As the scene opens on Luke’s birth narratives, God has been silent for 400 years. His last words were to the prophet Malachi saying that Elijah would come again and proclaim the day of the Lord (Mal 4:5) and that God would send a messenger to clear the way before the coming Messiah (Mal 3:1). As our story begins, Israel chafes under Roman rule and has for roughly 60 years. The Jews worship in the second temple (Solomon’s was the first) rebuilt by Herod around 20 years ago (it was originally built by the Jews who returned from Babylon/Persia 500 years ago but was recently rebuilt – with construction to continue for the next 26 years – by Herod into one of the architectural marvels of the world). Israel has waited for the Messiah for its entire existence (2100 years) and the world has waited since God promised Him to Adam and Eve after the fall.
By any measure, God has shown that He doesn’t wear man’s watch and that Peter’s words are true that a thousand years are as one day to Him and one day as a thousand years (II Pet 3:8). He is, though, about to move, and everything is about to change as the ancient promises are fulfilled. The promised seed of woman is finally here.
In the time of Herod the Great (who is king over all Israel and not to be confused with his son who will rule over Galilee during the ministry of Jesus), there is a couple who are both of the tribe of Levi named Zacharias and Elizabeth (that Elizabeth is from Levi and yet related to Mary – from Judah – likely means the two are related through their mothers, since tribal affiliation is through the father). Zacharias is a priest and he and his wife are righteous and devout. They are also childless (typically seen as a curse in their culture) and advanced in years (presumably beyond childbearing age).
Two times each year, Zacharias goes to Jerusalem with his priestly division to minister in the temple (there are 24 divisions that each serve two weeks – not consecutively – each year). During one of his weeks, he is chosen by lot (the reader is meant to understand that there is no coincidence here) to enter the temple and burn incense (a HUGE honor – with the number of priests available this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and thus one of the biggest days of Zacharias’ life).
While in the temple (with worshipers outside offering prayers) Zacharias suddenly sees an angel of the Lord standing to the right of the altar of incense (notice the detail Luke includes to assure the reader of the accuracy of his account). Not surprisingly, Zacharias is scared to death at the sight (two things here – first, remember that no one has had any word from God for four centuries; second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that since Zacharias is a Bible character that seeing an angel is old hat to him – seeing an angel right now isn’t any more expected by him than it would be by us if one appeared to us at work tomorrow).
The angel tells him not to be afraid and that his prayer has been heard. This likely refers to his prayer for the redemption of Israel (for the Messiah to come) rather than for Elizabeth to become pregnant, simply because he and Elizabeth are past childbearing years. Regardless, the effect is the same as the angel says that Elizabeth will bear a son and they are to name him John (the name means “The Lord is gracious”).
The angel goes on to say John will be great in the sight of the Lord, won’t drink any strong drink (similar to the regulations of a Nazirite vow, although nothing is mentioned about his hair) and will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he’s born (said of no one else in the Bible – this goes along with his being great in the sight of the Lord – Jesus will later say no one born of women is greater than John (Lk 7:28)). The angel also quotes Malachi to show that John is in fact the promised messenger.
Zacharias asks the angel what on the surface seems like a fairly innocuous question – “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Apparently the question isn’t as reasonable as it sounds because the angel plays the “do you know who I am?” card. We find out the angel is Gabriel – one of only two named angels in the Bible – and that he stands in the presence of God and has come directly from Him. This is NOT an angel to doubt. And since Zacharias apparently did, he’ll now be dumb (and deaf – see verse 62) until the promised child is born.
Zacharias comes out of the temple and of course can’t tell anyone what he’s just seen. The people know he was in the temple longer than normal and so assume something happened, but he can only make signs to try to explain it. On top of this, per verse 23, he apparently must still finish out his week in Jerusalem before he can go back and tell Elizabeth the news (which means he can’t tell the one woman who will be the happiest person in the world when she hears it), even though he probably can’t really do his job because he’s deaf and dumb.
After Zacharias returns home, Elizabeth does in fact become pregnant and thanks God for taking away the disgrace of barrenness. She decides to stay in seclusion for five months (perhaps because she doesn’t want to be in public until her pregnancy is obvious and she can show herself to be blessed by God instead of cursed) so no one, including her relative Mary, yet knows of the miracle.
