For many years, Zacharias and Elizabeth had prayed for the Lord to give them a child. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the book of Luke, examining Zacharias’ response when the angel Gabriel promised the birth of his son, whose name would be John.
As I promised last Sunday, we are going to continue our study of the annunciation to Zacharias of the birth of a son who would be known as John, John the Baptist. I wasn’t able to cover that narrative last week, so I am going to tackle it again this morning, and I will be picking it up at verse 13 of chapter 1.
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 have the unspeakable privilege of hearing the very Word of God. Receive it in your hearts and in your souls. Let us pray.
Oh Lord our God, help us to understand the significance of these tidings that were delivered by the angel to Zacharias, that we might see their significance, not only to Zacharias and Elizabeth, but to the whole world, and even to us as we enjoy the benefits and the consequences of this announcement even now. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Angels: A Supernatural Reality
Last Sunday morning, I mentioned that Luke, being the sober and trustworthy historian that he was, wasted no time introducing the supernatural to the narrative of those things that he was undertaking to set forth. In his orderly account, he began with this visitation of the angel to the priest, Zacharias.
I mentioned that the New Testament is supernatural in its orientation through and through, and you can’t read it with a comb and throw out all of the allusions to those supernatural realities. I mentioned also that the word “angel” or angelos occurs more often in the New Testament than the word for sin or the word for love.
This is not simply a peripheral matter for the biblical accounts we have, for angels play a significant role throughout the New Testament, not only here with the annunciation to Zacharias, but shortly thereafter, the annunciation by the same angel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Then came the heavenly host, the army of angels that attended and announced the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on that Christmas night outside of Bethlehem.
We also see the angels appearing at the end of Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness when they came to minister to Him. We see the angels again at the time of His resurrection, as they come and announce to the women that He was not there, but that He had risen. We see the angels escorting Jesus to heaven on the shekinah cloud of glory at the time of His ascension, and we are promised that we will see Him again descending from heaven on clouds of glory escorted once more by these heavenly agents.
One place we don’t see angels is at the cross. Even though we don’t see the angels appearing during the crucifixion and execution of our Lord, we know that they were there. They were there in full force, and Jesus reminded His executioners: “You have no power over me. If I give the word, these mighty hosts of angels will come and rescue me.” But of course, He had committed to the Father to suffer even unto death.
So, the appearance of angels is not something that is absent from the New Testament. However, in spite of these mentions that I have given to you, their occurrences and manifestations, even in the New Testament, were exceedingly rare. We look back over time and are tempted to think that there was an angel behind every bush, that every time somebody turned around, they saw an angel.
Righteous Prayer Rewarded
Before this moment, this godly, righteous, obedient priest, had never in his life had the privilege of seeing a real, live angel. When that angel came into the Holy Place by the altar of incense, Zacharias’ response was the same as yours and mine would have been; he was overcome with terror. So, the first thing that the angel had to say to him was, “Calm down, don’t be afraid.” He said, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
There is something striking about this message from the angel. It seems to suggest that when Zacharias won the lottery and was one out of eighteen thousand priests who had this privilege of going into the Holy Place to offer the incense on the altar of incense, which symbolized the prayers of the people, he took that opportunity in his old age to go into the Holy Place and say as he prayed: “Dear Lord, please, please let me have a son. Let Elizabeth have offspring through Your power.”
This man was already described as being blameless and godly and righteous. I cannot imagine that he prayed for himself when he went into the Holy Place since his task as the interceding priest of the hour was to pray for the nation of Israel. Can you imagine a godly priest like this, forgetting his responsibility, and instead praying for his own wants and his own desires? No, no.
It is obvious that Zacharias and Elizabeth had prayed their hearts out for a child for many, many years. God’s answer was “no.” I am sure that as they grew older and realized that Elizabeth was past the age of childbearing, their prayer changed: “Lord, give me the grace to accept our childlessness.” My guess would be that they ceased asking for a child, because in their minds, as it had been with Abraham and Sarah in antiquity, it way too late for that.
I am sure that when Zacharias came into the temple and prayed, he wasn’t praying for a child, but he was praying for Israel, for his people who were oppressed under the heavy hand of Rome and of Herod the Tetrarch. So, the answer was stunning when the angel said: “Your prayer is heard. You’ve been praying for your people, you’ve been praying for the nation, and the Lord has heard your prayer. He’s going to give you a son—not because you just prayed for a son, since you’ve just prayed for the nation. And the son you are going to have is going to be sent by God for the well-being of the people of Israel.”
Named by God’s Authority
He goes on to say, “Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you shall call his name John.” Now, what’s this? In biblical terms, it was always the privilege of the parents, particularly the father, to name their children. All the way back to the time of creation, the giving of the name indicated an expression of authority. When God set Adam and Eve over the whole creation and gave them dominion, He assigned a task to them to name the animals. That was not just an exercise in zoology or taxonomy; rather, they were expressing their authority over the animals by giving them their names.
