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1. Birth of John the Baptist
1Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, 2even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; 4that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed. 5There was in the days of Herod, king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah: and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. 8Now it came to pass, while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of altar of incense. 12And Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: because thy supplication is heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16And many of the children of Israel shall be turn unto the Lord their God. 17And he shall go before his face in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just; to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him. 18And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak unto thee, and to bring thee these good tidings. 20And behold, thou shalt be silent and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall come to pass, because thou believedst not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. 21And the people were waiting for Zacharias, and they marvelled while he tarried in the temple. 22And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: and he continued making signs unto them, and remained dumb. 23And it came to pass, when the days of his ministration were fulfilled, he departed unto his house. 24And after these days Elisabeth his wife conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25Thus hath the Lord done unto me in the days wherein he looked upon me, to take away my reproach among men. 26Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28And he came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. 30And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. 31And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34And Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God. 36And behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that was called barren. 37For no word from God shall be void of power. 38And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. 39And Mary arose in these days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; 40and entered into the house of Zacharias and saluted Elisabeth. 41And it came to pass, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; 42and she lifted up her voice with a loud cry, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come unto me? 44For behold, when the voice of thy salutation came into mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45And blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord. 46And Mary said,
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid:
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
And holy is his name.
50And his mercy is unto generations and generations
On them that fear him.
51He hath showed strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.
52He hath put down princes from their thrones,
And hath exalted them of low degree.
53The hungry he hath filled with good things;
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
54He hath given help to Israel his servant,
That he might remember mercy
55(As he spake unto our fathers)
Toward Abraham and his seed for ever.
56And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned unto her house. 57Now Elisabeth's time was fulfilled that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58And her neighbors and her kinsfolk heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her; and they rejoiced with her. 59And it came to pass on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of the father. 60And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62And they made signs to his father, what he would have him called. 63And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, blessing God. 65And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66And all that heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, What then shall this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him. 67And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,
68Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
For he hath visited and wrought redemption for his people,
69And hath raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of his servant David
70(As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets that have been from of old),
71Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
72To show mercy towards, our fathers,
And to remember his holy covenant;
73The oath which he spake unto Abraham our father,
74To grant unto us that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
Should serve him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High:
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways;
77To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
In the remission of their sins,
78Because of the tender mercy of our God,
Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us,
79To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death;
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
80And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.
The Appearance of an Angel to Zacharias; The Birth of John Foretold; The Unbelief of Zacharias.
5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judæa, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. 8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9 According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. 18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings. 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. 21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. 23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. 24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.
The two preceding evangelists had agreed to begin the gospel with the baptism of John and his ministry, which commenced about six months before our Saviour's public ministry (and now, things being near a crisis, six months was a deal of time, which before was but a little), and therefore this evangelist, designing to give a more particular account than had been given of our Saviour's conception and birth, determines to do so of John Baptist, who in both was his harbinger and forerunner, the morning-star to the Sun of righteousness. The evangelist determines thus, not only because it is commonly reckoned a satisfaction and entertainment to know something of the original extraction and early days of those who afterwards prove great men, but because in the beginning of these there were many things miraculous, and presages of what they afterwards proved. In these verses our inspired historian begins as early as the conception of John Baptist. Now observe here,
I. The account given of his parents (v. 5): They lived in the days of Herod the king, who was a foreigner, and a deputy for the Romans, who had lately made Judea a province of the empire. This is taken notice of to show that the sceptre was quite departed from Judah, and therefore that now was the time for Shiloh to come, according to Jacob's prophecy, Gen. xlix. 10. The family of David was now sunk, when it was to rise, and flourish again, in the Messiah. Note, None ought to despair of the reviving and flourishing of religion, even when civil liberties are lost. Israel enslaved, yet then comes the glory of Israel.
Now the father of John Baptist was a priest, a son of Aaron; his name Zacharias. No families in the world were ever so honoured of God as those of Aaron and David; with one was made the covenant of priesthood, with the other that of royalty; they had both forfeited their honour, yet the gospel again puts honour upon both in their latter days, on that of Aaron in John Baptist, on that of David in Christ, and then they were both extinguished and lost. Christ was of David's house, his forerunner of Aaron's; for his priestly agency and influence opened the way to his kingly authority and dignity. This Zacharias was of the course of Abia. When in David's time the family of Aaron was multiplied, he divided them into twenty-four courses, for the more regular performances of their office, that it might never be either neglected for want of hands or engrossed by a few. The eighth of those was that of Abia (1 Chron. xxiv. 10), who was descended from Eleazar, Aaron's eldest son; but Dr. Lightfoot suggests that many of the families of the priests were lost in the captivity, so that after their return they took in those of other families, retaining the names of the heads of the respective courses. The wife of this Zacharias was of the daughters of Aaron too, and her name was Elisabeth, the very same name with Elisheba the wife of Aaron, Exod. vi. 23. The priests (Josephus saith) was very careful to marry within their own family, that they might maintain the dignity of the priesthood and keep it without mixture.
