We have just recently celebrated Christmas day. In it we commemorated the birth of births. It was the birth of the Son of God from the virgin Mary. Of him we confess, believing the testimony of God concerning His Son, “this is the true God and eternal life,” I John 5:20b. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us! And nothing really has any meaning for us in the Scriptures that does not directly or indirectly preach this Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
However, this does not mean that the birth of John, John the Baptist, does not have special meaning for us. This birth has meaning and significance for us exactly in relationship to and subservient to the birth and coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Was this birth of John and his appearance upon the scene of the history of salvation not so important that Isaiah some few centuries earlier wrote of him, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? (Is. 40:3.) And did not the last of the prophets, in the Old Testament Canon, speak of the coming of John, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1,Matt. 11:10).
And was this birth not so important, and so wonderful an event in the “glad-tidings” of salvation, that it was accorded a special place in the record of Luke, who writes concerning the things which are most certainly believed amongst us? Did not the Lord suddenly come to his temple in the days of Herod, king of Judah, and appear to the aged Zacharias, as he stands ministering at the altar of incense? And is this birth of John not foretold, and how he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb, and that he shall be “great before the Lord”?
Small wonder that the event of John’s birth is recorded to us, and how the announcement of his birth was such that it was noised abroad in the land of David, in all the hill country of Judea! And that this fact of the impression that it made upon the remnant according to election, is given us in the Gospel of Luke.
The sacred record is worthy of being repeated. It reads as follows:
“Now Elizabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not (so); for he shall be called John, And they said unto her, there is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying: His name is John. And they marveled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout the hill country of Judea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.” Verses 57-66.
From the very nature of the abundance of material in this little passage, it will not be possible for us, within the alloted space given us in The Standard Bearer, to reflect on all the details in this passage. We will rest content with simply pointing out, what seems to us, to be some of the more salient points in the text.
I believe that it may safely be said that this passage teaches us that we are here dealing with the birth of awonder-child. His birth is a sign and miracle of God!
In the first place, we believe, this is evident from thename that is given this child. It should be noticed that Gabriel, announcing the birth of John to Zacharias in the temple, has explicitly stated: “And thou shalt call his name John,” Luke 1:13b. Two things stand out here. (1) That the meaning of this particular name should be noticed. Not every parent in Israel, who gave this name to his son, would not do so in the full consciousness of its implication. But in this instance such should indeed prove to be the case! For the meaning of the nameJohn is “Jehovah is gracious”! The covenant God remembers his promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of old. Thus God speaks through the prophet Malachi: “For I am Jehovah, I change not: therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed,” Mal. 3:6. And this covenant faithfulness is expressed in this name. It is really the same message, be it dated later in the history of salvation, as was proclaimed by God to Moses at the burning bush! (Ex. 3:1-14.) (2) That the angel Gabriel tells Zacharias explicitly “thou shalt call his name John”! Zacharias is to give this name to this son, in the full consciousness of its implication in the light of all that had been told him concerning this son. It must be a confession of faith! Zacharias and his son are thus set for signs in Israel. He must virtually say with Isaiah, “Behold,I and the children which thou hast given me, are set for signs in Israel.” Did not Isaiah name his one son “Maher-shalal-hashbaz”, meaning : in making speed to the spoil he hasteneth to the prey, referring, of course, to the speedy overthrow of Resin, king of Damascus, and Pekah, king of Israel, as they are confederate against David’s house? ! And did Isaiah not consciously name the other son, “Shear-jashub”, meaning to express the gospel message: a remnant shall return! A remnant according to election will return out of Babylon! And David’s house shall stand. Thus also Zacharias must give this son the name “John,” confessing in faith, “The Lord is gracious”! He is indeed a wonder-child, expressing that God will work in him, as the “voice in the wilderness,” great works of mercy and grace.
