Luke 1:16
And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
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(16) Shall he turn to the Lord their God.—The opening words of the message of the New Covenant spring out of the closing words of the last of the prophets (Malachi 4:6), and point to the revival of the Elijah ministry, which is more definitely announced in the next verse.



Luke 1:5 - Luke 1:17

The difference between the style of Luke’s preface {Luke 1:1 - Luke 1:4} and the subsequent chapters relating to the Nativity suggests that these are drawn from some Hebrew source. They are saturated with Old Testament phraseology and constructions, and are evidently translated by Luke. It is impossible to say whence they came, but no one is more likely to have been their original narrator than Mary herself. Elisabeth or Zacharias must have communicated the facts in this chapter, for there is no indication that those contained in this passage, at all events, were known to any but these two.

If we were considering a fictitious story, we should note the artistic skill which prepared for the appearance of the hero by the introduction first of his satellite; but the order of the narrative is due, not to artistic skill, but to the divinely ordered sequence of events. It was fitting that John’s office as Forerunner should begin even before his birth. So the story of his entrance into the world prepares for that of the birth which hallows all births.

I. We have first a beautiful outline picture of the quiet home in the hill country.

The husband and wife were both of priestly descent, and in their modest lives, away among the hills, were lovely types of Old Testament godliness. That they are pronounced ‘blameless’ militates against no doctrine of universal sinfulness. It is not to be taken as dogma at all, but as the expression of God’s merciful estimate of His servants’ characters. These two simple saints lived, as all married believers should do, yoked together in the sweet exercise of godliness, and helping each other to all high and noble things. Hideous corruption of wedlock reigned round them. Such profanations of it as were shown later by Herod and Herodias, Agrippa and Bernice, were but too common; but in that quiet nook these two dwelt ‘as heirs together of the grace of life,’ and their prayers were not hindered.

The most of the priests who appear in the Gospels are heartless formalists, if not worse; yet not only Annas and Caiaphas and their spiritual kindred ministered at the altar, but there were some in whose hearts the ancient fire burned. In times of religious declension, the few who still are true are mostly in obscure corners, and live quiet lives, like springs of fresh water rising in the midst of a salt ocean. John thus sprang from parents in whom the old system had done all that it could do. In his origin, as in himself, he represented the consummate flower of Judaism, and discharged its highest office in pointing to the coming One.

This ‘blameless’ pair had a crook in their lot. Childlessness was then an especial sorrow, and many a prayer had gone up from both that their solitary home might be gladdened by children’s patter and prattle. But their disappointed hope had not made them sour, nor turned their hearts from God. If they prayed about it, they would not murmur at it, and they were not thereby hindered from ‘walking in all God’s commandments and ordinances blameless.’ Let us learn that unfulfilled wishes are not to clog our devotion, nor to silence our prayers, nor to slacken our running the race set before us.

II. We are carried away from the home among the hills to the crowded Temple courts.

The devout priest has come up to the city, leaving his aged wife in solitude, for his turn of service has arrived. Details of the arrangements of the sacerdotal ‘courses’ need not detain us. We need only note that the office of burning incense was regarded as an honour, was determined by lot, and took place at the morning and evening sacrifice. So Zacharias, with his censer in his hand, went to the altar which stood in front of the veil, flanked on the right hand by the table of shewbread, and on the left by the great lamp-stand. The place, his occupation, the murmur of many praying voices without, would all tend to raise his thoughts to God; and the curling incense, as it ascended, would truly symbolise the going up of his heart in aspiration, desire, and trust. Such a man could not do his work heartlessly or formally.

Mark the manner of the angel’s appearance. He was not seen as in the act of coming, but was suddenly made visible standing by the altar, as if he had been stationed there before; and what had happened was not that he came, but that Zacharias’s eyes were opened. So, when Elisha’s servant was terrified at the sight of the besiegers, the prophet prayed that his eyes might be opened, and when they were, he saw what had been there before, ‘the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire.’ Not the Temple courts only, but all places are full of divine messengers, and we should see them if our vision was purged. But such considerations are not to weaken the supernatural element in the appearance of this angel with his message. He was sent, whatever that may mean in regard to beings whose relation to place must be different from ours. He had an utterance of God’s will to impart.

It has often been objected to these chapters that they are full of angelic appearances, which modern thought deems suspicious. But surely if the birth of Jesus was what we hold it to have been, the coming into human life of the Incarnate Son of God, it is not legend that angel wings gleam in their whiteness all through the story, and angel voices adore the Lord of men as well as angels, and angel eyes gaze on His cradle, and learn new lessons there.

