Dec 18, 2011

The Birth of John the Baptist

Luke 1:57–66

Jesus was not the only baby whose birth was foretold in the Gospels. Continuing his exposition of the book of Luke, today R.C. Sproul turns our attention to the birth of another child, the one who would prepare the way for the ministry of Christ.


We are continuing our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading from Luke 1:57–66, which is the record of the birth and naming of John the Baptist.

Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her.

So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.”

But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called.

And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?” And the hand of the Lord was with him.

We would miss so much at Christmas if we overlooked the deep significance of the birth of the one whom the Lord God had appointed to be the voice crying in the wilderness, to be the herald of the King, the forerunner of the Messiah, and the one who would first preach the good tidings of the gospel that would come in the life of Jesus. Let us receive this word as from God Himself. Let us pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we thank you for every word that proceeds forth out of your mouth. For in your Word, we find truth, and in that truth, we find hope, and in that hope, we find comfort, peace, and strength for everything that comes to us in this world. So, we thank you for the fulfillment of your promise to the prophets of the coming of this child who would be the forerunner of the King. We make our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Relief for a Lifetime of Suffering

Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s days were fulfilled, that it was time for her to deliver her child, and so she brought forth a son. Then, we have this simple note from Luke: “When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her.” We know that when Elizabeth first received the news that in her old age and barrenness, she would conceive and have a child, she withdrew to her residence, away from her friends and relatives. She wanted to be alone because there was a type of embarrassment, perhaps, that she would experience being noticeably pregnant after all these years of barrenness. Obviously, she did not want to be an object of scorn, or ridicule, or pity. Nevertheless, the word got out.

I don’t think anything moves faster than the news that someone’s become pregnant. There is a sorority among women that as soon as one’s conception is known, it spreads like wildfire throughout the whole community. That’s a good thing because the people are rejoicing in the news of the imminent birth of another child. So, one way or another, all the friends and relatives heard about this coming event.

Luke tells us that “when her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her.” Beloved, this is the communion of saints. This is what it’s all about in the community of people who believe and put their trust in God. The Word of God tells us that as Christians in the communion of saints, we are to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice so that your joy is my joy, my joy is your joy, and your sorrow is my sorrow—it is our sorrow. That’s how it is to be among the people of God.

Today is December 18th, a very important day in the life of our family. I have been nothing less than astonished at the degree of concern and intercessory prayer that has gone on for years for our dear daughter-in-law, Denise, her children, and her husband. One just needs to look at Facebook and see the prayers and the statements of support from all over this land and from other parts of the world. We have been overwhelmed by that kind of communion of the saints. Our family, and I believe our whole congregation, has been uplifted and strengthened by that intercessory prayer. When the one who has suffered so much for so long is relieved of that suffering and enters the presence of Jesus, it is a time of rejoicing. For those who are left behind, it is a time of sorrow, but for her, she joins the general assembly of the saints and of the spirits of just men and women made perfect in the heavenly sanctuary. So, with that, we rejoice, just as the friends and relatives of Elizabeth came to share in her joy and came to share in her experience of the tender mercy of God.

When Principle and Custom Clash

Luke goes on to say that on the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child, as the Jewish law required, and the friends and the relatives would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. They came, and they wanted to see on the eighth day the circumcision of Zacharias Junior. They wanted to share in the joy of that moment when the father would be honored by the naming of the son with his same name. That’s what they expected to hear. Instead, they were shocked. His mother, Elizabeth, answered because his father, Zacharias, was still unable to speak. Elizabeth said, “No, he shall be called John.” They weren’t satisfied with this answer from Elizabeth, so they said to her: “There isn’t anyone among your relatives who is called by that name. You don’t have an uncle; you don’t have a cousin; you don’t have a grandfather, a great grandfather, or even a great, great grandfather with that name. Nobody in this family has ever been called John. Are you kidding us, Elizabeth, that this baby shall be called John?”

You would think that these wonderful friends and relatives, who were gathered to share in the joy of the birth of this child and the circumcision, would have said, “Whatever you want to call your baby is fine with us. His name shall be called John.” But no, the friends and relatives said: “Hold on, we’re going to check this out with the father. We want to know what Zacharias thinks about all of this.” So, they motioned to him. Apparently, Zacharias not only couldn’t speak, but he also couldn’t hear, and his ears were blessed by not having to listen to this intramural debate among the friends and relatives who were assembled on this occasion. So, they motioned to him. They wanted his verdict on the matter.

