Luke 1:57-80 – What’s In a Name?

Luke 1 Naming of John the Baptist

1. A Paternal Problem (Luke 1:57-66)

2. A Proud Papa’ Praise (Luke 1:67-79)

3. A Prophet’s Preparation (Luke 1:80)

What’s in a name? How and why do we parents choose what to name our children? My wife, Wendy, will have our second child sometime in mid to late January, and for months now, we have been trying to decide on a name. We still have not decided for sure on any one name. I’m sure many of you parents have had the same experience.

But have you ever considered what factors we use to choose a name? Here in the modern, western civilization, we often pick names based on how a name sounds, or what the name reminds us of, or whether it is a common name or not. Some people like unique names, some people don’t. Maybe when you were naming your kids, there was a name you thought was good, but when you mentioned it to your spouse, they were reminded of a kid they had trouble with back in grade school, and so could never name their child that.

There are other reasons for why names come and go. For example, you don’t hear of too many boys nowadays being named Fred, Harry or Larry. But those names were quite popular for several decades of the 20th Century. Of course, didn’t David Letterman name his new son Harry? That’s something only David Letterman would do. On the other hand, I met a little three year old girl a few weeks ago named Harley. Her last name was Davidson. What does that tell you about her parents?

When I was a kid, the name Jeremy was a quite popular name. My mother tells me, however, that when she gave me the name, she thought she had found a very unique name. But many other mothers thought the same thing, so that when I was in school, there were three other Jeremy’s in my same class. And that was only a class of about 25 kids. The rest of the school had at least four other Jeremy’s, and at church there were more still. So Jeremy was a very common name for my age group. But, I remember thinking, when I was about eight or ten that I was never going to grow up, because I didn’t know any grown-ups with the name Jeremy. Jeremy was not an adult name. But here I am, and now there are many adults named Jeremy because we all became adults at about the same time.

Anyway, picking a name is a curious process, isn’t it?

And today, in the last part of Luke 1, we learn of the events surrounding the naming of a child. We will be looking today at Luke 1:57-80.

In the Middle East, they pick names based on different criteria than we do. For them, the way the name sounded was not that important. It was also not that important if the name was popular or unpopular. Generally, they picked names in one of two ways.

First, they most often named firstborn sons after the father, and other sons after some other relative. Similarly, girls were often named after the mother or grandmother. But sometimes, they chose different names for their children, and in these cases the names were chosen for what they mean. You see, names are like all words, they have definitions. And the people of the Middle East often looked upon the meaning of the name of a child as a prediction or prophecy for what kind of person that child would grow up to be.

When we look in the book of Hosea, for example, he has several children, and gives them prophetic names. The prophet Isaiah does the same thing. He names his children with prophetically significant names also. My favorite is Isaiah 8, where Isaiah names his son Maher-shalal-hash-baz. It means “quick pickings, easy prey.” With a name like that, I imagine he was picked on in grade school. If we ever have a boy, that name is not on Wendy’s and my top ten list.

The point is that this was the way parents named their children in that time in the Middle East, during Biblical times. They either gave them a relative’s name, or a prophetically significant name.

Wendy and I like to choose our children’s name based on meaning also. We are not making prophecies about our children, but we do pray that they live up to their names. Our daughter is Taylor Grace. Her first name, Taylor, means “to mend or to sew.” Her middle name, grace, means “unmerited favor, receiving something good that we don’t deserve.” It is our prayer for her that she will be a mender of hearts as she reveals God’s grace to a torn world.

But all of this just leads us to what we see happen in Luke 1:57-66. We have a little family feud over the name of a newborn son. Let’s begin in verse 57.

1. A Paternal Problem (Luke 1:57-66)

Luke 1:57. Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son.

Remember, we learned back in the first part of chapter 1, that Elizabeth was barren, and she could not have a son. Zacharias, her husband, was a priest, and he was chosen to go offer the incense in the temple. While there, an angel appeared to him and told him that although he and Elizabeth were old, and she was barren, God was going to give them a son. But Zacharias doubted God’s Word, and so he was struck dumb. Because of his doubt, he was not able to talk. But Elizabeth did conceive, and now, nine months later, she gives birth to a son.

Luke 1:58. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her.

She had some friends and relatives with her. One of them was probably Mary. And when her son was born, they all rejoiced with her. Traditionally, the friends and family would come over every night for seven days to rejoice with the proud parents. I think that similarly, when God works on our behalf, it is appropriate that we include others in giving praise to God for what He has done.

