When the Old Testament prophecy was closed in the day of Malachi some four hundred years before Christ, the prophet had foretold to the people of Israel the coming of two persons. One was the Lord—His name would be Jesus, the promised Messiah. The other was the messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord. His name would be John.
The gospel of Luke begins by telling us how the hope of Israel was finally being realized. The ancient promises were at long last going to be fulfilled.
In the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel we have the delicate blending of these two threads: the promise and birth of the messenger, and the promise and birth of the Messiah. Beautifully they are interwoven as angels announce their imminent births, as the two prospective mothers meet, and as Luke records the Song of Mary and the Song of Zechariah. By beginning his gospel this way, Luke declares that God has renewed His work among His people. His plan is again being taken up in a very direct, very active way. No longer will God be silent.
Herod the Great
The scene is set before us. It was the time of Herod, king of Judea. We so easily read over that, don’t we? We have read these words so often that we fail to understand the significance of them and what they meant to the people of Israel.
This is Herod the Great. He was an Idumean. That means that he was not a descendant of Jacob. His ancestry could be traced back to Esau. He was not a true Jew. Sometime between the Old Testament and the New Testament his ancestors were conquered by the Maccabees. They had been forced to adopt a nominal Judaism. The truth of the matter remained however—Herod was, pure and simple, a descendant of Esau.
Remember what the Bible tells us in Genesis? Esau hated Jacob. That hatred lasted across the centuries. It still exists today. Who is it that does not want to recognize Israel as a country? It is the descendants of Esau. Why is there so much unrest in the Middle East? It is because the descendants of Esau hate the descendants of Jacob.
Here is another interesting fact: when the twins were born, Esau was born first. And yet the prophecy God had given Rebekah was, “The older will serve the younger.” Esau is the older; Jacob is the younger. According to the prophecy, Esau is supposed to be serving Jacob. However, when the events in the Gospel of Luke are taking place, the line of Jacob is serving the line of Esau.
“It was in the time of Herod, king of Judea . . .” The Israelites had not had a king since their captivity hundreds of years before this. And now, the Land of Promise is ruled by a son of Edom, a descendant of Esau. Truly the scepter had departed from Judah.
Besides that, although he is called Herod the Great, he really was not all that great. Certainly had rebuilt and enlarged the temple. But he had also built other temples—temples for other gods, the gods of the Gentiles. And because he built them for the Gentiles, the land promised to Israel was swarming with Gentiles just as in the days of Joshua when they first entered the Promised Land.
Another thing Herod the Great had done was appoint Annas and Caiaphas as priests in the temple of the Lord. It was Caiaphas, the high priest, who condemned Jesus to death. But before we even get to that, imagine the humiliation of Israel. A child of Esau had appointed priests to serve in the temple. No wonder the religion of the day had become filled with formalism, and true spirituality seemed have disappeared completely.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
And yet there were some in whose hearts the ancient fire still burned. Luke 1 tells us of two such people: a husband and wife named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both of them came from the priestly line of Aaron. Both were active in service to the Lord. The only cloud over their happy life together was that they were without children. In the ancient Hebrew culture, being without a child was considered a disgrace and often was viewed as punishment from God.
Even so, in their work and in their lives this elderly couple sought to bring glory to God’s name. Even their names represent looking to the promises of God. Zechariah means “Jehovah remembers.” Elizabeth means “Jehovah is faithful.” Surely God is faithful. He would remember the promises that He gives to His people and send His Messiah.
Zechariah was a priest serving in the temple when he was visited by an angel. Never think that all of this just happened. God ever so carefully, ever so beautifully, orchestrated every event that led up to the coming of the messenger.
Priests were divided up into twenty-four divisions. Each division would serve at the temple on a rotating basis for two weeks a year. Every day, two priests were chosen to enter the Holy Place. One would go in the morning, the other in the afternoon. They would offer incense on the altar of incense that stood directly before the curtain into the Holy of Holies. Since there were so many priests, lots were cast to see which two priests would serve on any given day. Once a priest was chosen, that would be his turn. He would never be able to go again. This would be the highlight of the priest’s life.
