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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Luke 1

Verses 1-80

Chapter 1


1:1-4 Since many have set their hands to the task of drawing up an account of the events which were completed amongst us, telling the story just as those who were the original eye-witnesses and who became the servants of the word handed it down to us, I too made up my mind to carry out a careful investigation of all things from the beginning, and to write to you, Theophilus, your excellency, an orderly account of them, so that you might have in your mind a full and reliable account of the things in which you have been instructed.

Luke's introduction is unique in the first three gospels because it is the only place where the author steps out upon the stage and uses the pronoun "I." There are three things to note in this passage.

(i) It is the best bit of Greek in the New Testament. Luke uses here the very form of introduction which the great Greek historians all used. Herodotus begins, "These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus." A much later historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, tells us at the beginning of his history, "Before beginning to write I gathered information, partly from the lips of the most learned men with whom I came into contact, and partly from histories written by Romans of whom they spoke with praise." So Luke, as he began his story in the most sonorous Greek, followed the highest models he could find.

It is as if Luke said to himself, "I am writing the greatest story in the world and nothing but the best is good enough for it." Some of the ancient manuscripts are very beautiful productions, written in silver ink on purple vellum; and often the scribe, when he came to the name of God or of Jesus, wrote it in gold. Dr. Boreham tells of an old workman who, every Friday night, took the newest and shiniest coins out of his pay packet for Sunday's offering in church. The historian, the scribe and the workman were all filled with the same idea--only the best is good enough for Jesus. They always gave their utmost for the highest.

(ii) It is most significant that Luke was not satisfied with anyone else's story of Christ. He must have his own. Real religion is never a second-hand thing. It is a personal discovery. Professor Arthur Gossip of Trinity College, Glasgow used to say that the four gospels were important, but beyond them all came the gospel of personal experience. Luke had to rediscover Jesus Christ for himself.

(iii) There is no passage of the Bible which sheds such a floodlight on the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture. No one would deny that the gospel of Luke is an inspired document; and yet Luke begins by affirming that it is the product of the most careful historical research. God's inspiration does not come to the man who sits with folded hands and lazy mind and only waits, but to the man who thinks and seeks and searches. True inspiration comes when the seeking mind of man joins with the revealing Spirit of God. The word of God is given, but it is given to the man who is seeking for it. "Seek and you shall find" (Matthew 7:7).

A SON IS PROMISED (Luke 1:5-25)

1:5-25 In the time of Herod, the king of Judaea, there was a priest called Zacharias, who belonged to the section of Abia. His wife was also a direct descendant of Aaron and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were good people before God, for they walked blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. They had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both of them were far advanced in years. When he was acting as priest before God, when his section was on duty, in accordance with the custom of priestly duty, it fell to him by lot to go into the Temple of the Lord to burn the incense. The whole congregation of the people was praying outside at the hour when incense was offered. The angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zacharias saw him he was deeply moved and awe fell upon him. The angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you must call him by the name of John. You will have joy and exultation and many will rejoice at his birth. He will be great in God's sight; he must not drink wine or strong drink and, even from the time he is in his mother's womb, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many sons of Israel to the Lord their God; and he himself will go before his face in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to get ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know that this is going to happen? For I am an old man and my wife is far advanced in years." "I am Gabriel," the angel answered, "who stands before God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And--look you--you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things happen, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time." The people were waiting for Zacharias and they were surprised that he was lingering so long in the Temple. When he came out he was not able to speak to them and they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple. He kept making signs to them but he remained unable to speak. When the days of his time of service were completed he went away to his own home. After these days Elizabeth his wife conceived; and she hid herself for five months. "This is God's doing for me," she said, when he looked upon me to take away my shame among men.

Zacharias, the central character in this scene, was a priest. He belonged to the section of Abia. Every direct descendant of Aaron was automatically a priest. That meant that for all ordinary purposes there were far too many priests. They were therefore divided into twenty-four sections. Only at the Passover, at Pentecost and at the Feast of Tabernacles did all the priests serve. For the rest of the year each course served two periods of one week each. Priests who loved their work looked forward to that week of service above all things; it was the highlight of their lives.

A priest might marry only a woman of absolutely pure Jewish lineage. It was specially meritorious to marry a woman who was also a descendant of Aaron, as was Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias.

