Zacharias was serving at the temple. As a priest, he was a son of Aaron, and his wife was too. He and his wife were careful to live in a time of tumult (Dio Cassius 49.22; Macrobius Saturnalia 2.f.11). Zacharias was chosen to burn incense and have proceeded this way:
“The incensing priest and his assistance now approached first the altar of burnt-offering. One filled with incense, a golden censer held in a silver vessel, while another was placed in a golden bowl burning coals from the altar. As they passed from the court into the Holy Place, they struck a large instrument (called the Magrephah), at the sound of which the priests hastened from all parts to worship and the Levites to occupy their places in the service of the song. At the same time, the chief of the ‘stationary men’ ranged at the Gate of Nicanor. Such of the people were to be purified that day. Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place, preceded by the two priests who had formerly dressed the altar and the candlestick and who now removed the vessels they had left behind and, worshipping, withdrew. Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense. Then, the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place to await the president’s signal before burning the incense. It was probably while thus expectant that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias. As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come,’ ‘the multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court and fell before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer.” (Edersheim, The Temple)
When the angel appeared to Zacharias, he was notably startled and with good reason. One story of offering “strange fire” resulted in the death of the priests (Lev. 10:1–2; cf. Exod. 30:9), so perhaps Zacharias wondered if he and his offering were pure? On the other hand, it could also be that his distress resulted from the reverent fear that many lacked in his time. Regardless, Gabriel assured Zacharias that he would not lose his life.
Gabriel was the angel who stood before the Lord (Luke 1:19; cf. Number Rabbah 2.10). Whenever he appears in scripture, he is Messianic in his message (Dan. 8:15–27; 9:20–21). When he appeared before Daniel, it was evening, so when he appeared before Zacharias, it was evening as well (Luke 1:11). Luke pointed out that he stood to the right of the altar of incense, which would have been nearer to the entrance of the holy of holies. Since Zacharias saw him standing there, he may have very well believed that Gabriel came from the presence of God.
One must consider that Zacharias, as a priest, might have been a Sadducee because the priests and Levites typically were of this sect (cf. Acts 5:17; 23:8). Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, spirits, or angels (Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). If he were a Sadducee, Zacharias would have thought that his posterity would have been his sense of immortality on earth. For an angel to have given this revelation would have been a contradictory belief to him. Regardless if he were a Sadducee, God removed reproach from him and his wife amongst their villagers—that of not having a child. However, due to the aged priest’s unbelief, he was struck dumb and thus unable to offer the closing benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26). Barrenness was named among the great reproaches by the rabbis. Seven types of people were believed to have been excommunicated from God. Chiefly among those was the Jew who had no wife or whose wife was childless. Furthermore, according to Jewish law, a man could divorce his wife for childlessness. These factors allow us to appreciate Elizabeth’s gratefulness all the more.
Timing from Elizabeth’s gestation, Luke recorded that in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Mary, who was likely in her early or mid-teens, was visited by Gabriel with the message that she would bear the Son of God. This fact would later give rise to the doctrine known as Theotokos, which means “God-bearer.” Hippolytus or Origen may have named this third-century doctrine, but Alexander (bishop of Alexandria) used the term for the first time. The Council of Ephesus (c. 431), which emphasized the oneness of Christ, and the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), which stresses the twoness of Christ’s nature (cf. Phil. 2:5–11), accepted its usage. Theotokos was a way of affirming the full deity of the Son of God from his conception in the womb.
The promise to give Jesus the throne of his father David reiterated God’s commitment to David: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16; cf. Gen. 49:10). This was how the early Christians understood the reign of Christ (cf. Acts 2:30–31; 7:49). When Luke referred to God as “the Most High” and Jesus as his Son, Luke may have been counteracting the pagan belief that Zeus (Jupiter) was the most high and that Apollo was his son (cf. Acts 16:17). Whereas Zeus consorted with mortals to produce offspring, God overshadowed Mary with the Holy Spirit to make his son so that Mary remained a virgin—a belief distinguished in the early church to avoid portraying Israel’s God as one of the pantheon (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 33).
When Mary visited Elizabeth, after the baby leaped in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She affirmed what Mary had listened to a short time ago. However, Mary may not have fully understood what the angel meant.
The Magnificat is what this praise is often called because that is the first word in the Latin Vulgate of this passage. Following the model of Hannah’s song (cf. 1 Sam. 1:11; 2:1–10), Mary used a similar style and pattern for her praise to God at this revelation. Ralph Martin says of this song that it is “a sublime confession of the faithfulness of God to His servants.” In this song, Mary praises God: 1) for looking on her lowly estate (vv. 48, 52), 2) for her being called blessed by all generations (v. 48; cf. 1:42, 12:27–28), and 3) for God’s reign over (a) our hearts (v. 51), (b) kings and rulers (v. 52), (c) the poor (v. 52) and rich (v. 53), and (d) the faithful (v. 54). Mary, in Luke, is certainly given an amount of attention that Protestants deny her, which may suggest that she ought to be looked upon with more tremendous admiration than rejection because of others’ actions towards her. She is undoubtedly “blessed.”
