Week Two of our Bible study on the book of Luke has past. Yesterday we read about how John the Baptist’s birth was revealed to Zechariah in the Temple. This study was a delight to me…prior to this I hadn’t reflected much on John the Baptist or his ministry, but he was kind of a big deal. Obviously and with good reason he is overshadowed by Jesus. John the Baptist (JtB) even acknowledges that this must happen in John 3:30 when he says, “he must become greater, I must become less.”
JtB wasn’t just a nobody who fell into the shadows, he made a distinct impact on his generation. In fact, later in Luke we will read how Jesus uses JtB to stump the Pharisees in Luke 20. In that passage Jesus is confronted by the Priests and teachers of the law along with the elders and they ask Jesus “by what authority” he was preaching the gospel. Jesus’ response is “Tell me. John’s baptism, was it from heaven or from men?” JtB’s ministry had been so powerful, that these leaders were forced to give no answer. They did not believe JtB’s ministry was from heaven, but they didn’t want to get stoned by the crowds of people who had been impacted by JtB’s ministry specifically represented by the baptism of repentance. When your actions have caused the leaders of your nation to go mum at a simple question, you have had a great impact.
So, while JtB is rightfully followed by Jesus, JtB had been faithful to prepare the people of Israel for the ministry of Jesus as is foretold in our passage from this week.
The group was attended by Tim, Gary, Kristy and I. Tim is a friend of a friend from Boston. However, we no longer call him a friend of a friend, but are proud to claim him as our own friend. I met Gary at a prayer meeting in downtown Clearwater. God has given him a vision for some cool stuff, and I can’t wait to see what the Lord has in store for him. With two new folks in the group, our discussion last night started out much like last week’s in that we shared how we came to know Jesus as the Lord of our lives. It is always encouraging to see how God has been at work in the lives of others.
We started our study by reading the whole text, Luke 1:5-25, but for the purpose of this post, I will share it in segments as I walk through it:
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
The text starts out by giving us a frame of reference for when these things occurred by saying that this event took place “in the time of Herod the king of Judea.” Herod was king/governor of Judea from 37-4 BC, and it was likely that these events occurred near the end of Herod’s reign.
The first few verses give us some background on Zechariah and Elizabeth. We find out that they were both descendants of Aaron. A priest was not required to marry a woman who was also of the line of Aaron, but such a marriage was highly regarded. In addition to this the text indicates that they were “upright in the sight of God” and “blameless” in their observation of the Lord’s commandments. Zechariah and Elizabeth were doing everything right. They were faithful servants of God, BUT Elizabeth was barren and they were old. Such a situation reminds us of many similar instances in the Old Testament: Abraham & Sarah (Genesis 18:11), Manoah & his wife (Judges 13:2) and Elkanah & Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). We are conditioned to think that God would not allow “good people” like Zechariah and Elizabeth endure such hardship, but they grew old without the blessing of a child up until this point. Doing the right thing does not always result in enjoying easy circumstances. Often the opposite is true, but God has heard Zechariah & Elizabeth’s prayer.
We spent a good chunk of time talking about the next section of Scripture which frames up the specific setting of the passage, Zechariah at the Temple:
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
We discussed how at the time, there were estimated to be 18,000 priests of Zechariah’s position. Groups of priest served in rotations at the Temple. There were 24 divisions in the Davidic priesthood according to I Chronicles 24, and Zechariah was of the division of Abijah. Zechariah was chosen by lot to be the one to burn incense in the temple. The burning of incense in the temple occurred twice a day in the morning and in the evening. In the temple there are two rooms, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place is where the Ark of the Covenant resided and where the high priest would go annually on the Day of Atonement. The Holy Place is connected to the Most Holy Place but separated by a curtain. In the Holy place there are three things, the lampstand, the table of the bread of the presence and the altar of incense. Logically, the burning of incense occurred at the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-10) which stood just before the curtain which separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. Before I go on about the incense I must briefly point out something about the temple. The temple was constructed in such a way to symbolize a movement from earth and the visible heavens (temple court) to heaven (Holy Place) and finally to the very throne of God (Most Holy Place). Sacrifice after sacrifice was offered up each day on the bronze altar in the temple court. These sacrifices were burnt and naturally smoke would rise from them. So, when the incense was burnt on the altar of incense in the Holy place it symbolizes the continuation of the smoke of the sacrifices rising to God as a sweet aroma.
