The Announcements of John and Jesus’ Births
The Announcement of John’s Birth (Luke 1:5-25)
The story of the gospel begins in the days of Herod the Great who ruled over Judea. Among the priests was a man named Zacharias. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were advanced in age and had no children of their own. They were declared to be godly people, not by their own view or by their neighbors, but so stated in God’s judgment.
Being a priest, Zacharias served two weeks out of each year in the temple, running from Sabbath day to Sabbath day. Thus each Sabbath had two divisions on duty at the same time, the one ending their turn and the one beginning their turn. Being of the division of Abijah, his division worked the eighth and thirty-second week of the year (I Chronicles 24:1-19). Josephus wrote that David “divided them also into courses; and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these priest twenty-four courses, sixteen of their course of Eleazar, and eight of that of Ithamar; and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok, and Abiathaar the high priests and of all the rulers.”[Antiquites of the Jews, VII.xiv.7] It appears that the guards of the Temple followed the same schedule (II Kings 11:4-9).
The particular duties to be served by each priest was determined randomly through the use of lots. Zacharias’s duty was to burn the incense, which was done twice a day (Exodus 30:7-8). The time of burning the incense was also the time for the people of Israel to offer prayers to God. Thus the smoke rising from the incense was seen as a symbol of prayer (Revelation 8:3-4).
While Zacharias was alone in the Temple, an angel appeared before him next to the altar of incense. Zacharias’s reaction of fear is common among men (Judges 6:22; Daniel 10:8; Luke 2:9). But there is a bit more to this. While God frequently talked with His people in the times of the Old Testament, there had been no word from God for nearly five hundred years (Amos 8:11; Micah 3:6). After the long silence, Zacharias is faced with being the first recipient of a new message from God.
The message was a joyous one. In their old age they would have a son! Just as God had done for Abraham, the father of Israel, so it would be done for his wife and him. Not only this but the child would be treated as a Nazirite from before his birth, just as it was done for Samson (Numbers 6:2-8; Judges 13:4). His son would be the first prophet to walk in Israel in five hundred years. His impact on Israel would be like the great prophet, Elijah, known for the many miracles that he performed in Israel. But most important of all, Zacharias’s son would be the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah! The one person Israel has been looking for well over a thousand years. His son, John, would fulfill the last words of Malachi, the last prophet before the silence. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse"”(Malachi 4:5-6).
It must have been difficult for Zacharias to grasp. Things that he read about from days long ago are going to occur to him! Perhaps we can understand that Zacharias doubted what he heard. Rather than accept what he was told, he grabbed for the first “proof” that what he was told could not be true – he and his wife were too old to have children. Zacharias knew the story of Abraham and Sarah. He knew that with God all things were possible. But in that moment when he faced the fact that it would happen to him, he doubted God – he asked for proof, he asked for a sign.
The angel’s proof was to announce who he was; he was Gabriel, the angel who spoke to the mighty prophet Daniel (Daniel 8:16). (More legends brought to life!) He testified that his words came directly from God, but because God’s priest doubted God’s messenger, Zacharias would have his proof: he would be unable to speak until the angel’s message was fulfilled. It appears that Zacharias was also struck deaf as well as mute, as people later signed to him instead of speaking to him (Luke 1:62).
Meanwhile, the people outside the Temple were wondering what became of Zacharias. The rituals for burning the incense are fixed and the time to perform the duties were well known. But when Zacharias finally did walk out, he could not tell them what had happened to him. Nor was he able to dismiss those who gathered for prayer with the usual blessing (Numbers 6:23-26). From his hand signs, the people figured out that he had seen a vision, but they knew nothing more than this.
Zacharias finished out his time at the Temple and returned home. It wasn’t long after that Elizabeth found herself with child. She didn’t announce it, perhaps in fear of being made a spectacle or to wait until she had proof that others could not help but acknowledge that she in her old age was pregnant. Children were seen as a blessing from God (Leviticus 26:9; Psalm 127:3), so a lack of children was an embarrassment to an Israelite woman.
The Announcement of Jesus’ Birth (Luke 1:26-56)
Six months after Elizabeth conceived, Mary is visited by the same angel, Gabriel. Mary lived in the small town of Nazareth – a poor town in the poor district of Galilee. Throughout these events notice the many contrasts between the news given to Mary and that given earlier to Zacharias. The first being that Zacharias’s message was given in the capital city in the Temple of God during a holy service to God. Mary is visited in a humble town in a remote area of Israel that few visit.
Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, but at the time of the angel’s visit she was a virgin – she had not had sexual relations with a man. The greeting the angel gave her was a puzzling one. Her circumstances would not cause a person to think that she was highly blessed by God. To be told this by one of God’s angels was even more puzzling.
Gabriel assured her there was no cause for alarm. She had been chosen to be the mother of a son whose name would be “Savior.” This boy would be the long awaited Messiah, the son of God and ruler of Israel and beyond.
She asked how this would be possible since she has not had sexual intercourse. It was not a question of doubt that what Gabriel said was true, but a puzzlement because she has not had the opportunity to become pregnant. The import of the angel’s words were that Mary had already conceived or would conceive shortly. We can also draw the implication that her marriage to Joseph was not scheduled to happen any time soon. Since a virgin birth had never occurred in all the history of man, we can understand why Mary did not consider this possibility. In addition we see her righteousness because she did not consider the possibility of having intercourse with Joseph prior to her marriage. Unlike Zacharias, Mary didn’t ask for proof. She just asked how the conception was going to be accomplished.
Gabriel explained that she would conceive directly by the Holy Spirit and those her son would rightly hold the claim of being the Son of God. Though Mary did not ask for evidence, the angel told her that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived in her old age after many years of being barren. This was sufficient evidence that God could accomplish anything He desired.
Mary demonstrated the firmness of her belief by accepting the will of God then and there.
Excited for her cousin, Mary immediate set out for Zacharias and Elizabeth’s home in the hill country of Judah. The hill country of Judah was in the area of Hebron, which was one of the inheritances of the priests (Joshua 21:10-11). The haste of her departure again demonstrates Mary’s complete faith in what the angel revealed to her.
It was Elizabeth who greeted her (remember that Zacharias was unable to speak). At that moment, Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb and the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth so that she became a prophetess. The point is made to explain how Elizabeth, just meeting Mary, knew that Mary was pregnant though she had just conceived and knew whom Mary carried before Mary was able to tell her. The event provides further evidence that the angel had brought a message from God. The very first words from Elizabeth reflect the greeting the angel gave Mary.
God, through Elizabeth, praised Mary for her belief in God and Mary received from God’s inspiration of her cousin further evidence that she was truly selected by God to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary, in turn, gives praise to the Lord. Though she is of humble origins, she realizes that she will now occupy a significant place in history. Even though it was probably too soon for Mary to tell, she is confident that she carries the Son of God in her womb. She understands that God has the strength and power to accomplish His will, as he has done in the past. The promise God made to Abraham was about to be fulfilled.
Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth, probably staying with Elizabeth until John’s birth. The stay is important. Because she was a virgin when she left Nazareth and she left right after speaking with the angel, there is no possibility that Mary was carrying a child conceived out of wedlock. Three months in her cousin’s house would provide ample proof that she was not with a man and there was no possibility that the child was Joseph’s. By the time she returned home, she would have begun to show.
The Birth of John (Luke 1:57-80)
The birth of John was a big event; after all, it is not every day that an elderly woman gives birth. The baby was also Zacharias and Elizabeth’s first and only child. This was exciting and joyful times among the relatives and neighbors.
As the Law required, the baby was circumcised eight days after his birth (Leviticus 12:2-3). A Jewish tradition had developed that a newborn child was named on the eighth day. Most attributed to the fact that Abram and Sarai’s names were changed when Abram was circumcised (Genesis 17). It also appears that Abraham named Isaac at his circumcision (Genesis 21:3-4). People tried to call the baby Zacharias, after his father, but his mother objected stating that the boy’s name was John (meaning “the Lord’s gracious gift”). This when against another custom of the time of naming a child after a relative. When they asked Zacharias, though signs, Zacharias confirmed in writing that the name of the child would be John. The marvel was that not knowing what Elizabeth said, Zacharias stated the same name. Both parents were united on an unusual name.
At this moment, Zacharias’s affliction was removed. He once again was able to speak and he used the moments for his first words to praise God on high. It was obvious to the people that the restoration of Zacharias’s speech was not a coincidence. Respect for God ran high in the region and the event became a popular subject (thus providing confirming evidence when the book of Luke was first written).
