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CHAP. I. pORASMUCH as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4. That thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.
This gospel, together with the Acts of the Apostles, were written by St. Luke, the beloved physician, and companion of St. Paul, who wrote, as did the rest of the evangelists, by the special direction and inspiration of trie Holy Ghost: where we may profitably remark the wonderful wisdom of God, who, in order to the confirming our faith in the truth of the gospel, raised up a sufficient number of witnesses to testify the verity and infallible certainty of all that the gospel delivers unto us. Now this evangelist, St. Luke, dedicates this gospel, together with the Acts of the Apostles, to Theophilus, who was, as some think, an honourable senator; or a renowned and eminent person in the church, as others suppose. But man v take the word Theophilus, not for a proper name, but common name, signifying every one that loveth God ; to whom St. Luke addresses his discourse. The first four verses of this chapter are a preface to the following history, and acquaint us with the reasons which induced St Luke to write, namely, because divers persons in that age bad imprudently and inconsiderately set upon writing Gospels, without direction from the
Spirit of God, whose errors and mistakas were to be corrected by a true narrative. This St. Luke declares he was able to make, having had perfect understanding and knowledge of the truth of those things he was about to relate: partly by his familiarity with St. Paul, and partly by his conversation with the other apostles, who, constantly attending our Saviour, were eye and ear witnesses of those things that are the subject-matter of the ensuing history. Hence learn, 1. That there were some apocryphal writings (or writings which were not of divine authority) relating to the New Testament, as well as to the Old ; as the books of Asher, Gad, and Iddo, are recited in the Old Testament, but were never received into the canon of the Scripture. So were there some Gospels, or historical relations of our Saviour's life and actions, wrote by persons which the church never received, as not having the impress of God's ordination. Note, 2. That the Gospels which St. Luke and the other evangelists wrote have nothing of fallibility or uncertainty in them: they wrote nothing but what they either heard or saw themselves, or else received from those that were eye and ear witnesses of matter of fact: It seemed good to me to write, having had perfect knowledge of all things from the very first.
5 fl^HERE was, in the days of Herod the king of Judea, a certain priesb named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
In this and the following verses, the Holy Ghost gives us a description of John the Baptist, who was the harbinger and forerunner of our Saviour Christ; he is described, first by his parentage, being the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth. This Zacharias
was a priest, who had a course in lhe temple, or a right to officiate there when it came to his turn; for we read in 1 Chron. xxiv. 10. that David appointed the priests, the so7is of Aaron, to minister by turns, and divided them into four and twenty courses, every one ministering in the temple by their weeks. Here note, That Zacharias a priest, and attending the service of the temple, was a married person, having one of the daughters of Aaron to wife, according to the command of God, Lev. xxi. 14. where the priest is required to marry one of his own people. Learn hence, That neither the priests under the law did, nor the ministers of Christ under the gospel ought, to abhor the marriage-lied; nor judge themselves too pure for an institution of their Maker. The doctrine of the church of Rome, which forbids to marry, St. Paul calls a doctrine of devils,
0 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
Observe here, 1. The sweet harmony of this religious couple in the ways of God: they both walked in the commandments of God. It is an happy match when husband and wife are one, not only in themselves, but in the Lord. Observe, 2. The universality of their holiness and obedience: they walked, not in some, but in all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord. Such as will approve themselves to be sincerely religious, must make conscience of every known duty, and endeavour to obey every precept and command of God. Observe, 3. The high commendaticn which the Holy Spirit of God gives of this their religious course of holiness and obedience: they are pronounced blameless. He that liveth without gross sin, in a gospel sense, livelh blameless, and without sin. To live without gross sin, is our holiness on earth; to live without any sin, will be our happiness in heaven. Many sins may be in him that has true grace; but he that has truth of grace, cannot allow himself in any sin. Such are the condescensions of the covenant of grace, that sincere obedience is called perfection. Truth of grace is our perfection on earth, but in heaven we shall have perfection as well as truth. Observe, lastly, A pattern for their imitation who wait at God's altar, and are employed in and about holy things: such ought all the ministers of tlie
gospel and their wives to be, what Zacharias and Elisabeth are here said to be, namely, blameless; that is, very innocent and inoffensive in their daily conversation.
7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
Observe here, 1. This holy pair, Zacharias and Elisabeth, were fruitful in holy obedience, but barren in children: a fruitful soul and a barren womb are consistent, and do oft-times meet together. This religious couple made no less progress in virtue than in age, and yet their virtue could not make their age fruitful. Observe, 2. Elisabeth was barren in the flower of her age, but much more so in old age. Here was a double obstacle, and consequently a double instance of divine power in the birth of John the Baptist, showing him to be a prophet very extraordinary, and miraculously sent by God. Observe, 3. That when Almighty God in old times did long delay to give the blessing of children to holy women, he rewarded their expectation with the birth of some eminent and extraordinary person. Thus Sarah, after long barrenness, brought forth an „ Isaac; Rebecca, a Jacob; Rachel, a Joseph; Hannah, a Samuel; and Elisabeth, St. John the Baptist. When God makes his people wait long for a particular mercy, if he sees it good for them, he gives it in at last with a double reward for their expectation.
