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“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, and they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
“And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
“And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein He looked on me, to take away my reproach among men”—Luke 1:5-25.
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There is an interval, as you know, of about four hundred years between the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, and the Gospels of the New Testament. We speak of these sometimes as “the four hundred silent years” because in those years we have no record, so far as inspired history is concerned, of God’s speaking audibly to man, either directly Himself or through angelic ministration. Of course, in the books sometimes called “Apocrypha” we do read of angels visiting men and prophets being raised up, but in the inspired Scriptures we have no record of anything of the kind during those four hundred years. They were years of waiting. The people of Israel had returned from captivity in Babylon about B.C. 536 to 445. God had spoken to His prophet Daniel, saying that at the end of a certain limited period—483 years to be exact, 69 periods of seven years each—the Messiah was to come, and the people were waiting for His coming. They knew that the time had almost expired, and one can understand the expectancy with which the Jews would go up to Jerusalem year after year to keep the feasts of the Lord, hoping that the promise would be fulfilled.
But nothing happened until a never-to-be-forgotten day when a priest named Zacharias was ministering in the holy place in the temple at Jerusalem. We read in verse 5: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judsea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.” You will remember that, as recorded in 1 Chronicles, chapter 24, King David divided the priesthood of Israel into twenty-four courses, each course to serve two weeks at a time annually in the temple, and then give place to the next course. The course of Abia was the eighth. (In the Old Testament it is called Abijah, but it would be pronounced as it is spelled here in Luke.) Zacharias, then, belonged to this particular course, and he may or may not have served in the temple on previous occasions, but this day he was burning incense at the sacred altar, the golden altar in the holy place. We read of him and of his wife that, “They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (verse 6). That is not to say that they were sinless, “for there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not,” we are told; but blameless refers to motives. Their motives were right. They were seeking to obey God, to walk with God, and they had, in a sense, His approval except for one thing. It was a great reproach in Israel if a married woman did not give birth to a child; therefore, people must have wondered whether God was displeased with this couple, whether, after all, He did not look upon them with disfavor. But sometimes, you know, God does not do immediately that for which our hearts crave, and yet He has it in His own purpose to reward in due time.
The years went by and this couple were still childless, until now they were quite elderly, and had given up all thought that they might become the parents of a child. But we are told here that while Zacharias on that particular day “executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord” (vers. 9, 10). As he stood at the altar and sprinkled the incense upon the fire that was ever burning there, the multitude of the people gathered outside were bowed in prayer before God. It was a lovely picture of the fellowship of prayer, Zacharias here might really speak of our blessed Lord, who has entered into the Holiest above, ever living to make intercession for us, while we His people join in prayer down here.
As Zacharias was praying and the people were lifting up their hearts to God, suddenly the silence of four centuries was broken. We read: “There appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense” (ver. 11). It must have been a startling thing. No living Israelite had ever seen an angel. They had read of angelic appearances in years gone by, but they must have thought that perhaps all that was over forever and that none of them was ever likely to be so-visited. As Zacharias looked upon this glorious being, we are told, “He was troubled, and fear fell upon him” (ver. 12).
It was a customary thought among the Jews that it meant death to look either upon God or upon any heavenly representative. You remember in the Old Testament how when angels appeared to various ones they were filled with dread, and thought that it meant they were about to die. But the angel immediately quieted his mind. “The angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (ver. 13). “Fear not!” This seems to have been a favorite expression on the lips of Gabriel, for farther down in the chapter the same angel is said to have appeared to the blessed virgin Mary, and we read in verse 30: “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God.” Then in the second chapter and the tenth verse, where the angel host appeared in glory unto the shepherds tending their flocks on the hillside, we read: “The angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The gospel message is intended to take away all fear and to fill the heart with assurance, the knowledge of God’s deep and abiding interest in His people.
So the angel quieted Zacharias’ fears and gave him the promise, “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son.” And the angel named the son: “Thou shalt call his name John” (ver. 13). What a wonderful thing for a heavenly messenger to give the name for a child! We have several instances like that in Scripture. God told Abraham that he was to call his son “Isaac.” Here the angel named the child that he said would be born, “John.” It simply means, “The grace of Jehovah.”
This son who was to be born was to be the means of bringing joy and gladness to many people, and first of all to his own parents. “Thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord” (vers. 14, 15). You remember what the Lord Jesus Himself said of him later on; that “of those who were born of women there was none greater than John the Baptist. And yet he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” This man was great, destined to be great, because he was to prepare the way for the coming of the King. He was to baptize the King and to present Him to Israel, but he himself was to go home to be with God, as a result of Herod’s bitter cruelty, before he saw the new order fully established here in the earth. Therefore, the very least who now receives Christ and enters into the kingdom of God occupies a greater position than John the Baptist himself. He said, “The King is coming.” We can say, “Thank God, He has come, and we are definitely linked up with Him.”
John was to be a Nazarite. Long years before, when God gave the Law, He said that if any in Israel were especially devoted to the Lord, they were to keep away from anything that came from the vinetree. They were not even to touch dried raisins or any other product of the vine, because the vine itself was the symbol of joy, and these men gave up the joys of earth in order that they might be more wholly devoted to God Himself. Then there were other regulations laid upon them. They were not to become defiled by coming near any dead body. They were to grow long hair, indicating the place of dependence, until the days of their Nazariteship were fulfilled. Samson was to be a Nazarite from his birth, and he became weak when he allowed his long hair to be cut. John the Baptist also was to be a Nazarite from his birth. He was to be wholly devoted to the service of the Lord from the very beginning. But more than that, he was to be especially, singularly marked out and empowered by the Holy Spirit even from the moment he came into the world. We read: “He shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God” (vers. 15, 16).
