In the time of Jesus, Jewish life is centered in the temple in Jerusalem. Priests are responsible for the temple’s activities—which include receiving religious pilgrims and their sacrifices (cattle, sheep, goats, and doves). Animal sacrifices may sound strange to a modern society, but in the ancient world, they are quite common. The slaughter of animals is a daily experience; it is part of any meal that includes meat. So this meal brings together the Jewish family from near and far, seeking to affirm their connections to the one true and living God. Their gift of animals is their contribution to the meal. (The priests, by the way, are authorized to use the meat for the sustenance of their families.)
The presentation of the blood and meat of these sacrifices is accompanied by a number of prescribed rituals, performed by priests wearing prescribed ornamental clothing, according to a prescribed schedule. As the story continues, these solemn rituals are interrupted in an unprecedented way.
1 1-3 For those who love God, several other people have already written accounts of what God has been bringing to completion among us, using the reports of the original eyewitnesses, those who were there from the start to witness the fulfillment of prophecy. Like those other servants who have recorded the messages, I present to you my carefully researched, orderly account of these new teachings. 4 I want you to know that you can fully rely on the things you have been taught about Jesus, God’s Anointed One.
5 To understand the life of Jesus, I must first give you some background history, events that occurred when Herod ruled Judea for the Roman Empire. Zacharias was serving as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem those days as his fathers had before him. He was a member of the priestly division of Abijah (a grandson of Aaron who innovated temple practices), and his wife, Elizabeth, was of the priestly lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother. 6 They were good and just people in God’s sight, walking with integrity in the Lord’s ways and laws. 7 Yet they had this sadness. Due to Elizabeth’s infertility, they were childless, and at this time, they were both quite old—well past normal childbearing years.
8 One day Zacharias was chosen to perform his priestly duties in God’s presence, according to the temple’s normal schedule and routine. 9 He had been selected from all the priests by the customary procedure of casting lots for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the sacred precincts of the temple. There he burned sweet incense, 10 while outside a large crowd of people prayed. 11 Suddenly Zacharias realized he was not alone: a messenger of the Lord was there with him. The messenger stood just to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was shocked and afraid, 13 but the messenger reassured him.
Messenger: Zacharias, calm down! Don’t be afraid!
Zacharias is a priest working in the temple, but priests don’t normally hear from God. Those who hear from God are called prophets, not priests. One becomes a priest by being born in a priestly family line. Prophets, on the other hand, arise unpredictably and have no special credentials except the message they carry. So Zacharias has no reason to believe his duties will be interrupted in this way. Often in the biblical story, when people receive a message from God—after getting over the initial shock—they start asking questions. They push back; they doubt.
Messenger: Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. 14 He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth.
15 This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form;[a] instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s womb. 16 Here is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. 17 Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children;[b] someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God.
Zacharias: 18 How can I be sure of what you’re telling me? I am an old man, and my wife is far past the normal age for women to bear children. This is hard to believe!
Messenger (sternly): 19 I am Gabriel, the messenger who inhabits God’s presence. I was sent here to talk with you and bring you this good news. 20 Because you didn’t believe my message, you will not be able to talk—not another word—until you experience the fulfillment of my words.
21 Meanwhile the crowd at the temple wondered why Zacharias hadn’t come out of the sanctuary yet. It wasn’t normal for the priest to be delayed so long. 22 When at last he came out, he was making signs with his hands to give the blessing, but he couldn’t speak. They realized he had seen some sort of vision. 23 When his time on duty at the temple came to an end, he went back home to his wife. 24 Shortly after his return, Elizabeth became pregnant. She avoided public contact for the next five months.
Elizabeth: 25 I have lived with the disgrace of being barren for all these years. Now God has looked on me with favor. When I go out in public with my baby, I will not be disgraced any longer.
26 Six months later in Nazareth, a city in the rural province of Galilee, the heavenly messenger Gabriel made another appearance. This time the messenger was sent by God 27 to meet with a virgin named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David himself. 28 The messenger entered her home.
Messenger: Greetings! You are favored, and the Lord is with you! [Among all women on the earth, you have been blessed.][c]
29 The heavenly messenger’s words baffled Mary, and she wondered what type of greeting this was.
Messenger: 30 Mary, don’t be afraid. You have found favor with God. 31 Listen, you are going to become pregnant. You will have a son, and you must name Him “Savior,” or Jesus.[d] 32 Jesus will become the greatest among men. He will be known as the Son of the Highest God. God will give Him the throne of His ancestor David, 33 and He will reign over the covenant family of Jacob forever.
