The John the Baptist Experience
Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger
Chapter 6: The Angel
and the Speechless Priest
Copyright © 20221
Visitors were allowed to call on John in his cell at certain times. Through this “grapevine,” John had heard about how Jesus had associated him with the “Elijah prophecy” at the end of Malachi. John wondered how much of what Jesus had declared had come by means of revelation, and how much of John’s own story Jesus had learned by other means.
John was just finishing his morning prayers when other visitors arrived. They were the ones to whom the guards and bars couldn’t deny admission, whenever they came. They were his memories, especially those of his father and mother. They were memories of his father’s words. Why do the “ears” of memory work better when we close our eyes? John wasn’t certain, but he leaned his head back on the cell wall, eyes closed, and it was as though he could hear the voice of Zacharias, his father, repeating John’s favorite stories — those related to his birth and the prophecies that ushered him into life.
The Angelic Prophecy
You and I can only know in broad strokes what those memories of John might have been, but we can be more clear about the prophecies he remembered, because the Lord has graciously recorded all of them. In the three previous chapters we have already familiarized ourselves with three of the five prophecies concerning John’s calling and ministry. Now as we prepare to explore the final two prophecies, both of which are found in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, let’s take a quick look at Luke himself, the author.
Luke, the only Gentile writer of the New Testament, wasn’t “just” a Gospel writer. He was a trained medical doctor (Paul calls him “the beloved physician”3 in Colossians 4:14), and he has come down to us in history as, well, an excellent historian. He not only gives us a historical account of Jesus’ life (that is, the Gospel of Luke), but his second volume details the key events of the Early Church. You know that volume as the “Book of Acts,” a careful reading of which will reveal that Luke was an eyewitness of Paul’s ministry.4
Luke tells us that he “investigated everything carefully from the beginning” (Luke 1:3),5 that his sources were “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2),6 that his preferred method was to write “in consecutive order” (1:3) so that every lover of God (Theophilus — 1:3) might know the exact truth of these matters with certainty (1:4). The good doctor then sets the stage for the first of the two prophetic words he reports:
- 5In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
- Luke 1:5-9
Let me share some thoughts quickly before we move on to Luke’s main story. Sometimes faith, even the faith of very faithful, godly, righteous people, must wait a long time for prayers to be answered. We have just read a passage in which two such answers were about to be fulfilled. The second of the two is more obvious than the first. The childlessness of Zacharias and Elizabeth was about to end, even though they were (I love Luke’s delicate, respectful phrase!) “advanced in years.”
The other long-awaited answer only comes clear with some historical background, and I ask your indulgence for a few moments to make the matter clear. There were thousands of ordained priests by the time of Herod the Great. As had been arranged by King David and his high priest Zadok, the membership of the priesthood had been partitioned into twenty-four divisions — 24 ministry “teams,” as it were. 1 Chronicles 24 gives the details of the matter, and the tenth verse of that chapter tells us that the eighth “team” or division was that of Abijah, the division of Zacharias (Luke 1:5).
Why this division? There were too many priests to minister at one time. Each had responsibilities at home and elsewhere. So temple duties were allotted based on division. To keep the math simple (so as not to complicate it by making these calculations based on the Jewish lunar calendar), with 24 divisions and 12 months, each team would take on ministry responsibilities in the temple for half a month each year.
Now, within that half-month window of service each year, any priest within a given division might have the great honor of burning incense before the Lord in the Holy Place of the temple, on the altar of incense that stood before the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place where God’s presence and glory resided. Even within a given division there were many priests, and every year, despite old priests retiring or dying, there were more new priests ordained to the ranks. So the decision was made that a man might only have this honor of the daily incense burning once in his life. And in order to give the honor to God of who might be chosen for the task on any given day within that two-week window of service, the choice was made by lot “according to the custom of the priestly office” (Luke 1:9).