So, throughout biblical history, it was the custom and tradition of the parents to name the child, because the parents indicated their authority over the child. There were those rare occasions, however, when a special child was born and God would take away from the parents the authority to name the child: His name shall be Isaac. His name shall be Samuel. His name shall be John. His name shall be Jesus.
When God does that, He is saying: “This child is set apart. This child will be sanctified and consecrated for a special task that I have called him to perform.” Not only does the angel tell Zacharias that he’s going to have a son, but he tells him what his son’s name is going to be. That will become important when the child is born, as we will read later in Luke’s narrative.
Out of the Desert Like Elijah
The Lord named this child because he would be on a mission and he would belong to God. “For he will be great,” the angel says, “in the sight of the Lord. He shall drink neither wine nor strong drink,” not because he’s going to be a Nazarite, but because he was going to have a special role as an ascetic prophet, one who would come out of the desert just like Elijah.
He goes on to say, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Those of you who think you can disturb the womb because that which is in it is only undifferentiated protoplasm and not a human being, take heed. Before John the Baptist was even born, while he was still in his mother’s womb, he was filled with the Holy Ghost.
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” He’s going to be an evangelist, as it were, an instrument of God to confront many of the people whose hearts have been hardened—people of Israel who were the heirs of the covenant of grace but now despised the covenant of grace. They still had their children circumcised, but they did that as a mere formality. Their faith of long ago died, and they were now actually in their unbelief. They were in a posture of hostility towards the Lord their God, just as the vast majority of people who live in our land are today, and just as there are people hearing this right now whose hearts are hardened against God.
John is going to change that, and he will be the instrument of God to change these things. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before God in the spirit and the power of Elijah. He’s not going to be Elijah, but he is going to fulfill the Old Testament prophesy of the return of Elijah, not because God is going to bring Elijah back from heaven, but because He is going to anoint this child with the same power and the same spirit that He had given to the great prophet Elijah. Why? “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
A New Era
What does he mean, “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children”? Some commentators say that they were finally going to have a generation of godly people who would make the patriarchs in heaven happy to see them. I don’t think it means that. Rather, I think it’s probably that the hostility, the breakdown of family relationships that sin engenders in nations when they depart from the Lord God, was going to change.
A new era was coming. A new epoch was about to break through in history, and they were going to see a dramatic change in families, in houses, in relationships between the parents and their children. Not only that, but the disobedient, who scoff at the truth of God, would finally see the wisdom of the just. Throughout world history and biblical history, those who embrace the truth of God appear to be fools in the eyes of the world. The real fool, however, is the one who says in his heart, “There is no God.”
“But your son,” the angel says, “is going to turn many of the people around, and they will see the wisdom of righteousness, the wisdom of the just who embrace it. Then he is going to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. In fact, Zacharias, that will be his chief task. His number one responsibility will be to make straight the way of the Lord, to be the herald of the coming Messiah, to be the one who goes before He whom the Lord is sending to redeem His people. Your son is going to do that.”
Zacharias Doubts, Gabriel Rebukes
The angel’s words are too much for the old priest. He hears these words from the angel, and listen to his response: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” In other words: “Somebody sent you to the wrong address, Mr. Angel. You can’t possibly be telling me these things. Don’t you see me? Don’t you see the gray on my head? I am an old man. I am too old for this, and my wife is well advanced in years. She can’t have children. Are you playing with me? Am I hallucinating? This is more than I can believe.”
Filled with doubt, Zacharias says: “This can’t be. It can’t happen. We can’t do it.” I learned a long time ago that “I can’t” never did anything. Zacharias needed to read The Little Engine that Could. He needed to do his homework of his theology of the Lord God Omnipotent. When he says, “I can’t,” he means, “God can’t.” So, he introduces himself to this mysterious visitor from heaven. He doesn’t say, “My name is Zacharias,” he says, “My name is ‘I’m Too Old’ and my wife is advanced in years.”
What does the angel say instead of looking at Zacharias and saying: “Maybe you’re right. I’d better check the address. You don’t have to worry about bearing this child, the stork will deliver him”? The angel says: “Let me tell you who I am, Mr. Too Old. I am Gabriel. You don’t know who you are talking to. I’m not just a run-of-the-mill, everyday, rank-and-file angel. I’m Gabriel. I’m an archangel. My normal habitation is in the immediate presence of God, and it’s the Lord God Himself who sent me here with all of the power of His might and all of the might of His truth. Don’t tell me you’re too old. I’m Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you, to bring you this gospel, these glad tidings. But you don’t want to hear them, and you will pay a price for that, Zacharias.”
If you want to know what that price is, you’re going to have to wait until next Sunday morning. In the providence of God, if I live long enough, we’ll finish this passage—but not this morning.
Let us pray. Our Father, we see ourselves in the unbelief of this man. In spite of his spiritual life and his godly obedience, his faith fell apart when this announcement was given to him. How fragile is our own faith? How much do we deserve the same rebuke as Zacharias will receive from the angel? We thank Thee, O God, that Your truth is more powerful than our doubts, and that You always bring to pass those things that You say will come to pass. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.