The Lord's Day Morning
January 11, 2009
“His Name Is John”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter one, as we continue to make our way through the Gospel of Luke together. The last time we were with Zechariah, he had literally been struck dumb. He was mute because he struggled to get his head and heart around the promise of the angel to him that he was going to be a father at an advanced age, and that his beloved wife Elizabeth was going to be a mother at an advanced age. And when he could not express believing trust in God's promise, the angel said, ‘Well, Zechariah, you’re not going to be able to speak until that baby that God has promised through my word to you has been born.’
And so it's been a long nine months for Zechariah. He has apparently been communicating via a writing tablet, because that writing tablet shows up in the passage that we are going to be reading today. And he has apparently told Elizabeth, through the vehicle of that writing tablet about his encounter with the angel, because she knows now what the angel has said and what name is to be given to their child. And even though he can't speak, she's ready to do so at the appropriate time. But during this time, which was no doubt a time of soul searching for Zechariah…a time of silence, a time of repentance, a time of reflection…(I'm tempted to say, in the words of the passage that Nate read this morning, “a valley of vision”)…a time in the midst of his own repentance to consider the meaning of the word of the Lord and to consider whether he really believes the word of God.
And you’re going to find out as we read this passage today that Zechariah passes this test with flying colors. Unlike the first time, there has been a work of grace done in his heart so that at the moment of truth, there is not the slightest hesitation on his part to express his trust in the word of the Lord.
So let's give attention to God's word in Luke 1, beginning in verse 57:
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Luke, throughout this portion of his Gospel, having investigated with eyewitnesses, first-hand players in the unfolding events that led up to the birth of Jesus the Messiah, is bringing us into that story. And one of the remarkable things about the stories that Luke tells in the opening chapters and verses of the Gospel is that he pulls you into the story that he is telling you, and he asks you to make the same kinds of judgments that people in those stories are having to make about the events around them: Will you believe the word of God? Will you believe that Jesus is the Messiah? Will you believe that God himself has intervened into human history and has brought salvation in this remarkable way? Will you believe? In other words, you’re not just a bystander listening to a good story. As Luke recounts for you this history, he tells this history in such a way that it puts you right in the middle of it so that you are being demanded to make either a response of faith or to reject the compelling power of the claims of truth that are being presented in this very, very gripping recounting of the history of the events that lead up to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. And this is yet another one of those that we come into contact with in the early verses of Luke.
Well, there are many things that we could learn from this passage. It is, I think, obvious to you where Luke is going in his recounting of this story. You really see it, don't you, in verse 66. What this story is designed to do is to focus your attention on who John the Baptist is, so that your attention will be focused on who John the Baptist came to point to. Luke wants you to think long and hard about who John is, even as the people around Zechariah and Elizabeth were forced by the events surrounding John's birth to think long and hard about who this child is, because Luke wants you think about who the Child is that this child has come to point to. Everything is leading up to Christ, and just as we saw Elizabeth respond to Mary when Mary came to visit her, not focusing all the attention upon herself and upon her child, but focusing all the attention upon Jesus the Messiah, so again Luke is going to have all the attention eventually on what God is doing through John in order to bring the Messiah into the world.
But I want you to see three things very quickly as we walk through this passage together. I want you to see something about the joy that was shared by Elizabeth and her friends and relatives. I want you to see something about the origin of that joy, the roots of that joy. I want you to see something about Zechariah's faith, and what he learned in those nine months of silence. And then, I want you to see, most importantly of all, the witness that God is establishing in this passage to Jesus Christ.
Let's look at the joy first. You see it described in verses 57-58:
“When the time came for Elizabeth to give birth to her child, she bore a son….”
And then we read in verse 58,
“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
Now there's nothing surprising about that, is there? When women have children, their friends and their relatives rejoice with them. There's nothing surprising about that. We rejoice when a child comes into the world. And of course, in her case, she's rather advanced in years and so is Zechariah, and so there's all the more natural reason to rejoice. They didn't think that this family was ever going to have children, and God has given them a son. And so there's every reason for rejoicing.
But did you notice the way that Luke describes this? He doesn't say that her neighbors and relatives heard that she had had a child and rejoiced with her. What does he say?
“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her.”
Do you see the difference? It's not just that she's had a child. This is not a matter of “luck” — of chance. This is the Lord's doing! The root of their joy was in the recognition that this was God's provision. God had done this thing. She just hadn't had a child. God had done this thing! He was in the midst of it. Oh, yes, I understand she was advanced in age, and that would be all the more reason for them to recognize God's hand; but you understand, friends, that we always need to see God's hand in whatever has been provided us, because there has been nothing given to any of us that does not come from the hand of our heavenly Father, who is a good giver. James reminds us of this:
“Every good gift comes from the Father of lights, in whom there is no shifting shadow.”
And this is a reminder to us that the kind of joy that we ought to share together as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether it is at the birth of a child or in whatever other circumstance of life, ought to be rooted in our sense that God has provided. They even describe it that way:
“They heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her.”
It's the Lord behind this. The Lord is the one who has given her a son. Their joy was rooted in a recognition of God's providence, and His goodness and kindness and mercy.
II. Zechariah's faith.
Well, there's a second thing I want you to see, and you’ll see it in verses 59-64. It's a great story, isn't it? They have gathered for the circumcision. This means that the boy who will eventually be called John is eight days old now. And it seems that they are going to name him at the time of the circumcision. This was not part of the Old Testament law, by the way. Old Testament law did not require you to name your child at the time of circumcision, but it was apparently the custom that they were following. And when the people gathered for that rite of circumcision, they simply assumed that the boy was going to be named after his father, and they are preparing to name him Zechariah. And Elizabeth, who has believed that angel from the moment that she heard about it from Zechariah (perhaps writing on the tablet), she says, ‘No. His name is not going to be Zechariah. His name is going to be John.’ And the immediate response is, ‘Elizabeth, there is nobody in your family named John! Nobody! You can go back twenty generations and there's nobody named John. You don't have any cousins named John. Your father is not named John. Your husband's father is not named John. There are no John's in your family!’