At John’s birth were two matters common to any newborn Jewish boy: his circumcision and naming. According to the Law, John was to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life (cf. Gen. 17:10–12). When the time came for him to be named, the common practice would have been that John receives a family name (cf. Luke 1:59, 61). However, as the angel mandated, Elizabeth acted by having him named “John.” Those present at his birth could not imagine him having any name other than that of his father or another male from his family. When the popular custom was questioned, those present deferred to the mute father. However, by writing on a tablet, Zacharias declared his son’s name “John.” In Semitic cultures, names were more than mere titles by which one was called. Instead, names were typically based upon a person’s character or a physical trait, such as Esau and Jacob. Esau meant “hairy,” and Jacob meant “heel grabber,” which was indicative of his deceitfulness. So when the Lord wanted the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth named “John,” it was because John’s name meant “God is gracious.” This was the person and ministry of John—God’s graciousness to humanity.
When the scene of John’s birth closed, he went to dwell in the wilderness until his appearance much later (Luke 1:80). However, John’s formative years are as obscure as Jesus’. What is known about John from Scripture is that he came like Israel’s greatest prophet of all—Elijah (Mal. 4:5; cf. Luke 1:17). The person of John the Baptist is given in Malachi 4:5. Within this passage is the fact that God would send Elijah to turn the hearts of God’s people back to Him. An appropriate commentary on John’s person as Elijah is given in the Intertestamental writing, where this passage is almost quoted verbatim in Sirach 48:10–11. Therefore, John’s purpose was to return before the coming of the Messiah to reconcile God’s people to Him.
Since John the Baptist was likened to Elijah, we must ask ourselves how the two were alike. We may make several comparisons. First, they both endured a period of preparation: Elijah at the Brook Cherith and John in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:3; Luke 1:80). Second, they dressed alike in modest clothing that would have been worn by the poor of their respective days (Matt. 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8). Third, they preached sharp, short messages (Matt. 3:7–12; 1 Kings 17:1). Finally, they had powerful foes: Elijah had Jezebel and John had Herodias and Herod Antipas. Elijah spent his ministry trying to convince the Israelites to turn away from Baal and turn to God. His name means “my God is Yahweh.” This was the entire focus of his ministry—making Yahweh the God of Israel. John’s ministry was one of reconciliation amid religiosity. His name was indicative of his ministry—God’s grace.
The Benedictus is named thus for the same reason as Mary’s Magnificat. Zacharias’ prophecy, or psalm, is as concerned with redemption as Mary’s song but with a greater emphasis on ceremonial worship (vv. 68–75). Zacharias also alluded to John’s ministry (v. 76f). Once unmuted, Zechariah exclaimed praise to God via the Lord’s Holy Spirit, whereas the human wisdom which failed to comprehend God’s promise at his service in the temple resulted in dumbness. Perhaps now Zechariah understands what he was unable to earlier—that his son would be the forerunner for the Savior of humanity.
Since virtually nothing is known about the formative years of John’s life, one is left to speculate what aided him in becoming the prophet of God that he was. Since John’s parents were elderly when he was born (Luke 1:7), a reasonable probability exists that he received instruction from his priestly father. However, since we do not know how long Zacharias lived after the birth of his son, we may only assume. John may have received some sort of informal training directly from any other number of sources. However, most Jews that were observant of their religion would have spent time in the synagogue receiving instruction. The instruction they received would have been unlike that which John displayed. Moreover, the synagogue’s teaching was tainted by Pharisaical traditions and dogmas. Still, some education may have been from there.
Another consideration would be the probability that John was an Essene. Several sources attest to the possibility of this fact. The facts that would support this theory are: 1) the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that this sect adopted orphans (Wars 2.8.2 ), and supposing that John’s parents may have died and left him an orphan makes this fitting; 2) How John used Isaiah 40:3 was similar to the usage found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which it was seen as the mission of those of the community to prepare the way of the Lord; 3) the practice of baptism common among the Essenes; 4) the wilderness activities of both (cf. Luke 3:2), and 5) the ascetic tendencies of John compared to that of the Essenes. While these supporting arguments are not conclusive arguments that John was an Essene, the evidence is striking. However, another possibility exists. John may have been a member of the Essenes, but he may have grown discontent with their activities. The focus of the Essenes was inward and not an evangelistic focus. Various other sects are identified in biblical and extra-biblical literature (cf. Acts 24:5). Some were not within the immediate area of the Dead Sea, while some migrated to and from that area. Whatever the case is, we do not conclusively know the influence under which John may have grown, but he was led by the Spirit when he arrived in Judea.