Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:57-66 The birth of John and the blessings it bought

Luke 1:57-66 “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no-one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbours were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”

These verses tell us of the birth of John. When I was a child I lived in a more discrete and modest age, and pregnancy was referred to as ‘expecting a happy event.’ These verses are about one such occasion and Luke describes the happiness that came particularly to old Elizabeth, but also to her neighbours and relatives, to her husband Zechariah, and even further afield, out and out the blessings spread to people who lived “throughout the hill country of Judea who were talking about all these things” (v.65) sharing with one another the extraordinary events that accompanied the birth of this particular baby. Let us consider some of the blessings described here:

1. THE BLESSING OF CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP.

We are told in the opening verses of our text, “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy” (v.57&58). The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, the full nine months had passed, and soon the announcement was made, “It’s a boy! Yes he’s fine and Elizabeth too. Yes she’s fine. Praise the Lord for a healthy boy.” Now pregnancy and childbirth could be quite a dangerous time in the first century, but in this instance both mother and child lived; there was the joy of a new life. Then there’s the next circle as we find Elizabeth surrounded by people, “neighbours and relatives” Luke says, in that order, giving the neighbours a strange priority. I suppose we are all closer to some of our friends than certain of our relatives, but I’m not sure why Luke mentions the relatives after the neighbours.

Sometimes you hear of a newborn baby being found crying in a skip, or left outside a hospital with a piece of paper pinned to a blanket giving one name, or the infant might have been discarded on a doorstep. The bell is rung and the mother disappears when she sees lights coming on in the hall. The police, we are told, are searching for the mother who abandoned her child. What abject loneliness, to give birth to a child all by yourself, and immediately to give it away. What a blessing to be surrounded by friends and family at crucial times in your life. As Luke says, “The Lord had shown her great mercy” (v.58). She had had beautiful, young, teachable, spiritual Mary with her for the past three months, and then both mother and baby had survived the birth entering the embrace of a loving circle of friends. There were, no doubt, gifts and offers of help flooding in and everyone was genuinely filled with delight that this much loved older woman had finally had a baby and was doing well. All the houses around buzzed with the joy of this news.

J.C.Ryle points out, “How much more happiness there would be in this evil world, if conduct like that of Elizabeth’s relations was more common! Sympathy in one another’s joys and sorrows costs little, and yet is a grace of most mighty power. Like the oil on the wheels of some large engine, it may seem a trifling and unimportant thing, yet in reality it has an immense influence on the comfort and well-working of the whole machine of society. A kind word of congratulation or consolation is seldom forgotten. The heart that is warmed by good tidings, or chilled by affliction, is peculiarly susceptible, and sympathy to such a heart is often more precious than gold. The servant of Christ will do well to remember this grace. It seems “a little one,” and amidst the battles about mighty doctrines, we are sadly apt to overlook it. Yet it is one of those pins of the tabernacle which we must not leave in the wil­derness. It is one of those ornaments of the Christian character which make it beautiful in the eyes of men. Let us not forget that it is enforced upon us by a special precept: ‘Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.’ (Rom. 12:15.)” And then J.C.Ryle has another happy thought; he adds, “The practice of it seems to bring down a special blessing. The Jews who came to comfort Mary and Martha at Bethany, saw the greatest miracle that Jesus ever worked. Above all, it is commended to us by the most perfect example. Our Lord was ready both to go to a marriage feast, and to weep at a grave. Let us be ever ready to go and do likewise. The blessing of feeling for one another and caring for fellow believers is underlined here in these happy verses” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke, Volume 1, p. 40, James Clark & Co.). So there is the blessing of Christian fellowship.

2. THE BLESSING OF OBEDIENCE.

We are told that “On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child” (v.59), and this verse is one of more than a hundred verses in the Bible containing the word ‘circumcision.’ In Genesis 17 God had introduced the rite of circumcision into the covenant which he had already established with Abraham. God had met with Abraham about thirteen years earlier at Ur of the Chaldees. He had called Abraham apart and he had told him, “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2&3). Abraham immediately believed what God had said to him. He said goodbye to Ur and all his family and friends and off he set to follow the Lord. Abraham trusted in God, and by this means he was justified, that is, Abraham was declared righteous by God, even though at that time he was as uncircumcised as any Gentile, but he had entrusted himself, all that he was and all he hoped to be, to this mighty, promise-keeping Lord.

