Zechariah and GabrielLuke 1

1. Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us,

Luke’s words here, according to the Companion Bible, suggest that others have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of these things, and have failed. Therefore, Luke does not refer here to the other gospels we have in our Bibles, but books that men took it upon themselves to write. Attempting to set forth a narrative of what God did at that time without the help of the Holy Spirit could only result in failure. Now, however, the Spirit has inspired Luke, and with His help, Luke will succeed where others have failed.

The word translated “fulfilled” here is a word that means “completed.” Thus, Luke declares his determination to set in order a narrative of things which had already been completed among them at that time. This becomes extremely important when we consider the introduction to the book of Acts, also by Luke, wherein he states, “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach.” Acts 1:1. Acts, then, sets forth what the Lord Jesus began to do. Yet if Luke’s account sets forth something completed, and the book of Acts continues what was begun in the book of Luke, then at the end of the book of Acts what Luke is setting forth must be completed. 

Now this is crucial when we consider that it is the idea of many that the book of Acts sets forth not a continuation of what went before, but an entirely new thing called the “church.” These same people will insist that we, then, are the continuation of what began in the book of Acts. I have heard men declare that the book of Acts ends rather abruptly, as it does, to remind us that we are the continuation of all that went on there, and that our actions continue the acts of the apostles! This verse shows all such ideas to be in error. Luke’s account, when we take both this book of Luke and the book of Acts as one whole, sets forth something that was both begun and completed in Luke’s day. We are not continuing the Acts. Those things have come to completion.

I believe that Luke’s two books, the book of Luke and the book of Acts, set forth two periods of history, both of which are connected. In Luke, the Lord Jesus and those who served Him set forth the coming kingdom of God. In Acts, the beginning stages of that kingdom are presented. Yet what began is suspended and thus brought to a close, and Paul’s great pronouncement in Acts 28:28, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” sets forth the end of all that was accomplished in the book of Acts. The great work that Christ began came to a close, and Luke and Acts together set forth the entirety of it. Now, we have entered a new dispensation, and God is doing a new and different work. We do not continue the record Luke gives us in the books of Luke and of Acts. We live in the dispensation of grace, and this is a completely new dispensation.

2. Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us,

Having referred to those who tried to set forth an account of these things and failed, Luke now refers to those who had set these things forth and succeeded. These, of course, are the twelve apostles, and those who were eyewitnesses of all these things that had taken place. These men became ministers of the word, and delivered the truth to those who heard them. Two of these men, Matthew and John, were inspired to take up their pens and write an account of these things, which they did, and we have their accounts recorded in the books of John and of Matthew. I believe both these works were already completed, and Luke refers to them here. They probably had just recently been written when he began his work. Now, he will add this inspired book to those others, and give us another record of all that took place.

I believe that this book was written during those two years mentioned in Acts 28:30, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him.” At the end of these two years, Luke wrote the book of Acts. Assuming he wrote his two books in rapid succession, this book would have been written just before the book of Acts, toward the end of that two years.

3. It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus,

The New King James Version has it that Luke had perfect understanding of all things from the very first. Yet this is not true, for Luke was not one of the Lord’s disciples. Luke was not even in Israel when the Lord had His earthly ministry, but first joined the apostles, as far as we can tell, when Paul journeyed through Troas, as we read about it in Acts 16:8-11. For there, the pronouns switch from “they” in verse 8 to “we” in verse 10, and this is apparently where Luke joined Paul. It seems likely that he was a man from either Troas, or perhaps even a man of Macedonia, which is where Paul traveled next by God’s direction. But he was not from Israel, and he did not therefore know the things that went on there from the very first.

