December 13, 1998
Zechariah thought he had reached the peak of his priestly duties when Gabriel’s arrival changed the course of his life—and of human history. In light of the angel’s surprising message, Alistair Begg reassures us that God is always at work, even when circumstances seem impossible. Zechariah’s promised son, John the Baptist, would proclaim God’s call to repentance and the arrival of the Messiah. Today, his family’s story calls us, too, to repent of our unbelief and trust God’s promises.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn again to the Gospel of Luke and to chapter 1.
I’m sure that every young person has a day in their life that they imagine, if it could ever, ever happen, just one event, just for one chance, one opportunity, to do this single thing. For some who are in the realm of academics, it may be the opportunity to present a paper or to win an award. For others, and for many, it will probably have to do with some musical or sporting event. And certainly, as a small boy growing up playing soccer in Scotland, you dreamt of the possibility of ever being able to pull on the shirt of your country and represent your country, and then of playing well for your country, and then of the kind of moment that you dream of when it’s all down to one final penalty kick that would establish victory for Scotland against whoever, and you are called upon by the captain to take the kick, and that one moment in time is such that it is absolutely unrepeatable. For some of you, it’s standing on a baseball mound. It’s standing on the high-dive board in an Olympic event. For whatever reason, our minds play with these things. And it is a part of youthful wonder.
It would have been no different from the man who is in the very focus of this morning’s study. Growing up in a priestly family, he would be anticipating that there would come a day that would be the most important day of his life. And what we find here in the portion of Scripture before us is that this day comes, and it is not simply the most important day of his life, but it proves to be the most important moment of his life. Just what it is and why it is we’re about to discover.
Now, with verse 5 we have the beginning of Luke’s “orderly account,” which in his opening statement in the first four verses he has promised to us. He is about to unfold the dawning of a new age, the arrival of these two children, one the forerunner and the other the Messiah. Since the close of the Old Testament, in what we refer to as the intertestamental period—the period of time between the end of the book of Malachi and the beginning of the Gospel records—there has been silence. God’s prophetic voice has not been heard. And now, Luke begins his Gospel by reminding us that out onto the stage of human history, God was raising up his choice servant, a forerunner who would go before the one who was to be the ruler of his people Israel. And it is quite striking that Luke begins his Gospel not with the annunciation of the birth of Christ but actually with the annunciation of John the Baptist. And it is with this event that we have to do in the course of these verses before us now.
In order that you might have an idea of where we’re heading, let me tell you that I’m going to gather my thoughts around four simple headings: the king, the priest, the angel, the people. The king, the priest, the angel, the people.
First of all, then, the king. Verse 5: “In the time of Herod king of Judea…”
You may recall, last week we said that Luke was the one Gospel writer who was concerned to intersect the biblical truth not only with the events of Palestine but also with the framework of the Roman jurisdiction. And we see this right from the commencement of his Gospel. He sets the events before us within the framework of ongoing secular history.
Many of you who are young people here today will be wondering, “Does the Bible really intersect with the real world? Did these events happen in the real time?” And the answer, of course, is yes. And Luke’s narrative is set somewhere between 37 and 4 BC. And what we find in the Gospel record is more than amplified in the work of a writer like Josephus, the Jewish historian, and, indeed, Octavius, the Roman historian. And in the reading of those parallel treatments, which is something that one has to do in the studying of church history, we discover that Herod was a piece of work. Indeed, Josephus describes him ultimately as follows.
First of all, that this king was a capable king. He was a capable king in terms of his military strategy, his oratorical ability, and his subtle diplomacy. Added to that, he was a masterful builder, and he left his stamp upon the precincts of Jerusalem in a number of structures which began to dominate the skyline—not least of all in a rebuilt Jerusalem temple. So, to say that he was anything other than manifestly capable is to do the king a great disservice.
