Luke 1: 5-25 – Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist: Part I

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The first episode that Luke presents is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist who will become the forerunner of Jesus. Three section can be distinguished in this narrative: Introduction (Lk 1: 5-7), Annunciation (Lk 1: 8-20) and Conclusion (Lk 21-25).

The introductory verses (Lk 1: 5-7) provide certain information preparatory to the story of the annunciation. The indications of time and place, “in the days of Herod, King of Judea,” are too general as Herod ruled over Judea (Palestine) from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. The parents of John the Baptist are named, Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are further identified by their descent from the priestly families of Abijah and Aaron respectively (Lk 1: 5). Their fidelity to God’s law is emphasised by the words “righteous” and “blameless” (Lk 1: 6), thus implicitly ruling out any misunderstanding of their childlessness as a possible sign of divine displeasure (Gen 30: 2). Besides, they are the embodiments of the best of Jewish religion and as such they are the recipients of the ‘Good News’ (Lk 1: 19). Luke thus shows the continuity of God’s salvation in history. The description of the couple’s old age and Elizabeth’s barrenness, echoes the condition of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18: 11), and of Hannan (1 Sam 1 – 2). This prepares for the description of divine intervention in the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1: 8-20), as it was in the case of the birth of Isaac, Samuel, etc. By his gracious intervention God will overcome sterility and old age. Therefore, the child that will be born of them will indeed be the gift of God’s favour.

Luke 1: 8-20 describes the annunciation. It takes place in the context of worship and prayer, and significantly in the temple of Jerusalem (Lk 1: 8-9). Luke relates the beginning of his gospel to Jerusalem, to worship and prayer in the temple. Similarly, he will also end his gospel by mentioning “prayer” in the temple of Jerusalem: “And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk 24: 52-53). As noted earlier, Jerusalem is theologically very significant for Luke. The privilege of offering incense in the holy place of the temple of Jerusalem was a rare honour and a high point of a priest’s life. The number of priests within each of 24 divisions of priests was so great that the assigning of priestly duties was decided by lot (Lk 1: 9). God’s intervention on behalf of Zechariah again shown in that he is chosen to enter the temple and burn incense. The angelic annunciation takes place at the time of incense offering.

The narrative of the annunciation proper (Lk 1: 11-20) is inspired by certain Old Testament models of annunciation stories or call narratives (Cf. Judg 6: 11-24; 13: 2-20; Ex 3: 7-12; Jer 1: 4-10). As already mentioned, these stories or call narratives in the Old Testament have a well-defined form (divine intervention – announcement/call – human objection/doubt – removal of objection/doubt – sign given/asked). By following the form of these Old Testament stories in Luke 1: 11-20 the evangelist shows that God’s saving interventions in history takes place in a uniform manner (Cf. Lk 1: 26-38). There is both continuity and progression in God’s salvation in human history. The fear of Zechariah mentioned in Luke 1: 12-13 denotes a normal human reaction in the presence of the supernatural. After dispelling the fear of Zechariah the angel promises the birth of a child to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The heavenly messenger also announces the name and the future role of the child (Lk 1: 13-17). The divinely imposed name of the child, John (Yohannan) means “God is merciful” or “God has shown favour”. It implies that God’s favour will dawn upon his people anew and that the child to be born will fulfil a role within God’s plan of mercy. At the birth of the child there will be ‘joy’, ‘gladness’ and ‘rejoicing’ (Lk 1: 14). This is to be understood as a feature of the Messianic era of God’s mercy which is going to be inaugurated shortly (Cf. Lk 1: 78).

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