Chapter 1 of Luke focuses on two main characters—Zacharias and Mary. These are two ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives. But God reached down into human history and revealed Himself to them in unique, personal and dramatic ways. Zacharias is a priest, doing his normal duties in the temple. He would be no different from a pastor of a local church showing up on a Sunday morning to preach. Mary, on the other hand, is a young woman, 16 or 17 years old, living in a small, insignificant city in Galilee, “the land of the Gentiles.” But both of these individuals have something in common—they have an intimate relationship with God. Read and observe how, by having a very personal, vital and intimate relationship with God, He reaches down out of eternity and affects their lives forever.
What to look for in Luke 1
As you read each paragraph ask, “How is God speaking to me personally through His word?”
Look for God’s global plan for mankind. Ask, “Why is God doing what He is doing?”
Look for the love relationships that exist between the principle characters.
Look for the way the main characters, Zacharias and Mary, express their relationship to God.
Look for the “servant” theme in chapter 1.
Look for the foreshadowing of God’s plan to reach out, not just to the Jewish nation, but to all mankind.
Look for the phrase, “…filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ask the question, “What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?” Does it mean “speaking in tongues” as some Christians insist?
1:1-4 Luke is a Gentile, that is, not a Jew and not of the “chosen race.” That is an important point to remember when reading and interpreting Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. More than any other of the gospel writers, Luke will record Jesus’ encounter with Gentiles during His earthly ministry, and how Jesus extends His love to Gentiles by His acceptance of them and His affirmation of their faith. Therefore, when reading the Gospel of Luke, note particularly God’s love and healings extended to the Gentiles through His Son, Jesus.
Luke was the personal, well-educated, multilingual physician of a Gentile nobleman whose name was Theophilus, as indicated by the address of “most excellent.” The name Theophilus means “one who loves God.” Some scholars have speculated that Theophilus was not a real person, but a fictional device used by Luke. This writer takes the position that Theophilus was a real person. Through God’s general revelation and loving elective grace, Theophilus was drawn to seek and know the one true God, to whom the gospel of Jesus Christ was eventually presented, resulting in his acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. As a wealthy nobleman, Theophilus probably had at his disposal the Old Testament scriptures, specifically the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. As a new convert to Christianity, and being one who sought truth in all matters, Theophilus commissioned Luke to investigate in detail the background and life of the one to whom he had committed his life. One can see in Luke’s diligent investigation of the life and death of Jesus great love and respect for his noble master. Perhaps it should also be noted that at the time of Luke’s intensive investigation, he has already been a traveling companion of the apostle Paul, and may have done most of his firsthand investigation in Jerusalem while Paul spent two years in prison in Caesarea (Acts 23:23–26:32).
Lastly, a key phrase in Luke’s introduction are the words “the exact truth.” Exact truth is critical to understanding love, for the word love requires exact definition if we are to know what true love is. Therefore, God’s love cannot be separated from God’s truth, for one cannot know true love apart from knowing God’s truth. Biblical love is defined by biblical truth, and all biblical truth points to God’s love. The theme of love—God’s love for mankind and His unfathomable grace to the Gentiles—is a key concept in Luke’s presentation of the life of Jesus Christ.
1:5-7 Luke makes it very clear to his readers that Zacharias and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God.” (“Zacharias” is the same as “Zechariah” in other translations.) They were righteous because they conducted their lives in a manner consistent with “all the commandments and requirements of God.” (We will see later in the New Testament that the commandments of God relate primarily to how people treat one another.) The fact that they had been married many years, yet had no children, posed a conundrum for both this couple and their priestly friends. An underlying belief at the time was that God was withholding from Zacharias and Elizabeth the blessing of children because of the superstitious belief that there was sin in their lives, and Elizabeth was under a kind of curse. That is why Luke makes it very clear that Zacharias and Elizabeth were “walking blamelessly”—they were not being punished for personal sin, but being prepared for God’s plan. Of course, neither Zacharias nor Elizabeth knew any of this, which makes their faithfulness to one another all the more meaningful. Their trust in God, in fact, served as a testimony that love and respect for one another characterized their relationship. According to rabbinic tradition, Zacharias would have been justified divorcing Elizabeth and taking another wife who could bear him a son to carry his family name. He chose instead to remain monogamous and faithful to Elizabeth. He did not reject her because she could not live up to his expectations and fulfill her role as a wife by providing a son. Therefore, perhaps the greatest sign that they were “walking blamelessly” was that they had a long, loyal and loving relationship.
