We all have fears, don’t we? Here are some fears often listed in the top ten fears that people have.
- Fear of public speaking
- Fear of spiders
- Fear of snakes
- Fear of flying
- Fear of heights
- Fear of enclosed spaces
- Fear of the dark
- Fear of a terrorist attack
I must confess that I have a driving fear. It’s the fear of wasps and hornets—anything that flies and can sting. They drive me crazy. When I’m around one, I start waving my arms and dancing around.
But there are other fears as well, that many of us can no doubt relate to:
- Fear of not having enough money for the future
- Fear of people I love becoming seriously ill or dying
- Fear of intimacy
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of disappointment
- Fear of death
In the next four posts I want us to look at four different people involved in the birth account of Jesus. Angels appeared to all of them, and gave them this command —“Do not be afraid!” or “Fear not!” in the King James. This week, we will be in Luke chapter 1. And we will be looking at Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
Luke 1:5–6 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 righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.
Here at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we are introduced to a Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Many of the priests of that time were proud, bigoted, self-seeking men, religious only in external matters that would impress other people. The priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan is a typical example. He considered himself to be above helping the unfortunate victim of a mugging and robbery.
In contrast to that image, we are told that this couple were both righteous in God’s sight. They observed the Lord’s commands blamelessly. They were upright people.
Calling them righteous and blameless doesn’t mean that they were perfect, but it means that they were godly people, trying to please God. They had a good reputation in the community, and before God. But then we are introduced to their problem.
Luke 1:7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Elizabeth was barren, unable to conceive, and they were both very old. Commentators believe that Zechariah and Elizabeth were probably in their 70s or 80s—well past child-bearing years.
What we need to understand is that in the first century, in Israel and other surrounding cultures, being barren, being childless, was considered a great reproach. Here are some quotes from a couple Bible commentaries discussing how barrenness was viewed in first century Israel.
ISBE: “In Israel and among oriental peoples generally, barrenness was a woman’s and a family’s greatest misfortune. The highest sanctions of religion and patriotism blessed the fruitful woman, because children were necessary for the perpetuation of the tribe and its religion.”
IVP Background Commentary: “To be childless was economically and socially disastrous: economically, because parents had no one to support them in old age; socially, because in the law barrenness was sometimes a judgment for sin, and many people assumed the worst possible cause of a problem.”
Biblical Illustrator: “Elizabeth had no child, and what this meant to a Hebrew wife it is hard for us to fancy. Rachel’s words, “Give me children, or else I die,” was the burden of every childless woman’s heart in Israel. The birth of a child was the removal of a reproach. To have no child was regarded as a heavy punishment from the hand of God.”
We probably can’t imagine the humiliation, the disappointment, the sadness, the shame that Zechariah and Elizabeth had experienced.
We have to give Zech great credit though. He stayed married to Elizabeth. In their society, barrenness was a commonly accepted grounds for divorce. Zechariah could have gotten rid of her, married a younger woman, had children by his new wife, and gotten that curse off his back. That was the route many other men would have taken. But not Zechariah. He remained faithful, and for probably four decades they had borne that reproach in society.
Here’s an old couple who have the shame and sorrow of barrenness. And yet God chooses them to be the parents of John the Baptist—the messenger who would announce the Messiah.
Whatever others may have thought of them, we get God’s view of this couple back in verse 5—upright, righteous, blameless, keeping his commands. God’s view of you is very different from the world’s or society’s view of you. And it’s what God thinks of you that’s important.
You may feel yourself a social outcast. You may feel shame from something that may or may not be your fault. You may have experienced great disappointment in life. You may not be as successful as your siblings, or from the best background or family. You may have a disability. Maybe you’re not the prettiest, or the strongest. Maybe you’ve been divorced. Maybe you never married.
None of that matters. Don’t think that God can’t use you because of a disability, because of your age, because of where you live, because of your social status. What matters is what God thinks of you, what he sees when he looks at you. And if you are in Christ, if you are one of his followers, then God looks and sees a righteous man or woman—a person clothed with the righteousness of Christ. He sees a son or a daughter of his. He sees someone for whom Christ died. He sees a vital part of his body. And he wants to use you, maybe not in the exact way he used Zechariah and Elizabeth, or Joseph and Mary, but God is looking for available people whose hearts are completely his. God is looking for available people whose hearts are completely his. Click To Tweet
Let’s read about what happened when Zechariah was performing his priestly duties in the temple.
Luke 1:8–10 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.
As one of about 20,000 priests at the time, Zechariah’s division served in the temple only two weeks a year, but perhaps only once in a lifetime would he get to assist in the daily offering by going into the holy place. This honor had fallen to him by lot. Proverbs 16:33 says that “the lot is cast in the lap, but it’s every decision is from the Lord.” In other words, God is the one who chose Zechariah to be there on that day. There are no coincidences with God.