Without question, this day is a significant one for Zechariah, most priests only had one or two opportunities in a lifetime to perform this duty. Given that there were 18000 priests during his time, it would take 25 years for each to rotate through this responsibility. It is on this day, that the following occurs:
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous– to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
When Zechariah goes into the Holy Place, the angel of the Lord appears before him. Zechariah has been instructed on how to perform his duty on this day, but he was not prepared for an encounter with Gabriel. Needless to say he is scared. The word used for fear here doesn’t mean he was in awe of the angel, it means he was genuinely afraid. Despite the fact that Elizabeth is barren and they are old, Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son, John the Baptist. The things Gabriel tells Zechariah about JtB are pretty impressive…so, impressive that I will now reorganize them into a list for your review:
- JtB will be a joy and delight to Zechariah
- Many will rejoice at JtB’s birth
- JtB will be great in the sight of the Lord
- JtB will never drink wine or fermented drink
- JtB will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth
- JtB will bring many Israelites back to the Lord
- JtB will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah
- JtB will turn hearts of fathers to their children
- JtB will turn hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous
- JtB will make ready a people prepared for the Lord
Impressive list. It is clear from the list that JtB is going to be a prophet to the people of Israel. This is important because for 400 years there has been no prophet in Israel, and now the silence is going to be broken. John is a the transitional figure between Old Covenant life and the New Covenant we have in Jesus. By the example of his life he will call people to holiness in preparation for the ministry of Jesus. The most impressive statement on the list to me is that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. The last person to come into this world having such intimacy with God was probably Adam, and he kind of screwed that up. The only person after JtB to be born with the Spirit of God would be none other than Jesus.
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” 21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
Tim shared that it is crazy to think that someone could be so hardened by their circumstances that when an angel shows up and tells them their prayer will be answered, they respond by looking for a sign. And as we discussed that we talked about how we do the same thing in our prayer lives. We doubt the very prayers we pray will be answered by God. We have been given every assurance throughout the Bible that God does indeed listen to our prayers will take care of our needs, yet we ask for signs that it is still true. It is true because of what Jesus has done for us. Because Christ died to remove the stain of our sin, we can now place our trust for eternal life in Him. As a result of that relationship we have access to the very throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). No longer are our prayers communicated through a systemized symbolic priesthood. Rather, as Christians we are a royal priesthood (I Peter 2:9).
As a result of Zechariah’s doubt he is given a sign…probably not one that he wanted. Until JtB is born Zechariah will be deaf and mute. There are many people waiting for Zechariah when he comes out of the temple, which probably indicates that this was the evening session of the burning of incense. The evening ceremony was attended by many because it coincided with a time of prayer for the nation of Israel. It is also fitting that this event occurred during the time when prayers were being offered on behalf of Israel because JtB is clearly God’s answer to those prayers specifically. The crowd knew something was up because it was taking longer than usual for Zechariah to come out of the temple, and once he finally emerged it was clear to the crowd that Zechariah had seen a vision.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
The passage ends with Zechariah returning home and at some point after he returned Elizabeth became pregnant. During our discussion we talked through the question of why Elizabeth would go into seclusion. While Luke doesn’t explicitly give us a reason there are a couple of things make sense of this. First of all, given that Elizabeth was “well along in years,” our resident pregnancy expert Kristy pointed out to us guys that Elizabeth probably wanted to be sure that nothing went wrong with the pregnancy before sharing it with those around her. In addition to this, we will find out with next week’s passage (Luke 1:26-45) that Elizabeth’s pregnancy ends up serving as a sign to Mary of the things Gabriel will tell her.
This passage is really another great example in Scripture that God does in fact hear our prayers. He heard Zechariah & Elizabeth’s prayer. He probably did not answer it in the timing they hoped for, but His timing was perfect. As Jesus put it, “among those born of women there is no one greater than JtB” (Luke 7:28). God’s plan for us is better than we could imagine or orchestrate on our own. Though we may find ourselves in circumstances where it is difficult to cling to that truth, He is faithful.
This week in our community group we prayed for the following:
- Faith Christian Church in Clearwater
- First Baptist Church in Fordyce AR
We would love to have you join us next Wednesday as we study Luke 1:26-45. We will eat sandwiches together around 6:30pm and jump into our study after that. If you would like more information, email me at email@example.com.
Much of the background material I am talking about, I have learned through my reading of Daniel Bock’s commentary on Luke. My understanding of the significance of the temple has been greatly informed by the book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern S. Poythress…simply put, you should read this book.