God prepared him from his earliest days for the great mission that he was to fulfil. I think you will often find that when the Lord selects a man for some special work, He puts His hand upon him very early in life and impresses upon him the possibility and the joyful privilege of becoming His messenger to a lost and needy world. How many of God’s servants who have had a great ministry throughout the years were called as little children, children of godly parents, and from their earliest days were made acquainted with the things of the Lord, exercised in regard to their responsibility to God, and then when there came the full, clear consciousness of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, it seemed as though nothing could hold them back. Young as they were, they began proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ.
John, then, was called from his very babyhood to be Christ’s servant, and the assurance was given: “Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God” (ver. 16). His coming had been foretold back in the book of Isaiah. The Holy Spirit definitely spoke of the coming of this one into the world. In the fortieth chapter, beginning with verse 3, we read: “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. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (vers. 3-5). This was a prophecy uttered seven hundred years before John’s birth concerning the coming into the world of him who was to be the preparer of the Saviour’s way.
And then Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, speaks of him twice. In chapter 3, verse 1, God says through Malachi: “Behold, I will send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me: and the Lord, whom ye 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.” John the Baptist was that messenger, sent to prepare the way of the Lord. I might add that here you have clear, definite proof as to the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it was Jehovah whose way was to be thus prepared, and John came to prepare the way of Jesus. The Jesus of the New Testament is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Then in the last chapter of Malachi, verse 5, we read: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (vers. 5, 6).
This was prophetic of the ministry of John the Baptist. It was not exactly that Elijah himself was coming back from heaven to earth, but John was to come in his energy. Referring again to the first chapter of Luke, verses 16 and 17, we find that they emphasize the fact that John was the messenger of Jehovah. “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The reference is definitely to the prophecy given in Malachi.
You remember how later on, the apostles came to the Lord Jesus as He spoke of His second coming, and asked, “Why say the scribes that Elias must first come?” Jesus answered them, “Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsover they listed”; and then He explained that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah. We have no other scripture intimating that Elijah is yet to come. He has already come in the person of John the Baptist. You may say, “Well, he is to come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Yes, and so he did! The great and dreadful day of the Lord is still in the future, and we have this dispensation of grace in between; but that is in accordance with all Old Testament prophecy. This present age is all hidden. It is the great parenthesis in God’s plan. “He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just”; that is, to call the people of Israel back to the testimony of the Word of God and to that law which had already been committed to their fathers.
When this announcement was made to Zacharias he was filled with amazement. See how human he is! He and his devoted wife had prayed for years, “O God, that it would please Thee to give us a son;” and they thought they prayed in faith, but the years had gone and no son had come into their home to brighten their lives. And now, when the angel appears and says, “You shall soon embrace a son, and you will call his name ‘John’” Zacharias looked at the angel doubtfully. He forgot how he had prayed all these years. He forgot that God can be depended on to hear the prayer of faith, and he asked the angel: “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (ver. 18). In other words, he is practically saying, “Well, what sign will you give me that this promise will be fulfilled? It is almost too much for me to believe. I can scarcely think that my prayer is really going to be heard. What sign will there be that God is going to do this for me?” The angel—may I say it reverently?—seemed to be just a little bit nettled over Zacharias’ lack of faith.
I wonder if our God is not often grieved in the same way over our lack of faith! He gives us such great and precious promises, and we come to Him in prayer, and we spread out our needs before Him and He gives us His Word, and we find ourselves asking, “Whereby shall I know this?” Hath He spoken, and shall He not do it? That is all that is necessary for faith—the word of the living God. We do not need some other sign in order to make God’s word more certain of fulfilment.
So the angel answered Zacharias and said: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings” (ver. 19). In other words, he is practically saying, “Zacharias, have you not failed to recognize who it is that has brought this message to you? I am the angel that stands in God’s own presence—Gabriel, Gabriel who appeared to Daniel, Gabriel who unfolded the prophecy of the seventy weeks, who told of the glorious things yet to come.” Now he says, “I am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings.” That ought to have been enough. “I have come direct from the throne as Jehovah’s messenger. You ought to be ready to accept my word for it, but now you want a sign. I will give you a sign, a sign perhaps which you will not enjoy, but I will give you a sign since you are not willing to rest upon the naked Word of God.” “Behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season” (ver. 20).
Unbelief shut Zacharias’ mouth. The last words that came from his lips before the promise was fulfilled were these: “Whereby shall I know?” The first words that came from his mouth after the promise was fulfilled were words of praise and thanksgiving. Unbelief made him dumb: faith opened his lips again.
“The people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple” (ver. 21). He was there, you see, at the altar of incense much longer than a priest ordinarily would be. He should have come out, according to the regular course of affairs, to bless the people; but he had remained there in the presence of God, although they did not understand it. So they marvelled that he tarried so long. “And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless’’ (ver. 22). He stood there and just made a sign, unable to speak. “He beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.” Instinctively they realized that something amazing had happened, that he had seen a vision. Then we are told: “It came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own home” (ver. 23).
He had to remain but the two weeks there in Jerusalem, and then he went back to his home and in due time God began to fulfil His promise. “And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein He looked on me, to take away my reproach among men” (vers. 24, 25).
One can imagine how full her heart must have been as she realized that after all these years God was truly answering prayer, and she was to be the mother of this child who was destined to welcome the Messiah Himself when He came to Israel. Oh, that you and I might learn the lesson of faith, trust, confidence in God, a God whose hand is still stretched out, and who challenges us with the question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”