The time here is in the reign of king Herod. But that can be confusing
as there are many king Herods mentioned in the Bible. This was Herod the
Great known for his building projects such as the expansion of the
second temple and his palace, but also known for being a mad man who
murdered his own family and a great many rabbis. Josephus, the historian
writes a great deal of him and his atrocities.
Only men of the Tribe of Levi, and in particular of
the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, were allowed to be
priests according to the Law of Moses. They would take turns serving as priests. Though there was also a "high priest"
who served for life. Only priests were allowed in the temple. And only
the "high priest" could enter a special room in the temple - the Most
Holy Place - and that only once a year. In this case Zechariah was in
the Holy Place which contained the Table of Showbread, the Golden Lampstand and the Altar of Incense.
The altar of incense stood right in front of the purple curtain which
separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Thus it was most
appropriate for the angel to appear there.
Zechariah was to become the father of John the
Baptist. His wife Elizabeth was cousin to Mary who became mother to
Jesus. To say that they were upright obeying the commandments and
regulations of the Law was not to say there were sinless. Rather they
provided sacrifices according to the Law with regards to their sin. "Blameless" is often misconstrued to mean "sinless". But in fact "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." Ecc 7:20 This includes priests. For "every
high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent
them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going
astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to
offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the
people. No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God,
just as Aaron was." Heb 5:1-4 Jesus is the exception. For being sinless, "Unlike the other high priests, he does not
need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and
then for the sins of the people." Heb 7:27 While no one is perfect but God alone, those in authority are to be characterized by blamelessness. For example it says, "An elder must be blameless" Titus 1:6 which
is not to say that an elder is to be reckoned or assume to be
blameless, but that they must actually be blameless to qualify for such a
It is significant that the first testimony Luke gives
is that of a couple with a good reputation, being blameless, and the man
being a priest. However some may have looked down on them as if
accursed of God in that Elizabeth was barren. Though in fact it is not
wise to judge one's spiritual state based purely upon one's
circumstances. (Consider Job) In particular this event parallels the
birth of the prophet Samuel whose mother had been barren, who prayed in
the temple for a son and who later gave him over to serve priestly
duties. And likewise it parallels the birth of Isaac born to a woman old
and barren in accordance with the promise that God gave to her husband
It was not surprising that Zechariah was gripped with
fear under the circumstances. For the appearance of an angel is not
always a good thing. Death often accompanied the appearance of an angel,
and God often killed those who didn't follow His rules especially with
regards to religious duties. Two of Aaron's own sons who offered
unauthorized sacrifice died tragically, fire came out from the presence
of the Lord and consumed them. The presence of God was so feared that
when the high priest entered the Most Holy Place he had a rope tied
around him and wore bells in case Lord was displeased and killed him and
those outside could drag him out without entering the curtain.
"Do not be afraid" -
The angel of the Lord starts with this command. Yes, it is a command
given in the imperative, and not a mere suggestion. We find such
commands to dispel fear throughout the Bible . "Have
I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid,
nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." Joshua 1:9
"your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John."
Apparently, much as in the case of Abraham, primary on his list of
prayer requests was for a son. Though one wonders whether this was a
past request or an ongoing request seeing as Zechariah later express
doubt due to their age. But it is interesting to note that God still
considers requests despite such doubt. "John" means "Jehovah is a gracious giver". He was to be the foreshadowing of the gospel of grace.
"he will be great in the sight of the Lord." Indeed Jesus said, "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John." Though he was speaking of men up to that time, for he continued, "yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Lk 7:28 People often obsess about "greatness". Jesus disciples disputed who was greatest among them. (Lk 22:24) What engenders greatness in the kingdom of God? In Mt 18:4 Jesus relates it with humility. In Luke 9:48 he speaks of the least being the greatest, and in Luke 22:26 as
one who serves. Thus when we examine the life and ministry of John the
Baptist we have before us a precedent of humility and service to God
unmatched in previous generations. And yet not comparable to those who
would become Christians since Acts 2 to this day. Let us keep in mind
that John the Baptist was not born again. He was not born of God. He was
not a son of God. Such a status didn't exist apart from Jesus until the
coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. For as it was written, "Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified." John 7:39 Thus John the Baptist did not have the Holy Spirit in the sense Christians do today. Though he was given the Holy Spirit as prophets of old had - for empowerment in ministry.
"He is never to take wine or other fermented drink" - Reminds us of the birth of Sampson in Judges 13 where the angel there likewise told his father, "You
will conceive and give birth to a son. Now then, drink no wine or other
fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will
be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death." Jud 13:7
Likewise it may be implied that the Lord intended John to be a
Nazirite. Nazirites are mentioned in the Law of Moses which says, "If
a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the
LORD as a Nazirite, he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink
and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink.
He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as he
is a Nazirite, he must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine,
not even the seeds or skins. During the entire period of his vow of
separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the
period of his separation to the LORD is over; he must let the hair of
his head grow long. Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD
he must not go near a dead body." Num 6:2-6
"he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth." Typical of the prophets to be full of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah said, "I
am full of power by the Spirit of the LORD, And of justice and might,
To declare to Jacob his transgression And to Israel his sin." Mic 3:8
And John would have a similar mission. But his mission was also to
identify the Messiah, and this he did even prior to being born as will
become evident later on. And thus God filled him from birth.
These verses call into question how much of our destiny
is in our control. However rather than a fatalistic interpretation,
another possibility is that God foresaw the kind of man John would turn
out to be and chose him on that basis. The apostle Paul was also chosen
from birth. Gal 1:15 But Paul also testifies, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service" 1Tim 2:12 Thus what is implied is that God chose him from birth in light of the kind of response he would have to the gospel.