1:8-17 Zacharias’s love for Elizabeth is finally going to bear fruit, the fruit that he had always longed for. It was his faithfulness to her that enabled this moment to happen. Had Zacharias not been faithful and loving toward Elizabeth because she could not bear children, this turning point in history would never have happened.
Remember that both Zacharias and Elizabeth were “advanced in years.” This means that Elizabeth was past childbearing years, as Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had been. It is quite likely that Zacharias was still praying for Elizabeth to become pregnant. Most likely, they had both resigned themselves to the reality that they would have no children, but there was always hope, like in Abraham’s case. Here is a clear case of what it means to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul. Zacharias continued to love Elizabeth in spite of the fact that she bore him no child. Whether or not our love for God is real is validated when things don’t go our way, when God does not allow us to have our heart’s desire. Whether or not our love for God is real is also validated when we continue to show love to those who perhaps disappoint us, or fail to live up to our expectations. The true test of love for God is continuing to worship and trust Him when things don’t work out, and to continue to love others in spite of the fact that we feel they may have let us down.
Notice, too, that the angel appears to Zacharias when he was faithfully performing his priestly service. His faithful service to God was one way of demonstrating his love for God.
1:8-10 As was the custom in performing priestly duties, Zacharias had been chosen “by lot” to burn the morning incense. Burning incense was considered a sacred event requiring everyone to leave the temple. This custom of everyone leaving the temple stemmed from two unfortunate events in the Old Testament, when two sons of Aaron died for offering “strange fire” while offering incense (Lev. 10:1-3), and a number of Korahites died while offering incense during Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16). No one but a descendant of Aaron was to offer incense, and for their protection, all others waited outside the temple in silent prayer. When Zacharias is delayed coming out of the Holy Place, many of the worshippers probably wondered if he, too, had been judged by God and died (v. 21).
There is another wonderful lesson in this event. The smoke of incense is symbolic of prayer. David writes in Psalm 141:2, “May my prayer be counted as incense before You.” And in Revelation 5:8, incense is described as “the prayers of the saints.” When the angel declares in verse 13 that “your petition has been heard,” it is answered at a time when Zacharias is offering incense. For the reader, this is confirmation that God hears and remembers all our prayers, whether uttered in childhood or as young adults, whether offered in desperation or want. God does not hear our prayers because we are faithful to pray, but because He is the God of love, and He hears our prayers because He loves us.
1:15 There are two important points to emphasize about this verse. First, this verse is absolute proof that being “filled with the Holy Spirit” has nothing to do with speaking in tongues. This will be discussed later in the commentary. The second point is even of greater importance: while in “his mother’s womb,” John is considered by God to be a living human being, a person in His eyes. And so it is with all those who those who are in the womb.
1:16-17 The angel refers directly to the very last writing prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi. He is referring to Malachi 4:5-6, and he is saying that Zacharias’s son will be a fulfillment of that prophecy, well known to the Jews who were waiting for the reappearance of “Elijah.”
“…to turn the hearts”—True love can be demonstrated only by an act that comes from the heart. When fathers love their children, their hearts are turned back to them, meaning they are more interested in their children’s spiritual well-being than their own. Notice, too, that an “attitude of the righteous” is measured here by two conditions:
(1) how fathers respond to their children, and
(2) hearts that are “prepared for the Lord.” Both are relational in nature, and both indicate hearts shaped by love.
1:18-20 “because you did not believe”—To the skeptical observer, it might first appear that Gabriel’s pronouncement of silence seems harsh and unloving. Our love and trust in God always requires shaping and defining, and the most loving thing God can do for us at times is to discipline us like a loving father, for the purpose of refining our faith. Proverbs 3:12 states, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” This hard lesson for Zacharias verifies that God loves him enough to help him grow in his faith. Instead of being an unloving thing to do, God did the most loving thing—He strengthened his faith with an unforgettable lesson.
The angel identifies himself as Gabriel, the same angel that appeared to Daniel, as recorded in Daniel 9:21.
And finally in this section, note the phrase “fulfilled in their proper time.” This is one of the most important phrases a Christian must learn. Prayers are answered “in their proper time.” We Christians live in a fast-food, microwave world where we expect our prayers to be answered immediately. But God answers prayers when He is ready to answer prayers, not when we are ready to receive the answer. In truth, some of our prayers may be answered only after we have long departed from this earthly body.
1:21-23 As noted above, Zacharias is delayed in coming out of the Holy Place after burning the incense, and the people are concerned for his well-being. When he finally appears, the people waiting outside notice that something has changed…he is unable to speak. (The Greek implies unable to hear as well.) No doubt, his appearance was changed, as if having been shaken to the core, what some might say, “Having seen a ghost.” The people immediately interpret his condition as having seen a vision, which almost always involves an angel.
What happens immediately afterward is not elaborated on by Luke, and he sums it up by writing that Zacharias was obviously obedient to the words of Gabriel and fulfilled his part of God’s plan.
1:24-25 The subject of the narrative now switches to Elizabeth and her response. Her perspective was to see that, even in her old age, God had dealt “with favor” upon her, which means God had extended His grace to her in the most wonderful way. Herein lies the heart of true worship. We worship God not to earn His favor, but because He has already abundantly given us His favor. In Elizabeth’s case, God not only saw to it that she became pregnant, but in doing so moved her from “dis-grace” to pure grace. God not only gives us the desires of our heart, but gives us what He deems best for us. God not only demonstrated His love for Elizabeth by seeing that she became pregnant, but He demonstrated His love by simply meeting her emotional needs.
1:26-38 Again, Luke changes the subject of the narrative. He now focuses on the young woman Mary and God’s plan for the birth of mankind’s Savior. The same angel who visited Zacharias now visits Mary. Mary is a “virgin”: that is, she has not had any sexual intercourse whatsoever. Those who deny the Virgin Birth completely ignore verse 34 which relate Mary’s concern that she has never been with a man.
There are a number of important pieces of information in the first two verses. “The sixth month” would be the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The city of Nazareth is located in Galilee, also called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This is significant when compared to Isaiah’s messianic prophecy in 9:1: “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light….” Also, the context in verse 27 is clear that Mary is a virgin (in its simplest sense) and is engaged (promised) to Joseph, a legally binding covenant. Note, too, that Joseph is a descendant of David. This observation is important because the Jews knew very well that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (see Isa. 9:7 and 11:1-5). Lastly, “Mary” is her Greek name; her Hebrew name is “Miriam.”
1:28-30 Mary is called “favored one.” That means one who is under the grace of God. The force behind God’s grace is His love. All God’s grace is based on His love. God chose her out of His divine providence. She was chosen, not because she deserved to be chosen or was an especially saintly person, but because God chose her. Mary is receiving from God the pronouncement of His great love for her. The angel also includes, “The Lord is with you,” a personalized version of “Immanuel” meaning “God with us.” Gabriel, knowing Mary would be terrified by such an appearance, lovingly reassures her that things are okay, that God has for her a special blessing. Only God knows that one day she will be torn with grief, and may even ponder the thought, “Is God with me?”
1:31-33 “Jesus” is the Greek name for “Joshua”; that is, “Savior,” or one who delivers. The title “Son of the Most High” would be title well known in the Gentile world, and the term “Lord God” refers specifically to the God of Israel. Here we see a foreshadowing of God’s love that will be extended to the Gentiles through the gospel.
1:34-35 Gabriel now informs Mary how she will become pregnant. Her pregnancy will not be by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. Theologically, the Virgin Birth is necessary so that Jesus would be born without original sin; that is, the genetic defect passed through men that results in mankind’s propensity for sin. For Jesus to be able to take away the sins of all mankind on the cross, He must be fully divine and a perfect man. Only by the sacrifice of a perfect (unblemished) man could there be a worthy sacrifice to a holy God, and only an infinite being could cover all the sins of all mankind. The only one who can fulfill these requirements is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. Therefore, out of love God is offering up His only Son, as out of love the Son of God will offer up Himself on the cross.
1:36-37 If Elizabeth can conceive in her old age, then it is not impossible that Mary can conceive by the Holy Spirit.
1:38 To be a bondslave is to be one who is wholly devoted, lovingly devoted, to the will of the Master. Notice, too, that she is not a bondslave of a man, but of God Himself. She allows God’s love to own her. And, it is quite possible that she conceived at the moment she believed, for it will be only a short time from now that she will visit Elizabeth, and at the time of the visit, Mary is already pregnant.
