Luke 1:5-25: “A Special Birth to a Saintly Couple”
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah, and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments of the LORD. They had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Now it came about, while he was performing his priestly service before God, in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the LORD and burn incense. The whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
“And an angel of the LORD appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense, and Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the LORD, and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the LORD their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.’
“And Zacharias said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And, behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time.’ And the people were waiting for Zacharias and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple, and he kept making signs to them and remained mute.
“And it came about, when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home. And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, ‘This is the way the LORD has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take my disgrace among men.’” (Luke 1:5-25, NASB).
This incident takes place during the “Intertestamental” period of Jewish history, specifically that time where there was no new word from the LORD for four hundred years since the days of the last Old Testament prophet Malachi (430 B.C.). The Jews had been under the rule of the Babylonian Empire from 586 – 539 B.C. as a punishment from God for their idolatry and numerous sins against Him. The royal line of kings had ended, and the Temple of Solomon had been totally destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of Babylon, who carried the people into exile, and they remained there for seventy years as foretold by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and others who spoke for God.
Darius the Mede overtook Babylon in 538 B.C., and the Persians ruled the region until 331 B.C. During Persian rule the Jews were treated well, and under the edict of the Emperor Cyrus the Great they were given the freedom to return to their ancient land, rebuild the cities, such as Jerusalem, and build a new temple for worship. Many Jews stayed in Susa, the Persian capital, and others were scattered throughout the realm. However, a growing problem for the Persians was the rise of the Greek city-states and their emphasis on the principles of democracy and development of philosophical thought and scientific discoveries, which didn’t set well with the autocratic rule of the emperors across the Aegean. A series of conflicts and battles began between Greece and Persia, which dealt serious blows to the Persian military and structure of the government over the years.
When the Macedonian ruler and general Alexander the Great rose to power, he put not just the Greek city-states under his rule, but defeated the Persian king Darius III in battle in 331 B.C., bringing Persia and its territories under Alexander’s domain, as well as the lands up to the borders of what is today India. Alexander ruled an empire that covered the known world at that time and was determined to make his mark on the affairs of world history. The Greek Empire lasted from 331 – 63 B.C., and with it came the spreading of Greek culture, language, art, religion, philosophy; and it had an effect on the Jews as well, with some adapting to the culture, while others tended to stay with the Law and customs of the historical and religious past of Israel.
Alexander died in 323 B.C. at the age of thirty-three, and the unity of the empire gave way to the four generals who had been with Alexander and had helped rule the region. Each general set up individual kingdoms, with two playing a noteworthy role in Jewish history, the generals Ptolemy and Selucus, who ruled the regions of Egypt and Syria respectively, as did their heirs.
The area of Judea fluctuated between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires for the next hundred years with little effect on the Jews until the reign of Antiochus IV, when this Seleucid ruler demanded adherence to Greek culture on the pain of death, destroyed copies of the Scriptures, put anyone to death who circumcised their male heirs, forbade the worship of God, and desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. The revolt of the Maccabean family and the warfare against Antiochus led by Judas Maccabee in 163 B.C. brought an end to foreign rule over Judea; and from 163-63 B.C., the country was independent, ruled by the Hasmoneans.
Judea came under foreign rule in 63 B.C. when the army of the Roman Republic, headed by Pompey, marched into Jerusalem and claimed the country for Rome. The Republic gave way to rule by an emperor, Augustus Caesar, the nephew of the late general and leader Julius Caesar. His reign, which lasted from 27 B.C. – 14 A.D., is considered to be one of the highlights of Imperial Roman history and the expansion of the empire across continental Europe and the region of the Middle East and coastal Africa, which would be in place until its demise in 476 A.D.
Each empire left its mark on the Jewish nation. This constant tide of foreign rule intensified the desire in the Jewish people to be free and govern themselves under the leadership of the promised Messiah, who was seen primarily as a deliverer from Roman oppression and the One sent from God to make Israel the centerpiece of civilization and God’s dwelling place on Earth. Rome, however, saw any mention or action of this nature as a direct threat to their rule and would ruthlessly crush both people and nations to make it clear that they would not tolerate any dissent or other power coming before them.
The Roman soldiers’ constant presence in the region of Judea was a reminder of their oppression and reasons for wanting freedom. However, the leadership within Jewish society was just as much a problem as were Caesar and his representatives. Religious life was governed by two groups who saw the Scriptures as a mandate for tradition and conformity to expectations of how to behave and live as a citizen bound to the Mosaic law. These groups were the Pharisees and Sadducees, with each having a unique take on what they believed God required of them and society in general. Along with ideas on God and the interpretation of His word and will, these two factions were cozy with Rome and were given some leeway by the government to maintain control in return for keeping their respective positions.
