[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
1:11-12. Due to the fact that Elizabeth was barren, and barrenness was usually associated with a divine curse, Zacharias probably expected the worse when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the Holy Place. It is understandable that he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. In Scripture, the appearance of an angel nearly always causes fear (Exod 15;16; Judg 6;22-23; 13:6, 22; 2 Sam 6:9; Isa 6;5; Dan 8:16-17; 10:10-11). If Zacharias had some unknown sin for which his wife was barren, he could have been struck dead. Luke mentions that the angel stood on the right side of the altar of incense. Tradition states that the altar was placed just east of the entrance to the Holy of Holies, so if the angel stood on the right of the altar of incense, it would appear that he had just come out from the Holy of Holies (Lightfoot 1989:18).
1:13. The angel Gabriel (cf. v. 19) immediately tries to calm Zacharias’ fears by telling Zacharias to not be afraid. There may have been good reason to be afriad, as Gabriel is one of God’s principle war angels (Ford 1984:14). The angel is not there to harm Zacharias, but rather, to proclaim good news and announce an answer to his prayer. From a Jewish perspective, Zacharias had never been as close to God as he was when he went in to offer incense at the altar (Green 1997:70). Therefore, he probably took this opportunity to pray to God for a son. He probably also prayed for “divine intervention on behalf of Israel” (Green 1997:71). God provides for both requests with one answer.
Gabriel tells Zacharias that in answer to his prayer, not only will Elizabeth bear a son, but that they should call his name John. This is not a predication, but a command. “John” means “God is gracious” which is echoed in 1:58, 60 (Green 1997:74). The fact that God had selected the name of his child before he was even conceived indicates that this would be used greatly by God. And this is what the angel confirms to Zacharias in verses 14-17.
1:14. Not only will Zacharias and Elizabeth have joy and gladness when their son is born, but many will rejoice as his birth. The angel provides five reasons why many will rejoice.
1:15. The first reason many will rejoice at the birth of John is because he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Though the narrative does not fully explain here how great John will be, Luke reveals later that according to Jesus, John was the greatest of all Hebrew prophets, because he prepared the way for the Messiah (cf. Isa 40:3; Luke 7:27-28).
The angel explains next that John shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. This was certainly not something John would do naturally and would be quite rare in the biblical world (Green 1997:75), but was something Zacharias and Elizabeth would have to instruct John in. In a culture that frequently drank wine or beer with meals, someone who did not drink alcohol generally did so as part of a vow, or to perform service to God, to publicly show that they were setting themselves apart from culture for God’s use. This is Luke’s first mention of the Holy Spirit, and he deliberately contrasts drinking wine and being filled with the Spirit (Green 1997:75; cf. Eph 5:18).
It is possible that John’s abstinence was intended to be part of the Jewish Nazarite vow, which can be read about in Numbers 6:1-21, but the absence of a command to keep John’s hair from being cut makes it less than certain. Only two other times in Scripture do parents make similar vows on behalf of their unborn children: Samson (Judg 13:4-5) and Samuel (1 Sam 1:11). Both men were Judges of Israel, though Samuel was also a priest and Israel’s first prophet (1 Sam 3:20; Acts 3:24). Samson did not live in full accordance with his Nazarite vows, but Samuel did, and was the prophet who inaugurated the reign of King David. Zacharias is about to learn that his son will also prepare the way for a king.
Third, the angel explains that John will also be filled with the Holy Spirit. In Israelite history, only select individuals (such as prophets and kings) were filled with the Holy Spirit, and even then, only for a specific time to accomplish specific tasks. That John will be filled with the Holy Spirit indicates that God has selected him for a very special purpose.
Furthermore, John would not only be filled, but filled from his mother’s womb. It was very rare for a child to be filled with the Holy Spirit, let alone from before the child was even born! The indication here is that there was even divine work for the child to do while in his mother’s womb (cf. 1:44; Green 1997:75) and that since he was filled with the Spirit before he was even born, John would be filled with the Spirit for his entire life. God had great purposes for John.
1:16. The fourth reason many will rejoice about John is that he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. The idea here is one of repentance. Israel, as the people of God, had been straying from God, and John would be influential in bringing many of them back to God. John fulfills through his preaching and baptisms at the Jordan (cf. Luke 3:1-22).
It is noteworthy that through parallelism, “fathers” (possibly forefathers) seems to be equated with “the disobedient,” and “children” with wisdom and righteousness (Green 1997:76; cf. Mal 2:6; 3:18). This lays groundwork for later teaching by Jesus about becoming like little children and living under the new wine of the kingdom rather than the old wine of the traditions of the fathers (but cf. Bock 1994:89-90).
1:17. The final reason is that the ministry of John will be in the spirit and power of Elijah, one of Israel’s greatest prophets. One may expect that John, like Elijah (and Elisha who was also “in the spirit of Elijah”), would be a great performer of miracles. However, we read of no such miracles by John in the Gospels. In this way, Luke reveals that the power of the Spirit can also be manifested in prophetic speech and boldness in proclaiming the Word of God (Green 1997:78; Bock 1994:88).
But more than just being a great prophet, the Scriptures predict that one like Elijah would be the forerunner for the long-awaited Messiah. The angel is here announcing that John would be that forerunner. To reinforce this, he quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures that John, in the spirit of Elijah, will‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.’ This quote is from Malachi 4:6, which in context is talking about Elijah (Mal 4:5), and shows us that John will help restore unity and peace within Israel. Malachi 4:6 is the last verse in the English Old Testament. Thought not the last of the Hebrew writing prophets, he probably wrote his prophecy around 445 BC. And just as Zacharias had been waiting a long time for a son, so Israel had been waiting a long time for another prophet to arrive, especially one in the spirit of Elijah who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
The angel follows his quote from Malachi with a pronouncement that John will also turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Though not exactly quotes, these are further allusions to other Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah 40:1-5 (cf. Luke 3:4-6). The goal of John is to restore justice and righteousness among the people of Israel so that they would be ready to receive the Lord, that is, their King.