By Andrew E. Courtis
Our plans and timing do not always work out. Have you ever been at the right place at the wrong time? Or the wrong place at the right time? We can work everything out, we can think it is right, and then something else happens and frustrates or changes our plans. Something we can all relate to.
Unlike us, God’s timing and planning is always perfect. We won’t always understand how, but we need to know that it is. God’s perfect timing is illustrated in Luke 1:5-25. In this passage we learn that in God’s perfect timing, preparation was being made for the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. This comes by means ofan old priest’s encounter with an angel. In this encounter, the angel announces to the elderly priest that he and his barren wife will have a child. This child will be a proclaimer of God’s Word and he will prepare the way for the Messiah. This occurs in fulfilment of prophecy and it takes place after 400 years in which there has been no prophet of the Lord in the land. This period of time is called the 400 years of silence.
The events in this passage take place “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (1:5a). Herod the Great was a wealthy and powerful leader, but he was an insecure individual. He didn’t like being unpopular so he did what he could to prevent and silence protestors (he had over 2000 soldiers function as his bodyguards), and to please people. He spent large amounts of money on his many building projects and he has been referred to as "the greatest builder in Jewish history”. He tried to appeal to those in the Jewish religion and he did what he could to appeal to Gentiles. Herod can be summed up as a brash, boastful, and brutal leader. When he died his kingdom was divided among his three sons - Archelus, Antipas, and Philip II. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee, and we he was the one who had John the Baptist murdered.
1. THE COUPLE’S GODLINESS (1:5-7)
It was at the time of Herod the Great’s reign that we learn about a godly elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest “of the division of Abijah” and Elizabeth was from the the daughters of Aaron. The priests in Israel were divided into 24 divisions (Abijah was the 8th of the 24, cf. 1 Chron. 24:10) and it has been estimated that there were around 18,000 priests in Israel during this time.
This elderly couple were described as being “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6). They were by no means perfect, which is illustrated by Zechariah’s unbelief later on, but they were a couple that loved God and served him faithfully in all that they did. This couple carried the particular sorrow of being childless and now that they were “advanced in years”, meaning that it was no longer a natural possibility for them to have children (1:7). To be without children would have been a struggle for them, and in that culture it was something that brought shame to Elizabeth (cf. 1:25). Her condition of course was not a reflection of any sinfulness on their part, but was actually a part of God’s plan which we will see shortly.
This couple provides us with an example of two individuals, who despite their struggles and even mistreatment from others, faithfully and diligently served the Lord. Things around us may not be working out the way we desire, but this ought not to change our responsibility in pursuing godliness. In the midst of their hardship, Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be “righteous” and “blameless”.
2. THE CHILD’S GREATNESS (1:8-17)
We now move from the couple’s godliness to the child’s greatness. As mentioned earlier, there we around 18,000 priests serving in Israel and they were divided into 24 divisions. Because of this large number, the opportunity to perform specific duties in the temple on behalf of the people were limited. One of those tasks was the offering of incense of the altar in the holy place of the temple. This task was a once in a life time opportunity for those who got chosen. The choice of who would do this did not come by vote, but rather by the casting of lots. To be chosen was truly the high point of their priestly ministry. Luke records,
“Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (1:8-9).
At this precise moment in his life, Zachariah’s opportunity had come. This truly is such a privilege for a priest. Now while he was faithfully going about his task of service and the people were outside praying, “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense” (1:11). There is no surprise as to how Zechariah responded to this. Luke writes, “Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him” (1:12). This was not an usual occurrence, especially given the fact that for the last 400 years God had not sent any prophets to the people of Israel. The angel tells him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (1:13). Zechariah’s prayer likely included a petition to God for salvation in Israel and for a child.
The angel then tells him that they will experience joy and gladness (1:14). This will occur because of the wonderful news of having a child, but also because of what the child will do. The angel goes on to say that this child “will be great before the Lord” (1:15). This is amazing. While there was a King in Israel who was brash, boastful, and brutal called Herod the Great, the reality is that someone who was truly great was going to be born. Now when the world saw John, they saw a mad man, or someone who was considered extreme. But Jesus said “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). God had a view of John that was different to what the world saw.
