Luke wrote his Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after he had carefully researched the life of Jesus Christ (1:1-4). The phrase “from the very first” can be translated “from above” (v. 3; see John 3:31) and indicated that God guided Luke as he gathered information, organized it, and then wrote his book. His purpose was to give us an accurate and authoritative account of the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Theophilus (“one who loves God”) may have been a Roman official (“most excellent”) who, as a new believer, needed to have his faith firmly established. The Gk. word for “instructed” (v. 4) gives us our English word “catechize,” so Theophilus may have been a “catechumen,” a beginner in the Christian faith. Luke opens his Gospel by recording four important visits.
I. Gabriel Visits Zacharias (1:1-25)
“The days of Herod the king” (v. 5) (Herod the Great) were not the best of days for the Jewish people, but this priest and his wife faithfully prayed and served God in spite of the discouragements. God has His faithful remnant even in the darkest days, people like Zacharias (“Jehovah has remembered”), Elizabeth (“My God is an oath”), Simeon (“hearing”–2:25-35), and Anna (“grace”–2:36-38). It was the providence of God that Zacharias was chosen to burn the incense, for this ministry came to a man but once in a lifetime. He had prayed all his married life for a son; and now, while he was praying, God announced the answer to his prayers. Angels are mentioned twenty-three times in Luke, but only two are named in Scripture: Gabriel (Dan. 8:16;9:21;Luke 1:19,26) and Michael (Dan. 10:13,21;12:1;Jude 9;Rev. 12:7). How gracious that the first words from heaven are, “Fear not!” This is a phrase found often in Luke (1:13,30;2:10;5:10;8:50;12:7,32). “Joy” and “rejoice” are used nineteen times in Luke. Was Zacharias asking for a sign when he said, “How shall I know this?” (See 1 Cor. 1:22) If so, his request was answered; for he was dumb until his promised son was eight days old! Faith opens our lips in praise to God, while unbelief silences us (2 Cor. 4:13). What an honour for this elderly couple to be the parents of the last and greatest of the prophets (7:25 28; Matt. 11:7-13), the man who would introduce the Messiah to the nation! But what a tragedy that Zacharias could not herald the good news abroad that God was about to send the Messiah to the world!
II. Gabriel Visits Mary (1:26-38)
Six months later (v. 26),Gabriel visited Mary in Nazareth and told her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Mary was probably a teenager, for Jewish girls married young. She was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph (Matt. 13:55); she came from the line of David (Luke 3:31) and was a virgin (v. 27; Isa. 7:14). In those days, engagement was tantamount to marriage, and to break the engagement was like a divorce. This explains why Joseph was called her “husband” before they actually were wed (Matt. 1:19). Gabriel’s greeting is literally, “Grace, you who are highly graced!” Although she was a godly woman, it was God’s grace, not Mary’s character, that made her God’s choice. The phrase “highly favoured” is used of all God’s people in Eph. 1:6 (“which He freely bestowed on us” [nasb]). Mary is blessed among women but not above women. The coming of the Son of God to earth involved not only our personal salvation but also the fulfilling of God’s promises to His people Israel (vv. 32-33). To “spiritualize” these promises is to rob the Jews of what God promised them (2 Sam 7; Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 33:14-18). If the angel’s words in vv. 30-31 are to be taken literally, so should his words in vv. 32-33. Unlike Zacharias, Mary had faith that God would do what He promised. She asked, “How shall this be?” and not “How can this be?” Since Jesus existed before His mother, He could not be conceived in the womb in the normal way. The virgin birth is a miracle of God that brought the eternal Son of God into the world without any taint of sin in His human nature (v. 35; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; Heb. 4:15). Mary yielded herself to the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:1) knowing full well that she would experience shame and misunderstanding.
III. Mary Visits Elizabeth (1:39-56)
Zacharias and Elizabeth lived in one of the priestly cities (Joshua 21), so Mary had to make a journey to get there. When she arrived and greeted Elizabeth, wonderful things began to happen. Elizabeth gave praise to God for what He had done for Mary, and the unborn John the Baptist leaped for joy in his mother’s womb (see John 3:29-30). Note that Elizabeth called Mary “the mother of my Lord,” which is a proper title. It was Mary’s faith that was extolled most of all (v. 45). Mary’s song of praise is called “The Magnificat” (from the Latin word for “magnify”). Mary knew the Scriptures, for there are at least fifteen OT quotations or allusions in her song. (See 1 Sam. 2:1-10.) She praises God and eight times tells us what God has done (“He has. . . ,” NKJV). Note that Mary acknowledged God as her Saviour (v. 47), which indicates that she had trusted the Lord for her own salvation. She praised God for what He did for her (vv. 46-49), for all who fear Him (vv. 50-53), and for His people Israel (vv. 54-55). Mary took God’s promises to Israel literally and did not explain them away.
IV. God Visits His People (1:57-80)
“He has visited and redeemed His people” (v. 68) is the major theme of this hymn of praise. The little boy being named (John means “grace of God”) was the forerunner of the Messiah who would bring salvation to lost sinners and one day deliver Israel from all her enemies. God was visiting His people, but they did not know “the time of their visitation” (19:44). Zacharias took literally God’s covenants and promises with Israel and expected God to fulfill them (vv. 72-73). In this beautiful song, Zacharias gave several pictures symbolizing the salvation we have in Jesus Christ: purchase from slavery (v. 68), deliverance from danger (v. 74), forgiveness of a debt (v. 77), and the dawning of a new day (vv. 78-79;Isa. 9:2). Note the emphasis on salvation (vv. 69,71,77).