The Israelites had a powerful messianic hope, nurtured by the prophets. For centuries Israel waited but the Messiah did not appear. After Malachi the voice of prophecy fell silent. God, however, was working out his plan. He promised in Malachi 4:5 ‘I will send you the prophet Elijah’ to be the forerunner of the Messiah, and with the birth of John the Baptist, one in the mould of Elijah, the voice of prophecy was again heard and the time of fulfilment had arrived. We turn now to consider Luke 1:57-80 A prophet of the Most High
1. The birth of John
God’s promise through the angel (v13) is now fulfilled – v57. God’s word never fails. All is set in the context of an awareness of God’s hand in events: ‘heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy’ (v58). The Lord’s mercy is key: God is a God of mercy to those in hardship, especially the misery of sin. The Lord has ‘shown…great mercy’ to Elizabeth in bringing her through the dangers of childbirth and providing her son to play a significant role in the unfolding of his plan of salvation. The naming of the child puts the spotlight on Zechariah. In obedience to the angel’s message (v13), Zechariah states, ‘His name is John’ – there will be no argument. After 9 months of silence imposed on him by the Lord because of his unbelief (v20), Zechariah is chastened, as we often are by hard experiences. With renewed faith Zechariah responds in obedience to the Lord’s command regarding the child’s name. The Lord in turn responds graciously – ‘Immediately his mouth was opened’ (v64) and his first act is to praise the Lord. A deep impression is made on family and neighbours: ‘Fear cam upon all their neighbours’ (v65 ESV), spiritual awe, and ‘all who heard them laid them up in their hearts’ (v66 ESV) pondering what the Lord may do through this child. Note v66 ‘the Lord’s hand was with him’, in fulfilment of the promise of the filling of the Holy Spirit (v15). John is fully equipped to do the Lord’s work.
2. The song of Zechariah
Note v67 ‘Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied’ – his focus is on ‘the Lord, the God of Israel’, with no mention of John until v76. We see:
(i) The Lord redeems: v68. It is the language of release from bondage. The reference to ‘the house of his servant David’ (v69) shows this is messianic (as in Psalm 132:17). In view is spiritual salvation, the goal being ‘to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness’ (v74-75). The work of Christ is to set sinners free from the bondage of sin and transform them into his likeness.
(ii) The Lord remembers: The Messiah’s work is set in the context of the unfolding of God’s eternal plan of salvation (v70). He will ‘remember his holy covenant’, traced right back to Abraham (Genesis 17). He rescues his people for service (v74). The covenant is sealed with the atoning blood of Christ (Luke 22:20).
(iii) The Lord reveals: Finally, in v76 Zechariah mentions John. His mission – ‘a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him’, fulfilling Isaiah 40:3-5. John will be a channel of revelation, pointing to the Messiah, not himself (John 1:8). It is Christ who is the light – v78-79, the Saviour John exalts.