The Birth of Jesus—Part 2
By Peter Amsterdam
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In recounting the story of Jesus’ birth, the book of Luke begins by first telling the story of the birth of John the Baptist, who is both a relative of Jesus and the forerunner of the Messiah. Luke brings in numerous ties to the Old Testament, making the connection between God’s promises to Israel and the fulfillment of those promises in the birth of Jesus.
We learn about a priest named Zechariah whose wife, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron—the brother of Moses and the first priest of Israel. Zechariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”1
In biblical times, childlessness was often perceived as a sign of divine punishment and a source of shame.2 However, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation is an echo of the righteous couples throughout Israel’s history who were also barren but through the intervention of God bore a child: Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and the parents of Samson.
As a priest, Zechariah ministered in the temple twice a year. This year, “according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.”3 Part of the daily routine at the temple was incense offerings before the morning sacrifice and following the evening sacrifice. It was a great honor for a priest to offer this sacrifice, and each was only eligible to do it once in his lifetime. The manner of choosing the priest for this honor was the casting of lots, and thus the priest chosen was considered chosen by God.
The altar of incense was located in the sanctuary itself and was separated from the Holy of Holies—the place where God was understood to dwell—by a very thick curtain. Zechariah’s opportunity to offer the incense, separated only by the curtain from the Holy of Holies, put him as close to the presence of God as any person other than the High Priest might ever come. It was a great honor.4
While Zechariah was in the Holy Place, “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.”5
The angel said to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.”6 In the Old Testament, when God named a child, it was often someone who had some significance in salvation history. Saying that many would rejoice at his birth and that he would be great before the Lord reinforced the idea that he would have an important role in God’s plan of salvation.
The angel tells Zechariah something about the child’s future: “He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”7
John’s role will be that of a prophet whose task is to bring spiritual reconciliation to the nation by turning many to the Lord. His coming in the spirit of Elijah echoes God’s promise made about 400 years earlier in the book of Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”8
John’s purpose is to ready a people for the Lord’s coming by bringing them to repentance. The period of waiting for the Messiah, for deliverance, is drawing to a close. At this point, Zechariah questions the angel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”9 This denotes some doubt on Zechariah’s part, and the angel responds: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”10
As a confirmatory sign, Gabriel declares that Zechariah will be silent until all of what he’s been told comes to pass.
At the end of his days of service, Zechariah returns home, and we learn that after some time his wife Elizabeth conceives—just as Gabriel had said she would. Upon realizing she is pregnant, Elizabeth responds with praise and gratitude, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”11One can imagine the joy she experienced!
The story then moves forward six months from the time of the angel Gabriel’s visitation to Zechariah. Gabriel is now sent to the region of Galilee, north of Judea, to the village of Nazareth, to bring Mary the message that she would become mother to the Messiah.
Mary is told that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”12 This information and the title Son of the Most High were probably understood by Mary to mean that her son would become the king of Israel.13 However, as His life unfolds, it becomes clear that His role is to be very different from the standard expectation of the awaited Jewish Messiah, and we find that He is instead the Son of God.
Soon after Gabriel’s visit, having made the decision to agree to miraculously become the mother of the Savior, we’re told that “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”14
While the angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple in Jerusalem, in the Holy Place, right next to the Holy of Holies, the appearance to Mary was in Nazareth, in Galilee, far from the center of the Jewish faith. God was doing a new thing, and as the gospel story progresses, we’ll see the focus move away from the temple and onto God’s Son. As Brown says:
If the appearance to Zechariah, a priest, took place in the Jerusalem Temple as a sign of continuity with Old Testament institutions, the coming of Gabriel to Mary takes place in Nazareth, a town to which no Old Testament expectation was attached, as a sign of the total newness of what God is doing.15
Upon Mary’s arrival she greeted Elizabeth. “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”16
Upon hearing the greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped in the womb, causing her, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to cry out with a blessing both for Mary and the child in her womb. While Elizabeth is considered Mary’s superior, she now places herself in a servant’s role by honoring her guest and recognizing her as the mother of my Lord and calling her blessed among women, affirming Gabriel’s message of Mary’s favored status.17
Mary responds with a beautiful hymn of praise, known as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”18
Like other hymns of praise in the Psalms, this one has three parts: (1) an introduction of praise to God, (2) the body of the hymn giving the reasons for praise, which often begins with “because,” and (3) the conclusion.
Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months, most likely helping her in her last months of pregnancy. These two women who played such an important role in the history of salvation were able to be a comfort and help to one another preceding the birth of their children. The time Mary spent with Elizabeth most likely strengthened her for what she was going to face when she returned to her home and explained to Joseph that she was pregnant.
Originally published December 2014. Adapted and republished December 2021.
Read by John Laurence.
1 Luke 1:6–7.
2 See Genesis 29:31; 30:1, 22–23; 1 Samuel 1:5–6.
3 Luke 1:9.
4 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 70.
5 Luke 1:11–12.
6 Luke 1:13–15.
7 Luke 1:16–17.
8 Malachi 4:5–6.
9 Luke 1:18.
10 Luke 1:19–20.
11 Luke 1:25.
12 Luke 1:32–33.
13 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 81, 60.
14 Luke 1:39–40.
15 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
16 Luke 1:41–45.
17 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 81, 94.
18 Luke 1:46–55.