By the providence of God, Zechariah was serving in the temple with the rest of the priests in his division. This time, not by chance, but by the direction of God, the lot fell on Zechariah. Understand how incredible this is! It is said that there were eighteen thousand priests in Israel at that time. That means seven hundred fifty priests per division. The odds of the lot falling on you would be one out of 750. Do you see how wonderful our God is? That day the odds of the lot falling on Zechariah were 100 percent. God had chosen him!
With great anticipation and awe Zechariah put on the priestly garments that represented purity. He walked through the temple courts, passing through the crowd of people that had gathered there to pray with him. They would remain in the outer court while he entered into the Holy Place. On his left was the golden lampstand flickering in the darkness. On his right the table of showbread. In front of him stood the golden altar of incense up against the curtain that guarded the Holy of Holies.
He had never done this before. He would never do it again. His heart must have been racing as he lit the incense and offered prayers, interceding on behalf of the people of Israel. His people were under Roman oppression. They had an Edomite as their king.
“O Lord, we are waiting for the ancient promises to be fulfilled. O Lord, we are waiting for the Messiah to come and save your people. Remember us, O great Jehovah. Remember your promises.”
“Zechariah! Zechariah!” That was his name; that was his prayer: “Jehovah remember us!”
Scripture also hints that Zechariah had brought the prayers of his home with him. How often he and Elizabeth must have prayed that the Lord would give them a son. Perhaps after praying for the great Deliverer of Israel to come set the people free he looked once more to the altar and to the curtain to whisper a prayer for his wife—that they would have a child. “Yes, Lord, remember Israel. And also remember us.”
Suddenly the angel Gabriel appears before him. Gabriel announces the answer to Zechariah’s personal prayer: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” This was absolutely incredible. It was unbelievable! Have you ever prayed for something all your life—you are even to the point where you are ready to give up—and then, suddenly, there it is right there in front of you, and you can’t believe it?
The four hundred years of silence is broken by God. To say what? To say to Zechariah, “You’re going to have a son! In your old age, like Abraham and Sarah, you and Elizabeth will have a son.” How absolutely exciting!
This is not just an announcement for you, Zechariah. It is not just for Elizabeth. It is more glorious than that. The angel tells Zechariah that his son will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The long-awaited Messiah will come. “And, Zechariah, your son will prepare the way for Him.”
That’s exactly what Zechariah says. “How can I be sure of this?”
Every time I read this passage I cannot help but think that Gabriel had to be as astonished by Zechariah’s response as Zechariah was to the news he had heard. The angel replies, “I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” Why would anyone ever doubt the message of an angel that stands in the very presence of God Himself?
Indeed, if it is not a shock to the angel, it ought to be to the reader. The people have gathered in the temple. Before they could ever have entered the temple, the necessary sacrifices had to take place on the bronze altar—sacrifices for sin. A confession of sin had to be made, followed by the sin offering on the altar.
Then the people would watch as the priest cleansed himself at the laver before going into the Holy Place. Once cleansed by the water in the laver, the priest would take fire from the bronze altar where the sacrifices had been made and use that fire to light the altar of incense.
As the smoke from the fire that came from the bronze altar rose up from the altar of incense, the priest would pray an intercessory prayer on behalf of the people in the temple, asking God to accept the sacrifices made and forgive them. He would pray that God would provide a Deliverer who would release them from their bondage and that the sin offering on the bronze altar would be accepted by God for the forgiveness of His people.
Having prayed the prayers on behalf of the people, the priest would come and announce that God had heard their prayers. Their sacrifices were accepted; their sins were forgiven. God would remember His promises.
