Read Luke 1 today. Remember that you can always come back to a part of the study. Today’s chapter is rich in fulfilled prophecy. We learn how God works in and through His people, and that His word always does what He says it will. “Impossible!” for us is possible for God.
Luke begins his Gospel (as well as the book of Acts) with a nod to our friend, Theophilus (literally: God-lover.) Theophilus may have been a person’s actual name, but it was more likely a way of addressing the reader, as a learned listener who loves God and wishes to learn more about Him.
Luke was by trade a physician, so he was the type of person to notice details and to be logical and thorough. He was a traveling companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was thought to be a Hellenic Jew, (a person of Greek descent who followed Judaism) writing to a primarily ethnically Jewish audience, so he assumed his readers would be familiar with the Temple laws and the Old Testament.
The scene of Chapter 1 opens on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the temple, and Elizabeth was his barren and long- suffering wife.
Zechariah is met as he serves in the temple by the angel Gabriel, who informs Zechariah that he and Elizabeth (even though she was way past menopause) were going to have a child. He would be a child who even from before his birth would have to observe the Nazirite vow . He would not be permitted to use alcohol or to cut his hair, among other restrictions.
Zechariah questioned Gabriel (which would seem to be a rational thing to do) and was rewarded with nine months of being mute for doubting what God had to say. God was true to His word in spite of Zechariah’s doubts- Elizabeth, the “barren,” did conceive a child.
Then the angel Gabriel pays a visit to Mary, the young girl who God has chosen to be Jesus’ mother. Mary is another “barren” woman, but barren in the sense that she was a virgin and had never known a man.
In Protestant traditions we sort of shy away from talking about Mary, because we don’t want to put her in the place of God, but as long as we remember that Mary was a human, fallible sinner who, like us, also needed a Savior, there is no reason to hesitate to talk about her and to thank God for her and her role in the story of our salvation.
Mary’s response to Gabriel upon learning that she was to bear a son was similar to Zechariah’s – “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Today we don’t think a whole lot about unwed or teenage pregnancies. They happen all the time. But in Mary’s world there was a deep shame brought on the family if a girl was found to be pregnant before her wedding was consummated. The assumption would be that she was breaking the seventh Commandment and not staying pure until her wedding night. The penalty for this under the Mosaic Law can be found in Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Mary had to be aware of the penalty for adultery. She had to know that in her present state pregnancy would be risky to her person to say the least. She asked Gabriel about the “how,” which was understandable, but she did not question the “why,” nor did she ask, “Why me?”
Instead she listens to God’s messenger tell her of her formerly barren cousin Elizabeth and how she is already six months along. She believes Gabriel when he says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” When Mary travels to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, even as she knows that her purity could be questioned, even as she knows she could be condemned as an adulteress and her life could well be in danger, she sings the beautiful faith-filled Magnificat:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)
When Mary returns to her home after visiting with Elizabeth for several months, the time comes for Elizabeth’s child to be born.
Zechariah is finally given the ability to speak after nine long months of muteness. After the relatives wanted to argue about the child’s name, because no one in Zechariah’s family was named John, Zechariah wrote emphatically on his writing tablet: His name is John! Then Zechariah could speak again.
What then would this child of Zechariah and Elizabeth be? He would be John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets- the one Isaiah spoke of (Isaiah 40:3) as the voice in the wilderness, making straight a highway in the wilderness to our God.
Out of barren women God works the impossible. One woman barren from age was enabled by God to conceive a child in the natural way, and another woman barren save for only the supernatural intervention of God, also conceives a son. These impossible births mark the beginning of the story of salvation. Two baby boys, cousins, were brought in to the world by the providence of God- the voice in the wilderness, followed by Emmanuel, God with us.