Now that which is observed concerning Zacharias and Elisabeth is,
1. That they were a very religious couple (v. 6): They were both righteous before God; they were so in his sight whose judgment, we are sure, is according to truth; they were sincerely and really so. They are righteous indeed that are so before God, as Noah in his generation, Gen. vii. 1. They approved themselves to him, and he was graciously pleased to accept them. It is a happy thing when those who are joined to each other in marriage are both joined to the Lord; and it is especially requisite that the priests, the Lord's ministers, should with their yoke-fellows be righteous before God, that they may be examples to the flock, and rejoice their hearts. They walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless. (1.) Their being righteous before God was evidenced by the course and tenour of their conversations; they showed it, not by their talk, but by their works; by the way they walked in and the rule they walked by. (2.) They were of a piece with themselves; for their devotions and their conversations agreed. They walked not only in the ordinances of the Lord, which related to divine worship, but in the commandments of the Lord, which have reference to all the instances of a good conversation, and must be regarded. (3.) They were universal in their obedience; not that they never did in any thing come short of their duty, but it was their constant care and endeavor to come up to it. (4.) Herein, though they were not sinless, yet they were blameless; nobody could charge them with any open scandalous sin; they lived honestly and inoffensively, as ministers and their families are in a special manner concerned to do, that the ministry be not blamed in their blame.
2. That they had been long childless, v. 7. Children are a heritage of the Lord. But there are many of his heirs in a married state, that yet are denied this heritage; they are valuable desirable blessings; yet many there are, who are righteous before God, and, if they had children, would bring them up in his fear, who yet are not thus blessed, while the men of this world are full of children (Ps. xvii. 14), and send forth their little ones like a flock, Job xxi. 11. Elisabeth was barren, and they began to despair of ever having children, for they were both now well stricken in years, when the women that have been most fruitful leave off bearing. Many eminent persons were born of mothers that had been long childless, as Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, Samuel, and so here John Baptist, to make their birth the more remarkable and the blessing of it the more valuable to their parents, and to show that when God keeps his people long waiting for mercy he sometimes is pleased to recompense them for their patience by doubling the worth of it when it comes.
II. The appearing of an angel to his father Zacharias, as he was ministering in the temple, v. 8-11. Zechariah the prophet was the last of the Old Testament that was conversant with angels, and Zacharias the priest the first in the New Testament. Observe,
1. How Zacharias was employed in the service of God (v. 8): He executed the priest's office, before God, in the order of his course; it was his week of waiting, and he was upon duty. Though his family was not built up, or made to grow, yet he made conscience of doing the work of his own place and day. Though we have not desired mercies, yet we must keep close to enjoined services; and, in our diligent and constant attendance on them, we may hope that mercy and comfort will come at last. Now it fell to Zacharias's lot to burn incense morning and evening for that week of his waiting, as other services fell to other priests by lot likewise. The services were directed by lot, that some might not decline them and others engross them, and that, the disposal of the lot being from the Lord, they might have the satisfaction of a divine call to the work. This was not the high priest burning incense on the day of atonement, as some have fondly imagined, who have thought by that to find out the time of our Saviour's birth; but it is plain that it was the burning of the daily incense at the altar of incense (v. 11), which was in the temple (v. 9), not in the most holy place, into which the high priest entered. The Jews say that one and the same priest burned not incense twice in all his days (there were such a multitude of them), at least never more than one week. It is very probable that this was upon the sabbath day, because there was a multitude of people attending (v. 10), which ordinarily was not on a week day; and thus God usually puts honour upon his own day. And then if Dr. Lightfoot reckon, with the help of the Jewish calendars, that this course of Abia fell on the seventeenth day of the third month, the month Sivan, answering to part of May and part of June, it is worth observing that the portions of the law and the prophets which were read this day in synagogues were very agreeable to that which was doing in the temple; namely, the law of the Nazarites (Num. vi.), and the conception of Samson, Judg. xiii.
