26 November

Trusting God and the announcement of John the Baptist in Luke 1

Welcome to week one of our Advent study series. Over the next five weeks, Scot McKnight will lead us through the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel. Each week will be a reading from the gospel (which you can read in your own Bible or click the reference to open up the passage on BibleGateway), Scot’s insight and observations on the passage, and five questions for reflection from Becky Castle Miller. Let’s dive in!

The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel unleashes the kingdom of God as a holistic redemption. He redeems in all sorts of ways—spiritually, physically, socially, politically—and he redeems all sorts of people—Jews and gentiles, women and men, the powerful and the powerless—and in doing so Jesus sets the standard for the church to become, as Paul said, “all things to all people.” At the heart of this holistic redemption is the theme of coming home to the table for fellowship with God, with family, with friends, with neighbors—and yes, with the whole world eventually.

Read Luke 1:5-25

Stories of our families shape our families so much one can say the family is a story.

Behind Jesus was his mother, Mary. Behind Jesus was also a witness we call John the Baptist. Behind that witness were John’s parents, Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth his wife. The events described in this passage—Zechariah’s time to serve in the temple, the appearing of an angel to him about the pregnancy of his “very old” wife, the nature of the son she would birth, the seemingly innocent but evidently doubt-expressing question Zechariah asked, his divine silencing, and the words of gratitude for her pregnancy by Elizabeth—must have been told as a threaded story around the table in their home. That story shaped John, shaped Mary, shaped Jesus, and has now shaped how Christians tell the story of God’s redemption in the Lord Jesus.

Events, not just words, can rhyme. To listen to the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then to listen to the stories of Jesus and Mary, is to hear their rhyming.


The inner temple formed the center of the temple, which formed the center of Jerusalem, which formed the center of Israel. In the very center of Israel’s holiest place, a fresh redemption for Israel began. Criticism of the temple is not to be found in this text. In fact, the sanctity of the temple is contrasted with the faith failure of a priest. Jesus will be dedicated in the temple; the elderly Anna and Simeon will declare the identity of Jesus in the temple area; and Jesus will return to the temple at twelve. All these events are found in chapters one and two of Luke.

The time is set: Herod the Great is king. The location and the family are holy: Zechariah is a priest, which means in the line of Aaron, in the specific family of Abijah (see 1 Chronicles 24:1–20), and his wife is in the family of Aaron, too. They married inside the order. They were “righteous,” which means they knew the Torah and observed it faithfully. It does not mean they were sinless. They were childless and now beyond the age of giving birth. One hears echoes in this story about Elizabeth with other childless women: Sarah (Genesis 18:9–15), Rebekah (25:21), Rachel (30:22–24), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1).

A priest worked in the temple two weeks a year, but this year was different. As the lot fell to Zechariah to burn incense in the temple “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside” in the temple courts. Such a luck of the lot was a lifetime experience itself, but he got more than that: he encountered “an angel of the Lord” and responded as most would—it scared him in an overwhelming sense. Angels appear in the Bible especially at history-altering moments, and often enough people respond in fear. Angels in the Bible are powerful spiritual beings that evoke fear—not charm.

God sent this angel to Zechariah to reveal a miracle baby who has a special redemptive mission. What is revealed?

  1. His prayer for a baby has been heard;
  2. the baby will be a son he is to name “John” (Yohanan in Hebrew);
  3. he will be a “joy and delight to you” and to “many”’;
  4. he will be “great in the sight of the Lord,” which indicates the significance of God’s vocation for John;
  5. he will abstain from alcohol
  6. even before his birth, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
  7. he will lead many to convert back to the Lord
  8. he will carry on in this conversion mission in a way that reminds of Elijah, turning parents to their children and the disobedient “to the wisdom of the righteous.” All this suggests a people wandering from God in need of turning back to God,
  9. and the angel sums it all up with “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Very few parents get such a complete job description for their son, but one has to wonder how many would respond as Zechariah did.

A Trust Story

The revelation of John’s mission provokes Zechariah to ask for proof, which drops him into a story about trust. And perhaps too into a lack of concern for the body that mattered most here: Elizabeth’s! No sooner had the words spilled from his lips than the angel identifies himself as Gabriel (most angels were males in the Jewish tradition), and then reveals the good news about the birth of a son, and then all of a sudden moves from nice guy to tough guy: “you will be silent,” Gabriel tells him. Why? Because Zechariah “did not believe.”

This all seems a bit harsh, but there is a family history at work in a moment like this. God had often challenged Israel’s leaders to trust (think of Abraham, think of Sarah). But an angel appearing in the inner court of the temple, an angel speaking to Zechariah, and an angel informing him about a miracle baby should have been enough for the priest to take a big gulp of air and say, “OK, Lord, you know what you’re doing.”

Trusting someone requires a history of trustworthiness of the person making a claim, in this case an angel; it requires listening to the words that are promised or uttered; it entails believing their truthfulness; and it finds completion only in acting upon those words as reliable. In acting, one learns the transforming power of trusting. Faith entails risk if the words are not true.

A Miracle Story

Zechariah returned to his home in the hill country of Judea, Elizabeth conceived and “remained in seclusion” for almost half a year. We don’t know why this occurred, but it does mean her first interaction is with Mary, whose story begins in our next passage. Elizabeth’s trusting witness contrasts with her husband’s, who doubted. God has shown her “favor,” she confesses, and has “taken away” the common “disgrace” of childlessness. The miracle here is a menopausal woman conceives by the power of God.

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What does McKnight mean when he says stories can rhyme?
  2. How does Zechariah’s response compare with Elizabeth’s?
  3. Why is Zechariah disciplined for not trusting but Mary is not (cf. 1:29, 34)?
  4. What stands out to you most about the miraculous plan for John’s life?
  5. What stories does your family tell about itself?

Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 1:26-38 and Mary’s story of redemption through the birth of her son. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.

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