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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Birth of John the Baptist

William C. Duncan

From The Life, Character and Acts of John the Baptist, 1853

We find intelligence of the history of John's birth in Luke alone (1:5-ff), but in him it is so much the more complete, probably because, for some reason or other, information which had not been circulated beyond the members of the Baptist's family, was fully accessible only to that evangelist. We are obliged, on this account, to follow Luke's authority solely, for the apocryphal history which we have in the so-called Protevangelium Jacobi, is notoriously so much corrupted by the intermixture of fables, that it is entitled to none of our confidence.

Luke gives the time of John's birth with a great want of precision "in the days of Herod, the king of Judea" (1:5). Herod the Great is evidently here meant, who, according to the best calculation, exercised his dominion over Judea, as he had obtained it, by means of cunning and cruelty, from the year 40 to 4 B. C. of our era. From this general representation we can arrive at no certain conclusion with regard to the time of the birth of John. The most we can do is to refer back to the period of the birth of Christ, which, it is admitted, occurred in the last year of Herod's reign; to which, therefore, the birth of John, who was six months older than Christ (1:26, 36, coll. 56, 57), must also be assigned.

His parents were of the priestly caste. His father Zacharias performed his functions in the temple at the time of the birth of his son: he could have been, therefore, according to the Jewish law, not yet over fifty years old (The Levites, it is true, became superannuated at the age of fifty (Num. 4:3; 8:24), but it is not certain that this was the case with priests. Extracts from rabbinic writings quoted by Lightfoot (Hor. Heb.) would seem to indicate the contrary (cp. v. 18)) and, as himself as well as his wife Elisabeth did not expect to have any children, their union must have borne upon it the curse of childlessness.

It may readily be supposed that both parents, who are represented to us as pious worshippers of Jehovah, were in the habit of praying earnestly to their God to remove from them this disgrace, and that Zacharias, when he, while presenting the daily incense-offering, prayed in the temple for the welfare of the people, offered up also in this holy place his own individual petition to the Most High (cp. v. 13.).

Accordingly, it happened, as we are informed, on a certain occasion, that, when it had again become his duty, in the course of office, to present the incense-offering to the Lord in the sanctuary, and when, perhaps, he repeated his customary prayer with redoubled earnestness, an angel appeared to him, and stood in full view before his eyes. Zacharias, not expecting such an apparition, was seized with fear and terror; just as the pious worthies of the old covenant, conscious of their own demerit and impotence, were wont, on the appearance of an angel, to utter on the instant an expression of terror and alarm.

The angel, thereupon, addressed him, as was customary in such eases, with the words, "fear not." When his fears were allayed, the angel announces the joyful tidings that his prayer had been heard, and that his wife Elisabeth should bear him a son. At the same time a name was bestowed upon the boy, indicative of the nature of his future dignity, John, that is, God-sent, given by God, created in an altogether peculiar manner by the gracious interposition of God, and therefore bound to him by altogether peculiar ties.

The name John comes from the Hebrew יְהוֹחָנָן Jehochanan, the contracted form of which is יוֹחָנָן (Jochanan), meaning, as usually explained, “Whom Jehovah has given,” but better, “God is gracious.” This represented in the New Testament by ωάννης, with which, as to meaning, the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodorus) is nearly identical. The name of John's father, Zacharias, is the Hebrew זְכַרְיָה (Zekharyah, Zechariah in the E. V. of the Old Testament), and means “Whom Jehovah remembers” His mother's name, Elisabeth, is the Hebrew אֱלִישֶׁ֫בַע (Elisheba), “Whose oath is God.” Aaron's wife was so called (Ex. 6:23). The appellations given to children among the Orientals are always significant, and those in the Old Testament usually bear their meaning on their face.

With the announcement of the name is connected the prophecy of the angel respecting the duties of the son and the significance of his advent. The mention of his name and the pre-announcement of his birth were of themselves sufficient to produce the joy which his parents must have felt in the approaching birth of a son long-desired but no longer expected, and which many others must likewise have experienced on the appearance of a man who was to be so distinguished.

Another reason is adduced for the pleasure which was felt in the expected birth of John: it constituted the condition of his ministry at a later period, as all must have perceived to whom the complete development of the kingdom of God was thought a matter of consequence, and who longed for the salvation of which John was to be the proclaimer, and it was grounded in his personal disposition, in his relation to the Israelitish nation, and, finally, in his relation to the coming Messiah, all which three facts stand together in a necessary connection.

