Pastor Scott Andrews | August 13, 2023
I’m going to coin a new term today. Just remember, you heard it here first. I suspect that some of us, maybe many here this morning might be Theophilites. You say, what in the world is a Theophilite? Glad you asked. It comes from the Greek name Theophilus. You may remember the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were both written to Theophilus. We actually don’t know much about him. We can guess he was a Gentile, given his Greek name. Okay, you say, that’s fine, so am I. It’s possible he was a high-ranking Roman official, given the way Luke addresses him – most excellent Theophilus. Okay, I’m warming up to the name. Some suggest he may have been Luke’s patron – that is, the guy funding the writing of these two books. With all the necessary investigative work and travel, it was kind of an expensive undertaking. Okay, I’ve got some money – keep going.
Don’t miss this: we know his name means lover of God or loved by God. You say, I like that – maybe I wouldn’t mind being called a Theophilite after all. But…here’s the catch – it seems Theophilus was struggling – with questions, maybe even doubts about his perhaps new Christian faith. Maybe as he looked around and saw his Roman counterparts dismissing the faith, even attacking the faith, he was wondering if it was indeed true. If it was indeed worth it. Maybe, quietly you would admit the same thing – I think I might just be a Theophilite. I mean, it’s one thing to be in the majority – when lots claim to be Christians. But that’s seemingly in the past in our society. Fewer and fewer are laying claim to the title. Not only that, it kind of costs something to be a Christian.
And so, a Theophilite is one who has believed the claims of the Christian faith – he or she loves God or is loved by God. But, as he looks around at the rising opposition to the faith and those deserting the faith, he wonders, she wonders – is it true? Is it right? Is it worth it?
Well, my Theophilite friend – you are exactly the person to whom Luke writes. Remember his purpose statement at the beginning of the book, I write to you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know with certainty the things you have been taught. That in the midst of question and doubt all around and maybe within, you can be convinced that what you have believed is infallibly true. I suspect, even hope, there are those here struggling with maintaining faith – trust. Because this book is for you.
You see, after his prologue where he stated his purpose, Luke launched into a couple of birth narratives found only in his book. Yes, we do find a little about the birth of Jesus to Joseph and Mary in Matthew, but not to this extent – not with this carefully investigated detail. And so we should ask the question, given Luke’s purpose, why is it here?
We have found that Luke records the births of John and Jesus – listen carefully – both as fulfillments of OT prophecies. In other words, both fulfillments of the promises of God. Doubting God’s faithfulness? Here you go. You see, our faith is built on the promises of God found in this book. God can be trusted, because what He says He will do, He will do. The promises He makes, He will keep. And He has promised throughout time, from the very beginning, that despite our failures and shortcomings, despite our sin and rebellion, God is not done with humanity. He promised from the very first sin to redeem a people for Himself through the seed of the woman – the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God who would come to die on a cross for sinners, be raised again the third day – and those who believe in His work, and trust Him and Him alone for salvation, will be saved from the judgment and wrath to come.
These birth narratives are clearly and carefully interwoven, following a specific pattern: promise, sign, fulfillment and response. He switches back and forth between the promise of conception and the births themselves so we can see – God promised, a sign was given to encourage faith, it was fulfilled, and there was a response of people to God keeping His promises. God is a promise keeping God – we see it over and over in Scripture, giving us confidence in Him. This Bible is God’s self-revelation, given to us to prove He’s faithful, and can be trusted to keep His promises.
These birth narratives follow that pattern, which we’ve seen already:
- The promises of conception to both Zacharias and Mary.
- Supernatural signs to confirm the promise – to Zacharias in his unbelief, that he would be mute until the promise is fulfilled; to Mary, incredulous yet believing, that her older, barren relative Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy – proving nothing is impossible with God.
- Followed by the response – Elizabeth sees the promise and its fulfillment as taking away her reproach; Mary sees the fulfillment as confirmed by Elizabeth, to which she breaks out in song called the Magnificat, which we looked at last week.
We remember the Magnificat is one of four songs in response to God keeping His promises in the birth narratives – the Magnificat by Mary, the Benedictus by Zacharias, the Gloria by the angels, and the Nunc Dimittis by Simeon. All of them, don’t miss it, are praises to God for the unfailing, unfaltering fulfillment of His promises.