8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9 According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
Here note, 1. That none but a son of Aaron might offer incense to God in the temple; and not every son of Aaron neither; nay, not any of them at all seasons. God is a God of order, and hates confusion Do less than irreligion. And as under the law of old, so under the gospel of this day, no man ought to take this honour upon him, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. Observe, 2. That there were courses of ministration in the legal service's, in which the priests did relieve one another weekly. God never purposed to burden any of his servants with devotion, nor is he pleased when his service is mad*
burdensome, either to or by his ministers. Many of the sons of Aaron served together in the temple, according to the variety of their employments, which were assigned them by lot. And accordingly it fell out at this tune, that Zachary was chosen by lot to bum incense. Observe, 3. That morning and evening, twice a day, the priests offered up their incense to God, that both parts of the day might be consecrated to him, who was the maker and giver of their time. This incense offered under the law, represents our prayers offered to God under the gospel. These Almighty God expects that we should, all his church over, send up to him morning and evening. The ejaculatory elevations of our hearts should be perpetual: but if twice a day we do not present God with our solemn invocation, we make the gospel less officious than the law, and can we reasonably think that Almighty God will accept of less now than would content him then?
10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
Observe here, 1. While the incense was burning, the people were praying: while the priest sends up his incense in the temple within, the people send up their prayers in the court without. The incense of the priest and the prayers of the people meet, and go up to heaven together. Hence learn, That it is a blessed thing, when both minister and people jointly offer up their prayers for each other at the same throne of grace, and mutually strive together in their supplications, one with, and one for, another. Observe, 2. How both priest and people keep their place and station: the priest burns incense in the holy place, and the people offer up their prayers in the outward court. The people might no more go into the holy place to offer up their prayers, than Zachary might go into the holy of holies to burn incense. Whilst the partition-wall stood betwixt Jew and Gentile, there was also a partition betwixt the Jews themselves. But now, under the gospel, every man is a priest to God, and may enter the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus. But, Lord! what are we the better for this great and gracious freedom of access to thee, if we want hearts to prize and improve our privilege from thee!
11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
Whilst Zachary was praying to God, an angel appears to Zachary. When we are nearest God, the good angels are nighest us: they are most with us, when we are most with him. The presence of angels with us is no novelty, but their apparition to us is so. They are always with us, but rarely seen by us. Let our faith see them, whom our senses cannot discern. Their assumed shapes do not make them more present, but only more visible. Observe, 2. The place, as well as the time, when the angel appeared: in the temple, and at the altar, and on the right side of the attar of incense. As the holy angels are always present with us in our devotions, so especially in religious assemblies; as in all places, so most of all in God's house; they rejoice to be with us whilst we are with God, but they turn their faces from us when we go about our sins.
12 And when Zachurias sawAim, he was troubled, and fear fell upou him.
It was partly the suddenness, partly the unexpectedness, and partly the glory, of the apparition, that affrighted this good man. Glorious and sudden apparitions, do affright even the holiest and best of men. We cannot bear the sight and presence of an angel without consternation and fear, in our frail and sinful state. O happy hour, when, mortality and sin being taken out of our natures, we shall not only behold the glorified angels without fear, but the glorious God with delight and love! Lord! let me now see thee by faith, hereafter by sight: Sit in alio scculo, non in hoc! Visio lua, merces men. Gerson.
13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharius: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
Observe here, 1. How apprehensive this good angel was of Zachary's surprising fear, and encourages him against it. The holy angels, though they do not express it in words, yet they pity our frailties, and suggest comfort to us. The evil angels, if they might, would kill us with terror; the good angels labour together for our tranquillity and cheerfulness: The angel said unto him. Fear not. Observe, 2. The comfortable words spoken by the angel to Zacharias; Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son. No doubt, Zachary and Elisabeth had often prayed
for a child, and now God sends them one when they least expected it. Learn hence, That sometimes God gives in a morcy to us when we least expect it; yea when we have given over lookmg tor it. No doubt it was the case here, Zachary and Elisabeth being both well stricken in age. Observe, 3. The name which the angel directed Zachary to give his son: Thou shall call his name John, which signifies gracious; because he was to open the kmgdom of grace, and to preach the grace of the gospel through Jesus Christ. The giving of significant names to children, has been an ancient and pious practice; names which either carried a remembrance of duty or of mercy in them.
