Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

3. Zacharias and Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25)*

Zacharias the priest and his wife Elisabeth lived in a city in the hill-country of Judaea. Their home is usually identified as being Hebron (Josh. 21:11), the burial place of the patriarchs, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem, but another possible identification of their home (the reasons for which will emerge later) is Ramah, the home-town of the prophet Samuel, only a few miles north-west of Jerusalem.

Their pious lives are described by Luke with unrestrained enthusiasm, although normally he is very sparing of his encomiums: “They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” It was as though their lives were one long temple service. Luke’s phrasing echoes the words of Almighty God to childless Abraham: “Walk before me, and be thou perfect (LXX: blameless)” (Gen. 17:1).

By an impressive paradox, through these two the Law at its best was to produce one whose chief mission in life was to point away from the Law. John, the son of a priest, never served as a priest.

Paradoxically, too, these who by their piety seemed to deserve the richest blessings of the Law were denied children, its most commonplace endowment.

Elisabeth bore the name of Aaron’s own wife (Ex. 6:23) who was sister of the prince of Judah. Similarly in this much later generation there must have been a direct link with the royal family in the tribe of Judah, for Elisabeth and Mary were closely related. Perhaps Elisabeth’s mother, of the line of David, had married into a priestly family, as the first Elisabeth had done.

Naturally their childlessness was a cause of much grief of mind to this godly couple. They had prayed, doubtless with sustained fervour, that God would give them a son, as He had marvellously blessed Abraham and Sarah, but it seemed that the heavens were as brass. Their prayers ceased, and they resigned themselves to a lonely old age; like Abraham and Sarah they were now both “old.... well-stricken in days” (sww. Gen. 18:11 LXX).

Priestly Ambition

But there was no flagging in their dutiful service to God. At last the day came when Zacharias’ other great ambition was realised. In the time of which Luke writes the number of priests available for temple service had multiplied considerably (to more than 20,000, it is said) so that even though a different priest was selected each day for the high honour of going into the Holy Place to burn incense before the Lord at the time of the morning and evening sacrifice, some priests went all their days without this signal privilege ever coming their way.

The procedure followed was this. Each of the twenty-four courses of priests did a week’s service in the temple twice a year, but for the great feasts a much larger number of them were on duty. Each day lots were drawn for the three serving priests to enter the Holy Place. One was to remove all traces of the previous day’s incense-burning. Another was to carry in red-hot coals from the altar of burnt-offering and put them on the incense altar before the Veil. The third then followed alone to do the actual burning of incense, to offer a prayer, and then come forth and pronounce the priestly blessing on the worshippers in the court without.

The deep satisfaction of Zacharias when, late in life, this high privilege fell to him may be imagined. For many years he had longed for this opportunity, the consummation of all his pious devotion to the service of God. He had probably pondered the fact that his priestly course, that of Abiah, was the eighth, and that it was followed by the course of Jesus, and that in turn by the course of Shechaniah (= the dwelling or spiritual temple of the Lord; 1 Chr. 24:10,11).

It was all the more satisfying that this honour came at the time of one of the great feasts. This is implied by the description: “And the whole multitude of the people were without at the time of incense” (1:10). But which feast? The assumption that this was the Day of Atonement, if correct, would point to the end of December for the birth of Jesus. But Cyril of Alexandria (bishop: A.D. 312-344) says that his church observed April 23 as the date of the birth of John the Baptist. This would mean that the feast just mentioned was Pentecost, when the giving of the Law at Sinai was celebrated. The occasion would then chime in perfectly with Zacharias’s zeal for “all the commandments and ordinances”. Also, it is known that the course of Abiah was on duty at about that time of the year. And this would mean that the birth of Jesus took place in October, about the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.

With what holy fervour and awe did Zacharias fulfil his sacred task! How likely it is that, as he went about his solemn duty, he breathed a prayer for the coming of Messiah and for the redemption of Israel.

Gabriel and Answer to Prayer

No sooner was the incense sprinkled on the hot coals in his censer than there appeared a

glorious angel of the Lord, as though coming from the Holy of Holies, from the Lord’s right hand. Zacharias was mystified and very fearful. Did his mind go to the vision revealed to Amos when that prophet saw an angel of the Lord standing beside the altar with a fearful message of judgement upon Israel? (9:1-10).

But no! Not that meaning, for this was Gabriel, the angel of answered prayer. So Daniel’s experience had proved: “When I, even I Daniel, had seen the vision, and sought (by prayer?) for the meaning, then, behold, there stood before me as the appearance of a man (Heb: geber)...Gabri-el, make this man to understand the vision” (8:15,16).

And again: “Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel.... touched me about the time of the evening oblation.... At the beginning of thy supplication (Gabriel said) the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee” (9:21,23).

And again: “Fear not, Daniel (cp. Lk. 1:13): for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words” (10:12). And so also with Mary, as will be shown in Study 4, and with Jesus (Lk. 22:43,44) and Cornelius (Acts 10:30,31) - and Jeremiah? (32:16,18 - El Cibbor).

A little consideration would surely have brought reassurance to Zacharias, for the angel before him stood at the right side of the altar of incense, and always in Scripture God’s right hand is the side of acceptance and blessing.

