Luke’s gospel begins with several stories intended to describe the circumstances of Jesus’ childhood (1:5-2:52). In this gospel, Jesus is presented as the universal Savior. Though it is an historical account by Luke’s own admission, what he includes is carefully selected, and the stories come as a series of doubles. The account of Zechariah is not merely a story of a couple whom God blesses with a child in their old age. It is a story that sets the stage for an even greater birth. It marks the end of the old order of Jewish sacrifices. After 400 years, God is about to raise up a prophet that would prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord. The family to whom this prophet would come is the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth.
The Character of the Couple
The story itself includes a description of the godly character of this priest named Zechariah and his godly wife, Elizabeth. Even though they lived for God, he had not yet chosen for them to have children. Elizabeth “was barren” but now it appeared that the hope of having children had passed. The family details are provided by Luke to communicate that they both carried a godly heritage but also carried the pain of being childless.
The occasion for this story centers on the Day of Atonement. Each year a priest was customarily chosen by lot from among the priesthood to enter the holy place on this day in the temple sanctuary. Around 18,000 priests served in the temple. The point is that the selection of Zechariah was not “by chance” but was a clear indication that God was in control of the circumstances. This once in-a-lifetime event had fallen to Zechariah. The priest would enter to burn incense on behalf of the nation and make corporate atonement for their sins. Alfred Eidersheim writes:
… the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him – somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar – that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick … the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies.
The Appearance of the Angel
Zechariah’s experience is unusual because he is visited during his hour by an angel. Angels in scripture are typically carriers of a divine message. The message to Zechariah by this angel contained several parts: First, the couple would have a son in their old age and he was to be named John. Second, their son, John, would bring them and many others great joy. Third, John would powerfully affect families for the purpose of preparing a people for the Lord.
The Response of Zechariah and Elizabeth
Zechariah’s questioning response to the angel’s words was taken as a measure of unbelief, and so the Angel makes sure Zechariah knows who he is talking to – one who stands in the very presence of God and is tasked with delivering the very words of God! As a result of Zechariah’s slow and lackluster response to accept this good news, he will come away from his privileged time in the sanctuary unable to speak himself until God’s word has been fulfilled. While all of this is going on unseen inside the sanctuary, those outside were wondering why it was taking Zechariah so long to perform his service. When he comes out, they realize he has had a truly divine encounter, about which he can only make hand signals. True to his word, God makes good on his promise and Elizabeth gives birth to the greatest prophet that has lived up to this point (see Luke 7.28). Among other places in this narrative, there is a lesson in Elizabeth’s response – “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” She acknowledges that God is in control of everything and can be trusted with our deepest needs.
A Message Better Than That of Angels
We are all surrounded by people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, who carry private pain that only the Lord knows. Or maybe we ourselves carry that pain. It can even be for a lifetime, yet I am convinced that God has his higher purposes in what we go through. In this story, we did not know at first that this couple had been praying for a son, yet we see through the angel that God has heard Zechariah’s request (cf. 1.13).
Today, while sitting in the airport waiting on my flight back to Tennessee, I spoke with Carl, the airport chaplain on duty. His comment is worth noting. He said, “Every day I walk outside my office and out here where the many people are running to and fro to go somewhere, there are people with all kinds of needs. This is my harvest field. This is where God uses me.” Every one of us, even the person you might least expect, is going through something. As believers, we carry a message of hope that God will keep his promises that never fail. We too can lift up the lowly (see 1:52). The Bible tells us that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12). Because we are in Christ and Christ is in us, we have a message that is better than that of angels. Who needs to hear a word of encouragement and hope from you today?