The Pharisees believed that the entirety of Scripture was the Word of God, that there was life after death, the reality of angels and demons, the resurrection of the just and unjust at the end of the age, the promise of a Messiah, the accuracy of prophecy, and the keeping of the Sabbath and other laws and traditions to the letter. Their original objective was to maintain a personal sense of holiness and devotion to the LORD, but had come down to rote obedience to the words, laws, and customs of those teachers who had come before them in place of the pure words of God. They were going through religious motions, with little thought or concern for genuine worship and communication with God.
The other group, the Sadducees, believed that the first five books of the Scriptures (the Torah) were the only authentic word of God. They denied the existence of an afterlife, resurrection, or the existence of angels and demons, and anything defined as supernatural. They were the ones who had the closest relationship with the Roman authorities, and often had one of their own members in the office of High Priest, clearly violating the Aaronic line of succession.
There was also the issue of the Roman-appointed “royal” dynasty that ruled the region for and at the pleasure of the Empire, namely the person and descendants of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea as “King” from 37 B.C.-4 B.C. Herod was not even Jewish, but was from the line of Esau (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:36), the rejected brother of the patriarch Jacob. The people saw Herod as a usurper and never came to have anything but contempt for him because he was not of the true royal line of David, and was also seen as a lackey of the Romans, being appointed by the Roman nobleman Mark Antony, who was a contemporary of the late Julius Caesar.
When Antony and his paramour, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, were defeated by the forces of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Herod switched his allegiance to Octavian, who would go on to be proclaimed as Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor (27 B.C. -14 A.D.). Caesar allowed Herod to stay in power, and during his time as ruler of Judea, Herod undertook lavish building projects and began construction on a new Temple in Jerusalem as a means of currying favor with his subjects, but was met with little success or respect.
Herod was married ten times during his reign and had many sons, including Antipas, Archelaus, Phillip, and Alexander, whom he had executed for alleged insubordination. Herod also had his favorite wife, Mariname, put to death, which he later regretted bitterly. As a means of restitution, he had her body preserved and would often talk to it as he grew less connected with the world around him and grew more paranoid as the years passed. He was always terrified that the Romans would remove him from power and that he would be exiled or worse. His cruelty was widely noted. The fact that he had children murdered to retain his throne (Matthew 2:16) was typical of his nature. He was the first known official in the New Testament to try and kill the Lord Jesus, and there would be others who would possess the same mindset during the years of Jesus’ ministry.
Herod died in 4 B.C. of intestinal infections that were clearly seen by those around him. His genitals and other areas of his body were infected with intestinal worms and gangrene among other diseases that plagued his body. The historian Josephus gave a graphic description of Herod’s agonizing death in his book Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 5. His son Antipas became one of the figures of New Testament history and was noted for his incestuous marriage, the execution of John the Baptist, and mocking the Lord Jesus on the day of His illegal trial and crucifixion. None of the Herodian rulers had any redeeming virtue or character, and they were hostile to the early church as well. Their lineage came to an end with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, as the Lord Jesus had predicted and proclaimed decades earlier.
The constantly charged political and religious atmosphere of Judea reinforced the desires and hopes of the Jews for their promised Messiah as the years came and went. The remnant of devout Jews who trusted in God to keep His word had their prayers answered, but in a way that brought no fanfare or dynamic change in the overall life of the nation until His set time. That time came when Zacharias went into the temple to burn incense before God.
The four hundred “silent” years came to an end that day with the proclamation by Gabriel that Zacharias and Elizabeth would be God’s chosen vessels to bring about the arrival of their son John, who would be the elect forerunner of the coming Messiah. Their mutual lifetime devotion to the LORD would be rewarded and remembered in the writings of Luke, and would be read for generations to come to show that God is still in charge, that He has not forgotten His promises, and will reward those who remain faithful and obedient to Him and His guidance.
Those of us who are His own will have our names written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life for eternity, and we will dwell with Him as He has promised in His Word because of the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will not be stopped or deterred in His mission of redemption and restoration of all things good and noble. The Divine plan of salvation, put in place before the foundation of the world, is now to be carried out on Earth. The next stop will be in an obscure town and a visit to a young girl, who will get the honor of being a major figure in the story of our LORD and His will.