Luke 1:59. 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.

It was the law that all Jewish boys be circumcised on the eighth day, and it was also the ordinary custom that boys be named after their father or some other male relative.

The naming of the child was part of the circumcision ceremony. It was very similar to a child dedication ceremony, or a christening, like we have today. Most often, the father would preside over the ceremony, but since Zacharias was unable to speak, probably one of the local priests filled in for him. The ceremony consisted of prayers to God, then the naming of the child, followed by the circumcision, and a symbolic cup of wine. This was probably followed by food and fellowship.

So somebody filled in for Zacharias, and it appears from verse 59 that whoever it was just assumed that the new baby boy would be named Zacharias, or Zach, Jr. The priest probably came to the part in the ceremony where the baby boy was named, and began to pray, “Our God and the God of our fathers, raise up this child to his father and mother, and let his name be called in Israel, Zacharias, the son of Zacharias.”

Now Zacharias would have been a good name. It was his father’s name, and it means “the one whom Yahweh remembers.” That’s a good name to have. But just at the priest was praying this prayer, Elizabeth jumps in, she interrupts, and says, “No! Wait! He is not be named Zacharias.

Luke 1:60. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.”

And they all thought, “Well that’s strange. Why John?” Look at verse 61.

Luke 1:61. But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.”

They say, “You can’t name him John. Nobody in your family is named John. To name him John is almost an insult to the rest of the family.” So maybe they argued about this for a while. Maybe Elizabeth said that the reason they were to name him John is because that’s what the angel had told Zacharias. So they decide to ask Zacharias what he thinks the name should be.

And you might ask, “Well, how come he hasn’t gotten involved already?” Luke 1:62 gives us a hint why he hasn’t gotten involved. I think it was because he didn’t know what they were arguing about. Not only was Zacharias dumb – unable to talk, but he was also deaf – unable to hear.

Luke 1:62. So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called.

It says they made signs to Zacharias. If Zacharias could hear what was going on, why would they make signs to him? I think it was because Zacharias couldn’t hear either. Now we might say, “But back in verse 20, the angel only says that Zacharias will be mute – unable to speak. He doesn’t say anything about being deaf.” Well, Greek scholars wiser than myself say that the word in verse 20 can be used to refer to both hearing and speaking.

Luke 1:62 seems to say that Zacharias was both deaf and dumb.

So imagine the scene. Zacharias was standing there, just enjoying the ceremony. He can’t hear and he can’t speak, but he has attended these ceremonies before, and he knows what is going on. He probably had a silly grin on his face as most fathers do at such ceremonies. And just as he is thinking about how great it is to have a son, all of a sudden, right in the middle of the ceremony, a big argument, a debate, breaks out. He has no idea what is going on. And it seems that it is Elizabeth against everyone else. Finally, they turn to him, and with signs, let him know what the controversy is about, and ask him what name will be given to his son.

All of a sudden, he understands. “Ah yes. They wanted to name him after me, but Elizabeth knew that the angel Gabriel had told me to name him John. That’s what the controversy is about.” So he signals for a writing tablet.

Luke 1:63. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled.

They didn’t have blackboards back then in Israel, and this probably wasn’t paper and ink. The writing tablet was a flat piece of wax which could be written on, and then smoothed out again. This was probably how he and Elizabeth had communicated with each other for nine months. He takes this wax tablet and writes, “His name is John.” John, by the way , is a good name too. It means, “God has been gracious.” And God was gracious, to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and to all who encountered John later in life.

Luke 1:64. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God.

Because he was made dumb through doubting God, he now receives back his ability to speak when he believes God. And the first thing he does is praise God. He has not been able to say a word for nine months, and now that he can speak, the first words out of his mouth are praise to God.

We will see what he spoke in verses 67-79, but first we see the response of the rest of the family.

Luke 1:65-66. 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.

You know, most of the time, almost all of the time, gossip is bad. But there are a few instances where gossip is good. We could call it “good news gossip” or “Gospel Gossip.”

This good kind of gossip is when God does something amazing for us, or in our church, or for somebody else, and we just want to spread it all over town. It is so amazing that we want to call everybody in the phonebook, and say, “Wow! Did you hear what God did for Zacharias?”

Or, “You’ll never believe what happened! We prayed for Harry and Sally at the prayer meeting and Bible study on Wednesday night, and not one week later, our prayer was answered! Isn’t that incredible?”

