Birth of John the Baptist

Sketch by Brie Schulze

John the Baptist’s birth heralds the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. Those who were full of speech and of words will become silent. Those Pharisees and Scribes, the teachers of the Law, they will all become silent and mute as the Voice begins to speak. John the Baptist is the Voice, and his birth gives voice to those who who had lost hope. Zechariah’s first word after his long silence is “John.” This name means “Yahweh’s graciousness.” Zechariah’s silence of hopelessness is finally broken when he speaks over his son the grace of God. His tongue is untied only to speak God’s grace into the life of his son. God has commanded him to name his son John, and in doing so He liberates Zechariah from the silence induced by his hopelessness and lack of trust.

John can become the name that liberates us from the same hopelessness. We can sometimes make ourselves practically mute by our attitudes of criticism and negativity. What we say becomes completely useless and destructive when we indulge in that kind of speech. If we speak, rather, of the grace of God, of His gifts, His generosity, His Goodness and mercy, it frees our tongue – it allows the Voice of God to be heard. The Grace of God is the Voice of God. This newborn babe, this treasure from heaven, looks up at the face of his father waiting to hear his name spoken – waiting to hear who he is. His father, who was unable to speak until he recognized and humbly proclaimed God’s love and generosity, says to his son, “John.”


If anyone has been able to hold in the breadth of his mind and to consider the glory and splendor of all those things created in him, he will be struck by their very beauty and transfixed by the magnificence of their brilliance or, as the prophet says, “by the chosen arrow.” And he will receive from him the saving wound and will burn with the blessed fire of his love.1


Such is the word, the source of division that he presented to all people; likewise he declared, “I have not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” And moreover, the divine apostle says, “The Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.” … “He has set me like a chosen arrow and hidden me in his quiver.” Similarly, Isaiah said this metaphorically; he speaks of an arrow that wounds the souls of those who love him. Each cries, “I am wounded by love.” The quiver represents the mystery of the economy of the incarnation.2


This arrow signifies his divinity, resting in a quiver signifying the body assumed from the Virgin, in whose cloth of flesh his divinity was clothed.3


This chosen arrow, as I said, got rid of Satan and the evil powers with him … yet he wounds in another way, for benefit and salvation. Thus it says in the Song of Songs, “I am wounded with love.”4


For a lowly appellation is given to the Word whose origin is from God, that he is called slave, that is, a household member. For such a title can sometimes indicate “son,” and at other times, as we have said, “household member.” In the economy of the flesh, it is appropriate to consider the Son as a slave. For he is God by nature and free as being from God the sovereign Father, yet he took the shape or form of a slave. For no one with right understanding could say that he was a slave by nature who was then able to be brought into the form of a slave. Rather, he was outside of slavery and constraint, but for the sake of a sign, in the freedom of his nature, he received the shape, that is, the form of slave.… For he was Emmanuel, and he revealed to us no less in this way his freedom which was real and by nature.… For he who was God the Word dwelled in them and among us for no other reason except so that he could save Israel and gather Jacob. For he had scattered all others who were on the earth, every inventor of wickedness, into their many-colored and multifaceted vices.5


We must also understand the prophet to be speaking of Christ’s humanity here, for it would be no great honor for God the Word to be called the slave of God the Father. It is not “my child” but “my slave” that both the Hebrew text and the three translators make clear to us.6


The elderly Elizabeth gave birth to the last of the prophets, and Mary, a young girl, to the Lord of the angels. The daughter of Aaron gave birth to the voice in the desert, but the daughter of David to the strong God of the earth. The barren one gave birth to him who remits sins, but the Virgin gave birth to him who takes them away. Elizabeth gave birth to him who reconciled people through repentance, but Mary gave birth to him who purified the lands of uncleanness. The elder one lit a lamp in the house of Jacob, his father, for this lamp itself was John, while the younger one lit the Sun of Justice for all the nations. The angel announced to Zechariah, so that the slain one would proclaim the crucified one and that the hated one would proclaim the envied one. He who was to baptize with water would proclaim him who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit.5 The light, which was not obscure, would proclaim the Sun of Justice. The one filled with the Spirit would proclaim concerning him who gives the Spirit. The priest calling with the trumpet would proclaim concerning the one who is to come at the sound of the trumpet at the end. The voice would proclaim concerning the Word, and the one who saw the dove would proclaim concerning him upon whom the dove rested, like the lightning before the thunder.7


Joyfully we honor you, O John most blessed, who have appeared on earth as equal of the angels in your unaccustomed way of life, and high above all humankind.…
Unto you was revealed, O prophet, the mystery of the one essence of the Godhead in three consubstantial persons. For through the voice of the Father and the coming of the Spirit you have known him who was baptized to be the everlasting Word of God.
Child of a barren mother, O most venerable John, you were the spiritual dawn announcing the sun who shone forth from the virgin; and you have proclaimed the lamb who in his love for humankind takes away the sin of the world.8


John means “the grace of God” or “in whom there is grace.” By this name are expressed the entire extent of the grace of the gospel dispensation which he was to proclaim, and especially the Lord himself, through whom this grace was to be granted to the world.…
As to his subsequent declaration and confirmation of the name of John, and the opening of Zechariah’s mouth and his speaking, blessing God, it is surely evident that once the grace of the new covenant was manifested by the apostles, a large number of priests also became obedient to the faith.9


O forerunner of Christ!… O Baptist inspired by God! We glorify Christ who bowed his head before you in the Jordan and sanctified the nature of mortal humankind.…
O wise John the forerunner, you have looked down from the bank of the river upon the glory of the Father’s Word, even the Son as he stood in the waters; and you have seen the Spirit descend as a dove, cleansing and enlightening the ends of the earth. To you the mystery of the Trinity was revealed; and to you we sing, honoring your divine festival.
O Baptist and forerunner, strengthened by the divine grace of Christ you have shown us the lamb that takes away all the sins of the world, and with joy you have this day brought two disciples to him. Entreat him that peace and great mercy may be given to our souls.10


When John his son was born, among his neighbors there was concern about what name he should be given. Writing tablets were offered to his father so that he himself could put down the name that he had decided upon, so that he might express in writing what he could not in speech. Then, in a wonderful manner, when he had taken the tablets in order to begin writing, his tongue was loosened, the written word gave way to speech, and he did not write “John” but spoke it. Consider, then, the merit of the holy Baptist: he gave his father back his voice, he restored the faculty of speech to the priest. Consider, I say, his merit: John unloosed the mouth that the angel had bound. What Gabriel had closed the little child unlocked.… When John is born the father suddenly becomes a prophet or priest, speech attains its use, love receives an offspring, the office recognizes the priest.11


  1. COMMENTARY ON THE SONG OF SONGS, PROLOGUE. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  2. COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 15.49.2. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (pp. 110–111). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 2.4. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (p. 111). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH–3. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (p. 111). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  5. COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH–6. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (pp. 113–114). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  6. COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 15.49.6. Elliott, M. W. (Ed.). (2007). Isaiah 40–66 (p. 114). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  7. COMMENTARY ON TATIAN’S DIATESSARON 1.31. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 28). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  8. SYNAXIS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (pp. 28–29). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  9. HOMILIES ON THE GOSPELS 2.20. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 29). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  10. SYNAXIS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 29). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  11. SERMON 6.1. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 29). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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