There is a wonderful analogy found in verse 38. Just as the Holy Spirit was to “overshadow” Mary when she believed, so, too, is the person who receives Jesus Christ by faith and becomes His bondservant. That person also is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and becomes a new creation. The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature….” It is an analogy of new birth through the agent of the Holy Spirit. As Christ was created physically in Mary’s womb, He is “created” spiritually in the heart of those who receive Him. The spirit of Christ is literally born in believers, which is why Paul writes, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
1:39-45 This is a remarkable encounter between two pregnant women. Elizabeth announces that her six-month-old fetus can experience “joy.”
Here again, note that being “filled with the Holy Spirit” has nothing to do with speaking in tongues, but it has everything to do with “expression,” for she utters prophetic words she could not have known; that is, that her cousin Mary is not only carrying a child, but carrying “the Lord.” Being filled with the Spirit, then, means uninhibited expression—in this case speaking—that glorifies God and what He is doing or has done through His Son Jesus Christ. In the Book of Acts, this expression is always vocalized, and sometimes it is vocalized in tongues as a sign that the Holy Spirit is the One behind the expression, thus providing proof to the apostolic leadership.
There is no doubt in Elizabeth’s expression that beyond the love and respect that existed between this very young woman and a much older, experienced woman, there is an additional layer of special love that now exists because of the child that Mary is carrying. Jesus Christ will be the special revelation of love that comes from God. This love is now already being experienced by two women who are rejoicing in the Lord. Obviously, after Mary told Elizabeth of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth blesses her for believing what God had told her. Faith allows us to experience the joy of seeing God’s will fulfilled.
Oh! That the details of this magical encounter and what each person knew about the other had been written into a book! But Luke’s emphasis is clear: the focus is on the One who brings joy, and upon those who believe what has been spoken by the Lord.
1:46-55 The song (psalm) that Mary composes, probably within days of her encounter with Gabriel, relates how she feels about being considered worthy to bear the Son of God. Can you imagine her excitement? Mary may have been anywhere from 16-17 years old, a mere child by our standards but, in Jesus’ day, old enough to be engaged. What Mary recognizes in her song is that God has seen fit to bless the humble. Not only was she but a child herself, she was of extremely humble means. In Mary’s upbringing, her parents taught her that her true identity, and her most fulfilling one, was to be a bondslave (doulos, bondservant) of the Lord. She obviously attributes her attitude of first being a servant of God to the blessing she has received from God. In her song, she recognizes a number of God’s characteristics:
He has regard for the humble
He is the Mighty One
He is holy
He is the God of mercy
He has mercy on those who fear Him
He has done mighty deeds
He scatters the proud
He brings down rulers
He exalts the humble
He fills the mouths of the hungry
He vilifies the rich
He has given help to Israel
He spoke to Abraham and his descendants
Mary’s love for God, therefore, is expressed by her words of worship and by her servant’s heart. Isn’t that the way Christ should be born in all of His followers?
And it is through lyrics and melody that Mary expresses her joy and gratitude. So it is with sincere and devout Christian song writers today who desire to express their worship of the Lord through music. The Christian today can be blessed by those Christian musicians who are true bondservants of the Lord.
1:56 Mary returns home after Elizabeth’s baby is born.
1:57-58 Elizabeth conceived naturally, Mary supernaturally. One child will proclaim Christ, the other will be Christ. So it is when the Holy Spirit enters each believer. Through the Holy Spirit, believers are not only sent to proclaim Christ, but to be like Christ. It is the supernatural being conceived in the natural, and all are born out of God’s love and mercy.
1:59-66 The officials have come to circumcise the child according to the law of Moses. It is on this day that the child is officially given a name. John is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yohanan, meaning “Jehovah has been gracious.” Indeed, God had been gracious to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and that is the way God’s love works. Through His love, He demonstrates His abundant grace to His children, and at the same time carries out His will. There is a powerful lesson in this. More than any other way, God carries out His plan both for our benefit and for His. The grace in that is His allowing His children to be part of His plan. In this case, biblical love was the avenue through which Zacharias and Elizabeth experienced God’s love. By fulfilling the law and being faithful and loving to one another, God is now using them to be an instrument by which He will carry out His divine plan. As a result of Zacharias’s and Elizabeth’s love, they are now the proud parents of the last Old Testament prophet, John, who will be called “the Baptist.” God confirmed their love for one another by filling Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit when Mary visited, and now, God is about to reconfirm His love for them by allowing Zacharias himself to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And all of this is a result of Zacharias and Elizabeth being faithful and loving to one another.
