So it was, that Zacharias was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, when his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the Temple of the Lord. There were approximately 18,000-20,000 priests in Israel (Bock, Luke, p. 48; Swindoll, Luke, p. 33), who served in rotation. Even with the subdivisions, there were too many priests for each one to have an opportunity to burn incense in the temple. So one man in the division was chosen by lot. The use of the lot was not a matter of chance, but a way of discerning God’s will (cf. Prov 16:33). And this time, the lot fell to Zacharias, giving him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to burn the incense. Chuck Swindoll describes what was involved. “Twice each day, a priest would enter the holy place, trim the wicks on the lampstand, and burn incense on a small altar in front of a woven veil separating him from the most holy place” (Luke, p. 32). Burning incense was a symbol of prayer, and certainly Zacharias would have been praying. And he was not alone, for the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. There were many in Israel who were praying to God, waiting upon the Lord to fulfill His promises and to redeem them (one of Luke’s themes, cf. Luke 1:1). And finally, after centuries of prophetic silence, the Lord spoke.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias and stood on the right side of the altar of incense. The angel was Gabriel (v 19). Although angels had sometimes appeared in Israel’s past, no living person in Israel at that time had ever seen one. And unlike the many dubious modern accounts of angelic meetings, where the reaction is one of wonder and calm, the genuineness of Zacharias’ meeting is shown by his appropriate response: And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear [phobos] fell upon him. Seeing a real angel is terrifying. For example, when Gideon saw an angel, he thought he would die (Judg 6:22-23). Evidently, that’s how Zacharias felt, too. So the angel reassured him, saying, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (which means YHWH has been gracious). No doubt, Zacharias and Elizabeth must have lifted up thousands of prayers to God over many decades and experienced heart-breaking disappointment month after month when a child never came. Elizabeth felt the reproach of her neighbors (cf. Luke 1:25). To all appearances, they prayed in vain. They aged past child-bearing years. Maybe once they reached a certain age, they even stopped praying (though Abraham never stopped). Have you ever thought that unanswered prayer is an unheard prayer? But that is not true. Zacharias and Elizabeth’s prayers were heard by God, even if they were not immediately answered. But now they would be. God revealed through Gabriel that they would have a son, and his name would be John.
Normally, as a sign of their authority, fathers named their son. But Zacharias was told what name to give his son, indicating God’s special providence over the child. Indeed, in the past, when a son was miraculously born to a godly but childless couple, it usually marked a new move of God, as it did with the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel. John’s birth would fit this pattern, too, as shown by how the angel described what their son, John, would do.
First, John would bring rejoicing to his parents: And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. Of course, finally having a child would in itself bring great earthly joy to Zacharias and Elizabeth and to anyone who knew how much they wanted a child of their own. But there is a more spiritual sense of joy here, too, because of John’s future ministry to Israel. After centuries, God was bringing prophecy to pass, and the long-awaited Messiah would be coming soon.
Second, John would be great in the sight of the Lord. Being great in God’s eyes is not equivalent to being great in the eyes of the world. On the contrary, being great in God’s eyes will likely draw the world’s scorn, if not persecution, as it did with John the Baptist. Although he was welcomed by many people, he was resisted by the authorities, and finally arrested and executed by them (Matt 14:10).
Third, John would be a Nazirite: and shall drink neither wine (from grapes) nor strong drink (from grain). Sometimes, an Israelite would temporarily become a Nazirite, while fulfilling a vow to the Lord. For a time, he would refrain from drinking alcohol and cutting his hair until the vow was fulfilled (Num 6:1-21). More rarely, someone would be called by God to be a life-long Nazirite, such as Samson (Judg 13:5) and Samuel (1 Sam 1:11). Notably, both of those men were born to barren women who conceived under miraculous circumstances. And both men went on to become great heroes of the faith. John’s birth follows the same pattern.
Fourth, John would be filled with the Spirit: He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. Instead of being filled with wine, John would be filled with the Spirit, echoing Paul’s admonition in Eph 5:18. Usually, being filled with the Spirit indicates an enduement with power for service, such as when Samson was able to perform amazing feats of strength: “And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he tore the lion apart as one would have torn apart a young goat, though he had nothing in his hand” (Judg 14:6). But John the Baptist performed no miracles that were recorded in Scripture. However, he did have a powerful and convicting preaching ministry. Certainly, he needed to be filled with the Spirit to accomplish that. Several months after the angelic announcement, Mary went to greet her pregnant cousin when Elizabeth was suddenly filled with the Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth then uttered a kind of prophecy, or revealed a word of knowledge, about Mary and the Messiah she would bear. Was this the point when John was filled with the Spirit, too? Clearly, he was an unusual case, even from the womb joyfully recognizing Jesus as Lord (Luke 1:40-45).
Fifth, John would turn people back to God: And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Of course, this implies that many within Israel had turned away from God. Israel was in a state of spiritual darkness, and that was certainly evident in how John and Jesus were treated by the religious authorities and scholars of the day. And notice that John would turn many to the Lord, but not all. This “turning” is likely a reference to the message of repentance that John preached: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt 3:1-2).
Sixth, John would be like Elijah. He will also 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. This is a reference to Malachi’s prophecy about the second coming of Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal 4:5-6). However, Luke (or Gabriel) does not identify John with Elijah. Rather, John will operate in his spirit and power. Interestingly, in an enigmatic statement, Jesus later qualified how John may or may not have fulfilled the role of Elijah, saying, “And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14). The Lord seems to be saying that had Israel believed in Him, John the Baptist would have fulfilled the Mal 4:5-6 prophecy about Elijah, but that was a contingent possibility. Since Israel did not believe, John did not fulfill the prophecy, so that Elijah is still to come. Dispensational Bible scholars believe one of the two witnesses described in Revelation 11 will be Elijah.
Seventh, John would prepare the way for Messiah: “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” This is a reference to Mal 3:1, which John did fulfill: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me” (Mal 3:1a). As great as John’s ministry would be, he was merely the herald for Someone far greater, namely, Jesus Christ the Messiah. Telling John’s story is a fitting prologue to Jesus’ story, because it is part of the historical evidence that Jesus is Who He claimed to be. The Messiah was prophesied to have a forerunner, and John the Baptist fit the bill. Even the Jewish historian Josephus knew of John the Baptist and how well-regarded he was (see Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, chapter 5). It is likely that Theophilus would have known of John, too. In which case, John’s ministry required an explanation. What was he sent to do? What did he claim to be sent to do? John’s life was a sign that pointed straight to Jesus.