But he was not simply capable; he was actually crafty. Indeed, crafty is almost too kind a word to use. Jesus referred to this king’s son—that is, Herod Antipas—as “that fox.” And the son of this man was a wily character. And the fact is, like son, like father. He was not above the use and abuse of any of his ten wives as a means of establishing his status or establishing control. And Herod, in his craftiness, was a masterful cover-up expert. He was, if you like, in 37 BC, a forerunner of Houdini.
Capable, crafty, and cruel. Cruel in the extreme—as, of course, we’re about to see, when his cruelty bursts its banks in ordering the death of all these tiny boys because he is paranoid about the prospect of this announcement of the king of the Jews coming to take over his throne. His jealousy led to the murder of his brother-in-law, Aristobulus; he had him drowned on a swimming party. It led to the murder of his wife Mariamne, whom he suspected of infidelity, but he was more concerned about the threat to his throne. It led to the murder of his mother-in-law and to three of his twelve sons.
In other words, you couldn’t think of this man Herod—you couldn’t think of his rulership—without it being absolutely impregnated by all kinds of deception and all kinds of destruction. It was said that it was far safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son. The pig had more of a prospect of living a long and prosperous life than any of the sons brought up in the home of this king.
Now, when you think of this for a moment, we realize that at a time of political chaos, with a leader who was capable, crafty, and cruel, God was still at work. When the people of God were in the experience of silence in hearing from God, when they found themselves pressured by the surrounding political circumstances of the day, when they were tempted to look at the king in all of his crafty cruelty capability and tempted to say, “You know, we are lost and trapped”—God was still at work. He always has been, and he always is. As Mary was about to sing in verse 50 of the opening chapter, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
What possible significance, I ask you, could there be in the lives of this elderly couple who were childless? Do you think for a moment that there was any significance in this rather insignificant character and his barren wife? Do you remember in the past, when Naaman, in all of his finery, with his limousine, finds himself at the home of the man of God? He is there not as a result of God coming to him in the palace, directly, but as a result of God being at work in the broom closet with this little servant girl.
And I want to remind you this morning, because many of you are bedeviled by the fact that you feel yourselves to be in this very framework: under the domination of one who is crafty, capable, and cruel. And you’re saying to yourself, “Is God anywhere in all of this?” And the answer is yes. And he comes in the most unexpected ways to some of the most unlikely people in order to forward his purpose.
None of the events of Herod’s reign took God by surprise. And in all of the political ebb and flow, God was bringing down the rulers from their thrones, and he was lifting up the humble. So when men and women are tempted to look at the king and at the rulership, the chances are we’re looking in the absolutely wrong direction.
So, from the king to the priest. Who was this priest? You say, “We haven’t gone very far. We’re still in the fifth verse.” I understand that. But that’s okay. You can be patient, I hope.
“There was a priest named Zechariah.” We don’t really know much else about him. In verse 39, we know that he came from “the hill country.” In other words, he didn’t have a large city-center parish. He wasn’t overseeing a flourishing suburban ministry. He was one of a large number of individuals. The priestly function was divided into twenty-four divisions; the division of Abijah was the eighth. After the exile, there had been only four heads of the divisions return, and the four divisions then redivided themselves into twenty-four divisions so that the structure could go on as in the preexilic time. Each of these divisions, as we discover, were divided up in such a way that they went on duty for one week twice a year. So, within the context of the temple worship, if you were a part of the priestly function, you had a couple of weeks in the year when you were on duty full-time, and that was essentially it.
This particular character had the advantage of marrying the daughter of a priest. It wasn’t demanded, but it was desirable. And he had married this lady Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. As a couple, verse 6 says that they were pious, which was very good—namely, they were “righteous,” they were “blameless,” they were serving God faithfully. But they were childless—verse 7—and that in itself was very sad. It says at the end of verse 7 in the NIV, “They were both well [on] in years.” In the King James Version, it says they were “stricken in years.” And that, I think, has more of a ring to it.