Which brings us, as Luke switches back and forth, to the birth of Zacharias and Elizabeth’s son, named John, later called the Baptist. Mary has just spent three months with Elizabeth. Either shortly before or after the birth, she returned home. Remember, to face the potential shame and ridicule for her now apparent pregnancy. As we switch back to Elizabeth’s birth, we see the following pattern – actually with both Elizabeth and Mary in their respective births in chapters 1 and 2:
- The birth
- Followed by a response
- Followed by circumcision
- Followed by naming
- Followed by a response
Let me fill that out for you in these births:
- The birth of John to Elizabeth in chapter 1, the birth of Jesus to Mary in chapter 2.
- The response of the people to John’s birth; and the response of the angels to Jesus’ birth.
- The circumcisions of John and Jesus – both per OT instruction, eight days after their births.
- The namings of John and Jesus per Gabriel’s instruction.
- The response of Zacharias to the birth and naming of John; and the response of Simeon to the birth and naming of Jesus.
You see the intentional intertwining of these two births – as fulfillment of OT prophecies and God’s promises through Gabriel to these respective parents. Once again, we are brought face to face with the consistency and continuity of the OT with the New. And God’s faithfulness to His promises. This morning, we will look at the birth of John, named the Baptist, in Luke 1:57-66.
Now it’s important to remember this is a fulfillment of what Gabriel said to Zacharias at the beginning of chapter 1. There, we found Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah, and Elizabeth was also of the line of Aaron. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. Which is interesting – we’ll come back to that. We also find that they were childless because Elizabeth was barren, and they were past childbearing years. You should hear ominous or better, God’s-about-to-do-something music in the background.
Now, the priests were required to be in Jerusalem at the Temple during the three major Jewish feasts of the year – the Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths. Additionally, they were required to serve two weeks per year. So, this couple lived in the hill country of Judea, right outside Jerusalem to be available for his duties, and we find it was Zacharias’ division turn to serve. Lots were cast, and he drew the once in a lifetime duty of tending to the altar of incense inside the holy place – right in front of the veil that separated the holy place from the most holy place. It was an unbelievable honor – one most priests never experienced.
Well, that day, while he was performing his duty at the altar, an angel appeared to him, telling him God had their prayers, and Elizabeth, his elderly, barren wife would have son. They were to name him John, and you will have the joy and gladness you always dreamed of, and many people would rejoice at his birth. Further, he would be great in the sight of God, he was to drink no wine or liquor, because he would be the forerunner to the Messiah – promised 400 years ago through the last prophet of the OT – Malachi. He would go in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers back to their children, and the disobedient to an attitude of righteousness. All this to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. This was incredible, even unbelievable.
And so, we remember Zacharias’ response was one of unbelief – “How can I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” This wasn’t like Mary’s later question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary question was process, biology. Zacharias was demonstrating doubt – a lack of trust – unbelief. And so, the angel responds, “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.” This good news you have not believed. “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, (notice) which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
How can I know for certainty? Because you didn’t believe, your sign of confirmation will be one of discipline, until all is fulfilled – and make no mistake about it, it will be fulfilled. It started with Elizabeth conceiving in her old age. She kept herself in seclusion – we don’t know why, perhaps because she is overwhelmed by God’s mercy toward her, and she was awaiting the fulfillment when the child is born, taking away her disgrace. It’s now nine months later, and the time has come. Here’s the outline as we jump into the text:
- The Birth of John (57)
- The Response to the Birth (58)
- The Circumcision and Naming (59-63)
- The Response to the Naming (64-66)
You see, it follows the pattern – the birth of Jesus will follow the same pattern, with a little more detail, and infinitely greater significance. But, let’s not forget – Jesus will later say of John, of those born of women, no one is greater than John the Baptist. We will see why in Luke 7. But, let’s start with the birth of John. Verse 57 simply says, now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. Not much fanfare, right? Not exactly.
Now the time had come is passive – a divine passive. God is the one who brought about this miraculous conception between two, over the hill, past childbearing age people. You see, I reviewed the promise earlier in the chapter to remind us – don’t be bored with the event here. The time had come – God brought about these miraculous events in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, because God is a faithful, promise-keeping God. Luke is reminding us, Theophilites. Not only did He fulfill the prophecy – He brought about what He said He would do through Gabriel. And nine months later, her time came, and she gave birth to a son. By the way, God said it would be a son – there was a fifty-fifty chance it would be – but God said it would a son – so it was actually a one-hundred percent chance it would be so.
