Series on Luke, II The Identification, A The Baptist Announced, Text: 1:5-25, Title: The Last Son of Elijah


It was the work of the prophets to call the people to obedience to the law and to issue threats if they disobeyed, and promises if they obeyed. However, there was one blessing that they always promised, and that was the coming King and Messiah. Elijah was the founder of the school of the prophets,  called sons of the prophets, and although there were other prophets before him, he is recognized as representing the prophets of the Old Testament. And later when Jesus is transfigured before James and Peter and John in the mount, it is Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets who appear with him discussing His impending death. There had been no voice of  prophecy for 400 years, but the very last prophet who had prophesied, at the end of your Old Testament, Malachi, says at the end of his prophecy in 4:5 and 6, See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. The people of Israel were weary of waiting for a message from God. It is not strange that they tended to identify, first John  the Baptist, and then Jesus, as Elijah risen from the dead. John was the one of whom the prophet Malachi wrote, but as we see in our text he was not Elijah, but he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, verse 17, And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In our text John’s birth is predicted and we should note the marvelous conception, the mystified cleric, and the  magnificent commission.

I The Marvelous Conception

This was not a virgin birth or an immaculate conception, but it was marvelous, and we might even call it miraculous in the same way as the birth of Isaac to Sarah, and Samuel to Hannah in their advanced years. God had to do a wonder to bring about what Scripture calls the “opening of the womb.” Have you noticed how many instances there are in the Bible of women past the age of childbearing becoming pregnant? This is why Zechariah doubted the angelic message. We read of it in verses 11-18, Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.  Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” There is another marvel involved in this birth and it too is something that God had done before. The boy was to be filled with the Spirit from his birth. He is described as a Nazarite avoiding all fermented beverage. Such was Samson, described in Judges 13, as a Nazarite from the womb. Such was Jeremiah the prophet in Jeremiah 1:4 and 5, The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” The apostle Paul makes a point in Galatians 1:15 that he was set apart from birth. God was doing a marvelous thing and John was called to announce it. God controls each small detail of the history of our salvation as is evident in verses 5-10, In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

II The Mystified Cleric

Zechariah, is frightened by the presence of the angel and in spite of the fact that he and his wife have been praying for years for a child, he is skeptical and says essentially, “You have got to be kidding,” there is no way I am going to believe that. Now he was a priest and he was a pious and upright man. He would have been acquainted with the Scriptures and he should have known what God had done in the past as well as what he promised for the future. The angel identifies himself as Gabriel, the ‘hero of God,” or the one who is like God. This is important because Gabriel is the messenger who visited Daniel in Babylon and predicted the advent of the Messiah in Daniel 9:24-27 would occur about the same time that Zechariah is serving in the temple. I would also remind you that when Gabriel said Zechariah’s prayers had been heard, it has a double meaning. The priest and his wife had prayed for a child, but it was also the assignment of the priest on duty to pray for the nation. The child who would be born was not only an answer to their personal prayer, but an answer to the cry of the people for a deliverer, because John would introduce the Messiah. In all fairness, we must remember Zechariah is a comparatively minor Aaronic priest living in the hill country, as we learn later in 1:39 and 40, At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. We are told in verse 23, When his time of service was completed, he returned home. He did not live in Jerusalem. And, also, He and his wife were living at the end of a long period of time characterized by no miracles, no prophecy or revelation. The situation is rapidly demystified for Zechariah when he expresses doubt and we read in verses 19-22, The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. The punishment for unbelief is also a blessing because it instantly confirms that the angel is indeed Gabriel, that the message is the Word of the Lord, and that it shall be fulfilled as in verses 24 and 25, After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

III Magnificent Commission

Throughout this passage we are informed of the mission of John. That mission is to be the forerunner of the Messiah and of the end of the Old Testament economy. He is the Elijah of whom the prophet Malachi wrote, and he is the messenger that will prepare the people for the Lord, that is the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God. He will be successful in turning the hearts of the people back to God, but this will be a difficult mission. John’s preaching will initiate the opposition from the religious leaders of Israel because he will demand that all repent in preparation for Messiah, including the scribes and Pharisees, Luke 7:29 and 30,  (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) Ultimately his mission will make him a martyr at the hands of Herod. It will also earn him the appellation given by Jesus of being the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Luke 7:28,  I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. He is the greatest because Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Micah and Zechariah all wrote of the coming one, but John got to present him to the nation and the world. Here is the one of whom the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.