In the second place, the very manner of John’s birth indicates that he is a wonder-child. Was this birth not after the very pattern of the birth of Isaac? Was John not born from a woman, whom time had proven to be a barren woman! And was she not known among her kinfolks and acquaintances as such, even as far away as in Nazareth? Yes, Elizabeth’s barrenness was a rather established fact! It certainly was such in the mind of both Zacharias and Elizabeth. Besides, was she not advanced in age? Was not all hope of having children a matter of the past? Did not God have to perform a miracle in this case of Elizabeth and Zacharias? A child of the promise, brought forth from the dead. Is that not the wonder of grace portrayed in his very birth?! Does not God raise the dead to life, and call the things that are not as if they were? Romans 4:17.
Another important aspect indicated in the text is that the birth of John is viewed by the neighbors and cousins as being the Lord’s great mercy upon Elizabeth.
Let us try to understand the text just a bit.
The text does not say that the neighbors simply rejoiced with Elizabeth because she had given birth to a baby. They were profound people. They saw deeper. They saw in it the mercy of God, which he shows to whom he wills. Read the text, “And her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.” They rejoiced with Elizabeth in the great mercy shown to her! That’s the text.
The Lord in mercy had remembered Elizabeth, and he delivered her from her reproach. Oh, indeed, she was a righteous woman before the Lord. She kept all the commandments of God blamelessly. Yet, she felt that the Lord had withheld children from her. And that was her affliction. But now the Lord had magnified his mercy to her. Had she had children earlier in life this mercy of God would not have stood out in such bold relief. Now it is manifestly the mercy of God. It is something which every one noticed. It is mercy of God.
Mercy is a virtue of God. It is closely associated in Scripture with the grace of God. Yet, they are not identical in meaning. Grace refers more to the actual efficaciousness of God’s power whereby He saves us. Mercy is the divine motive and impulse. It is the great longing to save the object of love, the yearning bowels of God’s infinite and rich compassion. God took pity upon Elizabeth. And, yet, here is a pity in which the neighbors and kinfolks can share with her. This rejoicing with her was fellowship of saints. It was the exercise of the same among pious women who looked for the promised mercies of God, in a child which was to be born unto them!
It was also manifested mercy to Zacharias. He had been smitten with dumbness. But he had been told that it was only to be for a season. He looked for the time that he might speak in faith. One thing upon which both Elizabeth and Zacharias agreed was that the child must be named John! The Lord is gracious. This child would be great before the Lord. More than a prophet. And when the women beckon to the father of John what his name shall be, he writes and says: “His name is John”.
Zacharias had learned much during the past few months. The one outstanding thing that he had learned was: “For nothing shall be impossible with God.” The text does not say so explicitly. But the connection indicates as much. Zacharias must have related at this occasion what had befallen him in the temple. He must have explained in his “glorifying God” that God is true and every man a liar. That the Lord had just reasons to smite him with dumbness because of his unbelief. And he must have humbly confessed to God, and related here before the neighbors and friends the things which God had foretold concerning this child. That he was to be a Nazarite, that no razor would come upon his head, and that he would not drink strong drink!
Small wonder that great fear fell upon all who heard these things. And it is to be understood that among the remnant according to election in every hamlet and village, in all the regions of the hill country of Judea, these things of the birth of John, its announcement by Gabriel in the temple, the subsequent dumbness of Zacharias, the name which was given the child, Zacharias’ miraculous and timely recovery of speech, and the praises uttered, were noised abroad. It went from mouth to mouth!
And it was the first stirring of life. The breaking of the dawn. Always here-to-fore the morning had come and it was still night. Israel came out of captivity but they were still in the midst of and under the dominion of the enemies. But now the Lord was going to do great things. Daniel’s prophecies will be fulfilled. God’s promises to Abraham shall be realized. And David’s house shall stand forever. There is a hushed expectancy in the air!
And Zacharias prophesies. He gives utterance to these truths which live in the hearts of the remnant according to election. They are the “violent” who will presently take the kingdom by force. For the kingdom is powerfully brought forward.
And John will signal this in his preaching. They will come to Jordan. In the spirit and power of Elias John will speak. And the way of the Lord shall be prepared. A highway in the desert for our God!
And the people said: What manner of child shall this be!