Years passed by and then in an encounter recorded in Genesis 17 God came and spoke to Abraham again. He required that each child who was in the line of Abraham should be circumcised. Let us read of this in Genesis 17 verses seven to fourteen; “‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’ Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’”

Circumcision was to be the abiding outward sign of the Jewishness of the descendants of Abraham, and when the covenant of Sinai was added to the covenant with Abraham that sign of circumcision was an integral part of it. Not to have been circumcised as a member of Abraham’s line would have broken the covenant relationship. That state of uncircumcision would have been saying, “I will not come under the covenantal care of Jehovah. I will not have this God rule over me.” Of course we all know that no man was ever saved or ever will be saved by a foreskin being removed. Salvation is a change of heart not a removal of a body part. However, God – who knows that better than any of us – still insisted, “Put this sign of the covenant on all the boys who are in the line of Abraham.” Other people would never see the sign, but the circumcised man could never escape from the fact that he was a man who’d been marked for God. Should he live an ungodly lifestyle then he would be defying Jehovah. It was a powerful mark. If a Jew were to commit homosexual sins, or adultery, he would be peculiarly reminded of his relationship with the Holy One of Israel. In a most intimate and personal manner there was never a day of his life when he could avoid this reminder of his standing with mighty Jehovah, his Creator, his Provider, his law-giver and his Judge. The Lord was saying to him by this sign, “Present your whole body a living sacrifice to God as your reasonable service.”

So Zechariah and Elizabeth had their son John circumcised. His body, from the eighth day of his life, was permanently and privately marked. Once you were circumcised you couldn’t be uncircumcised. You bore in your body a constant reminder of your relationship with the Lord. Most Jewish men of John’s generation knew only the circumcision of the flesh; they were strangers to heart circumcision. They were serving other gods, indulging in gross sin, and then one day, thirty years in the future, God’s preparation of this boy was complete. It had begun on the eight day of his life and it continued in this godly home, and was climaxed in the loneliness of his wilderness years. Then John would be summoned from the deserts to begin a ministry in the power of the Spirit addressing these covenant-breakers, calling them to turn around and be baptized for the remission of their sins. “Don’t boast that Abraham is your father; God could of these stones raise up children to Abraham, but bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

So the circumcision of John was one outward sign that his parents took their relationship with Jehovah ever so seriously. “As new parents, let’s start right,” they said. They wanted their son to know and love the same Lord whom they knew. Zechariah was a man who was saying, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord,” and he meant every word of it. He and his wife walked by faith throughout their lives. You understand that they had no confidence in a bare painful ritual inflicted on their new baby. Zechariah knew that he and Elizabeth needed to live in a consistent, loving and godly way before their son John all the time the three of them lived close together in their little house. They didn’t think about circumcision, “Well, we’ve done everything for him now. We’ve had him ‘done’; it’s up to him now to make up his own mind.” No. They did all in their power to encourage him to love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. John was circumcised because God said that that should be done and there could be no godliness without obedience, and no blessing would attend their lives unless they did whatever God required. But they longed that the circumcision of John’s flesh be irresistibly followed by the circumcision of John’s heart, and that is what they lived for and prayed for. They were fearful of anything in their lives that would prevent that act of God taking place.

I was once visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and I was looking with mild interest at the things on sale in the little shop. A man entered the shop and he began to speak to the person working behind the counter. “Are you a Jew?” he said to him. The men replied by quoting some words of Paul from Romans chapter two and verses twenty-eight and twenty-nine – they are in fact the last words of that second chapter. He said to the questioner, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” The man stopped interrogating him. I am saying to you that circumcising John was one sign of the vital relationship with God which Zechariah and Elizabeth had. A small sign maybe, and an easily abused sign, but a key indication that from the beginning of the life of their son John they wanted their whole family to please the Lord. They had done what God commanded all his people to do; they had been obedient, and now they pleaded with God that he would do what only he could do and circumcise the heart of their son whom they loved.

