The Naming of John

December 13, 2015 / No. 3806

Dear Radio Friends,
Sermons on John the Baptist’s birth usually center on the events of the miraculous appearance of the angel to Zacharias in the temple, the doubts of this aged priest, and that he was left unable to speak. But the events of Luke 1:57-66 are not as often considered. These events surround John’s circumcision. We take time to read these verses in Luke 1. Verses 57-66:
Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marveled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.
Today we wish to consider these verses. Elisabeth, soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist, was barren and old, but miraculously had conceived a child. It was odd, and everyone knew it, that an old lady of this sort was now walking about large with child. It was a strange sight that left many people wondering and marveling. But it was true. No one could deny it: Elisabeth was going to have a baby. The news was already traveling through the hill country of Judea where Zacharias and Elisabeth lived.
Many were beginning to take note of this, asking, What manner of child shall this be? Six months into Elisabeth’s pregnancy the angel Gabriel was again sent forth by God. This time he was given the task of announcing the birth of Christ, the Messiah, to Elisabeth’s cousin. This was a young virgin maiden who lived in Nazareth. Mary was given the news that she was going to give birth to the very Son of God. Upon her conception she hurriedly went to visit Zacharias and Elisabeth. Mary stayed with them for three months. We can only imagine what was the main topic of their conversations with each other. But now Elisabeth was full term and about to be delivered. Mary therefore returned to her home in Nazareth. Elisabeth then gives birth to her child, a son—just as God had promised! The relatives were all around and rejoicing with her and Zacharias. This set the stage for the events we consider today. Though these events surround the naming of John, we will soon find that this Word of God speaks to us of Christ and our salvation.
I. A Family Dispute
After Elisabeth’s full term was up, we are informed in verse 57, she delivered a son. What is striking is that her friends, neighbors, and relatives (our translation says cousins) were all on hand for this joyful occasion. They would be there, of course, for this was no ordinary birth. Elisabeth was very old, remember, and it was amazing that she would even have the strength to bring forth a child. But all went well for her, and she gave birth to a healthy son. It was the custom among the Jews that the naming of a son must wait until the day of circumcision—an event that must take place, according to the law, eight days after the son was born. You see, circumcision was a sign of God’ covenant with His people. To Abraham God had spoken the great words of His covenant: I will be your God and you shall be my people. By means of this covenant, God entered into a bond with Abraham in which God told Abraham that Abraham was His friend and that God would never forsake him in all his needs and cares. As a sign of this covenant, circumcision was instituted, and Abraham and Sarah were required to have their sons and household circumcised.
With this command also was the command to circumcise every male child born into the family at eight-days old. This latter command was given because God intended to carry on this covenant with Abraham’s generations. So, not only must Abraham circumcise his children, but his children and his children’s children in their generations must also do the same. This signified that God would be a God not only to Abraham but also to his believing children after him in their generations. And it was this same sacrament that Zacharias and Elisabeth had to administer to their new son, because of their faith in the covenant that God had established with them.
And just as oftentimes our family and friends come to witness the baptism of our infant children for the same reason, so also was the family around then too. Besides, it seems as if they were included somewhat (at least in making suggestions) in the naming of the child. It was over this that there arose a dispute.
If you read Luke 1 you will find that an angel had told Zacharias that he was to name his son John. This was not an uncommon Hebrew name. But it was uncommon in the particular generations of Zacharias. No one in his family line was called by that name. Zacharias, no doubt, had already told Elisabeth long before John was born what they had to name their child.
Elisabeth knew, therefore, just as much as did Zacharias that their son was to be called John. But the relatives and neighbors did not. They all gathered around and without hesitation they began to call the baby Zacharias, after his father.
It was then that Elisabeth answered them firmly, “not so; but he shall be called John.” If we were to translate this literally, we would read, “No indeed; on the contrary, he shall be called John.” Elisabeth was firm therefore. But, it seems, so were the relatives. They answered Elisabeth, “There is none of your kindred that is called by that name.” Then they tried to bypass Elisabeth by going directly to Zacharias. Surely he would agree with them. So, they made signs to Zacharias. Somehow, by means of hand gestures or such like, they inquired of him what he would have the baby called. Zacharias had a small slate or writing tablet near at hand for conversing. This he now used to confirm what his wife had already said: “his name is John.” Everyone marveled, but husband and wife were agreed. John, therefore, became their son’s name at the time of circumcision.
