[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
The narrative now shifts back to Elizabeth and the birth of her son and how the birth of John removes shame from both her and Zacharias. Their reversal foreshadows that of Israel under the ministry of John and the Messiah that would follow. However, the unique circumstances of the naming of their child hints that redemption may come in an unexpected manner.
1:57. Just as God has promised to Zacharias as Elizabeth, when the time came for her to be delivered…she brought forth a son. Earlier, when the angel told Zacharias this would happen, Zacharias doubted and so was struck mute. Yet despite his unbelief, God’s Word was now being accomplished.
1:58. It was customary for a woman to have her neighbors and relatives with her at the time of her delivery, and Mary was probably among them (cf. 1:56). The friends and family would come over every night for seven days to rejoice with the proud parents (cf. 1:14).
There was undoubtedly lots of rejoicing, for they had heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her by giving her a child in her old age. In Jewish culture, the lack of children was a cause of great shame, which many considered to be a curse from God. By giving Elizabeth a son, God had removed this shame from her. Furthermore, Elizabeth had indication from her husband (he certainly wrote to her some of what the angel had told him) and from Mary (1:41-45) that her son would be an honored prophet, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Her shame was not simply removed; she was abundantly honored (Green 1997:107).
1:59. After the week of celebration, it was customary, on the eighth day…to circumcise the child in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant. Circumcision was a sign that, as a people, they were set apart for God. Though it was generally the Jewish custom to name a child on the day of their birth, Zacharias and Elizabeth wait until the day of the circumcision. They may be following a local custom (Green 1997:109; cf. Bock 1994:166).
Ideally, the father would preside over the ceremony, but since Zacharias was unable to speak, probably one of the local priests filled in for him. It was the ordinary custom that boys be named after a male relative (Bock 1994:166). Generally, the only other option was to give a child a prophetically significant name. In this case, the name’s meaning was important and would predict something about the life of the child. In this instance, they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias.
Zacharias would have been a good name. Not only was it the name of the father, but it means “the one whom Yahweh remembers.” God had certainly remembered Zacharias and Elizabeth in their old age, and He was remembering Israel by sending them the long hoped-for prophet, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
1:60. Just as they were about to name the boy after his father, Zacharias, Elizabeth said, “No; he shall be called John.” This would also be interpreted as bringing shame to Zacharias. Though Zacharias now had a son, which was honorable, he was not able to preside over the naming ceremony. Since he was a priest and the father, this would have been shameful. And now, it appears that his wife, Elizabeth, is trying to bring him more shame by refusing to let them name their son after Zacharias, and instead requesting that he be named John.
1:61. The friends and relatives are bewildered, and so ask, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” Since Elizabeth has announced that her son will not be named Zacharias, the next option would be to name him after some other relative. But there was no one by the name of John among their relatives. They were bewildered about why the boy would be named John.
1:62. The fact that they made signs to his father indicates that he was both deaf and mute. This fits with what the angel told him in 1:20. The best translation of 1:20 would be “you will be silent” meaning, your world will be silent, neither hearing nor speaking. So the friends and relatives motion to Zacharias, asking what he would have him called.
1:63. Since Zacharias was unable to speak, he asked for a writing tablet. The writing tablet was a flat piece of wood covered in wax which could be written on, and then smoothed out again (Bock 1994:168). In this instance, he did not want to be misunderstood, and so put down exactly what he had been told. He wrote, saying, “His name is John.”
They all marveled at what Zacharias had written. Since he was deaf, he “had not heard his wife’s choice of a name for their son. That he agrees with her, then, it itself cause for amazement” (Green 1997:110). Even though he was able to write, she was most likely unable to read. So he would not have been able to communicate to her the name their son was to be named. Luke does not tell us how Elizabeth knew to name her son John (Bock 1994:167). However it happened, the agreement between Elizabeth and Zacharias caused amazement in those who were present.
John means, “God has been gracious” which is exactly what God had been to Elizabeth and Zacharias in giving them a son. God’s gift to them also foreshadows the gift of God’s Son which would be revealed to the world through the ministry of John.
1:64. As a result of Zacharias’ obedience, his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. This is an act of God’s grace as well. When the angel told Zacharias he would be silent, he was told it would last until the things he had been told were fulfilled (1:20). This vague time frame could have lasted until the ministry of John was complete (cf. 1:15-17; contra. Green 1997:110). But God is gracious to Zacharias and gives him his speech back.
The first words out of the mouth of Zacharias are praise to God. He has not been able to say a word for nine months, and now that he can speak, he only wants to praise God. Luke does not tell us what he said, but it may have included the song of Zacharias recorded in verses 67-79.
1:65-66. Along with rejoicing came fear…on all who dwelt around them and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. Fear is often a reaction When God works in miraculous ways, a natural reaction is to wonder what God is about to do next. The news spread about what had happened to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and people began to wonder “What kind of child will this be?” The non-traditional birth and the non-traditional naming caused the people to question who John would be and what he would do. Luke’s aside to the reader and the hand of the Lord was with him invites the reader to similarly ponder the significance of these events, and what kind of man John will grow up to be.
This question is answered by Zacharias in 68-79. Just as the birth of John removed the shame of his parents, so also, John will prepare the way for one who will remove the shame upon Israel, and that of the whole world.