Oct 30, 2011

The Angel & Zacharias (Part 3)

Luke 1:18–25

Because Zacharias expressed doubt in God’s promise, he was rendered silent until the promise was fulfilled. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke to address the serious consequences of unbelief.


The reading this morning is Luke 1:18–25. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

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 people.”

It has been our unspeakable privilege to have just heard a word from God Himself, given by the superintendence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Hear this word, hold it in your heart, for it is sacred and able to make you complete as men and women of God. Please be seated.

Let us pray. Now, our Father, as we consider these things that are recorded in this passage for our edification, we pray that You will open our eyes and hearts to the truth that is found in it, and that the truth may cut into our very souls to change us from unbelief to belief in Your sacred Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Struggle of Zacharias

Don’t be alarmed—I’m not going to go back to the very beginning of this passage and start all over with what we’ve covered in two previous sessions. I do, however, want to look back at one thing early on in Luke 1, beginning in verse 6. There it describes Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, as both being righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.

Up until this point in his ministry, God had been pleased with the singular posture of obedience and righteousness displayed by this man, Zacharias. In fact, Scripture describes him as having been “blameless.” That’s a little bit of hyperbole. If we look at it very carefully under a microscope, we’ll certainly find something in this man that was blame-worthy. In general, however, his character was one that was blameless.

Zacharias’ streak of blamelessness comes to an abrupt halt in the Holy Place, when he is visited by the angel. The angel announces to him that he and his wife are going to have a child who will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Suddenly, Zacharias struggles with his faith, and he says to the angel, “I am an old man.” There’s irony in this if you read it in the Greek because the literal translation of the words is, “I am a Presbyterian,” or, “I am an elder.” I guess struggling with authentic faith is characteristic of Presbyterians, and the son who would be born to Zacharias would be known through all the generations as John the Presbyterian.

Zacharias says to the angel, “I am an old man, and my wife is beyond the years of childbearing.” His faith is now disintegrating in the light of this astonishing announcement given to him by the angel.

The angel’s response to Zacharias, who says, “I am an old man,” is: “Yes, and I’m Gabriel. What’s your point? I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent here to proclaim good tidings to you.” The language of the New Testament at this point is significant because Gabriel uses the same language that the New Testament to describe Apostles. Gabriel is saying, literally: “I am an Apostle commissioned and sent by the authority of God Himself. So, the Word I am proclaiming to you here, Zacharias, is not my message; it is God’s Word.”

Gabriel goes on to tell Zacharias that the message he has been sent to proclaim is one of “glad tidings.” In the Greek, this is the same word for the proclamation of the gospel. He’s saying, “God has sent me to proclaim the gospel to you, Zacharias, and yet you are a priest who tells me you are too old to believe it!”

Do you know how many people there are in this world who, to this day, are saying they are too old to believe the gospel that God declares? They say: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. My life has been marked by unbelief since childhood, and I’m not going to be one of those who becomes a foxhole Christian or experiences a deathbed conversion. I’m too old for that.”

The Egregious Sin of Unbelief

I want us to see the response of God’s ambassador, God’s authorized messenger, to Zacharias’s doubt. Let’s look at the text again: “I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings (that is, this gospel), 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.”

There are consequences to unbelief. Gabriel is saying, “Though you were known as righteous and devout and blameless, now I’m going to take away your ability to speak because of your unbelief.” So, Gabriel administers a judgment of God upon this supposedly righteous man for his unbelief.

I don’t think we take seriously enough the sinfulness of unbelief. We have a tendency in our culture, even in the church, to think that belief in Christ and trusting in the things of God are optional. They don’t carry any dire consequences if we dismiss them. We need to understand, however, that unbelief in the Word of God is sin. Not only is it sin, but it’s an egregious sin. Not only is it an egregious sin, but it is a sin that has eternal consequences.

To Some, Mercy; To Others, Justice

There are many dimensions of theology related to the problem that we face in this text with Zacharias. Let me begin by asking, Why does God punish Zacharias for his struggle when He didn’t punish Abraham, for example, in the Old Testament?

God said to Abram, “Abram, I’m your great reward and your shield.” Abram responded: “Reward? What are you going to give me? I don’t have any children, and my heir is my servant, Eliezer of Damascus.” God said, “No, Eliezer will not be your heir, but you are going to bring forth a child, and your wife is going to conceive.” What happened? In Genesis 15 we read, “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him to righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This was the first clear example of a man being justified by faith alone, the cardinal issue of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

Paul labors the point that before Abraham offered up Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22, he had already been counted righteous before God in Genesis 15. As soon as faith was born in his soul, he was justified. He didn’t have to have faith plus works in order to be justified, but faith alone was all that was necessary for Abraham to have righteousness imputed to him. The only righteousness that could have been imputed to him was the righteousness of Christ, who was not even yet born.

