(vv. 1-4) “many have undertaken”— Luke must include Paul and perhaps a non-Pauline author of Hebrews, and very likely Peter and Mark, as well as Matthew. It seems unlikely he means John, since that would make Luke’s the latest gospel, but it also seems too early to include “many” Gnostic and/or non-canonical sources; “many” could, however, also be a slight exaggeration.
“fulfilled”— the events he has investigated and is arranging in an orderly account did not just happen. They are fulfilled, as promises and long expected prophecies that have finally come to pass.
“from the beginning” — a relative term, of course, but here the beginning point is unique in that the angelic announcement of John’s birth is not reported elsewhere; we will not only encounter the forerunner, but will learn something of his promised coming and the fulfillment thereof.
“eyewitnesses and servants of the word” — speaks to the credentials of those sources of all that has been handed on, sources that lie behind what “many” others have written.
“I too” — clearly Luke seeks to establish his own reliance on such trustworthy sources of these “traditions,” so to speak, that have been handed on.
“from the very first”/”for a long time” — an ambiguous phrase, but I suspect it is rather an acquired Hebraism, acquired by the Greek author from his long associations with Paul and other Jewish sources; i.e., a way of reiterating the breadth of Luke’s investigations as having proceeded “from the beginning” (cf. “I too”).
“orderly account” — the second time the phrase is used likewise establishes relationship and affinity with the aforementioned accounts.
“most excellent” — this modifier, though perhaps common in the rhetoric of this time, would be unique in the sense that Luke is unlikely to use it of an unidentified, general reader. To address a reader — all readers — as Theophilus is one thing. To deem them all “most excellent” would be dubious. Historically, Luke writes for one patron; it is God’s providence and his Holy Spirit that has opened this form of address up to all friends and lovers of God.
“so that you may know the truth … about which you have been instructed” — clearly Theophilus has received oral instruction, and Luke would provide a solid, thorough, reliable written basis or reference to support it. There may be a slight cautionary tone suggested in this phrase, since oral tradition is notoriously fluid; again, it is doubtful, but still possible, he writes to counter errors in other written sources. What is most striking is the personal note: “so that you” (sg.). All of Luke’s investigations and his careful accounting are for the sake of this one individual reader. Remarkable!
(vv. 5-7) — The impeccable Levitical credentials of both Zechariah and Elizabeth are established, along with the seemingly inexplicable fact that this righteous couple is childless and aging, their hope of having children fading. This is a familiar theme in the Old Testament. While the righteous are blessed in every way, especially with sons, time and again the question arises as to whether those who stand in the lineage of the Messiah — we gain this perspective in hindsight in the gospels — will indeed have sons, or even just one son, through whom the covenant will be passed on. Here, of course, it is not the genealogy of the Messiah that is at stake, but that of his promised forerunner who was to come in “the spirit and the power of Elijah” (v. 19). For all of the historical specifics, we should not miss the dramatic and highly doxological dynamics that characterize what is about to happen. Expectations are low and diminishing. Zechariah is “a dimly burning wick” that the Lord will not permit to be extinguished. Thus, when he or it comes to life again … there is glory! The glory, as always, becomes all the more apparent in the contrast with its bleak background. In the cynical sphere of politics, this is all about managing expectations. In God’s redemptive action in human history, it is ultimately a matter of faith and therefore salvation. The contrast could not be greater.
(vv. 8-12) — The striking thing about this scene-setting is the contrast between the regimented priestly duty that is all “according to custom” and the overwhelming terror of Zechariah when he encounters the angel Gabriel (v. 19) standing at the right hand of the altar of incense. He is summoned by lot to offer incense (v. 9); he encounters Gabriel beside the altar of incense (v. 11), and he is terrified. Meanwhile, we should ask: What did Zechariah expect? Is not the incense offering itself completely of a piece with prayer? Is there not a “whole assembly” standing outside at the time of the incense offering? Is not the temple to be “a house of prayer”? (Citation) In short, the scene, the action, the props, the staging—everything—is all about prayer.; but the priest who enters to offer the incense as prayer itself is startled to find himself addressed by a divine messenger saying, “your prayer has been heard” (v. 13). This is not to say we should judge Zechariah harshly,; not at all. It is simply to observe how easily: (1) a regimented, dutiful ministry can lose its focus; and (2) we can—whether as ministers or members of the assembly (for they too, as we shall see, will wonder at this development; see v. 21)—scale down our expectations and our hopes in prayer.
(vv. 13-17) — The announcement of Gabriel to Zechariah begins with “comfort and joy,” and then moves to more specific instructions from which we can begin to gain a sense of the holiness that shall characterize the promised son and his prophetic ministry; and though the word “fear” does not occur in this latter section, no honest reading of this message will be insensible to the fear of the LORD that it inspires.
(v. 13) — the first three things Gabriel says are words of assurance. Zechariah is told not to fear, which serve as a sort of stamp of divine revelation when the message is friendly; second, Zechariah is called by name, which adds immeasurably to the sense of personal good will and pastoral care with which the message comes; thirdly, the message concerns Zechariah’s own prayer for a son; it is good news: his prayer has been heard, his wish will come true. Moreover, his wife Elizabeth is also mentioned by name, thus adding to the personal and intimate specificity of this assurance, and he is even given the name of his son: John.