So there it all is: many priests, 24 divisions, slightly more than two weeks of service each calendar year, and the daily incense-burning in the temple a matter of whether or not a priest was chosen by lot for this once-in-a-lifetime honor. Being “advanced in years,” John’s father, Zacharias, had waited many years to offer incense, that is, to present the prayers of God’s people.7 Imagine the joy in his soul to have his long-awaited heart’s desire fulfilled (and imagine the fear of God in his righteous soul as he performed this sacred duty just outside the Most Holy Place). And now Luke continues (Luke 1:10)—
And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
Luke’s narrative gives us a privilege rarely afforded even to Jewish priests. While the “whole multitude of people” are outside, Luke allows us to enter the Holy Place, walking in imagination just behind Zacharias as he approaches the small altar of incense. Take in this sacred moment. Observe as Zacharias places the incense on the coals of the altar. Inhale the fragrance of the burning spices as they begin to perfume the temple. Listen as Zacharias offers up the ritual, priestly prayer. And now — pay close attention, because God is about to demolish the status quo of a simple ritual and intervene in history!
- 11And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias…”
- Luke 1:11-13a
Here Zacharias stands just outside the thick curtain that separates him from God’s immediate presence. He is supposed to be the only one in the temple. Yet — suddenly! — this angelic being (at this point in the narrative we don’t yet know that this is Gabriel) appears to his right. The unexpected appearance of someone might startle us, if we thought ourselves alone. But if you read through the various accounts of humans and angels interacting, the appearance of the latter almost always terrifies the former; hence the angel’s words, “Don’t be afraid, Zacharias.”
- “…for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
- Luke 1:13b-14
Did you notice? The angel not only knows Zacharias’ name, but that of his wife as well. The good shepherd, Jesus would say, “calls His own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Is it any wonder that God’s angels should also know each individual among us by name?
And speaking of names, this heavenly servant of the Lord knows the name of the as-yet unconceived child — not actually “John,” as the Anglicized version has come down to us, but Yochanan. The name means God is gracious or God is favorable or Jehovah shows grace. There are those who think that preaching uncompromised truth about sin and repentance is somehow out of sync with the grace of God. But “Yochanan the Baptist,” the man whose name means God shows grace, exemplifies the combination of God’s grace with conviction of sin in his own person and forename, and calling to preach repentance,. In this age when the concept of grace is so much misunderstood and misrepresented, it is good to note with that godly man, John Newton, the stages through which God’s grace takes us. First,
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…8
and only after that do we discover that
…grace my fears relieved.
In his appearance to Zacharias in the temple, what amazing words the angel related! Perhaps this righteous couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth, having prayed earnestly through many years for a son, have abandoned that prayer because they are now “advanced in years.” Nevertheless, the accumulated years of prayer have not been lost before God. He has only awaited His perfect time, because the Lord is going to give them a son predicted by the prophets.
- “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.”
- Luke 1:15
What a son! The prohibition against wine and liquor might indicate that his is to be a Nazarite’s existence. But “filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb — what is this? This is extraordinary! The Spirit of the Lord had come upon various elders, judges, prophets, and kings in Israel’s history, but it had always been a temporary visitation, a gift of God given for a specific occasion, an empowering for battle or for a prophetic word. No one had ever been filled pre-natally.
- 16“And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
- Luke 1:16-17
Two chapters ago we looked at the two prophecies in Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5, especially how Jesus interpreted them. But here this angel ties this prophesied child to these passages in Malachi:
- He summarizes Malachi 3:1 — “will go as a forerunner” before the Lord;
- He concisely repeats and clarifies the “Elijah prophecy” of Malachi 4:5 — “in the spirit and power of Elijah”; and,
- He acquits himself exegetically and hermeneutically by tying in Malachi 4:5 with Malachi 4:6, the last verse of that prophetic book. Let’s quickly revisit those two verses to see them together:
5“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
This as-yet-unnamed angel, after directly quoting Malachi’s final verse, expands on it by adding: “[He shall turn the hearts of] the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous.” And summing up all of this activity…
- …the angel ties these prophetic passages in Malachi back to the first prophecy we considered, in chapter 3, alluding to Isaiah 40:3 — the “voice” who cries, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” This isn’t an abstract preparation of some hypothetical “way,” but rather a thorough work in the hearts of his fellow Jews, “so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
All of this amazing news leaves the old priest unsettled and uncertain.
- 18Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” 19The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”
- Luke 1:18-19
“Life” has taught us to be cynical, that if a “thing is too good to be true,” it is to be doubted and dismissed. I tend to think that few of us would have done any better than Zacharias, given similar circumstances. Thus, my question is not, “Why didn’t he believe?”, but rather, “Why did God send this message through an angel; and why this angel, rather than the Angel of the Lord?”
