Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Luke 1:13-25 and Introduction to Luke] Luke might be the most beautiful book ever written. Let's learn more about the man, his purpose, and his wonderful story of God's plan for our salvation.
“The Lord has done this for me. He has looked with favor in these days to take away my disgrace among the people.” Luke 1:25
Pregnancy Reveals, Gender Reveals, 2020 Style
When we were ready to announce Shelly's pregnancy with Micah, we sent a pink baby shoe and a blue baby shoe to my parents, and we sent the matching set to Shelly's parents. One of the two future grandmothers "got it". That was funny. That was the year 1999.
That was long before the social media takeover. These announcements have gotten out of control . . . but I still love to see them.
Of course, give creative people enough time, and they can make lemonade out of just about anything. Here are some pregnancy announcements from quarantine (warning: there is tacit acknowledgement of making babies in here, just so you know):
You know the phrase -- "a baby changes everything" -- it fills my heart with so much joy to see the hope and possibility with which these couples approach their future. If you have children, and if you can remember back that far :) , think about what you expected parent-life to be like vs. what it really turned out to be like.
But the fun doesn't stop with pregnancy announcements. There's money to be made in gender reveals now, too! Check out these fun products our small business entrepreneurs have worked up during 2020:
Go get 'em, you creative people, you!
What's Your Favorite Baby Announcement Story?
By now, all of you have been wowed by some reveal. Or maybe you were shocked -- someone you weren't expecting to hear was pregnant. Or maybe you want to share your own story -- how you broke the news to your family and friends.
Have some fun thinking about and sharing some fun stories.
The Strangest Baby Announcements in History
In our passage this week, the opening words of the Gospel of Luke, we read the first of two angel-led baby announcements. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the way they shared the news of her pregnancy, puts all of these other modern announcements in perspective. Someone always has a better story than you do :) . And if anyone could say that being a parent turned out far different than the would have expected, would it not be the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus?
Introducing the Gospel of Luke
For the next 6 months, we're going to be studying the Gospel of Luke. It is a favorite book for many people. It has often been called the most beautiful book ever written. I tend to agree, and we will explore why.
It's about Luke-Acts
It's important for us to center our thoughts on the fact that Luke is the only book in the Bible with a sequel. The Gospel isn't the whole story to Luke; the story continues with Acts. The cross isn't the end of the story; it's the middle of the story. The church isn't an add-on to the story of Jesus; it's the reason why Jesus came.
In my mind, here's the biggest consequence of reading the Gospel of Luke in light of the Book of Acts: Jesus did not just come to save individuals; He came to turn them into something new. That "something new" isn't just about a new destination and new behavior; it's about a new human endeavor called the church.
The Author: Luke the Physician
Ancient tradition unanimously considers Luke to be the author of these two otherwise unnamed books. (And we believe the two books to have the same author not only because their prologues indicate as much, but because the language and style matches.) That has to mean something; Luke was otherwise a rather unimportant individual. Not an apostle. His connection with Jesus was through the outsider Paul. If you were going to make up an author, you would have picked someone like Peter.
There are four "we" passages in Acts -- 16:10-17, 20:5-16, 21:1-18, 27:1-28:16. The way those passages fit into Acts makes it seem very much like the author interjected excerpts from his own diary. Assuming that to be the case, here are the possible candidates: Titus, Demas, Crescens, Jesus Justus, Epaphras, Epaphroditus, and Luke. Luke fits the bill of the author as well or better than every other person on that list.
Luke is mentioned three times in the NT: Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. Paul calls him "the beloved physician". Contrary to what some scholars have said, these books are not filled with medical jargon. What they are filled with are details that a physician would be more likely to notice than a layperson. For example, only Luke's Gospel records that Peter's mother-in-law had a "high" fever (4:38). Luke noted that a man's case of leprosy was advanced (5:12). Luke omitted the fact that the woman with the bleed had spent all her money on doctors (8:43).
That said, who was Luke? That's a great question. We know that he's some kind of physician. We deduce that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus. Paul did not list him among his Jewish companions (Col 4:11). So, he was a well-educated Gentile. Maybe.
The Date: Harder to Nail Down than We Would Like
This question is related to something called "The Synoptic Problem", which I will explain below. Basically, the answer to this question depends on Luke's sources. Because I believe that Luke was a personal companion of Paul's, that puts these books in the first century. Let's throw out all of the dates expounded by the liberals in the second century or later. Here's what we know:
Acts ends with Paul in prison. Based on the external evidence showing that Agrippa died in 44 and Festus became governor in 60, we know that Paul arrived as a prisoner in Rome in 61 AD. Based on Luke's themes (see below), we would expect him to report things like Paul's release (likely in 63 AD) and anything that Paul talked about in his later letters (such as to Timothy).
Acts doesn't mention anything about James' death (likely 62 AD) or the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), which would seem to be important events in the early life of the church.
I conclude from that that Luke wrote during Paul's imprisonment -- around 62 AD. (Nothing saying that Luke had to write the two books at the same time! But based on the constraints listed below, I don't think the Gospel was written much if at all earlier.)
But this leads us into the interesting (read: mind-numbing) question of "The Synoptic Problem".
The Synoptic Problem: An Overview
Explaining this "problem" is quite simple. When you read the Gospels, you notice that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of similarities, and John is very different. In fact, it's much more complicated than that. Here's a commonly used diagram:
Almost half of the Gospel stories are common to all three "Synoptics". Matthew and Luke share a quarter that is not found in Mark. Mark and Matthew share a little that is not found in Luke. And Mark and Luke share very little that is not found in Matthew.
And these similarities go beyond what might be called "the oral tradition". In many of the common verses, the wording is exactly the same, making scholars believe there must have been a "written tradition" available to the Gospel writers. And so they go deep into the similarities and differences between the Gospels. Matthew contains 90% of Mark's content, but only 50% of Mark's words (meaning that Matthew is very condensed). Luke contains 50% of Mark's content and about 50% of Mark's words. The first few chapters of Matthew and Luke are quite different from one another, but once Mark's Gospel kicks in, they generally follow Mark's order.
Many scholars take from this the idea that Mark was written first and Luke used Mark as a source. If that's so, then Luke could not have been written before Mark.
That's a very good hypothesis. Unfortunately, it's not possible to prove. For example, there are places where Matthew and Luke share details that Mark doesn't have. There are entire sections of Mark that don't show up in Luke. Why would that be the case if Luke used Mark as a source?
So, scholars have come up with all kinds of theories to explain what's going on. Here are three of the most common:
The one in the middle is very common. In that, the theory is that Matthew and Luke used two primary documents: the Gospel of Mark, and a collection of sayings called "Q". Here's the problem with that hypothesis: no one has ever found "Q", and no one can agree on what would have been in "Q".
I personally hold the "Griesbach Hypothesis" -- the idea that Matthew was written first, that Luke used Matthew, and the Mark used Matthew and Luke. (Trust me -- there are plenty of holes in that hypothesis.) And then there's a variation ordered Mark -> Matthew -> Luke.
Unless you're a liberal who wants to argue that the authors of the Gospels didn't really know what they were talking about, here's all that matters about "the synoptic problem": dates and drafts. If the Gospels were written in a certain order, then their dates are thus dependent. A modern take on this question involves "editions" or "drafts", as in, Luke wrote a draft of his Gospel, Matthew took some notes from it, made some suggestions, and then Luke wrote another draft. And vice-versa, Matthew also had multiple drafts. All of that is completely speculative. There is no way to prove or disprove any of it.
My personal conclusion? All three of these Gospels come from roughly the same decade (the 60s). Based on Luke's claim of "careful research", it only makes sense that he would have used anything and everything -- including the possibility of Matthew's or Mark's notes, if not their entire Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke were three different individuals. Matthew was an apostle, a personal eyewitness of Jesus' entire ministry. Mark was Peter's companion and would have leaned heavily on Peter's testimony. Luke was a learned man and Paul's companion and would have taken advantage of every contact Paul had with the rest of the apostles. There is no doubt in my mind that these three men would have talked and even worked together, making sure they were remembering everything of importance. But they each had their own emphases and goals -- compatible, but unique.
The Purpose and Outline of Luke
One of my favorite commentaries of Luke was written by Leon Morris (who might be my favorite New Testament scholar). He explained the relationship between "historian" and "theologian" better than anyone I've ever learned from. He said that a person can be a good historian and yet still have a theological purpose for the way in which he presents historical facts. In other words, Luke carefully reported the historical facts of Jesus' life and ministry, and the early days of the Christian church. At the same time, he had a careful theological agenda that he used to shape his presentation, highlighting these themes:
Salvation history. Luke's primary theme is how God has worked out human salvation through the actions of individuals (mainly Jesus), and how it came to the church to proclaim that message to the world. God had a plan and a purpose.
Salvation for the world. Right underneath that theme is the important idea that this salvation is available to everyone -- Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor. The story of Jesus concerns the whole world, not just Israel. (But nowhere does Luke give the idea that everyone will be saved.)
Peace / Shalom. As a physician, Luke was intensely aware of the idea of "human wholeness" and health. So, Luke emphasized the personal results of salvation unlike anyone else, particularly the idea of being at "peace" with yourself and with God.
Eschatology. To Luke, salvation history has a direction and an end, and it is critical to understand that end before it comes. Proclamation of the good news has a purpose and a time limit -- judgment is coming.
The church. Luke saw God's plan in the people of Israel and understood how it became fulfilled in the people of Christ. Salvation was not just for individual benefit, but so that we could as a church propagate this message and teaching from generation to generation.
Individuals (including women, the poor, the sick, the young). Luke never lost the forest for the trees (the church for the people). In his writings, he focused on people not mentioned anywhere else, particularly women and children. But I'll talk about this more next week.
The Holy Spirit. Luke begins both books with the activity of the Spirit (see this week's lesson and Pentecost). The critical thing for us is that it attaches us to Luke's story. God did not leave us to figure this out on our own; His Spirit guides us.
Prayer and Praise. Luke's works are filled with prayers and songs. It was intentionally written to help the church know how to pray and praise God.
Part 1: Jesus Introduced (1-2)
Part 2: John the Baptist (3)
Part 3: Jesus the Teacher Introduced (4)
Part 4: Jesus in Galilee (4-9)
Part 5: Jesus to Jerusalem (10-19)
Part 6: Jesus in Jerusalem (20-21)
Part 7: The Crucifixion (22-23)
Part 8: The Resurrection (24)
We will break that outline down in more detail from one section to the next.
Realize that we are going to spend 5 lessons in the first two chapters, so don't use all of your baby Jesus stuff in the first week! Save it and spread it out! Here's how I'm going to focus my notes and topics:
December 6: Introducing Luke, a little about Zechariah, a little about John the Baptist (we have another lesson about John in January).
December 13: Introducing Mary, Mary's song, the themes of individuals.
December 20: The Christmas story -- the shepherds and angels, with a little about Herod and Caesar Augustus.
December 27: Introducing Simeon and Anna, the themes of God's plan
January 3: Jesus the boy
After you break the ice with a fun topic of some kind, you want to say enough about the author, the date, and the purpose of the book to get everyone thinking on the same wavelength. Don't share more than you need to -- there's a lot to cover in this week's passage! You can always point people back to this webpage, or you can use the incredible work from the Bible Project:
"The humble conditions of his family and their low status in Israelite society foreshadow the upside-down nature of Jesus’ kingdom." Well put!
You can also watch the first few minutes of the second video for a slightly different emphsis.
Don't Skip the First Few Verses!
In verses 1-4, we learn that Luke took the responsibility of writing a Gospel of Jesus very seriously, using eyewitness accounts and careful research. We are also introduced to Luke's benefactor "Theophilus". "Theophilus" means "lover of God", and that may or may not have been the individual's name. But I think we can safely conclude that Luke wrote this Gospel for a specific person who was interested in Jesus. In all likelihood, he was a person of wealth and status (and paid for the expensive publishing process). It is very possible that Theophilus was not a believer, which is why Luke wrote this. As for the timing, I liken it to Tom Brokaw and The Greatest Generation, who realized that there was a limited opportunity to get eyewitness testimony.
Some important things we learn about Luke in these verses:
He's a trained writer, schooled in the common and well-accepted forms of the day, blending Greek structure with Aramaic style.
He doesn't disparage the others who have written accounts about Jesus. He's not that kind of guy. He just wants to write his own that's as accurate as possible.
He understood the difference between those who followed Jesus and those who just observed Jesus. He went to the followers for his information.
Even though he was not an eyewitness, Luke learned the material so well and thoroughly that he could work with it as if he knew Jesus personally.
Verses 5-12 introduce us to Zechariah, a priest, and Elizabeth. They were upright (meaning they had served God faithfully). This is during the reign of Herod the Great (37 - 4 BC), which I'll talk about in a couple of weeks. Unlike Levites, priests never retired, so Zechariah could have been very old. Only 4 divisions of priests returned from the Exile (Ez 2:36-39), so it took a few generations to build back up the full roster, but by Jesus' day they were back to a fully-staffed 24 divisions. Each division served twice a year for a week at a time. There were only so many "priestly duties" to go around, so they were divvied out by lot. Offering incense was a great privilege -- according to the Mishnah, priests could only do that once in a lifetime! This was thus the most important moment in Zechariah's Jewish life. Zechariah encounters and angel, and we're off...
Part 1: Prayer Answered (Luke 1:13-17)
13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. 16 He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”
Here's a really cool thing about Luke: whereas Matthew connects Jesus with the Old Testament through prophecy fulfillment, Luke does so by creating an Old Testament atmosphere. We read about being in the Temple, the work of the priests, offering incense, alluding to Malachi. There's a sense of wonder and awe and there's the spiritual presence of God.
Why would Luke do this? Because he's not writing to a Jewish audience. Matthew was, and so he leaned on Old Testament teachings. Luke wrote to Gentiles, and so he tapped into spiritual imagination. Starting in the Temple would be like introducing us to Catholicism by taking us on an adventure in the Sistine Chapel. We don't have to know anything about what Catholics believe to be drawn into that story and become connected to it.
Get used to these angel words: "do not be afraid". Why do you think an angel would start a message with those words? (Advent plug: this week's theme is "peace", so you can prepare for Sunday School by reading our Advent devotions on Facebook!)
The grammar the angel uses implies that Zechariah had prayed for a son while offering incense. This makes his subsequent incredulity almost comical. Or maybe a little sad -- as in he had been praying it for so long that he stopped believing God would answer. Have you ever prayed something for that long?
And the angel gives him the best possible news. Not only will they have a son, but he will be great in the eyes of God! An answer beyond his wildest imagination! [Quick aside on being childless in those days. Sons were how family names were carried and how elderly parents received care. Not having a son was -- however unfairly -- considered shameful.] God had even picked his name: John. "John" combined the "Jah" of "Yahweh" (hallelu-jah) with "chanan" meaning "to be gracious", so "The Lord is gracious".
There's delight and joy and wonder in this news. This is the first of many references to joy in Luke's Gospel. My guess is that the angel referred to their friends, who would be astonished and joyful at the amazing birth. But it's certainly possible that the angel is foreshadowing all of those who would follow John in his ministry later in life.
John is the only person in the New Testament said to be filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb. This is a big deal. Remember that Jesus called John the greatest prophet to ever live (7:28). That's amazing. And that's probably the connection with wine or beer. This is not about a "Nazirite vow", which involved a lot more (Num 6:5-12); this is about the Holy Spirit. John's chief influence would be the Holy Spirit, not any earthly spirit.
Then there's a very interesting allusion to Malachi.
I don't know who created this slide (which always makes me nervous), but it illustrates a point I would make. The cross represents the singular turning point in all of history, but the structural turning point of the Bible is the birth of Christ. Malachi and John the Baptist are the bookends to the "final silence" of God before the coming of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the final transition in the way that God will deal with humanity.
As Matthew makes clear, John the Baptist fulfills the critical prophesy of the "Elijah who is to come" (Mal 4:5), the one who prepares the way of the Messiah (Isa 40:3). Without the forerunner, there cannot be a Messiah. To Luke, however, John's role (as you might expect) is more personal. He comes to bring a change in the relationships of people.
That's where Malachi comes in. These references are to Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6. And they are obscure. We get the idea of "turning the people [back] to God". But what does it mean to "turn the hearts of fathers to their children"? And how is that parallel with "turn the disobedient to the righteous"? Does he cause fathers to start training their children better in righteousness? Does he cause his fellow Jews to realize the rebelliousness of their fore-fathers? Does it mean that when the people listen to John, their long-dead but faithful ancestors would be pleased? No one can agree. (I actually hold that last interpretation.)
Anyway, the point is that John is an answer to Zechariah's prayer -- and also to the prayers of everyone who had longed for the coming of the Messiah. John will be that transition of old to new, the one who points the way to a relationship with God.
Part 2: Doubt Expressed (Luke 1:18-20)
18 “How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. 20 Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
Because these verses are so self-explanatory, I'll speed my way through them.
People have wondered why Mary's very similar response (1:34) evoked such a different reaction from the angel than Zechariah's response. The difference is that of intent. Mary didn't understand; Zechariah didn't believe. There's a big difference. Even though Zechariah had just prayed for a son, his first reaction to the angel's message was incredulity.
The closest thing I can think of is Bill Cosby's routine about the conversation between God and Noah about building an ark. "Noah" essentially concludes that he must be on Candid Camera (look it up, kids). In Cosby's routine, it's played for laughs, and it is funny to think about, but that's definitely not how God interacts with people in the Bible. God never kids. God never misdirects. God never equivocates. When God speaks (in this case, through an angel), the response must be "yes". And that's exactly Mary's response -- after the angel clears up her confusion! Zechariah, on the other hand, has to learn a lesson about trusting God.
[Aside on Gabriel. Gabriel ("man of God") and Michael ("who is like God?") are the only two angels mentioned by name in the Bible. I think that's a big deal. They are both identified as "archangels" in earlier Jewish writings, so Zechariah would have been familiar with the name. "Angel" means "messenger"; as impressive as Gabriel must have been, he was just an "errand-boy" for God. But there is no physical description of Gabriel here, other than his grammatically masculine name.]
There was no "sign" for Zechariah, as the ones we learned about in Isaiah. Instead, there was a punishment (which functioned as a sign). Zechariah would not be able to speak until the child was born. Think about that for a bit. Put yourself in Zechariah's shoes. How might you have reacted to an angel interrupting your most important duty in your life? What would you have thought about his announcement? Then, as you are mute for the next 9~+ months, do you kick yourself every day for how you handled the conversation? How does that compare to other conversations you'd like to have over?
Part 3: Reality Seen (1:21-25)
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them. Then they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was making signs to them and remained speechless. 23 When the days of his ministry were completed, he went back home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and kept herself in seclusion for five months. She said, 25 “The Lord has done this for me. He has looked with favor in these days to take away my disgrace among the people.”
It helps to remember the awesome setting. Herod started building his "new and improved" temple in 20 BC. It was massive, ornate, and intended to be awe-inspiring (to God or to Herod?). Zechariah's fellow priests were waiting for him in the courtyard; Zechariah had gone through the doors to the Holy Place where the Altar of Incense was located. It's not a quick job, but everyone knew how long it was supposed to take. Had something gone wrong?
Well, yes and no. We know the story, but Zechariah was unable to tell his fellow priests the story. Here's a fun exercise: have someone make up an "angel conversation" and give it to someone else. Then, that person has to explain the conversation without making any noise and without writing anything down. Sound easy? Remember, there were no whiteboard or notepads in that day. Nor was sign language an official language. Frustrating!
And then how do you explain this to Elizabeth? And, of course, there are certain things that have to happen before John can be conceived -- how might that have been? (Maybe don't answer that.) For some reason, Elizabeth kept to herself for a time. Was she in shock? Was she afraid how other people would react to this news?
Luke's point is to draw us in to the lives of these otherwise unimportant, unknown individuals. There's a wonder and a spirituality going on that we don't quite understand, but we want to know more. God is acting, and the people don't know how to re-act. There's fear and awe and astonishment.
Exactly how the coming of the Son of God should be put on paper.
Recapture the wonder of Christmas in your own heart this week!