The first chapter of Luke is introductory to the book. It begins with the announcement about the birth of John the Baptist and then announces Christ's birth. Luke 1, which is longer in number of verses than any other chapter in the four Gospels, may be divided into seven major parts as follows:
The first few verses of this chapter explain the aim of the book of Luke (which is called the "former treatise" in Acts 1:1).
The book of Luke had a precedence for its writing. Luke cites that precedence in the first two verses of the book.
• The many in the precedence. "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us" (Luke 1:1). The "many" includes more than just the writers of the Gospels in the canon of the Scriptures. "Many" includes those who had written only portions of the record of Christ. Only Matthew and Mark of the four Gospels had written their Gospel accounts before Luke wrote his account. So "many" would hardly be appropriate for a reference to just the first two Gospel writers.
• The message in the precedence. "Those things which are most surely believed among us" (Luke 1:1). We note two things about the message. First, the facts of the message. "Those things." This was the Gospel message, the message about Jesus Christ. Second, the faith in the message. "Believed among us." Luke's message is not about doubts but about what was believed. We need more messages of this kind today.
• The men in the precedence. The character of the men who had given the earlier accounts of the work of Christ is given here. First, their witness. "Which from the beginning were eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:2). Those who had written the earlier accounts were very qualified to write, for they were writing from a personal experience of witnessing the ministry of Christ. Second, their work. "Ministers of the word" (Luke 1:2). The early writers had high qualifications to verify their writing. "Ministers of the word" speaks of high character. We have many ministers today, but few who are "ministers of the word."
Luke was the only Gentile to write a book of the Bible, but was well qualified to do so. A physician (Colossians 4:14), he was a companion of Paul on some of Paul's missionary travels.
• The approval in the preparation. "It seemed good to me also" (Luke 1:3). "It seemed good to me" was the inspiration and leading of God to write the Gospel of Luke. You must have the inspiration and leading of God to adequately serve Him.
• The awareness in the preparation. "Having had perfect [complete] understanding of all things from the very first" (Luke 1:3). Luke was not writing out of hearsay. He knew whereof he was writing. He was well acquainted with the record of Christ and, therefore, was most competent to write about it. Preachers need to likewise be well acquainted with the Word of God, so when they get in their pulpits they can declare the Word of God with clarity and certainty.
Luke had a definite plan in making this Gospel record.
• The method in the plan. "To write" (Luke 1:3). Luke's method of proclaiming the ministry of Jesus Christ was to put it in writing. This was not an oral witness but a written witness.
• The manner in the plan. "In order" (Luke 1:3). The meaning of "in order" is to report the events in Christ's life in consecutive order, that is, in the order in which they occurred. While all of the four Gospels progress in a general sequential order of the life of Christ, Luke is the most accurate in the order of the events. In contrast to Luke, Matthew grouped the events in Christ's life according to subject.
"Unto thee... most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3). Luke wrote his record primarily for one person (cp. Acts 1:1). While the book is for all people to read and study, Luke states at the beginning that he was writing this account to one man just as Paul stated to whom he was writing his epistles.
• The name of the person. "Theophilus" (Luke 1:3). The name means "lover of God" (Zodhiates). Theophilus evidently became what his name means. In like manner, we need Christians who live their name of Christian.
• The nobility of the person. "Most excellent" (Luke 1:3). This title given Theophilus can indicate his character or his rank or both. Using the term "most excellent" is like saying "your Honor" to a judge. It denotes considerable rank. The same word was used for Claudius Lysias in Acts 23:26 and translated "most excellent." It was used by Paul of Felix and translated "most noble" (Acts 24:3). The same term was used of Festus by Paul and translated "most noble" (Acts 26:25).
Luke states the purpose of his Gospel account right at the beginning of the account.
• To know the certainty of instruction. "That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed" (Luke 1:4). Luke desires that Theophilus not be in doubt about his spiritual knowledge. If there is anything we need to be certain about it is spiritual truths. Today, if we want to be certain of what we believe, we must study the Word of God. Failure to study the Word leads to uncertainty and unbelief.