And the reason that that little piece of information is provided is to make the point that not only were they childless, but from a human perspective, they could expect absolutely no change in their circumstances. When they got up in the morning and said, “Oh, my knees hurt; oh, my shoulder hurts; oh, my head hurts, my neck hurts,” then the wife would say, “That is because you are stricken in years. Things are beginning to run down. Parts are beginning to break. It’s called wear and tear. You’re not as young as you used to was, in other words. And so you can anticipate that this is the case.”
So, here we have the priest: a devout man with a devout wife, living a devout life, one of some eighteen thousand priests who were functioning at that time. Because there were so many priests, there were not enough duties to go around. And so Luke tells us that they cast lots—verse 9—in order to see who would be responsible for the performance of each function. God oversaw this. We find that in the assigning of the apostle to replace Judas, and we find it in a number of places throughout Holy Scripture. God is seen to be sovereign over this event. And of all the assigned tasks, none was greater than the offering of incense.
Now, in order to understand just how significant this was, you need to realize that once a priest had been assigned to the offering of incense, he could never do it again in the whole of his life. And indeed, it was such that many priests went through the whole of their activities never, ever once being granted the opportunity of this most significant event.
Let me try and picture the scene along with you. Zechariah, having been entrusted with the responsibility of burning the incense, would have proceeded towards the golden altar with two assistants. One of the assistants would have a golden bowl in which he had placed hot coals from the altar of the burnt offering. The assistant would then proceed in the company of the other two, and he would take these hot coals, and he would place them on the altar of incense. Once that had been done, the two assistants would withdraw and would leave the priest—the designated offerer of incense for that day—alone, as close to the presence of God as any person other than the high priest might ever come in all of their life.
Now, it’s hard for us, living as we do at the end of the twentieth century, distanced from this kind of thought form, to understand the dramatic significance that is wrapped up in this event. But try if you can. For Zechariah, this was not simply to be the most important day of his life, but he was proceeding towards the most important moment in all of his life, and everything in his expectation led up to this. And as the time dawned and as the men departed and as the signal was given, he would then offer this incense, pouring it onto these warm coals, and the aroma would arise, at least in terms of symbolism, to heaven and would mingle with the prayers of the priest. And as a result of that, he would, then, have had a unique opportunity.
Now, while there is much that is obviously wondrous and awesome about it, in the same way that each of us in the experiencing of one of these moments engages in whatever it is—perhaps, as a pilot (and some of you are pilots here this morning), some event that you enjoyed, and you were responsible for making sure that everybody landed safely. You were responsible for the instrumentation, you were responsible for the air traffic control, you were responsible for a myriad things, and your mind was processing all of that. But at the same time, in a little section of your mind, you were saying, “I can’t wait to tell my wife about this. I can’t wait to tell my wife.”
And that would be exactly what was taking place here for this man Zechariah, because his wife was a partner with him in it all. And in his mind, in this dramatic experience, he would be saying, “I can’t wait till I get home and let Elizabeth know.” Because she only knew that it was his week of service. She didn’t know that he had been called to this position. She did not know that he was there in that moment. And while he was there, verse 10 says, the “worshipers were praying outside.”
Now, just when it couldn’t get any more dramatic than that, it did. So, from the king to the priest to the angel.
Verse 11: “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him.” Notice, there’s no description of his appearance, mercifully. The Bible is very guarded about most of these things. Whenever you find people telling you what the explanation is for that which is not disclosed in the Bible, you ought to be very wary. And so many of the books on angels have to do with a closed Bible and a fertile imagination. The Bible has a decorum to it in relationship to these things. So there’s no description, but there is an immediate reaction: “[And] when Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.”
