The Lord has done this for me!
Luke has declared his intentions for writing in verses 1-4. He has researched carefully and is determined to write a trustworthy account of all that had been fulfilled in his time. The reader, namely Theophilus, is poised ready to hear about God fulfilling his word. The beginning of Luke’s orderly account opens up now with an elderly priest being promised a child. This sounds like the right place to begin the story of the Messiah! A priest of course! And elderly like Abraham! What a great way to introduce the story of Jesus and his special birth! But these are not the parents of Jesus. Luke’s detailed account begins with the birth of John the Baptist – another special birth.
This section is a narrative and so ought to be treated as such. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Beneath the surface of the story there is a theme and lessons to be learned. It is quite often the speech of a narrative which delivers the purpose for the story.
- 5-6 Introducing Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth
- 7 The problem is they are old without children
- 8-10 Zechariah chosen to enter the temple while the people remain outside
- 11-17 A message from the Lord
- 18 Zechariah’s doubt
- 19-20 The messenger assures and rebukes Zechariah
- 11-17 A message from the Lord
- 21-22 Zechariah returns to the people waiting outside
- 8-10 Zechariah chosen to enter the temple while the people remain outside
- 23-24 Now they are old and pregnant
- 7 The problem is they are old without children
- 25 Concluding with the words of Zechariah’s pregnant wife Elizabeth
The structure above follows the formula of a typical narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The problem in verse 7 is officially resolved in verses 23-24. The bulk of the story is in the journey toward the resolution which is the dialogue between the angel Gabriel and Zechariah. Verse 18 stands out as the turning point of the narrative. The story was always going to end with Elizabeth pregnant but Zechariah’s response could have gone either way – rejoicing or doubting. Both the familiarity of a miracle birth like this (Abraham and Sarah) and the final statement of Elizabeth help us to see the bigger picture of this story – that God is doing something amazing, that it is for his people and that it will take away disgrace. What Elizabeth says of her personal blessing hints at the greater blessing about to occur for all of humanity.
5-6 Introducing Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth
“In the time of Herod king of Judea” – we see Luke placing this story in the context of human history. Note that Herod was the king of Judea but he was not a Jew – a foreign king reigned over the Jews.
“…the priestly division of Abijah” – See 1 Chronicles 24. Zechariah was a descendant of Aaron the priest as was his wife Elizabeth. Nobody of particular note but the reader, if familiar with the Old Testament, might reminisce over a time when the descendants of Aaron were grouped according to family (the eighth division was Abijah) under direct supervision by King David himself. Here we have the priesthood functioning but where is the descendant of David? In our present story, Gabriel will announce that God is sending a child to “bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” And the story will conclude with the celebration of God showing favour. These are loose threads which together paint a bigger picture.
“Both of them were righteous in the sight of God” – the rest of that sentence expands on the meaning of this righteousness – “observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” We need not confuse this with our language of “without sin” but that Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted and obeyed God displayed in their commitment to Him and His commands. They are not without sin but they do love God – Zechariah is not a priest in word only but in deed. J.C. Ryle writes,
“Suffice it for us to know that Zacharias and Elizabeth had grace when grace was very rare, and kept all the burdensome observances of the ceremonial law with devout conscientiousness, when few Israelites cared for them, excepting in name and form.” (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke, p8)
7 The problem is they are old without children
“But they were childless…unable to conceive…very old” – Isn’t it interesting how often God uses a miraculous birth to highlight his salvation plans? Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:2) are clearly a comparable couple because of the barrenness, the age and the lengthy description of Abraham being a man of God. Moses too was a child who lived even though he should have died. Samuel was a child of promise to the barren Hannah. Esau and Jacob had a memorable birth story. All of these stories hark back to the promise from God that a child of Eve will crush the serpent who invited sin into the world (Genesis 3:15). We now have another clue that a miraculous birth is about to take place – a sign that God is fulfilling his promises.
It must be said that we are presented with these two statements about Zechariah and Elizabeth a) they were righteous in the sight of God and b) they were childless. What a burden God put upon them both. But we know that God was not ignorant of their sorrows. Christians who live in faith and obedience will still suffer many things and often they are private pain. We may not see it clearly now but when the dawn comes and relief is here, we will see how God had brought good from it all.
8-10 Zechariah chosen to enter the temple while the people remain outside
“…Zechariah’s division…chosen by lot…” As mentioned earlier, Zechariah was of the eight division of the priestly line of Aaron (1 Chronicles 24). Each of the 24 divisions took sequential turns to be on duty and Zechariah’s divsion was on at this point. The casting of lot and choosing was to do with who in the division would burn the incense before the LORD. It came down to the sovereign hand of God to decide who would enter. While people often compare this with gambling, the issue is not about whether God is sovereign over the dice or not but why the dice is being rolled to begin with. There is no issue here.
