And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways. — Luke 1:76
A Google search for the phrase “great men” brings up over a billion results. Glancing through the first few websites listed, you will find articles concerning great men of history, great men of peace, great men based on wealth, and great men of intellect and achievement. You can read the poems and love letters of great men, or peruse a multitude of quotations by great men — notable historical figures, authors, celebrities, and newsmakers.
If you want to narrow down the field of “greatness,” check out Time magazine. Every year since 1927, Time has selected an official “Person of the Year,” recognizing an individual whom the editors feel has done the most to influence world events during the past year and best embodies what was important during that period of time. (Some of these men had a negative impact on the world: the list includes such names as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Vladimir Putin!)
Alexander Maclaren, a renowned Baptist preacher, pastor, and author in the mid-1800s, once said, “No epithet is more misused and misapplied than that of ‘a great man’ . . . Every little man who makes a noise for a while gets it hung around his neck.” Based on the world’s estimation, the title “great” is conferred upon a few who deserve such acclaim and many more who do not.
God’s estimation of greatness is based upon vastly different criterion from that of the world. Today’s text records the birth of John the Baptist, a man whose miraculous birth was foretold by an angel who proclaimed of the unborn child, “He shall be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). In our focus verse, John’s father Zacharias prophesied that his son would be called “the prophet of the Highest,” and would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” What a key role that little infant in his arms would play in the drama of the ages — and what a truly great individual is introduced to history in this passage!
John’s personal biography for the next thirty years is summarized in one short verse which concludes the chapter: “The child grew, and waxed strong . . . till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” Subsequent references to him in Luke and the other Gospels validate the prophetic words uttered by the angel and Zacharias. John would be great because of his unwavering courage, his disregard for personal comfort or convenience, his absolute humility, and his fiery enthusiasm for righteousness. Most importantly, he would fulfill the role described by Zacharias, preparing the people for the coming Messiah.
The Source of true greatness is available to us all. We must begin by yielding our hearts and wills to the One to whom John so zealously pointed: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We must let a vision of Him erase all thoughts of our own importance. Then, our closeness to Christ and our experience of His power can kindle in us the courage, self-denial, humble spirit, and zeal for righteousness that was so clearly exemplified by the forerunner of Christ.
It is a poor ambition to seek to be called “great,” but it is a noble desire to be “great in the sight of the Lord.” While we will not have the same role as John did in God’s service, we can all be great in God’s sight. It will not matter what men thought of us on this earth if at the end we receive praise from the One who purchased our salvation with His own Blood!
Today’s text covers several significant events immediately preceding the birth of Christ: Mary’s visit to Elisabeth (verses 39-45), her hymn of praise (verses 46-56), and the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ (verses 57-80).
After Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ Child, he informed her that her elderly cousin Elisabeth had also conceived (see Luke 1:36). The word translated cousin means “kinswoman,” indicating that the two women were related in some way through marriage or blood. Mary immediately went to see Elisabeth, traveling a distance of about sixty-five miles to Nazareth. She stayed there for three months, until just before the birth of John.
Verse 41 indicates that when Mary entered the house of Zacharias, the baby “leaped” in Elisabeth’s womb, in accord with the angelic proclamation to Zacharias that his child would be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Elisabeth was spiritually attuned, for she immediately identified Mary as “the mother of my Lord” even though she presumably had no prior knowledge of what had transpired in Mary’s life or the fact that her young kinswoman was with child. No doubt this Spirit-inspired greeting strengthened Mary’s faith.
Mary’s beautiful song of praise to God, recorded in verses 46-55, is both poetic and prophetic. Known as The Magnificat (a title derived from the key word in the Latin translation of the first line of this passage), it is an unscripted outpouring of deep emotion similar to that of Hannah in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 2:1-10). In stating that God “hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (verse 48), Mary alluded to her own background of poverty and low social standing in society.
Verses 57-80 of the text describe events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. At the time of circumcision (which occurred eight days after birth, according to the Levitical Law) it was also customary to name the child. When Elisabeth broke with the tradition of naming the firstborn son after the father and insisted that the child’s name would be John (as the angel had decreed in Luke 1:13), those at the ceremony appealed to Zacharias by making signs (verse 62). This seems to indicate that Zacharias was deaf as well as unable to speak. When he wrote on a tablet “His name is John,” his speech was instantly restored.
Four hundred years had passed since the last recorded utterances of the prophets, and during all that time devout individuals had awaited the promised Messiah. This accounts for the joyous rapture which filled Zacharias and was poured out in his hymn of thanksgiving (verses 67-79) known as The Benedictus (a word also derived from the Latin translation).
The emphatic tenses “hath visited and redeemed . . . hath raised” (verses 68-69) are prophetic. The fact that Zacharias spoke of the Incarnation as an already accomplished fact is evidence that he believed with certainty. In verses 76 and 77, he addressed his infant son and foretold that he would be “a prophet of the Highest” and the forerunner of the promised Messiah. Zacharias’ concluding statement that the “the dayspring . . . hath visited us” alluded to the prediction of Malachi at the close of the Old Testament, that the “Sun of righteousness” would arise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:2).
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The advent of the Son of Man
A. The annunciations
3. The assurance of the promised births (1:39-56)
a. The arrival and salutation of Mary (1:39-40)
b. The song of Elisabeth (1:41-45)
c. The song of Mary (1:46-55)
d. The return of Mary (1:56)
B. The advent of John (1:57-80)
1. The birth of John (1:57-58)
2. The naming of John (1:59-66)
3. The song of Zacharias (1:67-79)
4. The childhood of John (1:80)
Our goal in life should be to please our Lord rather than to gain the applause of man. Let us follow the example of John the Baptist, and do our best to point those around us to the Source of all true greatness.