The Birth of John the Baptist

As I stated in the beginning of this blog series Luke intends his gospel to be a historical recording of the events leading to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do a great disservice to the writer of Luke’s gospel if we do not come to this work with the mindset of the intent of the author. (This would be a good idea for someone to blog about but we must understand that their is a great intellectual arrogance and cynicism in our current age that tends to make us look at the writers of the Old and New Testament as slightly naive and ignorant people. We feel almost the need to see them almost as children, simply products of their age, in a very paternalistic way and that they were not able to “see” the reality that surrounded them.) In keeping with the chronological focus that Luke takes after introducing his Gospel in chapter 1:1-4, he foretells the birth of John the Baptist, fulfilling Malachi 4:5. This shall be what I focus on in this post.

The entire backstory of the birth of John the Baptist is full of so many intricacies and intertextual echoes that it would take a book to flush them all out. Most interesting is in verse 17 where Luke makes it perfectly clear that the reason for the birth of John the Baptist is that he is fulfilling the promise of the prophet Malachi that Elijah would come again. Malachi says in chapter 4, verses 5 and 6:

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.

Now why is it important that Elijah be the one Malachi prophecies will come again and why is it that Luke makes sure we recognize the link between John the Baptist and Elijah? Calvin says in his commentary that:

17. And he shall go before him By these words he points out what would be John’s office, and distinguishes him by this mark from the other prophets, who received a certain and peculiar commission, while John was sent for the sole object of going before Christ, as a herald before a king. Thus also the Lord speaks by Malachi,

“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me,”
(Malachi 3:1.)

In short, the calling of John had no other design than to secure for Christ a willing ear, and to prepare for him disciples. As to the angel making no express mention of Christ in this passage, but declaring John to be the usher or standard-bearer of the eternal God, we learn from it the eternal divinity of Christ. With the spirit and power of Elijah By the words spirit and power, I understand the power or excellency of the Spirit, with which Elijah was endued; for we must not here indulge in a dream like that of Pythagoras, that the soul of the prophet passed into the body of John, but the same Spirit of God, who had acted efficaciously in Elijah, afterwards exerted a similar power and efficacy in the Baptist. The latter term, power, is added, by way of exposition, to denote the kind of grace which was the loftiest distinction of Elijah, that, furnished with heavenly power, he restored in a wonderful manner the decayed worship of God; for such a restoration was beyond human ability. What John undertook was not less astonishing; and, therefore, we ought not to wonder if it was necessary for him to enjoy the same gift.

So in the words of John Calvin the reason for the Elijah reference is for what reason? It is not because John the Baptist is Elijah but because John is to be set apart from the other Old Testament prophets (for those of you wondering John the Baptist is the last of the OT prophets) because of his call and vocation.

The Historian’s Gospel

I would like during this Advent season to look closely at the Physician’s account of the birth of Christ. The first thing I will examine is the introduction of Luke’s Gospel.

Though before that I would like to say that for many reasons the Gospel of Luke has always been the gospel that has resonated most closely with me. I believe that more than likely includes the fact Luke pens his Gospel with these opening words to Theophilus:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

While a linguist may look at the textual variance and the direction of the verbs and nouns, the Historian looks first (at least as how they are trained in today’s academy) at the events and developments that surround the context of the text. So the mere fact Luke begins his gospel much like Strabo or Tacitus do their particular historical narratives presents for us an interesting way to look at the Physician’s gospel that makes it somewhat different than the other synoptic and the Johanine gospel. I am trained as a Historian and I think often with a Historian’s mind first. When I was a child I gravitated towards historical encyclopedias, which I give full credit for directing the manner of my education ever since and it is with this reasoning why Luke’s gospel has always been my favorite.

I have found that the beginning of Luke’s gospel has found pretty short shrift among readers of the New Testament but there are many vital and necessary clues given by Luke in the preface that set the stage for the rest of Luke’s account. He says that he has interviewed eyewitnesses and researched all that he could so that he could present an unvarnished account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For those of you that have been schooled in the Markan priority and the idea that Luke uses Mark and “Q” for his main sources, it is plausible that Luke did use what he knew of Mark to compose his Gospel. There is nothing in the text that prohibits this. However it would be false to say that Luke was written post AD70.

Speaking of the date of Luke’s gospel if one agrees with the vast majority of biblical scholars that Luke wrote Acts then one would logically have to believe that Luke was written prior to Acts. This may be a little aside but if this is true then one cannot accept a post-70AD date for Luke since, A) Acts does not record Paul’s execution and B) Luke does not mention (either in his gospel or in Acts) the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy concerning the destruction of the Temple. Surely if Luke was constructing a historical account he would have mentioned the fact of Jesus being correct in his prophecy.

Friday we will look at the Birth of John the Baptist.