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“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord κυριου to prepare his ways,” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭1:76‬

What did those listening to Zachariah’s prophetic utterance as coming directly from God understand by the Lord? Who did they assume most likely was this Lord?

“And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭1:67‬

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Originally, it's most likely a reference to Malachi

In Jesus' day, there seem to be repeated references to the prophecies given in the last of the Prophetic books, Malachi:

"I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me." (Malachi 3:1)

This verse in particular uses the specific phraseology of 'preparing the way before' somebody. And then the message concludes with what is commonly understood as a repetition of the same prophecy:

"See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of YHWH comes." (Malachi 4:5)

We see these verses recalled repeatedly through the gospels, by various crowds - and it is said that this line of teaching comes from the Scribes themselves:

"But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” Mark 6:15

"And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" Mark 9:11

"And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” Mark 15:35

Based on how frequently Malachi's prophecies are referenced by crowds in the Gospels, the word given by Zachariah "You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways" would likely be perceived as a Malachi reference by those who stood nearby, particularly noting Malachi 3:1.

Answer: In the context of Malachi, God/YHWH is speaking in the first-person, and so I would expect that the first hearers would interpret κυριου as referring to YHWH himself.


How should we interpret this today and now?

For those of us reading the text today, we have the benefit of the remainder of Luke's text for interpreting this term, and so we should aim to read it in the context of the wider text. In the first few chapters (as we might expect) the term is used heavily, repeatedly and exclusively of God, as an analogue to YHWH is in the Old Testament:

"And an angel of the Lord appeared" (Lk 1:11)

"He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David;" (Lk 1:32)

Not long into the text, we encounter a watershed where the term begins to be used of the baby to come:

"And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?" (Lk 1:43)

"for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Lk 2:11)

However, at this stage we should recognise there is a fair degree of hermeneutical overlap involved in translating this to any english word, as the term alone could refer to a person with any degree of authority/lordship over the speaker. But by the middle of Luke, κύριοςs is more commonly used to refer to Jesus than to the Father, and it becomes Jesus' own title:

"Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, "Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof;" (Lk 7:6)

"She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word." (Lk 10:39)

Some translations do muddy the waters somewhat, as many of Jesus' own parables referring to human masters/servants also use this title, but are translated differently:

"Blessed is that slave whom his master (κύριος) finds so doing when he comes." (Lk 12:43)

Whereas on the other hand, if Luke did not intend to link Jesus to the Father by this term, we should expect him to apply it less liberally, especially where it is paired with theological terms common in the Old Testament:

"The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, "Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times." (Lk 22:61)

And in fact by Acts, the author repeats this phrase with such a strong contextual overlap that it would be most difficult to distinguish between whether 'word of the Lord' as referring to Jesus or YHWH.

"So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans." (Acts 8:25)


Conclusion

Answer: The only absolute conclusion from Luke 1:76 and the following passages is that this 'Lord' was to be Jesus.

I can understand the perspectives of those who dispute whether Jesus is really being referred to as 'God' through Gospel passages like these, and understanding this term 'Lord' is perhaps one of the best keystones to understanding how this was interpreted by the early church. Later writers would write similarly that understanding Jesus as 'Lord' was central to Christian belief, however we understand that today:

"that if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9)

In context, Zachariah's message Luke 1:76 is clearly speaking about Jesus, and the question of who is Jesus is the entire point of the Gospels - they're an unfolding story, a mystery, where the reader is invited to investigate and conclude for themselves who Jesus is.

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The child in question was John, miraculously born to Zacharias and Elizabeth. And it was also miraculous that the father suddenly began to speak at the baby’s circumcision, for Zacharias had been rendered dumb until then by the angel who foretold the miracle birth. The people who frequented Jerusalem’s temple knew about this so that when Zacharias’s elderly wife gave birth as the angel had foretold, and he confirmed that the baby was to be called John, he then spoke that Holy Spirit inspired prophecy.

