Bible boy_reading_bibleToday’s Forbidden Bible Verses passage concerns the events preceding our Lord’s birth to Mary.

St Luke — the Evangelist — was the only Gospel writer to explore the circumstances surrounding John the Baptist’s birth.

Sadly, this dramatic account — which continues in next week’s instalment — is absent from the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. However, missing readings such as these are also essential to our understanding of Holy Scripture.

This post will also explain John the Baptist’s appearance and why Samson had to have long hair.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry.

Luke 1:5-17

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”


If this reading looks familiar, I wrote about it just before Christmas 2012. Readers who have not seen that post might wish to read it in conjunction with this one.

Recall from Luke’s prologue that the Evangelist wrote (emphases mine):

3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

As these events unfold, Luke tells us that Herod was King of Judea (verse 5). Matthew Henry’s commentary explains that Herod was a foreigner, a deputy of Rome. He had recently annexed Judea, making it a province of the Roman Empire. Henry wrote that Judah was no longer ruled by a descent of David. In line with Genesis 19:10, this meant that the time had come to restore rule by one of David’s house — in this case, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As we know, our Lord was not the Messiah the Jews had envisaged in this context.

At this time, there was a priest named Zechariah (Zachary) who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. (This is not the Old Testament prophet, by the way.) He came from the ‘division’ — priestly clan — of Abijah. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of priests from Aaron’s line. Henry’s commentary observes that the lineage of Aaron and David were highly important to the Jewish people. Aaron’s descendants inherited the priesthood and David’s were royal heirs. This does not imply that every descendant was wealthy and lived opulently. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not, nor did Joseph and Mary. However, it was the family line which mattered.

Henry wrote, clarifying the importance of Abijah in Zechariah’s lineage. He uses Zechariah’s Greek name Zacharias, easier to distinguish as we’ll see from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah:

Now the father of John Baptist was a priest, a son of Aaron; his name Zacharias … 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 [‘division’, or clan] 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 Chr. 24:10), 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, Ex. 6:23. The priests ([the historian] Josephus saith) were very careful to marry within their own family, that they might maintain the dignity of the priesthood and keep it without mixture.

Therefore, Zechariah and Elizabeth lived modestly and were deeply holy people in keeping with their heritage, which they took seriously (verse 6). Befitting his family line, Zechariah served as a priest in the Temple. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was what we would call ‘sterile’ (verse 7). Both were by now older people. Elizabeth was what we would classify as ‘post-menopausal’.

One day as Zechariah’s division of Abijah was serving in the Temple (verse 8), it was his turn to burn the incense (verse 9), a mandate associated with prayer and sacrifice which dated from the Old Testament. This is why Catholics and Anglo-Catholics still use incense on occasion. It invokes the Old Testament tradition of prayers going to God in the fragrant smoke of the incense. We read in this story that people in the Temple were praying when Zechariah lit the incense (verse 10).

These priests chose responsibilities such as incense burning by lot so that there would be no monopoly by one priest on this ceremonial and so that it would be equitable, falling upon them by chance.

Of this specific day, Henry adds:

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 calendar, 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. 6), and the conception of Samson, Jdg. 13.

I’ll explain Samson and the Nazarites — or Nazirites — later on, because it explains the anomalies of John the Baptist as well as the legendary Old Testament man of strength.

I mentioned that Luke and Acts had a number of parallels in structure. In Acts 1, the eleven remaining Apostles chose lots between Josephus (Barsabbas, Justus) and Matthias. They wished to replace Judas and both of these candidates appeared worthy. From Acts 1:24-26:

24And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Back now to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah. Suddenly, an angel appeared to the right of the altar (verse 11). The elderly priest was afraid (verse 12). He had a biblical reason so to be. Henry’s commentary tells us:

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

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 Zec. 3:1, 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. 10:8. And for this reason God chooses to speak to us by men like ourselves, whose terror shall not make us afraid.

The angel knew that Zechariah thought he had done something wrong, so he quickly reassured him (verse 13). The angel announced that God had heard the prayers of the priest and his wife; she would indeed bear a son, whom they would call John. In Hebrew, Johanan means ‘gracious’ — full of grace.