Zechariah’s job was to offer incense. Burning coals were placed on the altar of incense in the holy place, then the priest would enter the holy place, bearing the golden censer, and he would spread the incense over the coals. A cloud of fragrance would arise from the altar along with the prayers of the worshipers outside. It was a beautifully symbolic experience of worship.
Then something amazing happens.
Luke 1:11–12 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.
While Zechariah was burning the incense and praying, suddenly an angel appeared next to the altar of incense. It says that when Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. Literally, it says he was terrified and fear pressed in upon him. He was overwhelmed with terror. We can only imagine what this might have been like.
When we think of angels, we often think of cute little fat babies flying around with harps or with a bow and arrow, like Cupid. But God’s angels are powerful creatures. They are called his ministers, and they often carry swords in Scripture. In Second Kings 19, we are told that an angel of the Lord went into the camp of the Assyrians and killed 185,000 men in one night. They are warriors. They are servants of God, doing his bidding. Often in Scripture when someone found themselves in the presence of an angel, they fell facedown to the ground.
So, I think we can understand Zechariah’s fear. But it seems to me that his fear was more than just of the angel. Notice how the angel speaks to him.
Luke 1:13–17 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 call him 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” or “Fear not” in the King James. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer (singular) has been heard.” Somehow, the answer to Zechariah’s prayer that the angel is about to announce would help him to no longer be afraid.
Was his prayer for a child? At first glance, we might think so. But we find out in verse 18 that he had given up believing that God would give him a child—and he didn’t believe it when he was told. So, he probably wasn’t praying that Elizabeth would get pregnant. Zechariah’s prayer that the angel says is going to be answered probably focused on the coming Messiah—on the nation’s hope, the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. That’s why the angel’s message focuses on this point. The child to be born would both fulfill the personal desire of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a prayer that had probably long since been abandoned and all but forgotten, and the child would be the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming. God seems to be tackling two requests at once—one personal and the other national.
The angel told Zechariah that his son, John, would be the promised forerunner of the Messiah. He quoted from the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. In fact, he quoted from the last two verses of the Old Testament.
Malachi 4:5–6 5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.
These were the closing words of the Old Testament, spoken by God through Malachi the prophet 400 years before the time of Zechariah. There had been no word from God, no angelic visitation that we know of, nothing but silence—for 400 years. And suddenly, the angel Gabriel, last mentioned in the book of Daniel, breaks into history and appears to an old priest.
This child, John, would be great in the sight of the Lord the angel says; he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born; he would go in the spirit and power of Elijah; and he would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
You would think that Zechariah would be overjoyed. This is what they had hoped for, even though they had lost hope. In fact, this was above and beyond what they had prayed for. Not only were they going to get a child—a son—but one who would be a great prophet, lead the nation in repentance, and prepare the way for an even greater child.
God’s answer was better than anything they could have hoped for. Better than what they knew to ask. But isn’t that way God works? As Paul writes in Ephesians:
Ephesians 3:20–21 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!
You may be here this morning, wondering why God hasn’t yet come through for you. You might be disappointed and fearful like Zechariah was, ashamed and humiliated like Elizabeth was. But listen—God’s plan is always best; his will is good and acceptable and perfect. God has a GREATER PLAN than your limited perspective has even known to hope for. It may not end up the way you think you’d like it to—the way you think is best. It may be difficult; it may include suffering; it may include waiting—for a long time.God has a GREATER PLAN than your limited perspective has even known to hope for. Click To Tweet
But we have to trust that God’s plan is best. He knows the end from the beginning and you don’t. Even if he doesn’t give you the child—or the job or wife or husband or house or retirement or family or health or house—you’ve prayed for, he knows best and you can trust him.
So, how did Zechariah respond to this amazing news from Gabriel, something that he and Elizabeth had longed for for decades?
Luke 1:18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Come on, Zech! Is that the best you can do? Zechariah, though a man of God, was a man. Like all of us at times, he doubted God’s Word. He questioned God’s promise. He asked for more evidence—“How can I be sure of this?” Then he even reminded the angel of the problem as if Gabriel didn’t know—”I am old and my wife is really old.” Good thing Elizabeth wasn’t around—a husband should never mention the words “wife” and “old” in the same sentence.
Instead of looking to God by faith, this old priest looked at himself and his wife and decided that the birth of a son was impossible. He wanted some assurance, some sign, beyond the plain word of God’s messenger.
Had he forgotten what God did for Abraham and Sarah? Did he think that his physical limitations would hinder Almighty God from fulfilling his plan?