There was as many as twenty thousand priests altogether and so there were not far short of a thousand in each section. Within the sections all the duties were allocated by lot. Every morning and evening sacrifice was made for the whole nation. A burnt offering of a male lamb, one year old, without spot or blemish was offered, together with a meat offering of flour and oil and a drink offering of wine. Before the morning sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice incense was burned on the altar of incense so that, as it were, the sacrifices might go up to God wrapped in an envelope of sweet-smelling incense. It was quite possible that many a priest would never have the privilege of burning incense all his life; but if the lot did fall on any priest that day was the greatest day in all his life, the day he longed for and dreamed of. On this day the lot fell on Zacharias and he would be thrilled to the core of his being.

But in Zacharias's life there was tragedy. He and Elizabeth were childless. The Jewish Rabbis said that seven people were excommunicated from God and the list began, "A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child." Childlessness was a valid ground for divorce. Not unnaturally Zacharias, even on his great day, was thinking of his personal and domestic tragedy and was praying about it. Then the wondrous vision came and the glad message that, even when hope was dead, a son would be born to him.

The incense was burned and the offering made in the inmost court of the Temple, the Court of the Priests. While the sacrifice was being made, the congregation thronged the next court, the Court of the Israelites. It was the privilege of the priest at the evening sacrifice to come to the rail between the two courts after the incense had been burned in order to bless the people. The people marvelled that Zacharias was so long delayed. When he came he could not speak and the people knew that he had seen a vision. So in a wordless daze of joy Zacharias finished his week's duty and went home; and then the message of God came true and Elizabeth knew she was going to have a child.

One thing stands out here. It was in God's house that God's message came to Zacharias. We may often wish that a message from God would come to us. In Shaw's play, Saint Joan, Joan hears voices from God. The Dauphin is annoyed. "Oh, your voices, your voices," he said, "Why don't the voices come to me? I am king not you." "They do come to you," said Joan, "but you do not hear them. You have not sat in the field in the evening listening for them. When the angelus rings you cross yourself and have done with it; but if you prayed from your heart, and listened to the thrilling of the bells in the air after they stop ringing, you would hear the voices as well as I do." Joan gave herself the chance to hear God's voice. Zacharias was in the Temple waiting on God. God's voice comes to those who listen for it--as Zacharias did--in God's house.

GOD'S MESSAGE TO MARY (Luke 1:26-38)

1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a maiden who was betrothed to a man called Joseph, who belonged to the house of David. The maiden's name was Mary. He came in to her and said, "Greetings, most favoured one. The Lord is with you." She was deeply moved at this word and wondered what a greeting like that could mean. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour in God's sight. Look you--you will conceive and you will bear a son and you must call him by the name of Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father; and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be since I do not know a man?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Spirit of the Most High will overshadow you, and so the child who will be born will be called holy, the Son of God, and--look you--Elizabeth, too, your kinswoman has also conceived in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who is called barren, because there is nothing which is impossible with God." Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant. Whatever he says, I accept." And the angel went away from her.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal lasted for a year and was quite as binding as marriage. It could be dissolved only by divorce. Should the man to whom a girl was betrothed die, in the eyes of the law she was a widow. In the law there occurs the strange-sounding phrase, "a virgin who is a widow."

In this passage we are face to face with one of the great controversial doctrines of the Christian faith--the Virgin Birth. The church does not insist that we believe in this doctrine. Let us look at the reasons for and against believing in it, and then we may make our own decision.

There are two great reasons for accepting it.

(i) The literal meaning of this passage, and still more of Matthew 1:18-25, clearly is that Jesus was to be born of Mary without a human father.

(ii) It is natural to argue that if Jesus was, as we believe, a very special person, he would have a special entry into the world.

Now let us look at the things which may make us wonder if the story of the virgin birth is to be taken as literally as all that.

(i) The genealogies of Jesus both in Luke and in Matthew (Luke 3:23-38; Matthew 1:1-17) trace the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, which is strange if Joseph was not his real father.

(ii) When Mary was looking for Jesus on the occasion that he lingered behind in the Temple, she said, "Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously" (Luke 2:48). The name father is definitely given by Mary to Joseph.

(iii) Repeatedly Jesus is referred to as Joseph's son (Matthew 13:55; John 6:42).

(iv) The rest of the New Testament knows nothing of the virgin birth. True, in Galatians 4:4 Paul speaks of Jesus as "born of woman." But this is the natural phrase for any mortal man. (compare Job 14:1; Job 15:14; Job 25:4).

But let us ask, "If we do not take the story of the virgin birth literally, how did it arise?" The Jews had a saying that in the birth of every child there are three partners--the father, the mother and the Spirit of God. They believed that no child could ever be born without the Spirit. And it may well be that the New Testament stories of the birth of Jesus are lovely, poetical ways of saying that, even if he had a human father, the Holy Spirit of God was operative in his birth in a unique way.