III. We have next the angel’s message.

The devoutest heart is conscious of shrinking dread when brought face to face with celestial brightness that has overflowed into our darkness. So ‘Fear not’ is the first word on the messenger’s lips, and one can fancy the accent of sweetness and the calm of heart which followed. It has often been thought that Zacharias had been praying for offspring while he was burning incense; but the narrative does not say so, and besides the fact that he had ceased to hope for children {as is shown by his incredulity}, surely it casts a slur on his religious character to suppose that personal wishes were uppermost at so sacred a moment. Prayers that he had long ago put aside as finally refused, now started to life again. God delays often, but He does not forget. Blessings may come to-day as the result of old prayers which have almost passed from our memory and our hope.

Observe how brief is the announcement of the child’s birth, important as that was to the father’s heart, and how the prophecy lingers on the child’s future work, which is important for the world. His name, character, and work in general are first spoken, and then his specific office as the Forerunner is delineated at the close. The name is significant. ‘John’ means ‘The Lord is gracious.’ It was an omen, a condensed prophecy, the fulfilment of which stretched beyond its bearer to Him as whose precursor alone was John a token of God’s grace.

His character {Luke 1:15} puts first ‘great in the sight of the Lord.’ Then there are some whom God recognises as great, small as we all are before Him. And His estimate of greatness is not the world’s estimate. How Herod or Pilate or Caesar, or philosophers at Athens, or rabbis in Jerusalem would have scoffed if they had been pointed to the gaunt ascetic pouring out words which they would have thought wild, to a crowd of Jews, and been told that that was the greatest man in the world {except One}! The elements of greatness in the estimate of God which is truth, are devotion to His service, burning convictions, intense moral earnestness, superiority to sensuous delights, clear recognition of Jesus, and humble self-abnegation before Him. These are not the elements recognised in the world’s Pantheon. Let us take God’s standard.

John was to be a Nazarite, living not for the senses, but the soul, as all God’s great ones have to be. The form may vary, but the substance of the vow of abstinence remains for all Christians. To put the heel on the animal within, and keep it well chained up, is indispensable, if we are ever to know the buoyant inspiration which comes from a sacreder source than the fumes of the wine-cup. Like John, we must flee the one if we would have the other, and be ‘filled with the Holy Ghost.’

The consequence of his character is seen in his work, as described generally in Luke 1:16. Only such a man can effect such a change, in a time of religious decay, as to turn many to God. It needs a strong arm to check the downward movement and to reverse it. No one who is himself entangled in sense, and but partially filled with God’s Spirit, will wield great influence for good. It takes a Hercules to stop the chariot racing down hill, and God’s Herculeses are all made on one pattern, in so far that they scorn delights, and empty themselves of self and sense that they may be filled with the Spirit.

John’s specific office is described in Luke 1:17, with allusion to the closing prophecy of Malachi. That prophecy had kindled an expectation that Elijah, in person, would precede Messias. John was like a reincarnation of the stern prophet. He came in a similar epoch. His characteristic, like Elijah’s, was ‘power,’ not gentleness. If the earlier prophet had to beard Ahab and Jezebel, the second Elijah had Herod and Herodias. Both haunted the desert, both pealed out thunders of rebuke. Both shook the nation, and stirred conscience. No two figures in Scripture are truer brethren in spirit than Elijah the Tishbite and John the Baptist.

His great work is to go before the Messiah, and to prepare Israel for its King. Observe that the name of the coming One is not mentioned in Luke 1:17. ‘Him’ is enough. Zacharias knew who ‘He’ was. But observe, too, that the same mysterious person is distinctly called ‘The Lord,’ which in this connection, and having regard to the original prophecy in Malachi, can only be the divine name. So, in some fashion not yet made plain, Messiah’s advent was to be the Lord’s coming to His people, and John was the Forerunner, in some sense, of Jehovah Himself.

But the way in which Israel was to be prepared is further specified in the middle clauses of the verse, which are also based on Malachi’s words. The interpretation of ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ is very doubtful; but the best explanation seems to be that the phrase means to bring back to the descendants of the ancient fathers of the nation the ancestral faith and obedience. They are to be truly Abraham’s seed, because they do the works and cherish the faith of Abraham. The words imply the same truth which John afterwards launched as a keen-edged dart, ‘Think not to say, We have Abraham to our father.’ Descent after the flesh should lead to kindred in spirit. If it does not, it is nought.

To turn ‘the disobedient to the wisdom of the just’ is practically the same change, only regarded from another point of view. John was sent to effect repentance, that change of mind and heart by which the disobedient to the commands of God should be brought to possess and exercise the moral and religious discernment which dwells only in the spirits of the righteous. Disobedience is folly. True wisdom cannot be divorced from rectitude. Real rectitude cannot live apart from obedience to God.