Before we get to Zacharias’ verdict, I want to jump off at this point for an application. Some of these texts that we encounter seriatim, as we go through the Bible verse by verse, are extraordinarily difficult to find application for our lives, and sometimes I have to be a little creative in it. However, this what I want us to think about: what you have here is a conflict with custom.

It was the custom of the people that a child would be named after one of the relatives in the family. That was not a principle required by God. Rather, it was a tradition that grew up over the centuries, and it became what we call a custom. That is, it was customary to name the child after someone in the family. Now, suddenly, Elizabeth and Zacharias are going against the custom. Their friends and relatives had no idea why they were going against the custom. I don’t think that these friends and relatives had plotted together and said: “We know that the Lord God omnipotent has decreed that this child will be named John, but we’ll have none of that! We have a custom to protect, and we’re going to make sure that this child is named Zacharias Junior.” There was none of that.

This struggle with custom was not a deep, profound, ethical, or theological issue. The custom itself was what we call adiaphorous. It had no inherent ethical import. It is perfectly alright if families name their children after relatives. I’m proud to have been named after my grandfather and my father and to have the same name for my son and grandson, until some infant in a Sproul crib rises up in protest to say, “I’ve had enough of this R.C. Junior, I, II, III, IV, V stuff.” So, we carry on that custom in our own family. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, beloved, there are times when important principles and customs clash, and we need to be extremely alert to them. It is never excusable for a believer, or anyone else for that matter, to disobey a principle set forth by God for the sake of a custom, or a tradition, or a contemporary community standard.

Why Do People Think the Way They Think?

Recently, I had the opportunity to do a radio interview on Renewing Your Mind with Dr. Del Tackett. He was the architect for The Truth Project, which has had a phenomenal impact on Christendom in America and abroad. Dr. Tackett’s specialty is in what we call worldview or Weltanschauung. As its name suggests, the word worldview is an examination of the core principles and ideas that shape and dictate one’s understanding of the world, one’s self, the human race, this planet, and every aspect of life. It’s amazing that we find people who have so much in common, who can agree on so many things, and yet at the same time come to a point in their thinking where their unity parts. As a result, they go down radically different roads and believe radically different things.

I ask myself all the time, “Why do people think the way they think?” Sometimes I think: “What on earth are they thinking? How could they come to such viewpoints? How could they come to such conclusions?” I often wonder not so much why they are thinking, but if they are thinking at all. One of the greatest enemies to sanctification, to godliness, and to the Christian pilgrimage is that which is customarily accepted in the culture in which we live. Whatever is accepted in the culture is received by so many people to be normative.

When you look at the history of the United States and the ethical conflicts that we have endured throughout our short history, you would think that near the top of the list would be the issue of slavery. I rank it as the second most egregious ethical issue our nation has ever faced. Do you realize that people who were well-respected—in many cases godly people—bought and sold slaves as chattel and debated the question of whether those slaves had souls and were really human? Can you imagine educated, enlightened people having discussions like that? Do you have any idea what William Wilberforce and others had to go through to change public opinion, to change what was customary, to change what was acceptable in secular culture, and even in religious culture, with respect to slavery? The truth is that slavery was a custom, and people had grown accustomed to it and didn’t think about it in any great depth.

A Culture of Death

I said a moment ago that, in my opinion, slavery was the second most egregious ethical issue our country has ever faced. However, I think that the issue of abortion is far worse than slavery. I pray to God for a multitude of Wilberforces who will relentlessly speak against this monstrous evil until such a day that our nation will wake up. I listen to the rhetoric, I see the signs, and I say: “Are you people thinking at all? Pro-choice? A woman has a right to her own body, even though we know that an unborn child has its own unique DNA?” The child may be in her body, but it’s not a part of her body. It has its own unique identity, its own heart, its own brain, its own consciousness. You see the videotapes of the procedure, by which these unborn children are mutilated, and you can’t hear it, but you can see the silent scream, the physical reaction of the unborn child in the contortions of its face, the screams of its mouth, and its revulsion in pain as its body is being torn limb by limb. At least the people at Auschwitz had some time to live on this planet before they were tortured to death.