Even after Abraham’s marvelous profession of faith by which he was justified, he staggered for a moment and said, “But how can I know for sure?” Abraham had saving faith such that he had the righteousness of Christ imputed to him and his salvation guaranteed, yet there was still an element of doubt in his heart.

God went to elaborate measures to convince Abraham that His Word could be trusted, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of judgment given to Abraham for wanting to have the Word of God confirmed. As was the case with Hezekiah and as was the case with Gideon and his fleece, we see people throughout Scripture who hear the Word of God and stagger in unbelief, and then God is patient with them, forbearing, tender, and kind.

Now, all of a sudden, here is a priest who has been told something equally astonishing as that which had been told to Abraham, and he struggles with believing it. Yet instead of having a covenant ratified with him like God did for Abraham, or a fleece answered like He did for Gideon, He said, “You’re not going to be able to speak one word until this prophecy is fulfilled, because of your unbelief.”

That doesn’t sound fair, does it? Why would God punish Zacharias and not punish Abraham? Very simple. Abraham got mercy. Zacharias got justice. Once again, we see that God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and be gracious to whom He will be gracious. Because He gives grace to one, and then again to another, and to another for the same thing, does not mean that we can then assume that He will be ever so gracious to everyone else who commits the same sin. No, sometimes God says, “Stop right here—that’s enough.”

Limited Atonement

In the Bible, there are two ways that people die. They either die in faith, or they die in their sin. If you die in your sin, in unbelief, it is too late. The judgment of God will be upon you, not simply for a few months as it was for Zacharias, but forever.

One of the doctrines that we struggle with in the church, particularly in Reformed theology, is an integral part of the famous acrostic, TULIP. It stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Many of our evangelical brothers and sisters embrace TUIP. They will affirm the T, the U, the I, and the P, but they knock the L out of TULIP. The L stands for limited atonement.

It’s amazing to me how much controversy ensues over this point of historically-formed theology. People say: “How can you say that the atonement of Jesus Christ is limited? Doesn’t the Bible say that He died for the whole world? Are you saying that Jesus’ atoning death is not sufficient to save everybody in the world?”

The same people who critique limited atonement also say that not everybody in the world is saved. Why isn’t everybody in the world saved? Well, a necessary condition to be saved by the atoning death of Jesus Christ is to have faith in Jesus Christ. If you have no faith in Jesus Christ, the atoning death of Christ only exacerbates your guilt before God and will do nothing to alleviate it because you have rejected the perfect sacrifice that was offered once for all.

Think about this for a minute, friends. If Jesus, on the cross, died for every sin of every person who ever lived, and made atonement for every sin of every person who ever lived, how can you therefore resist the conclusion of universalism? If Jesus died for every sin of every person, there is nothing left for God to punish. Everybody would be saved because every sin has already been atoned for.

The atonement of Christ is made only for those who believe. In that sense, the efficacy of that atonement is limited. It is limited to believers. Jesus didn’t die for everybody. He died for believers. You can take it to the next step if you want; I do, without hesitation. He died for the elect. Everyone for whom He died, everyone for whom He made an atonement, has their sins forgiven forever. This was not an afterthought in the economy of God’s plan of salvation. From all eternity, God had planned to send His Son into the world to atone for the sins of His people.

The reason I get into limited atonement is not because it’s Reformation Sunday—that would be reason enough—but because I want us to see how important unbelief is as a sin. We have the tendency to think, “If I don’t believe it and I’m not persuaded, I may be wrong, but at the worst it’s an error in judgment.” No. What made it so serious that Zacharias didn’t believe this message?

Assaulting the Integrity of the Almighty

When I was a kid, if I was insulted by somebody and I came home because my feelings were hurt and I was crying, my mother would wipe my tears, and I’d say, “Richard Haines said this about me.” Then she would say, “Consider the source.” I didn’t know what that meant, but she’d always say, “Consider the source.”

My mother meant that when somebody says something, the credibility of what they say is directly related to the credibility and character of the person making the statement. That’s why, in a court of law, we want to have witnesses who are credible. It’s one thing for me not to believe everything you tell me because I have had much experience in my lifetime where people have lied to me. But when was the last time that God lied to you? When I don’t believe what God says, I am assaulting the very integrity of the Almighty.

My unbelief is an accusation against God Himself. It’s saying, “God, I can’t trust what You say.” That’s why the issue of the source of Gabriel’s announcement is so central to this passage. Zacharias says, “I’m an old man, and my wife is beyond the age of bearing children.”

“And I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and it was God who sent me to announce these things to you. I am not speaking on my own authority, Zacharias. I’m speaking the Word of God.” To not believe the Word of God is to sin.