Think about it for a moment. The previous prophecies about John the Baptist were delivered by two prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. Almost all prophecies in general were delivered by men and women who were moved by the Spirit of God. A very select set of divine-human interactions are mediated by the Angel of the Lord — a theophany.9 So why would the Lord assign this particular task to one of His non-human and non-divine messengers? Allow me to propose several thoughts along these lines:
- John the Baptist was the end and apex of God’s line of Old Covenant prophets. And he had a special mission of preparing the way of the Lord. As such, perhaps someone greater than a human prophet was chosen by God to deliver the message of John’s immediate conception.
- Why not employ the Angel of the Lord in this matter? The Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Christophanic appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity, the same being as the Mal’akh / Angel / Messenger of the Covenant mentioned in the Malachi 3:1 prophecy about John. That Messenger, for Whom John is to act as the forerunner and herald, will soon become enwombed as God Incarnate. So circumstances would seem to dictate that another messenger10 should take His place.
- We have now come to the point in Luke’s narrative where we have learned that this is not just “any” angel, but the angel named Gabriel. The Scriptures give us the names of only two angels, Michael (mentioned in Daniel 10:13,21; 12:1; Jude 9; and, perhaps, though unnamed, 1 Thessalonians 4:1611) and Gabriel (Daniel 8:16-26; 9:20-27).12 Gabriel (whose name means champion of God) is the being who was charged with explaining the great Messianic prophecy of the Seventy Weeks to Daniel. How appropriate it would be, then, that as the fulfillment of that prophecy should be moving towards its close, the same angel should be sent to “usher in,” as it were, the last two figures of that epoch — John the Baptist and the Messiah Himself (Luke 1:26-28).
As a side note, let’s consider Gabriel’s sudden appearance for just a moment, apart from his message or mission in this passage. One moment Zacharias is alone before God; Gabriel suddenly appears. And then, just as quickly, he is no longer present. It’s as though he took a step forward from the presence of God, through the temple curtain, to deliver his message; then he takes a step backwards through the same “veil” and is gone.
That may be truer than we realize. Consider his words, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.” Note carefully the verb Gabriel uses: stands. Not “I was standing in the presence of God, until just a second ago”; nor “I usually stand in the presence of God, except when I’m sent on assignment.” No, I think what Gabriel, this spirit being, this messenger of the Most High, communicated is this: “Zacharias, you see me here before you as I am; but at this very instant I am also in heaven, standing before God Himself, relaying a message from the One Who sits on the throne.” Gabriel doesn’t have to “fly down,” “travel,” or be encumbered or restricted in any way by the limitations of four-dimensional space-time. God’s presence (He in whom we “live and move and exist” as Paul shared with the Athenians in Acts 17:28), angels, and the “cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 12:1) are far closer than we think. In the temple, God’s presence was “veiled” by the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the section where Zacharias stood.13 By analogy, a different sort of “curtain” separates the natural, physical realm, where we live our ordinary existence, from the spiritual. The separating veil between those realms can be pulled aside by the Holy One at any instant for His messengers when it is His will.
- Here is a final point about Gabriel’s involvement in this narrative. Why should Gabriel, or any angel, for that matter, be given this message about John’s conception, birth, and ministry? My answer is this: because of anticipated angelic joy! If that seems like a strange response, consider this: John’s message and ministry will be synonymous with conviction of sin and the wholesale repentance of many sinners. We know little of what transpires in heaven among the angels, but in Luke 15, that chapter which might be called “The Three Parables of the Lost Things,” Jesus draws back that “curtain” we were mentioning above in order to show us an extraordinary truth. First He says,
- “…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
- Luke 15:7
and then He makes the statement far more specific:
- “…I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
- Luke 15:10
Of the angels, Hebrews 1:14 makes a remarkable statement:Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?
Now — at last! — through the preparatory ministry of John and the atoning ministry of the Lord Himself, angelic joy will abound. Why? Because those sinners who repent and turn to God will finally become “heirs of salvation,” and these “ministering spirits,” these glorious angels, will be able to fulfill a major role for which they were created.