He was to be "great in the sight of the Lord," in contradistinction from earthly greatness in the sight of men; spiritually great in his office as the preparer of the advent of the kingdom of God. He was to possess externally the highest legal perfection in his character of Nazarite (Num. 6:3; Judges 13:14), those bearing which name bound themselves by a vow to practice, for a short time or for their whole life, as the case might be, certain external ceremonies and observances. Such a person must he be, because he was to exhibit once more the highest moral perfection of the old covenant, and, at the same time, the unsatisfactory nature of that covenant as a means of attaining true salvation, and, therefore, was he at his appearance to introduce to him who could free from the curse of sin and from the constraint of the law.

The most remarkable part of the angel's announcement, is that John "should be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb" (i.e. while he was yet within the womb, and henceforth). That the Holy Ghost here spoken of is not the Holy Spirit specially so called in the Christian Church, which was first poured forth after the completion of the work of redemption (John 7:39), needs no proof.

What is here meant is the divine Spirit in general, which operates in man before his redemption and leads him towards his salvation, the movements and workings of which every man can trace in himself, nay, which even cooperates in the development of unconscious children, for it is certain that a man may be filled with the Spirit of God and yet be himself totally unconscious of the fact, while the Spirit is carrying on his development. The reception of the Spirit, however, independently and with our free consent, in the operation of the second birth, can obviously not occur except with our own full consciousness, and the passivity of the receiving soul must first have been freed from its imperfections and made complete by the activity of the Spirit's reception and by the commingling of the two elements, before we have truly become possessed of the Holy Spirit.

The resemblance between the narrative here given of the birth and external character of the Baptist and that which we find in the book of Judges (Chap. 1) respecting the Israelitish hero Samson (Heb. Shimshon), is remarkably striking in several important particulars. Samson's mother, like John's, had been previously barren (vs. 2, 3); an angel announced unto her that she should bear a son (v. 3); that son was to begin the work of delivering his people (v. 5); he was to be "a Nazarite unto God" from his mother's womb; and, finally, the Spirit of God wrought upon him and within him (v. 25).

It is well to note with regard to this latter particular, that, though Samson is not said to have been filled with the Spirit of God as it was promised John should be, the operations of this Spirit upon him are represented as being of a peculiar character. It is said that "the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan, etc."; where we are to understand the words to move in the sense of “to impel”, and drive on, an expression occurring in the Old Testament only here; the idea being that the Spirit began to move him with irresistible power, in spite of himself as it were —a stronger expression, in one point of view, than that used by the angel when speaking of the Spirit's connection with the Baptist (cp. I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; Isa. 8:11; Ezek. 3:14). The narratives of the birth of Isaac and of that of Samuel are in some respects parallels to this of the birth of John (Gen. 18:10-ff; I Sam. 1:2-ff), and should be considered in connection.

After this description of John's personality follows that of his employment among the people: "And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God." His office was limited to the preaching of repentance, and to pointing to him that was about to appear; he himself could bestow no new life, but could only prepare the way for its bestowment. That the sphere of his action should be restricted to Israel is grounded, perhaps, on the simple fact that Israel was, according to the counsel of God, the only people specially prepared for his labors. And even Christ himself confined his ministry to this nation, while whatever else was necessary to the establishment of his kingdom on earth was left to be supplied by the apostles.

John was to turn men to God, that is, to turn them away from their earthly and fleshly mode of life and conduct, and incline their minds again to God, and in accomplishing this, a knowledge of sin was first to be awakened, and then an effort for self-improvement to be excited, but the actual power of self-improvement was first to be bestowed by Christ. John's office as precursor of the Messiah is represented in a manlier quite peculiar in the announcement of the angel.

He is to go before him, namely, before the Lord their God, who is the subject of the remark, before God, who is now about to appear personally in the flesh, and is to attack the depravity of the times in the spirit and power of Elias, to preach repentance, to punish, to administer discipline, to unite again by stronger links all the bonds of human society where the loosening of family ties had torn them asunder, to turn the godless to the leading of a more pious life, and to point the people to the Lord, that they may be made ready for his advent. In this promise, that John should here and there abate the corruption of the times, by means of his preliminary invitations to repentance, the angel refers, as has already been remarked, to Malachi 3:24; obviously only in order to render his announcement more comprehensible, more agreeable, and more credible to Zacharias, because he now proclaims to him the fulfillment of that promise in his son.