Now, there has to be something to that name John that is of significance here at this point. I mean, why would the angel specifically instruct Zacharias and Elisabeth to name their son John? There were plenty of other Hebrew names that had special meanings and significance. But God had chosen for this son of Zacharias the name John. This forerunner of Christ was not to bear an ordinary name. Quite simply, that name John means, “Gift of Jehovah.” But the idea of gift here speaks of a gift of God’s grace, that is, a gift freely given and not on the basis of merit. So the name John means “Jehovah has graciously given.” Now, no doubt, in the first instance, this name has reference to what God had done for this aged priest and his wife. God had graciously given them a son. In their old age, when it was impossible, God had yet favored them by giving to them a son.
So this is true first of all. But we may not forget the significance of John the Baptist in his life and work. He was not born to receive the attention or the fame. As he said later in his ministry to his disciples about Jesus, “he must increase, but I must decrease.” God had sent John into this world in order to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Even in his birth and in his name, this was the great and grand purpose God would have him fulfill. The name John, therefore, pointed God’s people then, as well as you and me today, to the coming Messiah. And when we understand that, then we begin to see the gospel in the account before us.
Christ is that one whom God has graciously given to us. John’s name does not extol John himself, therefore. It extols God for the gracious gift given us in the birth of His Son Jesus Christ into this world. Now, this points out to you and me two things with respect to the birth of Christ into this world.
The first is this: Christ’s coming is a gift. Paul writes of Christ in II Corinthians 9:15: “thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.” Now, we well know what a true gift is. It is something we simply give to another person with no strings attached. The world has lost that idea of a gift, it seems—greed oftentimes becomes the motivation behind the giving of a gift. Gifts are given in order to gain favors of another person or in order to get something back from them. But that is not the true nature of a gift. A gift is something that I would freely give to another simply because I am inclined in my heart to give. This is the gift that God has given to you and me in Christ. In all reality, God looked down upon His chosen people and saw their sad estate. He saw us in our sin. He saw the misery such sin caused us. He saw us as we pined away in our sin. He heard our groans and our cries to Him for deliverance. God took pity on us and in His great mercy He has sent to us the most blessed of gifts: His Son.
But to understand this gift of God’s Son we must understand too why Christ has come into this world. This Paul explains for us in Romans 5:14-16:
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offense, so also is the free gift. For if through the offense of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offenses unto justification.
The free gift that we receive of God is in all reality justification! Christ was born into this world for the express purpose of giving His life as a sacrifice for our sins. And that is the gift of God to us in Christ. God saw that death reigned over us in Adam. We were all guilty of condemnation before Him. We had sinned against the most high majesty of God. We were alienated from God. But God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. In this death of Jesus Christ we are freely given by God not only deliverance from guilt and punishment, but also life eternal. That is God’s free gift to His elect people everywhere.
That gift was given graciously by God. It was not a gift that we merited. It is not a gift that God gives to those who deserve it. It is not a gift that God gives to us because He thinks that we are more worthy of it than someone else. It is a gift given to His people in His sovereign, uninfluenced love and favor toward His people in Christ! This is why this tiny infant born to Zacharias and Elisabeth must be called John, because Jehovah in His faithfulness to His church has graciously given to us salvation in Jesus Christ.
II. A Loosed Tongue
The relatives and neighbors of Zacharias were either present or surely had heard of the events in the temple when the angel had appeared to Zacharias to announce John’s birth. They were witnesses to the strange occurrence of Zacharias being struck dumb by the angel. They knew therefore that Zacharias’ inability to speak was something imposed upon him by the angel. God had done this. All of them were fully aware of this. But none of them expected that at this particular moment when Zacharias wrote, “his name is John,” his tongue would be loosed. His speech returned as suddenly as it was taken away—but this time in the presence of witnesses. No one could doubt that a miracle had been performed here. No one could doubt that this son of Zacharias was going to play a special part in the coming of the Messiah. The moment Zacharias’ tongue was loosed he spoke words of praise to God.