While Zacharias was burning incense in the temple, the whole multitude of the people were praying without, v. 10. Dr. Lightfoot says that there were constantly in the temple, at the hour of prayer, the priests of the course that then served, and, if it were the sabbath day, those of that course also that had been in waiting the week before, and the Levites that served under the priests, and the men of the station, as the Rabbin call them, who were the representatives of the people, in putting their hands upon the head of the sacrifices, and many besides, who, moved by devotion, left their employments, for that time, to be present at the service of God; and those would make up a great multitude, especially on sabbaths and feast-days: now these all addressed themselves to their devotions (in mental prayer, for their voice was not heard), when by the tinkling of a bell they had notice that the priest was gone in to burn incense. Now observe here, (1.) That the true Israel of God always were a praying people; and prayer is the great and principal piece of service by which we give honour to God, fetch in favours from him, and keep up our communion with him. (2.) That then, when ritual and ceremonial appointments were in full force, as this of burning incense, yet moral and spiritual duties were required to go along with them, and were principally looked at. David knew that when he was at a distance from the altar his prayer might be heard without incense, for it might be directed before God as incense, Ps. cxli. 2. But, when he was compassing the altar, the incense could not be accepted without prayer, any more than the shell without the kernel. (3.) That is not enough for us to be where God is worshipped, if our hearts do not join in the worship, and go along with the minister, in all the parts of it. If he burn the incense ever so well, in the most pertinent, judicious, lively prayer, if we be not at the same time praying in concurrence with him, what will it avail us? (4.) All the prayers we offer up to God here in his courts are acceptable and successful only in virtue of the incense of Christ's intercession in the temple of God above. To this usage in the temple-service there seems to be an allusion (Rev. viii. 1, 3, 4), where we find that there was silence in heaven, as there was in the temple, for half an hour, while the people were silently lifting up their hearts to God in prayer; and that there was an angel, the angel of the covenant, who offered up much incense with the prayers of all saints before the throne. We cannot expect an interest in Christ's intercession if we do not pray, and pray with our spirits, and continue instant in prayer. Nor can we expect that the best of our prayers should gain acceptance, and bring in an answer of peace, but through the mediation of Christ, who ever lives, making intercession.
2. How, when he was thus employed, he was honoured with a messenger, a special messenger sent from heaven to him (v. 11): There appeared unto him an angel of the Lord. Some observe, that we never read of an angel appearing in the temple, with a message from God, but only this one to Zacharias, because there God had other ways of making known his mind, as the Urim and Thummim, and by a still small voice from between the cherubim; but the ark and the oracle were wanting in the second temple, and therefore, when an express was to be sent to a priest in the temple, an angel was to be employed in it, and thereby the gospel was to be introduced, for that, as the law, was given at first very much by the ministry of angels, the appearance of which we often read of in the Gospels and the Acts, though the design both of the law and of the gospel, when brought to perfection, was to settle another way of correspondence, more spiritual, between God and man. This angel stood on the right side of the altar of incense, the north side of it, saith Dr. Lightfoot, on Zacharias's right hand; compare this with Zech. iii. 1, where Satan stands at the right hand of Joshua the priest, to resist him; but Zacharias had a good angel standing at his right hand, to encourage him. Some think that this angel appeared coming out of the most holy place, which led him to stand at the right side of the altar.
3. What impression this made upon Zacharias (v. 12): When Zacharias saw him, it was a surprise upon him, even to a degree of terror, for he was troubled, and fear fell upon him, v. 12. Though he was righteous before God, and blameless in his conversation, yet he could not be without some apprehensions at the sight of one whose visage and surrounding lustre bespoke him more than human. Ever since man sinned, his mind has been unable to bear the glory of such revelations and his conscience afraid of evil tidings brought by them; even Daniel himself could not bear it, Dan. x. 8. And for this reason God chooses to speak to us by men like ourselves, whose terror shall not make us afraid.
III. The message which the angel had to deliver to him, v. 13. He began his message, as angels generally did, with, Fear not. Perhaps it had never been Zacharias's lot to burn incense before; and, being a very serious conscientious man, we may suppose him full of care to do it well, and perhaps when he saw the angel he was afraid lest he came to rebuke him for some mistake or miscarriage; "No," saith the angel, "fear not; I have no ill tidings to bring thee from heaven. Fear not, but compose thyself, that thou mayest with a sedate and even spirit receive the message I have to deliver thee." Let us see what that is.