This whole occurrence bears, as has been noticed, a very striking resemblance to the birth of Israel from the decrepit Abraham and Sarah. The case was quite different with Mary, since the birth of her child was not to be brought about by the combined agency of the factors generally necessary in such an occurrence; and hence her question, "how shall this be?" is altogether in order, though she entertained no doubt as to the fact itself.

Here, on the contrary, the natural relation of the ordinary organic conditions, which rendered such a creation as was promised to him in the highest degree improbable, were impressed in so lively a manner upon the mind of Zacharias, that he could not, for the moment, conceive of the truth of the announcement, or imagine in what way it could be, and, therefore, he demanded a proof, a miracle, by which the truth of the angel's assertion might be established. This requirement of a proof, this suggestion of the external improbability of what was promised, shows how very much Zacharias was inferior to Abraham and Sarah in a trustful confidence in God he stood in the same relative position as Sarah, and besides this he recognized the angel as an undoubted messenger from God, while Sarah saw in him who spoke to her only an ordinary traveller.

Notwithstanding this general recognition, on the part of Zacharias, of the angel as a divine messenger, the latter,—since in this expression of doubt respecting the truth of his promise there seemed to be likewise conveyed a doubt of his mission,—once more proclaims himself an authenticated herald of God, one sent from him to make the announcement which Zacharias appeared to discredit. In order to legitimate his claims the more completely, he calls himself by a name, designating thereby the near relation in which he stands to God.

That he here gives himself a Hebrew name, is altogether in character, since he had to speak in Hebrew to a Hebrew. He does not declare how he is called among his equals and by God, for this a man could not have comprehended, but he indicates to Zacharias, in a way intelligible to him, the characteristic of his individuality, expressed by means of a proper name,—a practice which we find so frequently followed in giving names, especially among the nations of the East. He is called and is Gabriel, i.e. a man of God; a name which is further explained by the addition, "that stand in the presence of God." He is, therefore, one of the chief angels and messengers of God, who receive their commands immediately from him.

Whoever, then,—for such additional conclusion may we draw from the words of the angel,—does not believe in him as the chosen of God who is to make known his promise, does not believe in God, and transgresses by his unbelief. The proof which he requests, Zacharias shall indeed receive, but it shall be a punitive proof. In order that he may be able for the future to restrain his tongue from sinning, by means of expressions of unbelief, against God and his ambassador, he shall "be dumb and not able to speak;" and therefore, also, shall he not be able to tell others of the promise made to him, and profane it, perhaps, by the repetition of his doubts.

This punishment was intended to school Zacharias that he might be increased and perfected in his spiritual graces. A knowledge of the unbelief which dwelt in his heart, and the punishment which ensued as its consequence, the fulfillment of a divine promise which appeared so improbable to him, all these must have wrought powerfully upon his heart and purified it from the dregs which it yet retained. This object must have been especially subserved by a condition such as his now was. When, dumb and deprived of his ordinary social interaction, he was thrown back upon himself, and could enter upon a private self-examination in serious earnestness, in order by upright repentance and a change of disposition to prepare for the dwelling of the divine in his heart.

Yet, on account of this anticipated change, the punishment was not to be of continued duration. Its termination is fixed; "until the day that these things shall be performed," that is, until, by the birth of his son, the fulfillment of the promises made to him shall begin. They shall be fulfilled, however, adds the angel yet again with firm and unhesitating confidence, each in its own time, neither too early, nor yet too late; his birth, as also his ministry, shall be made known and exhibited, each in its own appropriate hour.

There is no need of repeating here the observation that the angel must, if he wished to be understood, have conformed, in his outward appearance and language, to the ideas and conceptions of the man with whom he conversed. All doubts of the truth of our narrative based upon this conversation on the angel's part after the manner of man, must, in consequence fall to the ground. But, more generally, the fact that an angel is represented as having appeared to Zacharias, has given rise to suspicions of the truth of the whole narrative.

It is not our intention, as it would be quite foreign from our object, to enter here upon an examination of the question of the possibility and probability of such angelic appearances, but we must at least say thus much, that the whole sacred history of the Old as well as of the New Testament contains so numerous descriptions of similar apparitions, which can be rejected only by the most marked exegetical arbitrariness, and that, still further, the existence of angels and their employment in securing the salvation of man have in their favor so much testimony from Christ and the Apostles, that it would be difficult to establish the contrary on grounds at all satisfactory.

If no didactic value is assigned to all that the New Testament says respecting angels and their office,—since it is in fact true that the whole of this doctrine can have and will have no material influence upon Christian faith and Christian doctrine,—we must at least admit that the certainty of the existence of angels lies at the basis of all these expressions respecting them and their office among men.

And, if the so much abused theory of accommodation is sought to be applied to the present case, there cannot surely be adduced as a powerful reason in favor of its application, the assertion that Christ and his disciples mentioned angels as frequently as they did without attaching any other meaning to what they said than we do when we speak of the apparition of fairies and spirits. Nay, is it at all probable that a man who was a lover of truth could by any possibility have intentionally expressed such ideas in his discourses, if he was convinced of their untruthfulness? Or is it likely, on the other hand, that Christ himself entertained ideas on the subject as incorrect as those which he expressed are declared to be?

This, least of all, will be likely to be asserted, if one only observes how Christ by no means follows blindly the representations of others, but gives new and independent descriptions of the angelic office, as, for example, in Matt. 16:27; 18:10; 25:31; 26:53.

That angels do not now appear, can be no proof that they did not appear in those days, for we only read of their coming either when man in his weakness needs such immediate instruction from God, or when great world-formative epochs arrive in the development of the kingdom of God; and accordingly at the time of the ministry of Christ upon earth, we see all the powers of light and of darkness appearing in person, with all their weapons, upon the field of combat, for here was to accrue to each party either victory or destruction.

And, after all, what is there so improbable in the supposition that God, who exerts his powers so variously, visibly and invisibly, in the operations of nature which are immediately known to us, since he makes use upon earth of so endlessly varied means and ways of carrying out his intentions, should possess also in a higher sphere instruments and organs who assist in accomplishing his will upon earth, and whom he sends when and where it may in his wisdom be necessary? With respect, then, to the appearance of the angel, and thus far generally in the account of the evangelist, we can find no reason to doubt the historical truth of the events there narrated, and we proceed accordingly to a further examination of the simple subject. We will return to a consideration of the dumbness of Zacharias at a later period in the narrative.

As the incense-offering was presented daily, the people who were tarrying meanwhile in the court of the temple, knew very nearly the precise time at which the priest would return from the sanctuary, and it must, therefore, have seemed to them the more remarkable that he remained on this occasion so much longer than was usual. The conversation with the angel could not have been of long duration, but Zacharias consumed some time in recovering from the first shock of his alarm.

When, at length, he came forth, it was plainly perceived by his confusion and his whole disturbed aspect that something extraordinary must have happened to him. And when he now remained speechless, instead of pronouncing the blessing which the people expected, and gave them to understand that he could not speak, and therefore was able to confer the benediction upon them only by signs, they could come to no other conclusion than that he must have had an ecstasy in the temple, or must have seen some strange sight, or some apparition in the flesh; which conjecture, probably spoken out aloud by the bystanders, Zacharias confirmed by nodding his head and waving his hand, whilst he remained standing before them without the power of speech.

What reception he met with afterwards from the remaining priests and from his wife, we are not informed in the narrative. Without doubt, they looked upon him with special reverence as one honored by God, with some important revelation, and made no further inquiries of him respecting the object of his vision. It is likely that even to his wife he communicated no more than the fact that God had announced to him the birth of a son and assigned him a name. He continued to remain in the temple until the completion of the week in which he and his colleagues had to perform the priestly functions, without it would seem, its having fallen to his lot to enter the sanctuary again. At the expiration of the week, he returned to his place of residence and to his wife.

The pregnancy of Elisabeth actually occurred, as had been announced, but not in such a way that we are compelled to regard the event as a special divine miracle, though it retained the character of a gift of divine favor. Elisabeth, who recognized it as such, concealed herself for the first five months, withdrew herself from social contact with her friends into loneliness, partly in order to become well assured of her pregnancy before she made her appearance in public, partly in order to be freed from every reproach. This in all likelihood she did on account of her having been so long unfruitful, and in her heart she praised God because he had taken away from her the disgrace which was attached among the Jews to unfruitful women, because he had looked upon her with favor at his appointed time, and had thought her worthy of such a blessing.

