Monday, February 22, 2010

Luke 1:1-25

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. 5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years. 8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
19 The angel said to him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time."
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."

Points of Interest:

• ‘Many have undertaken’—Luke is not the only or the first person to write the stories of Jesus. It seems that one of Luke’s motivations for his own writing is to collect everything he has been taught into a single, orderly history.

• ‘I myself have carefully investigated everything’—like any good historian today, Luke relies on primary sources and careful research. It is probable that Luke did his own fact-checking and interviewing of living eyewitnesses rather than only relying on what was already written (For instance, the very intimate tone of the stories involving Mary make some, at least, believe that Luke must have gotten some of the early stories directly from her, or from someone who knew her well). Luke expects that his audience would be very interested in the accuracy and reliability of his writing: they are not looking for sensational stories, but for a history they can trust.

• ‘most excellent Theophilus’—as was mentioned in the introduction, Luke probably intended his writing for publication. The aptly named Theophilus (‘god-lover’ in Greek) was probably his patron and sponsor. ‘Most excellent’ is a technical title indicating that Theophilus is part of the Roman nobility (IVP Bible Background Commentary 187)—something like, ‘Count Theophilus.’ It is also possible that Luke is using the title as an honorary compliment (ibid).

• ‘was also a descendant of Aaron’—in other words, Elizabeth is also from a priestly family. Jewish priests were all descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. The priests were in charge of the worship ceremonies at the temple in Jerusalem.

• ‘observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly’—this does not necessarily mean that they were thought to be absolutely perfect; rather, it means that they consistently based their life on following God’s instruction.

• ‘But they were childless’—it’s surprising to Luke that such a righteous couple would be childless. Children were considered a special blessing from God; inevitably, the converse also came to be thought of as true: childlessness was a punishment from God. Luke is making clear here that Elizabeth and Zechariah are not being punished. Why, then, would these faithful people not be given children?

Actually, Elizabeth is the latest member of a small but significant Biblical club: devout women who are not able to have children until long after all natural hope of becoming pregnant is gone. The first among these women is Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who, like Elizabeth, does not have a child until she is beyond child-bearing years. Other members of the club are Rachel (Genesis 29 and 30), Hannah (I Samuel 1 and 2), and the unnamed mother of Samson (Judges 13). The stories of these previous miracle mothers will be referred to numerous times during Luke’s account of the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary.

• ‘to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense’—the altar of incense was in the Holy Place, the area of the temple to which only priests could go. One of the jobs of the priests was to burn incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30: 7-8).

• ‘your prayer has been heard’—the incense symbolized the prayers of the people. As Zechariah is tending to the people’s prayers, he hears from the angel that his own prayer has been answered. My guess is that this is a prayer that Zechariah actually stopped praying a long time ago: his wife has probably been too old to have children for a while, and it would be an exceptional person who would continue to pray for a child after that. Nonetheless, God has not forgotten Zechariah’s prayer.

• ‘he will be great in the sight of the Lord’—the eventual children of the childless women I mentioned earlier all end up playing important roles in the history of God’s people: Sarah’s son Isaac is the forefather of all Jews, and the person through whom God intends to bring blessing to all of the families of the world; Rachel’s son Joseph—of Technicolor Dream Coat fame—ends up saving much of the ancient near east from famine; Hannah’s son Samuel becomes the model for all of the ancient Jewish prophets; and Samson—the lover of Delilah and the man whose great strength depended on his long hair—saves the Israelites from annihilation at the hands of their enemies. Elizabeth’s son John also has great promise on his life. He has perhaps a greater role than all of them: he is to be the herald who comes just before the long-expected return of the Lord, when he comes with the power to rescue his people from their troubles.

• ‘He is never to take wine or other fermented drink’—this is just like the instructions given before Samson’s birth (Judges 13:4)

• ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’—Elijah is a great prophet from Israel’s history, known for calling the people of Israel back to the worship of God when they had turned away to other gods. At the end of his life, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Hundreds of years after Elijah’s time, and hundreds of years before John’s birth, the prophet Malachi predicted that Elijah would return again before the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4:5-6). John is not literally Elijah, but will have his ‘spirit and power’: he will be like Elijah in his calling and in the power he receives from God to pursue it (A similar thing happened to Elijah’s protégé, Elisha [2 Kings 2: 9, 10, and 15]).

• ‘and I have been sent to speak to you’—I think Gabriel is essentially saying, ‘What more could I do to prove it to you?’ Gabriel points out that he is, in fact, an angel sent by God to speak to Zechariah. Shouldn’t the appearance of an angel be proof enough of the miracle the angel is predicting? Isn’t that the whole point of sending an angel?

• ‘now you will be silent’—Gabriel dramatically applies the old proverb, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,’ by taking away Zechariah’s power of speech after he speaks his doubting words.

• ‘taken away my disgrace’—Elizabeth is quoting her predecessor Rachel (Genesis 30:23). Finally, the stigma has been erased; there will be no more lurking suspicions that she is being punished by God.

Taking it home:

For you and your family: Luke’s hope for Theophilus was that reading Luke’s history would give Theophilus greater certainty in his belief in Jesus. As you begin your own reading of this history, ask God that it would be a faith-growing experience. Are there particular ways that you need assurance about Jesus? Consider mentioning those things specifically to God. Ask that you would get the assurance you need sometime in the next six weeks.

For your friends: Do any of your friends have a deep desire that has long gone unfulfilled? Ask God to show his care for them by satisfying their longing.

For our city: Zechariah is performing an old religious ritual when it suddenly and surprisingly takes on new life. Pray that everyone participating in religious ceremonies in our city would have a similar experience. Ask that these faith traditions too would come alive with fresh and vibrant new connections with God.