Luke 1:5–25 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

As we begin our study of Luke's gospel, note the intertwining over the next few weeks of the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus. Luke begins at precisely the place where the prophet Malachi left off. The words of our final Old Testament prophet speak of the coming of one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Luke starts his gospel account with the report of Gabriel's announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah (a.k.a. "Zacharias" in other versions).

Negative with the Positive (vv. 5–7)

Graphic of positive and negative icons

Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are introduced in vv. 5–7. Two opposing emphases — negative and positive — can be found in those three verses. On the negative side, the description of this couple reveals characteristics that would have made them unacceptable to their Judaic contemporaries. On the positive side, we're shown qualities for which they found favor with God, and which were the basis for God selecting them as John's parents. We'll look at the "negative" qualities first:

– (1)  So far as Judaism was concerned, Zechariah and Elizabeth were obscure and insignificant people who weren't of sufficient social or economic standing to have been granted the privilege of being John's parents. Zechariah wasn't a priest of great renown. Neither by his training nor his place of residence was he seen as a cut above his peers. In our terminology, they were a hillbilly priest and wife. Where one came from did matter to the Jews. Recall Nathanael's response upon learning that Jesus was from Nazareth.

– (2)  Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and without children. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children. It may well have been thought that their predicament was the "judgment of God" for a sin they'd committed.

In contrast to the negative factors that would have disinclined a Jew of standing to have expected the parents of John to be this elderly couple, Luke records two "positive" characteristics that weighed heavily in their favor:

+ (1)  Zechariah was a priest; both he and his wife were of the tribe of Aaron (v. 5). It seems to have been important to God that John be of the priestly line, even though his function was largely prophetic.

+ (2)  Their spiritual devotion was also important. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly" (v. 6). This was both a priestly couple and a pious couple; their lives were lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. which set them apart from their peers. Their good works didn't save them; but from the perspective of the Mosaic Covenant, their devotion to God — expressed by their obedience to the Law — made it possible for God to bless them through John's birth.

An Angelic Appearance and Announcement (vv. 8–17)

There were many priests in those days; priestly duties were allocated according to divisions of priests (cf. 1 Chronicles 24). When it came time for the order of Abijah's division (cf. v. 10) to perform the temple duties, Zechariah went to Jerusalem where he was chosen for the highly esteemed privilege of burning incense. This was a high privilege and a coveted task; it could be done by a priest only once in his lifetime.

Imagine the feelings that Zechariah might have experienced the evening before his temple duty was performed. On one hand, he probably rejoiced having the high privilege that he'd hoped for all his life. On the other hand, he might have reflected on Leviticus chapter 10, which records the death of Aaron's sons (Nadab and Abihu) for carrying out the same ritual wrongly. Thus, Zechariah had mixed feelings: rejoicing and fear. He probably carefully rehearsed in his mind exactly how he'd perform his duty, so that he'd safely emerge from that holy place.

On the day of his duty, Zechariah went into the holy place where he was to burn the incense; outside, a crowd assembled for prayer. Likely, the people's prayers were both for the fulfillment of God's promises to his people (i.e., for the coming of the King and the establishment of Messiah's kingdom), and, perhaps for the safety of Zechariah, since the dangers of his duty were well known. Imagine too the sense of awe and wonder Zechariah must have felt, entering the semi-darkness of the holy place, illuminated only by the light of a lamp stand. Think how you'd have felt in that awesome place, where only you, alone, were allowed, when you suddenly realized that there was another person present with you. Just think: With Angel Gabriel's appearance in a burst of light and splendor (cf. v. 2:9), the experience would have been all the more frightening.

The angel's first words were of comfort, assuring Zechariah that he needn't be afraid, for his prayer (likely his official prayer as a priest, representing the people of Israel) had been heard (v. 13). It might have been a prayer that the people outside would be in agreement with: that God's kingdom would come. Thus, the angel's words are to the effect that Zechariah's prayer for Messiah's coming had been answered, and in such a way that Zechariah's own son, born miraculously to this elderly couple, will have a part in announcing the Messiah's arrival.

The name of this son, who'd be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother's womb, and who'd cause many Israelites to repent in preparation for Messiah's arrival, was to be John. The angel's words make it clear: John was to be the fulfillment of Malachi's final prophecy; he'd be great in the Lord's sight, and he wasn't to drink wine or liquor (v. 15), possibly to assure those who beheld his ministry that his "inspiration" was truly from the Spirit of God and not from the "spirits" of strong drink (a familiar charge in those days).

A Request and a Rebuke (vv. 18–23)

In spite of Zechariah's godliness, obedience to the Law, and lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise. In the shadow of the angel's splendor, Zechariah made a request of the angel: that he provide a "sign," assuring him that this promise would be fulfilled. He was given a sign — rather he himself became a sign. And, in fact, the sign was Zechariah speaking in "sign" language (v. 22).

When a priest would later emerge from the temple, he was to pronounce a blessing on the people. Zechariah must have known that he'd have to explain what had happened inside the holy place and was afraid that no one would believe what he was promised; thus he asked for a sign. His speechlessness was an appropriate discipline for Zechariah; it served to "announce" that something wonderful was about to happen. What Zechariah wanted to announce with his tongue, God announced through Zechariah's dumbness. The sad thing about his unbelief is that there had already been a number of examples of supernatural births in the Old Testament. God wasn't promising to do something for Zechariah and Elizabeth that he hadn't done for others before them. Abraham and Sarah had a son in their old age, as did Hannah and the parents of Samson.

Angel Gabriel now seems somewhat perturbed about Zechariah request. In effect, Gabriel is saying: Good grief, man, do you not know who's telling you that you and your wife will have a son? I'm Gabriel, the angel who stands in God's presence. When I speak, I speak for God. To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself. With this rebuke, Zechariah was struck dumb.

Zechariah's incense burning and prayer task should have been accomplished in a relatively brief period. The longer his return was delayed, the greater the crowd's concern. Perhaps they wondered if Zechariah had been struck dead by God, just as Nadab and Abihu had been. When Zechariah emerged, the people waited for him to pronounce the customary blessing. It likely took a while for the people to grasp that the priest's contortions and hand motions were his attempt to communicate to them while being unable to speak. Finally, the crowds knew they'd seen a vision and that God was about to do something marvelous in their midst (v. 22).

Elizabeth's Seclusion (1:24–25)

Zechariah went home, and in the course of time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and remained in seclusion for a five-month period. Seclusion was a simple decision for her for two reasons: First, she might not have wanted to announce her pregnancy until she was so obviously pregnant that no one could deny it; she knew that she wouldn't have been taken seriously and didn't want to face any more cruel scorn. Second, Elizabeth would have had to serve as a spokesperson for her noncommunicative husband; so seclusion kept her from having to perform that awkward task.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Since many priests never had the chance to go into the temple to burn incense, what might Zechariah be feeling as he prepares for it? How about when the angel appears?
  • Q. 2  Of the major characters in this story — Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John — with whom do you identify most? Why?
  • Q. 3  With whom do you identify least? Why?
  • Q. 4  How is John's mission a model for your mission today? How might you "prepare" people for the Lord?

This Week's Passage
Luke 1:5–25 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to this chapter.]

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

5In 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. 6Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. 7But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

8Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But 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 call him John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for 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 before he is born. 16He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

18Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

19The angel said to him, "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. 20And 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 appointed time."

21Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22When 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.

23When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25"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."