Zechariah's Vision in the Temple (Luke 1:5-25)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 1:5-25

[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 upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. [7] But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

[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.

[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. [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 give him the name 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 from birth. [16] Many of the people of Israel will he bring back 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 fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

[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."

[19] The angel answered, "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 proper time."

[21] Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. [22] When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

[23] When his time of service was completed, he returned home. [24] After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. [25] "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."


Exposition

This week's lesson is included in Luke's Gospel to show how special and significant is the birth of John the Baptist -- announced in the temple to the boy-to-be's father, a priest. But it also has lessons for us as disciples. Zechariah certainly lives his life to follow the God he loved, but his faith falters. What can we learn from his faith that we can apply to our own?

A Barren Couple (1:5-7)

The story begins carefully placed in geography and time. Luke relates this not as a timeless legend, but as an historical event.

"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. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." (1:5-7)

We meet Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, an elderly, childless couple. "Zechariah" means "Yahweh remembers." It is a very common name, used of 32 individuals in the Old Testament and two or three in the new. "Elizabeth" means "God is (my) oath," that is, a worshipper of God.

That they were "well along in years" (Greek probaino, KJV "stricken") may indicate that they were over sixty, since sixty years was considered "the commencement of agedness."[1]. They were "upright" (NIV) or "righteous" (KJV, Greek dikaios), not meaning perfectly sinlessness here, but "pertaining to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, upright, just, fair."[2] They were a kosher, respected, priestly couple who took seriously what it meant to obey God in every way that they knew.

According to Mosaic law, priests weren't required to marry a wife from the Tribe of Levi (Leviticus 21:7, 13-15), but for a priest to have a wife from Levi's tribe was considered a twofold honor.[3] But Elizabeth is barren, and the honor has turned to shame. They never blamed men for infertility in those days! Elizabeth has no prospect of getting pregnant, since she is well past her childbearing years. It just isn't going to happen, and Elizabeth and Zechariah have resigned themselves to it.

Moreover, they live in dark days during the bloody reign of Herod the Great (37 to 4 BC). Yet life goes on. For most of the year, Zechariah and Elizabeth live in a small village "in the hill country of Judea," south of Jerusalem (Luke 1:39), except when Zechariah's priest-division is on duty in the Temple.

Religious workers in Israel were divided into two groups, priests and Levites. All were descended from the Tribe of Levi, but, additionally, the priests were descendants of Moses' brother Aaron. Priests were set apart for a special ministry in the Temple with regard to the worship of God that took place there. 

Selected to Burn Incense in the Temple (1:8-10)

After introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke focuses on the particular event that forever changes their lives....

"Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." (1:8-10)

The priests were divided into 24 groups or divisions (1 Chronicles 10:7-18), of which Zechariah's "division of Abijah" is eighth in the rotation. Priests and their families would live in Jerusalem or in various nearby villages, but when their division was called up for duty for a week, twice each year, the priests would come to Jerusalem to work in the Temple. Each day about 50 priests would have been on duty, with perhaps 300 on duty during a given week.[4]

This day, Zechariah is "chosen by lot" to go inside the temple and burn incense on the Altar of Incense in the Holy Place. It is considered a great honor. Since there were a large number of priests, no priest was allowed to serve as the officiating priest more than once in his lifetime. Sometimes the high priest himself officiated.[5] Jeremias remarks:

"For the incense offering, two priests had to help the officiating priest who was chosen by lot for the office. One brought glowing coals on a silver firepan from the Altar of Burnt Offering to the Altar of Incense in the Holy Place. The second took from the officiating priest the bowl in which the dish of incense had lain until the censing was finished."[6]

As the officiating priest, it was Zechariah's job to place incense on the heated altar and then prostrate himself in prayer.[7] The incense represented the prayers of the people. Outside, the people were reciting this prayer during the incense offering: "May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people."[8]

Announcement of the Birth of John the Baptist (1:11-17)

It was at that point that an angel of the Lord did indeed enter the Holy Place.

"Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 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 give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 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 from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous -- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (1:11-17)

What an incredible vision to Zechariah and what an amazing promise. Let's look briefly at each point of the angel's message:

  1. Don't be afraid (1:13a). Zechariah needs some reassuring just now.
  2. Your prayer has been heard (1:13b). Sometimes we pray and pray, and because we don't get an answer, we think God hasn't heard. Zechariah has been praying for a child for many years. Now, when the answer comes, he doesn't really believe it.
  3. Elizabeth will bear you a son (1:13c). But Elizabeth is past childbearing age -- like Sarah and Abraham.
  4. You are to call him John (1:13d), which means, "Yahweh is gracious" -- which, when you think about it, was John the Baptist's chief message: baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
  5. He will be a joy and delight to you (1:14a). A son, after all these years? Yes, a joy and delight!
  6. Many will rejoice because of his birth (1:14b). Can you imagine the rejoicing at the birth of a child born to elderly, barren woman? Plus the rejoicing at Zechariah's healing and prophecy (1:65)!
  7. He will be great in the sight of the Lord (1:15a). Jesus says of him, "Among those born of women there is no one greater than John..." (7:28).
  8. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink (1:15b). That is, he is to be a Nazirite (Number 6:2-4; Judges 13:4-6), taking a special kind of vow before God.
  9. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth (15c). Under the Old Covenant, to be filled with the Holy Spirit was rare -- the privilege of a few prophets and kings only.
  10. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God (1:16). Many had strayed from true allegiance to the Lord and John brings them back in a genuine revival that immediately precedes Jesus' own ministry. John's message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:1), is  later picked up by Jesus (Matthew 4:17). The result of this message is "to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous" (1:17b), a quote from Malachi....
  11. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17a). John the Baptist fulfills Malachi's prophecy, "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6). Jesus confirms to his disciples that, indeed, John does fulfill this prophecy (Matthew 17:13).
  12. To make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:17c). John sees himself fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord...' " (3:4-5, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5).

Mute Because of Unbelief (1:18-22)

If I were Zechariah, my head would be swimming and I would feel shell-shocked by now. What amazing words, what amazing promises about a son who is not yet born! But instead of rising to faith, Zechariah sinks to doubt.

"Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'
"The angel answered, '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. 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.' " (1:18-20)

What a contrast with Mary, who when the birth of Jesus is announced, doesn't respond with "How can this happen?" like Zechariah, but "How will this happen?" and,  "I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said" (1:34, 38).

I find it amazing, but true to life, that upright, moral, church-going people -- even ministers -- can be so filled with unbelief, so immersed in a secular, scientific world-view, that they are unable bring themselves to believe that God can work a contemporary miracle. Some even construct elaborate theologies to explain why God can't, won't, or shouldn't perform a miracle today!

At Zechariah's statement, filled with unbelief, you can almost see the angel, who considers himself questioned by this mere mortal, draw himself up to his full height and say:

  • I am Gabriel. The name probably means "God's valiant one." He is named twice in the Book of Daniel (8:16 and 9:21) and six months later announces Jesus' birth to Mary (1:26).
  • I stand in the presence of God. He is a messenger by appointment from God's himself to Zechariah. How dare Zechariah question God?
  • I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. Centuries before, Gabriel had been sent "in swift flight" to Daniel (Daniel 9:21). God has specifically sent him to tell the Good News to Zechariah -- and Zechariah blows it!

During this time, outside the Temple....

"Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak." (1:21-22).

Elizabeth's Pregnancy (1:23-25)

The week is over, and Zechariah returns from his awesome experience in the Holy Place to the small highland village he calls home.

"When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people." (1:23-25)

Sure enough, he gets old Elizabeth pregnant. But he can't speak to her about it. For now, she does the speaking. "The Lord has done this for me," she says, with joy written in her face. No more does she feel disgraced and shamed among the women of the village because of her inability to bear a child. Now she is wonderfully pregnant and attributes it to God's favor.  Zechariah who is shamed and Elizabeth is honored.

What Are the Lessons for Disciples?

I see two primary lessons here.

