George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(1) The Announcement of the Forerunner (Luke 1:5-25)

The hand of Herod bore down upon the land of Israel. He was a cunning and cruel man, sometimes scheming to extend his influence and at other times viciously cutting down those who blocked his path. All his great public works, such as the ongoing temple project, were not sufficient to erase from the minds of devout Jews the knowledge of his character and ancestry. He was an Idumean, or Edomite, the first Gentile to sit on the throne of Judah. For those who cared deeply for the fortunes of Zion it was a sad time.

Two in Israel who did care were the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah belonged to “the priestly division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5; 1 Chron. 24:10,19). Abijah was one of the 24 chief men among the Levites who had been appointed by David to manage, by rotation, the sanctuary of the LORD. The 24 divisions of priests were still operating under the same names a thousand years later.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had no special eminence. They were ordinary people, probably not very well-off, no different from many others, except (and it is a big “except” indeed!) they were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). This alone set them apart, in God’s eyes if not the eyes of an indifferent nation. They were special people whose names were enrolled in heaven. It is a simple lesson, but it bears repeating often: if we would be set apart from the millions of other ordinary folks around us, we must faithfully follow the ways of this old couple and walk blamelessly in God’s law.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had one great disappointment in life — they had no children, and Elizabeth was now past the normal age of childbearing. They had often prayed for a child (v. 13), but now it seemed impossible. However, finally, after all those years, their prayers were to be answered in an extraordinary way.

“Creatures of little power”

How awesome it is that the God of all creation makes His Own mighty purpose dependent upon the prayers of His people. And it is even more startling to realize that those people, more often than not, are like the coneys or rock badgers, “creatures of little power” (Prov. 30:26), of no consequence in the world’s affairs. Our little, faltering prayers can control the Hand that controls the world! The God who abases the mighty (as He would the wicked Herod) will also exalt the lowly who, like the coneys, make their houses in the Rock.

“Set forth like incense”

The priests of the various divisions or orders took duty in rotation, and those who were to perform particular duties were chosen by lot. One of the duties for which lots were cast was that of burning incense on the altar in the holy place. One special day this lot fell to Zechariah. By this time there were many priests in each order, perhaps thousands. Since a priest was prohibited from performing a duty the second time until all in his division had done so once, this was probably a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. As he was soon to retire from active duty, Zechariah must have thought the lot would never fall to him. How gratefully, then, was this important task undertaken by that righteous man!

The statement that “the whole multitude of the people were praying outside” (v. 10) implies that this was one of the great feast days. So an even more intense fervor must have sustained Zechariah as he entered the holy place. As he did so, did he meditate upon the spiritual significance of the incense he carried? Did he remember the words of David?:

“O LORD, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense...” (Psa. 141:1,2).

Did he have a fleeting thought of that oft-repeated but apparently unheard prayer for a child? Or had he now dismissed that desire from his heart, having “sensibly” concluded it was by now beyond hope?

The incense was placed on the coals of the altar — coals of fire which typify trial and suffering. What a vivid picture it is! The incense compounded of various precious ingredients, now brought into the presence of God, subjected to a fiery trial, by which its substance is changed and even “destroyed”, while the smoke of that sacrifice rises up to God as a sweet savor. How like the lives of the righteous, whose faith is perfected through their sufferings, whose prayers are made more fervent because of their trials, who please their Father by accepting and rejoicing in tribulations, knowing their prayers will be heard on high.

“I am Gabriel”

So it was for Zechariah. After long years when heaven must have seemed as hard and unyielding as brass, when the Most High made no response to the intense pleading of the childless couple, his trial long and faithfully endured was now bringing a favorable answer. Immediately a glorious angel appeared on the right side of the altar of incense (v. 11) — the side of acceptance and blessing! It was as though he had come out of the Most Holy Place, from the very presence of God. It was the last place in the world one would expect to encounter an intruder, and Zechariah was mystified. Then “he was startled and was gripped with fear” (v. 12).

But the angel reassured him:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (v. 13).

It was too good to be true, and still the angel continued. The child’s name was to be John. He would bring joy and gladness, and rejoicing at his birth. He would be great in the sight of God. He would be a Nazarite — one separated to a life of holiness and dedicated to the service to God! Possibly Zechariah remembered two great heroes of early days, both Nazarites, whose births were specially proclaimed by God: Samson, a mighty man of the wilderness whose exploits seriously troubled Israel’s Philistine overlords; and Samuel, who judged the nation and prepared the way for a righteous king of Judah. Would this child, not even conceived as yet, do such wondrous things? Only God knew.

There was still more. This child John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. He would turn many of Israel back to the Lord their God. He would go to the nation in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepare a people for the Lord.

Trembling, Zechariah listened intently. But the sayings of the angel went so far beyond anything that he had ever prayed for. How human it was to doubt! and he gave voice to those doubts:

“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (v. 18).

This called forth a rebuke:

“I am Gabriel [the very name conjures up Messianic visions]. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 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” (vv. 19,20).

Zechariah’s affliction of dumbness was more than a rebuke for a momentary lapse. It was a marvelous symbol of the end of an age. Zechariah could not now do the one thing especially expected of the priest at this particular time: pronounce the required blessing upon the waiting multitude. It was as if God were saying that from that day forward the priesthood of which Zechariah was a member could no longer mediate true blessings upon the nation. The end was in sight, a greater priest of a greater order was soon to appear, and the whole Mosaic system — having waxed old — was now almost ready to vanish away. Even Zechariah’s son, as he grew to manhood, would disdain the garments and duties of a priest and go out into the wilderness, as though to watch and wait for the Lord, who would come not out of the temple, but to the Temple (Mal. 3:1).

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (Luke 16:16).

The law was holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12); it had been given by angels to Moses, but its purpose was now fulfilled. Grace and truth would come by another (John 1:17). Zechariah’s son would go out into the desert of Judea to meet him.

The Children of the Barren Woman

The waiting crowd perceived that Zechariah had seen a vision. Had God broken His 400-year silence and once again spoken to His people? The question would be asked by many that night and in the days to come, as Zechariah’s tongue remained tied. Finally the day would come when the special child would be named and the dumb priest would open his mouth to utter a wonderful prophecy. And many would rejoice.

Zechariah returned to his home in the hills of Judea, and almost at once Elizabeth conceived. We can imagine her wonder as she sought to grasp the glorious significance of this visitation, first to her husband and then to herself. Perhaps she asked many questions that kept Zechariah busy writing answers, but there were some questions he could not answer. In the silence of that home, perhaps, the two reverent souls meditated upon the wondrous visitations to other barren women; how prominent they were in God’s plan! There was Sarah, who in her old age bore the child of promise. There was Rachel, who bore Joseph, the chief of Jacob’s sons; and Hannah, who prayed for a child and, when Samuel was born, true to her promise, gave him to the Lord. This child John was certainly a “child of promise”. Would he testify to his brethren, as had Joseph? Would he suffer, as had Joseph? Would he — the heart leaped at the prospect! — would he anoint the Messiah, the greater son of David, as Samuel, son of barren Hannah, had anointed David? The time was almost right, the seventy “sevens” or 490 years of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24) were nearing their end. Was God now about to comfort His people in their affliction, and provide a new Redeemer? And would the promised son have an honored part in this eternal drama?

These questions they could not answer. Yet the months of waiting were lightened by the possibilities. God had done such a wonderful thing already, and there would assuredly be greater wonders yet. The happy couple cast themselves upon the Lord, to see what He would do next. In a few months there would come a knock at the door, and an unexpected visitor would enter the silent home with tremendous news.

But that part of our story must wait until another time.

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