Luke’s Gospel shifts from John to Jesus. Readers and hearers notice how their stories rhyme with one another. In this text we get the birth of John, the naming of John, and a redemption song about John. In the next post we will read about the birth of Jesus, the naming of Jesus, and then even more redemptive songs about Jesus. These songs, marked off in the NIV as poetry, are some of the most powerful articulations of holistic redemption in the whole Bible.
A reminder: Luke is a biography about Jesus. It is about us when the Gospel of Luke presents teachings of Jesus about discipleship. But when the stories are about Jesus, or in this passage about the forerunner to Jesus, we read most faithfully when we keep our attention on him (and off ourselves). If we are asking “What’s in this passage for me?” we might be asking the wrong question.
The baby Baptist boy is born to the (previously) barren Elizabeth, which immediately leads to his circumcision as the covenant entrance into Israel. This is the earliest record of naming a son at his circumcision, though it is common in later rabbinic texts (Levine-Witherington, Luke, 43). Children were often named after a close relative, but what stands out here is the choice of the name “John” (or Yohanan, which means “God has shown his favor”), and we should assume that Zechariah had communicated this to Elizabeth before her insistence. Neighbors and family resisted naming the son “John,” so God restored Zechariah’s voice, and he confirmed his wife’s naming the boy “John.” The ending of his muted voice impressed neighbors in a way that they perceived this son was going to be someone special. Noticeably, John does not follow in the footsteps of his father as a priest but becomes a prophet of the Messiah.
Like Mary’s Magnificat, this song has a name, too: Benedictus (again, too, because the first word in the Latin version is benedictus). In Mary’s visit it is Elizabeth who was filled with the Spirit. Now Zechariah is both “filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.” Prophesy means to utter God-revealed, Spirit-prompted speech for the people of God.
The theme for his song is God’s redemption in all its dimensions. Notice, too, that he prophesies in the past tense (as did Mary): “he has come . . . and redeemed them” and “he has raised up a horn of salvation” and that is “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all those who hate us” and this means “to show mercy and to remember his holy covenant.” It goes on to “rescue us from . . . enemies” and “to enable us to serve him without fear” of those enemies. Notice here the holistic element of liberation. Justo González calls Luke’s presentation of holistic redemption the “great reversal” (González, The Story Luke Tells, 29–44).
Only after he has given a full sketch of holistic redemption does Zechariah prophesy about his son. He prophesies that he will be a “prophet of the Most High”— as the Most High came upon Mary—and John will “prepare the way for” the Lord. He, too, will preach a redemptive, educational message: “knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” When one connects forgiveness, the people of God, and a prophet to come, the forgiveness is holistic too: not just personal but corporate and national. This merciful redemption will lead, as well, “into the path of peace.” What Zechariah did not know was that this son of redemption of his would be decapitated, as the one to whom he pointed would be crucified.
The fitting end to the song’s prophetic words about the son describe John growing and becoming “strong in spirit/ Spirit” and living “in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” Luke has John where he wants him: in the wilderness, being made ready to announce the arrival of the One to come. As Scott Spencer reminds us, “John will not spring from Elizabeth fully formed and ready to reform Israel. He must grow into his Spirit-anointed vocation through rigorous Nazirite discipline.” That is, “Spirit-dynamism and self-discipline go hand in hand” (Spencer, Luke, 62).
Questions for Reflection and Application
- How do the naming and vocation of John go against cultural conventions and expectations?
- How does Zechariah paint a picture of holistic liberation and redemption with his song?
- What Old Testament passages and themes come to mind as you read the Benedictus?
- How does prophecy function in this passage?
- What do you learn about John, the forerunner of Jesus, in this passage?
Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 2:1-20 and explores the birth narrative of Jesus. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.