• To know the confirmation of the instruction. "Wherein thou has been instructed" (Luke 1:4). Theophilus had evidently been instructed in the Gospel on one of Paul's missionary journeys. Now Luke would confirm the validity of those instructions. The Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on the best support of all. It has great evidence to prove its claim (cp. Acts 1:3).
John the Baptist was the herald, the forerunner, and the preparer for the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Luke appropriately begins his Gospel by an introduction of John the Baptist and how John the Baptist came on the earthly scene.
The situation for the announcement is summarized in two men who were extremely different in character and position.
• The sovereign in the situation. "In the days of Herod, the king of Judea" (Luke 1:5). Herod was an extremely cruel man and greatly oppressed truth and righteousness. Yet it was during his rule that John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were born. God delights to work in the darkest hours and circumstances. This should encourage the saints. It is not the condition of the circumstances that determines their prospects, but it is the power of God that determines their prospects.
• The servant in the situation. "A certain priest named Zacharias" (Luke 1:5). Herod may have done well in politics, but he was not impressive to God. The man who was impressive to God was an obscure priest by the name of Zacharias. First, the calling of the servant. "Priest" (Luke 1:5). Zacharias was from the tribe of Levi and was one of thousands of priests of Judaism. Many of the priests of Israel were not good men, but Zacharias was. Just because most people have become corrupt does not mean that you have to be corrupt. Second, the course of the servant. "Of the course of Abia" (Luke 1:5). This refers to the organization of the priests started in the time of David the king to accommodate the great number of priests by having a rotating schedule of duty in the Temple (duty based on the Tabernacle duties) so all priests would eventually have a time of duty in the Temple. Third, the companion of the servant. "His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth" (Luke 1:5). Zacharias abided by the laws of Moses and married a girl of the tribe of Levi. Fourth, the character of the servant. "They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). This was a great couple. Both were righteous and it was not just a show before man but it was "before God." The word "blameless" does not mean sinless perfection but indicates they were faithful. Their godliness was not just a Sabbath show but it was all the time. Fifth, the childlessness of the servant. "They had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years" (Luke 1:7). This was their heavy trial. Barrenness was a real stigma in those days, and the fact that they were both old said this barrenness had no hope humanly of ending. This is another bleak aspect of the situation that shows God delights and is able to do great things in spite of difficult situations.
"It came pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course... according to the custom... to burn incense" (Luke 1:8, 9). It was while Zacharias did his duty that he heard the good news that he would have a son. If you want special blessing from God, be faithful to your duty. The lazy and slothful are shut out of these blessings.
"The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense" (Luke 1:10). When the priest took the incense inside the Temple, the people came near and prayed. It was while they were praying that heaven announced the coming of John the Baptist. The multitude praying at the Temple is certainly not characteristic of our churches today. Our church people prefer to play instead of pray.
The announcement of the coming of John the Baptist was made by an angel whose name was "Gabriel" (Luke 1:19).
• The appearing of the seraphim. "There appeared unto him an angel of the Lord" (Luke 1:11). This was a very special spiritual blessing and privilege. First, the suddenness of the appearing. "There appeared unto him an angel of the Lord" (Luke 1:11). Suddenly right before Zacharias' eyes appeared an angel. It would be a real surprise as such an appearance was not anticipated. God speaks to us at times when we are least expecting it. Therefore, we should always be in a state of devotion to God, so when He speaks we can listen intently. Second, the site of the appearing. "Standing on the right side of the altar of incense" (Luke 1:12). The altar of incense stood right before the curtain through which one went into the Holy of Holies. The angel was in a very sacred location for this revelation.
• The affright of the seraphim. "When Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him" (Luke 1:12). There was no arrogant disrespect here by Zacharias. He was a holy man and the presence of a spiritual being greatly moved him. In our land today there is so much disrespect of the sacred that profaneness is practically a lifestyle of many.
5. The Specifics in the Announcement (Luke 1:13-17)
The angel had plenty to say. We examine the recorded specifics of the announcement about John.
• The command in the specifics. "Fear not" (Luke 1:13). This was needed for the previous verse described Zacharias as being in a state of great fear. This is one of those commands that illustrates the fact that many commands seem impossible to obey, but we can be sure if God commands, He will enable.
