Pastor Scott Andrews | July 16, 2023
It’s interesting to note when considering the two major Christian holidays of our culture – Christmas and Easter – the preponderance of weight falls on Christmas. On the birth of Christ, not on the death of Christ. I guess we’d rather think of a baby in swaddling clothes than a man wrapped in burial cloths. And so, Christmas is preferred – holiday displays – usually devoid of any thought of nativity – begin appearing as early as October. It hits a fever pitch through the months of November and December – Black Friday and all – culminating on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with trees and lights, wrappings and ribbons, Santa and gifts, and not much Jesus. And all that just scratches the surface of the traditions of the yuletide holiday.
And yet, where is the emphasis in the Bible – especially in the four books that record the life of Jesus? Two of them – Mark and John – don’t even mention Christmas, His birth, although John tips his hat in his prologue – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. But those two gospels start with Jesus as a man, entering His public ministry following His baptism.
Only Matthew and Luke tell much of the birth of Jesus. Matthew records His genealogy and birth from carpenter Joseph’s perspective, and then the holiday cheer story of King Herod trying to kill Jesus. Luke tells the story more from Mary’s vantage point – the annunciation, the visit with Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birth, the shepherds, the angelic choir, and the child’s dedication at the Temple. All total, four percent of the gospels cover the birth of Christ.
But, it has been rightly observed that about a third (34%) of the gospel narratives cover the last week of Jesus’ life. Four percent, thirty-four percent – where, then, is the biblical emphasis? We call that last week Passion Week. Starting with the so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple, through the first couple days of the week when the religious and political leaders tried to trap Jesus with their, they thought, well-crafted questions, the Olivet Discourse, the story of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus, through the last Passover and the first Lord’s Supper, the Farewell Discourse, the journey down the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, the prayer sweating as it were great drops of blood, the arrest, the illegal trial of the Sanhedrin, Jesus before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again, the declarations of innocence, but nonetheless, the crucifixion on Good Friday, the burial, the dreadful Saturday silence, the glorious resurrection on the first day of the week, the appearances to Mary Magdalene, the two on the road to Emmaus and later to the disciples behind locked doors. It’s an incredible story – the story of all stories, recounting the work necessary to purchase our salvation. It is here the emphasis is placed.
So again, a full third of the gospels tell this story – it was, after all, the reason for which He had come, to give His life as a ransom for many; to lay down His life for the sheep; to seek and to save that which was lost. It was the apex of salvation history, God’s predetermined purpose from eternity past. Everything points forward and back to the death and resurrection of Christ – all history turns on that moment.
And yet, Luke’s carefully investigated, orderly account of the life of Jesus begins with not one, but two births – two babies. In fact, a full ten percent of Luke’s gospel covers the births of these two boys – cousins – John and Jesus – in that order. Why? If Easter, the death of Christ is what’s important, why so much attention to Christmas, the birth of Christ?
Because, remember, Luke is taking great lengths to record salvation history, thus demonstrating the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. That which is promised in the OT is fulfilled in Jesus in the NT. And so, they should not be viewed as disparate stories and theologies, but rather, they are inseparable – divinely connected by recounting God’s plan through His salvation history. That everything is unfolding according to His sovereign and good purposes. It’s an incredibly connected, consistent, and coherent story.
As we trace God’s story, the history of humanity from His creation, we go through the Fall, the Flood and the Tower of Babel – all three telling the story of humanity’s significant failures. So by the time we get to Genesis 12, God steps into the pages of human history – and in a sense says, since you can’t, I will. I will demonstrate My faithfulness in the midst of your faithlessness. The point is, to be sure, the plan started with creation and man’s subsequent failures, setting the groundwork for the need of God to step in.
And so, after the Tower of Babel, God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland go to a land God would show them. There, He entered into covenant with them, the Abrahamic covenant, including the promise that He would make them into a great nation. Don’t miss that – they were old and barren – childless. Just the kind of circumstance God likes to use to demonstrate His ability in the midst of our inabilities, our frailties.
So Isaac is miraculously born, followed by Jacob and the twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel. Salvation history continues: time in Egypt leading to slavery, the Passover and Exodus under Moses, the giving of the Law in the Mosaic or old covenant, the wilderness wandering, the conquest of the land under Joshua, the dreadful period of the Judges leading to the kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon. Followed by the divided kingdom, culminating in the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Most of Israel’s history is a story of failure. Enter the prophets who warned them to get their act together or they would go into captivity, and that they did. Their return from captivity, and the prophets urging them to keep their act together. Of course, they don’t, they can’t, given the fallenness of human flesh, and the need for God to step in, yet again.
And so, the last book of the OT is Malachi. It’s a sad book, calling out Israel and its priests again for their continued failure. But in the middle of the book of Malachi, there is a glimmer of hope offered with these words:
3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. I am going to send a messenger before Me, and he will clear the way for Me. Then, Malachi ends his short book with these words – this promise – last two verses of the book:
5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.
