by Rev. Adrian Dieleman
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
Any idea how many Zechariahs there are in the Bible? The number surprised me. There are 28 of them. Telling us what? That among the people of God this is an honored name, a significant name, an important name. Remember, Biblical names mean something. They say something about the person having the name. We saw this with John and Elizabeth the last couple of weeks and today we see the same thing with Zechariah. "Zechariah" means "remembered of Yahweh," or – as we would put it – "Jehovah has remembered."
I want you to see the name "Zechariah" in the light of the rest of his little family. There is Zechariah - remembered of Yahweh. There is Elizabeth - God has sworn. There is John - God has graciously given. Put these all together: Yahweh has remembered His oath by graciously giving John.
What oath has God remembered? What promise? The names of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John point us back to the first promise, the very first promise, a promise we looked at a few weeks ago in our study of Genesis. A promise given to the first man and woman immediately after the first sin (Gen 3:15). A promise about the coming of Jesus, the defeat of sin, and the crushing of Satan. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John: Three names that tell us the battle between Satan and God is reaching its climax.
Today, I want to look at four pictures of Zechariah that we find in our Bible reading.
I A Faithful Priest (vs 5-7)
A Our first picture of Zechariah shows us a faithful priest.
What is the first thing we are told about Zechariah, even before we are told his name? We are told he is a "priest." Then we are told his name - "God has remembered." We are told he belongs to the priestly division of Abijah; meaning he is a descendant of Aaron the high priest (Abijah descended from Eleazar, Aaron's oldest son). We are told he, and his wife, are upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. This does not mean he is perfect. This does not mean he is sinless. Rather, it means he has more than an external, legal righteousness. No mere lip service here. As we would put it, he is not a Sunday-only Christian. He truly does love and serve God. He, and his wife, represent the best of Old Testament piety and religion. They are part of the faithful remnant who await the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem (Lk 2:25, 38).
Now note this: Zechariah serves the Lord even though he and his wife have a big hole, a huge disappointment, in life. Zechariah loves and serves the Lord even though he has no children. As I mentioned when we looked at Elizabeth, this godly couple pray for children. Every day they pray for children (Lk 1:13). But God, in His good pleasure, chooses not to answer Zechariah's prayer for a child.
Now get this, Zechariah prays for a child even though he and Elizabeth are well past the age of having children. Scripture tells us that Zechariah, and Elizabeth, are "both well along in years" (Lk 1:7). Zechariah says to the angel, "I am an old man and my wife is well along in years" (Lk 1:18).
How old are they? Among the Jews at the time of the New Testament, the term "old man" was reserved for those over sixty years in age. So, Zechariah is at least sixty. The close parallels between our story and the story of Abraham and Sarah makes us conclude that Zechariah is probably well over sixty.
Zechariah prays for a child but God does not answer this prayer. Does Zechariah turn against God? Does he allow his disappointment to keep him from worship and prayers and sacrifice and offering? Does he become bitter? You know, many react this way when things do not turn out the way they want. But not Zechariah. He keeps on serving and loving God.
Faithful. That is the word that comes to mind. Zechariah is a faithful priest. Zechariah faithfully serves and loves God.
B Every generation has people, like Zechariah, who faithfully serve and love God. I think of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, David, King Josiah, Simeon, Anna, Mary, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others. Our generation and our church has people like this too: members who never miss worship, who always give as the Lord has blessed them, who attend Bible Study, who are present at most church functions, who encourage the elders and deacons and pastors. They are the first to say they are not perfect, yet they love and serve the Lord.
Last week I was reading of two Bible and Theology professors from one of our Christian colleges. In speaking in favor of evolution they propose that Adam and Eve are purely symbolic literary figures, that there was no historical fall into sin, and that the doctrines of original sin, Christ's atonement, election and eternal punishment need major revision. Do you know what their teaching demonstrates? That evolution, contrary to the popular argument, is a salvation issue. Let me repeat what the professors say: Adam and Eve are purely symbolic literary figures, that there was no historical fall into sin, and that the doctrines of original sin, Christ's atonement, election and eternal punishment need major revision. Do you see how salvation is at stake?
Why do I mention this? Because all of the Lord's servants, like Zechariah, are supposed to be faithful. To teach something that denies sin and salvation is hardly the measure of faithfulness.