An examination of the Greek here will reveal to us that Luke never claimed to have had perfect understanding from the very first. The Greek here is anothen, which means “from above.” Any honest examination of the Greek word anothen will bear this out. Thus what Luke was claiming was not that he had known these things from the very first moment he could have. Nor does this mean that he had done a lot of historical research until he had satisfied himself that he had gathered all the facts. Notice Luke’s emphasis that this is a perfect account. Luke could have made no such claim if this book was not inspired. No man, no matter how good a historian and how careful his research, could claim to have created a perfect account of any event unless he suffered from great pride and arrogance. Yet Luke claims this, and the reason he could claim it without arrogance is because he had received this perfect knowledge from above. God had given him knowledge of these things, and it is from this God-given knowledge that he sets them forth. From this word anothen, then, we know this book is an inspired record of these events given to us by the Spirit of God.

Luke here sets forth his reason for writing the book. He is setting forth an orderly account for this man Theophilus. If there was such a man, and this does not just mean anyone who has a friendship love for God who picks this book up and reads it, then it would seem most likely that this man was a learned member of Caesar’s household. Paul, writing shortly before this book would have been written, states in Philippians 1:12-13, “12. But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, 13. so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ.” Thus Paul’s circumstances were known to the entire palace guard, the Praetorian guard, at this time. Moreover, many high-ranking Romans had come to know the Lord at this time through Paul’s witness, as we learn from Philippians 4:22. “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.” So considering the use of this word “most excellent,” which would have been an honorary title for any Roman official of high rank, it seems likely that this Theophilus could have been one of these. An accurate account of the facts of the work that had been done both during Christ’s earthly ministry and during the Acts period that followed would have been of great interest and of great importance to any believing Gentile. The descendants of Japheth have always sought for knowledge, and the Holy Spirit thus inspired Luke to write this book to both Theophilus and to all inquiring Gentiles of the future.

4. That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

This book was written to give both Theophilus and us reading today certainty that the things we have been instructed about Christ are true. Let us read it now and see how it may do that for us.

The word for know here is epiginosko, which literally means “upon knowledge.” I believe that this is not just a fuller knowledge, but speaks of the response one makes to that knowledge. We might put this that Luke desires that Theophilus acknowledge the certainty of those things in which he was instructed after reading this book that Luke is writing for him.

5. There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

This happens in the days of Herod, the king of Judea. This man was sometimes known as Herod the Great, but he was a usurper, and not of the tribe and family of David, as any rightful king of Judea should have been. This title was conferred upon him by Rome, not by the Lord. Thus the family that God had set up as kings were powerless and forgotten.

This priest Zacharias was of the division of Abijah. In I Chronicles 24 we read of the making of these divisions.

1. Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron. The sons of Aaron were Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 2. And Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no children; therefore Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests. 3. Then David with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to the schedule of their service.

So David and Zadok took the priests descended from the two surviving sons of Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, and separated them into divisions. These divisions were twenty-four in number, and the division of Abijah is listed in verse 10.

10. the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah,

So Abijah’s was the eighth division. This division survived after the Babylonian captivity, as we read in Nehemiah 12:17.

17. of Abijah, Zichri; the son of Minjamin; of Moadiah, Piltai;

These divisions of priests would each would serve God twice a year (24 divisions according to the Jewish calendar.) This covers 48 weeks of the year. The remaining weeks were taken up by the feasts of the Lord, and thus were separate from these. The order to which Zacharias belonged in the division of Abijah would have served either in January or June, according to the Companion Bible appendix 179. Since it is unlikely that an old priest like Zacharias would have served in the dead of winter, we may assume that his service as recorded in the following chapter was in June. Thus, since the visit of the angel to Mary was six months later (which would have been December,) we have our best evidence that Christ may have been CONCEIVED on or around December 25, rather than being born on that date.

Zacharias’ wife was also of the daughters of Aaron. A priest had to marry a woman who was a virgin or a widow. The high priest had even stricter standards, for he could not marry a divorced woman, a widow, a woman who had prostituted herself, or a woman who had been defiled by giving up or losing her virginity in any immoral way. Yet I do not believe that he was forced by the law to marry another member of the priestly tribe. Zacharias, nevertheless, had married a fellow descendant of Aaron.

6. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

This verse puts the lie to those who claim that it was impossible for anyone to keep the law, and that God never intended anyone to keep it. These people love to say that no one could keep the ten commandments, and no one could keep the law. They think that God gave it to show that it was impossible to fulfill it. They believe that He asked the children of Israel to do something that was completely beyond their power to do. They love to point out James 2:10, which reads, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Then, they assert that everyone has broken some point of the law, and so no one has ever really kept it. Yet this argument is just not the truth. If even one person could be said to have kept the law blamelessly, then we cannot say that it was impossible to keep it. And this verse tells us that both this man and his wife kept the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.

The law may have been difficult, but it was never meant to be impossible. If it was impossible, then the Lord would not have been so unfair as to ask the people to keep it. I do not believe that our Lord is ever so unreasonable as to ask the impossible. There are fathers who ask the impossible of their children, and thus break the commandment of the Lord in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath.” Yet God never does this. What He asks of His children it is always possible for them to perform. Moreover, Zecharias and Elizabeth did perform it. So let none dare to claim that no one could keep the law.

Now what was impossible was for Israel to keep the Old Covenant once they had already broken it. A broken covenant cannot be kept, just as a lost virginity cannot be regained. Once the children of Israel had broken the covenant by worshipping the golden calf, the people of Israel could not ever again restore themselves to a place of keeping the covenant. That is why that covenant was impossible to keep, and why a new covenant had to be made. Yet even the Old Covenant could have been kept if the people had wanted to do so before they broke it the first time.

7. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

This was a great tragedy for anyone in Israel. We all know that it is a great sadness to a couple who wants children when they find themselves unable to have any. Yet quite beyond this, in Israel you had your inheritance from God, and so to not have a child to carry on that inheritance for you was a calamity that goes beyond the disappointment of a mere desire for children. This was not just a sad thing, but something that had sad consequences regarding the things of God given to you as well.

The fact of their childlessness, however, is merely setting up the great miracle of the child they would be given. This miracle tends to be overshadowed by the virgin birth, but it is a great miracle that God did nonetheless.

8. So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division,

Now the story brings us to one of the two weeks of the course of Abijah, when Zecharias’ duty would have brought him to the temple to serve before God.

9. According to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

Since there were many priests in each of the 24 orders, they could not all serve in the holy place. Thus, there was a lot taken, no doubt by the God-given method using the Urim and Thummim, to determine which priest would offer incense to God each time their week came up. This time God ordered the lot to fall on Zacharias, which would have been a great honor. Yet God had a plan in this that went far beyond merely honoring Zacharias. He had a message for this man, and He wanted to get him alone in the temple in order to give it to him.

The Urim and the Thummim was apparently a way that the people could contact God. The high priest wore a bag on his breastplate or “ephod” in which two small stones were held. These were the same shape, probably round, much like our marbles of today. One of these was the Urim (pronounced oo-REEM,) which translates to “lights.” This stone brought guilt to light, or answered a question “yes.” The other was the Thummim (pronounced toom-EEM,) which translates to “perfections.” This stone proclaimed innocence, or answered a question “no.” To consult God, the priest would put his hand into the ephod, and pull out one of these two stones. The stone would answer the question that was put to the Lord. In this way, the people could consult the will of God.

It would be wonderful, of course, to have such a direct link to the will and council of God. It is sad that the Israelites seemed often to neglect to use it! Many would desire such a link today, but we live in a time when God is silent. Remember, this only worked because this was a means of communicating with Him that God Himself set up. For anyone else to create a little bag and try the same thing would be mere presumption. God does not speak to men through such means today. A lot is simply a lot, like the flip of a coin, and no more. Yet for the Israelites, as long as they had the priesthood, this was a way of learning God’s will.

10. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

What a solemn thing it was to enter into the presence of a holy God! Exodus 29:25-26 relates how bells were woven into the hem of the priest’s garment. Many have suggested that these were not merely for decoration, but so that, if some blemish were found in the priest and the Lord struck him dead in the holy place, that the people could hear that he had stopped moving around and know that he needed to be removed from before the Lord. In this light of this, we can understand that, among other things, these people were praying for Zacharias’ safe return, for even the slightest blemish or failure to follow the cleansing of the law would have resulted in Zacharias’ death. Since we already know how meticulously he and his wife kept the law, we cannot imagine that any such slight had actually occurred.

11. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

This was an angel of the Lord, whom we find out later is named Gabriel. This was not THE angel of the Lord, Who is Christ Himself. Remember that the Greek word “angel” means “messenger,” not a specific, heavenly race, which is what we make it to mean. Yet this messenger was of that heavenly race that we often refer to as “angels.”

The angel was standing on the right side of the altar. Why this side we cannot say for certain. Yet we know that it is on the right side that the Lord places the sheep nations in Matthew 25:33. It was on the right side of the sepulcher that the angel sat to deliver his message to the women in Mark 16:5. And it was on the right side of the boat that the Lord commanded His disciples to throw their nets for a great catch of fish in John 21:6. So it is again on the right side of the altar that the angel stands to deliver this message to Zachariah.

12. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

Remember that he was performing his service on that same altar of incense, so this angel appeared standing very close to him. Imagine having the angel of the Lord appear to you as you were serving in the holy place! No doubt already very nervous and worried about doing anything wrong in performing this service, which was a great honor, we might very well imagine that Zacharias thought he had omitted to do something required and that his life was now over. No wonder he was fearful!

13. But the angel said to him, “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.

Zacharias’ fears are put to rest, as the angel explains the purpose of his coming is not evil news but good. His prayer has been heard by God. Remember, hearing has to do not just with being in earshot of something, but with accepting a request and granting it. This prayer was no doubt the earnest desire of the heart of both Zacharias and Elizabeth. If there was one thing they felt was lacking in their lives and that they truly longed to have, this was it. Now, the Lord is granting them what they wanted so intensely. Imagine a man of so many years receiving a promise like this!

14. “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.

No doubt this lonely couple would have great joy and gladness at being given a child. Yet the angel here reveals that the joy would not be theirs alone, but would be shared by many others at his birth.

15. “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.

The Lord also would find joy in this one who would be born, for he would be great before His sight. Indeed, the Lord Himself would bear testimony to him later on, as he said in Luke 7:28, “For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” We will discuss the meaning of this when we come to this passage, but notice the greatness the Lord ascribes to this one John.

Then, the angel instructs that this one should drink neither wine nor strong drink. This was probably a reference to the Nazarite vow, as set forth in Numbers 6. There, in verses 2-4, this stipulation is set forth.

2. “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When either a man or woman consecrates an offering to take the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD, 3. he shall separate himself from wine and similar drink; he shall drink neither vinegar made from wine nor vinegar made from similar drink; neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh grapes or raisins. 4. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, from seed to skin.

If this does refer to the Nazarite vow, then John was one of several men who were pledged to this vow for life in the Scriptures. One was Samson, in Judges 13:8,14. Of course, he never took this separation to God very seriously. The other was Samuel, if we may infer this from I Samuel 1:11, since not cutting the hair was also a mark of a Nazarite. This means that John, not Jesus, was the one with the long hair!

John presents an interesting comparison with Samuel. Samuel was the last of the judges, as John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Samuel pointed men to God’s choice for Israel’s shepherd-king on earth, David. John pointed men to God’s choice for Israel’s Shepherd-King in the heavens, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Greek word for “wine” here is oinos, the common word for wine in the New Testament Greek. The word is probably used for a variety of drinks, at least one of which is intoxicating, as Ephesians 5:18 clearly shows. The word for “strong drink” is sikera, and means exclusively an intoxicating beverage, usually indicating any such beverage not made from grapes. Thus this matches up well with the Nazarite prohibition, which prohibited wine (Hebrew yayin, which had to do with beverages made from grapes,) and strong drink (Hebrew shekar, which again means an intoxicating beverage.) Thus, John was not to have anything to do with any drink made from grapes, or any intoxicating beverage.

