Luke – Part 1 – Chapter 1

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Preparation for Service
(chapter 1, verse 1 through chapter 4, verse 13)


Preface to Luke’s gospel


Luke chapter 1, verses 1-4
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.


Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who introduces his gospel with a kind of personal foreword. He clearly states the purpose of his writing: “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke does not want his readers to be in doubt about the truth concerning Jesus Christ, the Servant of God. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, other reports of the life and teachings of Jesus were beginning to circulate. Luke assures his readers that he has investigated everything from the beginning and now provides this orderly account of the truth.

Who is Theophilus, to whom Luke addresses this gospel? The name literally means “lover of God.” Perhaps Theophilus was a prominent Christian in the early church; some suggest he may have paid for the parchment on which this gospel was written. However, it is possible that the name could be symbolic and refer simply to any believer, any lover of God. The name occurs again in the second volume of Luke’s writings, the book of Acts. That book begins, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” Each person who reads this gospel must hear himself addressed as the lover of God who seeks to know the truth about Jesus Christ.

The births of John and Jesus

The birth of John the Baptist foretold

Luke Chapter 1, verses 5-25
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”


Luke parallels the births of John and Jesus. In each case the angel Gabriel makes the announcement foretelling the birth; both the mother of Jesus and the father of John sing hymns of praise—one before and one after the births of their sons; then comes the description of the two births and the rite of circumcision that follows. While there are some parallels between John and Jesus, above all we must recognize how much greater Jesus is than John. Both are servants of God, but the service that Jesus renders is far superior to anything John does. Above all, Jesus is the Son of God; John is only the blessed offspring of two very pious and aged human parents.

Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed earnestly to the Lord that he would grant them a child. However, Elizabeth had reached the point in her life when women normally no longer can conceive children. So when the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that he would father a child, this old man is dumbfounded—and he does not believe. As a chastisement from God, Zechariah is unable to speak for the entire nine months of his wife’s pregnancy.

Gabriel describes the special role this John (which means “the Lord has shown favor”) is to fulfill: “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. . . . Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.” John would be like the great Old Testament prophet Elijah; his calling was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah was serving his turn as priest in the temple when the angel appeared to him. Aaron had 24 grandsons; one was named Abijah (1st Chronicles chapter 24, verse 10). John was born from this priestly family. He grew up very conscious of the requirements of the law. In the plan of salvation, he was just the right person to serve as the forerunner of the Savior.

The birth of John took place in the time of Herod king of Judea. This is the same Herod who slaughtered many innocent boys after the birth of Jesus. The announcement of John’s birth is linked to the reign of a king who was quite insignificant in comparison to the great Caesar in Rome. The birth of Jesus will be related to the actions of the great world leader Caesar Augustus (chapter 2, verse 1).

We dare not leave this story without mentioning the joy of Elizabeth and her acknowledgement of the Lord’s gracious action: “The Lord has done this for me. . . . He has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” Here is a mother-to-be who truly anticipates the birth of her child as a blessed gift of the Lord!

The birth of Jesus foretold

Luke chapter 1, verses 26-38
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


Six months have passed since Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah. Now the Lord sends his messenger on another mission. This time Gabriel goes not to the holy city of Jerusalem but to a humble town in Galilee; not to a temple but to a house; not to an aged man but to a young and vibrant maiden. The promised child to Zechariah and Elizabeth was in answer to many prayers; the promised child to Mary was a total and complete surprise. A child born of a virgin—here is something altogether new. Not an old couple finally having their first son, but a maiden bearing an infant conceived by the Holy Spirit—this is surely the greater miracle!

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, a descendant of David. She herself also came from that royal family; her son would be given the throne of his father David. But more than that—the promised child would be Son of the Most High, the Son of God. His kingdom would never end.

Hard to believe? Without a doubt! Yet the faith of Mary shines brightly in contrast to the doubts of the priest Zechariah: “I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May it be to me as you have said.” Zechariah was also a servant; he did his duty in the temple. Mary’s service was special and unique: to be the mother of God.

Mary visits Elizabeth

Luke chapter 1, verses 39-45
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”


When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to become the mother of a child, Mary was also told that Elizabeth had conceived. Mary wasted no time but hurried to pay a visit to her aged relative. She journeyed from her own city of Nazareth to the hill country of Judea. She hardly expected the kind of welcome she received from Elizabeth.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the soul of Elizabeth, and she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” She goes on to wonder at the great favor shown to her that “the mother of my Lord” should come to visit. Elizabeth knew this truth because of a special revelation by the Holy Spirit. The child in her womb joins the praise by leaping for joy. Later in the gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to do the same: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven” (chapter 6, verse 23).

Above all, Elizabeth praises the faith of Mary. Remember that at this time no sounds were coming from the lips of Zechariah because of his unbelief. Elizabeth had good reason to marvel at the faith of Mary.

To honor Mary in the way that Elizabeth does is certainly God pleasing. Her praise was motivated by the Holy Spirit. We Christians today also honor Mary as an example of faith and service. But we do not go beyond this and regard Mary as someone more holy than us, for she too was sinful. The child to be born of Mary was as much her Savior from sin as he is our Savior from sin.