Everyone wondered what the future of a child would be who started life in such a dramatic and miraculous fashion. As the child grew, it was obvious that he was favored by God (Psalm 80:17), perhaps even showing signs of inspiration from God (Ezekiel 1:3; 3:14). In response, John’s father, inspirited by the Holy Spirit, gave a prophecy.
He begins by declaring in the past tense that God has visited Israel and redeemed His people. Though Jesus was yet to be born, let alone die on the cross to bring remission of sins, Zacharias could speak confidently that the future events are so certain to happen that they can be spoken of as having happened. A horn (strength and rulership) of salvation has been raised up (Psalm 18:2; I Samuel 2:1,10; Daniel 7:24; Psalm 132:17). This was what had been prophesied since the beginning. The very first prophesy was to Eve (Genesis 3:15) and continued through the last Old Testament prophet (Malachi 4). The time of the Messiah was here!
The Messiah would save Israel from her enemies (Psalm 106:10). Most Jews looked for a temporal salvation, but our true enemies are the sins of this world (Ephesians 6:10-18; I Peter 5:8). God would show His mercy to Israel as He had promised (Psalm 98:3; 105:8-9). Specifically Zacharias mentioned the oath made to Abraham, recorded in Genesis 22:16-18). Being made free, God’s people would be able to serve Him without fear (Psalm 56:13; Romans 6:16-22). They would serve God in holiness and righteousness (Jeremiah 32:39-40; Ephesians 4:24; I Peter 1:15).
John’s purpose in this great deliverance is then declared. John would be the prophet to prepare the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; 4:5). While he couldn’t offer salvation, John would give the people of Israel knowledge of that salvation and redemption (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). If it wasn’t clear before, it is now plainly stated that the salvation coming would be from sins and not political enemies.
The one who follows John would be the light to the dark world (Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 9:2; 60:1-3,19; Malachi 4:2). This one, the Messiah, would lead the people out of their sins (Isaiah 42:7; 49:9).
Thus John grew up in the desert until it was time to announce the coming of the Lord. There he became strong in courage and understanding; a strength he would need for his mission.
Joseph Learns that Mary is Expecting (Matthew 1:18-25)
Matthew’s account emphasizes what we already learned from Luke. Jesus’ conception was a miracle. Mary and Joseph were only engaged and had not had relations when Mary became pregnant (Deuteronomy 20:7). Contrary to the Roman Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, the wording here in Matthew implies that after Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary did come together. Other children of Joseph and Mary are later mentioned (Mark 6:3; Matthew 12:46). Some would claim that Joseph was an older man, having children by a previous marriage, thus explaining why Joseph probably died before Jesus began his ministry and preserving the goal that Mary had no other children. The flaw in this reasoning is found in the genealogy of Matthew. If Joseph had other older children then Jesus would not be first in line for the throne of David. His right to the throne comes because he is the eldest child of Joseph, who was heir to the throne.
The fact that Mary was with child before their marriage placed Joseph in a difficult situation. Her pregnancy appeared to be proof of unfaithfulness. By the Law, Joseph could bring charges against her (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 - notice that engaged couples were still counted as husband and wife), yet it is clear that Joseph loved Mary. Being a just man, he decided that the best solution would be a quiet divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1).
While Joseph debated himself in regards to the best way to handle his dilemma, he was visited by an angel in a dream. This also gives us insight into the character of Joseph. He did not act rashly. He took time to consider his problem. Notice that the angel emphasis Joseph’s lineage to David. He was assured that Mary had not been unfaithful to him. She was carrying a child because of the Holy Spirit. The son who would be born would be named Jesus (meaning “savior”) because he would save his people from sins.
Thus the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled. A virgin gave birth to a son. But Isaiah’s prophecy said the boy’s name would be Immanuel (meaning “God with us”). The message of the angel to Joseph revealed how this was true. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, thus he was a descendant of God. Yet, as John told us, Jesus was also God (John 1:1) and dwelt among man (John 1:14). Hence, when Zacharias spoke of God visiting His people, he meant it in a literal way.
Joseph obeyed God and completed his marriage to Mary. Because he was Mary’s husband, the child by law became his child, though Joseph was not the one who supplied the seed (Matthew 13:55; Luke 4:22). Again Matthew’s account indicates that Joseph and Mary did have normal sexual relations as husband and wife after Jesus was born.