The angel then declares that John would be filled the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. The phrase “Holy Spirit” here is pneuma hagion, and occurs without the definite article “the” here. Thus, this is talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, not His person. John was to be filled with the Spirit’s power even from the womb.

16. “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.

This was John’s mission, and we need to take careful note of it. This was not the mission of the John mentioned in John 1:7, who “came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.” Even if we take “all” as applying to Israel only we know that this was not John the Baptist’s mission as stated here. The verse in John does not speak of John the Baptist but rather of John the apostle, and gives his purpose in writing his book, the gospel of John.

Moreover, this will not be the mission of Elijah when he returns to earth, for we read in Malachi 4:6 that his mission will be to “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.” Thus, since this was not John the Baptist’s mission either, we know that he could not have been Elijah.

His mission was to turn many of the sons of Israel towards the Lord their God. The New King James Version here follows suit with the old King James by reversing the meaning of huios, which means “son,” and teknon, which means “child.” Many of the representatives of the nation of Israel living at that time were turned to the Lord their God through John’s ministry. Indeed, this is how it worked out, as we read in Luke 7:29-30. “29. And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” Thus, John did turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord. We cannot, then, maintain the idea that very few Israelites believed or yielded themselves to the message of God or the truth about Christ. Many were open to it, as they had been turned to the Lord by John.

17. “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, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The angel continues setting forth John’s mission. He would do for Israel at that time much the same work as Elijah will do in a yet future time, as is set forth in Malachi 4:5-6. “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.” Thus, the angel compares John to Elijah, saying that he would turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Yet notice that no mention of avoiding a curse is made here.

Note that it is said that John would be like Elijah, not that John would be Elijah, as many try to claim. It is impossible to suppose that John really was Elijah, since Elijah is a grown man living in heaven, to which he was taken in a whirlwind, as is set forth in II Kings 2. He thus could not be born again as a little baby, as John was. Those who claim this try to say that John was “spiritual” Elijah, and fulfilled the prophecies about Elijah in a “spiritual” way. “Spiritual” here is used in the nebulous way that those who don’t bother to define their terms like to use it. Basically, they use it to negate every truth and deny every prophecy, justifying the teachings they already believe and canceling out the Word of God.

Elijah never did the things Malachi 4 predicts of him any time during his ministry in the past. Thus, this statement would be foolishness if Elijah does not come back to earth and do these things someday in the future. I could not say that I am like my dad, being a chemist. My dad is not a chemist. Nor can I say I am like him if someone predicted that my dad would be a chemist long ago, and now I am a chemist. I cannot say I am fulfilling the prediction about my dad, or that I am doing what my dad did. He never was a chemist. In the same way, John could not be in the spirit and power of Elijah, if Elijah never does these things in the future. This comparison assumes that God’s statement will come true, and that Elijah will do these things in the future. If he does not, then John not only was not Elijah, but was not even like Elijah, for Elijah never did these things.

No, John only comes in the spirit and power of Elijah. We know that Elisha had a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, yet he most certainly was not Elijah since he and Elijah were alive at the same time. This just tells us that John (after Elijah and Elisha) was the third person to receive this unique spirit called “the spirit and power of Elijah.” The reason he seems to be thus compared to Elijah is that his mission in preparing the way for Christ’s first coming is similar to the work the real Elijah will do in preparing the way for Christ’s second coming.

What does it mean to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children”? I believe this means that the hearts of grown, worldly-wise men are made like the hearts of little children, ready and open to believe God’s truth. This is something that many of us experience at times: we meet someone who is simply ready to hear the truth. This was the kind of person that John was going to prepare. He was also going to turn those who had formerly been disobedient to the wisdom of the just. This word “wisdom” is the Greek for “understanding.” The Lord always views those who are obedient to Him as having greater understanding than those who are not. Thus, these people would be ready to hear the teaching that the Lord had for them next. This was how John was going to prepare them for Him.