Zacharias the priest received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to offer incense in the temple of God. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke to describe an even greater privilege that Zacharias received: the visitation of an angel.
Today, we continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading from the first chapter, beginning at verse 5 through verse 25, and I would ask the congregation to please stand for the reading of the Word of God.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
But 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For 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. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He 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.”
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.”
And 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. But 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.”
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But 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.
So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among the people.”
You’ve just heard Luke’s account of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and this is the inspired Word of God Himself. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.
Again, our Father, as we turn our attention to Your Holy Word, we ask that You would condescend to our weakness. Give us ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts open to believe and embrace the truth of these things. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Dawning of a New Era
Last week, when we looked at the introductory words of the gospel of Luke, we read that Luke promised to give us an orderly account of all the things that came to pass regarding the person and work of Christ.
Now, when one is giving an orderly account of things that take place, one has to decide where to begin. What is the first matter one should look at? Luke begins, not with the birth of Jesus, not with the appearance of John the Baptist and his public ministry, but with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is the only one who starts at this point and gives us this information regarding the impending birth of John the Baptist.
I’ve said many times that John the Baptist is the most underrated person in the whole New Testament. That is, underrated by us, because he certainly was not by the biblical writers. Above all, he was not underrated by the Lord Jesus Himself who said that none greater had ever appeared above John the Baptist (Luke 7:28) and that the law and the prophets ruled until John (Luke 16:16). However, a new era, a new epoch, broke through with the birth of John the Baptist.
Remember, there had been four hundred years since the last prophecy had been uttered in Israel. After many prophets had come to speak God’s Word to the people of Israel in the Old Testament, suddenly, after Malachi, God became silent—not for a year, not for ten years, but for four hundred years. Think of all the history that has transpired in the last four centuries, just in the United States and in the world. That’s a long, long time for God to be silent. Now, Luke tells us, that silence is broken with the coming of a new prophet whose birth is being announced in this episode.
Luke tells us that John’s birth took place in the days of Herod, the king of Judea. That’s not an incidental historical point that we should overlook. These were days of trial and darkness for the people of Israel. Herod was not a Jew; he was a puppet king of the oppressing Roman Empire. He ruled for thirty-three years, from 37 to 4 BC. During that time, he achieved some magnificent accomplishments, such as the rebuilding of the temple in all its grandeur. Not only did he rebuild the Jewish temple, but he also built all sorts of pagan temples and initiated pagan religious rites among the people. Herod was so paranoid about his power and authority that he killed everyone who seemed to be a threat to his power, including many members of his own family. He was to the Jews what Nero was to the Romans. So, these were dark days indeed when this episode took place.
God Has Remembered Again
We are told, “In the days of Herod the king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias of the division of Abijah, his wife being one of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” I find it interesting to look at the meaning of some of the names of people that appear in Scripture, and the name Zacharias means “God has remembered again.”
You remember David, in the Psalms, says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all of His benefits” (Ps. 103:2). It is our habit to forget the things God has done for us. We tend to live from one blessing to the next, and as soon as our memory of our last blessing from the Lord’s hand fades, we begin to be dull in our ardor and love for the Lord until He blesses us again. So, David reminds us that our soul should bless the Lord and not be given to forgetfulness, because God is a God who never forgets.
After four hundred years, the people were beginning to think that the Lord God Omnipotent, in His omniscience, had laid that attribute aside and suddenly become forgetful: “Maybe He’s forgotten the promises that He made to Abraham. Where is that Messiah He promised us centuries ago? Has He forgotten? Did He forget the promises that He made to the people of antiquity?”
Now, this priest comes along whose name means “God has remembered again” because God’s pattern throughout redemptive history is that He remembers every promise He’s ever made. We must live by that. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, it’s one thing to believe in God, it’s another thing to believe Him—to believe what He says, to believe His promises, and live not by the allure of this world, but by the promises of God, knowing that the Lord does not forget.