  1. John's birth is of vital importance to what God is doing -- so important that it is heralded by an angel in the very Temple itself. We do well to pay heed to John's message for ourselves. Indeed, many of Jesus' disciples were John's disciples initially.
  2. We must avoid an attitude of unbelief. We see Zechariah and Nicodemus (John 3), both righteous, godly men, but both spiritually dull. My friend, are you spiritually dull? Are you sensitive to what God would say to you? It is not your religious qualifications that matter, but your heart's openness to God that counts. I believe this spiritual seeking is an important qualification for those who would follow Jesus as his disciples.

What can you do to nurture an attitude of faith, of belief, of spiritual sensitivity and openness? I think it begins with humility, repentance, and prayer. When you see unbelief in yourself, don't excuse it, but be ashamed and ask God's forgiveness.

Read David's prayer of repentance in Psalm 51. Ask God to create in you a pure heart, and renew a steadfast spirit within you (verse 10). Ask for the joy of your salvation. Ask for a willing spirit (verse 12). Ask for a broken and contrite heart" (verse 17). But also read and study the word of God, asking God to reveal his truth to your heart. The Apostle Paul writes, "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

Fortunately, God does not leave Zechariah in disgrace forever -- though I expect those nine months seemed like an eternity. When the baby is born, God releases something new and wonderful in his spirit. Zechariah himself is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies God's words.

We are disciples on a journey with Jesus. We have some faith sumps and some pretty rough edges. But as we walk with Jesus, he is refining and honing us to be worthy disciples. God can make a wonderful disciple out of an old, set-in-his-ways priest and an impulsive fisherman. What can he do for you? 


Prayer

Father, forgive me -- us -- for our incidents of unbelief. Sometimes I have mistaken my religious bent for genuine faith. Through this study of Jesus' life and message, build faith in my heart and in my brothers' and sisters' hearts. Replace our unbelief and hesitancy to step out on your promises with a boldness and assurance in God. Changes us, we ask you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'
"The angel answered, '... 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.' " (Luke 1:18-20)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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  1. What do we learn about Zechariah and Elizabeth in 1:5-7. What kind of people are they? What is Zechariah's job?
  2. Why do you think it happened that the "lot" fell upon Zechariah to be the officiating priest for offering incense on this particular day? What does the offering of incense represent?
  3. The Angel Gabriel's message involves twelve separate points about John the Baptist's birth and ministry in verses 13-17. Which are most important to you? Which do you think would have been most important to the people of John's time?
  4. Specifically, which part of this prophecy does Zechariah question and disbelieve? (1:18) Why do you think he can't believe it? What kinds of things are we unable to believe that God does in spite of us today?
  5. What are the symptoms of unbelief in a Christian? How does unbelief hurt a disciple's life? What is the cure for unbelief, do you think?
  6. Extra credit. What is the difference between unbelief and asking the hard questions? How is the latter necessary to solid faith?
  7. Extra credit. Compare and contrast Zechariah's reaction to the angel's announcement to Mary's (1:34, 38). What is the difference between her question and his?
  8. Why does God "punish" Zechariah (if that is what you call it)? What effect do you think it has in his life? What effect do you think it has on those observing Elizabeth's pregnancy and birth? How do you categorize this -- as punishment, discipline, rebuke, chastisement, or something else? Though we discipline our children, why do you think we resist the concept that God can punish his servants?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1886, reprinted Eerdmans, 1969), Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:135, fn. 4, cites Aboth v. 21.
  2. BDAG 246.
  3. Edersheim, 1:135, fn. 6, cites ber. 44a; Pes. 49a; Vayyikra R. 4.
  4. Edersheim, 1:134, fn. 1. Edersheim offers wonderfully detailed chapter describing the various duties of the priests in the Temple. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress/SCM, 1969), p. 203. Jeremias has lots of information on the various classes of priests and Levites.
  5. Marshall, Luke, p. 54, who cites Tamid; Strack and Billerback II, 71-75; Schurer, II:1, 284-297.
  6. Jeremias, Jerusalem, p. 201, fn. 178. For the first assistant he cites M. Tam. v.5; vi.2; vii.2. For the second assistant he cites M. Tam. vi.3; vii.2.
  7. Marshall, Luke, p. 55, cites Tamid 6:3.
  8. Marshall, Luke, p. 54.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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