Having discussed the introduction to John the Baptist’s parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth) in yesterday’s note, today I will be looking at the appearance of the heavenly Messenger, announcing the coming birth of John, in Lk 1:8-17—in particular, the words of the Messenger in vv. 13-17.
The setting of the Temple, so important as a symbol in the narrative, is featured in the introduction to the scene (vv. 8-12). Zechariah, as one of the priests designated to perform periodic service in the Temple (v. 5, cf. the prior note), was fulfilling his duty, which, on this occasion, involved serving in the sanctuary at the altar of incense. This was a privilege which was granted to priests by the casting of lots (cf. the description in the Mishnah, Tamid 5-6). Verses 9-10 indicate that it is the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice (Exod 30:7-18; cf. also Dan 9:21), perhaps around 3:00 pm (Acts 3:1). As Zechariah performs his duties in the sanctuary (the Holy place, but not the innermost shrine), we read in verse 11:
“And (the) Messenger of the Lord [a&ggelo$ kuri/ou] was seen by [i.e. appeared to] him, having stood out of (the) giving [i.e. right-hand] (side) of the place of sacrifice [i.e. altar] of the (fragrant) smoke”
This is the second occurrence in the Lukan narrative of the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”), here referring specifically to the divine name Yahweh (cf. the earlier article on this name), through the corresponding Old Testament expression hwhy Ea^l=m^ (mal°a½ YHWH), “Messenger of Yahweh” (Gen 16:7-13; 21:17; 22:10-18; 31:11-13; Exod 3:2-6; 14:19-24; Judg 2:1-5, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 324-5). In the earliest strands of tradition, this figure was largely theophanous—that is, representing the manifestation of God (Yahweh/El) himself to his people, through a kind of intermediary. Subsequently, in Israelite and Jewish tradition, it referred more precisely to a distinct heavenly being (i.e. Angel). In the Lukan narrative, the figure is identified as the Angel Gabriel (vv. 19, 26), best known from the book of Daniel, to which the Infancy narrative alludes at several points. The word decio/$, meaning the right-hand (side), I translate above literally as the “giving” side—the right-hand being regarded as the propitious or favored side. The Angel’s appearance to the right of the altar indicates that God is showing favor to Zechariah. The Zechariah’s fear in response (v. 12) is typical of such Angelic appearances in the Old Testament, and is part of a definite (literary) annunciation pattern adopted in the Gospel (for more on this, cf. especially Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). The presence of the “Messenger of the Lord” recalls the Samson narrative (Judg 13:3ff); the wife of Manoah, like Elizabeth, was also barren.
The words of the Angel which follow (vv. 13-17) may be divided into four parts, beginning the primary birth announcement in v. 13:
“Do not be afraid, Zecharyah, through (the reason) that your need [i.e. request] has been heard [i.e. listened] into (by God), and your wife Elisheba will cause a son to be (born) for you—and you shall call his name Yohanan.”
It is not entirely clear what Zechariah’s need or request (de/hsi$, i.e. prayer/petition) was; certainly he would have prayed for a child, but, given the notice regarding Zechariah’s devotion and righteous character (vv. 5-6), it is also possible that he had been praying for the future blessing and fortune of Israel. The name which the Angel directs should be given to the child is Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek as )Iwa/nnh$, and simplified again into English typically as “John”. It is a sentence-name, incorporating the divine name Yahweh (the hypocoristic “Yah[û]”, cf. the earlier article), and meaning “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. This favor (or “grace”), indicated already by the Angel’s appearance on the right-hand side of the altar (cf. above), may be understood three ways:
- God granting to Zechariah and Elizabeth a long-awaited child (a son)
- That the son would have a special status and role to play in God’s plan, and
- That the child would be the means by which God would show favor to His people Israel
John’s salvific role, with regard to the last two points, of course, is due to his close connection with Jesus, as indicated by the overall structure of the narrative, intercutting the birth accounts of John and Jesus, respectively. The next three parts of the Angel’s message follow the initial announcement, and may be outlined as follows:
- The effect of the (good) news of the child’s birth (v. 14)—”And there will be delight for you and leaping (for joy), and many will take delight upon his coming to be (born)”
- Declaration of the child’s role and destiny (vv. 15-16), which involves four components:
(i) the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (compare with v. 32)
(ii) his designation as a Nazirite (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4 [another connection with the Samson narrative, cf. above])
(iii) that “he will be filled with the holy Spirit” from his moment of his conception
(iv) his mission will be to “turn many of the sons of Israel (back) upon [i.e. to] (the) Lord their God”
- The child’s role and destiny as a fulfillment of prophecy (v. 17)
The specific prophecy referenced by the Angel in verse 17 is that of Malachi 3:1ff, as interpreted by the ‘appendix’ of 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24], in which the Messenger who will go ahead and “prepare the way” for the coming of the Lord is identified with the figure of Elijah. John the Baptist, too, was certainly identified with this Messenger (and Elijah) in early Gospel tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par, etc). The Lukan Infancy narrative draws upon this same tradition; according to the account here, it was established by the Angel of the Lord in the very announcement of John’s coming birth. This will be discussed further in the note on Lk 1:76ff. I have discussed the original context, and interpretation, of Mal 3:1ff in an earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
Particular mention should be made of the name Elijah, which, like Yôµ¹n¹n, was also a Yahweh-name. In Hebrew it is °E~lîy¹h[û] ([W]hY`l!a@), “Yah(weh) is (my) God [°E~l]”. This name would have had special significance at the time of great 9th-century B.C. Prophet, when the worship of Yahweh (identified with the Creator God °E~l [“Mighty One”]) was being challenged by Canaanite religious beliefs and practices centered on the deity Haddu (called Ba±al, “Lord, Master”). For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the name Yahweh, as well as the article on °Adôn/Ba±al. Though Baal-worship, as such, was no longer an issue for Israel by the time of the New Testament, the language and emphasis of the old Prophets (such as Elijah) is echoed here in the Angel’s words. Note especially the wording of verse 16:
“…and many of the sons of Israel he [i.e. John] will turn (back) upon the Lord their God”
This relates primarily to the prophecy in Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6 (note the similar wording in 4:6; cf. also Sirach 48:10), though there may be allusions to other passages such as 2 Sam 7:24 (cf. Exod 19:10-11). The expression “the Lord their God” (o( ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ au)tw=n), though obscured somewhat in translation, actually refers to the ancient religious point mentioned above—namely, that Yahweh (the Lord [ku/rio$]) is our God (°E~l/°E_lœhîm [qeo/$]). That is to say, Yahweh is the one true (Creator) God, and he is our God, i.e. the one we recognize and worship. It is this God who will ultimately show favor to His people through the person of Jesus Christ.
References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).