• The confirming in the specifics. "Thy prayer is heard" (Luke 1:13). Zacharias and Elisabeth had prayed much about her barrenness. Many prayers take much time to be answered. We need patience when we pray. Delay does not necessarily mean denial. Keep praying.
• The child in the specifics. "Bear thee a son" (Luke 1:13). The announcement from the angel was primarily about a child for Zacharias and Elisabeth. First, the mother of the child. "Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son" (Luke 1:13). There is both morality and might here. If anyone but Elisabeth bears a child to Zacharias, morals have been greatly defiled. Furthermore, Elisabeth bearing the child at her age shows the great might of God. Second, the maleness of the child. "Bear thee a son" (Luke 1:13). There is no neuter gender here. The child was to be a male, not a female or an "it". Third, the moniker of the child. "Thou shalt call his name John" (Luke 1:13). The name John means "Jehovah is gracious." The name emphasizes the grace of God. The coming of John and of Jesus both emphasized grace.
• The cheer in the specifics. "Thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1:14). Not only would the parents have joy from John's birth but so would many others. This announcement is certainly not hard to believe.
• The compliment in the specifics. "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord" (Luke 1:15). John was going to be somebody great. He would be no ordinary person. First, the character of the greatness. "Great in the sight of the Lord." Hollywood and other worldly honors would not come his way, but that did not mean he was not great. Being great in the sight of the Lord is true greatness. Many folk called "great" today are not great in the sight of the Lord. Second, the cause of the greatness. The world will have a hard time discerning how John could be great, for John never wrote a book, was never on radio or TV, was not a world traveler, never went to college, never held high office in government, never achieved in sports, never owned a home or car, did not have a bank account, his ministry lasted only six months, he died in ignominy, and he was not given an honorable, well-attended funeral. Yet he was great. Obviously there are other causes for greatness (such as devotion to Christ and His Word) than what the world thinks brings greatness.
• The consuming in the specifics. "Shall drink neither wine nor strong drink" (Luke 1:15). This had a lot to do with his greatness. Booze and greatness before God do not mix.
• The capability in the specifics. "He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). John was given Divine enablement from the very beginning which was necessary for his ministry.
• The conversions in the specifics. "Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God" (Luke 1:16). This is another aspect of his greatness. In contrast, many folk turn people against God and against holy living.
• The comparison in the specifics. "He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias [Elijah]" (Luke 1:17). John the Baptist was like Elijah of the Old Testament. Like Elijah, he had a spartan, earnest, and bold spirit, and he was despised by the rulers of the day. Jezebel and Ahab were enemies of Elijah and Herod and Herodias were enemies of John the Baptist.
• The changes in the specifics. "Turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just" (Luke 1:17). John's ministry will affect some wonderful changes in the lives of many people.
• The consequences in the specifics. "To make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). The great purpose of John's ministry was to "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:3; cp. Luke 3:4-6). John was the herald of Jesus Christ and prepared a people to receive the Lord.
6. The Skepticism About the Announcement (Luke 1:18-23)
The angel's announcement was greeted with skepticism. Unbelief dominated the reception of the announcement.
• The person with unbelief. "Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years" (Luke 1:18). Unbelief shows up in surprising places. Unbelief is not only caused by doubts of the great truths of the Word of God but also by discouragement, as was the case here.
• The presumption of unbelief. "Whereby shall I know this?" (Luke 1:18). Zacharias' skepticism is often mistakenly compared to Mary's question to the same angel after he had announced the coming of Christ to her. But the two questions are as different as day and night. Zacharias' question asked for evidence that it would happen. Mary's "How shall this be" (Luke 1:34) asked for an explanation of how it would occur. Zacharias was accused of unbelief; Mary was said to believe (Luke 1:45). Unbelief often disguises itself to look like faith.
• The perspective of unbelief. "For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years" (Luke 1:18). Zacharias in his unbelief focused on his dire circumstances rather than on the dynamic power of God. Like the ten spies Moses sent to spy out Canaan, Zacharias looked only at man instead of at God.
• The proof for unbelief. "The angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings" (Luke 1:19). Zacharias had proof for faith right before his eyes in the angel. Unbelief can be very blind to the obvious.