Listen, we all make guesses when a wife or a daughter or a friend gets pregnant. Sometimes you’re right – my goodness, you have fifty percent chance of being right. Heartrate, high or low, position of the baby, high or low, in the front or in the back. All kinds of wives’ tales, but in the end, it’s just a guess, and you also have a fifty percent chance of being wrong. Yes, you can get ultrasounds, blood tests today to discover – not determine, but discover the gender. Not with God – He determined and knew. He’s always right.
Which leads to our second point – the response to the birth. Remember, they lived in an unnamed city in the Judean hill country, probably within a few miles of Jerusalem. Remember also Elizabeth had kept herself in seclusion. We don’t know for how long – at least five months, verse 24 says. But it’s possible she kept herself in seclusion until the baby was born, thus taking away her reproach. Remember, back then, if you were childless, it was seen as God’s judgment for some known or unknown sin in your life. While the wife of a priest, she was still childless – and people looked at her with suspicion. What did you do?
So, when the son was born and her neighbors and relatives heard of the birth, they knew rightly that the Lord had displayed His great mercy (megaluno) toward her. You see, children are a gift – an inheritance from the Lord. They rightly saw that God had been merciful – God had granted the gift of a son. Now, back then, friends and relatives did celebrate the birth of a child, especially if it was a son. Musicians would be hired, they would play, and a party would be had. The reason it was seen as a special child if a son was sons were seen as a 401k – they would be responsible to take care of the aging parents, especially the aging mother if she were a widow. To be clear, daughters are as much a gift from the Lord as sons – this is simply the way they viewed it culturally.
And so, they rejoiced greatly at the child’s birth. At this point, it was because barren Elizabeth gave birth. He was the cause of great joy as Gabriel had promised. But there would be even greater joy to come – when they received the answer to their question, “What then will this child turn out to be?” What indeed – we’ll come back to that.
Bringing us to the circumcision and the naming in verses 59-63. On the eighth day, according to OT law, they prepared to circumcise the child. The practice was instituted in Genesis 17, when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, that he would be fruitful. God promised him the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. And as a sign and seal of the covenant between God and Abraham, Abraham was to circumcise all his male descendants at eight days old. It was enshrined in the Law in Leviticus 12:3 when all baby boys were to be circumcised, again, at eight days of age.
So, Zacharias and Elizabeth – remember, they were blameless concerning the commandments of the Lord – prepared to circumcise John on the eighth day. It was usually done by the father or priest, or if circumstances necessitated, by the mother. The rite required witnesses – later, ten witnesses had to be present. Again, it was sign of the covenant, that the child was part of the covenant community of Israel. It was incredibly important.
Now today, it’s not part of the New Covenant – that is, that we circumcise our sons. Paul makes that clear in Galatians. But there is a sign of the New Covenant – it’s baptism. You became part of the old covenant family through natural birth. And the sign of the old covenant was circumcision. But you become partakers of the New Covenant by supernatural birth – by being born again. And the sign and seal of the New Covenant – that salvation has happened – is baptism. Which is why we practice believer’s baptism. You don’t become a partaker until you believe – by grace through faith. And every instance of baptism in the NT is of believers – I say this gently, never infants. They are not partakers of the new covenant until they believe.
Well, Zacharias and Elizabeth came to circumcise their son. And apparently, while not biblical, there arose a tradition to name the son on the eighth day – at circumcision. And the people gathered for the event were calling the boy Zacharias, after his father. You see, usually at this time, you named him either after the father or grandfather – that was the accepted and expected practice. But his mother, Elizabeth, answered and said rather strongly, “No indeed, but he shall be called John.” He shall be – future tense. We don’t know whether this was by divine inspiration – that is, God somehow revealed what his name would be – or if Zacharias over the past nine months had somehow revealed that to his wife. It was probably the latter – I’m sure he somehow communicated to her what had happened in the Temple with Gabriel.
But, the people gathered said, umm, no – there’s no one among your relatives by that name. That’s wrong, pick something else. It should be junior. Many of us have had that experience, right? The wife gets pregnant, and through the pregnancy, the mom and dad consider names. Eventually, they decide on one and begin to share the name. And inevitably people say, umm, no – try again. Oh, they may not say that, but by their reaction, you know they disapprove. When Tana was pregnant with our first, we got a name book and began considering his name. Now, we didn’t know the gender – so we had two names picked out. But we noticed when we told people – his name will be Stephen Scott – there were lots of blank stares or, oh, okay.