1. The prayers he has often made shall now receive an answer of peace: Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer is heard. (1.) If he means his particular prayer for a son to build up his family, it must be the prayers he had formerly made for that mercy, when he was likely to have children; but we may suppose, now that he and his wife were both well stricken in years, as they had done expecting it, so they had done praying for it: like Moses, it sufficeth them, and they speak no more to God of that matter, Deut. iii. 26. But God will now, in giving this mercy, look a great way back to the prayers that he had made long since for and with his wife, as Isaac for and with his, Gen. xxv. 21. Note, Prayers of faith are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten, though the thing prayed for is not presently given in. Prayers made when we were young and coming into the world may be answered when we are old and going out of the world. But, (2.) If he means the prayers he was now making, and offering up with his incense, we may suppose that those were according to the duty of his place, for the Israel of God and their welfare, and the performance of the promises made to them concerning the Messiah and the coming of his kingdom: "This prayer of thine is now heard: for thy wife shall shortly conceive him that is to be the Messiah's forerunner." Some of the Jewish writers themselves say that the priest, when he burnt incense, prayed for the salvation of the whole world; and now that prayer shall be heard. Or, (3.) In general, "The prayers thou now makest, and all thy prayers, are accepted of God, and come up for a memorial before him" (as the angel said to Cornelius, when he visited him at prayer, Acts x. 30, 31); "and this shall be the sign that thou are accepted of God, Elisabeth shall bear thee a son." Note, it is very comfortable to praying people to know that their prayers are heard; and those mercies are doubly sweet that are given in answer to prayer.
2. He shall have a son in his old age, by Elisabeth his wife, who had been long barren, that by his birth, which was next to miraculous, people might be prepared to receive and believe a virgin's bringing forth of a son, which was perfectly miraculous. He is directed what name to give his son: Call him John, in Hebrew Johanan, a name we often meet in the Old Testament: it signifies gracious. The priests must beseech God that he will be gracious (Mal. i. 9), and must so bless the people, Num. vi. 25. Zacharias was now praying thus, and the angel tells him that his prayer is heard, and he shall have a son, whom, in token of an answer to his prayer, he shall call Gracious, or, The Lord will be gracious, Isa. xxx. 18, 19.
3. This son shall be the joy of his family and of all his relations, v. 14. He shall be another Isaac, thy laughter; and some think that is partly intended in his name, John. He shall be a welcome child. Thou for thy part shall have joy and gladness. Note, Mercies that have been long waited for, when they come at last, are the more acceptable. "He shall be such a son as thou shalt have reason to rejoice in; many parents, if they could foresee what their children will prove, instead of rejoicing at their birth, would wish they had never been; but I will tell thee what thy son will be, and then thou wilt not need to rejoice with trembling at his birth, as the best must do, but mayest rejoice with triumph at it." Nay, and many shall rejoice at his birth; all the relations of the family will rejoice in it, and all its well-wishers, because it is for the honour and comfort of the family, v. 58. All good people will rejoice that such a religious couple as Zacharias and Elisabeth have a son, because they will give him a good education, such as, it may be hoped, will make him a public blessing to his generation. Yea, and perhaps many shall rejoice by an unaccountable instinct, as a presage of the joyous days the gospel will introduce.
4. This son shall be a distinguished favourite of Heaven, and a distinguished blessing to the earth. The honour of having a son is nothing to the honour of having such a son.
(1.) He shall be great in the sight of the Lord; those are great indeed that are so in God's sight, not those that are so in the eye of a vain and carnal world. God will set him before his face continually, will employ him in his work and send him on his errands; and that shall make him truly great and honourable. He shall be a prophet, yea more than a prophet, and upon that account as great as any that every were born of women, Matt. xi. 11. He shall live very much retired from the world, out of men's sight, and, when he makes a public appearance, it will be very mean; but he shall be much, he shall be great, in the sight of the Lord.