To praise is to extol the virtues of another. It is to testify to, to call attention to the name and goodness of another. These praises Zacharias lifted, we are told, to God in heaven. Zacharias extolled the name of God. He directed the attention of his listeners to the gracious hand of God in his life and theirs. Those praises are recorded for us in verses 67-80 of this chapter. Now we do not intend to explain these verses in detail, but there are two outstanding truths that stand out in his praise.
The first is this: that of God’s faithfulness to His people. This truth is implied in the name Jehovah. John’ name means “Jehovah’s gracious gift.” This name of God is significant. Jehovah is the name of our God that distinguishes Him from all other gods. That name means “I am.” It calls our attention therefore to the changelessness of God. He is! Not was or will be. He is. As such He is ever the same—yesterday, today, and forever He changes not. He has purposed all things in eternity, and from that plan He does not waver. Zacharias says in his praises in the verses following John’s circumcision that God sent Jesus in order to perform the mercy promised to the fathers and to remember His covenant sworn by oath to Abraham. With that covenant many promises were given to God’s people of old. God would give to them the land of Canaan and would increase their number as the sand is by the seashore. Those same promises we receive today as the spiritual children of Abraham, those characterized by the same faith as Abraham. We are promised the heavenly Canaan, and that we will stand there with a multitude so large that no man can number it.
From these promises God has not wavered. He is Jehovah. He changes not. And it is a good thing. Even as believers we sin against God over and over again. We do not think so highly of ourselves as to think we are without sin, do we? Well, sin acts as a barrier that keeps us from sharing in the friendship and fellowship of God—the blessings of God’s covenant. And if God were not faithful He would long ago have forsaken His people. But He has not. And He has not because He has sent Jesus Christ into this world in order to maintain His covenant. Christ, in paying the price of sin, has removed our guilt and restored us into the fellowship and favor of God.
Zacharias recognized this. He therefore praised God that God had chosen at this time in all of history to remember His covenant in sending forth His Son.
And that is the second great truth that Zacharias praises God for: the coming of the Messiah. Again, Zacharias’ attention is not focused on John himself. It is focused on the great work God had sent John to do. John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. The praise that Zacharias raises at this point was for the coming of the Messiah. These are the praises we raise today too, fellow saints. We praise God for His faithfulness to you and me in sending Christ. We praise God that He has made our salvation possible through the Son of His love. And we rejoice in what God has done in the birth of our Savior into this world.
III. A Widespread Fear
This stands in keeping with the reaction of God’s people then too. We learn in Luke 1:65, 66 of the reaction of those who now witnessed the events surrounding John’s circumcision. The reaction first of all was that of fear. The fear of God came upon them all. The fear of God is good. More people should have a little more holy fear of God in their hearts today. Far too many make God out to be man’s equal. Few any more view God as do the Scriptures: an all-consuming fire before whom we must bow with fear and trembling. Do you mean we must be afraid of God? Those walking in sin ought to be afraid. But believers, understanding the power and sovereignty of God, bow before Him in the deepest of reverence and humility. There is a measure of trembling, but this comes from an overwhelming sense of awe over who God is. When we come into His presence, we come silently, fearing Him, holding Him in highest esteem and deepest reverence. That was the fear that fell upon God’s people in the hill country of Judea. And in that fear they spoke with each other about the great things that were happening. Word spread throughout the hills.
In the second place, they laid up in their hearts what was going on. They believed. They watched intently this son of Zacharias to see what manner of child he would grow to be. And what they saw was that the hand of God was with John. Already now before John even preached a word, his very birth made people look again in faith for the coming Messiah. Fear and faith is what John was called to work in the hearts of God’s people—and in this way he would prepare the way for Christ.
Today we kneel before our God with fear and trembling that so great a God took pity on us in the misery of sin and would be pleased to save us. We humbly approach our God and praise Him.
And we lay all these things up in our hearts.