The announcement of John's birth comes at a high moment in Zechariah's career. As one of about eighteen thousand priests, Zechariah serves in the temple twice a year, but only once in his life does he get to assist in the daily offering by going into the holy place. This honor had fallen to him by lot (m. Tamid 5:2—6:3). His job was to offer incense, a picture of intercession rising to God (Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). Everything about the announcement's timing points to a moment of high piety. Zechariah goes in while the people are praying. A later prayer from the Targum of Canticles 4:6 may well express their thoughts: "May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people."
As Zechariah offers up the incense and prayer, an angel appears. Angelic visitations to announce births of major figures are common in the Old Testament (Gen 16:10-11; 17:15-19; 18:10-15; 25:23; Judg 13:3-21). This announcement is unusual, however, in that the father rather than the mother receives the message. The angel's arrival produces fear in the priest. He senses the presence of God's agent (Lk 1:29-30; 1:65; 2:9; 5:8-10, 26; 7:16; 8:37; 9:34) and is taken back by this surprising development.
The angelic announcement proceeds in stages: the child's name (v. 13), the response to the child (v. 14), the position and character of the child (v. 15) and the mission of the child (vv. 16-17). Zechariah's prayer is being answered. Since he had given up believing that God would give him a child (v. 18), his prayer has probably been focused on the nation's hope, especially since much of the angel's message focuses on this point. Nonetheless, the child will also fulfill the personal desire of Zechariah and Elizabeth, being a cause of joy and delight for them and for many in the nation. So God is tackling two requests at once, one national and the other personal, a prayer that had long since been abandoned and all but forgotten. Sometimes God's answers to prayer come in surprising ways after a long time.
The child will be named John. When God names a child, that child is especially significant in God's plan (Gen 16:8, 11; 17:19; 1 Kings 13:2; Is 7:14; 49:1; Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31). This child will be great before God. In Luke 7:28 Jesus says that no one greater had been born of woman before John. His greatness emerges from his prophetic role and from his function as a forerunner to Jesus, as the rest of Luke 1 makes clear.
John is to live an ascetic life of discipline. This will stand in contrast to Jesus (7:31-35). The refusal to drink shows a special consecration, and the language recalls the description of the prophet Samuel, Israel's first prophet (1 Sam 1:11). Since the angel does not say that John should not cut his hair, however, he is probably not being called on to take a Nazirite vow (Num 6:1-21; Judg 13:4-5).
More important, the child will be empowered by the Spirit even from birth (that is, from his mother's womb). The Spirit is very active in these opening chapters (see 1:35, 41, 67; 2:25-27). This promise has an initial fulfillment in the events of Luke 1:39-45, especially verse 44. But the Spirit's abiding with John is an intensification of the Spirit's presence among Old Testament prophets (contrast with 1 Sam 10:10; 2 Kings 2:9-16; see Is 61:1; Ezek 11:5; Joel 2:28). Everything about these events shows that they hark back to the great era of old, but reveal an escalation of God's work and thus the approach of a new era.
John will be a prophet. His call to the people to repent will be detailed in 3:1-20. Here the angel describes his ministry as preparing a remnant for God: Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord. In other words, he will turn Israel to the Lord their God. The expression "to turn" has Old Testament roots (Deut 30:2; Hos 3:5; 7:10). John will redirect those who respond to his message toward a walk with God. In fact, he will be like Elijah in his ministry (1 Kings 17—18; Mal 4:5; Sirach 48:10). In speaking of turning the hearts of parents to their children, Luke is indicating that reconciliation with God will produce reconciliation elsewhere. When God touches a life, relationships with others on this earth are also touched. So John will make ready a people prepared for the Lord. This language recalls Isaiah 43:7 and 2 Samuel 7:24. This will be a nation of people God has called to himself, a faithful remnant sharing in the realization of God's promise because they have turned to him.
Zechariah's response, though coming from a pious man, is very human. He does not take the miraculous as a matter of course. He has a natural objection to the promise that they will receive a child: their old age. Zechariah understands the basics of biology and aging. He and his wife are "past their prime."
In response, the angel announces his name, Gabriel, and indicates that God will bring his promise to pass. The angel's giving his name and position communicates that his message is to be accepted as coming from the throne room of heaven. Zechariah, righteous as he is, needs to learn that God will fulfill his promises when he sovereignly chooses to act. The God of heaven may even do things out of the ordinary. The major lesson in this announcement for the priest, as well as for Luke's readers, is that God will do what he promises in his own way.
To drive the point home, Zechariah becomes temporarily deaf and dumb. This short-term judgment from God allows the priest to reflect on what he must learn. As Luke 1:56-79 shows, Zechariah will learn from his time of silence. The angel is explicit that the reason for the imposition of muteness is that Zechariah did not believe the angel's words. Sometimes we experience trial so that we can learn to trust God more.
The crowd becomes nervous because of Zechariah's delay in emerging from the holy place; they deduce that something unusual is slowing down the ceremony. According to Jewish tradition, the high priest was to recite a short prayer when he was in the Holy of Holies ministering on the day of Atonement, lest the people worry (m. Yoma 5:1). It was assumed that God's holiness made it difficult to stay in his presence for very long. Such an attitude seems to fuel the people's concern here.
When Zechariah emerges, he is unable to give the benediction, which probably consisted of the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 (m. Tamid 7:2). So he signs a message. The people conclude that Zechariah has experienced a very direct encounter with heaven, a vision. Zechariah heads home, reflecting in his silence on what God is going to do.