Bible: Saviors and forerunners

December 18 — Luke 1:8-20; December 25 — Luke 2:8-20

Dec 5, 2016 by

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The story announcing the birth of John the Baptist begins in Luke 1:5. Both Zechariah the priest and his wife, Elizabeth, lived “blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” This is essential for John’s parents, because the angel requires their child must follow the requirements of a Nazirite — one especially consecrated to God. The law forbids a Nazi­rite to drink the common beverage of the culture: wine, grape juice, vinegar, grapes or even the seeds or skins of grapes (Num. 6:3-4).

Reta Halteman Finger

Finger

Though Zechariah was a priest, he was not one of the contingent of wealthy high priests who controlled the Jerusalem temple. Rather, as a biological descendant of the original priest Aaron, he was organized along with many other Aaronic descendants into sections (1 Chron. 24:1-19).

These priests lived elsewhere and supported themselves, going up to the temple only when their section was on duty (Luke 1:8). Living in the dry hill country of Judea, Zechariah and Elizabeth were likely subsistence farmers.

Possibly fulfilling his duties by rote, Zachariah was utterly unprepared for this angelic visitation and became terrified and speechless. Though we do not know if he was literate beyond his priestly rituals, the angel Gabriel referred to many scriptures when announcing that the son of this blameless, childless elderly couple would fulfill promises made centuries earlier.

Because Elijah never died but ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-12), Jews expected him to return as a savior of his people (Malachi 4:5-6; Sirach 48:10-11). This child, then, would have “the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

When we compare Gabriel’s announcement with Zechariah’s later prophecy at John’s birth (Luke 1:67-79), we find even stronger promises of salvation (verses 71 and 77). Though Elizabeth accepts the priority of Mary’s son in Luke 1:42-45, Zechariah seems oblivious. His son will be the savior (69), a “prophet of the Most High,” to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (76), as the prophet Malachi had predicted (Mal. 3:1).

Not until another angelic announcement in Luke 2:11 do we find a second Savior, now called “Messiah, the Lord.” Although Luke may not yet identify the newborn Jesus as God, he certainly wants to weave together the future lives of John and Jesus as saviors of their people. Their relationship will be further clarified when they emerge as adults in Luke 3:1-18.

We are familiar with the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20, yet we rarely question why the sheep were in the fields at night rather than safe in a sheepfold.

A former colleague of mine who had spent years in Palestine explained that this verse clarifies that Jesus was born in June rather than in December. The “fields” in verse 8 were not meadows but cultivated fields (Greek agros, from where we get “agriculture”). After the barley harvest in May or early June, the Bedouin shepherds were permitted to bring their sheep onto these fields for only two weeks in June to eat the stalks and leave their droppings to fertilize next year’s crop. The earliest reference to Christmas being celebrated in December comes from the fourth century.

Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary were Jews living under an oppressive Roman occupation and the reign of their murderous client-king, Herod the Great. What does the word “savior” mean to them? Is there any clue in Luke 1 and 2 of the nonviolent, love-your-enemies message the adult Jesus will introduce later? Compare with John’s statement in Luke 3:16-17.

Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.


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