Some of you might have heard that the Crystal Cathedral, founded by Robert Schuller, filed for bankruptcy because of hard economic times. For the past 30 years Schuller's basic message is that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Along this line, the Schullers say the message people need to hear right now is that "tough times never last; every storm will come to an end." Really? Is this the message we need to hear right now? Instead, don't we need to hear the same message that was preached by John the Baptist and Jesus? The message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Why do I mention this? Because all of the Lord's servants, like Zechariah, are supposed to be faithful. To preach something other than sin and salvation is hardly the measure of faithfulness.
II A Fearful Priest (vs 8-17)
A Our second picture of Zechariah shows us a fearful priest.
Since the time of David, the Jewish priesthood was divided into 24 courses (1 Chron 24). Each course was expected to serve two weeks each year in the Temple and many priests spent the remainder of the year away from Jerusalem in secular occupations (Lk 1:23). There were many more priests and Levites than the 50 or so who were needed to work in the Temple so the casting of lots decided who did the various tasks. Zechariah is chosen to offer incense in the Holy Place. This is such a high honor that it was permitted to a priest but once. Many priests served for a lifetime without having this honor.
Let me speak for a moment about the providence of God. Who chooses Zechariah? Who chooses Zechariah to burn the incense offering? God does. As Proverbs puts it, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD" (Prov 16:33). God wants Zechariah burning incense in the Temple.
Now, you need to remember that the Temple was composed of a series of courts or rooms. Gentiles could come as far as the Court of the Gentiles. Women could come a little closer, to the Court of Women. Jewish men could enter as far as the Court of Israel. Priests were allowed to advance a little further; they were granted access to the Court of the Priests. But the inner sanctuary of the temple, divided by a curtain into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, was off limits even for priests except for specifically stated times and carefully proscribed purposes.
The incense offering happened every morning and every evening. A priest, as a representative of the people, would enter by himself into the Holy Place. There he would see three items covered with gold: the lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense. At the far end was the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The priest held a golden censor filled with glowing coals. From a bowl he would take a large quantity of incense and scatter it over the burning coals on the altar of incense and then bow in prayer (Lk 1:13). A fragrant cloud of smoke would then ascend heavenward. Meanwhile, the people gathered outside, smelling the fragrant incense, would bow down and add their prayers to the ascending cloud of incense (Lk 1:10).
Doesn't this sound beautiful? The priest offers incense and the people pray. But where did this practice come from? Was this the liturgical invention of a creative priest? Did a worship committee propose this to Moses? Was this a spontaneous development on the part of the people? No, no, no. Of course not. Expressions of worship are never left to the imaginings of man. We don't get to decide how we want to worship. Because God tells us how to worship. What the priest did in the Holy Place and what the people did on the outside were all according to God's command. This was part of God's design for His worship.
So, why was fragrant incense offered to God every morning and every evening as the people prayed? To show the people, to tell the people, that their prayers were as pleasing to God as the fragrance of the incense was pleasing to the nostrils. The smoke and fragrance of the incense wafting upward symbolizes the prayers of God's people (Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3). To God, the prayers of His people are a sweet-smelling scent. He loves those prayers and wants those prayers.
Why am I going into such detail? So you realize this is a holy moment, a special moment, the greatest moment, in the life of Zechariah.
B So what happens at this most special and holy moment in the life of Zechariah? "An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense" (Lk 1:11). At the moment of his life when Zechariah is most open to God and the supernatural, that is when the angel of the Lord appears.
Now, Luke loves giving us details. There is a reason for every detail. Notice the detail here: the angel of the Lord is standing at the "right" side of the altar of incense. The right side. Not the left side. Not front and center. Not by the candlesticks. But to the right of the altar of incense. This is no accident.
Jewish angelology regarded the left side of the altar as the place for angels; only God used the right side. So tradition suggests to Zechariah that he is seeing God. Now, ever since man has sinned, no man can see God and live (Ex 33:20). So Zechariah is terrified! Which is why the angel says, "Do not be afraid" (Lk 1:13).
"Do not be afraid." This is an often repeated phrase in the Gospel of Luke (1:13, 30; 2:10; 5:10; 8:50; 12:7, 32). God the Father keeps reassuring and comforting His children.
Then the angel says, "Your prayer has been heard" (Lk 1:13). What prayer is that? Do you think an old Zechariah is still praying for a child for himself and a barren Elizabeth? In that time and that place, during the evening sacrifice, do you think a godly man like Zechariah is also praying for the Messiah? That both of these are Zechariah's prayer becomes evident from the angel's answer – that Zechariah will have a son who will prepare the way for Jesus.