Mary is likely in her mid-teens (14-15) as this part of the story opens. Very young by our standards, but of marrying age in her culture. Joseph – her fiancé – is probably a few years older (later teens, closer to twenty). That they are betrothed (engaged) means they are legally bound to each other. The only way to break the engagement is through divorce (betrothal is stronger than our engagement).
Once again, Gabriel comes from God with a miraculous message. Unlike with Elizabeth – a married woman past childbearing age – this time the message is for a young virgin not yet married. God shows that neither extreme is beyond His miraculous power.
[Aside: It’s interesting that Gabriel visits Zacharias instead of Elizabeth to proclaim the coming of John, but visits Mary instead of Joseph to proclaim the coming of Jesus (which could be because Joseph won’t be involved in the conception). With the appearance to Zacharias, perhaps it has to do with Zacharias being a priest or that Zacharias and Elizabeth are married (unlike Joseph and Mary). Ultimately there’s no way to know, but if you’re Elizabeth you might feel a little shortchanged as even Joseph gets an angelic message in a dream (Matt 1:20-21).]
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in verse 28 troubles her. First, he’s an angel and he’s frightening (vs 30). But second, she’s an unmarried young woman in a culture that ascribes no social status to her. For someone like the angel to greet her and call her “favored one” is way out of the norm.
Gabriel tells her she will give birth to a son she is to name ‘Jesus’ (same as Hebrew ‘Joshua’ or ‘Yeshua’ – means “the Lord is salvation”). He will be the Son of the Most High (can you imagine what it’s like to hear this description of your future child?) and will take over the throne of David and rule forever (thus fulfilling God’s promise to David in II Sam 7:12-16).
She somehow realizes this is to happen before she marries Joseph and thus while she’s a virgin and asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Interestingly, Gabriel handles this question differently than he did Zacharias’ similar question and simply answers Mary without accusing her of unbelief (which means she does believe – apparently unlike Zacharias – but just doesn’t understand how it will happen). He tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her and enable her to conceive (meaning her child will be both divine and human) and for that reason her son will be called the Son of God (again, what must it be like to hear this??). To give her some assurance of what he says, he tells her that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant and in her sixth month (Mary presumably realizes this to be a miracle, and, as mentioned above, is unaware of it because of Elizabeth’s seclusion).
Gabriel ends with one of the most encouraging statements in the Bible (vs 37) – “For nothing will be impossible with God.” The context of this statement is that God has enabled both a post-childbearing-age woman and a young virgin to be pregnant. The truth of it, however, is beyond context. Unlike most verses, this verse CANNOT be taken out of context. It applies to anything and everything. NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD. That’s what’s true of our Father in heaven.
Mary reacts just like you’d expect a 14–15-year-old girl to react (?!), “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” This verse shows in sharp contrast the difference between her culture and ours. There is no such thing as a teenager in Mary’s day. She’s been forced to grow up quickly and work very hard to survive. She has a maturity almost completely unknown to kids her age in modern western society. It may also show, however, that she’s speaking in a power beyond herself. The angel just told her the Holy Spirit will come upon her and it could be that her reaction already reflects this. If she’s speaking and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, it goes a long way to explaining the incredible poise and amazing perspective of this statement.
Her response is amazing because while she must be overwhelmed with the blessing of God and the realization that she’s about to give birth to the Messiah, she surely realizes the ramifications of what’s about to happen. She will have to explain to her family and Joseph that she’s pregnant and yet a virgin and deal with the societal fallout of being pregnant before marriage (she’ll be accused of adultery and socially scorned – she’ll carry it for the rest of her life). Joseph will also – assuming he believes her – have his reputation impugned if he marries her as it will appear that he’s the father of the child. And it pays to say again that this is a story about real people living in the real world. Telling others that she’s pregnant and still a virgin is not any more believable in Mary’s time than it would be now.