Who would his audience understand “the LORD” to be? There was no doubt in Zacharias’s mind, for the angel had told him that this child would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (1:6-17). There is only one Lord and God to the children of Israel – the Most High who created everything. That last phrase would remind them of the much earlier prophecy of Malachi, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.” (3:1)

It would knit together with Isaiah’s prophecy who wrote, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). They would notice that John went into the wilderness, as a prophet of God, proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. When John began to baptise those who repented of their sins, that prophecy was quoted in Luke’s gospel (3:2-6).

Yet no Israelite expected God himself to appear! They did expect the Messiah, however. That’s why Luke wrote, “And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not” John put them right. He said he was not the Christ, but one coming after him was, and when Jesus appeared John pointed to him as the Messiah. John clearly showed that he was the messenger who was to prepare the way before the Messenger of the Covenant, the Messiah.

How are we to understand this Lord, today? This is clearly stated by the apostles of Jesus who witnessed his resurrection from the grave shortly after his crucifixion. They were in no doubt. John started his gospel account by explaining that the Word, who made everything that was made, (the creator) had become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Thomas, who had his doubts instantly cleared up at touching the risen Christ, declared him to be “My Lord, and my God” (John chapter 1 & 20:28 & 31). Matthew pointed out that the prophetic name of Immanuel belonged to this Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sin (Isaiah 7:14). That name means “God with us”. Mark’s gospel account starts by calling Jesus Christ the Son of God, then relates the connection with John the Baptist and Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy. And Luke’s statements have already been covered. All four gospel accounts point to Jesus as the Lord, before whom John the Baptist went, in preparation.

A good source I have used is that of Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on Luke chapter 1. He states that Zacharias began his song of praise by saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:68-69). There is no ambiguity about who this ‘Lord’ is. Henry says:

“In sending the Messiah, God has made a gracious visit to his people…” and Zacharias “blessed God for the work of preparation for this salvation which was to be done by John Baptist (vs. 76): Thou child, though now but a child of eight days’ old, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest. Jesus Christ is the Highest, for he is God over all, blessed for evermore (Rom. 9:5), equal with the Father. John Baptist was his prophet, as Aaron was Moses’ prophet (Ex 7:1): what he said was as his mouth, what he did was as his harbinger. Prophecy had now long ceased, but in John it revived, as it had done in Samuel, who was born of an aged mother, as John was, after a long cessation. John’s business was, (1) To prepare people for the salvation, by preaching repentance and reformation as great gospel duties. Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, and but a little before him, to prepare his ways, to call people to make room for him, and get ready for him.” (page 1455)

In summary conclusion: the people listening to Zacharias would know that the Lord their God, the God of Israel, had foretold the coming of his Messiah, his Christ (anointed one), who would have another one go before him, to prepare the way for him. About thirty years later they should have recognised John the Baptist as having prepared the way before Jesus Christ, the Messenger of the Covenant.

We today can view that foretold one as Jesus Christ, who made everything that was made, and who arose from the dead as proof of being the sinless Son of God (Romans 1:2-4), the Messenger of the Covenant. For Christians, there is but “one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him: and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Corinthians 8:6 cf. Psalm 110:1 – “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool”, cf Mark 12:36 where Jesus quoted that to confound those who did not recognise him as the Lord come to his temple.)

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There are many verses that might easily confuse and bewilder us if we attempt to solve their conundrum in isolation - without the concert of many other texts that help to provide a frame of reference.

Quite often, a Greek analysis alone is insufficient to render a truthful or contextual meaning to words written many centuries ago.

This instance is one where context and concert must be employed to gather the information needed.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Luke 1:76

Who is this Lord?

Luke 1:31-3 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.

Clearly Luke is not talking about Yahweh, the God of Israel, but His son.

v42 Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?

Again, this is not God, Yahweh, but another Lord. A human child by miraculous events was promised and believed on in faith.

v45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

This last 'Lord', is a reference to the angel Gabriel - a messenger of Yahweh - whose words are as good as God's. Not that Gabriel IS God, but when he speaks, it's the Lord God speaking.

v4 6And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. (Yahweh)

All the way through to v55

As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever. (still Yahweh)

And as Hebrews mentions, confirming the one who spoke to the prophets etc and the one who is now speaking in these last days - not Yahweh per se, but the son, Jesus. Continuing with the accepted practise of who God sends, speaks as if God is speaking through them.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things

John 8:28 I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me

John 14:24 The word that you hear is not My own, but it is from the Father who sent Me.