So why did God send this message through an angel? In anticipation of angelic joy. Why didn’t He deliver the message as the Angel of the Lord? Because the New Covenant was dawning and God would no longer merely appear in human form as a Theophany or a Christophany; He would forever join His divinity to our humanity in the Person of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. And why Gabriel? Because it was fitting that the angel who revealed the Seventy Weeks to Daniel should be the one who announced the two (John the Baptist and Jesus) who should bring that period to its fulfillment. Blessèd be God for His wisdom and timing and choices of messenger!
There will be “joy in the presence of the angels” — perhaps especially this one named Gabriel — when this as-yet-unconceived prophet moves the people towards God by means of repentance. However, it’s not joy, but disappointment, that governs this messenger’s response to Zacharias’ unbelief.
- 20“And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” 21The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute.
- Luke 1:20-22
Whatever we might think of Zacharias’ expression of unbelief and subsequent consequence of speechlessness for a season, his muteness eloquently communicated to the praying, waiting throng that something out of the ordinary had transpired. And that same speechless state dramatically sets the stage, a little while later in Luke 1, for Zacharias’ prophecy over young John.
As we conclude our exploration of this angelic prophecy, let’s move on from our previous consideration of angelic joys to something closer to home — specifically the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth.
- 23When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 24After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25“This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”
- Luke 1:23-25
To be delicate, but direct, Zacharias had the faith to go home and make love to his wife. Whether this involved some physiological revitalization for either of them, only God knows. Perhaps along these lines, Zacharias had previously “contemplated his own body, as good as dead” because of his age; added to which, he stumbled at the “deadness” of Elizabeth’s womb (Romans 4:19). But in the footsteps of the grand patriarch Abraham, Zacharias finally came into that measure of faith which accompanies God’s rhema:
- Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.
- Romans 4:19-21
On that note, we will leave the familial bliss of the speechless Zacharias, the gleeful, grateful, glowing Elizabeth and the mighty prophet she carries within. That unborn babe will soon leap for Spirit-filled joy in Elizabeth’s womb when he senses the presence of his Lord in the womb of Mary (Luke 1:44).
The Prophecy of the Speechless Priest
We return from the one who had been that “unborn babe” floating in the protective womb to the now-chained prisoner in a tiny cell. John felt the weight and chafing of his shackles and the heaviness of his soul. It had been many years since he had buried his father and mother, since he had seen the home which had been his birthplace in the Judean hills, since he had heard his father repeat the oft-told story of his birth and naming. And as one whose fame was built on his public preaching, John wondered, not for the first time, what it would have been like for his father to be without speech for ten months.
- 57Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called.
- Luke 1:57-62
John smiled to himself. That had been his father’s favorite joke. Zacharias had learned much from his affliction of speechlessness, and at the top of his list was how little able-bodied people understood those with disabilities. Young John would nestle in his father’s lap, listening to the story he knew by heart.
“Well, so there we were, the whole town and all our relatives gathered for the celebration of your b’rit milah14 and naming. Your mother had clearly stated that you would be called Yochanan — John. But, no-o-o, your mother’s word wasn’t good enough for the friends and relatives — as though your mother had been a flighty lark, even though she had been speaking for me for ten months’ time. (Ha! Imagine not having to say, ‘Yes, dear’ for ten whole months!) So they turned to me — I was mute, mind you, not deaf — and they started gesticulating and gesturing.” Then Zacharias would exaggeratedly pantomime their hand motions and facial expressions, and imitate the increasing volume of their queries, in a way that would always make his young son giggle. “They were treating me like I was a deaf man! I wasn’t deaf, I was mute! Didn’t they know the difference?!”
And with that punchline, Zacharias would always laugh his hearty laugh, squeeze his son affectionately, and kiss his forehead.
“Then what happened, Papa?”
“‘Then what happened?’ Why, I made my own hand motions and asked for a writing tablet and stylus.” Zacharias would pantomime his own gestures, knitting his bushy, white eyebrows together as he scrunched his age-lined face up with frustration. “And then I wrote in great big letters, ‘HIS NAME IS JOHN!’ And they were all astonished!”15
“And then what happened, Papa?”
“ ‘Then what happened?’ Why, when I wrote the name the angel had given you — John, Yochanan, “God is gracious” — the Holy One, Blessèd be He, took away the stigma of my foolish, unbelieving mouth and heart. He opened my mouth, unloosed my tongue!”