Now, for those of you who know your Bibles, you will recognize that that is the standard response to the appearance of an angel. All of a sudden, there’s a strong, holy, dazzlingly brilliant angel standing beside you. And you might say to yourself, “Well, I’d just say ‘Good morning, angel,’ or ‘Good afternoon,’ or ‘Hey! Nice to see you, shining one.’” But the fact is, you wouldn’t, and neither would I. You would be completely paralyzed because of the inrush of this individual. When Mary sees the angel come, she is “greatly troubled,” it says. When the shepherds are aware of the arrival of the angel, it says “they were terrified.” And so, small wonder that this man, who thinks he has had just about all there is to have of this dramatic moment, suddenly turns around and is confronted by not only this shining person but also by his quite staggering declaration.
First of all, he says to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” It’s interesting that that’s kind of one of the angels’ songs, isn’t it? Anytime you find angels arriving, they’re always going, “Hey, do not be afraid.” No wonder they say it first, because everybody is afraid! “Hey, Mary, don’t be afraid.” “Okay, fine, I’ll try.” “Shepherds, don’t be afraid.” “Well, all right—easy for you to say, angel, but we’ll give it our best shot!” And now, “Zechariah, I don’t want you to be afraid.” “No, that’s okay. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’ll be okay. No, I’m okay. Yeah, no, no, no, no—I’m fine.”
In fact, if you read your Bible, it’s staggering how many times the Lord—by himself, by his servant, by his angel—tells people not to be afraid. I didn’t do the research, but I know that it’s time after time after time after time, you will find God speaking to people throughout all of history, just saying one phrase: “I don’t want you to be afraid.” Why? Because he knows our tendency to fear. He knows the fact of our fears. He knows we’re fearful about illness. He knows we’re fearful about the future. He knows our fears and our concerns. That’s why he comes to us and says, “Now, don’t be afraid.” And sure, our answer is “Oh yes, that’s easy for you to say.” Yes, but let us not miss the point: that the very word he speaks is a power-giving word when we receive it in faith.
He says, “I don’t want you to be afraid, because your prayer has been heard.” Now, think about that for just a moment. Zechariah has gone for the one moment in time, goes in, offers the incense, says his prayer, and boom!—there’s an angel says, “Your prayer is heard.” “Say what? So soon?” Yes!
What do you think he was praying for? If this was a class, I’d ask you to put up your hands if you think he was praying for a son. Then I’d ask you to put your hands down. I’d say, “Who thinks he was praying for something else?” And we’d go through that whole business, but we don’t have time. The fact is, I think he was praying for the salvation of Israel. I don’t think he was praying for a son. It would have been downright selfish, and after all, remember, he was stricken with age. You know, his wife might have had a bit of zip left in her, but he was pretty well finished. So, you know, as faithful as he may have been, the one thing you might have said to him—“What do you expect for your Christmas?” you know—it wouldn’t be a son, you know. So I think the idea that he was there praying for a son, and then the angel said, “Hey, you’re going to have a son,” he goes, “Whoa, hey, good stuff!”—no. I think he was praying for the salvation of Israel: “O Lord, send the ruler of your people Israel. O God, come and speak to us.” And suddenly, God comes, and the whole unfolding message of redemption is beginning to be answered before him.
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Can you imagine how staggering that must have been? You know, if you’d said to him when he woke up that morning, “Let’s supposing an angel came to you and just said one thing; what is the most outlandish thing that an angel could ever say to you, Zechariah?”—he probably would not even have included this on the list, because it is so far off the charts. The one thing people knew about Zechariah, beyond the fact that he was pious, that he was a priest, and that his wife was a nice lady, was that they were an elderly couple. They already could fly for reduced fares, and the fact was, they had no kids. And people used to say, “There goes old Elizabeth again. She would’ve made a lovely mother. But she doesn’t have any kids.”
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and let me give you his name as well,” says the angel. “You’re going to call him John.” Can you imagine him rubbing his eyes, shaking his head, going, “Man alive, this is fantastic! I thought it was good enough doing the incense thing, but this is brilliant. Keep going, man. What else have you got for me?”