One Unsolvable Problem
Now, in the midst of four hundred years of silence, Zacharias appears on the scene. He is called a priest in the division of Abijah, and his wife was also from a priestly line, and her name was Elizabeth. Zacharias and Elizabeth are described here as each being righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless. This of course does not negate what the Scriptures tell us elsewhere that there are none righteous and that no one is perfect in their obedience before God. The Bible does speak, however, about those who manifest exemplary godliness, such as Job and other Old Testament characters who were singularly godly in contrast to everyone else.
In this text, we find not one but two people who are married to each other, who manifest this unusual, extraordinary godliness. In God’s sight they were righteous, not through the righteousness of Christ, but as contrasted with other people. They kept the law, they loved the law, they were devoted to the things of God, and God was pleased with them.
There was one unsolvable problem, however. They had no children. Elizabeth was barren, just as Sarah, Hannah, and the mother of Samson had been barren in their old age. In those days, as Elizabeth mentions later, people would consider women who were barren with a sense of reproach. The assumption they made was that there must have been some dark secret that lurked in the souls of this couple, some hidden sin that nobody knew, because God had shut up the womb of Elizabeth, and that expresses His divine displeasure. However, the Scripture says otherwise. There was no hidden sin. They were godly, blameless. Nevertheless, they were old and childless.
A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity
“So it was,” we are told, “that while he was serving as a priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.” Let’s think about that for a second.
There were eighteen thousand priests in Israel, divided among the different groups. Eighteen thousand. Fourteen of those eighteen thousand, not fourteen thousand, but fourteen priests were given the privilege of offering the incense during a single year. You could only have that opportunity once, if you had it at all. So, in ten years, one hundred and forty priests had the unspeakable privilege of going into the Holy Place and offering the prayers of intercession for the people. The offering of the incense represented the prayers of God’s people and was meant to be a sweet aroma to God. The vast majority of priests never had the opportunity to offer this sacred task in the Holy Place of the temple.
How did a priest get the opportunity for this sacred task? Well, he wasn’t elected by his fellow priests to do it. There was no contest to determine who was the most righteous of the priests that they could be worthy for this task. No, the only One who could choose a priest for this sacred service was God Himself, which He did through the casting of lots.
When Zacharias got the word, it would have been something like: “Zacharias, your name came up. You won the lottery! You have been selected by lot to have the privilege that a priest dreams of—a once in a lifetime opportunity to come into the Holy Place itself and offer the incense and the prayers for the people of the nation.” You can imagine how thrilled Zacharias was to learn that he had won this divine lottery, not to receive a bundle of money, but to have a spiritual blessing that would be the high point of his entire life as a priest.
Watch the Smoke
We are told: “His lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.” The prayers were offered for the nation on these occasions, both in the morning and the evening, but the vast multitude would come at dusk for the offering of these prayers. They would gather outside the temple, and they would pray and watch the smoke coming out of the temple. When the incense was burned, the smoke would spiral up out of the temple roof. That was the signal for the people in the courtyard to fall on their faces in thanksgiving that the prayers of intercession on their behalf had been offered.
The only thing I can think of that parallels that is the selection of a new pope. We were in Rome recently, on the square at St. Peter’s, looking at the Vatican’s chimney where hundreds of thousands of people gather when it’s time for the election of a pope. When the bishops are gathered, they write their names on secret ballots. If there are not enough votes to elect a new pope, they burn the ballots in a fire and the smoke that comes out of the chimney is black. That means a pope has not been selected, and the people groan. When the college of cardinals finally agree upon a selection for the papacy, they put a certain chemical in the fire with the ballots that are burned, which turns the smoke from black to white. When the people in St. Peter’s Square see the white puff of smoke come out of the chimney, they are elated. It’s a time of jubilation.
We don’t participate in that kind of thing, but it was similar to what the people experienced in verse ten as they waited to see the smoke come out of the temple. It was customary for the people, after seeing the smoke, to rejoice with the priest who had offered the prayers once he emerged from the temple. However, on this day, something happened. Something was wrong, it seemed, to the watching multitude.
Miners Saved by a Miracle
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, and when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.” Zacharias, in his service, was suddenly and dramatically interrupted by the appearance of an angel.