Mary’s song

Luke chapter 1, verses 46-56
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.


Mary had heard Elizabeth heap praise on her. She responds with her own hymn of praise to the Lord. She points away from herself; she had no special merit or worth. She has been favored by the Lord and breaks into this marvelous hymn magnifying him.

The Latin Bible translation of the song of Mary begins, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” The opening word, “Magnificat,” has named this canticle (song), which early found a place in the daily evening (vespers) worship of the church. Composers, including Bach, have set these words to exalted music. Here are words for every Christian to sing.

Verses 46 to 49 center on the personal blessings that have come to Mary. Notice the personal pronouns “my” and “me.” Mary recognizes her humble status as a servant. She will be praised by future generations because of what the Mighty One has done for her. However, not the name of Mary but the name of the Lord is holy. It is as if Mary foresees the excessive adoration that some would heap on her in the coming centuries, and she seeks to defuse such adulation.

In verse 50 Mary turns her attention to “those who fear him.” The word “fear” is a common biblical term. It refers to the holy awe and respect one has for the Mighty One of whom Mary has just spoken. Such fear will call forth worship and obedience. Mary herself is an example of one who fears the Lord. The Lord’s mercy surrounds those who reverence him.

Mary continues by recalling some of the Lord’s great acts of mercy, how he works in contrasting ways. The proud he brings down, but he lifts up the humble. The hungry he fills with good things, but the rich he sends away empty. His mercy to Israel, his servant, goes back to the time of Abraham. The theme of Mary’s Magnificat will be fully developed in the ministry of her son. In a way far surpassing anything of Old Testament history, the saving work of Jesus Christ unfolds the mercy of God “to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, right up to the time when John was to be born. She was a good companion for her aged relative and took the place of Zechariah in household conversation. What happy times these two women must have spent together, each looking forward to the birth of sons totally unexpected!

The birth of John the Baptist

Luke chapter 1, verses 57-66
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.


At last the time came for the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth to be born. Neighbors and relatives shared the mother’s joy; Zechariah hardly seems to be in the picture. But his time is coming.

The Old Testament law decreed that sons were to be circumcised on the eighth day. God had said to Abraham, “Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis chapter 17, verses 10 and 11). No uncircumcised male was to eat of the passover (Exodus chapter 12, verse 48). Circumcision took place in the home, and the child was named at the same time.

On the day of circumcision, the eighth day after birth, the neighbors and relatives again gather. They propose to Elizabeth that she give her child the name of his father (perhaps to cheer up old Zechariah?). But Elizabeth needed no advice from others as to what name this child should have. The name had already been given by the angel: “You are to give him the name John” (verse 13). No amount of persuasion could change her mind.

Having failed to budge mother, the well-meaning family friends turn their attention to the long silent Zechariah, hoping that he might overrule his wife. To the astonishment of all, Zechariah writes the words on a tablet: “His name is John.”

At once the tongue of Zechariah is loosed, and words of praise flow from his mouth. Here is conversion—doubt turned to faith, skepticism replaced by adoration. No wonder the people of the hill country of Judea talked of hardly anything else for quite a spell. “What then is this child going to be?” It was a question the new father would answer.

Zechariah’s song

Luke chapter 1, verses 67-80
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.


For too long Zechariah had been unable to speak; now he is filled with the Holy Spirit to voice his faith. The song of Zechariah also gets it name from the Latin: “Benedictus Dominus”; the NIV translates it as “Praise be to the Lord.” This canticle has been used for centuries in the daily morning service (matins) of the church.

We need to take the word “prophesied” in verse 67 very seriously. Zechariah speaks of the salvation that will come through Jesus as a fact which has already been accomplished. And this before Christ is even born! We are at the very end of the Old Testament, the time of promise. With Luke chapter 2 we enter the New Testament, the time of fulfillment.

Zechariah praises the Lord “because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” David himself in Psalm 18 said of the Lord, “He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (verse 2). Now Zechariah uses this same term, “horn of salvation,” to refer to the Messiah. Jesus came from the house of David, and as the Servant of the Lord, he will bring salvation from all enemies. The rescue effected by Christ will enable God’s people to serve him. The priest Zechariah had devoted his life to serving the Lord by representing the people in the temple. Now he sees a new era when all believers as priests will worship their Savior.

After speaking of the coming Messiah and the Messiah’s work, the father turns his attention to his newborn son and the task that will fall to John. John’s ministry will be one of preparing the way before the Lord. By his preaching he will give to people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. On those living in darkness, on those in the shadow of death, the sun is rising. And John is sent to make the way ready. His calling is to guide feet into the path of peace. So sang old Zechariah.

Chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel concludes with the note that the child grew and became strong in spirit. John’s growth is more than just physical; his spiritual fibers were toughened for the task before him. He made his home in the desert till his time of service came. No doubt, his father and mother had died before that ministry began. But they had seen with the eyes of faith, and that was sufficient.