“Well, let me just tell you,” says verse 14. “He’s going to bring you a lot of joy.” Well, okay. That’s normal for parents. But he’s also going to be a “delight” and the cause of delight for many beyond his immediate circle. And he describes his destiny. He says, “This child is going to be great in the Lord’s sight.” “Great in the sight of the Lord.” Think about that for a moment. “Great in the sight of the Lord.” How is it possible to be “great in the sight of the Lord”?
Imagine you’ve got a torch—a flashlight—and it’s a big honking flashlight, you know, with those batteries that you can kill somebody with if you hit them over the head. So you have this big torch. You’re really proud of it, you know, like, “Hey, hey, wait till you see this light.” Okay? But when you get to where you’re going, somebody brought in one of those strobe lights that’s just fantastic, and suddenly, your thing is like nothing before the grandeur of this light. You think you could be great before this light with this little pip-squeak thing?
How are we great in the company of one another? As a result of our intelligence, as a result of our endeavors, as a result of our status, as a result of our money, as a result of our position. There we’re great, you see: “Now, I’m great! Because I’ve done this, and I have this, and I went there, and I’m about this.” And so we establish our greatness before one another. So what could you ever bring that would make you “great in the sight of the Lord”? See, he knows everything, he owns everything, he has everything, he made everything. There is nothing that we could ever bring that would be impressive in the sight of the Lord.
And yet Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” And this is a character, as we shall see, who was a kind of bohemian type. He wasn’t exactly what you would call preppy. This guy’s roaming around in some really freaked-out gear, and he’s a sort of forerunner of the vegetarian hippie sort. And Jesus says, “Among those born of women there’s nobody greater than John the Baptist,” in fulfillment of the angel’s word to Zechariah: “You’re going to have a boy. He’ll be a joy to you. He will be an amazing kid in relationship to so many others. And, in fact, he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
What is greatness in the sight of the Lord? I’ll tell you: humility! Nothingness is everything in the sight of the Lord. Emptiness is everything in the sight of the Lord. For when they asked him, “Hey, John the Baptist, what do you have to say about yourself? Who are you? Are you Elijah?”
“Are you one of the prophets?”
“Are you the one who is to come?”
“I am not.”
“Well, John, could you give us a little more than this, please? We’re trying to write up something to put in our brochure so that you can speak at the next Palestinian pastors’ conference, and you’re not really accommodating us very well. You know, we can’t expect the people to come and listen to you, John, with this ‘I am not, no, no, I am not, I am not.’ What are you?”
He says, “I’m a voice crying.” Not “I am the voice of…” “I am a voice crying.” He says, “I am a light shining.” Not “I am a significant light.” He says, “I am a light that shines. And I am a finger that points. Here comes the Lord!” That’s greatness. That is greatness: “I am nothing. He is everything. I have no voice unless he gives it. I have no song unless he sings it. I have no destiny except he supplies it.”
You see how, with our selfish preoccupations, in our self-satisfied, corrupted perspective on so much that takes place, we render ourselves at least 70 percent useless in relationship to what we might be under God if we would let go of ourselves and our own selfishness and allow God to be God. See, the voice of the prophet can never be heard when the prophet is concerned about the sound of his own voice. For you cannot make much of Christ and much of yourself simultaneously. That’s why he’s great. That’s always greatness—not the production of a big CV, not the production of a big resume, not the big poster and the big picture and the big list and the big accolades. That’s twentieth-century American hype. That’s not first-century Palestinian standards.
Now, the clarity of his message is matched by the humility in his manner. He’s going to, he says, derive strength and inspiration not from earthly stimulants like wine and fermented drink, but he’s going to derive it from the Holy Spirit, who is going to be upon this child—indeed, is upon him from, indeed, “his mother’s womb.” In his lifelong consecration to the Lord’s special service, he is going to see many in Israel restored to the Lord. This is going to be marked by the holy, prophetic boldness which characterized the ministry of Elijah.