Mary goes to see Elizabeth (Mary is in Nazareth in Galilee in the northern part of Israel, Elizabeth is in Judea in the south) shortly after she’s visited by Gabriel. The reason for the visit is likely to celebrate with Elizabeth and certainly compare notes over their respective miracles but perhaps also to verify that what the angel told Mary is true. That Mary goes immediately after hearing from Gabriel may mean the relationship between the women is closer than just relatives (even with the decades-difference in age).
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit upon seeing Mary (notice how active the Holy Spirit is throughout this story, years before His official ministry on earth begins) and blesses her for being the mother of the Messiah. Elizabeth’s child – who we already know is filled with the Holy Spirit (vs 15 – which means Elizabeth has a double-dose of Spirit-filling) – leaps for joy when Mary enters the house.
After exchanging greetings with Elizabeth, Mary launches into The Magnificat (so named for the Latin translation of the first line of the psalm). Again, don’t lose sight of her age as you read it (vss 46-55) and don’t forget that she speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. In her psalm she thanks God for lifting the humble (she’s not exactly the obvious choice for bearing the Messiah) and scattering the proud. She praises God for the great things He’s done for her and says – prophetically – that she will be counted blessed by all generations in the future (nothing about her being counted as divine, however). She ends by praising God for fulfilling His promise made to Abraham to bless the world through his offspring. The whole psalm is a glorious thanksgiving for a mighty and merciful God.
After her celebration with Elizabeth, Mary stays with her for three months. She leaves to go back to Nazareth shortly before Elizabeth gives birth.
Elizabeth gives birth to a son. On the eighth day after his birth when he is to be circumcised and officially named, her relatives and neighbors assume he will be named after his father. Elizabeth, however, insists that his name will be ‘John.’ This confuses everyone because it’s not a family name (names are very important in this culture – to name a child based on simply liking a name is unheard of). The people make signs to Zacharias (this is how we know he’s deaf as well as dumb) to verify that what Elizabeth says is true, and Zacharias writes a note agreeing with his wife. As soon as he does, his tongue is loosed and his ears opened and he can speak and hear again (with, presumably, a healthy respect for the power of God and the importance of faith).
What happens to Zacharias has a sobering effect on all who witness it. It also makes them wonder at just what the child is going to become. If all these miracles are associated with his birth, then certainly God’s hand is on him.
Zacharias has his own Magnificat-like experience and – in the power of the Holy Spirit (yet another reference) – declares a psalm of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done. He too thanks God for fulfilling His promise of the Messiah (thus showing that he knows what his son’s mission in life will be) and even prophesies about what his son will do. He also shows a knowledge of the Messiah’s mission by saying He will, “…give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins…” Just like Mary, Zacharias is given the ability to speak inspired truth about the miracles God accomplishes to prepare the world for redemption.
John grows and becomes strong in the spirit and seemingly from a very young age lives an unconventional life in the desert. He stays there until the beginning of his public ministry.
It’s interesting to consider how God uses Elizabeth and Mary. Before Elizabeth can give birth to the greatest prophet in Israel’s history, she endures years of disgrace as a barren woman. Mary, on the other hand, experiences the amazing blessing of bearing the Messiah at a very young age but then endures lifelong stigma for having given birth illegitimately (Jn 8:41). Elizabeth’s pregnancy ends the scorn she lives under while Mary’s pregnancy begins hers. But in both cases, the women show that God has larger goals for His servants than earthly ease and success. Our lives are to be bigger than this world with perspectives greater than what we see.
We also need to take with us verse 37, the key verse of this whole chapter. God miraculously enables a post-menopausal woman and a virgin to become pregnant to show that absolutely nothing is beyond His power. God shows Himself to be bigger than creation, bigger than the natural/biological laws of the world, bigger than human expectations and frailty, bigger than political and economic circumstances. The birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus ultimately show us a God who’s bigger than any need, bigger than any trial, bigger than any prayer we can offer Him.
For nothing will be impossible with God.
2 thoughts on “Luke 1:5-80 – Miraculous Birth Stories”
Thank you Rob for this study. Enjoying your class. Appreciate the time you spend on the study of this scripture. God bless you! Happy Easter.
Thank you, Theresa!