From the beginning of his life we know that John had the charisma – the gift of prophecy bestowed by the Holy Spirit. They had no doubt of that; when other boys played at being a shepherd or a miller or a soldier John played at being a prophet. He only had that singular ambition from his earliest days and it never forsook him – but his parents wanted more than mere spiritual gifts to be given to John. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew as we all know that it was possible to have the gift of prophecy and yet have as much grace as a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Many in the last day will boast to Jesus that they prophesied in his name, and Jesus won’t argue with them. They had indeed prophesied in his name; they had the spiritual gift of prophecy, but they didn’t have circumcised hearts and so they were lost men. So Zechariah and Elizabeth longed that John their son would know the gift of God which is a circumcised heart, that the outward and visible sign of the circumcision of the body would display the inward and spiritual reality.

The mark of the genuineness of a circumcised heart is God’s grace in your life. It shows itself in love for Jesus Christ and for the people of God, and energy for the constant battle with remaining sin. You can go to ten thousand different churches and find ten thousand definitions for genuine religion, but the word of God says that the mark of spiritual reality is a circumcised heart. The Christian church under the new covenant no longer practices religious circumcision. It opposes religious circumcision, but of course, for reasons of health and hygiene and tribal traditions circumcision can be a legitimate option, but what the New Testament insists is that all the filthiness of pride and unbelief and a loveless attitude to Jesus Christ must be cut out of your heart. Spiritual reality shows itself in a love for the Lord permeating your life. That is circumcision of the heart. It is spelled out by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians chapter four and verses twenty-one through twenty-four, “Surely you heard of [Christ], and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” So Zechariah and Elizabeth knew the blessing of obeying God.

3. THE BLESSING OF THE LORD’S CHASTENING.

When God had sent his messenger Gabriel to the temple to tell Zechariah that he was going to become a father then skeptical Zechariah responded by telling the archangel to his face, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well advanced in years” (v.18). The messenger responded coldly, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time” (vv.19&20). The world is full of people who survey the heavens declaring to them the glory of God; they have also heard something of the message of the Lord Jesus Christ, but most of them respond by asking, “Well . . . how can I . . . how can anyone . . . be sure that God exists?” They are skeptics, but the fearful consequence is this, that God ignores them; he doesn’t respond by disciplining them. For them life goes on as it always has; they work from 9 until 5, they go home, they do a few household chores, watch TV and go to bed, year after year. God doesn’t respond to them as he did to Zechariah; he doesn’t send heartache, or flooding, or unemployment into their lives. He doesn’t send them illness so that for months they are laid aside on a sick bed and have hours by night and day to think about what have they been living for, and what is the purpose of life, and what are the claims of Jesus Christ. They defy God, deny his truth, but they’re not disciplined by God in any way, but Zechariah certainly was. For nine months he was made mute, unable to say a word, laid aside as God chastened him. I wonder whether many of us are going through a time of the Lord’s discipline, but if we are then let’s make sure we honour the Lord by thinking seriously about what we are experiencing and what we can learn about the Saviour.

I think that Hebrews chapter twelve is the key chapter in the Bible on this theme. The writer is there addressing the short memory span of the early Christians; “you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (Hebrews 12:5-13).

You realize that an illness like losing the power of speech – or of hearing or of sight – doesn’t automatically bring blessing into that person’s life. If it did then people getting sick would be the happiest people in the land. They would be as excited about getting a serious illness as getting a prize in the National Lottery because they were going to get great benefits. But we all know how different reality is, that any adversity is perilous isn’t it? Without God’s grace and power, and without your being able to take the pain as a gift from him and taking it back to him for help, and being constantly watchful, and praying urgently, and putting on the whole armour of God – I say that without doing all of that then illnesses can leave people exhausted and embittered. They are dreadful times.

Think of the opposing responses to a major accident which has left the victim a paraplegic. There is the reaction of Joni Eareckson Tada and that is one of submission to God’s discipline, surrendering her life in a wheelchair to the service of God. What blessings come from it. Then there are very different responses we read of in paralyzed men who demand that the machines keeping them alive be switched off, and that they be allowed to die because life no longer had any meaning for them. Adversity can make people exhausted and bitter. Two men died, one each side of Christ; one cross was sanctifying, but the other was hardening.

Zechariah disbelieved God, though he was an upright and godfearing man, and so God chastened him, but Zechariah didn’t make light of losing his power of speech. He didn’t shrug and whistle, “Always look on the bright side of life.” He didn’t lose heart under God’s rebuke. At that time of his life, soon to take up new responsibilities of fatherhood, his sanctification was in need of some fine-tuning. God disciplining him was evidence that Zechariah was in a special relationship with the Lord, that God loved him and had a task for him to perform. Zechariah would surely know those words quoted in Hebrews chapter twelve which come originally from Proverbs chapter three and verses eleven and twelve, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” We know that Zechariah’s loss of speech was not itself the proof that he was in a special relationship with God. Many unbelievers have lost their power of speech.

A man came to our door with a card on which was written that he could not speak or hear but that he had a folder of drawings he had done which were for sale, and so we had compassion and bought one. We had no reason to believe that he was a Christian, nor the man who came to our door two weeks later with an identical little sign announcing that he was also deaf and dumb and he also had the identical pencil drawings that the first man wrote he had drawn. Maybe they were both dumb, maybe they were a pair of crooks; but one thing is certain that suffering is common to all men; it is not peculiar to the church. Suffering affliction is no proof that you are a child of God, but we do know this, that if we are without any affliction then we are illegitimate – we are not sons of God if we never have a day’s illness in our lives. Every Christian passes through times of discipline prescribed for him by his heavenly Father, and some troubles are astonishing, they take your breath away, and others of them are very humbling times, but they all come to us from God – tracedupon our dial by the God of love – and they are all evidence that he is dealing with us as his children. We can only benefit from them when they improve us, make us more obedient, and trusting, and purer, and heavenly minded. I am saying to you that if Christians suffer pain and loss there’s a presumption that we are the sons of God, but proof positive is only seen if the consequence of what we pass through creates greater likeness to Christ.

So here was doubting Zechariah saying to Gabriel, “How can I be sure my wife is indeed going to have a baby?” and so for nine months he has to suffer the indignity of becoming mute. Zechariah had had months of silence to brood and repent and confess and meditate on the Scriptures. His being made a mute was a divine rebuke for his unbelief, but as Zechariah accepted the Lord’s discipline God turned these buffetings into blessings. God always does; he can turn the marks of sin into memorials of grace. Where sin had abounded, now grace did much more abound.

Think of Zechariah in those months, groaning under God’s rebuke, yet gradually discovering the reward. At first lacerating himself: “Why didn’t I believe that blessed word that came to me from God?” Seeing his wife’s figure changing, her belly swelling as her pregnancy advanced – it was one long rebuke to his initial doubts. How he hated his arrogance that made him defy an angel sent to him by God; “Why did I have to be so skeptical? How proud and foolish I was!” Perhaps the angel had struck Zechariah deaf as well as dumb because in verse 62 it says they communicated to him with signs instead of speech. Were they just behaving thoughtlessly as some people do who meet a man whose larynx has been removed and they unconsciously raise their voices when they speak to him? He’s not deaf! Whatever God’s discipline of Zechariah had been, muteness or muteness and deafness, gradually, in the silence of those long months, when he couldn’t converse with or perhaps even hear his own wife or friends, Zechariah came to humble himself under the mighty hand of God. He worshipped his Lord with more ardour than he ever had before. They were stupendous, unrepeatable, incredibly significant days.

How can I say that so positively? What indication do we have that this great change had taken place in Zechariah from cynical doubter to worshipper? How do we know that ‘peace and righteousness’ had appeared in him after he was afflicted by God? Two things prove it without a shadow of a doubt. The first is seen in that fascinating incident that arose during the inquiries people made as to what the name of this newborn boy was going to be. Eight days had past since his birth and still there was no name. They were all gathering together for the circumcision. Now there was no Jewish tradition of naming the child on the eighth day. There was certainly no divine requirement, and there is no example of this ever being done in the Bible or in history before this occasion, that is giving a boy his name at his circumcision. Usually it was discussed before the birth, names for a boy or girl, and then announced at the birth, but now a whole week had gone by, the nameless child was going to be circumcised, and the father Zechariah was dumb, and so we are told that the neighbours and relatives ignored the mother and took it upon themselves to choose the name, and they chose ‘Zechariah.’ “We’ll call him Zechariah,” they said. Then a voice pipes up; “Hang on a minute.” It’s the boy’s mother. “Not at all. He is not going to be called ‘Zechariah’. No. He is going to be called John,” she announced (v.60).

Well, that didn’t go down well at all and there was a protest from all the neighbours and relatives; “They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name’” (v.61). It was unacceptable to them all, and so they turned their backs on Elizabeth – ‘what does a woman know about this?’ – and they turned to the dumb Zechariah. “You tell us,” they said, making signs to him. “He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’” (v.63). You notice that Zechariah didn’t write, “Let’s call him John,” or “We have decided to call him John,” or “You must call him John,” but those four words of faith and obedience, “His name is John.” It was a settled thing, because God had through the angel at the same time as he’d told him they were going to become parents also told them that the baby was going to be a boy and his name was going to be John (v.13). The messenger of God was right in all he had said, and Zechariah had sinfully doubted him. The words he wrote acknowledged his sin and his submission to God. That shows that Zechariah had indeed learned from the Lord’s discipline, and the second proof that he had learned so much during the preceding nine months was the great hymn of praise he sang when he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. He had been unable to say a word, but once he wrote those four words on the writing tablet “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God” (v.64). Oh that we could all learn from the times the Lord chastens us.

John Piper makes a little point that I found interesting. He says, “I cannot pass over this experience of Zechariah without making an application for our day. And it is this: If we don’t seek out silence, we will probably not feel the stupendous significance of God’s work in history on our lives. It would be a rare thing to be gripped and moved deeply in a noisy room. There is a close correlation between stillness and a sense of the stupendous. The most astonishing things about reality will probably be missed by those who use the radio and TV for a constant background drone. Be still, be dumb and deaf, and know that I am God. What would it mean for your life if for nine months you could not hear or say anything! I have tried to imagine what it would mean for my ministry and home life. No preaching. No counseling. No singing. But lots more seeing. Lots more looking into the eyes of my wife and sons. When was the last time you looked steadily into someone’s eyes? Lots more reading the great books; lots more writing journals, poems, letters, thoughts about life; lots more prayer and meditation on the Word of God; all in absolute silence.

If God should ever give me such a period, I hope that I would turn it to as much good as Zechariah did. Because when Zechariah came out, he came out filled with the Holy Spirit and singing what has come to be known as the Benedictus, a song filled with insight and with a sense of the stupendous significance of what was about to happen with the birth of Jesus. So while we ponder now how we will seek some silence for ourselves, let us learn from what the Holy Spirit taught Zechariah.” So there is the blessing of the Lord’s chastening.

4. THE BLESSING OF THE LORD’S HAND WITH US.

We are told that the Lord’s hand was with John (v.66), and we are told one effect of that in the last verse of the chapter, “the child grew and became strong in spirit” (v.80). Have you ever considered that as a possibility, that not only your children grow physically, but that they become strong in spirit, not headstrong, not headstrong and willful, not that at all, but that your children are more than bodies. There is the life of the spirit and that life is weak in many boys and girls; children can simply copy their peers, and use their language, and be enthusiastic about every fad that moves through the school, and pout, and clamour for what every other child has. They can become weaklings in spirit indistinguishable from any other child; that is a possibility for every child. Or a boy can become like John, “strong in spirit;” strong in loving righteousness, truthfulness, purity, modesty, honouring his parents. John became like that because the Lord’s hand was with him. Whatever we desire for our children with regards to academic success, and developing resilience and a right attitude to their bodies, and that they should get a job and a good salary and so on, let us cry mightily to God for this great blessing to be upon them more than any other, that the Lord’s hand be with them and they become strong in spirit.

29th July 2007 GEOFF THOMAS