Setting The Scene
In the days of Herod, king of Judah. We read those words so easily without considering how much they tell us about the setting of the story. Herod was an Edomite and full of wickedness. This is Herod the Great, known for his great architecture and design and for his great cruelty. It is interesting that it is not Luke’s interest to point out the problems of reign of Herod. Herod killed many of his children, his friends, and his wife for fear that they were trying to take his power away from him. The Edomites came from Esau, the man forever cursed because of his profane life which also led to a nation cursed to forever become extinct because of their profanity and godlessness. “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated” (Malachi 1:2). Now hear the words from a Jewish perspective: Herod (the Edomite), king of Judea!”
There is something dark and sinister about the words. It signifies dark, dark days in Israel’s history. It reminds us of the words of Isaac when he attempted to bless Esau: “You shall serve your brother; and it shall come to pass when you become restless, that you shall break his yoke from your neck.” Every Israelite had dreaded that day; but that day had come.
Adding to the darkness of these days was the fact that for 400 years God had been silent. Israel had been left on their own for the first time in their history. There have been no visions. There have been no prophets. There has been nothing given from God to Israel. It is a scene of hopelessness and despair.
Righteous & Unable to Conceive
The main character of today’s story is Zechariah. He is a priest of God and he has a wife named Elizabeth who is a daughter of Aaron. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth can trace their lineage back to Aaron the high priest that we read about in the book of Exodus. Zechariah is described as a righteous and faithful Jewish servant of God. He is an ordinary priest, one of 18,000 in the nation then. Verse 6 drives home the point both Zechariah and Elizabeth righteous. They are not wicked rebels. This point must be drawn out because of the information revealed in verse 7: they are unable to have children. Elizabeth is unable to have children and now Zechariah and Elizabeth are too old to have children. To be unable to have children was considered a disgrace and shame in that society. Further, a lack of children had moral implications, that is, Elizabeth and Zechariah must be sinners and out of God’s favor. Typically, barrenness was considered a curse from God. Through barrenness they were cut off to any hope of a relationship to the Messiah. Their name would die out in Israel. Oh, they had prayed and prayed for years, but now they were both old and “well-stricken” in years and they had long ago given up on that hope. The setup to the story is important: they cannot have children because Elizabeth cannot conceive and now both are too old, but they are righteous people despite this disgrace.
But there is something else here that rarely gets our attention and that is their names: Zachariah and Elizabeth. Those old Hebrews followed a pattern long established by the Lord Himself. They did not name a child because they liked the sound of the name. The name had meaning; it had significance. Many years before the father and mother of Zachariah had given their boy that name because of the hope that was within them. The name means, “Jehovah Remembers.” There is in the name a sound of sorrow, but also a song of hope. In the midst of darkness and despair, a boy was born and they called him Jehovah Remembers.
Now about the same time another priestly family had a child; this time a little girl. They also expressed their hope. They called her Elizabeth, the oath of God. And one day “the oath of God” met “Jehovah Remembers” and they married. Even in dark days, there was still hope.
Application: God is at work, even when it does not seem so.
Zechariah’s Service in the Temple
The next picture we see is that of the temple, but more specifically, it is a scene within the Holy Place. This was great day for Zachariah. A little bit of history will help us see why today is a special day for Zechariah. “The Mishnah states that before each of the two daily services, four sets of lots were used to determine the participants (Yoma 2:1-5). In this case the incense lot finally fell to Zechariah, and in an instant he was at the apex of personal history. The honor of offering incense was the grandest event in all his earthly existence. Many priests never had the privilege, and no priest was allowed to offer it more than once. … Zechariah was serving God with his cohorts in the heart of the gleaming temple, in the Court of the Priests, where the sacrifice was to be made. Outside, in the Court of Israel, faithful worshipers were praying” (Preaching The Word: 21). It is a great day because there was only one week in the life of a priest in which he would do the service within the Holy Place. For Zachariah, it took a lifetime before that day came. And of all things, if his time of service within that Holy Place was not exciting enough, an angel appeared – the first messenger from God for 400 years! The Bible gives us very few pictures behind those closed doors where only the priests were allowed to go. Luke reveals to us an old priest (do you see him?) who is offering incense while a gathering of the faithful are outside praying. That picture by itself is instructive. Prayers in conjunction with the offering of incense was always connected in scripture. Revelation 8:3-5 tells us that angels presented incense before the throne of God along with the prayers of the saints. It is mentioned because it was a time when God would respond.