The Old Testament had ended with broken marriages as a result of people refusing to marry within the faith, and there were mixed marriages and easy divorces. And as you read Malachi, you discover that that was the pattern. Then you have the intertestamental period, and then onto the stage of human history walks the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. And one of the things that will be accomplished through his ministry is that he will see the hearts of the fathers turn to the children. In other words, as a result of his proclamation of the gospel, there will be the restoration of harmony within family relationships.
Notice the order. John is not the guy who starts Focus on the Family. His focus is on the preaching of the good news. It must always be. And as a result of the proclamation of the gospel, the byproducts will affect family life, will affect collegiate life, will affect civil life, will affect the world of the arts and the sciences and governments. These are the byproducts of the gospel. And at this point in history, we have put these ahead of the gospel. And that is one of the reasons for the dreadful predicament in which we find ourselves.
We want, you see, the ministry of John the Baptist, but we will not say it the way he said it. We want the power of John the Baptist, but we will not live in the humility that God demands. We want the way in which John was able to bestride the events of time. Because there’s plenty of ways you can stick families back together with chewing gum and sealing wax and string and old bits of cardboard. And there are many, many mechanisms around that will make a solid stab at that. And there are cults around that have very good families, and Islam has very good families, and there are all kinds of ways to have good families. But there is only one way to go to heaven. There is only one way to be redeemed. There is only one way to be granted forgiveness. So why would God raise up prophets to do anything other than to proclaim the good news?
See, if you make the byproduct the product, the devil has won a great gain. I put it to you that that’s where we are.
So, his focus was on a call to repentance and faith. And by his preaching, the disobedient would be brought back to godly wisdom and, in verse 17, the people would be made ready for the Lord.
Now, can you imagine what it was like, after that statement, for Zechariah finally to wait for the angel to stop? And when the angel stops, what would you have said? “Well, thank you, angel. That was very nice. Thank you very much. I’m delighted to meet you, and let’s get on with our day.” Or “Okay”? But look what Zechariah says: “I don’t believe you.” “How can I be sure of this?” is a statement of unbelief. He says, “[Listen,] I[’m] an old man and my wife is well [on] in years.” You get the impression that somehow or another, he can’t stop mentioning he’s an old man.
Old men get like that. Have you noticed? I find myself saying it: “I’m an old man.” You say, “Well, you’re not really.” But you start to think you are, you become one. And your grandfather says, “Now, son, I’m an old man.” And he’s out in the store, and he tells people, “You know, I bet you can’t guess my age. Because I’m an old man.”
And so when Zechariah says, “I’m an old man,” it’s kind of like, “That’s the whole story. I’m an old man.” And in response: “Hey, I’m an angel.” Now, let’s put “I’m an old man” and “I’m an angel” and see which do you think has got the greater impact. “Furthermore, I’m not just an angel. I’m Gabriel. Furthermore, I came from the presence of God. I stand in the presence of God. And God sent me to tell you this. And you’re standing there, Zechariah, and you’re saying you don’t know whether this is straight up or not. You want a sign, Zechariah? You’ve got a sign. You’re not going to be doing any more speaking. You’re dumb as of right now. You’re finished.” And that was it. No response. The most significant moment in Zechariah’s life.
Now, with our time gone, look at the people. Where are they? Well, verse 21: they “were waiting for Zechariah,” and they were “wondering why he stayed so long in the temple.” Now, they had been worshipping outside while all this was going on. The fact is that they were engaging in the event by praying on the outside while the process was going on on the inside.
But you can imagine these people essentially standing outside, perhaps in the posture of Hebraic prayer, with their eyes open up to the heavens and their hands up. And they’d been there before, because it was a great event to do this. They loved to go at the closing of the day, if it was an afternoon event, if it was an early evening event that is described. Whether it was morning or evening really matters very little, but let’s assume it was the evening. And they’ve been standing outside there. They know the ropes. They know the process. They know when the bell rings, the incense is offered, and the bell rang a long, long time ago. But they’re still standing there.