“And then what happened, Papa?”
“Then,” the old man answered softly, “I did what I had been longing to do for ten months.” And here, he would always pause for dramatic effect, a part of the storytelling that he could not omit without incurring his son’s disapproval.
“What was that, Papa?”
“I… began… TO PRAISE GOD AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS!”16 he shouted, at which young John would clap his hands gleefully. “And that’s when they, all of them — family, friends, neighbors, and many folks who hadn’t even been there at the celebration — began to talk about what God had done… and about you, son.”
The happy memory slowly dissolved into the reality of John’s cell. He sighed and wondered if that happy story would die with him.
Not so! You and I know this story two thousand years later, thanks to the inspired ministry and meticulous research of our brother, Dr. Luke. We’ll let the “beloved physician” pick up the narrative at this point and move us forward through Zacharias’ prophecy.
- 65Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.
- Luke 1:65-66
What eloquence, what news, rumor, report, anticipation, and “buzz” God brought out of the reversal of Zacharias’ affliction of speechlessness! I fear we are all too much like Zacharias, muted by our unbelief. May we in faith confess (that is, say the same thing as God) our need, in order to have our mouths opened and our own tongues unloosed to speak the truth of what God reveals to us!17
Now, at last, we have come to the point in Luke’s account where a man — Zacharias — is filled with the Holy Spirit. This is months after Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35); Elizabeth, too, had been filled with the Spirit upon Mary’s visit (Luke 1:41), at which point the unborn child John was filled as well (Luke 1:15,41,44).
The heavenly norm is that man and woman together should receive the Holy Spirit and enter into the things of God, as on the Day of Pentecost. But today’s Church seems to operate on a “man the lifeboats” principle — “women and children first.” Too often what we see today in the Church is a preponderance of women and children, both in attendance, and (in the case of the women) in the work to be done. I could espouse many reasons for this, but will limit myself to just one, woman’s supposed weakness — she leads with her heart. Because of this “weakness,” generally speaking, women respond to the message of the Lord and things of the Spirit far more readily than men. In observing and serving the Church for over fifty years, I have learned this truth: almost always the women and children are first in the things of God.
Nevertheless, praise the Lord, there are men who come into the fullness of what God has for them, and Zacharias is both a type of those men and an example for them. Finally he is filled with God, and can worship, praise, and speak His word with boldness. He is a living example of Wesley’s lyric:
Hear Him, ye deaf! His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ!18
Let’s look at this newly Spirit-filled man and see how he and God employ his “loosened tongue” in prophetic praise and utterance:
67And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
69And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant—
70As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
71Salvation from our enemies,
And from the hand of all who hate us;
72To show mercy toward our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
73The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
74To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”
For the sake of our study of the indispensability of the life and ministry of John the Baptist, we intend to focus mostly on the closing part of Zacharias’ prophetic song. Nevertheless, with a nod to context, and because of the wealth of content in this inspired outpouring of the heart, it is good to point out how all of this section is focused on Messiah and the results of His coming. This is a classic outworking of that later revelation to the Apostle John that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10).
- Verse 68: “He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” Zacharias speaks of this past tense, as an already accomplished fact. During the three months that Mary had lived in his home (Luke 1:56), he had become more than convinced that Messiah grew in her womb.
- Verse 69: “A horn of salvation” is not a musical instrument. A common Hebraism, which you can discover for yourself in an Old Testament word study, is that of the horn as a symbol of strength and power. It comes from the idea of rams, he-goats, and the males of the deer and antelope families clashing horns to vie for supremacy. And the fact that this is raised up “in the house of David” shows the Messianic nature of the prophecy — Messiah, the Anointed One, will be the promised “son of David.”
- Verse 71 is a prophetic quotation from Psalm 106:10—
- So He saved them from the hand of the one who hated them,
And redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.
- In the context of the psalm itself, the reference is to Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. The verse before speaks of God parting the sea, and the verse after says,
- The waters covered their adversaries;
Not one of them was left.
- But through Zacharias, the Holy Spirit is foretelling our full salvation in Messiah Jesus.
