Grace For The Journey
We have begun a study through the very practical book of Luke. Having looked at important introductory material last Friday, we now launch into our study. Luke begins his true, historical account of the life of Jesus by first telling of one who would come before Him to pave the way for His ministry. We are talking, of course, about John the Baptist.
Verses 5-25 could be summarized in one word: believe. The passage is Luke’s narration of how John the Baptist was born, what his name would be, and so forth. But I really felt like the whole thing applies to us today by asking us whether we really believe. What does it really mean to believe? Luke wrote in his prologue to Theophilus back in verse 4 that he wanted Theophilus “to know the certainty of those things in which (he) was instructed.” What does it really mean to know with certainty, to have certainty in uncertain times, to believe?
At the risk of promising more than may be delivered, I suggest that this passage can help us live out our Christian faith in true power, vigor, and liberty.
This passage will move us from
Merely believing things
On an intellectual level,
To believing things on a deeply
Spiritual and emotional level.
For this reason, this passage may bring radical life-transformation to a number of us. This passage teaches us how to believe. The first principle is about God’s providence. We must . . .
I. Believe In The Providence Of God – Verses 5-10.
Providence is . . .
The belief that the events of our lives
Are not ruled by mere chance or fate,
But by our sovereign and loving Lord
Who is working out His perfect
Plan and purpose in our lives.
If I did not believe that God ruled over all events, I would not be a Christian. God says through the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 46:9-10, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” Because God is omnipotent, He can do all things, and He is working out all things in accordance to His perfect plan.
We do not have to read very far in the text before we begin to see the hand of God’s providence, the God who is there behind the things we see, working out the perfect plan which often only He sees. Here is a man named Zacharias in verse 5, living in the days of Herod. Zacharias is a priest, of the division of Abijah. There were some 24 divisions of priests serving at the Jewish Temple. In fact, there were an estimated 18,000 priests who served at the temple, so when a man was selected to go into the temple to burn incense it was likely the only time in his entire life that he would be able to serve this way.
According to verse 5, Zacharias is married to Elizabeth. Right away we learn in verse 6 that “they both were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” This does not mean that they were sinless. That will become clear soon enough as Zacharias shows us later in the text. No one is sinless. The phrase means that Zacharias and Elizabeth were faithful Jews. They lived their faith.
In verse 7 we read, “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.” Do no pass over that verse too quickly – That painfully brief summary statement in verse 7 captures years of grief and agony on the part of Zacharias and Elizabeth. You look at Zacharias now, old and gray-headed, his face and beard betraying decades of hard work and faithful marriage to Elizabeth. Think of him many years earlier in the mind of your imagination. See young Zacharias and his strikingly beautiful young wife, Elizabeth. They were like any newlywed couple today, dreaming of a bright and wonderful future, maybe a house full house of children laughing and playing together. A few months go by, but no pregnancy. A few more months, no pregnancy. The prayers are more frequent now. Perhaps they asked other Jewish family and friends to partner with them in prayer before Yahweh. But there is just silence. Decades pass and it becomes agonizingly clear they will not be blessed with children.
People begin pointing their fingers and whispering about Zacharias and Elizabeth: “She must have done something wrong. God is judging her!” That was, after all, the usual thinking regarding couples unable to conceive. God certainly could close a woman’s womb in judgment, but we know that is not the case because Dr. Luke has taken the care to point out to us that Zacharias and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God.”
In fact, Luke goes on to show us that decades of barrenness on the part of this couple did not affect their service to their Lord. Verse 8 begins with, “So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God …” Perhaps lesser men than Zacharias would have given up on God. Perhaps lesser men would have said, “Well, there must not be a God. It seems every time I pray, He never says anything back. I have been praying for 50 years and, nothing. I give up. I am not going to worship anymore, much less serve Him! There is no God.” But not Zacharias. He loves the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Verses 8 and 9 tell us, “So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.” The lot was cast to determine who would be chosen to burn incense before God. Again, given that there were some 18,000 priests serving the temple, this was like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Verse 9 says it is Zacharias’ turn. God is behind this. The Bible says in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
We know what is going to happen next. Most of us have read this passage through many times. We know that the Angel Gabriel appears before Zacharias while he is standing at the altar of incense and he tells Zacharias that he is going to be a father, the father of John the Baptist. Remember . . .