In this matter we may make our own decision. It may be that we will desire to cling to the literal doctrine of the virgin birth; it may be that we will prefer to think of it as a beautiful way of stressing the presence of the Spirit of God in family life.

Mary's submission is a very lovely thing. "Whatever God says, I accept." Mary had learned to forget the world's commonest prayer--"Thy will be changed"--and to pray the world's greatest prayer--"Thy will be done."


1:39-45 In those days Mary arose and went eagerly to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and went into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting the babe leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she lifted up her voice with a great cry and said, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why has this been granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For--look you--when the voice of your greeting came to my ears the babe in my womb leaped with exultation. Blessed is she who believed that the things spoken to her from the Lord would find their fulfilment."

This is a kind of lyrical song on the blessedness of Mary. Nowhere can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in her life. To Mary was granted the blessedness of being the mother of the Son of God. Well might her heart be filled with a wondering, tremulous joy at so great a privilege. Yet that very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart. It meant that some day she would see her son hanging on a cross.

To be chosen by God so often means at one and the same time a crown of joy and cross of sorrow. The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it. God chooses a man in order to use him. When Joan of Arc knew that her time was short she prayed, "I shall only last a year; use me as you can." When that is realized, the sorrows and hardships that serving God may bring are not matters for lamentation; they are our glory, for all is suffered for God.

When Richard Cameron, the Covenanter, was caught by the dragoons they killed him. He had very beautiful hands and they cut them off and sent them to his father with a message asking if he recognized them. "They are my son's," he said, "my own dear son's. Good is the will of the Lord who can never wrong me or mine." The shadows of life were lit by the sense that they, too, were in the plan of God. A great Spanish saint prayed for his people, "May God deny you peace and give you glory." A great modern preacher said, "Jesus Christ came not to make life easy but to make men great."

It is the paradox of blessedness that it confers on a person at one and the same time the greatest joy and the greatest task in all the world.

A WONDROUS HYMN (Luke 1:46-56)

1:46-56 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has exulted in God, my Saviour, because he looked graciously on the humble estate of his servant. For--look you--from now on all generations shall call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me and his name is holy. His mercy is from generation to generation to those who fear him. He demonstrates his power with his arm. He scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. He casts down the mighty from their seats of power. He exalts the humble. He fills those who are hungry with good things and he sends away empty those who are rich. He has helped Israel, his son, in that he has remembered his mercy--as he said to our fathers that he would--to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Here we have a passage which has become one of the great hymns of the church--the Magnificat. It is saturated in the Old Testament; and is specially kin to Hannah's song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. It has been said that religion is the opiate of the people; but, as Stanley Jones said, "the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world."

It speaks of three of the revolutions of God.

(i) He scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. That is a moral revolution. Christianity is the death of pride. Why? Because if a man sets his life beside that of Christ it tears the last vestiges of pride from him.

Sometimes something happens to a man which with a vivid, revealing light shames him. O. Henry has a short story about a lad who was brought up in a village. In school he used to sit beside a girl and they were fond of each other. He went to the city and fell into evil ways. He became a pickpocket and a petty thief. One day he snatched an old lady's purse. It was clever work and he was pleased. And then he saw coming down the street the girl whom he used to know, still sweet with the radiance of innocence. Suddenly he saw himself for the cheap, vile thing he really was. Burning with shame, he leaned his head against the cool iron of a lamp standard. "God," he said, "I wish I could die." He saw himself.

Christ enables a man to see himself. It is the deathblow to pride. The moral revolution has begun.

(ii) He casts down the mighty--he exalts the humble. That is a social revolution. Christianity puts an end to the world's labels and prestige.

Muretus was a wandering scholar of the middle ages. He was poor. In an Italian town he took ill and was taken to a hospital for waifs and strays. The doctors were discussing his case in Latin, never dreaming he could understand. They suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer they might use him for medical experiments. He looked up and answered them in their own learned tongue, "Call no man worthless for whom Christ died!"

When we have realized what Christ did for all men, it is no longer possible to speak about a common man. The social grades are gone.

(iii) He has filled those who are hungry ... those who are rich he has sent empty away. That is an economic revolution. A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get. A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.

There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity begets a revolution in each man and revolution in the world.

HIS NAME IS JOHN (Luke 1:57-66)

1:57-66 When Elizabeth's time to bear the child was completed she brought forth a son. When her neighbours and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they went to circumcise the child and it was their intention to call him Zacharias after his father. But his mother said, "No; he must be called John." They said to her, "There is no one in your connection who is called by this name." They asked his father by signs by what name he wished him to be called. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "John is his name." Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed and he kept on praising God. And great awe fell upon all the neighbours, and all these events were talked about in all the hill country of Judaea; and all those who heard them kept them in their hearts and said, "What will this child turn out to be, for the hand of the Lord is with him?"

