Zechariah and Gabriel
13th December 2014
It had been over 400 years since the last book of the Old Testament - Malachi - and so far as we know, no prophets had arisen in the intervening years - what we call the "inter-testamental period". But godly Jewish men and women, people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, continued to study the Old Testament and to wait for the Messiah. Israel had suffered much in those dark 600 years, and times were hard under Herod the Great now. But Zechariah, Elizabeth and the other godly Jews of their day would have been familiar with the book of Daniel, who wrote during the captivity in Babylon. Many of Daniel's prophesies had already come to pass, but two important prophesies had not yet been fulfilled.
Daniel Chapter 2 prophesied that the kingdom of God would be established under the last of the four kingdoms - Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. Zechariah, Elizabeth and other godly Jews would have known that Rome was the last of those four kingdoms, so they would have been eagerly awaiting the kingdom of God soon.
And Daniel Chapter 9 prophesied that the Messiah would come 483 years after a decree was issued allowing the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. They might not have known the exact date of that decree, but they would have known that the 483 years were almost up.
Expectation was rising that the Messiah would come soon, establish the kingdom of God and set His people free. In our terms, Jesus was coming soon! The dark days would end, and the kingdom of God would be established.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were good people, and both from priestly families. They trusted in God, and they did their duty. They were childless, a cause of both sadness and unjustifiable reproach; in those days, childlessness was believed by many to be a sign of God's anger. And they were old. They couldn't expect a child now. But whatever their sadness and disappointment, they knew they should continue to serve God all their lives, and wait for the Messiah, and that's what they did.
Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, a sacrifice was made to the Lord in the temple, asking for God's forgiveness for the sins of Israel, and asking God to set his people free. In the days of Herod the Great, that prayer must have seemed particularly important.
There were so many priests that the priesthood was divided into 24 divisions. Each division served in the Temple for a week, twice a year. It was the turn of Zechariah's division and, according to custom, they drew lots to see who would have the privilege of burning incense in the Holy Place as part of the sacrifice ritual, and Zechariah was chosen. This was a great day for him; many priests were never chosen.
Zechariah entered the Holy Place with two assistants, while all the other worshippers waited in the temple courts outside. One assistant carried a golden bowl of burning coals from the altar of burnt offerings, laid the coals on the altar of incense and then left. The other carried a censer of incense, arranged the incense on the altar, and also left. Zechariah stood alone in the Holy Place before God. He must have felt nearer to God than at any other time in his life. He laid the incense on the coals, and the fragrant offering went up before God. As he did so, he prayed for Israel to be set free. In his mind, he might also have been praying for a child.
Suddenly, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, next to the altar of incense. Zechariah was startled. Well, you would be.
The angel began by saying "Do not be afraid, Zechariah". He then prophesied, "your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John." Whatever Zechariah had been praying with his lips, God had heard the prayer of his heart as well! He hears the prayers of our hearts, too.
The name "John" means "The Lord is gracious". Zechariah didn't know it yet, but his son would be the man we call John The Baptist. He would be the herald of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would offer the grace of God to all the world ("Christ" is the Greek translation of "Messiah").
Gabriel went on to say, "He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord." Like other miracle babies - like Isaac and Samuel - this baby would be special. He would bring joy to many and would be used mightily by God in his kingdom purposes.
Gabriel then gave Zechariah an instruction, "He is never to take wine or other fermented drink". It seems the baby was to be a Nazirite - a person dedicated to the Lord by a special vow (we can read about this in Numbers Chapter 6). Other Nazirites choose to make their Nazirite vows when they're adults, and only for a time. John was to be a Nazirite from birth, and remain one all his life. Gabriel also promised, "he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth". This is the first time in the Bible anybody was described as "filled with the Holy Spirit". Something very special was happening! Being filled with the Holy Spirit starts here, in the first chapter of Luke. And John told us, in Luke 3:16, that Jesus would baptise us in the Holy Spirit.
Gabriel then described what John the Baptist would do: "Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Here, in Luke Chapter 1 - chronologically the beginning of the New Testament - Gabriel quotes two passages from the book of Malachi - chronologically the end of the Old Testament. The Old and New Testaments form one book, one revelation of God.
And Gabriel says John would "turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous". God would use him to bring many - not all - of the Jews to repentance - back to God. Some, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, were genuine, righteous worshippers of God. Some would remain hostile to God. But many would repent.
Righteousness - a right attitude to, and a right relationship with, God and others - is true wisdom. The cleverness of some scientists and political thinkers is no match for the wisdom of the righteous.
Gabriel says John would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord". John's famous call, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2) and his baptism of repentance resulted in many thousands of Jews turning back to God, and looking for the Messiah - Jesus - who was coming very soon.
The kingdom of God would soon be with us!
Sometimes, good news just sounds too good. Zechariah was standing in the Holy Place, making a very sacred offering to God, and he saw an angel, sent to him by God with the news that both the prayers of his heart - his prayer for God to set Israel free and his prayer for a child - were being answered! And the Messiah was coming! What a day!
It's much easier to believe the God would speak to someone else, than to believe he'd speak to us. It's much easier to believe that someone else might see an angel, than to believe that we might see an angel. I expect Zechariah felt unworthy. We know we don't deserve such a powerful, graceful experience from God. And, even while the angel was standing there, Zechariah doubted. Are we like that? If God did something spectacular like that in our lives, would we rejoice? Or would it just make us think we were crazy? Has God revealed Himself to you, perhaps by a word, or a vision, or a dream? Did you believe it? Or are you still doubting?
Zechariah would have known the scriptures. He knew that Abraham and Sarah had a miracle baby. He knew that Elkanah and Hannah had a miracle baby. So he knew God could do it. But he doubted that God would do it for him and Elizabeth. We know - I hope - that God can do anything. But do we doubt that He'd do anything for us?
Gabriel had appeared in scripture before - in the book of Daniel. It was Gabriel who explained a vision about Alexander the Great in Daniel Chapter 8, and it was Gabriel who explained the vision about the 483 years (which we mentioned earlier) in Daniel Chapter 9. More than 500 years before, Gabriel told Daniel when Jesus the Messiah would come, and we never heard from him again until he came now to Zechariah to announce that Jesus's coming was imminent. And his demonstration that the news was true was simply that "I am Gabriel". He was saying, "I told you before when the Messiah would come, and now I've come back to announce that the Messiah is very nearly here!"
Why was Zechariah struck dumb? We can only speculate. Perhaps it was a punishment for disbelief, in the light of so great an experience of God. Perhaps it was to ensure that he didn't speak out about a vision he wasn't sure he believed, and so damage the faith of others, until his son was born to prove that the vision was real. Perhaps it was so he'd remember what the angel had promised, and remember the need to obey God when He speaks.
Perhaps this, too is part of the reason why Zechariah was stuck dumb. His very inability to speak, spoke loudly to the other worshippers that he'd truly seen a vision. For the next 9 months, they'd be watching and perhaps praying, to see what God would do.
When you or I receive a vision from God, it comes at a cost, and it will change us. But it's a great blessing, and it will accomplish God's purpose through us. Our function is to believe what God shows us, accept what God says, and live as He commands.
After a powerful experience of God, what do you do? You go back to living your life - the life God gave you. Zechariah went home. He made love to his wife. And she became pregnant. Another miracle baby was coming. John the Baptist would soon be born. And Jesus the Messiah would soon follow!
It was beginning!