That these events are occurring
as they are and when they are
Not because of mere chance or fate,
But because the sovereign and loving
Lord of the universe is working out
His perfect plan and purpose
In the lives of His children.
Do you believe in the providence of God? Zacharias and Elizabeth were “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” but they had no children. In fact, they had come to the point in their lives, as Zacharias will demonstrate shortly, where at least Zacharias felt they would never have children, but you see, they served the Lord anyway. They loved the Lord and served Him whether He gave them a child or not.
Your problem may be similar to theirs or it may be something altogether different, something about your job, or your family, or your future, some injustice you feel, some particular challenge you are facing now. What will you do? Will you box with God? Will you curse His name? J.C. Ryle says, “The grace of God exempts no one from trouble … Let us count trial no strange thing. Let us rather believe that a hand of perfect wisdom is measuring out all our portion … If afflictions draw us nearer to Christ, the Bible, and prayer, they are positive blessings. We may not think so now, but we shall think so when we wake up in another world.”
Then, we read this delightful little foreshadow in verse 10, “And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.” Remember that! Thousands of people are gathered outside the temple. They are praying and they are waiting for the priest to come out of the temple to pronounce the priestly blessing. Any moment now, Zacharias will be coming out and speaking a blessing. They pray and wait.
We are talking about believing, really believing. We must believe in the providence of God. Secondly, we must . . .
II. Believe In The Power Of God – Verses 11-17.
Verses 11 and 12 say, “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.” This is always the reaction when a person saw an angel. Angels in the Bible were not cuddly, cute, figurines, but large, masculine, divine creations of power. Later in the passage we read that this angel, whose name is Gabriel, stands in the very presence of God. Little wonder then that Zacharias trembles as he does. This is what sinful man does when he is in the presence of something holy and powerful. We know our sin. We know our impurities. We know our frailties. We know our unworthiness. We feel like Peter in Luke 5 verse 8, were he witnesses a miraculous catch of fish that starts to break the fishing net. We fall down before Jesus and cry, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
And yet, Zacharias is “righteous before God.” He “walks in all the commandments and ordinances of God blamelessly.” If this is how a righteous man trembles in the presence of holiness, how then will the lost person tremble before holiness? Fools talk about what they will demand of God when given the chance to stand before Him. Wise people tremble at the thought. Christians thank God that they can stand before God without fear because they stand united together in Christ.
Verse13 states, “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’” The angel says, “Your prayer is heard. Your wife will bear you a son.” Zacharias had prayed for years that God would give him a son. No doubt as a priest Zacharias was also praying for the salvation of Israel. Who would have guessed that God would answer both of those prayers the way He does? God gives a son to Zacharias and Elizabeth but this son is no ordinary son! This son is to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 14 and 15 say, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” It sounds as though John the Baptist will be like a Nazarite. Numbers 6 talks about particular individuals consecrated to God for holy service. They were not to drink wine nor strong drink. They were not to cut their hair, and so forth. Whether he was to keep the Nazarite vow, it is clear that John the Baptist is no ordinary man. He is even “filled with the Holy Spirit” while still in the womb of his mother. This is all to fulfill a messianic prophecy given 400 years earlier.
Verses 16 to 17 state, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke alludes to Malachi 4, the last two verses of the Old Testament. The verses foretell the coming of the prophet Elijah, the forerunner of the Lord, the one who will come before the Lord to prepare His way. That is who John the Baptist is as our Lord Jesus tells us later in chapter 7.
Luke here stresses the power of an omnipotent God. The providential God who declares the end from the beginning, and says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,” is on the move again after some 400 years of silence between Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament book of Malachi ends with a prophecy about the one who would come and prepare people for the Messiah and Luke opens his story in the New Testament telling us how that prophecy is fulfilled in John the Baptist. All this a part of God’s providential plan, all this possible because of the power of an omnipotent God.
We must believe in the providence of God . . . We must believe in the power of God. Thirdly . . .