I hope you can do that at work and in your neighborhood. Godly gossip. Gospel gossip. Just letting your mouth speak from the overflow in your life of what exciting things God is doing. And that was the end of the Family Feud.

2. A Papa’s Praise (Luke 1:67-79)

(This song is explained in more detail in the Sermon called: The Songs of Christmas: Zach’s Song)

But now we come to the Papa’s praise. I was going to get really creative with this second point and call it, A Proud Papa’s praise to the Provident Provider for the Promised Priestly Personage and his Prophet Progeny who prepares the path. But that’s pretty annoying. The point is thought is that Zacharias, with the first words out of his mouth, praises God and prophecies about the future.

Luke 1:67. Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:

Zacharias is going to prophecy about, and praise God for, two things. First, for the Promised Messiah is about to come – we see that in verses 68-75, and then secondly, in Luke 1:76-79, he has some praise for his own newborn son because he will be the prophet who will prepare the way for the Messiah. So let’s look at both sections one at a time. First, Zacharias’ praise to God for the promised Messiah in Luke 1:68-75.

1. Praise to God for the Promised Messiah (Luke 1:68-75)

Before we look at it though, recall that when Zacharias was in the temple, and Gabriel appeared to him, Gabriel quoted a promise of God from the Old Testament.

Do you remember where that promise was from? From the last verse of the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi 4:6. Well, as we look at what Zacharias says here, it is obvious that he has been studying the Bible during this nine months of silence, and especially the last chapter of Malachi. Much of what he says in his prophecy is similar to what we read in Malachi 4.

And it’s not just Malachi 4 he has in mind, but many of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Many of them are condensed down into this short song from Zacharias.

Let’s begin in Luke 1:68.

Luke 1:68.  “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,

The first words out of his mouth are praise to God for what He has done and will do. He is about to redeem Israel, ransom captive Israel. Deliver them from their bondage.

Luke 1:69. And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David,

It appears that Zacharias knows that Mary and Joseph were of royal decent. That the son Mary carries will be of the house of David. The idea of the horn of salvation carries the idea of strength. The horn is the symbol of strength for animals. So the coming Messiah will be strong to save.

Strong to save from what? Well, the word “salvation” is used in the Bible many, many different ways. Here, Zacharias seems to be using it in reference to deliverance from their enemies. Deliverance from Rome and the Idumean king, King Herod, sitting on the throne in Jerusalem. So the horn of salvation means that the Messiah will be strong to save them from their enemies. We see this in Luke 1:70-75.

Luke 1:70-75. As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

You see, Zacharias was only expecting a Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies. He was only expecting a warlike Messiah. A conquering Messiah. A Messiah who would lead Israel back to prominence among the nations. This was the most common understanding of the Messiah at that time. And it was not a wrong understanding. Many, many prophecies of the Old Testament promise such a Messiah. And Jesus will be that Messiah. But what most people failed to understand was that Jesus was going to come twice. The first time to suffer and die. The first time to be mocked and ridiculed and rejected. The first time to serve.

This is why many of the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah when he came, because he was not the kind of Messiah they expected. What they didn’t know, and what Jesus tried to teach them, was that He was going to come twice. The first time to suffer and die for sin. Yes, to fight a battle against our enemy, but not the enemy they all thought of. Jesus came to defeat the greatest enemy – sin and death. And then he will come again, a second time, as the mighty warrior and judge, as the conqueror. So Zacharias’ prophecy here is true, but much of it did not come true at Christ’s first coming. It will fully come true only at His second coming.

Well, from here Zacharias moves on to talk about his son, John, and the part he will play in the plan of God. He praises John for being the one to prepare the way for the Messiah. Luke 1:76-79. It is here that we see some of the things the Messiah will do in his first coming.

2. Praise for John that he will prepare the way for the Messiah (Luke 1:76-79)

Luke 1:76. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,

John will also fulfill prophecies out of Isaiah and elsewhere about going before the Messiah to prepare the way for the Lord. Zacharias recognizes these prophecies here and emphasizes them. Verse 77-79 explain what the Messiah will do after John has prepared the way. There are three things. One, to give knowledge, two to give light, and three, to give peace.

First, knowledge.

Luke 1:77-78. To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;

Here, the salvation is of the spiritual kind, rather than the salvation from physical enemies, because of the mention of sins in Luke 1:77.