So, we got the name book and began pouring over possible names. We decided if it was a boy – actual names from the book – if it was a boy, we would name him Smedley Demster, and if it was a girl, she would be Balbina Norberta. We began telling people that to groans and nervous laughter – then when we told them the real names, they’d go, oh we like those names. Whatever.
So, the people gathered that day didn’t like the name, so they went to Zacharias and said, hey, you’re wife’s out of control. What do you want to name him. Notice, they made signs to him, which indicates, not only was he mute, he had also been deaf for the past 9 months. What shall he be called. He asked for a writing tablet – the word speaks of a tablet covered with wax to receive the writing – and to everyone’s astonishment, he wrote, “His name is John.” And actually, John is first in the sentence for emphasis.
A couple thoughts about that. First, he doesn’t say, his name shall be John. He says John is his name. It’s been his name for nine months – because that’s what Gabriel said. Second, the name John, while not a family name, was common among priests, and it means the Lord is gracious. Think about the names in these two birth narratives. As one says, we begin to sense that God is up to something. Zacharias means God remembers. Elizabeth means God is faithful. John means God is gracious. A perfect name for the forerunner who will announce the gracious coming of the Messiah. And best of all, Jesus means, God saves.
Which brings us to our final point and conclusion – the response to the naming of John. Two responses. First was Zacharias. Verse 64 says, upon naming his son John per divine, angelic instruction, Zacharias’ tongue was loosed. Which is interesting. John had been born eight days previous. The promise had been fulfilled, right? Not completely. Not until Zacharias had learned his lesson and demonstrated that which had been lacking – faith – by naming the son John.
You see, when Gabriel appeared, Zacharias didn’t believe the good news, so he was disciplined until he believed, which he proved in naming his son John. Which is incredibly interesting. We read that Zacharias and Elizabeth were righteous in the sight of God, keeping all His commandments. But something was missing – it was faith – complete trust in the promises of God – the good news He came to give.
Yesterday I did a wedding – a bride and a groom who were both raised in committed Christian homes. Both made a profession of faith as children. The groom said I lived under the assumption that everyone had, that I was a Christian. But God met me when I was a junior in high school, and changed my life. The bride, who was raised in this church, said to me – I was a good, legalistic AWANA kid – trying really hard to get everyone and God to notice me, to like me. It wasn’t till I was thirteen that I realized, I wasn’t saved. I needed a personal relationship with Christ.
I wonder how many of you have been doing the same thing, like Zacharias. You’re doing all the right things – keeping the commandments of God. You’ve been trying to earn your way. But one thing you lack – faith in the good news of Christ. When you understand that you are sinner in need of a savior, and Jesus is that Savior, who accomplished redemption by dying on a cross for your sin. Who are you trying to impress – who are you trying to convince? Zacharias proved his faith by simply naming his son, John, God is gracious. Has God been gracious to you?
Well, Zacharias’ tongue was loosed, and there could only be one response – praise to God for what He had done. You see, these birth narratives are all about God. You see, next week, we’ll look at Zacharias’ praise in his song called the Benedictus. But there was another response – it was the response of the people. In addition to being astonished, fear came upon all those living in the region as they heard about Zacharias and Elizabeth having a son in their old age; Zacharias’ muteness and deafness until the son was named; and the name of this special child, God is gracious.
All who heard kept these things in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” Put yourself in their shoes. You know the answer. Maybe Zacharias and Elizabeth know the answer. The people? They don’t. They just know something incredible has happened. What is God up to? What will this child be? Well, just the fulfillment of the promise of a forerunner to the Messiah. God was commencing the plan of the ages. For you see, the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.
I’m talking to two groups of people today. Maybe you’re like Theophilus, struggling in your faith. Look at all the evidence – all that God did for you – and thereby to prove Himself faithful to His promises. There is no reason to doubt – you can trust Him. But second, maybe you’re like Zacharias – oh, you’re trying really hard to keep all the commandments of God. Trying to earn your way. Trying to impress God, and others – trying to get them to notice you, to like you. And perhaps there is one thing you lack – faith in the good news – in the promises of God. That Jesus came to be born in flesh, to live a perfect life, and die in that flesh, for sinners like you. Do you believe? Have you received God’s gift of grace, for you?