6 “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
Malachi was the last prophet – indeed, the last book written of the OT. It ended with this promise, this prophecy that one like Elijah – in the spirit and power of Elijah – would come before the coming of the Lord. He would prepare the way – go as a forerunner of the promised coming Messiah. First coming or second coming? You decide – maybe it’s both.
Malachi was written in the late 5th century BC. Then followed what are called the Four Hundred Silent Years. There was no prophet in Israel – no word of the Lord during that time. While some waited for Elijah and the Messiah to appear, most grew cold and disinterested. It was yet another bleak time in Israel’s history, when they were ruled by the remnants of the Grecian Empire followed by the beginning of the Roman Empire. And most, as Malachi suggested, did not walk with the Lord. Judaism had devolved into a religion of rules and legalism with competing religious and political factions. Help and hope were desperately needed.
Enter an unknown priest and his wife from the hill country of Judea. God is about to end the silence and break, once again, into the pages of human history. This time, by His very presence as the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The story is found in Luke chapters 1 and 2. You’ll remember from the outline I gave last week, this is the second major section of the book. Luke writes with incredible skill, intentionally drawing comparisons between the births of John and of Jesus. For example:
- Both births are announced by the angel Gabriel.
- Both sets of parents are bewildered by the announcements.
- Both births are miraculous.
- The names and destinies of both sons are announced.
- Both parents question how this could happen.
- Both parents are assured that God will bring it about.
- Both parents are given signs.
- Both annunciations occur in isolation from each other.
- Both pregnancies intersect with Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
It’s really quite incredible. One commentator (Edwards) illustrates the similarities with this chart:
Birth of John foretold Birth of Jesus foretold
to Zacharias and Elizabeth to Mary (and Joseph)
Rejoicing of Mary and Elizabeth together
Birth, circumcision, Birth, circumcision,
naming of John naming of Jesus
Greeting of John Greeting of Jesus
by inspired Zacharias by inspired Simeon and Anna
Back and forth the story goes – connected – forerunner and Messiah. So, all that is introduction. I remind you of that so you can clearly see the continuity of God’s salvation history that Luke intends for us to see. John the Baptist serves as a bridge, connecting the Old Testament with the New – the promise of the Messiah with the fulfillment of His coming – the Old Covenant giving way to the New. But let’s read the text – Luke 1:5-25 to see the announcement of the coming birth of John the Baptist.
What an amazing story. The outline of the text goes like this:
- The Introduction of the Parents (5-7)
- The Announcement of John’s Birth (8-17)
- The Disbelief of Zacharias (18-20)
- The Beginning of the Fulfillment (21-25)
Obviously, we need to move speedily. As a good historian, Luke tells us when the event took place – in the days of Herod, king of Judea. Herod I or Herod the Great was named king of Judea in 40 BC while in Rome, and after driving the Parthians out of Palestine, he became the undisputed king of the region from 37 BC until his death in 4 BC. This is the Herod who tried to kill Jesus by having all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 killed. This is also the Herod who rebuilt the Temple, starting the project in 20 BC, and it wasn’t finished until well after his death – but that’s why it’s called Herod’s Temple – it was the one destroyed in 70 AD.
So we find when Herod was king, there was a priest named Zacharias of the division of Abijah. The priests had been divided in 24 divisions, named after the family head. Each division was required to serve for one week, twice a year, plus during all the significant festivals like Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. Abijah’s division was the 8th listed in I Chronicles 24. Now remember, all priests were Levites – that is, from the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were priests. You had to be of the family of Aaron.
Now a priest had to marry an Israelite virgin, but we read that Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth was also of the line Aaron. In fact, Aaron’s wife was also named Elizabeth. Verse 6 tells us something about them spiritually – namely, that they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but simply that they had hearts to follow the Lord faithfully.
Verse 7 tells us something about them physically – namely, that they had no children because Elizabeth was barren. Just like their forbears – Abraham and Sarah – they were childless, and by this time, they were well advanced in years – meaning, they were past childbearing are. You should know, at this time, it was thought if you were childless, it was because of God’s judgment, perhaps because of some sin in your life. We know, of course, as with Abraham and Sarah, God has set them aside to do something special – even miraculous.
Bringing us to the announcement of John’s birth in verses 8-17. We find in verse 8 that it was Zacharias’ division’s time to serve at the Temple. Zacharias was there as required, but then something special happened. During this service at the Temple, lots were cast to determine who among the priests would actually enter the Temple to burn incense on the altar of incense. Now there were thousands of priests, and most never received this incredible honor. Further, you were only allowed to do it once – once your name was called, it was removed from future casting of lots. So this was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity – one most would never have.
The altar of incense was in the holy place of the Temple, right up against the veil or heavy curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place/the holy of holies where the ark of the covenant was kept – which is where God’s special presence resided. So, unless you were the high priest, who once a year went into the holy of holies to offer sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, this was a close as anyone would ever get to the most holy place. It was a high honor. By the way, as you came in the Temple’s doorway, straight ahead would be the altar of incense in front of the veil, to the left would be golden lampstand, to the right be the table of the shewbread – one for each of the twelve tribes. Now, this furniture was usually referenced in regard to the holy of holies – so as you were up against the curtain, by the altar of incense looking toward the door, the lampstand would be on the right, the table of shewbread to the left. That will become important in a moment.