- In verses 72 and 73, Zacharias still seems to be pouring forth from the heart of the Psalms, flowing backwards from Psalm 106:10 to Psalm 105:8-9—
- 8He has remembered His covenant forever,
The word which He commanded to a thousand generations,
9The covenant which He made with Abraham…
- Verses 74-75 lay bare God’s purpose in saving us:
- 74To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
- Christian, do you see your privilege and responsibility? Your salvation is meant to free you to serve God in holiness and righteousness all your days. Are you wasting that freedom on something less worthy? Repent, then, and heed the exhortation:
- Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things!
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings!19
Now that the Messianic hopes and expectations of Zacharias’ friends and neighbors have been stirred and elevated by his prophetic utterances, John’s aged father reaches the denouement of ecstatic oracle. No prophet had spoken to Israel for 400 years! It was as though God Himself had become “mute” for four centuries. And now, through this mute, speechless priest, God’s “tongue” has been loosed to speak of imminent and immanent Messianic glory.
God’s newly designated “prophet” isn’t done! He turns to his named and circumcised son, saying,
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
77To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
78Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
79To shine upon those who sit
in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Out of this personal prophecy to God’s Forerunner, let’s pull some key points:
- In verse 76, the phrase “the prophet of the Most High” could use, perhaps, just a tiny tweak. The definite article (i.e., the word “the”) isn’t present in the Greek original. But its inclusion in the English translation is justified on the basis of the next line; after all, we aren’t referring to just any prophet, but to the special prophet foretold in Malachi 3:1 (and 4:5-6 and Isaiah 40:3). So using the indefinite article (e.g., a or an) wouldn’t do.20 We could clarify this simply by capitalizing the “p” in prophet: “You, child, will be called ‘Prophet of the Most High.’ ”
- As we’ve already indicated, Zacharias, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, applies Malachi 3:1 to his son’s life and ministry — He will prepare the way of the Lord.21
- How will John prepare the way of the Lord? Verse 77 gives us an important part of his future modus operandi — he will impart to them “the knowledge of salvation by forgiveness of their sins.” As we will see in John’s preaching and teaching, which we explore in Book 2, the bridge between that knowledge and that forgiveness is a thorough-going, heart-searching, soul-purging repentance. Yet as difficult as that sounds, this will be deeply interwoven with…
- “…the tender mercies of our God” (as we read in verse 78). Those mercies will be visited upon us by the ἀνατολὴ ἐξ ὕψους (anatolē ex húpsous), variously rendered Sunrise / Dayspring / Light / Daybreak / Sun / Rising, coupled with the phrase from on High. However translated, it is clearly a reference to Messiah. And considering the fact that the Holy Spirit just drew from Malachi 3:1 in this prophecy (verse 76), it’s not a surprise that this additional element of Malachi 4:2 is introduced into Zacharias’ oracle:
- But for you who fear My name, the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.
- This evokes such Messianic passages as “a Star shall come forth from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) and “Arise, shine; for your Light has come; and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). Jesus Himself makes the tie-in for us in Revelation 22:16— “I am the Root and Descendant of David, the bright Morning Star.”22
- In verse 79, at the very end of Zacharias’ prophecy, the Holy Spirit has him speak forth a unique, looser presentation of Isaiah 9:2. What you’ll find in your Hebrew-based Old Testament is something like this:
- The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.
- As you can see below, the Septuagint reading is closer, especially in the matter of “the shadow of death”—
- O people walking in darkness,
behold a great light:
ye that dwell in the region and shadow of death,
a light shall shine upon you.
- Zacharias’ son, John the Baptist, will be the one who will point God’s people towards the light of that Sun, guiding23 the feet of those who seek the Lord into His “Way of peace” (Luke 1:79) — “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
Here Zacharias’ amazing prophecy ends. The stunned attendees at John’s circumcision ceremony are amazed and overwhelmed. The beaming father and mother hold the infant close. This little eight-day-old bundle is Messiah’s herald. He has been tasked with and empowered for the most important ministry any man has ever had up to that point in time: to bring God’s people to a place of repentant preparation for the unveiling of “the Lord our Righteousness.”