A Gracious Message

The first words of Gabriel set all anxiety at rest: “Fear not, Zacharias! for thy prayer was heard.” This Greek aorist might suggest reference to an earlier prayer done and finished with some time before - the prayer for a son of his own. That was a prayer filed but not forgotten (cp. Acts 10:4). Now came the amazing answer. As the birth of Isaac became a sign to Abraham that the promise was at last beginning to be fulfilled, so also now. “Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou (v.60) shalt call his name John (the grace or gift or forgiveness of Jehovah)”. More than this, he would be a son to be proud of: “thou shalt have joy and gladness”. His work would be such as the true people of God give thanks for: “many shall rejoice at his birth.”

The character of this child’s mission was now expounded with an enthusiasm which the angel could not disguise: “He shall be great in the sight of the lord” (cp v. 32; Mt.11:11) - is there any other in Scripture besides the Messiah to whom such language is applied? The greatness would not be what the world calls greatness, but a personal dedication to God and a converting mission in Israel (according to Old Testament prophecy) to prepare Israel for the manifestation of their Messiah.

The Nazirite vow was designed to consecrate a man specially to God’s service by re-enacting in him certain outstanding characteristics of the High Priest. 1. No wine or strong drink. (Lev. 10:8-11). 2. No contact with the dead (Lev. 21:1,5). 3. Wearing the crown (nezer) of his God (unshorn hair; Ex. 28:36-38).

But why should this son of promise be a Nazirite? Because he, the son of an ordinary priest, was to be greater than any high priest.

Also, this turns out to be only one of a number of resemblances to the prophet Samuel:

  1. “The Lord grant thee thy petition”, said Eli to Hannah; cp. Gabriel’s words to Zacharias (1:13).
  2. “Joy and gladness” regarding John (1:14) echoes 1 Samuel2:1: “exult....rejoice”,
  3. Samuel and John were both born at Ramah.
  4. The name John is now accounted for — it is really Johanan, the name Hannah with the divine Name prefixed.
  5. A time of “no vision published abroad” (3:1) has its counterpart in a priest who can neither hear the Word of the Lord nor impart it (1:64).
  6. So of course Samuel the Nazirite (1:11) is followed by John the Nazirite (1:15; and consider Jer. 23:9; Acts2: 13-17).
Prophet of Repentance

Nevertheless an even greater work lay before John — to bring Israel to repentance. This commission was expressed in terms of Malachi’s unique enigmatic idiom: “He shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers (the disobedient to the wisdom of the just)” (Mal.4i6). The guesses at precise interpretation of these words have been many and varied. Here are a few:

This great work, the main idea of which is clear enough, was to make the child a herald of the Messiah. As Elijah ran before the chariot of the king (1 Kgs 18:46), so John would “go before him (Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elias” — not with miraculous power such as Elijah exercised, for “John did no miracle” (Jn.10: 41), but with a power of divine inspiration in his message such as no one would be disposed to question. Tishbite means “the converter”. John was to be Elijah even as Jesus will one day be David. (Ez. 37:24,25).

Although that Malachi prophecy still awaits full-filment (Mt.17: 11 — future tense), it also had reference to the mission of the son of Zacharias.

In due time John’s stern authoritative message swept through the nation like a prairie fire. With reference to this Jesus himself used the figure of a house swept and tidied, ready for its new occupant (Lk. 11:24-26). But when the rightful Owner came to his own, his own received him not. So the last state of that house became worse than the first, and consequently, in the words of Malachi, the Land was smitten with a ban (RVm), a ban which lasted for nearly two milleniums.

But this is hindsight. The work of this child of promise lay before him, outlined in memorable words in the mind of his father. And there was also the promise that he should not lack the power to succeed: “he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15) — not an immature infant pouring forth words of precocious heavenly wisdom in his mother’s kitchen (commonsense is sufficient safeguard against any such extravagance); but, as Jeremiah was sanctified before he came forth from the womb (1:5), and as Paul was separated from birth (Gal. 1:15) to be a revealer of Christ, even though a blasphemer first, so also from his foetal quickening (v. 41) this infant John was to be marked out, educated and equipped by God for his great task of preparing the way of the Lord by preparing a people.


What could satisfy the spiritual aspirations of a good father more than this? Zacharias should have been incoherent with gladness and deep deep satisfaction. But there is no man in whom faith does not have its limitations. So he hesitated, and then put a request at once natural, reprehensible, and superfluous:

“Whereby shall I know this? For....” These were the very words used by Abraham when bidden believe himself the father of a seed as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:8); and they were almost the words of Mary when Gabriel came to her with a like but even better message (v. 34). But there must have been a world of difference in the spirit of Zacharios’s “Yes but —” Did he argue back with the angel, the brevity and conciseness of the record doing him a kindness here? How else is one to explain Gabriel’s sudden switch to curtness, and the summary affliction which descended on the old priest? Evidently much more was said than is included in Luke’s narrative here, for “the people. . . marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple;” yet verses 12-20 need not have taken up more than two minutes.