“Do not be afraid…your prayer has been heard…your wife will have a son…you shall call his name John.” What! Don’t be afraid? Zechariah was overwhelmed with fear. This was something completely unexpected. “Your prayer has been heard.” How long do you think it had been since John and Elizabeth had stopped praying for a child? Once it became physically impossible for them to have a child, I am sure their hopes died. It seemed that God was not listening to these two righteous people. But God had listened. God does hear the prayers of the righteous. Never think God did not hear your prayer.
Application: What prayer have you stopped praying for? What prayer do you think God will not answer? Do not think that God is not listening even when we receive a “no” answer to our requests.
Application: Faithfulness to God. The prayer of the righteous seemed to go unanswered for years. Yet Zechariah and Elizabeth remained faithful.
Now notice that the angel gives Zachariah the name for the son: you shall call his name John. “John” means “the grace of God.” Now the picture is complete. The father, Zachariah, Jehovah Remembers; the mother, Elizabeth, the oath of God; the boy, John, the grace of God. God had not spoken for 400 years and now a boy is born named the grace of God, the offspring of the remembrance of God and the oath of God.
John is going to be something special. This list has special significance and is not just saying that John is going to be important. The child is going to be important to God. Look at the listing of what he will be:
- Many will rejoice at his birth, shows that John was going to be someone and do something that many people will be glad that he was born.
- He will be great before the Lord, reveals that God was going to use John. John was going to be an instrument for God.
- Will not drink wine or strong drink, indicating he would be consecrated for special service to the Lord.
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, that is, a prophet of God,
- Go in the power and spirit of Elijah, which is a very big deal. We need to read the words of Malachi to understand what this statement means. Malachi prophesied, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). Elijah was predicted to come to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare 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” (Malachi 3:1). Do you see what Gabriel is saying? John is the forerunner for the coming of the Lord! The hope of Israel is going to be answer within this generation! This is what the rest of the message centers on.
- Turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, which continues to show that John is the forerunner to the coming of the Lord. Again, back to Malachi. After saying that Elijah will come, Malachi prophesies in the next verse, “And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hears of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6).
John’s method of restoration is to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Malachi adds, “and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” That is significant because the family is where true restoration begins. It does not begin with the king, it begins with fathers! The fathers’ hearts must be tied to their children and children whose hearts are tied to their fathers. Brethren, this is the key to raising children who serve God. Many fathers, especially among Christians, make the critical mistake of simply being an authority figure to their children. They keep their children in line by enforcing their rules. But this will not endure. When the hearts of father and child are wedded together, the children want to follow the father’s life and are motivated to do so not because of forceful control but because they would not dream of hurting either their earthly or heavenly father.
- Make ready for the Lord a prepared people. John is going to get the people ready for the Lord’s coming. He will be a preacher of righteousness to get everyone’s hearts prepared so that deliverance can be received at the coming of the Lord.
What we see is God tackling two prayer requests at once. John is the child they have been praying for, but he is going to prepare the way of the coming of the Messiah. This would have been a time for great praise. God is going to do what he says for his people. Think about what a great time of rejoicing this would have been. The time is now. In all of our misery and despair, God has remembered (the meaning of the name Zechariah). God has kept his oath (the meaning of the name of Elizabeth). The grace of God is appearing (meaning of the name John).
Praise God because God’s hand is in motion to save his people. The Lord is coming! This is a really great day!
But Zechariah doubts. Like so many before him in similar situations, he doubts. Zechariah says, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” This was not a faithful response. Unfortunately, Zechariah is filled with doubt which leads to some indignation from the angel. Notice Gabriel’s words: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” Basically, who do you think you are talking to here?
The angel gives him a sign: he will not speak until the child is born. But this is not only a sign, but a punishment for his lack of faith. At a time when everyone around him will be rejoicing and singing praise, Zachariah will be silent. Zechariah was supposed to come out of the temple and offer a blessing to those who were praying in the Court of Israel after offering the incense. But he is unable to do so because he has been made mute. This would have turned into a difficult game of charades. The people understand that he saw a vision in the temple.
Application: Trust in God’s promises. We will not do so perfectly (Zechariah was righteous, but has a lapse of trust here). Take God at his word. He does what he says. From our perspective, Zechariah’s doubts were understandable and reasonable. But with God, anything is possible. What God promises, he delivers. We always want more evidence. God said it. It is enough.
I think this is a key message from Luke to Theophilus. God does not expect us to have blind faith. But there is a point when we have sufficient evidence.