"Your prayer has been heard." Note, prayers of faith are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten. They are never forgotten. Prayers made when we are young and entering into life may be answered when we are old and leaving the world.
III A Faithless Priest (vs 18-22)
A Our third picture of Zechariah shows us a faithless priest.
Did you notice what Gabriel calls his announcement to Zechariah? Gabriel calls it "good news" (Lk 1:19). The Good News is always, in some way, about Jesus. Luke must love this phrase because he uses it so often in his Gospel (10 times). God has good news. Wonderful news. Fantastic news. The Messiah is coming and Zechariah will have a son who prepares for His coming.
Now, you would think the Temple location, the burning of incense, the presence
of the angel of the Lord, and the announcement of God's Word would encourage
Zechariah's faith, but they do not. You would think in this time and place
Zechariah would believe the angel's words, but he does not.
(Lk 1:18) How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.
Instead of looking to God in faith, the priest looks at himself and his wife and decides that the birth of a son is impossible. He thinks his physical limitations will hinder Almighty God.
When you compare Zechariah to Mary, you see that at this point in his life Zechariah shows himself to be a faithless priest. Zechariah, the aged priest, asks the angel for a sign. Mary, the young maiden from Galilee, submits in simple faith to the Lord when told about the virgin birth (Lk 1:38). It is wrong to worship Mary. But it is more than right that we admire and emulate her.
Before we criticize Zechariah too much, we should examine ourselves and see how strong our own faith is.
How many times don't we look in the wrong direction? Think of Peter who looked at the wind and the waves instead of Jesus and began to sink (Mt 14:29f). Think of Abraham and Sarah looking at themselves instead of God. Think of Elijah who fled for his life from Jezebel and crawled under a broom tree to die. Usually the problem is we look down instead of look up. We look at ourselves instead of at God. The mighty God. The everlasting God. The God Whose arm is never too short. The God Who can do what ever He purposes to do.
B Zechariah sins with his mouth so the angel stops his mouth. Isn't it just that the punishment matches the crime? But it isn't it also gracious that Zechariah's mouth is stopped before he can heap sin upon sin? This keeps him from boasting about his vision – as men are so prone to do. For the nine months of his wife's pregnancy Zechariah can only be a silent bystander – one with a lot of time for thinking about the ways of God, the promises of God, and the might of God.
IV A Favored Priest (vs 23-25)
Our fourth picture of Zechariah shows us a favored priest.
When his time of service is completed, Zechariah returns home to the hill country of Judea (Lk 1:39). Do you think he rides his slowest donkey or camel? If on foot, do you think he slowly walks? Of course not! He has good news. Good news about a son. Good news about the Messiah. Good news from the Lord Himself. Good news that the Lord has remembered. In my mind, I see Zechariah going home as quickly as possible.
I am sure Zechariah spends the last days of his Temple service and the journey home thinking of how to communicate to Elizabeth everything that has happened. He knows he cannot tell her so does he maybe write it all down in a letter ahead of time?
I always thought my faith was strong. But your husband is not as strong as you may think.
This week I received the highest honor of my life – God, the blessed, the holy, chose me to burn the incense.
I slowly entered the Holy Place carrying the censor filled with glowing coals. What a moment! I saw the golden candlestick, the table of showbread, the golden altar of incense. I hardly dared to look at the curtain.
As I was putting incense on the coal an angel appeared. He was standing on the right side, Elizabeth. The place of God. I was scared to death.
He talked to me. He called me by name. He knew me. He told me not to be afraid.
He told me we would have a boy. We are going to have a boy, Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth, old, barren, are going to have a boy.
This boy, our boy, is going to prepare the way for the Messiah. The Messiah is coming, Elizabeth. The Messiah! The Messiah!
I didn't believe Him, Elizabeth. I didn't believe Him. Your husband didn't believe God remembered.
So I was told I cannot talk until our baby is born. The angel did something to my tongue because my faith is so small.
Elizabeth, our prayers have been heard. God Himself told me He will be answering our prayers.
Can you believe this? Of course you can. Your faith has always been stronger than mine.
Your ever loving husband,
After this Elizabeth became pregnant. As Elizabeth herself put it, God has "shown his favor" (Lk 1:25).
Zechariah - God has remembered. God has remembered the promise to reward faithfulness. God has remembered the promise to hear prayers. But, especially, God has remembered the promise of Genesis 3:15 that the Messiah will come, that sin will be defeated, that Satan will be crushed.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Annunciation to Zachariah Sunday
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