(2.) He shall be a Nazarite, set apart to God from every thing that is polluting; in token of this, according to the law of Nazariteship, he shall drink neither wine nor strong drink,—or, rather, neither old wine nor new; for most think that the word here translated strong drink signifies some sort of wine, perhaps those that we call made wines, or any thing that is intoxicating. He shall be, as Samson was by the divine precept (Judg. xiii. 7), and Samuel by his mother's vow (1 Sam. i. 11), a Nazarite for life. It is spoken of as a great instance of God's favour to his people that he raised up of their sons for prophets, and their young men for Nazarites (Amos ii. 11), as if those that were designed for prophets were trained up under the discipline of the Nazarites; Samuel and John Baptist were; which intimates that those that would be eminent servants of God, and employed in eminent services, must learn to live a life of self-denial and mortification, must be dead to the pleasures of sense, and keep their minds from every thing that is darkening and disturbing to them.
(3.) He shall be abundantly fitted and qualified for those great and eminent services to which in due time he shall be called: He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb, and as soon as it is possible he shall appear to have been so. Observe, [1.] Those that would be filled with the Holy Ghost must be sober and temperate, and very moderate in the use of wine and strong drink; for that is it that fits him for this. Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit, with which that is not consistent, Eph. v. 18. [2.] It is possible that infants may be wrought upon by the Holy Ghost, even from their mother's womb; for John Baptist even then was filled with the Holy Ghost, who took possession of his heart betimes; and an early specimen was given of it, when he leaped in his mother's womb for joy, at the approach of the Saviour; and afterwards it appeared very early that he was sanctified. God had promised to pour out his Spirit upon the seed of believers (Isa. xliv. 3), and their first springing up in a dedication of themselves betimes to God is the fruit of it, v. 4, 5. Who then can forbid water, that they should not be baptized who for aught we know (and we can say no more of the adult, witness Simon Magus) have received the Holy Ghost as well as we, and have the seeds of grace sown in their hearts? Acts x. 47.
(4.) He shall be instrumental for the conversion of many souls to God, and the preparing of them to receive and entertain the gospel of Christ, v. 16, 17.
[1.] He shall be sent to the children of Israel, to the nation of the Jews, to whom the Messiah also was first sent, and not to the Gentiles; to the whole nation, and not the family of the priests only, with which, though he was himself of that family, we do not find he had any particular intimacy or influence.
[2.] He shall go before the Lord their God, that is, before the Messiah, whom they must expect to be, not their king, in the sense wherein they commonly take it, a temporal prince to their nation, but their Lord and their God, to rule and defend, and serve them in a spiritual way by his influence on their hearts. Thomas knew this, when he said to Christ, My Lord and my God, better than Nathanael did, when he said, Rabbi, thou are the king of Israel. John shall go before him, a little before him, to give notice of his approach, and to prepare people to receive him.
[3.] He shall go in the spirit and power of Elias. That is, First, He shall be such a man as Elias was, and do such work as Elias did,—shall, like him, preach the necessity of repentance and reformation to a very corrupt and degenerate age,—shall, like him, be bold and zealous in reproving sin and witnessing against it even in the greatest, and be hated and persecuted for it by a Herod and his Herodias, as Elijah was by an Ahab and his Jezebel. He shall be carried on in his work, as Elijah was, by a divine spirit and power, which shall crown his ministry with wonderful success. As Elias went before the writing prophets of the Old Testament, and did as it were usher in that signal period of the Old-Testament dispensation by a little writing of his own (2 Chron. xxi. 12), so John Baptist went before Christ and his apostles, and introduced the gospel dispensation by preaching the substance of the gospel doctrine and duty, Repent, with an eye to the kingdom of heaven. Secondly, He shall be that very person who was prophesied of by Malachi under the name of Elijah (Mal. iv. 5), who should be sent before the coming of the day of the Lord. Behold, I send you a prophet, even Elias, not Elias the Tishbite (as the LXX. has corruptly read it, to favour the Jews' traditions), but a prophet in the spirit and power of Elias, as the angel here expounds it.
[4.] He shall turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, shall incline their hearts to receive the Messiah, and bid him welcome, by awakening them to a sense of sin and a desire of righteousness. Whatever has a tendency to turn us from iniquity, as John's preaching and baptism had, will turn us to Christ as our Lord and our God; for those who through grace are wrought upon to shake off the yoke of sin, that is, the dominion of the world and the flesh, will soon be persuaded to take upon them the yoke of the Lord Jesus.
[5.] Hereby he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, that is, of the Jews to the Gentiles; shall help to conquer the rooted prejudices which the Jews have against the Gentiles, which was done by the gospel, as far as it prevailed, and was begun to be done by John Baptist, who came for a witness, that all through him might believe, who baptized and taught Roman soldiers as well as Jewish Pharisees, and who cured the pride and confidence of those Jews who gloried in their having Abraham to their father, and told them that God would out of stones raise up children unto Abraham (Matt. iii. 9), which would tend to cure their enmity to the Gentiles. Dr. Lightfoot observes, It is the constant usage of the prophets to speak of the church of the Gentiles as children to the Jewish church, Isa. liv. 5, 6, 13; lx. 4, 9; lxii. 5; lxvi. 12. When the Jews that embraced the faith of Christ were brought to join in communion with the Gentiles that did so too, then the heart of the fathers was turned to the children. And he shall turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that is, he shall introduce the gospel, by which the Gentiles, who are now disobedient, shall be turned, no so much to their fathers the Jews, but to the faith of Christ, here called the wisdom of the just, in communion with the believing Jews; or thus, He shall turn the hearts of the fathers with the children, that is, the hearts of old and young, shall be instrumental to bring some of every age to be religious, to work a great reformation in the Jewish nation, to bring them off from a ritual traditional religion which that had rested in, and to bring them up to substantial serious godliness: and the effect of this will be, that enmities will be slain and discord made to cease; and they are at variance, being united in his baptism, will be better reconciled one to another. This agrees with the account Josephus gives of John Baptist, Antiq. 18. 117-118. "That he was a good man, and taught the Jews the exercise of virtue, in piety towards God, and righteous towards one another, and that they should convene and knit together in baptism." And he saith, "The people flocked after him, and were exceedingly delighted in his doctrine." Thus he turned the hearts of fathers and children to God and to one another, by turning the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. Observe, First, True religion is the wisdom of just men, in distinction from the wisdom of the world. It is both our wisdom and our duty to be religious; there is both equity and prudence in it. Secondly, It is not possible but that those who have been unbelieving and disobedient may be turned to the wisdom of the just; divine grace can conquer the greatest ignorance and prejudice. Thirdly, The great design of the gospel is to bring people home to God, and to bring them nearer to one another; and on this errand John Baptist is sent. In the mention that is twice made of his turning people, there seems to be an allusion to the name of the Tishbite, which is given to Elijah, which, some think, does not denote the country or city he was of, but has an appellative signification, and therefore the render it Elijah the converter, one that was much employed, and very successful, in conversion-work. The Elias of the New Testament is therefore said to turn or convert many to the Lord their God.
[6.] Hereby he shall make ready a people prepared for the Lord, shall dispose the minds of people to receive the doctrine of Christ, that thereby they may be prepared for the comforts of his coming. Note, First, All that are to be devoted to the Lord, and made happy in him, must first be prepared and made ready for him. We must be prepared by grace in this world for the glory in the other, by the terrors of the law for the comforts of the gospel, by the spirit of bondage for the Spirit of adoption. Secondly, Nothing has a more direct tendency to prepare people for Christ than the doctrine of repentance received and submitted to. When sin is thereby made grievous, Christ will become very precious.
IV. Zacharias's unbelief of the angel's prediction, and the rebuke he was laid under for that unbelief. He heard all that the angel had to say, and should have bowed his head, and worshipped the Lord, saying, Be it unto thy servant according to the word which thou hast spoken; but it was not so. We are here told,
1. What his unbelief spoke, v. 18. He said to the angel, Whereby shall I know this? This was not a humble petition for the confirming of his faith, but a peevish objection against what was said to him as altogether incredible; as if he should say, "I can never be made to believe this." He could not but perceive that it was an angel that spoke to him; the message delivered, having reference to the Old-Testament prophecies, carried much of its own evidence along with it. There are many instances in the Old Testament of those that had children when they were old, yet he cannot believe that he shall have this child of promise: "For I am an old man, and my wife hath not only been all her days barren, but is now well stricken in years, and not likely ever to have children." Therefore he must have a sign given him, or he will not believe. Though the appearance of an angel, which had long been disused in the church, was sign enough,—though he had this notice given him in the temple, the place of God's oracles, where he had reason to think no evil angel would be permitted to come,—though it was given him when he was praying, and burning incense,—and though a firm belief of that great principle of religion that God has an almighty power, and with him nothing is impossible, which we ought not only to know, but to teach others, was enough to silence all objections,—yet, considering his own body and his wife's too much, unlike a son of Abraham, he staggered at the promise, Rom. iv. 19, 20.
