“in the sight of the Lord.” Biblical custom. The literal is “before the Lord” (ESV). The “Lord” in this verse is God, as per the Old Testament usage. This is an idiom where “before me” means “in my sight.” Just like “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” meaning I do not want to see any other gods in your life (Deut. 5:7, literally, “before my face”). For a sampling of OT examples of this custom see: Genesis 19:27; Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16; 25:2; 1 Samuel 2:17; 3:1; Psalm 21:6; 42:2; Lamentations 1:22. For other New Testament examples see: Luke 1:75; Ephesians 1:4.
There is so much in this little phrase: “great in the sight of the Lord.” John’s life is mostly unknown, and his ministry was quite short. He died in prison as a result of having made enemies because he dared to speak the truth. So many people take pride in being great in the eyes of the world, but in the end, that greatness will mean nothing. John’s light is still burning, although his life ended 2,000 years ago. Every Christian should strive to be great in the sight of the Lord.
“he must not ever drink wine or beer.” The prohibition not to drink alcoholic drinks was part of the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6:1-21. It therefore seems that John the Baptist was a Nazirite from birth, although the Scripture never explicitly says so, or says anything about his hair never being cut. But the angel’s warning about not drinking wine or beer is stringent enough to be good evidence that John was a Nazirite. An angel gave the same warning to Samson’s parents (Judg. 13:3, 14) and Samson was a Nazirite (Judg. 13:7).
The Greek word translated “beer” is sikera (#4608 σίκερα). It was not a distilled beverage, like our whisky, rum, vodka, etc., today. Distilled liquor was unknown in the ancient world. It was a fermented drink, hence our translation as “beer.” The Akkadian word was sikaru, barley beer, from whence the Hebrew word shekhar almost certainly came, and the Greek word is obviously related.
Because “beer” does not occur in most translations of the Bible (although that is changing in some of the more modern versions; cp. HCSB, NET), it is worth saying something about it. Biblical Archaeological Review (Sept./Oct. 2010, Vo. 36, no. 5), has a very informative article by Michael Homan, titled, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” Homan writes:
In ancient Near Eastern cultures, beer was in many ways a super-food. By producing and drinking beer, one could dramatically multiply the calories in harvested grains while consuming needed vitamins; that alcohol was also effective at killing bacteria found in tainted water supplies. Given the difficulty of producing food in the ancient world, beer gave you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.
…Nobody disputes the importance of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was the national drink. Beer was used to pay laborers and the fathers of brides. It was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, constipation; an ancient Egyptian prescription calls for a beer enema. Hammurabi’s Law Code regulates the price and strength of beer. Many ancient temples had their own brewers. …Moreover, beer did not keep well, so it was made for immediate consumption.
The article goes on to discuss how beer was not made like we do it today with hops or carbonation, and that it was often made from a mixture of things, including mixed grains instead of just one grain, and it could be sweetened with many different things, such as grapes, figs, honey, and fruit, and also spices were sometimes added.
The Greek word refers to a fermented drink that was almost certainly some kind of beer, whether barley beer, date beer, mixed-ingredients beer, etc. In contrast, it does not refer to distilled liquor, which is what the English “strong drink” implies, so we did not use that term in the REV.
“filled with holy spirit.” This holy spirit was the gift of God that He gave to some believers before Pentecost. For example, God put spirit upon elders who served with Moses so they could help him (Num. 11:17, 25-30).
[For more information on the holy spirit and uses of “holy spirit,” see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit?” and also Appendix 6, “Usages of ‘Spirit.’”]