In Palestine the birth of a boy was an occasion of great joy. When the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians gathered near the house. When the birth was announced and it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulation and rejoicing. If it was a girl the musicians went silently and regretfully away! There was a saying, "The birth of a male child causes universal joy, but the birth of a female child causes universal sorrow." So in Elizabeth's house there was double joy. At last she had a child and that child was a son.

On the eighth day the boy was circumcised and received his name. Girls could be named any time within thirty days of their birth. In Palestine names were descriptive. They sometimes described a circumstance attending the birth as Esau and Jacob do (Genesis 25:25-26). They sometimes described the child. Laban, for instance, means white or blonde. Sometimes the child received the parental name. Often the name described the parents' joy. Saul and Samuel, for instance, both mean "asked for." Sometimes the name was a declaration of the parents' faith. Elijah for instance, means "Jehovah is my God." Thus, in a time of Baal-worship, Elijah's parents asserted their faith in the true God.

Elizabeth, to the neighbours' surprise, said that her son must be called John and Zacharias indicated that that was also his desire. John is a shorter form of the name Jehohanan, which means "Jehovah's gift" or "God is gracious." It was the name which God had ordered to be given to the child and it described the parents' gratitude for an unexpected joy.

It was the question of the neighbours and of all who had heard the amazing story, "What will this child turn out to be?" Every child is a bundle of possibilities. There was an old Latin schoolmaster who always bowed gravely to his class before he taught them. When he was asked why, he answered, "Because you never know what one of these lads will turn out to be." The entry of a child into a family is two things. First, it is the greatest privilege which life can offer a man and wife. It is something for which to thank God. Second, it is one of life's supreme responsibilities, for that child is a bundle of possibilities, and on parents and teachers depends how these possibilities will or will not be realized.

A FATHER'S JOY (Luke 1:67-80)

1:67-80 His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied like this: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has graciously visited his people and wrought deliverance for them. He has raised the horn of salvation for us in the house of David, his servant--as long ago he said he would through the mouth of his holy prophets--even deliverance from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, in that he has shown mercy to us as he did to our fathers and has remembered his holy covenant, the pledge which he gave to Abraham our father, to grant to us that we, being delivered from the hands of our enemies, should fearlessly serve him, in holiness and righteousness before him, all our days. And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will walk before the Lord to prepare his ways, in order to give the knowledge of salvation to his people together with forgiveness of their sins, through the mercy of our God, in which the dawn from on high has graciously visited us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to direct our feet in the way of peace."

And the child grew and was strengthened by the Spirit; and he lived in the desert places until the day when he was displayed to Israel.

Zacharias had a great vision for his son. He thought of him as the prophet and the forerunner who would prepare the way of the Lord. All devout Jews hoped and longed for the day when the Messiah, God's anointed king, would come. Most of them believed that, before he came, a forerunner would announce his coming and prepare his way. The usual belief was that Elijah would return to do so (Malachi 4:5). Zacharias saw in his son the one who would prepare the way for the coming of God's king.

Luke 1:75-77 give a great picture of the steps of the Christian way.

(i) There is preparation. All life is a preparation to lead us to Christ. When Sir Walter Scott was young his aim was to be a soldier. An accident made him slightly lame and that dream had to be abandoned. He took to reading the old Scottish histories and romances and so became the master novelist. An old man said of him, "He was makin' himself a' the time; but he didna ken maybe what he was about till years had passed." In life God is working all things together to bring us to Christ.

(ii) There is knowledge. It is the simple fact that men did not know what God was like until Jesus came. The Greeks thought of a passionless God, beyond all joy and sorrow, looking on men in calm unmoved detachment--no help there. The Jews thought of a demanding God, whose name was law and whose function was that of judge--nothing but terror there. Jesus came to tell that God was love, and in staggered amazement men could only say, "We never knew that God was like that." One of the great functions of the incarnation was to bring to men the knowledge of God.

(iii) There is forgiveness. We must be clear about one thing regarding forgiveness. It is not so much the remission of penalty as the restoration of a relationship. Nothing can deliver us from certain consequences of our sins; the clock cannot be put back; but estrangement from God is turned to friendship. The distant God has become near and the God we feared has become the lover of the souls of men.

(iv) There is walking in the ways of peace. Peace in Hebrew does not mean merely freedom from trouble; it means all that makes for a man's highest good; and through Christ a man is enabled to walk in the ways that lead to everything that means life, and no longer to all that means death.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 1". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.