Gabriel’s austere application of discipline is not without its present eloquent summary of what was to befall the nation. As Zacharias disbelieved the message about John, so they in turn disbelieved the coming of the Messiah. So a divinely judicial dumbness and deafness (v. 62) in all spiritual things descended on them. Since then they have been unable to bring any spiritual blessing to the rest of the world, and this will so continue until the day when they recognise the gracious gift and forgiveness of God in the One whom formerly they disbelieved.

Examples of gospel symbolism and parable similar to this recur constantly right through the gospel, so that the student is bidden to ask himself: Did Luke see these heavenly patterns in the traditions he gathered, and did he write them accordingly? Or is this a better evidence than any other of an over-ruling Guidance at work to demonstrate that God is in history and that God’s history repeats itself?

The angel’s rebuke was couched in terms marvellously apt for one who was certainly a devout student of the Holy Scriptures: “I am Gabriel that stand in the presence of God. . . thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak. . .because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in due season.” Were the words alluded to those which Gabriel spoke concerning Elisabeth, or those which he had spoken to Daniel centuries earlier — the seventy “weeks” prophecy (9:24-27) which words were now to be fulfilled “unto their measured time”?

Whilst this protracted encounter was in progress, the great crowd of worshippers in the court of the temple grew uneasy and restless. What could have befallen the priest? The instructions to priests on duty were that they must always be as expeditious as was seemly when in the Holy Place. So the minds of all were prepared for something abnormal. Had he been struck dead as one unworthy of his office?

It was soon evident, when at last the priest appeared, that he had had some awe-inspiring experience. Unable to say a word, he had to have recourse to signs and gestures. The guess was quickly made that he had seen a vision.

Did any of the people ruminate on the untoward fact that this day the Law and the Temple were unable to impart a blessing on them? “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached.”


It is an eloquent tribute to the punctilious dutiful spirit of Zacharias that although now both deaf and dumb (1:62), and therefore for most purposes useless in temple service (Lev. 21:17), he still continued in Jerusalem, doubtless finding other simple duties within his competence, and doubtless writing down a detailed account of what had transpired in the Holy Place. Only when “the days of his ministration were accomplished” did he return home.

And as the angel had foretold, so it came to pass.

The aged Elisabeth quietly rejoiced, marvelling at her impending motherhood: “Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days when he looked upon me, to take away my reproach among men.” Not inappropriately she quoted the words of Rachel who would fain have the Lord add another son (Gen. 30:23); but in this case Elisabeth looked to the birth of Jesus.

But Isaiah also was in her devout thinking: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud (and she did; Lk. 1:42), thou that didst not travail with child... thou shalt not remember (=Zacharias) the reproach of thy widowhood any more” (Is. 54:1,4).

To ensure her son’s true Nazirite-ness Elisabeth “hid herself” from all social contact, possibly by taking on some temple duties (cp. Lk. 2:36); this with the intention, like that of the mother of Samson (Jd. 13:5-17), of preserving her baby from any kind of defilement. This went on right up to the time of the birth of the child. Luke mentions the first five months, as covering by faith the initial period, for until “the babe leapt in her womb” (1:41) she had no certain means of knowing herself to be pregnant.

Notes: Luke 1:5-25

Luke’s most classical Greek (v. 1-4) is followed by the most Hebraistic of all his writing. So perhaps v. 1-4 was meant as a kind of accompanying letter to his gospel - as 1 Jn was an accompanying letter to John’s gospel.

Zacharias. The prophecy of Zechariah (same name) is followed by Malachi, the book of John the Baptist (3: 1; 4: 5,6).
Well stricken in years. This did not disqualify from priesthood as long as there was physical fitness. Num. 8: 25 was deemed to apply to Levites.
Incense. Ps. 141: 2.
Right hand. Consider Gen. 48: 11; Ez. 4: 4; Josh. 8: 30-35 (the sanctuary faced east); Lev. 1: 11. And in the NT: Rev. 5: 7; 10: 1; Mt. 25: 33.
Joy and gladness. The identical words (in LXX) come in Zech. 8:19, where note the rest of the paragraph, “him that is a Jew” being Jesus.
From his mother’s womb. Cp. the Messiah; ls.49: 1 (contrast Israel; 48: 8); Ps.22: 9,10.
Many. Contrast Ps. 110: 3: all of them.

To the Lord. Gk. implies “in dependence on”.
Before him. Grammatically, the antecedent is “God”. Explain as anticipating “the Lord” (end of verse), or as divine title appropriate to God’s representative; cp. Jn. 10: 34,35; 20: 28.

Prepared. The same word, with a negative, comes in Gen. 1:2 LXX.
Dumb. Since the two so often go together, this Gk. word is also used for “deaf” (as in Is. 35: 6,5; 43: 8 LXX); note v. 62.

Not able to speak. Gk. aorist implies “not a word” (contrast Gen. 18: 12; why?). Where men are without faith the Law has nothing to say to them, no divine blessing. But (v. 43,44) when there is faith, the Law is quickened into new life; cp. Mt. 13: 52.
Vision. This Gk. word does not imply unreality; Lk. 24: 23; Acts 26: 19 s.w.

Speechless. He had asked for a sign, and now he had it!

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