We come at last to the end of the prologue of our inspired historian, Dr. Luke. He has shared with us the final two prophecies spoken concerning John — that of Gabriel and that of John’s father Zacharias. Then the “beloved physician” compresses the next thirty years of John’s life into a single verse:
- And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
- Luke 1:80
The “Lord of Years, the Potentate of Time”24 always has His sovereign timetable; thus He is never in a hurry. John wasn’t flung into ministry as a “boy preacher” or a “teenage sensation.” The God who is never late can afford the time necessary for John to “grow and become strong in spirit” (note that latter prepositional phrase — in spirit!). Spirit-filled though he is, John must become a man of God, intimate with the Holy Spirit, set apart for Messiah, utterly consecrated and obedient to the Holy One of Israel.
In these opening chapters, we have surveyed the far-reaching extent of John’s ministry. We have marveled that, so weighty and important is he in God’s scales, he is the subject of five prophecies. John is the man who will “out-Elijah” the famed Tishbite. Never mind whirlwinds and chariots removing a prophet from the earth; John’s message will be the spiritual whirlwind on the earth, and John himself will be, in a sense, the “chariot” who will introduce Jesus and His ministry to the earth. John's task is proclaimed by human and angelic prophecies. If John fails in his ministry, the Lord will “come and smite the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).
John will be the one of whom the Lord Himself says, “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Jesus’ ministry can’t begin without John; and neither Jesus’ ministry nor the very Gospel itself can be fully preached or completely understood apart from the work of John the Baptist.
With that weight resting on his shoulders, this exceptional messenger, Yochanan ben-Zacharias or (as we have come to know him) John the Baptist, must be very clear about the spiritual source, the thrust, the content, and the focus of his message as Messiah’s herald. Without the word of the Lord, empowered by the Holy Spirit, impassioned by the Father’s heart, delivered in God’s timing, he will accomplish nothing. It is John’s powerful, effective, fruitful (and, to us, perhaps counterintuitive) message which we will now explore in Book Two: The Extraordinary Message.
- This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger; copyright © 2022 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org ↩
- Cover: Detail from Mathias Grünewald's altarpiece Crucifixion-scene painting for a church in Isenheim, France (c. 1515). Courtesy of Wikipedia, but copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The Latin phrase in the “crook” of John's arm declares, “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui,” the Vulgate reading of John 3:30 — “He must increase, I must decrease.” ↩
- Considering the number of times Paul was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and incarcerated, having a medical doctor on his “ministry team” would have been a godsend to Paul. ↩
- The next time you read the Book of Acts, when you come to the story of “the Macedonian call” (Acts 16:6-10), note Luke’s use of pronouns carefully: “they” (v. 6), “they” and “them” (v. 7), “they” (v. 8), then “he” at the beginning of verse 10. But watch the pronoun shift after the first phrase in verse 10 — “immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” At this point, Luke has become part of Paul’s team. A sharp-eyed pronoun-aware reading of the rest of Acts will tell you when Luke was present as an eyewitness. ↩
- We know from studying the Book of Acts, Luke’s other great volume, that the author was careful and detailed in the facts he presented. See The “Judicial Adventures” of Paul the Apostle for a study of Luke’s precision in the political and juridical realms. ↩
- Given the level of detail we find in Luke’s Gospel, especially in the first and second chapters, one of those eyewitnesses must have been Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thus, she would have been the source of the story of Zacharias’ angelic vision (Luke 1:8-24), of the stories of her own angelic visitation (Luke 1:25-38) and her visit to Zacharias’ household (Luke 1:39-56), of John’s birth (1:57-80), of the visit of the shepherds to the stable (Luke 2:1-21), of the encounter with Simeon and Anna in the temple (Luke 2:22-38), of the family’s first return to Nazareth (Luke 2:39-40), of Jesus’ visit to the temple at age 12 (Luke 2:41-52), of her own genealogy (Luke 3:23-38), and of her presence with the 120 who prayed in the Upper Room until the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1;14).
In addition, Mary would have been Matthew’s source for incidents such as Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-21,24), their family’s residence in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11), the magis’ visit to their home (Matthew 2:1-12), the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18), and the family’s final return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23).
