Luke: His Name Is John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on January 11, 2009

Luke 1:57-66

The Lord’s Day

January 11, 2009

Luke 1:57-66

“His Name Is John”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to Luke, chapter one, as we continue to make our way through the Gospel of
Luke together. The last time we were with Zechariah, he had literally been
struck dumb. He was mute because he struggled to get his head and heart around
the promise of the angel to him that he was going to be a father at an advanced
age, and that his beloved wife Elizabeth was going to be a mother at an advanced
age. And when he could not express believing trust in God’s promise, the angel
said, ‘Well, Zechariah, you’re not going to be able to speak until that baby
that God has promised through my word to you has been born.’

And so it’s been a long nine months for Zechariah. He
has apparently been communicating via a writing tablet, because that writing
tablet shows up in the passage that we are going to be reading today. And he has
apparently told Elizabeth, through the vehicle of that writing tablet about his
encounter with the angel, because she knows now what the angel has said and what
name is to be given to their child. And even though he can’t speak, she’s ready
to do so at the appropriate time. But during this time, which was no doubt a
time of soul searching for Zechariah…a time of silence, a time of repentance, a
time of reflection…(I’m tempted to say, in the words of the passage that Nate
read this morning, “a valley of vision”)…a time in the midst of his own
repentance to consider the meaning of the word of the Lord and to consider
whether he really believes the word of God.

And you’re going to find out as we read this passage
today that Zechariah passes this test with flying colors. Unlike the first time,
there has been a work of grace done in his heart so that at the moment of truth,
there is not the slightest hesitation on his part to express his trust in the
word of the Lord.

So let’s give attention to God’s word in Luke 1,
beginning in verse 57:

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her
neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and
they rejoiced with her.

“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they
would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No;
he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is
called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he
wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name
is John.’ And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his
tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors.
And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea,
and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will
this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Luke, throughout this portion of his Gospel, having
investigated with eyewitnesses, first-hand players in the unfolding events that
led up to the birth of Jesus the Messiah, is bringing us into that story. And
one of the remarkable things about the stories that Luke tells in the opening
chapters and verses of the Gospel is that he pulls you into the story that he is
telling you, and he asks you to make the same kinds of judgments that people in
those stories are having to make about the events around them: Will you believe
the word of God? Will you believe that Jesus is the Messiah? Will you believe
that God himself has intervened into human history and has brought salvation in
this remarkable way? Will you believe? In other words, you’re not just a
bystander listening to a good story. As Luke recounts for you this history, he
tells this history in such a way that it puts you right in the middle of it so
that you are being demanded to make either a response of faith or to reject the
compelling power of the claims of truth that are being presented in this very,
very gripping recounting of the history of the events that lead up to the birth
of Jesus the Messiah. And this is yet another one of those that we come into
contact with in the early verses of Luke.

Well, there are many things that we could learn
from this passage. It is, I think, obvious to you where Luke is going in his
recounting of this story.
You really see it, don’t you, in verse 66. What
this story is designed to do is to focus your attention on who John the Baptist
is, so that your attention will be focused on who John the Baptist came to point
to. Luke wants you to think long and hard about who John is, even as the people
around Zechariah and Elizabeth were forced by the events surrounding John’s
birth to think long and hard about who this child is, because Luke wants you
think about who the Child is that this child has come to point to. Everything is
leading up to Christ, and just as we saw Elizabeth respond to Mary when Mary
came to visit her, not focusing all the attention upon herself and upon her
child, but focusing all the attention upon Jesus the Messiah, so again Luke is
going to have all the attention eventually on what God is doing through John in
order to bring the Messiah into the world.

But I want you to see three things very quickly as
we walk through this passage together.
I want you to see something about the
joy that was shared by Elizabeth and her friends and relatives. I want you to
see something about the origin of that joy, the roots of that joy. I want you to
see something about Zechariah’s faith, and what he learned in those nine months
of silence. And then, I want you to see, most importantly of all, the witness
that God is establishing in this passage to Jesus Christ.

I. Joy.

Let’s look at the joy first. You see it
described in verses 57-58:

“When the
time came for Elizabeth to give birth to her child, she bore a son….”

And then we read in verse 58,

“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her,
and they rejoiced with her.”

