The Birth of John
Zacharias’ angelic visitation no doubt was the occasion of many discussions in the temple for a long time. It is not clear how many details Zacharias told them, but they all had seen or heard that he had been unable to bless the people in the customary manner. Was this a judgment of God upon Zacharias only, since he was the one who doubted? Or was God withholding His blessing upon the people or nation in some manner?
The people were oriented toward signs (1 Cor. 1:22), and so there is no doubt that they saw this as an ominous sign. Luke 1:23-25 then continues the story,
23 And it came about, when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home.
This implies that the visitation occurred at the beginning of his week of temple service. As I said, this would bring it near or on the day of Pentecost.
24 And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant; and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25 This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.
If Elizabeth became pregnant about a month after the visitation, she would have conceived John about three months after the feast of Passover. This means that nine months later, John would have been born around the time of the next Passover. Likewise, as a priest, he would have begun his full-time ministry at the age of thirty (Num. 4:3) at the time of Passover.
Elijah Comes at Passover
It was an ancient tradition that Elijah, as promised by the prophet Malachi, would come at Passover. For this reason, part of the Passover tradition was to send a child to open the door and look for Elijah to see if he had come to partake of the Seder with them. They even reserved a place at the table for Elijah with a cup of wine. Mark Robinson writes about this in an article for Jewish Awareness Ministries on March 19, 2013,
“With anticipation the young children look toward the door of the home. It is the time of the Passover Seder when a child goes to the door of the house, opens it, and looks outside to see if Elijah will join us for this Seder. The hope for many of the children is very real. I led one Seder at which the young girl came back with a dejected sigh and proclaimed, “He’s not there,” all the time anticipating that he would be at the door.
“It is hoped that Elijah will come to the Passover, so preparations are always made for him. A place setting is put on the table. An empty chair is placed in front of the setting. His wine cup is filled in anticipation of his presence. Finally, the door is opened.
“This tradition is centuries old. Today, it is more of a quaint ritual emptied of all meaning rather than the expectant event it portrays. As many Passover Haggadahs, the book read during the Passover service, point out, it is not the coming of Elijah, in and of itself, that is the focal point of this annual Passover routine. Rather, it is that Elijah will come before Messiah, and he is the herald of this One who will bring peace and redemption to the world.”
Thus, we see that John did indeed fulfill the role of Elijah and that the tradition of his appearance at Passover was a genuine revelation. So it would be of interest to us to know just when and how John began his ministry. Did he do something extraordinary at the temple on that first Passover as he began his ministry? Did he say something about repentance, which may have caused him to be rejected by the other priests? Is that why he moved his ministry into the wilderness and baptized at the Jordan River instead of at the laver in the temple?
Matthew 3:1, 2 says,
1 Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mark 1:4 says even less,
4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The Apostle John only tells us that John the Baptist bore witness of Christ (John 1:15). Details are sparse. Yet we are indebted to Luke to discover that John was born around Passover and would have begun his full-time ministry at that feast as well.
John’s connection with Elijah also ties the last verses of Malachi to the revelation of the New Covenant and with the account in the gospels. John is therefore the bridge spanning the 400-year drought of revelation, wherein no prophet had arisen and when the canon of Scripture appeared to be settled and closed.
Many had written books during the interim centuries. Some books were historical, such as Maccabees and Tobit, while others were poetical, such as Ecclesiasticus. Some, hoping their writings would be accepted as canonical, wrote in the name of earlier prophets, such as The Epistle of Jeremiah and the letters of Baruch. Though some of these writings became popular in later years, none of these were accepted into the canon of Scripture. They came to be known as The Apocrypha.
However, the fact that John’s ministry begins where Malachi ends suggests that these other writings were not to be included in the Scriptures.
The Chiasm of Luke’s Account of Zacharias
The entire section concerning Zacharias is built upon a loose chiasm (or parallelism), which is a Hebrew literary device designed to portray a well-organized section of writing. We may outline it as follows:
A…Elizabeth’s Barrenness (1:5-7)
B…The Ministration of Zacharias (1:8, 9)
C…The People Pray (1:10)
D…The Vision (1:11)
E…Zacharias Troubled (1:12)
F…The Angel’s Promise (1:13-17)
E1…Zacharias Doubts (1:18)
F1…The Angel’s Penalty (1:19, 20)
C1…The People Wonder (1:21)
D1…The Vision (1:22)
B1…The Ministration of Zacharias (1:23)
A1…Barrenness Removed (1:24, 25)
It is apparent in this that Luke constructed his account carefully to emphasize the Angel’s words. F and F1 form the center of the chiasm, showing that Luke considered the words of the angel to be the most important part of the passage. Intermingled with this, of course, is Zacharias’ response. This is the second most important element, because his doubt reflected the heart of the nation according to the divine plan for the first appearance of Christ and His forerunner.