For centuries this was the way it was done. That is what the people expected to hear as Zechariah came out of the temple. Instead, the angel announced that all the rituals that had been so meticulously done through the centuries were now coming to an end. The Messiah is coming! The King of kings will soon arrive. The One who will free Israel from bondage is on the way!
Poor Zechariah. While God has declared He will no longer be silent, Zechariah was. He had just heard the greatest news that anyone had heard in the last four hundred years. And because of his unbelief, he is struck dumb, unable to tell anyone.
Can you imagine how incredibly frustrating that must have been? Zechariah wanted a sign. God gave him one basically telling Zechariah, “If you won’t believe my gospel, I won’t let you share it with anyone.” When Zechariah returned from the Holy Place and was unable to give the customary priestly blessing, the people knew something out of the ordinary had taken place.
John the Greater
Certainly the announcement of the angel that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a son was good news of great joy. They had waited long for a child. The news was almost too good to be true.
But John’s birth was not to be a source of joy for only Zechariah and Elizabeth. The angel declared that many would rejoice because of his birth. There would be widespread rejoicing, because this child would grow to be great. Maybe he wouldn’t have a name like John the Great, but he would be greater than Herod the Great.
His greatness would come not because he would rule over many people; His greatness would come because he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. As the prophet Malachi had foretold, He would go forth in the spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He would make ready a people prepared to meet the Lord.
If you read the last section of Luke 1, where the child receives his name, you can sense the parents’ joy not only in the Song of Zechariah but also in the insistence that his name be John. Friends and family members wanted him to be named after his father. After all, Zechariah was not only a family name but it means “Jehovah remembers.” Certainly Jehovah had remembered this elderly couple and blessed them with a son. But Elizabeth insisted his name be John.
The persistent family members took it to a higher authority than the child’s mother—the child’s father. Much to their surprise he agreed with his wife and wrote on a tablet, “His name is John.” It was not open for discussion. An even higher authority than the mother and the father had already named him.
When his mouth is finally opened, Zechariah begins to praise and bless God. While the last words he spoke in the temple were words of doubt, the first words he speaks now are a hymn of assurance.
When everyone had gone home, the three remained: Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers”; Elizabeth, whose name means “God is faithful”; and baby John, whose name means “God is merciful.” All are preparing the way for the greatest One of all—the One whose name means: “God saves.”
The story of salvation, as Luke explains it, is an exposition of what God has done for the human race. The angel quoting from Malachi, the silence at the temple, the meaning of the names of the people involved, and the future role of John the Baptist all serve to show us how great the details are that God took in reaching out to save you and me. God didn’t just send a Savior; He also sent someone to point the way to the Savior.
We may ask why the Messiah needed a messenger. Why did He need someone to come to prepare the way? Remember what John the Baptist preached—he preached repentance. The people of Israel thought that the Messiah would come to free them from the likes of Herod the Great. He would free them from Roman oppression.
Their need, however, was greater than that, and so they needed a greater deliverer than that. Before the true Savior could come, His way had to be prepared. People had to understand the purpose of His mission. They had to be taught their need. Their true enemy was not Herod the Great. It was the sin they had in their hearts.
True salvation requires repentance from sin. You need to go to the bronze altar and confess your sin—repent of your sins. And then you will be ready to hear about the One who can save you from your sin, that is, the One who is the perfect sin offering for you. Zechariah understood. Once he got his voice back he sang in Luke 1:76–77,
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
John the Baptist prepared the way for the Deliverer by proclaiming repentance, by turning the people’s hearts to the Christ. It is through the door of repentance that grace is offered and faith is planted. John would preach repentance. Jesus would preach remission. Jesus would provide the way for a complete remission of all our sins by becoming the acceptable sacrifice to God.
We are called by the forerunner to embrace a new life. We embrace this life not on the basis of our works, but in response to the salvation God has shown to His people—people like all of Israel to whom the promised Deliverer has come, people like Zechariah and Elizabeth to whom He gives a son, people like you and me who are granted the salvation of the Christ who has come.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.