? or, as seems more likely in this case, Ps. 18:2? The latter probably, for v. 71,74 also link with 18:17 and the psalm title.
The mercy. Parallelism here shows clearly that this is a synonym for God’s Promises; Ps. 105:8,9; 106:45.

Remember is passive; i.e. God being “reminded”. The Covenant Name is often called God’s “memorial”.

Verses 72,73 echo particularly the splendid Mic. 7:20.
Gk: And thou also; i.e. John to continue the glorious line of prophetic witnesses; v. 70.

Prepare his ways; Is. 40:3; Mal. 3:1.
Knowledge of salvation; i.e. of Jesus; 3:6; 19:9;Jn. 4:22.

To his people, who were sure they already had this knowledge.
Tender mercy. The promise about Christ (see v. 72).
To give light, with reference to “dayspring” meaning “dawn”; cp. Mal. 4:1.

pen. The Gk. word implies a helping hand, rather like Simon’s help with the cross of Christ.

Previous Index Next