Luke 1

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A Key Verse

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
Luke 1:46-47

What’s Happening?

Chapter One is all about Luke setting the stage. First we are introduced to the author himself, although a bit indirectly.  Even though we call him “Luke” by tradition, he doesn’t give his own name, only the name of the recipient, Theophilus.  The style of his introduction is more like a history book or collection of stories than a personal letter or religious argument.  Luke certainly wants his audience to take his book seriously as actual history.

In it he first tells the story of John the Baptist.  All four Gospels talk about John the Baptist, evidence that Jesus was most likely historically connected and possibly a serious disciple, or follower, of John first.  Luke goes further than the other authors by saying that John’s birth a miracle, too, and by saying that John and Jesus, through their mothers, are relatives.  He then tells the story of Mary’s miraculous virgin pregnancy, also told in Matthew.

This Chapter’s Mini-Message

Luke’s purpose

1:2 eyewitnesses By the time that Luke was writing, he admits “many people have already” written the story of Jesus.  So what makes a story worth reading?  Luke says we can be more confident in something written decades after Jesus if we know that it is based on eyewitness accounts.  Luke himself is not an eyewitness, but he claims he is functioning like a reporter who listened to what those who had been present for Jesus’ ministry, and is summarizing the important parts for us. He also may be implying that he thinks those who have already written about the ministry of Jesus, including Mark, didn’t do a good enough job at it!

 1 Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received.

Annunciation to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 15th century
As we look at Christian art through the centuries, including this piece by Ghirlandaio, the art usually won’t look like how it really happened! This is because most artists make the settings and the people match their own place and time rather than ancient Israel. This artist, for example, painted his own local church as if the Jewish temple.


John the Baptist’s birth foretold

1:5 Priest was a hereditary position.  The greatest priest in Bible tradition may be  Aaron the brother of Moses.  By connecting Zechariah and Elizabeth specifically to Aaron, Luke is emphasizing the importance of their soon-to-be-born son John’s ministry.

1:9 The Lord’s Sanctuary is the most sacred spot inside the Temple.  In Ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish religion.  Only one priest was permitted in the Sanctuary at a time to burn incense, the scented herbs that represent the people’s prayers ascending to heaven.  Given how few opportunities there were to enter the Sanctuary in a priest’s career, this day was likely a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for Zechariah.

1:11 angel The Greek word Luke used, αγγελος, angelos, means “messenger.”  Because of hundreds of years of art, sometimes we think of angels as in flowing bright robes, with wings and halos, when it is quite possible that a messenger from God could look like an ordinary human being.  Nonetheless, the Sanctuary was supposed to be a place that Zechariah was alone, so the presence of another being was certainly frightening.

 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of AaronThey were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.

1:13 Don’t be afraid The angel’s first word’s “Don’t be afraid” tell us a lot about what seeing an angel is like! It’s scary. The phrase “Don’t be afraid” is a common way God starts an invitation to do something for God, or a “call.” It is used 48 times as something God says in the Old Testament when giving humans something to do! So, Luke’s readers and hearers would find the phrase familiar. Look for “Don’t be afraid” throughout the Gospel of Luke, where it occurs eight times. What do you think Zechariah is most afraid of?

1:15 must not drink Drinking alcohol is not a sin in the Bible. Even Jesus makes wine! Zechariah’s son has to follow a different set of rules because of something called the Nazirite Vow. In Numbers 6, there is a tradition of some men and women being “set apart” to a particular life of service to God with rules that include no alcohol, no vinegar, no hair cuts, no shaving, and no touching dead bodies.

1:16 spirit and power of Elijah In Malachi 4:5-6, the prophet predicts that Elijah, an older Biblical prophet, would one come “before the great and terrifying day of the LORD.” By equating John the Baptist with Elijah, Luke is saying that John’s ministry will prepare for the “great and terrifying day of the LORD.”

1:18 sure An angel of God appeared in the most holy room of the temple, and Zechariah still isn’t sure. Would you be convinced by this good news?

1:19 Gabriel This isn’t the first time in the Bible we see Gabriel. He is mentioned Daniel 8:16, and according to Luke is also the angel who will announce Mary’s pregnancy. Matthew, the only other Gospel to tell the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth does not name the angel who visits Mary. Our Muslim sisters and brothers believe that was Gabriel who later revealed the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam, to the Prophet Mohammed.