III. Believe in the Promises of God – Verses 18-25.
Verse 18 say, “And Zacharias said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.’” Here is a paraphrase of verse 18, “And Zacharias said, ‘Impossible! I don’t believe it.’” The angel says to Zacharias in verse 20, “You did not believe my words.” Zacharias failed to believe. He offers a few reasons, of course. He reminds the angel – just in case the angel needed reminding – that he is an old man and that his wife is also old.
The tragic thing is that Zacharias knew the Word of God! He knew of other Old Testament accounts of people God had blessed with children in their old age. He had read of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, and how God opened Hannah’s womb in 1 Samuel. He knew God’s Word, but he failed to believe it. His words, “How shall I know this,” suggest that Zacharias is demanding proof.
Verse 19 states, “And the angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings.’” Imagine what it must be like for Gabriel to stand in the presence of God. He stands there right now, in the very presence of the Lord. He is the one God sends to Zacharias to deliver this good news. God’s glory shinning all over Gabriel, and Zacharias says, “Give me proof!” Zacharias’ failure to believe God results in a judgment that he brings upon himself.
Verse 20 says, “But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” Gabriel rebukes Zacharias for his failure to believe. Because of Zacharias’ unbelief, Zacharias will be unable to speak. And apparently this judgment of being unable to speak also includes deafness as the text suggests later when people are making signs to Zacharias to try to communicate to him (Verse 62). Zacharias’ condition lasts “until the day these things take place,” and we know that it takes at least nine months for a baby to be born. Poor Zacharias! He is still in the temple and the people are waiting for him to come out. Remember?
Verses 21 and 22 tell us, “And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.” They are waiting for the priest to come out and pronounce something like the priestly blessing of Numbers 6, and Zacharias comes out looking like a deer caught in the headlights. Mouth open, dumbstruck look, and knees knocking together. He was speechless.
This is all the information we get from Luke as summarily transitions to verse 23, “And so it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house.” We are left to our imaginations to wonder how this all played out in the home of Zacharias. How does Elizabeth learn of all this? Zacharias returns home from working at the temple all week in Jerusalem. He opens the front door. Elizabeth hears the door open from the other room and hollers out, “Hello? Zacharias, is that you?” But there is no response, only silence. Does she then come into the hallway and see him and ask, “What’s the matter with you?!” And there he stands … silent. How is he going to explain all of this? And is there enough paper and pen in the house to write down all of this business about Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to the Messiah’s forerunner?! Luke leaves all this to our imagination. Then he takes us to about five months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy and then pauses the action.
Verse 24 and 25 state, “Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” Here is a word of praise from Elizabeth to the One True God. Apparently, there had been a bit of finger pointing and whispering concerning the barrenness of Elizabeth’s womb. We infer this from her saying that the Lord has “taken away my reproach among people.” And while her barrenness did not keep her from loving God and serving God, she rejoices that God has graciously given her a child. Meanwhile, for about nine months, Zacharias is reminded of the consequences of unbelief.
Every day he gets up and tries to say, “Good morning” to Elizabeth, and when nothing comes out, he is reminded of what happens when we fail to believe God. What blessings we miss when fail to take God at His Word! The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness. An entire generation of God’s people missed the blessing of the Promised Land because, as the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews puts it in Hebrews 3:19, “because of unbelief.”
God has promised us so much in His Word! He asks only that we respond by accepting it or believing Him. Do you? When you suffer, when you are the victim of injustice, when you are wronged, do you still believe that “God works all things together for good to those who love Him, to those who are called according to His purpose?” (Romans 8:28). Do you really believe that God is working out all of this in your life for the wonderful purpose of “conforming you to the image of His Son? Or do you doubt Him? Have you brought upon yourself a self-imposed judgment of deafness? You hear the Word of God, but you do not really believe it. God’s Word goes “in one ear and out the other.” There is the sound of preaching, there is the sound of teaching, but no hearing. Learn a lesson today from the judgment of Zacharias and believe.
Believe in the providence of God . . . Believe in the power of God, . . . And . . .Believe in the promises of God.
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”