And so they turn to Zechariah — and I love this part! — and they start making signs to Zechariah. Now, Zechariah can hear perfectly fine. It's like one of my language professors. He would explain something to me, and I had no idea what he was saying. And I would say, “Dr. Meyer, could you explain that again?” And he would get real close to my face and say exactly what he had just said that I didn't understand, but louder! And I wanted to say, “Dr. Meyer, it's not that I couldn't hear you; it's that I couldn't make sense of what you were explaining to me about that particular paradigm.” So they were doing this to him; they were doing the hands…and he can hear perfectly fine! And he says, ‘Give me something to write on.’ Silently, he calls them to give him something to write on, and he writes out, “His name is John.”
All those months of silence, God's judgment on him for not believing God's word, God's promise, have borne fruit in his heart, and at the moment of truth, the time of the naming of his son, there is not a shadow of doubt in his mind what he is to do, because now he has come to believe God's word. And the answer is emphatic, just like Elizabeth, “His name is John.”
And we see something, I think, of God's kindness in His dealing with Zechariah, because through that ordeal of silence Zechariah's faith in God's word has grown, and now he displays his faith in God's promise: ‘His name is John. The angel was right. His name is John. His name is not Zechariah. His name is John, just like God's word to me through the angel says.’ That adversity by the Holy Spirit had borne believing fruit in Zechariah's life, so that when the moment of truth came, he believes; and he speaks (or writes) out of that belief, and immediately the Lord looses his tongue. And the first thing that comes out of his mouth is the blessing and praise of God.
And I want you to think about that for a few moments, my friends, because you may be wondering in your own adversity, “What is God doing? What is God doing? Why am I undergoing this adversity?” God never wastes adversity in the lives of His children.
This past week I was eating, breaking bread with one of our men who is a Ruling Elder Emeritus. We do this every once in a while, and one of the reasons I love to meet with him is he tells me stories about his father. He had a wonderful relationship with his father, and his father just had incredible words of wisdom that he shared with him on numerous occasions. On one occasion — it was after the Depression and after the Second World War, and finally his father's business was doing very, very well; in fact, they did in one year better than they had done in memory, because of the Depression and because of the War. It was after the Depression and the War was over. They did very, very well, and someone said to his father, “Well, isn't it wonderful that you have had this incredibly prosperous year!” And this Ruling Elder Emeritus said to me his father immediately responded by saying, “Not necessarily.” And it caught everybody by surprise!
“What do you mean, ‘not necessarily’? You've had a great year!”
And then here was his follow-up: “I've never learned anything from prosperity, but I have learned a lot in adversity.”…I've never learned anything in prosperity, but I've learned a lot in adversity….
Well, I love to hear that elder tell that story because I love to ask him questions about it. But you see, that man had learned the secret that God so often works in adversity by His Holy Spirit to build us up, to grow us in grace, to help us to believe. It's not that any of His good gifts should be despised, you understand that! That's not what I'm saying. But he is saying that in a special way, God will use adversity and by His Spirit grow us up in grace.
This is what happened with Zechariah. And so if that's where you are today, if you are in a time of adversity and you’re wondering, “Lord, what in the world are You doing?” If you’re God's child, no question that God has purposes for your adversity for your good, for His glory, for your growth in grace. And when the time comes — ‘Zechariah, what's his name?’
“His name is John!”
Not a hesitation! The first time, the angel of the Lord is standing before him, and he wants to query that angel — ‘Oh, hold on here, Angel! Explain some things to me.’ This time,
“What's his name?”
What's happened? In nine months of silence, repentance, confession, self-examination, God has wrought a solid faith in Zechariah.
III. God's witness to the coming Messiah.
One last thing. Look at the end of the passage. This is where Luke is going. What is the result of this child being born and the result of Elizabeth and Zechariah together being absolutely clear that his name is going to be the name given to them by the angel: John? The result is that everybody is amazed. “They all wondered.” (Verse 63.)
And then verse 65:
“Fear [reverential awe of God] came on all their neighbors.”
And then, listen to it again, verse 65:
“All these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts.”
Doesn't that sound like Mary? Treasuring things up in her heart? All who heard about this laid it up in their hearts, and they said, ‘What then will this child be?’”
The result of all this is everybody was focused on the question of who will this child be? Who will he be? The Lord must have some great plan in mind that He is going to unfold through this child, with these extraordinarily events surrounding his birth. And that is precisely what God intended to do through this amazing providence that's unfolding in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth in John: focus everybody on the question of who is this child going to be, and what is he going to do, because He wants to focus their attention on that child because that child is going to focus their attention on another Child, and He wants the question “Who is this child?” to be on the minds of all the people in Judea because John is preparing the way for Jesus. And just as Jesus will look to the disciples and say to them at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am?” and focuses them on the question “Who?” God is focusing all the attention of the people in the hill country of Judea on the question of who is this child, because that child is going to point to the Child who is Jesus.
In all this, Luke is unfolding a story in which God is unfolding His plan to point us to Jesus the Savior. By His grace and the work of His Holy Spirit, may we trust in Him.
Heavenly Father, thank You for pointing us to Jesus through Your word. Thank You for speaking the truth to us, and giving us promises. Thank You for giving us signs and seals and sacraments and suppers to show us Your grace. By Your Spirit give us eyes to see and ears to hear, and hearts to believe the gracious word that You speak to us. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let's prepare to come to the Lord's Table by taking our hymnals in hand and turning to
No. 252, and singing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.