1:25 removing my disgrace Being barren, or unable to have children, was often viewed as a woman’s failing, even a sign of lacking God’s favor. Of course, there are lots of reasons someone may not get pregnant, and today we know it is just as possible the husband and not the wife who is infertile.

13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”

19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. 22 When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn’t speak.23 When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home. 24 Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, 25 “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people.”

Mary Annunciation by John Collier, 20th century
The artist has chosen to make Mary a teenage girl from his own time. Most artists of Mary throughout history have made her look like a woman from their own time and culture. How does it make you feel to see Mary look like a teenage girl from closer to our own time? Can you picture yourself as Mary?

Jesus’ birth foretold

1:27 virgin Why is it important that Mary never had sex?  For one thing, Luke seems to think that Isaiah 7:14 prophesied that the Messiah would be the son of a “virgin,” because that’s what the Old Testament translation into Greek, the Septuagint, said.  But the original Hebrew only used the word for “young woman.”  Secondly, while it seems important to Luke that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, he does not seem worried about proving that Mary was always stayed a virgin and in Luke 8:19-21 refers to Jesus having, we assume non-miraculous, siblings.

1:27 engaged A girl could be engaged as young as twelve and a half years old according to Harvard Professor François Bovon (Hermeneia: Luke 1, p. 49).  Engagement was a legally binding contract between the girl’s father and the girl’s fiancé.  

1:31 Jesus Gabriel specifically tells Mary what to name her son.  The name Jesus in English comes from the Hebrew Yashua, which means “Yahweh (or God) saves.”  In the Old Testament the same name is translated as “Joshua.”  While the symbolic meaning in the name Jesus is significant, it’s important to know that to his community, Jesus’ name was an ordinary and familiar first name.

1:32 throne of David In 2 Samuel 7:16, God promised to King David, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” Expecting the long promised Messiah to be a descendent of David was one way people coped the fact the the house of David had in fact fallen.

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli, 16th century
Again, in this art work, the women look like women from the artist’s culture and time. Also notice how Mary here, as in much art work of Mary, looks much older than twelve or thirteen years old.

Mary visits Elizabeth

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

Mary praises God

1:46 The Magnificat When Mary receives truly shocking news, that she’ll have a baby, God’s baby, miraculous, Luke has respond by willingly calling herself God’s “servant.” But Mary is not presented as just willing to do God’s will, she is presented as overjoyed, spontaneously breaking out into song! This song is called the “Magnificat,” which is the first word in the Latin version of the song. This song is arguably one of the oldest Christian hymns and is likely inspired by Hannah’s song about her son Samuel’s birth in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Within the song we see Mary describing things God is accomplishing. Do you recognize in Mary’s song foreshadowing, or seeing in advance, some of the things Jesus will do? As you read about Jesus in Luke, look for ways He shows mercy, scatters the arrogant, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry, and sends the rich away.

46 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored49 because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. 50 He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. 51 He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. 52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. 54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, 55  just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”


Mary’s Song of Praise, the Magnificat, through the Centuries

Mary’s words have been the source of countless pieces of Christian music through the centuries. Below are two of the most popular settings.

A Russian youth choir performing J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, 18th century

A California high school choir performing David Haas’s “Holy is Your Name”, 20th century


56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

1:57 circumcise In ancient Israel, male circumcision was a religious requirement commanded in Genesis 17.  Circumcision is the removal of skin on the tip of the penis and continues to be practiced as a religious ritual in Judaism and Islam and for cultural or medical reasons around the world.  Luke mentions this ritual, which non-Jewish readers and hearers found bizarre or often even offensive, explicitly for both John and Jesus to show that they are tradition-obeying Jews.

57 When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58 Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59 On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60 But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”

61 They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” 62 Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.

63 After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.” 64 At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.

65 All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66 All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.

Zechariah’s prophecy

67 John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,

68 “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70 just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant,
73 the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”

80 The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

Things to Think About
  • Luke wants to connect the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. Some Bible scholars say this is a “fictive kinship,” meaning the author made Mary and Elizabeth related just to connect the stories. Why do you think Luke thinks it’s important for us to think of John and Jesus as relatives?
  • What does Mary’s song teach about the difference between being willing to do God’s will and being genuinely happy to do it?
A Prayer

God of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God of Mary,
You are full of surprises and you make miracles. Help me live a life of faithfulness, so I am ready for your surprises and miracles, Amen.

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