Now there’s nothing surprising about
that, is there? When women have children, their friends and their relatives
rejoice with them. There’s nothing surprising about that. We rejoice when a
child comes into the world. And of course, in her case, she’s rather advanced in
years and so is Zechariah, and so there’s all the more natural reason to
rejoice. They didn’t think that this family was ever going to have children, and
God has given them a son. And so there’s every reason for rejoicing.

But did you notice the way that Luke describes this?
He doesn’t say that her neighbors and relatives heard that she had had a child
and rejoiced with her. What does he say?

“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the
had shown great mercy to her.”

Do you see the difference? It’s not just
that she’s had a child. This is not a matter of “luck” — of chance. This is the
Lord’s doing! The root of their joy was in the
recognition that this was God’s provision.
God had done this thing.
She just hadn’t had a child. God had done this thing! He was in the midst of it.
Oh, yes, I understand she was advanced in age, and that would be all the more
reason for them to recognize God’s hand; but you understand, friends, that we
always need to see God’s hand in whatever has been provided us, because there
has been nothing given to any of us that does not come from the hand of our
heavenly Father, who is a good giver. James reminds us of this:

“Every good gift comes from
the Father of lights, in whom there is no shifting shadow.”

And this is a reminder to us that the kind of joy that we
ought to share together as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether it is at
the birth of a child or in whatever other circumstance of life, ought to be
rooted in our sense that God has provided. They even describe it that way:

“They heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her.”

It’s the Lord behind this. The Lord is the one who has
given her a son. Their joy was rooted in a recognition of God’s providence, and
His goodness and kindness and mercy.

II. Zechariah’s faith.

Well, there’s a second thing I want you to
see, and you’ll see it in verses 59-64. It’s a great story, isn’t it? They have
gathered for the circumcision. This means that the boy who will eventually be
called John is eight days old now. And it seems that they are going to name him
at the time of the circumcision. This was not part of the Old Testament law, by
the way. Old Testament law did not require you to name your child at the time of
circumcision, but it was apparently the custom that they were following. And
when the people gathered for that rite of circumcision, they simply assumed that
the boy was going to be named after his father, and they are preparing to name
him Zechariah. And Elizabeth, who has believed that angel from the moment that
she heard about it from Zechariah (perhaps writing on the tablet), she says,
‘No. His name is not going to be Zechariah. His name is going to be John.’ And
the immediate response is, ‘Elizabeth, there is nobody in your family
named John! Nobody! You can go back twenty generations and there’s nobody named
John. You don’t have any cousins named John. Your father is not named John. Your
husband’s father is not named John. There are no John’s in your family!’

And so they turn to Zechariah — and I love this part!
— and they start making signs to Zechariah. Now, Zechariah can hear perfectly
fine. It’s like one of my language professors. He would explain something to me,
and I had no idea what he was saying. And I would say, “Dr. Meyer, could you
explain that again?” And he would get real close to my face and say exactly what
he had just said that I didn’t understand, but louder! And I wanted to say, “Dr.
Meyer, it’s not that I couldn’t hear you; it’s that I couldn’t make sense of
what you were explaining to me about that particular paradigm.” So they were
doing this to him; they were doing the hands…and he can hear perfectly fine! And
he says, ‘Give me something to write on.’ Silently, he calls them to give him
something to write on, and he writes out, “His name is John.”

All those months of silence, God’s judgment on him
for not believing God’s word, God’s promise, have borne fruit in his heart, and
at the moment of truth, the time of the naming of his son, there is not a shadow
of doubt in his mind what he is to do, because now he has come to believe God’s
word. And the answer is emphatic, just like Elizabeth, “His name is John.”

And we see something, I think, of God’s kindness in
His dealing with Zechariah, because through that ordeal of silence Zechariah’s
faith in God’s word has grown, and now he displays his faith in God’s promise:
‘His name is John. The angel was right. His name is John. His name is not
Zechariah. His name is John, just like God’s word to me through the angel says.’
That adversity by the Holy Spirit had borne believing fruit in Zechariah’s life,
so that when the moment of truth came, he believes; and he speaks (or writes)
out of that belief, and immediately the Lord looses his tongue. And the first
thing that comes out of his mouth is the blessing and praise
of God.