His response might surprise us, but really, it shouldn’t. Even the best of us will have moments of weakness, of doubt, of unbelief, of sin. And before we criticize Zechariah too much, we should examine ourselves. Do we doubt God’s promises? Do we question if anything is too difficult for God? Do we read God’s Word and think, that’s nice, but I don’t believe it—it can’t be true?
My prayer for us is that instead of being like Zechariah, who doubted God’s promise, we would be like Abraham, who, when he was told that his old wife Sarah would have a baby, “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20–21).
Let’s see how Gabriel responded to Zechariah’s unbelief.
Luke 1:19–20 19 The angel said to him, “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 appointed time.”
The angel only now identifies himself—“I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God.” Wow. Those are some credentials. “I’m Gabriel—the one you read about in Daniel chapters 8 and 9.” Gabriel is undoubtedly an angel of high rank. He doesn’t just get emails or texts from God, no he is continually standing in God’s very presence, awaiting his every command. And God sent him on a mission to tell Zechariah what was to come. To disbelieve Gabriel’s words is to doubt God himself. And with this rebuke, Zechariah is struck dumb—unable to speak for 9 months. And apparently, he couldn’t hear either, because down in verse 62 it says that others were making signs to Zechariah to communicate with him.
Now, you might think that Zech got a bad rap. I mean, didn’t 90-year-old Sarah laugh at the idea that she would be able to conceive and have a child? Didn’t Gideon doubt God’s Word that he would deliver Israel? He asked to put out a fleece to test if God’s promise was true, and God went along with it. What’s with that?
We have to understand that God has the right to do with us as he pleases. He sees the heart; he knows exactly what we need; he knows who needs kindness and help and encouragement, and he knows who needs a 2×4 alongside the head. Evidently, in Zechariah’s case, he needed to be shut up for 9 months. That was God’s chosen method to discipline him for his unbelief. But it was also a gracious sign for him that God’s promise was true and would be fulfilled.
This was discipline, not punishment. God disciplined him in order to love him, to heal him, to teach him, to restore him. And it’s the same with you and with me. God disciplines us for our good, for our holiness, the Scripture says. God is working out your salvation and your sanctification in ways that might seem strange to you, that might be difficult, that might feel like punishment at times, but you must believe that your loving Father is loving you back to his presence.
Discipline is not God trying to pay you back, it’s God trying to bring you back. While it may feel like punishment—God has already punished his Son in order to reconcile you back to himself—there is no punishment or condemnation left. Romans 8:1—one of my favorite verses—says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” God poured his wrath out on his perfect, blameless, sinless Son . . . not on us.
As believers, we are not punished for our sins out of anger, we are disciplined out of love. Punishment was given to our substitute—Jesus—in our place.As believers, we are not punished for our sins out of anger, we are disciplined out of love. Click To Tweet
Let’s jump down to verse 57 and finish off this account with John’s birth.
Luke 1:57–66 57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” 62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s hopes were fulfilled. In their old age they welcomed a child into their lives; and not just any child, but a special child who would prepare people for the Messiah, Jesus.
Some of you may say, “That’s all fine. Zechariah got what he was praying for. Yes, he was disciplined because of his unbelief—but he got his baby boy. But I’m still over here with unanswered prayer and I’m drowning in disappointment—how can this help me?”
Well, I’ll let Zechariah answer you. After Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, Luke tells us that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied. God inspired him to write a song.
Luke 1:67–73 67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham.”
Two things to notice here: First of all, is that God fulfills his promises on his timescale, not ours. God promised long ago to send a Redeemer, to deliver his people, to fulfill his promises to Abraham. But they waited and waited and waited—for hundreds of years. God is always faithful to his promises to you, but not on your time frame, on his. And most of his promises will only be realized in eternity—in the new heaven and earth. And until then, we wait, and we pray, and we hope. And we continue to trust him. God is always faithful to his promises to you, but not on your time frame, on his. Click To Tweet
And then second, notice that Zechariah’s joy is focused first and foremost on the birth of Jesus. It was not his son John who would be the horn of salvation for God’s people. It was not his son John who would redeem his people. It’s not his son John who would be the seed of Abraham who would bless all the families of earth. It’s Jesus. Only after he speaks of Jesus does Zechariah prophesy about his own baby boy. Why? Because Jesus is the ONLY hope for the salvation for his people. Jesus is preeminent.
The first few words that come out of Zech’s mouth in 9 months, and he points his listeners to have faith in the Messiah! He must have learned something during those 9 months of silence.
The BEST gift that God gives is truly the only one that takes away our sadness and despair and disappointment and fear, and fills us with true joy and real security—it is not things or people; the best gift is God himself in the person of Jesus.
God is not just about giving you a wife and kids, or cars and houses. He wants to give you JESUS! He is better than anything else life can give and so sure and secure—that death itself cannot take it away. What he has given us is his own Son, a Redeemer, a Savior. His name is Jesus.