Now, I ask you this: that baby has a brain, but does it have a mind? It has a heart. Does it have feelings? Is there a nascent faculty of the will present? I have never in my life heard of an unborn baby choosing to be mutilated. That mother’s choice ends exactly where that baby’s choice begins, just as my freedom ends where your freedom begins. What could be more simple than that? However, it’s accepted. It’s part of the culture, the culture of death in which we live.

I’ve said every chance I can that even after studying theology for over fifty years, there are things about God I don’t know. He’s incomprehensible. However, if I know anything about God—I don’t just think—I know without a shadow of a doubt that He hates abortion, and He will judge nations that support it. There are churches that support it. There are people in this room who support it. I don’t think they’ve thought about it for five minutes. How could they? We may be that wicked, but we’re not that stupid. Abortion is a custom that collides violently with the principles of the sanctity of life set forth by our God. So, I beg you not to base your life on what is acceptable in your culture.

I talked with a lady recently who was divorced, and she looked at me as if to say, “Talk to me!” because she knows I’m a pastor. She said, “I never thought I’d be using birth control at this age in my life, but I need to because my boyfriend wants me to.” She said it to me without shame. We have people in the church cohabiting without shame because it’s acceptable. Yes, it’s acceptable by a culture that is pagan. Yes, it’s acceptable by a culture that is barbarian. However, it is not acceptable in the house of God, and the first thing you have to understand if you’re going to be a Christian is that you cannot be conformed to this world. You must march to the beat of a different drummer. You can’t say that Jesus is Lord and allow the social mores of your community to dictate your behavior. It’s that simple.

Nine Months of Silence Finally Over

Thank God for Zacharias. They made signs to him about what he would have the child called, and he asked for a writing tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.” Did you catch that? He didn’t say the same thing that Elizabeth said. What did Elizabeth say? She said, “He shall be called John.” Their friends and relatives said, “We’ll see about that—we’ll ask Zacharias,” and so they asked Zacharias, and he asked for the tablet, and what did he write on the tablet? “His name will be John”? No, he said, “His name is John.” The discussion is over. He already has his name, and his name is John. At that point, Zacharias showed how much he was controlled by custom and how much he was controlled by the Word of God, and so they all marveled.

Instantly, his mouth was open. His tongue that had been bound and shut up tight was loosed, and he spoke, praising God. After he had suffered through nine months of silence, the first words out of this man’s mouth were praise and adoration for his God.

I’ve had the opportunity to write a few hymns in my ministry, and I always love to sing them. However, for only one of those hymns did I write both the words and the music. For the other ones, I wrote the words, and we got a real musician to write the music for it. I don’t know how long ago it was, maybe a year or two, that I was asked to write a hymn on the Benedictus, which I did. We’ve haven’t sung it yet because we haven’t found anybody yet to write the music, but one of these days, Lord willing, we’re going to sing the Benedictus in response to this amazing, tender mercy of God to His servant, Zacharias.

When Zacharias’ mouth was opened, we are told that fear and wonder came on all who dwelt around them. These sayings were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea: “Did you hear what happened to Elizabeth, to Zacharias, and that baby whom they named John? Did you hear how when Zacharias wrote on the board, ‘His name is John,’ suddenly he was able to speak again after all these months?” Every village in the hill country of Judea was abuzz with the news of these extraordinary events, and all those who heard them kept them in their hearts saying, “What kind of child will this be?” They couldn’t wait to see what kind of man this little baby would grow up to be.

My wife said to me this morning on the way to church, “Honey, do you think that Zacharias and Elizabeth had any idea that their little boy was going to run out into the desert and act like a wild man, eating locusts and wild honey?” I don’t think they had that on his program, but the hand of the Lord was with him. It was with him the day he was born. It was with him before he was born, when he leaped in his mother’s womb. It was with him when he came to the Jordan River to baptize and call Israel to repentance. It was with him when he was in prison, and it was with him when he was martyred. Let’s pray.

Father and our God, we thank you for the testimony of Elizabeth and of Zacharias, for their faithfulness to your Word and to your principles. May we be like them. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.