And I
want you to think about that for a few moments, my friends, because you may be
wondering in your own adversity, “What is God doing? What is God doing? Why am I
undergoing this adversity?” God never wastes adversity in the lives of His

This past
week I was eating, breaking bread with
of our men who is a Ruling Elder
We do this every once in a while, and one of the reasons I love to meet with him
is he tells me stories about his father. He had a wonderful relationship with
his father, and his father just had incredible words of wisdom that he shared
with him on numerous occasions. On one occasion — it was after the Depression
and after the Second World War, and finally his father’s business was doing
very, very well; in fact, they did in one year better than they had done
in memory, because of the Depression and because of the War. It was after the
Depression and the War was over. They did very, very well, and someone said to
his father, “Well, isn’t it wonderful that you have had this incredibly
prosperous year!” And this Ruling Elder Emeritus said to me his father
immediately responded by saying, “Not necessarily.” And it caught everybody by

“What do you mean, ‘not
necessarily’? You’ve had a great year!”

“Not necessarily.”

And then here was his follow-up: “I’ve never learned
anything from prosperity, but I have learned a lot in adversity.”…I’ve never
learned anything in prosperity, but I’ve learned a lot in adversity….

Well, I love to hear that elder tell that story
because I love to ask him questions about it. But you see, that man had learned
the secret that God so often works in adversity by His Holy Spirit to build us
up, to grow us in grace, to help us to believe. It’s not that any of His good
gifts should be despised, you understand that! That’s not what I’m saying. But
he is saying that in a special way, God will use adversity and by His Spirit
grow us up in grace.

This is what happened with Zechariah. And so if
that’s where you are today, if you are in a time of adversity and you’re
wondering, “Lord, what in the world are You doing?” If you’re God’s child, no
question that God has purposes for your adversity for your good, for His glory,
for your growth in grace. And when the time comes — ‘Zechariah, what’s his

“His name is John!”

Not a hesitation! The first time, the angel of the Lord is
standing before him, and he wants to query that angel — ‘Oh, hold on here,
Angel! Explain some things to me.’ This time,

“What’s his name?”


What’s happened? In nine months of silence,
repentance, confession, self-examination, God has wrought a solid faith in

III. God’s witness to the
coming Messiah.

One last thing. Look at the end of the passage. This
is where Luke is going. What is the result of this child being born and the
result of Elizabeth and Zechariah together being absolutely clear that his name
is going to be the name given to them by the angel: John? The result is that
everybody is amazed. “They all wondered.” (Verse 63.)

And then verse 65:

“Fear [reverential awe of God] came on all
their neighbors.”

And then, listen to it again, verse 65:

“All these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and
all who heard them laid them up in their hearts.”

Doesn’t that sound like Mary? Treasuring things up in her
heart? All who heard about this laid it up in their hearts, and they said,
‘What then will this child be?’”

The result of all this is everybody was focused on
the question of who will this child be?
Who will he be? The Lord must have
some great plan in mind that He is going to unfold through this child, with
these extraordinarily events surrounding his birth. And that is precisely what
God intended to do through this amazing providence that’s unfolding in the lives
of Zechariah and Elizabeth in John: focus everybody on the question of who is
this child going to be, and what is he going to do, because He wants to focus
their attention on that child because that child is going to focus their
attention on another Child, and He wants the question “Who is this child?” to be
on the minds of all the people in Judea because John is preparing the way for
Jesus. And just as Jesus will look to the disciples and say to them at Caesarea
Philippi, “Who do people say that I am?” and focuses them on the question “Who?”
God is focusing all the attention of the people in the hill country of Judea on
the question of who is this child, because that child is going to point to the
Child who is Jesus.

In all this, Luke is unfolding a story in which God
is unfolding His plan to point us to Jesus the Savior. By His grace and the work
of His Holy Spirit, may we trust in Him.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for pointing us to
Jesus through Your word. Thank You for speaking the truth to us, and giving us
promises. Thank You for giving us signs and seals and sacraments and suppers to
show us Your grace. By Your Spirit give us eyes to see and ears to hear, and
hearts to believe the gracious word that You speak to us. We ask this in Jesus’
name. Amen.

Let’s prepare to come to the Lord’s Table by taking
our hymnals in hand and turning to

No. 252, and singing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.


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