Mary: 34 But I have never been with a man. How can this be possible?
Messenger: 35 The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most High will overshadow you. That’s why this holy child will be known, as not just your son, but also as the Son of God. 36 It sounds impossible, but listen—you know your relative Elizabeth has been unable to bear children and is now far too old to be a mother. Yet she has become pregnant, as God willed it. Yes, in three months, she will have a son. 37 So the impossible is possible with God.
Mary (deciding in her heart): 38 Here I am, the Lord’s humble servant. As you have said, let it be done to me.
Luke is very interested in the ways that disadvantaged people of his day respond to God. Already there is a fascinating interplay between Zacharias’s response to God and Mary’s.
And the heavenly messenger was gone. 39 Mary immediately got up and hurried to the hill country, in the province of Judah, 40-41 where her cousins Zacharias and Elizabeth lived. When Mary entered their home and greeted Elizabeth, who felt her baby leap in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth (shouting): 42 You are blessed, Mary, blessed among all women, and the child you bear is blessed! 43 And blessed I am as well, that the mother of my Lord has come to me! 44 As soon as I heard your voice greet me, my baby leaped for joy within me. 45 How fortunate you are, Mary, for you believed that what the Lord told you would be fulfilled.
Mary is deeply moved by these amazing encounters—first with the messenger and then with her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary’s response can’t be contained in normal prose; her noble soul overflows in poetry. And this poetry isn’t simply religious; it has powerful social and political overtones. It speaks of a great reversal—what might be called a social, economic, and political revolution. To people in Mary’s day, there is little question as to what she is talking about. The Jewish people are oppressed by the Roman Empire, and to speak of a King who will demote the powerful and rich and elevate the poor and humble means one thing: God is moving toward setting them free! Soon Zacharias will overflow in poetry of his own.
46 Mary: My soul lifts up the Lord!
47 My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
48 For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!
50 From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.
51 God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
52 The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
53 The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
54 To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,
55 As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth in Judea for the next three months and then returned to her home in Galilee.
57 When the time was right, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. 58 News about the Lord’s special kindness to her had spread through her extended family and the community. Everyone shared her joy, for after all these years of infertility, she had a son! 59 As was customary, eight days after the baby’s birth the time came for his circumcision and naming. Everyone assumed he would be named Zacharias, like his father.
Elizabeth (disagreeing): 60 No. We will name him John.
Her Relatives (protesting): 61 That name is found nowhere in your family.
62 They turned to Zacharias and asked him what he wanted the baby’s name to be.
63 He motioned for a tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was shocked by this breach of family custom. 64 They were even more surprised when, at that moment, Zacharias was able to talk again, and he shouted out praises to God. 65 A sense of reverence spread through the whole community. In fact, this story was spread throughout the hilly countryside of Judea. 66 People were certain that God’s hand was on this child, and they wondered what sort of person John would turn out to be when he became a man.
67 When Zacharias’s voice was restored to him, he sang from the fullness of the Spirit a prophetic blessing.
68 Zacharias: May the Lord God of Israel be blessed indeed!
For God’s intervention has begun,
and He has moved to rescue us, the people of God.
69 And the Lord has raised up a powerful sign of liberation for us
from among the descendants of God’s servant, King David.
70 As was prophesied through the mouths of His holy prophets in ancient times:
71 God will liberate us from our enemies
and from the hand of our oppressors![e]
72-74 God will show mercy promised to our ancestors,
upholding the abiding covenant He made with them,
Remembering the original vow He swore to Abraham,
from whom we are all descended.
God will rescue us from the grasp of our enemies
so that we may serve Him without fear all our days
75 In holiness and justice, in the presence of the Lord.
76 And you, my son, will be called the prophet of the Most High.
For you will be the one to prepare the way for the Lord[f]
77 So that the Lord’s people will receive knowledge of their freedom
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 All this will flow from the kind and compassionate mercy of our God.
A new day is dawning:
the Sunrise from the heavens will break through in our darkness,
79 And those who huddle in night,
those who sit in the shadow of death,
Will be able to rise and walk in the light,[g]
guided in the pathway of peace.
80 And John grew up and became strong in spirit. He lived in the wilderness, outside the cities, until the day came for him to step into the public eye in Israel.