Henry says that not only was the angel talking of past prayers of the couple but also the prayer which Zechariah was reciting as he burned the incense:

The priests must beseech God that he [God] will be gracious (Mal. 1:9), and must so bless the people, Num. 6:25. 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. 30:18, 19.

The angel went on to say that the priest and his wife will be happy with their son; indeed, many will rejoice at his birth (verse 14). One can imagine that even if Zechariah could have understood this at the time it is unlikely he would have appreciated the full import of what John the Baptist would represent to the faithful, both Jew (then) and Gentile (through the ages).

The angel then announced that John the Baptist would live like an aescetic, in self-denial (verse 15). The angel was describing life as a Nazirite.

Nazirite is not a synonym for Nazarene. It denotes a monk (male or female) and the associated way of life, which dates from the Old Testament and is still practiced by a few Orthodox Jews today.  In return for adopting such a lifestyle, the Lord would grant extraordinary gifts to serve Him and His people. (Other Nazirites could and still do take temporary vows, beginning with a 30-day promise to adhere to the lifestyle. These vows can be of longer time periods.)

A defined set of rules surrounds Nazirites. Nazirite comes from a word meaning ‘separate’; today’s Jews use the word ‘nazir’ to refer to monks in general. The Wikipedia entry is fascinating. Anyone interested in the Bible and Jewish history will benefit from reading it.

Many of us, perhaps from childhood, have wondered why we get the occasional odd man in Scripture whom we must take seriously. Two come immediately to mind: Samson and John the Baptist. Why did they look and act the way they did? The answer is that both were Nazirites.

For these two memorable men of the Bible — along with Samuel — special circumstances surrounded their being consecrated as Nazirites. In the case of Samson (Judges 13:5) and John the Baptist, an angel appeared announcing that one of the parents would make this vow on the child’s behalf.

In Samson’s case, an angel appeared to Samson’s mother, married to a man named Manoah. Samson’s mother at that point was, like Elizabeth, barren — sterile.  In her case, not only did the Nazirite rule pertain to her future son but to her as well. Judges 13:2-7 relates:

2There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. 3 And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, 5for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome. I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name, 7but he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.'”

The rest of Judges 13 continues the fascinating account of Samson’s parents exchanges with the angel.

In Samson’s case, the angel declared that he would be a Nazirite for his entire life. This is why it was so dramatic when Delilah had Samson’s hair cut (Judges 16); he was in violation of the rules and, consequently, he lost his physical strength — albeit temporarily.

When an angel had not specifically announced life as a Nazirite, sometimes a barren mother-to-be declared that her son would become a Nazirite as a way of giving thanks and glorifying God for granting her prayer for a child. This is what the prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah did; she also made the vow for herself. 1 Samuel 1 relates the story:

9After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of) the temple of the LORD. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. 11And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

 12As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

In John the Baptist’s case, the angel declared that he would follow the Nazirite life. This accounts for his eccentric attire and appearance.

Today, many — lukewarm Christians included — say that John the Baptist was a nutcase. He looked a bit wild, ate sparingly and never drank. He was far from mad. He was fulfilling the Nazirite vows as the angel announced to Zechariah.

Before closing on Nazirites, there have been movements in recent times which borrow from this tradition. The Rastafarians, who adopt the books of Maccabees as their scripture, follow aspects of the Nazirite life, e.g. dreadlocks and a Kosher-style diet. 1 Maccabees 3:49 refers to men who ended their Nazirite vows. In Protestantism, members of certain holiness and independent churches adopt a Nazirite lifestyle by abstaining from alcohol and pork.

Now back to Zechariah’s story. Taking in the second part of verse 14 with the rest of the angel’s proclamation from the end of verse 15 through verses 16 and 17, would prove to be too much for Zechariah, a man approaching the sunset of life. How could it be possible that he and his wife — in their physical condition — become parents? Furthermore, how could it be that their son would be born with the Holy Spirit dwelling within him? And how would it be that he would be a prophet in the manner of Elijah, drawing the children of Israel closer to God?

It was all too much for Zechariah, alone with the angel, to comprehend. As a result, he would commit a grave sin. To be continued.

Next week: Luke 1:18-25