And they knew that the priest never, ever stayed there for long, because it might be regarded as presumption, and the priest would not want to be regarded as presuming upon anything in the proximity of the living God. And so he’d be out there as fast as he can. And what he would do was he would come out, he would join the other priests from whom he had been separated, and together they would stand and pronounce the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face [to] shine upon you,” and so on. That is what they would do. But he doesn’t show up!
So the one guy is standing there, all trying to make sure they’re praying and everything, and the guy goes, “What do you think happened in there?”
“I don’t have the foggiest idea. I’ll tell you, my hands are killing me. Do you think we can get out of here?”
“Well, it was your dumb idea to come on the front row. I mean, if we hadn’t gone on the front row, we could have…”
“Did you hear the bell? Was there a bell?”
“Yeah, there was a bell. The bell rang ages ago.”
“Well… Man, do you think he died in there?”
“I don’t know if he died in there.”
And then all of a sudden, out he comes. And they assume he’s going to team up with the boys, they’re going to do the Aaronic blessing. He comes out. He’s like [mimics Zechariah]. The guy is going, “Hey, I don’t know why we waited. The guy’s gone totally nuts as a result of this.” And then for the remainder of the week, he has to fulfill his duties, and he can’t say anything. He’s got something to say but no ability to communicate. And when his week ends, he goes home to his wife.
Now, when you’re on a business trip and you come home, you’re supposed to take the initiative when you come in. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what it says in the husband books and everything? “Now, when you come home, make sure you say, ‘Hello, honey!’ and kiss the kids, kick the dog, do all that good stuff.”
So he comes home. She hears the door open. She’s in the kitchen, she shouts, “Hi, Zach!” Nothing. She figures, “He’s stricken in years. He’s a little bit deaf.” She calls to him again: “Are you all right, honey? How did the week go?” Nothing. Puts his bag down, walks into the family room. She comes out of the kitchen drying her hands. She goes, “What’s wrong, Zach, lost your tongue?” He turns around, he’s like [mumbling].
Now, my time is gone. You should regard yourselves as fortunate, because the absence of time and propriety must cast now a veil of silence over a scene which, frankly, stirs my imagination to realms that should not be conveyed in public. Because this is unbelievable to me. This is fantastic! Because, first of all, he has found out that old Elizabeth, who is not worth a bean, is going to get pregnant. Right? Now, there are certain things that happen in relationship to this, as I understand it. But he has no way of communicating this to this lady. He in turn is deaf, as we find from verse 62, because the people in the temple are making signs to him. There’s no reason they’re making signs to him if he could hear, you know—but that sometimes happens: when somebody starts making signs, you make signs back, because you don’t know what’s going on. But we assume that he was also deaf. So she can’t tell him.
And then she starts getting isolated. He never has the opportunity of hearing her, when she comes down to breakfast, say, “Um, you know I was at the doctor yesterday, don’t you, Zechariah?” And for him to go, “What?” He can’t hear, so she can’t say that. So can you imagine it? How as time goes by, the capacity for sign making and the necessity for sign making must have got to gargantuan proportions? And eventually, she’s going like this, and he’s going like this, and the neighbors are going, “What the world’s with this couple?”
And in all of this, God is paving the way for the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, showing how incapacitated we are by virtue of ourselves, showing how unable we are to realistically effect anything for the destiny of man or for the unfolding of history, and certainly for the messianic purpose.
Now, I have some concluding observations—four of them.
First of all, we have a wonderful example in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth. And what I mean by that is we have a wonderful example of a godly marriage. Couples may enjoy many benefits as they go through their lives together. They may enjoy health, prosperity. They may be able to fill up their days with a whole round of activities. But how sad it is to see the spectacle of a couple who care neither for their own souls nor for the souls of each other. Indeed, there is no earthly joy, there is no provision that can be experienced in all of life, that can ever take the place of, fill the enormous gap that exists in a home where Christ is not the foundation and the center of that couple’s relationship.
