Seminary Viewpoints

The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah about the coming birth of John the Baptist

The Forgotten Christmas Son: Four Names, Four Promises for Christmas 2021

Sam Horn | December 29, 2021
Theology Thursday

It’s almost impossible for anyone under 20 to imagine life without cellphones, laptops or internet. Yet some of us remember typewriters, black-and-white TVs, and rotary and even party-line phones!

In the same way, it’s hard to imagine a time before Christmas and its impact on the world. But Luke’s Gospel transports us back to that time when life for Israel was bleak across the board:

  • Politically: The Romans were the last in a long line of cruel oppressors, following the Assyrians, Greeks, Persians and Babylonians. 
  • Economically: What little that remained after the unbearable burden of Roman taxes was allotted to religious obligations — leaving most Jews living hand to mouth. 
  • Religiously: Israel labored under the yoke of both Roman rule and the Law with demands for righteousness impossible to keep. And despite promises of a coming Messiah, no one had actually heard from God for almost 400 years! 

It may seem to anxious Christians that God is equally silent amid wrenching and almost unthinkable change this Christmas season: economic dislocation, political division, rising lawlessness, social disruption and immorality, and religious drift.

Yet amid the bleakness, then and now, intrudes a remarkable story about a barren couple representing a barren nation, a forgotten Christmas son, and God’s grace and power. Luke’s Gospel unfolds the story of John the Baptist through the names of four main characters who learn that with a God who remembers, hears and acts, nothing is impossible!

Zechariah — God Remembers

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah … (whose wife) was Elizabeth. … They had no child … and they were both advanced in years. … But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son …'” (Luke 1:5, 7, 13, NASB).

In choosing a priest named Zechariah (“God remembers”) to father the messianic forerunner John the Baptist, God breaks 400 years of silence by announcing to all Israel that He remembers His Word.

Not only has God remembered His people’s prayers and His promises, He starts by answering a smaller, personal prayer for a son. For Zechariah, that prayer was probably long relegated into the same category as his greater prayer for God’s Son to come: “someday, but not in my lifetime.”

God sent Gabriel to interrupt such perfunctory, perfectly regulated prayer with a wonderful announcement: God had heard and was answering all of Zechariah’s petitions.

But Zechariah doesn’t rememberIn asking how he would know this for certain (1:18), he forgets that God had answered the same prayer for a much-older Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah’s demand for a sign is an act of unbelief. But as we see in the second character …

John — God is Gracious

“’ … and you shall name him John. … It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’” (1:13, 17).

God determines to show this unbelieving priest and His unbelieving people His great mercy and grace by sending a son, John the Baptist, whose name means exactly that: “God is gracious.”

This forgotten Christmas son would be the forerunner of the Messiah promised in Malachi 3:1, with the spirit and power of Elijah (Mal. 4:5-6) and a ministry to make ready a people prepared to receive the Lord by calling them to repentance and restored relationships. 

Gabriel — God is Strong

The angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel … . And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words … ‘” (1:19, 20).

Understandably, Zechariah is stunned not only to see an angel but to hear both about a son of his old age and about his place in God’s redemptive plan.

So the angel reveals His identity — Gabriel (“God is strong”). And in that name, he also reveals the capabilities and character of a God strong enough to bring His promises to Zechariah and Israel to pass.

Moreover, in being rendered silent, Zechariah becomes the sign of a nation that would also struggle to believe in Jesus as Messiah and be deaf and mute regarding His redemption message. 

But God is also strong enough to extend His grace to Israel. One day, the entire nation will have ears to hear and a mouth to praise Jesus, and so prove that …

Elizabeth — God is Favorable

Now after these days his wife Elizabeth became pregnant … (and said), ‘This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among people’” (1:24, 25).

“Elizabeth” means either “God is my fortune” or “God is the one by whom I swear.” Either way, her name implies trust in God’s promises. Contrasting Zechariah’s unbelief, Elizabeth is convinced that God has removed her disgrace as a sign of underserved favor.

Four Promises for Christmas 2021

This story of the forgotten Christmas son John the Baptist and four remarkable names yields four promises for this season of anxiety amid seeming silence from God:

  1. God remembers our praying, even when an answer seems long overdue. So we must faithfully remember Him by continuing to pray confidently and fervently.
  2. God is merciful and gracious, even when it appears He has forgotten us and our requests. We must rest in His merciful provision and gracious providence, believing He will answer our prayers.
  3. God is strong and mighty. The impossible in our strength is unfailingly possible for Him. God has the power to fulfill His promises — and will!
  4. God is favorable toward us, using His power to do the impossible for our good. We can expect good and gracious things from our mighty God if we remain faithful to His Word and willing to wait patiently for His plan even amid today’s uncertainties.