[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
So far in the narrative section of 1:5-25, Zacharias has been shown that against all odds, God answers prayer (v. 13), especially in relation to God’s promises in Scripture. The nation of Israel wondered if God would ever provide a Messiah, and Zacharias wondered if God would ever provide him a son. God was now bringing both to fruition in answer to their prayers. Zacharias’ response in Luke 1:18-25 foreshadows the response of Israel.
1:18. Upon hearing that God would provide a son to Zacharias in response to his prayers (1:13), the response of Zacharias is surprising. Rather than rejoice at receiving an answer to prayer, he reveals doubt by asking “How shall I know this?” He is not asking how God can accomplish what the angel proclaimed, but rather, how he can know the truth of what the angel has proclaimed. He is asking for a sign for verification of the angel’s words (Bock 1994:91). Asking for signs, though allowable, is frequently an indication of doubt (Luke 11:16, 29-30) and are not subject to popular demand (Bock 1994:96). Zacharias does, of course, give a justification for his doubt, in that he is an old man, and [his] wife is well advanced in years.
1:19. The angel proclaims that Zacharias an know the truth of what has been said because the angel is Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. The word angel means “messenger” and messages from God through His messengers (i.e., angels) can always be trusted. Gabriel is nearly always associated with prophetic proclamations and events (cf. Dan 8:15-16; 9:21). It is difficult to guess tone of voice in written words, but one cannot almost hear incredulity in the voice of Gabriel as he speaks these words to Zacharias. He is saying, “My appearance before you in the Holy Place should be sign enough! The message I have proclaimed should be rejoiced in, not questioned and doubted!”
Gabriel says that God Himself sent Gabriel to bring…these glad tidings (lit., “good news”). The good news, or gospel, that the angel proclaims includes the entire message of 1:13-17 (Bock 1994:92).
1:20. As a result of Zacharias’ lack of faith, Gabriel does indeed give Zacharias a sign: he will be mute until the day John is born. The reason is because Zacharias did not believe the message which was spoken to him. Being struck mute may have been grounds for Zacharias to be removed from his priestly office, since in some cases, it was considered a blemish (Lightfoot 1989:23). Even if he was allowed to remain in his position, being struck mute was a disciplinary sign, not only because he was a priest and required the use of his voice to fulfill his duties, but also because in that society, speaking for the family was a male role, and being struck mute would render him passive, and therefore dishonored (Malina 2003:226; Green 1997:79).
1:21-23. The exchange between Zacharias and Gabriel took more time than was usual for the lighting of the incense, and so the people… marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. It is possible that some of them thought maybe he had been struck dead by God, thereby confirming the suspicion that Elizabeth’s barrenness was a result of sin. A delay would cause those outside to worry (Bock 1994:94). However, when Zacharias did come out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. A final blessing was expected from the priest when he returned from the Holy Place, and it appears that Zacharias performed this blessing with hand motions rather than words (Bock 1994:95). Visions were rare and coveted blessings, and so in this way, some of Zacharias’ reproach was removed. When his time in the temple was complete, he departed to his own house.
1:24-25. Soon after Zacharias arrived home, his wife Elizabeth conceived. Though her conception was in the normal manner, it was nevertheless miraculous due to her age. In this way, her conception has many parallels to the conception of Sarah (Gen 21:1-2; see the list by Green 1997:53-55), and Rachel (Gen 25:21; 30:22-23). Such allusions point the reader to the fact that “God’s purpose has not drawn to a close but, quite the contrary, is manifestly still being written. Luke regards his opening chapters as though they were the continuation of the story rooted in the Abrahamic covenant” (Green 1997:57, 81).
There are several possible explanations for why Elizabeth hid herself five months. First, this could be a medical note from Luke. Since there were so many complications that could take place during the first five months of pregnancy, a woman was not considered officially “pregnant” until five months had passed. Second, she may also be afraid that the village would not believe that she was pregnant until she began to show at about five months (Malina 2003:226). Finally, it was also possible that in order to maintain the Nazarite purity of child within her womb, she decided it was easiest to remain at home (Lightfoot 1989:24). There are other possibilities as well not mentioned here, but the bottom line is that Luke writes that Elizabeth withdrew, but did not explain why (cf. Bock 1994:97-98).
By miraculously letting Elizabeth conceive, God removed her reproach among people. As a barren woman, she would have been treated as one cursed by God (Malina 2003:226). Now that she was pregnant, God had removed this stigma from her, and all who thought ill of her would not only see that God had not only blessed her, but done so in miraculous fashion. Her reproach and shame had been removed (Bock 1994:98-99), and her son would usher in another miraculous son, who would remove the reproach of all people (cf. Col 1:21-22).