Such was God’s intention in sending John. How sadly the real effects of his mission contrast with its design! So completely can men thwart God, as Jesus said in reference to John’s mission, ‘The Pharisees and lawyers frustrated the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.’ Let us take heed lest we bring to nothing, so far as we are concerned, His gracious purpose of redemption in Christ!1:5-25 The father and mother of John the Baptist were sinners as all are, and were justified and saved in the same way as others; but they were eminent for piety and integrity. They had no children, and it could not be expected that Elisabeth should have any in her old age. While Zacharias was burning incense in the temple, the whole multitude of the people were praying without. All the prayers we offer up to God, are acceptable and successful only by Christ's intercession in the temple of God above. We cannot expect an interest therein if we do not pray, and pray with our spirits, and are not earnest in prayer. Nor can we expect that the best of our prayers should gain acceptance, and bring an answer of peace, but through the mediation of Christ, who ever lives, making intercession. The prayers Zacharias often made, received an answer of peace. Prayers of faith are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten. Prayers made when we were young and entering into the world, may be answered when we are old and going out of the world. Mercies are doubly sweet that are given in answer to prayer. Zacharias shall have a son in his old age, who shall be instrumental in the conversion of many souls to God, and preparing them to receive the gospel of Christ. He shall go before Him with courage, zeal, holiness, and a mind dead to earthly interests and pleasures. The disobedient and rebellious would be brought back to the wisdom of their righteous forefathers, or rather, brought to attend to the wisdom of that Just One who was coming among them. Zacharias heard all that the angel said; but his unbelief spake. In striking him dumb, God dealt justly with him, because he had objected against God's word. We may admire the patience of God towards us. God dealt kindly with him, for thus he prevented his speaking any more distrustful, unbelieving words. Thus also God confirmed his faith. If by the rebukes we are under for our sin, we are brought to give the more credit to the word of God, we have no reason to complain. Even real believers are apt to dishonour God by unbelief; and their mouths are stopped in silence and confusion, when otherwise they would have been praising God with joy and gratitude. In God's gracious dealings with us we ought to observe his gracious regards to us. He has looked on us with compassion and favour, and therefore has thus dealt with us.Children of Israel - Jews. Descendants of Israel or Jacob.

Shall he turn - By repentance. He shall call them from their sins, and persuade them to forsake them, and to seek the Lord their God.

16, 17. A religious and moral reformer, Elijah-like, he should be (Mal 4:6, where the "turning of the people's heart to the Lord" is borrowed from 1Ki 18:37). In both cases their success, though great, was partial—the nation was not gained. See Poole on "Luke 1:15" And many of the children of Israel,.... To whom only, or at least chiefly, he was sent, and came preaching, and administering the ordinance of baptism; and great multitudes of them flocked unto him, attended on his ministry, believed in his doctrine, and submitted to his baptism, but not all; for some slighted his preaching, and rejected his baptism: however, some there were, and many too, that were converted under his ministry, confessed their sins, and were baptized by him; which verified this prediction:

shall he turn to the Lord their God; not Jehovah, the Father; for though he was the Lord God of the Jews in general, and of those that were turned by John's ministry in a special manner; yet John cannot be said "to go before him", as he is in the next verse; but the Messiah is here meant, who is the Lord Jehovah, and is often so called in the Old Testament; particularly in a prophecy afterwards respected, Isaiah 40:3 a name peculiar to God alone: and who also is called God, as he is frequently with additional epithets; as the mighty God, God over all, the great God, the true God, and eternal life; and our, your, and their God, the God of his covenant people, whether Jews or Gentiles; see Isaiah 25:9. Conversion, which is meant by turning to God, is not man's work, but God's; and is effected by his mighty power, which is only equal to it; but John was to be, and was, an instrument of the conversion of many among the Jews, by preaching the doctrine of repentance towards God, and faith in the Messiah, that was just ready to come: he was the means in the hand of God, of turning many from sin, of bringing them to a true sense of it, and to an hearty and ingenuous confession and acknowledgment of it; and from trusting to, and depending upon, their birth privileges, legal duties, and self-righteousness; and from their gross notions of a temporal Messiah; and of leading them to believe in Christ as a spiritual Saviour, as the Lamb of God, that should take away the sin of the world.

And many of the children of Israel shall he {q} turn to the Lord their God.

(q) Shall be a means to bring many to repentance, and they will turn themselves to the Lord, from whom they fell.

Luke 1:16-17. Working of John as a preacher of repentance, who as a moral reformer of the people (comp. on Matthew 17:11) prepares the way for the Messianic consummation of the theocracy.

ἐπιστρέψει] for through sin they have turned themselves away from God.

κύριον τ. Θεὸν αὐτ.] not the Messiah (Euthymius Zigabenus, and many of the older commentators), but God.

καὶ αὐτός] He will turn many to God, and he himself will, etc.

προελεύσεται] not: he will emerge previously (de Wette), but: he will precede (Xen. Cyr. vi. 3, 9), go before Him (Genesis 23:3; Genesis 23:14; Jdt 2:19; Jdt 15:13).