2. How his unbelief was silenced, and he silenced for it.
(1.) The angel stops his mouth, by asserting his authority. Doth he ask, Whereby shall I know this? Let him know it by this, I am Gabriel, v. 19. He puts his name to his prophecy, doth as it were sign it with his own hand, teste meipso—take my word for it. Angels have sometimes refused to tell their names, as to Manoah and his wife; but his angel readily saith, I am Gabriel, which signifies the power of God, or the mighty one of God, intimating that the God who bade him say this was able to make it good. He also makes himself known by this name to put him in mind of the notices of the Messiah's coming sent to Daniel by the man Gabriel, Dan. viii. 16; ix. 21. "I am the same that was sent then, and am sent now in pursuance of the same intention." He is Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, an immediate attendant upon the throne of God. The prime ministers of state in the Persian court are described by this, that they saw the king's face, Esth. i. 14. "Though I am now talking with thee here, yet I stand in the presence of God. I know his eye is upon me, and I dare not say any more than I have warrant to say. But I declare I am sent to speak to thee, sent on purpose to show thee these glad tidings, which, being so well worthy of all acceptation, thou oughtest to have received cheerfully."
(2.) The angel stops his mouth indeed, by exerting his power: "That thou mayest object no more, behold thou shalt be dumb, v. 20. If thou wilt have a sign for the support of thy faith, it shall be such a one as shall be also the punishment of thine unbelief; thou shalt not be able to speak till the day that these things shall be performed," v. 20. Thou shalt be both dumb and deaf; the same word signifies both, and it is plain that he lost his hearing as well as his speech, for his friends made signs to him (v. 62), as well as he to them, v. 22. Now, in striking him dumb, [1.] God dealt justly with him, because he had objected against God's word. Hence we may take occasion to admire the patience of God and his forbearance toward us, that we, who have often spoken to his dishonour, have not been struck dumb, as Zacharias was, and as we had been if God had dealt with us according to our sins. [2.] God dealt kindly with him, and very tenderly and graciously. For, First, Thus he prevented his speaking any more such distrustful unbelieving words. If he has thought evil, and will not himself lay his hands upon his mouth, nor keep it as with a bridle, God will. It is better not to speak at all than to speak wickedly. Secondly, Thus he confirmed his faith; and, by his being disabled to speak, he is enabled to think the better. If by the rebukes we are under for our sin we be brought to give more credit to the word of God, we have no reason to complain of them. Thirdly, Thus he was kept from divulging the vision, and boasting of it, which otherwise he would have been apt to do, whereas it was designed for the present to be lodged as a secret with him. Fourthly, It was a great mercy that God's words should be fulfilled in their season, notwithstanding his sinful distrust. The unbelief of man shall not make the promises of God of no effect, they shall be fulfilled in their season, and he shall not be for ever dumb, but only till the day that these things shall be performed, and then thy lips shall be opened, that thy mouth may show forth God's praise. Thus, though God chastens the iniquity of his people with the rod, yet his loving kindness he will not take away.
V. The return of Zacharias to the people, and at length to his family, and the conception of this child of promise, the son of his old age.
1. The people staid, expecting Zacharias to come out of the temple, because he was to pronounce the blessing upon them in the name of the Lord; and, though he staid beyond the usual time, yet they did not, as is too common in Christian congregations, hurry away without the blessing, but waited for him, marvelling that he tarried so long in the temple, and afraid let something was amiss, v. 21.
2. When he came out, he was speechless, v. 22. He was now to have dismissed the congregation with a blessing, but was dumb and not able to do it, that the people may be minded to expect the Messiah, who can command the blessing, who blesseth indeed, and in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. Aaron's priesthood is now shortly to be silenced and set aside, to make way for the bringing in of a better hope.
3. He made a shift to give them to understand that he had seen a vision, by some awful signs he made, for he beckoned to them, and remained speechless, v. 22. This represents to us the weakness and deficiency of the Levitical priesthood, in comparison with Christ's priesthood and the dispensation of the gospel. The Old Testament speaks by signs, gives us some intimations of divine and heavenly things, but imperfect and uncertain; it beckons to us, but remains speechless. It is the gospel that speaks to us articulately, and gives us a clear view of that which the Old Testament was seen through a glass darkly.
4. He staid out the days of his ministration; for, his lot being to burn incense, he could do that, though he was dumb and deaf. When we cannot perform the service of God so well as we would, yet, if we perform it as well as we can, God will accept of us in it.