And in Christ, couples experience a peculiar joy, because they are one in their interests, they are one in their affection, and they are one in the Lord Jesus Christ—so much so that whether they experience health and youthfulness or whether sickness and increasing years, everything in this kind of relationship will make them more interesting to each other in life, and everything that happens will prepare them for the life to come. And Zechariah and Elizabeth are a wonderful illustration of that kind of union.
Also, we observe that in the activity of the people, which is described in verse 10 and returned to in verse 21, we are confronted with the duty of prayer. I don’t want to say much more than that, except to observe that it is not enough for these people to be where God is worshipped, but it is essential that in being where God is worshipped, that those who are present in that location are engaged in the worship of God.
And some people say, “Well, I just like to go where God is worshipped. It makes me feel a little better at the start of the week.” I understand. Or “I’m glad of the companionship of people around me.” And I concur with that also. But the people who were present, we’re told, “when the time for the burning of [the] incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.” In other words, they were engaged in what was happening. They were not simply attending at the place where God was worshipped, but their hearts were engaged in the worship. And there’s all the difference in the world between these two things.
Thirdly, we might observe the necessity of conversion amongst those who say they believe. The necessity of conversion amongst those who say they believe. The ministry and responsibility of John the Baptist was in part, we’re told in verse 16, to be used of God so that “many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.”
The Jewish people regarded themselves as God’s favorites. And they were, of course, chosen by God. He had reached down to this man Abraham and had said that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and he had put together a people who were his very own, so there is no question that they were chosen by God. But they needed to be converted. The very fact that they were caught up in the milieu of orthodox Judaism did not mean that they were also in touch with the living God.
If it was true of the Jew, it is certainly true of the gentile; it is true of the nominal Christian. And one of the great challenges of attendance at a church such as Parkside is that those who are nominally Christian may sit for weeks, months, and years, resisting the insistent note, call, exhortation from the Bible to be converted.
If you worship with us regularly here and believe that somehow or another you were converted because you caught it in the air, you were converted because a religious person did something religious to you, you were being converted as a result of some spiritual process through which you went that you largely have no cognizance of, but there was never a crossroads in your life, there was never a day that occurred when you recognized yourself to be a sinner, when you cried out to God for his mercy and for his forgiveness, then you are nominally Christian, and you need to be converted.
And the ministry of the Bible, in the prophetic word of John the Baptist, is to call those who believe to be converted—those who give assent to the truth, who are orthodox in their understanding of certain things but could never say that they have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in a personal and life-changing way. “Verily, [verily,]” said Jesus, in the King James Version, “I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall [never] enter … the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus.
And the last observation that I had noted was a warning against an unbelieving heart. A warning against an unbelieving heart. Which of us did not catch our breaths when the immediate response of the angel to the disbelief of Zechariah was “You’ll be struck dumb”? How many of us would be able to talk for very long when we recognize our unbelieving hearts, how prone we are to doubt God’s Word, how easy it is for us to despair, and how slow we are to hear the Word of God through the writer of the Hebrews? In Hebrews 3: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
Father, I do pray that you will stamp in our minds the immensity of your Word, that you will make us students of the Book, that you will help us to come to our Bibles not so much with a mentality that says, “Oh, yes, I understand this,” but rather with a spirit of expectation, with a quest for encountering you, discovering truth.
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me thyself within thy Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
And may grace and mercy and peace from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Luke 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 2:6.
 Luke 13:32 (NIV 1984).
 Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4.11.
 See 2 Kings 5:1–19.
 Luke 1:6 (KJV).
 See Acts 1:26.
 Luke 1:29 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 2:9 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 11:11 (NIV 1984). See also Luke 7:28.
 John 1:21 (paraphrased).
 John 1:23 (paraphrased).
 Luke 1:15 (KJV).
 Numbers 6:24–25 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 1:10 (NIV 1984).
 See Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18.
 See Titus 2:14.
 Matthew 18:3 (KJV).
 Hebrews 3:12–13 (NIV 1984).
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.