The Sole Instrument of Justification

To believe in God—and not just to believe in God, but to believe God—is at the very essence of what it means to be a Christian person. Back in the Old Testament, the prophet Habakkuk made the comment, “The just shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). We can translate it, “The righteous shall live by trust.”

It’s not by accident that Habakkuk’s statement is repeated three times in the New Testament, not the least of which is in Paul’s thematic statement of the doctrine of justification in the first chapter of Romans. It’s not by accident that, in the sixteenth century, this was the core issue between Rome on one side and Luther and the Reformers on the other.

To be just is to live by faith. To be righteous is to be righteous by faith. It’s why the Reformers called faith the sole instrument of our justification. It’s not faith plus something else. Trusting the Word of God and trusting in God alone for your salvation is the only way anybody can ever be saved.

The converse is true, that if the just lived by faith, what do the unjust live by? By unbelief. Which are you? Just or unjust? Your unbelief, dear friend, cannot be justified. It is an unjust slander against the One who is the fountain of all truth.

Faith, Not Credulity

One of the things that distresses me greatly in our culture, in the media, television, newspapers, or novels is when I hear statements like this: the scientist gave his reason, and the minister gave his faith. Have you heard that kind of disjunction? The idea is that faith is confused with credulity. Credulity is an unreasoned faith. Credulity is an irrational faith.

I hear Christians say, “All you have to do is take a leap of faith.” A leap of faith? What do you mean, a leap of faith? They’ll say: “It’s not reasonable to believe in the claims of Jesus Christ. It’s not reasonable to believe in the Word of God. Those things are irrational, and if you are going to be a rational, scientific person and still be a Christian, you have to take a leap of faith.”

The idea is that you close your eyes, you hold your breath, you hold your nose, and you jump into the darkness and hope Jesus will catch you. That’s an insult to the Spirit of God. The Bible never tells you to jump into the darkness. It tells you, every day, to jump out of the darkness and into the light.

Augustine labored the difference between faith and credulity. Credulity is the person who just believes anything anybody tells them, for no reason at all. But faith, authentic faith, biblical faith, is grounded in the trustworthiness of God Himself. Nothing could me more unreasonable or irrational than to doubt a word that comes from God.

God Said It, That Settles It

I often see these bumper stickers: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” That makes me cringe. I want to go with an eraser or a marking pen and cross out the middle premise. If God said it, it’s settled. God does not need your agreement for His Word to be true. I can disbelieve everything God has ever said, and all that does is make me a fool and a sinner that cannot contradict the trustworthiness of God Himself.

Do you see what this angel was saying to Zacharias? “Tell me your story, Zacharias. You are too old? Your wife’s too old? I stand in the presence of God, and God told me to tell you that you are going to have this son. I heard God say that. He told me to tell you, but you have some contrary evidence to give me—your age and your wife’s age—and I’m supposed to discount the truthfulness of the Word of the One who sent me because of how old you are? Are you out of your mind?”

Zacharias’ problem wasn’t an intellectual problem; it was a moral one. The reason for Zacharias’ doubt was his abiding sin. The reason we doubt the Word of God is not because His Word is unbelievable or incredible, but because we project upon God the untrustworthiness that describes our own condition.

Let every man be a liar, but God’s Word is true. Gabriel said: “When God speaks, if you don’t want to believe it, Zacharias, then fine, you’re not going to speak. While you are silent, while you are mute, while you keep your mouth shut, you will have some time to think, in that silence, about what you have just said about the Word of God.”

The just shall live by faith. Jesus said, “By every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father, there is no justification for denying the Word of God—not your age, not your culture, not your profession—nothing.” If God says it, it’s settled.

How Do You Respond?

In that instant, Zacharias’s lips were closed. He staggered out into the outer court, and the people who were waiting for him to appear couldn’t believe what was taking him so long. Characteristically, the priest would go in, burn incense on the altar, and leave as fast as he could lest he profane that holy space. Zacharias had been in there way too long. They wondered if he had died.

He came out and they saw him, and they wanted an explanation. He tried to tell them, but nothing came out of his mouth. This is the first recorded activity of a mime in the New Testament. Zacharias was gesturing, trying to communicate what he saw. The people figured he had seen a vision.

So, Zacharias went home, and Elizabeth became pregnant and went into seclusion until her days would be fulfilled. How do you respond to the Word of God? Justly or unjustly? Those are the only two options.

Let us pray. Father, our God, we thank You that You give us eyes to see and ears to hear even those things that we struggle with because, in our fallenness, we don’t want to have You in our thinking. We will flee to every excuse we can imagine to escape the force and power of Your Word. Forgive us this day for the sin of unbelief, and, by Your grace, help our unbelief. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.