v1-4: Luke was writing to Theophilus (as in Acts 1.1-3). He is "most excellent", indicating some position, perhaps an official or governor. Luke himself may have been converted at Antioch; he spent much time with Paul on his later missionary journeys, and suffered imprisonment with him; see Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11; Philm 2.4.
Luke wrote about the life of Jesus Christ; this thing "was not done in a corner" (Acts 26.26), there were eye-witnesses (2 Pet 1.16; 1 John 1.1-3), and "servants of the word," indicating integrity and honesty. Luke had "carefully investigated" all the facts, so he was able to write an orderly account, even though he was not an eye-witness himself.
Luke wrote historical fact, linking the events of the life of Christ with specific dates (v5; 2.1-2, 42; 3.1), and with rulers and kings (v5; 2.1-2; 3.1-2). Thus, what he wrote will stand up to close examination. As Christians, we may know the certainty of the things we have been taught, and have believed.
v5-6: Details about Zechariah (Zacharias) and Elizabeth; a faithful, godly couple. They were part of the remnant, a few within Israel who truly looked for the Messiah's coming. Although Luke wrote primarily about Jesus Christ, we see many other individuals and their part in the story.
v7: Elizabeth was barren, like Sarah, Hannah, and Samson's unnamed mother. There are clear parallels here with John Baptist, Samson, and Samuel:
- a barren mother; 1.7; Judg 13.2; 1 Sam 1.6;
- Nazirite; 1.15; Judg 13.5; 1 Sam 1.11;
- began to deliver the people; 1.16-17; Judg 13.5; 1 Sam 3.19-21;
- anointed by the Spirit of God; 1.15; Judg 13.25; 1 Sam 3.21.
Each was born in God's time to fulfil God's purpose.
Although scripture is clear about a husband's faithfulness to his wife, some Rabbis taught that a priest should leave his barren wife. Zechariah had no such intention.
v8-9: The practice of the priests was to burn incense before the altar of incense in the temple, see 1 Chr 24.
v10: The hour of incense, or the hour of prayer, Acts 3.1.
v11: God intervened in history; the appearance of the angel of the Lord, to call our attention, ultimately, to the birth of Jesus Christ. Luke records a number of such visits. The fact that the angel was at the right side of the altar indicates an eye-witness account.
v12: Zechariah, although a faithful man, was afraid at the sight of the angel.
v13-16: The promise of a son. Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son, and had borne only disappointment. John was set apart from the womb (Jer 1.5), and filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. He would bring joy to many, and turn many back to God. His Nazirite vows, like those of Samson and Samuel, are chosen by God Himself.
v17: John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, fulfilling Mal 4.5-6. Like Samuel and Samson also, he was a man of great zeal and energy in his service of God, he worked alone, often suffering criticism and persecution. Yet, each one had a mighty impact in the nation.
v18: Zechariah's doubts were perhaps understandable, but he was rebuked for his unbelief. We must learn to take God at His word. But we also note that God's plan here was not hindered by Zechariah's unbelief.
Both Mary (v29) and the shepherds (2.9) were also afraid. An angelic appearance is not something we can take in our stride.
v19: Gabriel had come with authority from God, having stood in the very presence of God. Like Jesus Christ Himself, he was sent (divine mission), to speak (divine method), good news (divine message), see 4.18.
v20: God’s purposes would be fulfilled in His time (Gal 4.4); ultimately He is not dependent upon our faith or lack of faith. The loss of Zechariah’s voice and, we understand, his hearing (see v62), and its subsequent restoration, demonstrate the fulfilment of God’s promise. For the nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he was unable to speak of the promised son.
v21-22: Zechariah’s duty had been interrupted by God, and the people knew it; he had remained in the temple much longer than usual, and he returned speechless. Faith in God cannot depend on such incidents, but faith in God can expect that He will work in dramatic ways in our lives.
His duty demanded that he bless the people, using the words of Num 6.24-26.
v23: Zechariah continued to fulfil his duty at the temple, before returning home.
v24-25: Elizabeth’s shame was taken away; God’s power was again demonstrated, and His promise fulfilled. The barren would become fruitful. Elizabeth acknowledged the hand of the Lord God upon her.
v26-27: Gabriel next visited Mary, living in Nazareth.
v28: Mary, like Elizabeth, was chosen by God; she was ordinary, yet faithful, chosen by God for an important task. The phrase ‘highly favoured’ implies a godly character. Both Mary and Elizabeth responded in gratitude to God; Elizabeth in v42-45, Mary in v46-55.
v29-30: Mary was afraid, but received words of comfort from Gabriel.
v31: The Son and His Names; Jesus, the Son of the Most High (v32), the Son of God (v35); in the gospel, Luke emphasises Jesus’ humanity, but he does not hide His deity.
His Name was to be Jesus, as in Matt 1.21, where the angel had appeared to Joseph, in an incident later than this. Matthew speaks of Jesus who came to be the Saviour of His people. Here no such restriction is given; He is indeed the Saviour of the world.
