A curious feature of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospel of Luke is the naming of John the Baptist. When the angel appears to Zechariah, he is instructed to give his promised son the name John (Luke 1:13). On the day of John’s circumcision, Luke tells us that “they [presumably the neighbours and relatives of 1:58] would have called him Zechariah after his father” (1:59). However, whether by her own revelation or silent communication from the mute Zechariah, Elizabeth insists that, unlike anyone else in the family, “he shall be called John” (1:60). And so they called their son John – and it was very good.
But what is the significance of this family tussle over names?
The act of naming is a powerful thing in Scripture – perhaps because, in Scripture, name and being are closely related. The Triune God of Scripture is one whose very name (“I Am That I Am”) speaks of his being. He of course speaks creation into being, and on the first three creation days names what he has made (Gen. 1:1-13). So, God has a name, and names were with God in the beginning.
Following creation’s pattern, Adam’s first act once the curses are given after the Fall is to name his wife Eve (3:20) – the first act of new creation. When a world made by speaking and naming has come undone, Adam perceives that to be remade it must be renamed.
Much the same happens in Scripture’s most famous renaming, that of Abram and Sarai. Their names begin as dark jokes – “exalted father” and “my princess”, with no children to speak of and a kingdom which will die out after their passing. Yet their names are remade and expanded – exalted father Abram becomes Abraham (“father of a multitude”); my princess Sarai becomes simply “princess” in Sarah, the loss of the particular expanding the matriarch to be a princess for all.
Names seem to exert power over events and lives in Scripture. They can be redemptive, ironic, fitting, political. They are almost never arbitrary.
When we first encounter Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1, the narrative similarities to Abram and Sarai are obvious: “They were both righteous before God, walking blamessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (1:6-7).
Yet the two share the same unfunny joke in their names as their forefather and mother.
Zechariah means “the LORD has remembered”. Elizabeth means either “God is my oath” or “God of abundance.” Both are names that cast the mind back to the covenant God made with their forefather and foremother – a covenant he is bound to remember, on oath, in abundance. Yet although, in the spectres of Abram and Sarai the beginning of the covenant is dimly invoked, Zechariah and Elizabeths seem to represent its withered, spluttering end. As a priestly Levite couple of Aaronic pedigree, they are a picture of Israel, the priestly nation, as a whole: old, spent, and barren; carrying out votive rites before a Lord who has not remembered.
Yet Zechariah’s ironic name brings up more ghosts of covenants past. Not simply Abram, but Noah and Moses linger at the edges of the narrative.
Just as there is a close tie between naming and being in Scripture, so too are remembering and acting. At the height of the flood narrative, we are told “But God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1). In the depths of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, we are told “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abram, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:24). In both instances, the wheels of salvation soon begin to turn.
God’s remembering is not as our remembering. It is not passive recollection, but active performance. This close tie between remembrance and act can illuminate the family feud over John’s name.
What if John had simply been called Zechariah after his father, as expected? Would the church have been much the poorer for having Zechariah the Baptist?
If this had been the case, then there would have been no new being for God’s people. They would have remained, as seen in Zechariah and Elizabeth, fruitless and futile, a world grown old.
Also, God’s “remembering” would have remained like ours – a passive recollection, not an intervening act. Zechariah’s son would have been another link in a long chain of the post-exilic prophetic silence, testifying that “the LORD has remembered”, but with nothing to show for it.
Yet John’s name declares a new being from God and new act of God. It is a break with John’s father, and all his fathers. As the last of the Prophets, he is the true pivot of history, heralding the end of the Old Covenant and the arrival of the New.
John is now a name humorously ubiquitous with bland anonymity in the Anglophone West. We call the faceless living John Smith, the faceless dead John Doe, the faceless dumped “Dear John”. Yet in Luke’s narrative, the name “John” announces a long-awaited, world-changing arrival.
John means “the LORD has been gracious.” Buried in there are the Hebrew words “Yahweh” and “chanan”, the latter meaning “to be gracious”. The noun form of the word, “chen” (favor), is what the Lord gives to both Noah (Gen. 6:8) and Israel (Ex. 3:21).
The LORD’s grace and favor will always swiftly follow his remembering, and this is why the naming of John the Baptist is so significant. Without his name, he would have been another forgotten rememberer. With it, he answers the lament of the Psalmist “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Ps. 77:9).
The answer is no, and the answer is given in two names. Zechariah and John: the LORD has remembered. Remembered to be gracious.
And yet John’s name does not speak of himself. He is not the grace, but came only as a witness to the grace.
Four times in the early part of his Gospel, Luke uses the Greek word “charis”, which we translate as “grace” or “favor”. In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament of John’s day, this was the word used to translate the aforementioned Hebrew word, “chen.”
As Luke tells it, “charis” is what Mary finds with God when she is with child (1:30). It is then upon her child as he grows (2:40, 2:52). It is upon his lips as he preaches in his home synagogue (4:22).
John’s name is a word over his life, defining his being as the herald of the New Age. It performs God’s remembrance as an act in history. But it speaks of another name, greater and higher than his own, belonging to him who is both the graciously remembering God, and the gracious remembrance of God. It is the name of the one who, in his life, death, and resurrection would truly bring about a new being from God, and a powerful act of God: Jesus.
Rhys Laverty (BA, GDip) works part-time for The Davenant Institute, alongside studying Davenant’s MLitt degree. He writes a weekly blog for Ad Fontes and co-hosts the Ad Fontes Podcast. He also podcasts about film and TV on For Now We See. He lives in Chessington, UK, with his wife and two children.
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