John’s greatness had nothing to do with political influence, national expansion or wealth like Herod the Great. John’s greatness was seen in the character of a man that proclaimed God’s Word. Later on when he grows up he preaches repentance and announces to the world the arrival of the Messiah (John 1:29). He was a bold preacher of God’s Word. He even called Herod Antipas out for his sexual immorality, and this led to John’s death. What we learn here is that true greatness does not come from the world’s opinion, but rather from God’s opinion. The world is seeking greatness, but if this is separated from what God calls great it is worthless. The angel went on to say that John is to abstain from alcohol and that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb” (1:15). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of a person being born again before they were born. His mission and manner are described as follows,
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared” (1:16-17).
This child will be the mouthpiece that breaks the 400 years of silence and proclaims a message that prepares the way for the coming Messiah. This was always a part of God’s plan and He revealed this through the prophet Malachi over 400 years earlier (Mal. 4:1-5).
So when we think of John, let us be reminded that there is a true greatness, and it has nothing to do with what world leaders promise or boast of. True greatness is present when a life is lived in obedience to the Word of God.
3. THE CREATOR’S GRACE (1:18-25)
The last section of this passage reveals to us the Creator’s grace. After Zachariah received this incredible news, he responded with unbelief. He said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (1:18). Just like Abraham and Sarah of old, this news didn’t fit what Zechariah saw as reality. I love the angel’s response, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (1:19). Gabriel (cf. Daniel 8:16, 9:21) has the specific and special role of standing in the presence of God. It is there he received this news and he was commissioned to announce it to Zechariah. Such an answer would make you feel very small! The rest of the passage reveals God’s grace toward this couple. It comes in the form of discipline and delight.
The Discipline of Grace
Zechariah wanted a sign that this will happen, and the sign he was given was that he will be made mute and possibly deaf (cf. 1:62-63) for the whole duration of the pregnancy. This was a practical way of teaching him the importance of questioning God’s promises. So though this was a rebuke, it was also gracious. This is the discipline of grace. All this time, the people were outside wondering what is taking Zechariah so long. Once the priest had finished these duties, he would go outside and pray the benediction. Was he delayed because of the nation’s sin? Did Zechariah do something wrong and God struck him down? Who knows what the thoughts running through the crowds minds were. Finally when he does come out he “was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute” (1:22). This is an amazing moment in the nation’s history. Silence has been broken, but the priest can’t speak. We will do well to be silent and still, and ponder on God’s grace.
The Delight of Grace
After he fulfilled his priestly services he went home. Here the grace of God is also seen in the delight both Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced. After he got home, it was just as God had promised through the angel. Elizabeth conceived. Zechariah would not have been able to fully convey to his wife what was going on, but the grace of God was being experienced with much delight. Remember, the child’s name will be John, and John means “the Lord is gracious”. Luke then tells us that “for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people’” (1:24-25). Her reproach was gone and this was all by the grace of God.
God is gracious. His grace at times will come in the form of discipline, and though it will be hard for us to understand, it is for our good. But God’s grace also comes in the form of experiential delight. This is something we are to enjoy and celebrate.
This narrative reminds us that God’s sovereign plan is unfolding and He fulfils His purposes in His perfect timing. God promised that He would be sending the Messiah into the world, which would follow the arrival of the one who prepares the way. This forerunner of the Messiah was John the Baptist.
What does this mean for us? Firstly, we are to rejoice in the fact that these things happened just as God said it would. This passage reminds us that God is in control. Also, what this means for us is that we ought to go about our daily tasks of service and honour Him, even in the small behind the scenes things. We are to take seriously His promises and submit to His Word. We are to praise Him for His daily grace and know and understand, that each day we have is a privilege to be a part of His sovereign plan.