There is no confusion with Mary or Elizabeth who was who - they knew who their God was, Yahweh, and they knew who He was sending. Elizabeth was 'filled with the Spirit', Mary was spoken to by God's angel and God's presence with her was strong. The child from her would be holy and have many roles of leadership and kingship - as prophesied and promised. He would be the Lord God's Lord.

v67 Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke of his own son, soon to be - John. He proclaimed Yahweh as the God of Israel, He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High...

For you will go on BEFORE THE LORD TO PREPARE HIS WAYS.

To clarify, we see from Matt 11

0“This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU

Who is talking? Yahweh is - He is sending HIS messenger to prepare a way before another... not for Himself. Jesus is using this prophecy to show who John the Baptist is - the one preparing the way for him - the son of God.

No one prepares the way for God, but for His son - absolutely - as prophesied.

No one makes the paths straight for God - for His son they do.

Matt 3:3 Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight

The son of God - the one who died, who was raised by his Father and God, who was appointed heir of all creation, who was made Lord and Christ, whose very life was given by the Father, twice, and given the Spirit also twice. He is the Lord of Life because the Father decreed it so, having accomplished victory over not just sin, but death and evil itself through him.

As Luke has noted, by including various prophecies concerning the coming Jesus, or Lord, as he would be also known. There are other indicators that Jesus would be Lord, but carefully distinguished from God - the Lord God, Yahweh. God's people knew they had one God - His name was Yahweh, the Almighty and many other names or titles. He spoke through the prophets until He would send His son Jesus to do the speaking (Heb 1:1). They were well versed in the prophecies and understood the significance of the one to come. Those who were made aware, like John the Baptist and others, knew who this new one was.

"Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming," says the LORD of hosts. Mal 3:1

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  • (+1) This answer is a useful response to the question's aspect of 'how should we understand it today', but doesn't really provide any detail that was available to those immediately listening to Zachariah's message (assuming that the conversation between Mary and the angel had not been widely shared at that point). And so it doesn't really seem to answer that other side of the question.
    – Steve Taylor
    Dec 10 '20 at 13:07
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    That is an very obvious and intentional interpretation. Intended to fit a doctrine, whereas the text should be informing the doctrine not the doctrine informing the text. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Isa 40:2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD'S hand double for all her sins. Isa 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” prepare for God, it’s clear as day Dec 10 '20 at 16:03
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How was Lord most likely understood and how should it be understood today in Luke 1:76

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord κυριου to prepare his ways,” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭1:76‬

"For you will go before the Lord", The Lord is Jehovah.

John the Baptist would “go ahead of Jehovah” in the sense that he would be the forerunner of Jesus, who came in His Father's name to represent him. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist applies this prophecy to himself.

John 1:23 NET

23 John[a] said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight[b] the way for the Lord,’[c] as the prophet Isaiah said.”.(Isaiah 40:3)

The Lord " Jehovah "did not come personally to the literal temple in Jerusalem. (1 Kings 8:27) He came representatively, that is, by means of his “messenger of the covenant,” Jesus Christ, who came in Father's name.

1 Kings 8:27 NET

27 “God does not really live on the earth![a] Look, if the sky and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this temple I have built!

Footnotes NET

1 Kings 8:27 tn Heb “Indeed, can God really live on the earth?” The rhetorical question expects the answer, “Of course not,” the force of which the translation above seeks to reflect.

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    That’s bizarre hermeneutics. How did you smuggle in that God would send his representative if the text says that God Himself would have His way prepared for Him by that child (John the Baptizer). If the way was not prepared for God but for God’s representative then the text is a false statement and the prophecy is likewise false. Either your interpretation of Lord is incorrect or it is correct and your reinterpretation is invalid. Dec 8 '20 at 21:22

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