The actual conception of Jesus Christ was kept secret, its details known only to God; we trust Him not to reveal certain things to us. This also preserves Mary’s own dignity.
v32-33: This child would be more than a prophet; the descriptions here far exceed those given about John.
v34: The problem of Mary’s virginity; this was no problem to God. Never before had a virgin conceived, but Mary believed God’s word. Her question, “How?” was to do with the practical details, not the possibility.
v35: See Matt 1.18-20; the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and her child would have no human father; He was not conceived in sin, see Ps 51.5. The Son of God would be “the holy one”, again a unique description. Jews accept that the Holy Spirit would come upon people, although usually the great and important; the striking thing here is that He will come upon an unknown and humble woman.
v36-37: Elizabeth’s pregnancy was proof of God’s power to do the impossible.
v38: Mary’s faith, and her submission to God’s will, and her confidence in God’s power. She was willing to be used as God had said.
v39-45: Elizabeth and Mary met together. Elizabeth was six months into her pregnancy, v26, and Mary had just conceived. This was an incident of real joy. Elizabeth addressed Mary as, “the mother of my Lord”; words given her by God; she recognised that Mary’s child would be greater than her own; He was God, the Lord (Ps 110.1). She harboured no jealousy. Both women were blessed, since they had taken God at His word.
v46-56 Mary’s Song, sung in Elizabeth’s house; compare Hannah’s song in 1 Sam 2.1-11.
v46: Mary sung in glory to God; her words expressed her heart and soul. Mary was a worshipper.
v47: Mary sang of “God my Saviour”; she needed a Saviour; she did not claim sinlessness for herself, and she did not claim to share in the work of salvation. This challenges those who claim for Mary some authority as ‘mother of God,’ etc.
v48: Her prophecy was, of course, correct, since we happily refer to Mary as greatly blessed; for she became the mother of our Lord. We rightly describe Mary as humble; she thus “found favour with God.”
v49: We remember Mary since she was blessed and used by God; He did great things for her; she had the privilege of bearing the Son of God.
v50: The mercy of God is a theme in Mary’s song, and in Zechariah’s prophecy, see v72, 78. The mercy of God relates particularly to the fulfilment of God’s promises.
Our response is in ongoing faithfulness; the faithful remnant kept alive their hope in God from generation to generation.
v51-53: The Lord exalts the lowly; Mary was mindful of herself. God chose the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty (1 Cor 1.27). The hungry receive good things from His hand.
v54-55: God’s promises to the nation of Israel were to be fulfilled in Christ; and this was the expectation of the faithful remnant.
v56: Mary remained at the house of Elizabeth until the time of John’s birth. What a happy time, as the two women, each carrying a boy of great promise, spent three months together.
v57-58: Many rejoiced at the birth of John, see v14. Elizabeth and Zechariah, deprived of a child in their younger years, at last had a son.
v59-60: They followed the ordinary Jewish practice of circumcision, when the child would be named. Zechariah and Elizabeth had already agreed on the child’s name.
v61: “No-one among your relatives”; the Jews often used names of relatives or ancestors. The fact that John was not named in this way was a pointer to the greater changes that followed. Tradition and culture were not followed, and the Lord Jesus repeatedly challenged these things.
v62-63: Zechariah showed his submission to God’s will, for only he had met the angel, v11-13.
v64: It comes as no surprise that Zechariah’s first words were praise to God.
v65-66: Even at this early stage, it was clear that this child was special, and many people spoke of the events surrounding his birth. They asked, ‘What then is this child going to be?” Even in his younger years, John was a man blessed by God. The same is said of Samuel, who was evidently young when he received his call from God (1 Sam 3).
It was at this time, and with the relatives present, that Zechariah gave his prophecy concerning John. His words would answer many of the questions.
v67: As with other characters in these early chapters, the Holy Spirit gave inspiration, as they spoke of the out-pouring of God’s mercy. Zechariah’s hymn of praise follows the pattern of the ‘Eighteen Eulogies,’ or ‘Tephillah’ of which he as priest was familiar.
v68: Zechariah linked the past with the present; the Lord God of Israel, who had done so much in the past, was now acting in the present, for He had come to bring redemption for His people.
v69: The horn of salvation was, however, from the house of David. This was clear, since Zechariah was a Levite. Therefore, John was also a Levite. But Joseph and therefore Jesus was of the line of David, see 2.4.
‘Horn’ symbolises strength; see Ps 92.9-10; Mic 4.13.
v70: The present events, which had just started to unfold, were prophesied long before. God had sent His prophets, usually to a rebellious people.
But the very act of sending them was a sign of God’s mercy at that time, since He did not ignore nor reject them. It was also a sign of God’s future mercy, since they brought messages of promise and hope.
v71: The promise of deliverance (salvation); see Ps 18. King David was remembered for bringing deliverance, and the Christ would far exceed him.
v72-73: God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises. In particular, promises made to Abraham were fulfilled in the birth of Christ.
v74-75: God’s people were saved to serve Him. We do not just enjoy our salvation; we work it out with holiness and righteousness.
v76-79: John’s ministry, see also v14-17, Matt 4.16; John 5.35-36.
This child was called a “prophet of the Most High”; not the name given to Christ, v32, 35. He would prepare the way of the Lord, for he was not the Lord (John 1.20). His message was one of forgiveness of sins, through repentance, bringing people to the knowledge of salvation.
The tender mercy of God was once more manifest, and those living in, and accustomed to, death and darkness, would experience light and life in Christ.
v80: John spent years in the wilderness before he appeared publicly to the people of Israel. Note that the wider term ‘Israel’ is used, rather than Judea. The promises of God for the people of Israel are much wider than any individual could have seen.