What does Luke chapter 1 mean?Luke's gospel opens with a direct counter to claims that Christian belief is based in "blind faith." Before the Gospels were written, men like Paul (1 Corinthians 1:1–2), Peter (1 Peter 1:1–2), and James (James 1:1) were circulating letters to fellow believers. Luke is adding his voice to an existing body of proof: the accounts of eyewitnesses and others who had first-hand knowledge of Jesus Christ. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke was not a direct witness of Jesus' earthly ministry. He was a co-worker with the apostle Paul. This would have brought him into contact with many key figures in Jesus' life. Luke's gospel is a deliberate, researched, organized, confidence-boosting record of Christ's active life. Though it's officially dedicated to Theophilus—otherwise an anonymous figure—the scholarly approach used by Luke is valuable even to us, today (Luke 1:1–4).
Old Testament priests were drawn only from the descendants of Aaron. These families were divided into 24 groups, who would rotate their weekly service in the tabernacle or temple. One such priest is Zechariah, married to Elizabeth, and both are known for their godly lives. However, they are aging and have never had children. In the ancient world, this was not only a financial hardship, but also socially embarrassing. Zechariah is alone offering incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appears and announces that Elizabeth will have a child. Zechariah's immediate reaction is to doubt that this will happen. As a result, he is stricken mute—and likely deaf (Luke 1:62)—until the prophecy is fulfilled. As predicted, Elizabeth conceives, and the child she bears will come to be known as John the Baptist. He will be an important herald of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:5–25).
Gabriel later delivers an even more miraculous announcement. Mary is an unmarried virgin, legally arranged to be married to a man named Joseph. The angel refers to her as "highly favored," as a passive recipient of God's grace. Inaccurate translations such as "full of grace" imply Mary was an active source of grace. This young woman will bear God incarnate, in the form of Jesus Christ. This will fulfill prophecies that Messiah would be virgin born (Isaiah 7:14) into the house of David (Isaiah 9:6–7; 2 Samuel 7:12–16). Mary's reaction is to wonder "how," not "if," the message would come true. Her humble, submissive acceptance is admirable. The circumstances of her pregnancy would have been awkward in the eyes of nonbelievers, and the pressure of this role was obvious (Luke 1:26–38).
That Mary's pregnancy through the Holy Spirit will happen immediately is confirmed when she visits Elizabeth. As soon as Mary's greeting is heard, the unborn John the Baptist moves in the womb, suddenly and dramatically. Elizabeth shouts in celebration, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, referring to Mary's pregnancy though Mary has not yet made any such announcement. Elizabeth's compliment to Mary is a subtle contrast to Zechariah's moment of doubt (Luke 1:39–45).
Mary then replies with a song of praise which reflects both love for God and familiarity with the Old Testament. She refers to God as her Savior, acknowledging that she, too, has sin which needs to be forgiven. She praises God for His power, mercy, protection, and faithfulness. In doing so, she echoes the mother of Samuel, Hannah, who prayed for a son from God (1 Samuel 1:11; 2:1). Her words quote some Old Testament passages (Psalm 103:17), directly reference others (Deuteronomy 5:10; Daniel 4:37; Obadiah 1:4) and agree with many more (Psalm 132:11; Isaiah 13:11; 1 Samuel 2:8). This song is sometimes called "The Magnificat," from the Latin translation of its first words (Luke 1:46–55).
Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Mary came to visit. Mary stays for three months, which likely means she was there for the birth of John the Baptist. Scripture does not say if Joseph knows about her condition, yet. It's possible he was unaware until she came back and began to show signs of expecting. Matthew clarifies (Matthew 1:18–22) that Joseph's initial, disappointed reaction is changed thanks to divine reassurance. At this point, they are still unmarried, so Mary returns to "her" home, likely meaning that of her father (Luke 1:56).
When Zechariah and Elizabeth's son is finally born, there is great celebration. Old Testament law required a boy to be circumcised eight days after birth (Leviticus 12:3). This was also when the baby would be formally named. By the New Testament era, Jewish families were in the habit of using traditional, family names. When Elizabeth mentions the name "John," everyone is confused. Zechariah confirms this in writing—and is immediately freed from his punishment of silence. This adds to the people's sense that the child, soon to be known as John the Baptist, is meant for an important mission (Luke 1:57–66).
Zechariah declares a prophecy about the mission of his son, John. This combines direct quotes from the Old Testament with echoes of prophetic promises. Zechariah celebrates that he has seen these things occur. He realizes that John's purpose is to be the herald of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:67–79).
John's life will be as unusual as his beginnings. Rather than living a "normal" childhood, he seems drawn to spending time alone in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). His spiritual strength, public memory of his miraculous birth (Luke 1:65–66), and personality quirks (Mark 1:4–6) likely magnify interest as he begins to preach (Luke 3:2–3; Matthew 3:4–6). After his first public appearance, John will consistently maintain that his role is secondary (John 1:19–23), as a herald of Christ, and that he is not the Messiah (Luke 1:80).
John's birth concludes the longest chapter, by verses, in the New Testament. Original manuscripts were written without chapter or verse divisions. These were added centuries later. Modern readers—and commenters—are often perplexed as to why tradition did not separate this passage into two or even three sections. As it stands, Luke chapter 1 is longer than 7 entire books of the New Testament; its 80 verses are more than the smallest 4 books put together.
Chapter 2 moves on to the birth of Jesus, a passage often recited and well-known, even to those unfamiliar with the rest of the Bible.