19 December 2012

Luke 1:15-20

"With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (v. 17)


The story of the conception of John the Baptist has echoes of several Old Testament narratives which recount the birth of significant figures in Israel's history. In particular there are several echoes of the account in Judges 13 of the birth of Samson - a couple unable to have children are visited by an angel who promises that a child will be born to exercise a special ministry which must be accompanied by abstinence from alcohol.

The Old Testament figure who is named in Luke 1 is Elijah. There is a double reference here. The historic character is implied - here again is one who will recall the people to their devotion of the Lord. After his translation to heaven, Elijah took on another significance - his return (as in Malachi 4:5-6) would herald God's intervention in the affairs of God's own people; the ministry of Elijah is to prepare people for judgement.

The messenger informing Zechariah that he is to be the father of the new Elijah names himself as Gabriel (verse 19). It was Gabriel who informed Daniel that the end of his people's exile was imminent (Daniel 9). We are not told for what Zechariah had been praying; Gabriel's first words to him ("Your prayer has been heard" (v. 13)) may refer to a request for a child or to the petitions of a faithful priest praying for the liberation of his people.

Zechariah's response to the vision is to question the angel's message (verse 18), a response that results in his enforced silence (verse 20). Again, there is an echo of the story of Daniel (Daniel 10:15-16) who was so overwhelmed by one of his visions that he was unable to speak until his mouth was opened. Gabriel's snap judgement on Zechariah's hesitation to accept the message may seem harsh. 'I am old….' (v. 18) is trumped by 'I am Gabriel…' (v. 19), and the months of muteness can be understood not so much as a punishment for unbelief as a sign that this is all divine activity.

To Ponder

  • The inference we might draw from this story is that Zechariah had no expectation that his prayer would be answered. How do you think/expect God will act to answer your prayers? Dramatically?
  • The number of echoes of the Old Testament in this passage point us to a ministry which will resemble that of some figures in some ways but will also have its own character. In what ways can you understand your discipleship as like that of Christians from an earlier age whilst still being uniquely yours?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler

Having been a Methodist circuit minister and a theological college tutor, Jonathan is now Ministerial Coordinator for Oversight of Ordained Ministries in the Connexional Team..