“…into the temple of the Lord…” What is supposed here is that Zechariah is entering the most holy part of the temple where the incense is burned before the Lord. Exodus 30:1-10 provide a description of the altar being placed in front of the curtain with fragrant offerings twice a day but the atonement offering once a year. Hebrews 9:1-10, however, provide some further detail into the ongoing practice of worship which placed the altar of incense in the most inner room called the Most Holy Place. So, Zechariah didn’t just go to the temple, but he went to the Holy of Holy places inside the temple, curtained off except for the moment when the priest chosen by lot/God would enter for the burning of incense.
This duty appears to be one of the daily entries to the temple as opposed to the annual special occasion.
11-17 A message from the Lord
“…an angel of the Lord appeared…he was startled and gripped with fear.” The word for angel is the same as the word for messenger. We find out in verse 19 that this messenger has a name, Gabriel. What we must learn to do is divorce our minds from the manmade traditions of what an angel is or looks like and just listen to the story. The Lord sent a messenger named Gabriel to give a message to Zechariah. He was visible and Zechariah was not only surprised to find someone else in the temple area with him, unexpectedly, but that he was gripped with fear. When the realms of heaven are made visible to us, we will know that earth is smothered in sin and we are in danger.
Like the child-birth stories should tell us that God is working out his promises, so too, the appearance of an angel should tell us that God is at work and about to do something amazing.
“…your prayer has been heard…” Just a little insight into two things: a) this childlessness has been in Zechariah’s prayers for personal intervention from God and b) God has listened. It would be understandable for Zechariah’s prayers to have changed over the years from ‘please bless us with children’ when he and his wife were younger, to ‘please help us to bare with childlessness and help us to understand your wisdom’ as they got older. But God heard their prayers and has waited this long to answer ‘yes’. The common answer of ‘not yet’ feels awfully like a no at the time.
“…will bear you a son…call him John…He will…he will…He will…he will…” Gabriel hasn’t come to simply comfort Zechariah’s faith but to give good news of what is going to happen. The details of this baby’s life are set. His name is set. His salvation is set. His calling to prepare the hearts of the people for the Lord is all set. Zechariah has been given the good news and all he needs to do now is believe. (see his response in verse 18).
“…never to take wine…” This, along with the dedication to the Lord from birth (see next point) are similar to the Nazarite office of Numbers 6. The bottom line is that John has been dedicated to the Lord like a Nazarite at God’s own calling and will.
“…filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born…” The very least we can say about this is that John will not be a great man because of his own charisma or strength or will but because even from the beginning he will be lead by the Holy Spirit. The general grace of God which falls on all humanity is that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world to hold back rebellion. But when the Holy Spirit is described as filling someone, this is bible talk for someone chosen by God to perform a special task. John’s task which he needs the Holy Spirit to drive him in is described immediately after. We move from some generic ideas about John who will bring joy to specifics of how the Holy Spirit will use him.
“…bring back many…turn the hearts…to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Jesus would begin his ministry where John takes it – repent and believe for the kingdom of God is at hand. This is the way that God works in the history of mankind as well as the single life cycle of a person – he stirs up the desire for repentance and then reveals how salvation can be found. For example, this is the very beginning of the Exodus story – God orchestrates for the people to be bound in chains and crying for help when he then acts to save. Again, the repetitive cycle in Judges shows that God stirs up the people to cry out in order for his Spirit driven leaders to save. And again, in Zechariah’s book (definitely a different Zechariah but is it a coincidence?) we read these famous words, “‘Return to me’, declares the LORD, ‘and I will return to you.’” (Zechariah (1:6).
The point: God does not bring salvation without clearly teaching and preparing his people to receive it! No Christian is saved without coming to grips with their own need for a saviour!
“…in the spirit and power of Elijah…” John will not literally be Elijah (see John 1:21) but he will be figuratively (see Matthew 11:13, 14; 17:12; Mark 9:12, 13). He will carry with him the same message and conviction as Elijah and he will be the one who fulfills part of Malachi 4.
“…turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…” This is simply a statement of a family reunited by their shared repentance. Jesus is still able to testify later that families can and will turn against one another. This is not a contradiction but two outcomes of the gospel being preached. Those who believe will be united in wisdom and righteousness while those who oppose will create conflict.
18 Zechariah’s doubt
While Zechariah’s response needs no explanation, it plays a crutial role in the purpose of the story. Even though salvation is coming (not through John but through Jesus), will people respond with joy or doubt?
Abraham had a similar response in Genesis 17:17 although difference could be observed.
Zechariah was seeking some assurance since the circumstances were against the good news. Compared with Mary in Luke 1:34 who was seeking an explanation and further insight.