(Regarding the first and final returns to Nazareth, see my December 2022 article on Messiah’s Missing Months and the Magi.) ↩
- See Revelation 8:3-4. ↩
- From verse two of Newton’s Amazing Grace. ↩
- Partially because of our focus in this book, and partially because I have dealt with this topic in the study Who Was the Angel of the Lord?, this is not the place to pursue the subject of that Theophany. However, we can briefly note that He was responsible for such major events as preventing the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:11-18), two key interactions with Jacob (Genesis 28:12-19; 32:24-30; Hosea 12:3-5), the giving of the Law to Moses (Exodus 3:2ff), and the aiding of Gideon (Judges 6:11-24). He was also responsible for several personal prophecies, including those to Hagar about Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-14; 21:16-20), the word to Manoah and his wife about the birth of Samson (Judges 13:3-23), and various words to Elijah, Balaam, etc. ↩
- As we make clear in the Who Was the Angel of the Lord? article, the word angel, whether in the Old Testament’s Hebrew language (מַלְאָךְ / malʾāḵ) or the New Testament’s Greek language (ἄγγελος / ángelos), simply means messenger. Context must tell us whether a celestial or human messenger is designated. ↩
- I include the 1 Thessalonians 4:16 reference because of the word archangel (ἀρχάγγελος / archángelos). The word is used only twice in all the Bible, and only once specifically of a named angel — Michael, in Jude 9. That makes it likely (though not definite) that Michael is the archangel referred to in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Perhaps this term archangel is somehow equivalent to Michael’s designation as a “prince” in Daniel (10:13,21; 12:1). Whatever the case, despite what tradition may tell us, Scripture never accords Gabriel with the title of archangel; that designation is given to Michael alone. ↩
- Perhaps Gabriel is also the one speaking in Daniel 10, etc., but that is not clear. ↩
- I’m not saying that Gabriel actually did “step out from behind the temple curtain”; I’m merely using this curtain allegory to illustrate how easily heavenly beings can transition to our terrestrial plane, ↩
- That is, John’s circumcision on the eighth day after his birth. ↩
- Luke 1:63 ↩
- Luke 1:64 ↩
- We will explore the topic of confession in Book Two: The Extraordinary Message. ↩
- From Wesley’s enlightening Hymn to Be Sung on the Anniversary of One’s Conversion, usually better known by its shortened version entitled O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing. Poor Zacharias only had one tongue, but he employed it well in this holy, passionate outpouring. ↩
- This is just the “tip of the iceberg” of the stirring message in William Merrill’s hymn, Rise Up, O Men of God. ↩
- In Koine Greek, there is no “indefinite article,” per se. It is provided in English translations when a definite article is missing, if appropriate; or the inclusion of a definite article may be called for depending on the context. ↩
- Note the interesting balance here between Gabriel’s prophecy and that of Zacharias: Gabriel (Luke 1:17) quotes from the second part of Malachi’s “Elijah prophecy (Malachi 4:6), while Zacharias quotes from Malachi’s “messenger” prophecy (3:1). ↩
- Curiously, the word ἀνατολή (anatolē — Sunrise, Dayspring, etc.) also ties this passage in with the “Branch” prophecies of the Messiah. “The word,” says Greek scholar Marvin R. Vincent, “occurs in the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek Old Testament) as a rendering of (the Hebrew word for) branch, as something rising or springing up.” He points us to such passages as Jeremiah 23:5 and Isaiah 60:19. See his notes on Luke 1:78 concerning the phrase ἀνατολὴ ἐξ ὕψους (anatolē ex húpous) in his Word Studies in the New Testament (volume 1, page 266). ↩
- The verb guide in Luke 1:79 (“to guide our feet into the way of peace”) will be enlightening to those who found interest in the word study of εὐθύς (euthús) we presented in Deeper Dive #4: Peter as “Mr. Euthus-iasm”. As we saw there, euthús can mean straight (when used as an adjective) or immediately or quickly (when used as an adverb). The verb for guide here in Luke 1:79 is κατευθύνω (kateuthúnō), in which we can see our word euthús (εὐθύς) in the verbal “sandwich” – kat – euthu -nō (κατ – ευθυ – νω) — simply missing its final “s” (that is, its final sigma or ς). The light of God’s revelation to our hearts whenever it comes — but perhaps never more critically than when it comes to us in our sinful, unsaved condition — is meant to guide us in a straight path, and it demands an urgent, immediate response. ↩
- This phrase comes from that glorious hymn of heavenly coronation, Crown Him with Many Crowns by Bridges and Thring. ↩