1:67 This is the third time that Luke uses the phrase “filled with the Spirit.” Here again, there is no relationship to tongues. But there is a relationship to verbally expressing praise, worship and truth. A careful reading of the New Testament demonstrates that Luke, in his Gospel and in Acts, is the only writer to use the phrase “filled with the Spirit.” The only exception is that Paul uses the phrase one time in Ephesians 5:18 and, again, it has nothing to do with speaking in tongues.
1:68-79 This is one of the great scriptural declarations about the redemptive love of God. To be redeemed means to be purchased back or released, always with a price. The price will be the “horn of salvation,” a phrase used only by David (2 Sam. 22:3, Ps. 18:2) to signify God’s power to deliver from an enemy. Indeed, the phrase refers to a Deliverer provided by God Himself through the “house of David.” Only God’s love could provide such a deliverance, and only God’s infinite love could provide a Deliverer for the whole world. It is God’s love that causes Him “to remember His holy covenant,” and it is because of God’s love that those who serve Him can serve Him without fear, for “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). It is clear, too, by Zacharias’s song of praise, most likely offered at the time of John’s circumcision, that Zacharias recognizes that the only way to salvation and deliverance is through “the forgiveness of their sins,” something that can only happen if God is loving enough to provide a way for mankind to find redemption. It is God’s love that “the tender mercy of our God” is expressed, and it is only because of God’s infinite love that His redemption will be offered “upon those who sit in darkness.” This beautiful acknowledgement of God’s saving love is itself filled with a love for God that goes beyond the law of Moses, beyond ritual, even beyond Judaism itself. It is an expression of love for God that rejoices in the discovery of “the way of peace.”
There is one other aspect of Zacharias’s song that the reader should grasp—it praises God’s global plan and is in no way self-focused. Zacharias is able to see the big picture of God’s plan, and his words reflect his desire to fit into God’s plan. One would think that his prayer of praise would be more focused on personal blessings, rather than global ones. But that is not the case. This is an example that the true blessings of life come when we attempt to fit into God’s plans, and not attempt to have God fit into ours.
1:80 John’s father prophesied that his son would be a prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Isa. 40:3). Out of gratitude for God’s love, Zacharias has turned his only son over to God. Like Abraham, Zacharias demonstrated his love for God by offering up his only son as a holy and living sacrifice.
Questions for Your Personal or Group Reflection
We know from chapter 1 that God spoke to Zacharias and to Mary through the angel Gabriel. How has God spoken to you? What changes will you make in your life as a result of reading Luke 1? How will this affect your relationships? How will this affect your prayers and praises to God?
Is there anything in your life spiritually that you consider “impossible”? As you identify the seemingly “impossible” thing, apply Gabriel’s words, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” (Of course, if it is a part of God’s plan!) Are you able to take this teaching and apply it to your own life? In doing so, remember that God doesn’t work out His plan overnight. What is possible may take years, or even a lifetime. What spiritual limitation do you have that can change the impossible to the possible?
Did you observe the phrase, “…filled with the Spirit”? Have you determined what it means to be filled with the Spirit? Who initiates being filled with the Spirit, and what must have gone on in the life of the believer in order for the Spirit to fill you? What kind of relationship do you have with God that can enable you to be filled with the Spirit, and what kind of a lifestyle are you living that will set you up to be filled with the Spirit if the Spirit so chooses?
How has God spoken to you concerning God’s discipline of Zacharias? What is the difference between Zacharias’ questioning the angel Gabriel, and Mary’s? Why do you think Mary was not disciplined for asking, “How can this be…?”
How has God spoken to you about Mary’s response concerning the blessing God has bestowed on her? How could she have responded in regard to God’s special blessing (boasting, pride, etc.)?
What was Zacharias doing when Gabriel appeared to him? What was Mary doing when Gabriel appeared to her? What is the common theme, and if Gabriel were to appear to you, what would you be doing?
What has chapter 1 taught you about God’s love, His desire for you to experience His love, and how He wants you to express His love?