ἐνώπ. αὐτοῦ] can only, in accordance with the context, be referred to God (Luke 1:16), whose preceding herald he will be. The prophets, namely, look upon and depict the setting in of the Messianic kingdom as the entrance of Jehovah into the midst of His people, so that thereupon God Himself is represented by the Messiah; Isaiah 40.; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5 f. Comp. Titus 2:13. In the person of the entering Messiah Jehovah Himself enters; but the Messiah’s own personal divine nature is not yet expressed in this ancient-prophetic view (in opposition to Gess, Pers. Chr. p. 47). Incorrect, because in opposition to this prophetic idea, is the immediate reference of αὐτοῦ to the Messiah (Heumann, Kuinoel, Valckenaer, Winer), as regards which appeal is made to the emphatic use of הוּא, αὐτός, and ipse (comp. the Pythagorean αὐτὸς ἔφα), whereby a subject not named but well known to every one is designated (Winer, p. 152 [E. T. 182 f.]).

ἐν πνεύματι κ. δυνάμ. Ἠλ.] furnished therewith. Spirit and power (power of working) of Elias (according to Malachi 4:5 f.) is, as a matter of course, God’s Spirit (comp. Luke 1:15) and divine power, but in the peculiar character and vital expression which were formerly apparent in the case of Elias, whose antitype John is, not as a miracle-worker (John 10:41), but as preacher of repentance and prophetic preparer of the way of the Lord.

ἐπιστρέψαι κ.τ.λ.] according to Malachi, l.c.: in order to turn fathers’ hearts to children; to be taken literally of the restoration of the paternal love, which in the moral degradation of the people had in many grown cold. Comp. Sir 48:10 and Fritzsche in loc. Kuinoel incorrectly holds that πατέρων means the patriarchs, and that the meaning is (similar to that given by Augustine, de civit. D. xx. 29; Beza, Calovius, and others): “efficiet, ut posteri erga Deum eundem habeant animum pium, quem, habebant eorum majores.” Comp. also Hengstenberg, Christol. III. p. 674, and Bleek. The absence of any article ought in itself to have warned against this view!

καὶ ἀπειθεῖς ἐν φρον. τ. δικ.] sc. ἐπιστρέψαι. The discourse passes over from the special relation to the general one. ἀπειθεῖς is the opposite of τῶν δικαίων, and therefore is not to be understood of the children (Olshausen), but of the immoral in general, whose characteristic is disobedience, namely towards God.

ἐν φρονήσει] connected immediately in a pregnant way with the verb of direction, in which the thought of the result was predominant. See Kühner, II. p. 316. “Sensus eorum, qui justi sunt, in conversione protinus induitur,” Bengel. φρόνησις (see Arist. Eth. Nic. vi. 5. 4), practical intelligence. Comp. on Ephesians 1:8. The practical element follows from ἀπειθεῖς.

ἑτοιμάσαι] to put in readiness, etc. Aim of the ἐπιστρέψαι κ.τ.λ., and so final aim of the προελεύσεται κ.τ.λ.

κυρίῳ] for God, as at Luke 1:16-17.

λαὸν κατεσκευασμ.] a people adjusted, placed in the right moral state (for the setting up of the Messianic kingdom), is related to ἑτοιμάσαι as its result. “Parandus populus, ne Dominus populum imparatum inveniens majestate sua obterat,” Bengel.Luke 1:16 describes the function of the Baptist.—ἐπιστρέψει: repentance, conversion, his great aim and watchword.16. many … shall he turn] Ezekiel 3:19; Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3-6. The word for ‘turn’ is sometimes rendered ‘convert’ as in Luke 22:32, ‘when thou art converted.’ These words resume the thread of prophecy which had been broken for three centuries (Malachi 4:6).Luke 1:16-17. Ἐπιστρέψει, καὶ προελεύσεται, he shall turn, and shall go before) The words presently after in Luke 1:17, to turn, ἐπιστρέψαι, refer to the verb ἐπιστρέψει, in Luke 1:16 : and ἑτοιμάσαι, to make ready, refers to προελεύσεται.—Κύριον, the Lord) Christ is therefore God. Comp. the following verse, ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, before HimΚυρίῳ, the Lord: and in verse 76 [“the Highest—before the face of the Lord”].Verse 16. - And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. The state of the people at this period was indeed unhappy. The dominant Italian power had introduced into Syria and Palestine the vices and profligate life of Italy and Greece. The great Syrian city Antioch, for instance, in vice and sensuality, had gone far beyond her conqueror, and was perhaps at that time the most wicked city in the world. In the court of Herod, patriotism and true nobility were dead. The priests and scribes were for the most part deeply corrupted, and the poor shepherdless common folk only too readily followed the example of the rich and great. The boy who was to be born was to be a great preacher of righteousness; his glorious mission would be to turn many of these poor wanderers to the Lord their God.
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