The time arrived for Elisheva to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard how good the Lord had been to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day, they came to do the child’s circumcision. They were about to name him Z’kharyah, after his father, 60 when his mother spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called Yochanan.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has that name,” 62 and they made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. 63 He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is Yochanan.” 64 At that moment, his power of speech returned, and his first words were a blessing to God. 65 All their neighbors were awestruck; and throughout the hill country of Y’hudah, people talked about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard of them said to himself, “What is this child going to be?” For clearly the hand of the Lord was with him.
67 His father Z’kharyah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Praised be the Lord, the God of Isra’el,]
because he has visited and made a ransom to liberate his people
69 by raising up for us a mighty Deliverer
who is a descendant of his servant David.
70 It is just as he has spoken
through the mouth of the prophets from the very beginning —
71 that we should be delivered from our enemies
and from the power of all who hate us.
72 “This has happened so that he might show
the mercy promised to our fathers —
that he would remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore before Abraham our father
74 to grant us that we, freed from our enemies,
would serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
you will go before the Lord to prepare his way[e]
77 by spreading the knowledge among his people
that deliverance comes by having sins forgiven
78 through our God’s most tender mercy,
which causes the Sunrise to visit us from Heaven,
79 to shine on those in darkness, living in the shadow of death,[f]
and to guide our feet into the paths of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the wilderness until the time came for him to appear in public to Isra’el.
Luke has completed the story of the conception of John the Baptist and Jesus; he has brought the two mothers together; and now he proceeds to the story of the two births. The last great prophet and the Messiah of Israel are presented by Luke as the one movement of God’s goodness, marked by the appearance of angels and the gift of the Holy Spirit to members of the families who are chosen to serve God’s rescue of his people.
The name of the child which means “God has favoured/ bestowed/ graced” is clearly suitable for the prophet who will announce God’s coming salvation to the people, and separates the child from the ordinary family succession. He is special from the start not least in being named by his mother, as opposed to all good custom.
The prophecy of Z’chariyah is specifically messianic. God is bringing his rescue to his people, by means of a mighty deliverer of the dynasty of David, as the old prophecies promised. The moment of John’s birth is hailed as the beginning of the special time of God’s rescue, which will liberate Israel from “enemies”, that is from foreign domination, and leave her free to serve God quietly in peace, holiness and justice. That is an interesting definition of the purpose of God’s action.
The ministry of John is defined as that of the voice in Isaiah chapter 40 which calls for a way to be prepared for the coming God. He will call the people to receive forgiveness for their sins. The forgiving movement of God’s spirit is beautifully described as the “sunrise visiting from heaven”, which is also a description of Messiah Jesus. This light is named as the one spoken of in Isaiah chapter 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Peace is twice mentioned in this prophecy as the purpose of God.
The words of Z’chariyah set out the plan of God’s revolution on earth: it will come to the people of Israel, and from the midst of that people. It will fulfil ancient prophecies in bringing God’s goodness into the world. It will liberate Israel to fulfil her calling as the people of God, in peace.
John’s desert dwelling fulfils the prophecy of a “a voice in the desert” and harks back to the time Israel spent in the desert before entering the land of promise. Again we should note that there is nothing in Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ birth that uses specifically Christian language or sees the focus of God’s rescue as other than Israel.
Clearly Luke’s readers will have known that most of Israel rejected Messiah Jesus; but he will not deny that God’s goodness was directed first of all to his partner people. He intends his readers to reflect on the capacity of human beings to reject God’s goodness; and on God’s readiness to “change the detail of his plan” so that nevertheless, Abraham’s family can be a blessing to all nations.