It’s not our place to judge between Zechariah and Mary but to see the outcome in the story and let the narrative instruct us. The angel gave Zechariah clear details of what was to come and Zechariah was seeking confidence and faith. Doubting the good news is the direction this is taking us since Gabriel identifies Zechariah’s problem as unbelief (verse 20).
19-20 The messenger assures and rebukes Zechariah
“I am Gabriel.” Again, no details seem confusing in this small answer by the angel except perhaps the angel’s name. Gabriel appears at one other moment in scripture. Daniel 8 and 9 contain visions from heaven for Daniel to understand and Gabriel, who looks like a man, is ordered to explain them to Daniel. The second vision and appearance of Gabriel, in Daniel 9, occurs while Daniel is in special intercessory prayer for the people of Israel. This features a parallel with Zechariah performing his intercessory duties in the temple. On one level, the reader can enjoy this link to Daniel and be reminded of God’s promise to act in a distant future. Daniel 9 and Malachi 4 have been brought into our minds as we read this story. Both describe ‘the appointed time of the end’ (Daniel 9:19) or the ‘day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4:5) which begins with the first coming of Christ and will conclude with his second coming.
But let’s also have the context show us why this angel is named. He states a few pieces of fact, firstly, his name is Gabriel, secondly, he stands in the presence of God, thirdly, God has sent him to speak, fourthly, what he speaks is good news. In short, Gabriel could very well be saying, “For heaven’s sake! An angel is standing here and telling you something amazing and you want to question it!!? You are not hallucinating or breathing in the incense here brother!”
This is the end of the dialogue in this story. Speeches and conversations draw our attention to the purpose of the message. Good news has been delivered and the response has been disappointing.
21-22 Zechariah returns to the people waiting outside
“…the people were waiting…” In terms of the narrative flow, this section is landing the story where verse 10 had left us. People were outside as they watched Zechariah go through the curtain and not return for a while. There’s no indication that they heard what was going on in there. They just perceived that Zechariah was taking longer than the usual time needed.
“…they realized…for he…” This is a little picture of what Luke is doing with his orderly account and perhaps what we are to do in response to this story and the gospel. There were many who were not eyewitnesses to the events inside the Most Holy Place but were well aware that something was taking place because clues are left behind. What happened behind the curtain was only witnessed by Zechariah. But his story of what actually happened would hold true, not simply because he said it was true, but because the evidence is there. He was gone for an unusual amount of time but the right amount of time to fit the story. He also returned a changed man – unable to speak but only make hand gestures. Over 9 months, he would be able to write out his story and maintain his silence and then to miraculously speak once John was born. Of course, the whole thing could have been an elaborate lie and yet, the evidence is all there – especially the birth of a son!
This is how we come to believe the good news! We let the evidence speak! The tomb was sealed with a dead body of Jesus placed inside. Then the tomb was empty and many saw and believed!
23-24 Now they are old and pregnant
Quite simply, the word of God came true and both Zechariah and Elizabeth knew it. The problem in the story is resolve. They are still old! But they are now with child!
25 Concluding with the words of Zechariah’s pregnant wife Elizabeth
The final statement of the story is profoundly prophetic. The Lord has acted in favour toward humanity, answering prayer, at the right time, showing favour to the disgraced. Being without child was seen as a disgrace (Genesis 30:23 and Isaiah 4:1) and on a simple reading, Elizabeth is praising God for his clear graciousness to her. But in the context of a story where good news is given and then not believed, it ends with hope that salvation is indeed here.
“In these days…” This is a phrase reminiscent of God’s timeliness. We are now in the days of God’s active grace.
When the good news is proclaimed, who will believe? Will people see the evidence and realise what has happened? Or will God perform such great signs and wonders and yet still people not believe. The day of the Lord is arriving and the time is now to return to the Lord.
- Learn how to read a biblical narrative and learn what the key message is. The bulk of the bible is made up of stories written down for a purpose. Many approaches have been taken in the church history to understand the meaning and interpretation but skillful analysis can easily reveal what the author always intended for his account.
- God’s timing in everything is crucial and our part is to pray and trust. Zechariah was a great prayer but he was slow to believe. What can we do to help ourselves and one another to be patient with God and to stop doubting? Hint, remembering what it is we believe and why we believe it.
- Bringing people back to God. We can continue to live in the power and spirit of Elijah by prompting our circle of influence to reconsider God and his justice and mercy. Salvation comes to those who put their trust in Jesus. Trust comes after the danger is spoken about and the solution offered. While this passage doesn’t explicitly tell us to be John the Baptists, we know the good news and we have the Holy Spirit within and we have been charged by Jesus to go and make disciples.
Prayer of the Week
Heavenly Father, hear us as we pray and help us to believe that you have sent your Son into the world to save sinners. Thank you for the good news, for the Holy Spirit, and for your great love for us. Help us to bear witness to this world so that more may believe. Amen.