(v. 14) — This verse is pure joy. “You”—the singular form does not exclude Elizabeth, for these two are surely one—“will have joy and gladness,” while “many (others) will rejoice at his birth,” as well. But the reasons given for this joy make it clear this is not just another birth announcement.
(v. 15) — The first and main reason for joy is staggering to consider: “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” While divine revelations almost universally humble the human receiver and the creature generally as they exalt the LORD, here (by contrast) a human child it is said will be regarded by God as “great.” The nature of this greatness is further explained by way of a prohibition against his drinking “wine or strong drink,” since “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Later in Luke-Acts (Acts 2)m we shall see this qualitative contrast between the Holy Spirit and alcoholic spirits mentioned again, but here what is quite remarkable is that John’s inspiration or spiritual regeneration (by the Holy Spirit) will occur in concert with his normal gestation in utero.
(v. 16) — This is a direct fulfillment of the promise made at the end of Malachi (4:6), though in stating it in terms of “the people of Israel” and “the LORD their God,” prior to employing the imagery of Malachi, i.e., the turning of children to their parents, it is clear that this ministry of repentance is not primarily social and familial, but theological, or rather that the people are to regard the Lord their God in parental terms, as Jesus will make clear … and possible!
(v. 17) — Malachi’s prophecy is again recalled as John’s ministry, we are told, will be recognized by “the spirit and power of Elijah.” The familial imagery of turning “the hearts of parents to their children” (again from Malachi) is not cited with the full reciprocity that we find there, but is rather supplemented or expanded—perhaps it is the view of family that is being expanded?—with the turning of the hearts of “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” In other words, the spiritual condition or orientation is shown to be not a matter of age, necessarily. But the aim of John’s ministry is well summarized by the final phrase in the annunciation of his birth: “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” This is worth comparing with the verse from Isaiah that constitutes the basis of his message: “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isa 40:3; cf. Lk 3:4). But here it is the people themselves whom he is to prepare.
(vv. 18-20) — Zechariah asks for a sign or some way to confirm the angel’s message, and he mentions his old age and that of Elizabeth, as if to establish cause for doubting this word. The angel’s reply pronounces a temporary punishment for Zechariah’s failure to believe the message, but first he declares his own credentials, which Zechariah—in light of where he stood and what he was doing at the time—should have known. The angel gives his name: Gabriel, and declares his position: “I stand in the presence of God”—this is what Zechariah should have recognized—and he follows by stating his present commissions: “I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” But now Zechariah himself will not be able to tell it, or at least not be able to speak it aloud as he would like to. He will, for nine months, have to content himself with writing. At the heart of this verdict, however, is the gracious assurance Zechariah sought: “my words … will be fulfilled in the time. So the imposition of silence, when the preacher/priest—more than ever—would have shouted for joy, if only had believed the good news, is a rebuke, but a gentle one, and to it is attached an angelic reiteration or repetition of the original message: your doubt will have its consequences, but it will not hinder God’s plan of redemption.
(vv. 21-23) — The aftermath of the revelation is the picture of human limitations, The crowd that had been praying evidently had ceased to pray and began to wonder what was taking Zechariah so long. How soon we grow impatient with prayer!
When he finally emerges, he is literally dumbstruck. Twice his muteness is mentioned, though with his motioning the crowd is able to gather that he has seen a vision. Luke is spare with details here. Only later, at the birth of John and at his naming, is mention made of the possibility of writing (1:63), but here, and as Zechariah completes his “time of serviced” before heading home, we don not know to what extent he succeeded in sharing the vision with anyone, with his fellows priests and Levites or even with Elizabeth upon his return. In the Old Testament, however, we do have reports of Daniel and Ezekiel, et al., who sit in shock after a vision, sometimes for many days, so it is difficult to imagine Zechariah hastening to write the vision. his initial motioning notwithstanding, and in light of the tender marital intimacy the vision’s fulfillment would entail, one suspects that Zechariah would take time, like Mary in response to her own annunciation, to ponder (1:29; cf. 2:19, 51).
(vv. 24-25) — Again, it is not clear how much of the vision Zechariah shared with Elizabeth, whether in writing or in some sort of sign language. No doubt his silence would have required some explanation at home, and equally clear, it would have become apparent to Elizabeth—as it had to the crowd—that this was a divinely inspired, or a divinely imposed, silence.
Later, Elizabeth and Zechariah will show they are of the same mind as to the name of their son (1:60, 63). The only question that remains is how much of this understanding was given Elizabeth independently, perhaps intuitively, and how much via the writing of Zechariah. We cannot know for sure. What we do know is that the vision gave them hope to try again, courage and faith to trust in the fulfillment of the promise, and surely a renewal of tenderness, sympathy, and love between them. How do we know this? The priest had been struck silent, and after she conceived, Elizabeth “remained in seclusion for five months." A holy quiet had descended on them, a sabbatical of wonder and joy. It was not a time for shouting and singing. That time would come. But this was a time for regarding one another as the LORD himself regarded them: as those who had suffered and “endured” the “disgrace” of barrenness. Though she speaks of herself in the first person singular: “I have endured,” there can be no doubt that this righteous couple had suffered together. Now, for five months, their sabbatical of grace saw each finding innumerable wordless ways of showing love and appreciation for one who had suffered the same dashed hopes, the same disgrace, and who now communicated quiet smiles of fresh hope and joy at knowing the Lord had regarded, and was now blessing them with a wonderful part to plan in his plan of redemption.