In other words, the promise of God will indeed be fulfilled, regardless of man’s response. But the divine plan called for a two-step process. The first step inevitably is a partial success but ends in failure. The second step sees the full success and completion of the divine project.
The Two-Step Plan
This two-step process is seen clearly in the Old and New Covenants. Under the Old Covenant, men made vows to be obedient to God. The plan succeeded partially in that a minority of people truly followed God and had faith in His word. Yet it ultimately failed, first because no man was fully righteous, and secondly because the nation as a whole degenerated into utter rebellion.
Under the New Covenant, the plan will fully succeed, because it depends upon God’s vow and His ability to turn our hearts and change our nature by the power of the Holy Spirit operating from the inside. It cannot fail, because God cannot fail.
John’s ministry, taking up the mantle of Elijah, was to preach repentance and thereby turn the hearts of the people back to God. Yet because he was the forerunner of Christ in His first appearance, his ministry enjoyed only partial success. That ministry was yet based upon the Old Covenant and man’s ability to repent and turn back to God. Hence, it was doomed to failure in the end, even though it was divinely inspired.
The second appearance of Christ, prepared by a second Elijah ministry, comes under the New Covenant. It cannot fail, for its success is based upon the promise of God and His ability to fulfill that promise. This second Elijah ministry is really an Elisha ministry, coming with the double portion of “the spirit and power of Elijah.” The company of people who are called to pray and intercede today are preparing the way for God to act upon His promise.
This company of people, drawn “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), will be spiritual Nazirites (as was John). They are the ones who do not drink of the wine of Babylon, which has made all nations drunk and full of immoral nonsense (Rev. 17:2). Like John, they will emerge as a thorn in the side of Herod for his immorality (Matt. 14:3, 4).
Two Brands of Wine
In the big picture, God takes credit for making the nations drink of Babylon’s wine, for this was divine judgment upon Judah for their lawlessness. Jer. 25:27, 28 says,
27 And you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Drink, be drunk, vomit, fall, and rise no more because of the sword which I will send among you’. 28 And it will be, if they refuse to take the cup from your hand to drink, then you will say to them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘You shall surely drink’!”
All nations were compelled to drink, yet we know also that God has always reserved for Himself a remnant of grace. Under the Old Covenant, this remnant was called to administer divine judgment, because the nations were to “take the cup from your hand.” Thus, John delivered a message of divine judgment upon those who refused to repent, as we will see in Luke 3:7-9.
However, under the New Covenant, the cup of wine that the Elijah company is called to pass to all nations, is the new wine of the Spirit. It is a different wine, a different kind of judgment (upon the flesh), and a different sort of drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 says,
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.
Even as God compelled all nations to drink of the Babylonian wine of judgment, so also will God compel all nations to drink of the new wine of the Spirit. This great outpouring of the Holy Spirit will be irresistible, for we have seen even in lesser revivals how men have been compelled to run to the altar and confess their sins. When men enter the magnetic field of God’s glory, they lose control of their lives and cannot help but submit to His glorious presence. Thus are they changed and are given a new way of life.
Hair in the Nazirite Vow
Likewise, even as Nazirites do not cut their hair, so also a spiritual Nazirite retains the glory of God upon him/her. Hair symbolizes the covering of God’s glory, as we read in 1 Cor. 11:15,
15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her for a covering.
Paul also mentions in verse 14 that “if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him.” But obviously, this does not apply to long-haired Nazirites, who were honored even to act as priests of God. Spiritually speaking, it is only a dishonor when a man has long hair but does not have the covering of God’s glory. Hence, his hair is a false testimony and is the equivalent of a man claiming to be a Nazirite and yet living a lawless life.
The Elijah-Elisha company, on the other hand, are priests of God, who are given authority in the Kingdom under the covering of Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:6).