Do you think that when angels are sent by God with a message, they understand the message they deliver?
The reason I ask is that for three weeks now, as I have tried to work on a post for this blog, I have been struggling to make sense of what an angel says in Luke 1:17. Though I wrote an explanation of Luke 1:17 in my commentary, I don’t fully understand it.
At first, the verse seems rather straight forward. But if you check the average commentary, and you will see that nobody really knows what to do with it, or what it means. Oh sure, everybody agrees that the general thrust of the verse is that John, when he comes, will help prepare Israel for the Messiah. That is clear from the last phrase of the verse, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” But what does the rest of the verse mean?
First, the angel states that John will be a prophet like Elijah, one of the greatest Hebrew prophets. Then he quotes from Malachi 4:6, the last verse in the English Old Testament (but NOT the last verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is 2 Chronicles 36:23). But the angel doesn’t quote all of Malachi 4:6, but only part of it. Instead, he says something odd about wisdom and righteousness, and then moves on to the point everybody understands, that John will prepare the way for the Messiah.
The more you dig, the more questions you uncover. In the first part of the verse, who goes before whom? Does John go before the Messiah, or does the Lord God go before John 9 (cf. 1:16)? Furthermore, why does the angel say that John will be a prophet like Elijah, but John never does any miracles like Elijah? At least, none that are recorded in Scripture. And why does John later deny that he is the Elijah that was to come (John 1:21), but then Jesus later says that John was this Elijah (Matt 11:14; 17:12)?
And why does the angel quote from Malachi 4:6, but only part of the verse? Does he mean to recall the whole verse, or just the part he quotes? For example, Malachi 4:6 talks about a curse on the land. By leaving this out, was the angel implying that it was to come, or purposefully excluding it? Maybe he was saying that the curse depended on how the people responded.
And how are we to understand the reference to children and fathers? Does this refer simply to families, such as something you might get from James Dobson at Focus on the Family, or it is figurative language for how John will call the children of Israel back into faithful obedience to God, in the same manner as their forefathers (cf. 1:16)? But this seems backwards, for the angel says that John will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Furthermore, if this verse really is about how John is going to bring families back together, and reinforce family values, how does this fit with passages like Micah 7:5-6, Luke 12:51-53, 14:25-27, and 18:29 which reveal that Jesus, in some sense, came to tear apart families? Is John supposed to bring families together just to prepare them for Jesus who will tear them apart?
Maybe it not about families exactly, but the “family of Israel.” The children would be those Israelites alive at the time of John, while the fathers would be the forefathers. But if the angel is talking about the children of Israel and their forefathers, how can people who are dead turn their hearts back to their descendants? It doesn’t make sense.
Does the statement in 1:17 about wisdom and righteousness shed any light on how the angel is using Malachi 4:6? If so, is it by parallellism or contrast? In other words, does fathers=disobedient and children=the just, or is it vice versa? Maybe the angel is explaining the second (unquoted) line of Malachi 4:6, in which case the children=disobedient, and the fathers=the just. Or maybe this comparison is completely off track, and it has nothing to do with families or ancestors, but simply about wise and foolish people. Or maybe God is the wise father, and the Israelites are the disobedient children, and they need to return to God? But if so, then again, how does this fit with the quote from Malachi 4:6? In what way is the heart of God turning back to His children?
And the questions go on and on. I have found commentators and pastors who have stated all of the above ideas in one way or another, and have attempted answers in their own fashion. But what really is the angel saying?
One possible solution, which I don’t remember reading anywhere, is that the angel is referring specifically to Zacharias. He is a man who is about to be a father. For years he has been praying for a child, and now he is about to receive one. Maybe this is specific instructions to Zacharias to raise his son in a way that will enable John to be the prophet who will prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Of course, both “fathers” and “children” are plural, so this is probably not the best option.
The Angelic Explanation
Ironically, as I write this, I can’t help wishing that the angel who said this would show up and, shaking his head at me, say, “Here is what I meant…” Or maybe he would just say, “Sheesh! Don’t read so much into it! Forget all your questions, and just read the dang story!”
Yeah, that’s probably good advice, but I just can’t let it go. So rather than depend on an angel to explain to me what he meant, I have to depend on something better – You! (cf. Ps 8:5; 1 Cor 6:3; 1 Pet 1:12). In fact, since angels are messengers, speaking the words God has given them to say, maybe this angel didn’t fully understand what he was saying either, and is waiting for someone like you to explain it to him! So mosey on over to the online commentary, register (it’s free), and post your own insights on 1:17.