14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 10 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before hiin in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just ; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Here the angel declares to Zachary, what kind of son should be born unto him, even one of eminent endowments, and dosigned for extraordinary services. The proof of children makes them either tlie blessings or crosses of their parents. What greater comfort could Zachary desire in a child, than is here promised to him? (1.) He hears of a son that should bring joy to himself, and many others; even to all that did expect the coming of the Messias, whose forerunner the Baptist was. (2.) That he should be great in the sight of the Lord: that is, a person of great eminency, and great usefulness in the church. A person of great riches and reputation is great in the sight of men; but the man of great ability and usefulness, the man of great integrity and serviceableness, he is truly great in the sight of the Lord. They are little men in the sight of the Lord, that live in the world to little purposes; who do little service to God,
and bring little honour and glory to him. But the man that does all the possible service he can for God, and the utmost good that he is capable of doing to all mankind; he is a person great in the sight of the Lord; and such was the holy Baptist. (3.) It is foretold that he should drink neither wine nor strong drink; that is. that he should be a very temperate and abstemious person, living after the manner of the Nazantes, though he was not separated by any vow of his own, or his parents, but by the special designation and appointment of God only. It was forbidden the priests under the law to'drink either wine or strong drink, upon pain of death, during the time of their ministration, Lev. x. 9. And the ministers of Christ under the gospel are forbidden to be lovers of wine, 1 Tim. iii. 3. (4.) He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb; that is, he shall be furnished abundantly with the extraordinary gifts and sanctifying graces of the Holy Spirit, which shall very early appear to be in him, and upon him. (5.) His high and honourable office is declared: that he should go before the Messiah, as his harbinger and forerunner, with the same spirit and zeal and courage against sin, which was found in the old prophet Elias, whom he did so nearly resemble. (6.) The great success of his ministry is foretold; namely, That he should turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; that is, the hearts of the Jews to the Gentiles, say some; that he should bring men, say others, even the most disobedient and rebellious Pharisees and Sadducees, publicans and sinners, unto repentance, and unto the minding of justice and righteousness, and all moral duties; and thus he made ready a people for the Lord, by fitting men to receive Christ upon his own terms and conditions; namely, faith and repentance. From the whole note, That those whom Almighty God designs for eminent usefulness in his church, he furnishes with endowments suitable to their employment; and when he calls to extraordinary service, comes in with more than ordinary assistance. Here was the holy Baptist extraordinarily called, and as extraordinarily furnished for his office and ministry.
18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife
well stricken in years. 19 And the angel answering, said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall* be fulfilled in their season. 21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.
Observe here, Zachary being slow to believe so strange a message, asks the angel by what sign he should know that this thing, so far above the ordinary course of nature, should come to pass? The angel answers, that he was despatched by God as a messenger extraordinary, to declare this good news to him. And seeing be was so hard to believe it, and required a sign, he should have it, but such a one as should be a punishment of his unbelief, as well as a sign to confirm his faith; namely, he should from thenceforward, to the hirth of the child, be dumb and deaf, as the original word signifies. Because he had not hearkened to the angel's speech he was struck deaf; and because he had gainsaid it, he was made dumb. Leam hence, That the word of God in the mouth of his messengers is God's own word, and as such to be received and believed. 2. That not believing their word, is a sin which God will severely punish: it is all one not to believe God, and not to believe the messengers of God speaking from him. Some expositors will have this dumbcess of Zachary to be prefigurative. The priest, at the dismission of the people, when the service of the temple was finished, was to pronounce the blessing, recorded Numb. vi. 24, 25. which when Zachary was about to do, he is struck dumb, and cannot perform it; signifying thereby, that the silencing' of the Levitical priesthood was now at hand; that they must expect, another kind of worship, and that he who
was able to bless indeed, namely, the Messias, was near at hand. Observe lastly, That though Zachary ceased to speak, yet he did not cease to minister; he takes not his dumbness for a dismission, but stays out the eight days of his course, knowing that the service of his heart and hand would be accepted of that God which had bereaved him of his tongue. Those powers which we have we must make use of in the public service of God, who will accept us according to what we have; pardoning our infirmity, and rewarding our sincerity.
23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. 24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 2d Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.
The priests, during the time of their administration, had their lodgings in buildings appertaining to the temple. Zachary having ended his administration, leaves his lodgings, and returns to his house, where his wife Elisabeth conceiving, she hides herself; that is, retires from company, partly to prevent the discourse of people, until it was out of all doubt that she had conceived: and partly to give herself opportunity of returning her thankful acknowledgments unto God, who had given her this miraculous mercy: and had thereby taken away her reproach of barrenness, which was so heavy and insupportable among the Jews. Note here two things, 1. How piously Elisabeth ascribes this mercy to the power of God: Thus hath the Lord dealt with me. It is God that keeps the key of the womb in his own hand, and makes the fruit of it his reward, and therefore children are to be owned as his special gift. Note, 2. How great a reproach bodily barrenness is in the sight of man, but not so great as spiritual barrennsss in the sight of God: for this is at once a reproach to God, a reproach to religion, a reproach to professors, and to ourselves.
26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from Qod unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused