The Infancy Narratives: Part One — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
The infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus following the prologue are also unique to Luke’s Gospel (1:5–2:52). This section of Luke sets the story of Jesus within the context of the Old Testament story. John Carroll explains,
The language, style, and content of the narratives and speeches of Luke 1–2 converge to connect Luke-Acts as a whole with the story of Israel. The impression generated by these chapters is that one has been immersed in the continuing experience of God’s people. Yet, Luke 1–2 also announces that the closing chapter in the history of God’s people has begun. The hope of Israel is on the verge of realization.i
In other words, Luke uses these introductory chapters to indicate that the fulfillment of all of Israel’s eschatological hopes is found in Jesus. All of the ancient promises of redemption are to be realized in him.ii
The infancy narratives of John and Jesus both follow the pattern of promise, fulfillment, and response, but a comparison of the two reveals the superiority of Jesus to John. The narratives begin with the promise of the birth of John the Baptist in 1:5–25. Zechariah, a priest of God, and his wife Elizabeth are an elderly righteous couple, but they are childless (vv. 5–7). While in the Temple burning incense, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah (vv. 8–12, cf. v. 19). He promises Zechariah that he and his wife shall bear a son whose name will be John (v. 13). Gabriel’s appearance itself is already a hint of the eschatological significance of these events because Gabriel’s only previous appearances in Scripture have been in the Book of Daniel when he explained Daniel’s eschatological visions (Dan. 8:16–17; 9:21–23). His appearance here in the infancy narratives of Luke hints that the births of John and Jesus are closely associated with the fulfillment of Daniel’s eschatological visions.iii
Gabriel tells Zechariah that the birth of John will bring him joy and gladness and that many will rejoice at his birth (v. 14). The child will be great before the Lord and will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, like the Nazirites of the Old Testament, the child is not to drink wine or strong drink (v. 15; cf. Num. 6:2–3). Gabriel then says of John, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (vv. 16–17). Here Luke sets forth John’s role in God’s redemptive plan. John is to be a prophet calling God’s people to repentance. The reference to Elijah places John’s work in an eschatological framework. He is to prepare a remnant for the long-awaited coming of the Lord.iv
The promise of John’s birth is followed by Luke’s narrative of the promise of Jesus’ birth in 1:26–38. Again Gabriel is sent to bear the news, but this time he is sent to the one who will be the child’s mother, a virgin named Mary (vv. 26–28). Mary is troubled by the appearance of the angel, but he tells her not to be afraid for she has found favor with God (29–30).v The angel then makes his announcement:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (vv. 31–33).
Concerning John, the angel had said, “he will be great before the Lord” (v. 15). But of Jesus, he says, “he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Zechariah’s child will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Mary’s child will be the Lord.
The angel Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be given the throne of his father David and that he will reign over Jacob forever in a kingdom without end. This is not a direct quotation of any particular Old Testament verse. Instead it is a summary of several Old Testament prophetic expectations, in particular God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:9–16; cf. Ps. 89:26–29, 36; Isa. 7:14; 9:6–7; Dan. 7:14).vi The first thing then that Luke tells us about Jesus is that in him the promises made to David will be fulfilled. All the hopes of Israel and the world rest with this child.
Upon hearing the angel’s announcement, Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 34). Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (v. 35). The angel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth, who was barren, has also conceived a son (v. 36). Mary then humbly submits to God’s will (v. 38). Although the manner of Jesus’ conception is miraculous, the nature of the conception itself is not the focus of the passage. The focus is upon the identity of this unique child. The nature of his conception and the content of the angel’s announcement serve to identify this child as the Son of God and the Davidic Messiah.vii
Luke continues by recounting Mary’s visit with Elizabeth (1:39–45). Upon arriving at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary greets her relative. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, her child leaps in her womb (v. 41). Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (v. 42). She refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43) and praises her for believing that what the Lord spoke he would certainly fulfill (v. 45). Mary responds with a song that has come to be known as the “Magnificat” (vv. 46–55). She says:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
The Magnificat most closely resembles Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, but it alludes to numerous other Old Testament texts as well.viii In the song, Mary seems to speak as the representative of the people of Israel.ix Throughout the song, two images of God are seen. God is described as the divine warrior who delivers his people from their enemies. He is also described as the God who is great in mercy toward his people.x
i John T. Carroll, Response to the End of History: Eschatology and Situation in Luke-Acts(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 49.
ii See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 47. Mark L. Strauss points out the specific mention of the promises to David in 1:26–38, 68–79; and 2:1–20 [The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic,1995, 76)].
iii Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977), 270–71.
iv Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 99–100.
v The phrase “found favor” is common in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 6:8; 18:3; 39:21; 43:14; Judg. 6:17; 1 Sam. 1:18; 2 Sam. 15:25).vi Strauss, The Davidic Messiah, 88–89.
vii Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 340; cf. also Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 127.
viii The opening verses (vv. 46–47) closely resemble Psalm 35:9 and Habakkuk 3:18. The first half of verse 48 echoes 1 Samuel 1:11, while the second half echoes Genesis 30:13. Verse 49 resembles Deuteronomy 10:21. Verse 50 is very similar to Psalm 103:17. Verses 51–53 are similar to 1 Samuel 2:7–8. And verses 54–55 echo several Old Testament texts, including Isaiah 41:8–9; Psalm 98:3; and Micah 7:20.
ix Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 43.
x Green, The Gospel of Luke, 102.