Luke tells us at the beginning that he is going to give us the facts. He is going to give us that which he has researched, the pure history of these things. In the very first chapter, here we are, talking about angels. In our modern era, this seems to smack of the mythological and of a supernatural element of Scripture that the skeptics and the cynics repudiate.
When I was a young man, a coalmine in one of the Western Pennsylvania or West Virginia coalfields had a cave-in. Several miners perished. They sent a metal pipe down into the shaft, and they could detect faint tappings on the shaft, indicating that somebody had survived the cave-in and was left alive in the underground mine. So, the workers frantically went to the business of trying to dig down and rescue anyone that may have survived.
One day passed, two days passed, three days passed. The news story every day was about how much closer they were coming to whoever was trapped. Was there still any tapping on the tube? They were not able to get food or water down to the survivors, so after a few days, when they were not able to get to the miners, people went into despair.
I remember that the families huddled around, weeping for their lost loved ones and how the rescue operation now turned into an attempt to simply recover the bodies. About two weeks passed until they were finally able to get down to that place in the mine, and they discovered two miners alive. One of their names was Fellin and the other’s name was Throne. The joke went that one was thrown in, and the other one fell in. That’s how I remember their names.
I never will forget the story on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post when these miners were saved. They came out of the mine shaft and said that they were ministered to by angels while they were underground. The headlines said, “Miners Saved by Miracle”—that was the word the newspaper chose to describe their rescue: “Miners Saved by Miracle.” Later in the article, there was a subheading: “Miners Suffer Hallucination While Trapped Underground.” They considered it a miracle that they were saved, but it must have been a hallucination that they saw an angel.
Heaven’s Intrusion into Earth
What is the function of angels? We think usually that the primary and only function of the angel, whose word angelos means “messenger,” is to be someone who announces the tidings of God to various people. Later in the New Testament, however, we are told that the primary function of the angel is to minister to the people of God in times of severe crisis. Luke, the historian, just a few sentences into his history, introduces the reality of the supernatural. He introduces the reality of the intrusion of heaven into earth by these heavenly beings called “angels.”
You might remember the story of Elisha in Dothan in the Old Testament (2 Kings 6:8–23). When the armies were surrounding Elisha’s cottage, his servant woke up in the morning and looked to the east, the west, the north, the south, and saw that they were surrounded by soldiers who had been sent to capture and kill the prophet. Elisha wasn’t the least bit disturbed. The servant said, “My lord Elisha, we are surrounded with these chariots of the armies.” Elisha said, “Don’t worry about it, those who are with us are more than those who are against us.” Elisha’s servant thought: “Have you lost your mind? Look at you and me, that’s two. Look outside and you will see thousands of these enemy soldiers surrounding us.” Elisha began to pray, and he said, “Lord, open his eyes, let him see what I see,” and God opened the eyes of the servant. And behold, there were myriads of chariots, the entire heavenly host, round about Elisha. Of course, the angelic host put the enemy soldiers to rout, but Elisha saw through the veil. He saw the reality that the servant could not see.
We live in a world that is owned by God and we are not the highest creatures in it. The creatures above us are the angels, who are sent by the Lord to minister to us in times of trouble. In the New Testament the word angelos, the word for angel, occurs more often than the word for love. The word angel occurs in the New Testament more often than the word for sin. In a numeric sense at least, the New Testament speaks more about angels than it does about love and sin. It’s an integral part of this Book which is supernatural from beginning to end.
Zacharias was just like us. He was just like those newspaper reporters in Pittsburgh. When an angel showed up, he was on his face in terror because, in his whole life, he had never seen an angel. He probably forgot that there even were such things as angels, even though his name meant, “the Lord has remembered again.”
So, the angel came and gave an astonishing message, a message that would change the course of Zacharias’ life, Elizabeth’s life, Israel’s life, and our lives. God willing, we will look at that next week. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank you for this intrusion into this world from Your presence that changed the course of history. Give us the eyes of Elisha to see and embrace the heavenly host. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.