The word Dayspring could also be translated “Sunrise.” The world was in a dark night, black with sin, but Jesus was the sunrise, bringing light and peace. That’s what we see from Luke 1:79.

Luke 1:79.  To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The world is looking for answers, but the light comes only from Jesus Christ. Similarly, the world is calling for peace, but the only way peace ever happens is when people believe in Jesus for eternal life and start living the way He wants us to. There is no roadmap for peace that will work apart from Jesus Christ.

The final point we want to look at today is found in Luke 1:80.

3. A Prophet’s Preparation (Luke 1:80)

Luke 1:80. So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Let me point out several important elements in this very brief concluding statement. [1]

(1) This statement summarizes the entire period of John’s life prior to his public ministry. In less than 30 words, approximately 30 years of John’s life are summarized. And you know what? John was a very important figure, but this is all we know of his first 30 years.

(2) This statement speaks especially of his spiritual growth during his growing-up years. Luke tells us that John “became strong in spirit.” This tells us that your spiritual development is more important to God than what you look like on the outside, or where you were born, or what kind of clothes you wear. God looks at the heart, and if you want to prepare yourself for ministry, start with your heart.

(3) I think that it is important that this preparation for ministry took place in the desert, in solitude.

Does it ever seem like God is slow to use you? Like you have been waiting and waiting for him to use you, but nothing ever happens? Well, be faithful where he has placed you. Grow where you are planted. And when you are ready, when God’s timing comes, he will transplant you from the desert you find yourself in to the area of ministry He has prepared just for you. It may sometimes feel like you are wasting away in the desert, but that is God preparing you for the future. That’s some of what we learn from verse 80.

I want to close today by asking a question about the passage we’ve looked at today. Especially the part about the family feud over the name of John. Why is that there? Luke is the only Gospel writer to record it, and although it is interesting, it doesn’t really seem that significant. It doesn’t really seem that important to the story of Jesus, or even to the story of John, that there was a disagreement about what to name him.

The beginning of the answer is found when we remember and recognize that the Jews did see naming a child as a prophecy of what they would become. The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would “walk in the steps of his father,” that he would carry on the father’s name, and thus his work as well. Now if John had been named “Zach, Jr.,” he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. He would thus have gone about with his father as he carried out his priestly duties, learning how to do things, just like his daddy did them.

To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s steps. He would not learn to do what his father did. He would not be a priest. This, of course, was precisely the case, and therefore the reason for the name John. It isn’t the meaning of the name “John” which is so important, then, but the message implied by having any name other than Zacharias which is such an emotional issue. Naming him John was to renounce the family, its work, and its continuation through the next generation. And since this new name was commanded by God, God was indicating that John would not be carrying on his father’s name, nor his work. And this is exactly what happened.

Think of the ways in which John became very different from his father.

  • Zacharias was a priest; John was a prophet.
  • John was a Nazarite; his father was not.
  • Zacharias lived among the people; John lived in the solitude of the people.
  • Zacharias was a part of the old religious system; John was not—he stood apart from it.
  • Zacharias, as evidenced by his psalm of praise, spoke as an Israelite, but John, being somewhat removed from typical Israelite life and the religious system of the day, was able to see the errors which had developed in Judaism.

This is what we will see when John begins his public ministry in Luke 3. He comes on the scene to challenge the religious leaders of the day, and call everyone to turn their backs on corrupt Judaism the way he had turned his back on his own family.

So too, as Christians, as disciples, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to turn our back on who we were before we were Christians. The world still wants to claim us as it’s own, to give us it’s own name. To have us follow in it’s footsteps. But when we believe in Jesus for eternal life, we get a new name, a name that the world would not give us, a name that tells everybody we are going to be different. What is that name? It is Christian.

If you have read Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ll remember that the pilgrim’s name throughout the book is Christian. But do you know that this was not his original name? His original name is plainly stated in the story. In the scene in which it first appears, the pilgrim is conversing with the porter who asks, “What is your name.”

Christian answers: “My name is now Christian, but my name at first was Graceless.”

The same could be said for all of us today who claim the glorious name of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Our name is now Christian, but it has not always been so. That title was given to us the moment we believed, the day we took our God at His Word and accepted the gift of eternal life He offered to us. Prior to the name change, we were Graceless, we were worldly.

It doesn’t matter what is in your past, you have a new name, and a new future, and a new identity in Jesus Christ. We are Christians. As John the Baptist lived up to his new name, let us live up to ours as well.


[1] Deffinbaugh, Luke 04.


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