57 Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her.
Gone is the stigma of childlessness, and Elizabeth is now known in the community to be pregnant. It was such an usual event that people rightly attributed the conception to Divine intervention and the community celebrated with her.
There’s nothing quite like having a community surrounding you that cares enough to rejoice in your good fortune and commiserate in your ills. But that’s how it should be, especially within the church. Rejoice with those that rejoice, weep with those that weep. Actions speak louder than words.
59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60 But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. 64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 65 Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.
So it’s an amusing vignette, where the crowd expects the son to be named after his father or a close relative as was customary, and Elizabeth insists that the boy be named John. Of course, we couldn’t take her word for it, so they went to Zacharias and made signs to him (possibly denoting that Zacharias was so old that his hearing had started to go) asking him what they were going to call his son.
After being stricken with silence, you can be certain that Zacharias was going to follow the instructions he had received to the letter, and he likewise insisted that his son be named John, at which point, he was cured of his muteness and began to praise God.
This story has multiple Old Testament allusions, the most obvious being that of Abraham and his son Isaac who was not born to him until he was 100 and his wife was 90. Another is that of Samson, who was also prophesied about and sworn to a Nazarite vow before his conception. And another is of Elijah, who came out of obscurity, lived for a time in the wilderness, proclaimed God’s word to the ruling elite and the people, and then handed off his own ministry to a successor who had more success and greater power and esteem.
The people see the miracle that has happened and decided to keep an eye on this kid, because if the start of his life was this unique, they could only imagine what God was going to do with the kid when he grew up.
67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant—
70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
71 Salvation from our enemies,
And from the hand of all who hate us;
72 To show mercy toward our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
74 To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
78 Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
79 To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zacharias prophesies over this child. It’s interesting again how couched the words are with the expectation of political deliverance for Israel and the fulfillment of promises to Abraham. It shows the extent of how this ideology had permeated the collective ideas about the Messiah and what His appearance would mean for the nation of Israel.
Which is an important idea of one of the several reasons why the person of Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly ran into challenges during His ministry. He was not the person they were expecting. He was a character of ignoble and possibly illegitimate birth. He lived in a city with a poor reputation. He was middle class or outright poor. He did not become a player in the political scene. He never organized a battalion of soldiers to fight Rome. He instead preached loving ones enemies, doing good to them, and going above and beyond what Rome conscripted you to do (walk two miles carrying a soldier’s gear instead of one.) Jesus ran headfirst into the collective expectations of what people assumed he would be doing. You even see that with his disciples who continued to play off one another and jockey for position in His future kingdom, which they thought of in terms of a traditional power structure.
The summary of John’s ministry is that he was to be a prophet of the Lord and his job was to prepare the way for the Lord, to call people back to God and the forgiveness of sins and to reach out to those in darkness.
80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
John grew up and eventually moved out into the desert probably following the death of his parents, where he lived and practiced an ascetic live until he was ready to begin his ministry. Silence of his father, his own monastic life, it’s easy to see how these sorts of narratives influenced later Christians into seeking God in the silence or in harsh austere living where distractions were taken away and the soul was alone and quiet before God.