Last time, recall that Zacharias the priest had gone in to the Holy Place of the temple to fulfill his duties in the scheduled rotation of the priestly divisions ministering at the altar of incense. We examined God’s commandments pertaining to the burning of incense in the temple, and saw how the earthly incense is symbolic of the heavenly incense which represents the prayers of the saints. Now we pick up the story in…
11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘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.”
This announcement to Zacharias is a foreshadowing of the announcement of the coming of Jesus to His mother Mary we will see later in this chapter. We see here that Zacharias had apparently been praying for a son (in verse 13 “…your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son”). Yet, as we shall soon see, Zacharias apparently didn’t believe that God would answer this prayer, and still doubted even after the angel appeared to him. Nevertheless, God honored and granted Zacharias’ prayer.
2 Timothy 2:13
If we are faithless,
He remains faithful;
He cannot deny Himself.
Not only was Zacharias to be given his longed-for son, the angel proclaims in verse 15 that “he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Indeed Jesus would later say of John the Baptist…
Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist”Furthermore, in verse 16 the angel says, “…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” Of course, we know that not all – not even most – of the children of Israel believed the Gospel proclaimed to them. This was necessary, because the Plan of Salvation from the foundation of the world had always been that Jesus would be betrayed, and would die a sacrificial death for the redemption of many – once again, not for the redemption of all. This isn’t necessarily an affirmation of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace. It is simply a confirmation of what Jesus would later say.
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
In verse 17, the angel says, “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The role of John the Baptist was to prepare the nation for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Recall that when we took a detailed look at the subject of resurrection during our study of Philippians, Elijah was one of those exceptional cases in the Old Testament along with Enoch whose bodies were taken up to heaven. I don’t believe that this verse actually proclaims that John the Baptist was to be the resurrection of Elijah because it says simply that he would come in the spirit and power of Elijah, and we must be careful not to read into the text anything that it doesn’t actually say. Nevertheless, after Moses and Elijah appeared with the glorified Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration…
10And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
11Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. 12But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” 13Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.
By the time of this event, John the Baptist had already been beheaded, so if his spirit was indeed the spirit of Elijah, it clearly was no longer resident in the body of John by the time of Jesus’ transfiguration. The angel continues in verse 17, expanding on his pronouncement of the mission of John the Baptist by quoting from Malachi in the very last verse of the Old Testament.
5Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
6And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
Having said all that, though, consider what John (son of Zebedee – the evangelist and revelator) reports that John the Baptist said ab.out himself.
19Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
Clearly, John the Baptist, by his own word was not Elijah. By the way, “the Prophet” referred to in this passage is the one that Moses prophesied would come in his farewell to the children of Israel before his death.
15The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.”
17And the LORD said to me: “What they have spoken is good. 18I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. 19And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.
This is a Messianic prophecy, and John repeatedly denied being the Messiah as in this example we find in John 1:21. The dire warning at the end of Deuteronomy 18:19 is reminiscent of Jesus’ own warning.
Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t understand this whole business regarding Elijah and John the Baptist very well, except to say that they were both exceptional cases. I think it’s just another one of those many questions that will have to wait until we get to Heaven!
And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”
Even though, as we have seen, Zacharias had been praying for a son, we see here that he didn’t actually believe that God would grant his request, even when an angel of God appeared to announce it! Zacharias was a Jew and a Levite. Of all people, he would have certainly heard of all the great and seemingly impossible things God had already accomplished for His chosen inheritance. God had delivered the promised son to Abram and Sarai when they were even older than Zacharias and Elizabeth, yet Zacharias seemingly didn’t believe God would choose to bless his own family with a son.
How typical this is of us. If I dwell in remembrance of all the wonderful things God has done in my own life, I’m filled with awe. Yet in a crisis, I often cry out in despair with little expectation that God will act yet again on my behalf.
19And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
Much as I’d like to see an apparition of the angel Gabriel, I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be standing near Zacharias at this moment! Think of the power that a creature like Gabriel can wield. Yet our God is indeed longsuffering and merciful. He chose such a tiny admonishment for Zacharias’ unbelief.
Gabriel is one of the few angels called by name in the Word of God. His name means “man of God.” Gabriel’s chief role appears to be speaking for God among people. Although Gabriel may indeed have been the “angel of God” talked about in many instances throughout the Old Testament, his name is mentioned only here in this chapter, and in the book of Daniel.
15Then it happened, when I, Daniel, had seen the vision and was seeking the meaning, that suddenly there stood before me one having the appearance of a man. 16And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, who called, and said, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision.”
20Now while I was speaking, praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God for the holy mountain of my God, 21yes, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning [Daniel 8:15-16], being caused to fly swiftly, reached me about the time of the evening offering.
Gabriel is God’s appointed messenger for extremely important announcements. He was sent to Daniel to explain the visions which Daniel had seen pertaining to the end of all things. Here in Luke he came to announce the coming of John the Baptist, and birth in the flesh of the Lord Jesus – the pivotal moment in all history!
21And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. 22But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.
It was obvious to those outside that something extraordinary had happened to Zacharias at the altar of incense. Yet he was unable to communicate with them. How he must have longed to shout in excitement about his encounter with Gabriel and his promise that Elizabeth would bear him the son he had been longing for over the years, yet in punishment for his disbelief, he could not. Thus his punishment was perfectly fitted to his transgression. Even though God had intervened mightily in answer to Zacharias’ prayer for a son, he was unable (temporarily) to praise God among the people in response, or to share with them the excitement of his encounter with Gabriel.
23So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. 24Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25“Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Apparently, Zacharias was able to communicate what had happened in the temple to his wife, Elizabeth, even though he couldn’t speak. Although the Word does not specifically say it, Zacharias and Elizabeth must have still enjoyed marital relations with each other despite their being “well advanced in years.” Whether this was simply a fact of their marital lives together, or whether they specifically obeyed what God had told them by the word of Gabriel, is also not mentioned. Regardless of all that, though, Elizabeth did indeed conceive a son, just as Gabriel had foretold.
Here we come to the first of the difficulties that we mentioned in the introduction to Luke. Take a look at your timeline handout.
Remember that Luke states simply that Zacharias was a priest “in the days of Herod, the king of Judea.” Scholars have traditionally assumed that Luke refers here to Herod the Great. As you can see from your timeline, Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and his kingdom over the entire Roman province of Judea was divided into fourths, each ruled by one of Herod the Great’s sons. These rulers were not known by the title “King of Judea,” but were called tetrarchs (rulers of fourths). Thus it has always been assumed that Luke was referring to Herod the Great in Luke 1:1, which would seem to indicate that John the Baptist must have been conceived before 4 BC, and thus that Jesus also was conceived just a few months later. However, we need to be careful. Luke doesn’t state that Herod the Great was still alive when John was conceived, just that Zacharias was a priest during Herod the Great’s reign. Later on in chapters 2 and 3, Luke provides further clues to the timing of these events, but they raise even more questions. We’ll discuss those as they come up in the text.
It is also not clear why Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months even though she must have yearned to proclaim her pregnancy among all who knew she had been previously barren. There was no requirement under the Law for a pregnant woman to go into seclusion. For whatever reason, though, she remained hidden for the first five months of her pregnancy.