At the period indicated, the promise was fulfilled in so far that the child to which Elisabeth gave birth, was actually a son. The whole town, as may readily be supposed, and the relatives and neighbors of the parents took the liveliest interest in this happy event. They saw indeed nothing particularly wonderful in the birth of the boy, but only a new proof of the greatness and mercy of God who had blessed Elisabeth with a child in her old age.

According to the Jewish law, the eighth day after the birth was the time appointed for the circumcision of children (Gen. 17:12). It was customary on this occasion for all the kindred and acquaintances of the parents to come together, in order to pass the day in festivities, and to be witnesses of the circumcision and the naming of the child. As it was usual for the child to receive its name from one of its relatives, the friends wished in this case to call him after his father Zacharias, in the confident expectation that the parents would urge no objection.

It is probable that previous to the institution of the rite of circumcision, children received a name immediately upon their birth. Names were, as with us, usually bestowed by the parents, but sometimes the relatives of the child had a voice in the matter, by the parents' consent (cp. Ruth 4:17). There are several instances mentioned in the Old Testament in which, as here, the child receives its name expressly from the circumstances attending its birth, or from something noteworthy in its own or the history of its family (cp. Gen. 16:11; 19:37; 25:25, 26; Ex. 2:10; 18:3, 4).

Elisabeth, informed by her husband of the occurrence in the temple, and knowing what, according to the will of God, her son was to be called, opposed the intention of her kindred, and bestowed upon him the name of John. Astonished at this procedure, the relatives could discover no reason for conferring upon the child a name so wholly unknown in the family. She remained, however, firm in her opinion, and, in consequence, the father, who had perhaps been present as a dumb guest at this transaction, was referred to and requested to decide the question.

They communicated their meaning to him by signs, because men are accustomed to act towards dumb persons as though they were deaf, for that he was really also deaf it is not natural to conclude, else could he have known nothing of the whole controversy, and nothing, moreover, respecting that which they now required of him. Zacharias, therefore, asked by signs for a tablet, the only way in which he could in this case make himself understood, and wrote thereon the words, "His name is John.” All, thereupon, wondered much at this strange idea of both the parents.

At the same moment the punishment was removed which Zacharias had brought upon himself by his unbelief. He now saw and was convinced of the truth of the angelic message, which he had, no doubt, in all seriousness and full of repentance, long since believed in his heart. He had now completed the probation assigned him by the angel. Now, therefore, was his mouth again opened and his tongue loosed, and the first use which he made of his recovered speech, was, as was proper, in singing a song of praise to the Lord.

The presence of a divine power was so clearly evinced in this whole event that the assembled company and all the acquaintances of Zacharias, in view of these revelations of divine energy, were inspired with a holy fear and awe. In that entire region these occurrences were frequently related and much talked of, yet in such a way that a knowledge of them did not spread beyond that small mountain country in which Zacharias resided, and, on this account, it appears not to have reached as far as Jerusalem. Men spoke much respecting the child, and pondered in their hearts as to what were to be the future character and fate of this priest's son whose birth had been attended by so much that was wonderful. Meanwhile the child itself was rapidly and vigorously developed under the protection and training of the Lord.

This whole event is so simple, so accordant with nature, and discovers so fully the hand of the Lord, that one wonders in what respect it is liable to exception. He, who will believe in and acknowledge no miracle, although so much that is miraculous, and so much that is inexplicably enigmatic, is occurring before his eyes. He who imagines that he can see with his human eye through all the divine arrangement of the world, and cannot be convinced that there are higher laws, by means of which, at times and in particular at such great turning-points of history, the order of things as known to us is interrupted, and yet without its being in the least destroyed.

He, it must in general be admitted, would take exception to the miraculous dumbness of Zacharias, and it would be difficult, we grant, to convince such a one of the truth of the narrative. That this miracle could be explained after the order of natural causes, is certain, but it is equally certain that, according to the view of the writer, not a natural occurrence, but an actual miracle, is here intended to be narrated. He, on the contrary, who does not object to the credibility of miracles, will readily perceive how exactly, as has been already noticed, this divine treatment of Zacharias must have constituted the most suitable means for his moral improvement, and he will acknowledge the divine wisdom which is manifested in the narrative, rather than deem it a fiction.