So typically, according to the Mishnah, the priest chosen would walk into the holy place with the incense, made according to specific instructions in the book of Exodus. With him would come one or two priests carrying the coals for the table of incense. But it would be the priest chosen by lot who would do the work at the table – we’re not even sure if the other priest(s) would still be in there. The priest would do the work of refreshing the coals and the incense and then prostrate himself to pray – the smoke would rise as a symbol of both prayer and praise to God.
By the way, they would do this twice a day, at the morning and evening sacrifices. We don’t know which one this was – but we read the multitude of people would be outside the temple praying while the priest was on the inside. The two priests would then exit the temple, face the people, and bestow the Aaronic blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.” By the way, this is the only time, per instruction in Numbers 6, that they would take the name of Yahweh upon their lips. They would normally say Adonai, meaning Lord, instead of Yahweh. This was a great and singular opportunity.
So at this point, Zacharias is in the Temple, preparing fresh incense and coals. He’s likely alone. From a priestly perspective, this is the most important moment of his life – little did he know. We read an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Remember, that is from the perspective of the front, facing back toward the entrance, the right of the altar – between the altar and the golden lampstand. What a sight that must have been. So much so that when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear gripped him. This is the common response in Scripture to the appearance of an angelic being. Now think about it – no one was allowed in the Temple except the high priest and those tending to the furniture – refreshing the incense, the oil for the lampstand, and the bread on the table to the left. So who is this guy? Zacharias is troubled with great fear.
But the angel immediately set him at ease, as ease as you can be in the temple standing before the veil, in the presence of an angel. Put yourself in Zacharias’ sandals. But what does the angel say? Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife will bear you a son. Zacharias probably dropped the censure that held the incense. What did you just say?
Now, there is lots of discussion about when Zacharias made that prayer about a child. Was it for years before, when they were childless and Elizabeth was barren? Or was it right then – by the way, God, since I’m right here in Your presence, will you give me a son? I don’t think it was that. As a righteous priest, it was typical to pray for the people – at this time, for the deliverance of Israel. I think that’s exactly what Zacharias prayed, and the angel said, God heard that prayer, and the answer is going to come, starting with a son. You see, the time has come for the deliverer, the Messiah, to come, which requires the forerunner. Your son will be that forerunner.
And you will call his name John. We’ll find later that was not a family name – but it was the name he was to give the boy. Because, you see, the name means, The LORD is gracious. And God was going to answer the prayers of the people and the centuries long promise of a deliverer – a Messiah to the people. Because the Lord is gracious. (What have you prayed for, for a long time? How many times have you prayed for the Messiah to come? He’s coming. )
In verses 14-17, the angel tells who this John will be. He says, you will have joy and gladness – presumably because you and Liz have been praying for decades to have a baby – and you will, so joy will be yours. But then, interestingly, he says, and many will rejoice at his birth. Well, yeah, I guess – maybe family members or the community of your little town in the Judean hillside who have been concerned about your barrenness. Okay. But that’s not what the angel means – many means many in Israel will rejoice at his birth. Why? Because of who John will be.
And in verses 15-17, we find that this son will be great in the sight of God. In fact, later Jesus will say of John, among those born of women, no one is greater than John the Baptist. Wow. That’s quite the commendation – he will be great in the sight of God; no one greater. There’s a prayer for your kids and grandkids – that they will be great in…what? Academics? Athletics? Business? Money-making prowess? Popularity and acceptance in the sight of people? Or perhaps, great in the sight of God.
How will this happen? Well, first, he will drink no wine or liquor – that is, he will not be controlled by strong drink, but instead, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. We’re reminded, of course, by Paul’s later admonition, don’t get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit. The idea is control – don’t be controlled by wine, be controlled by the Holy Spirit. That’s amazing. This is the only time we read in Scripture of someone being filled with the Spirit in utero. We find God knowing people, calling people while still in their mother’s womb – but this is the only time one is filled with the Spirit there. Of course later, when Mary comes to see Elizabeth, when John in the womb hears her voice, he leaps for joy because of who is in Mary’s womb. And I might just add, this is a verse that speaks to personhood from conception – before birth.
And what will John do? Verses 16 and 17 – he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. Remember, during the 400 silent years, while a few longed for the forerunner and the Messiah, most neither knew God nor walked with God. It was a bleak period of legalistic righteousness and religious factions – almost all of which were wrong. So again, hope and help were desperately needed, and it would come through the promised Messiah – whose coming would be prepared by John – promised in Malachi. That should have floored Zacharias – my son will be the one promised 400 years ago? Yep, and in turning people back to the Lord, he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children – that needs to happen today; and the disobedient to an attitude of righteousness. He did that, of course, by calling people to repent.
Well, the news was a bit overwhelming for Zacharias. That his son would be the forerunner promised by Malachi? Not exactly – he skipped right over that. Back to the, “you’re going to have a son” part. So in verses 18-20, we see his disbelief. “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is (notice, he doesn’t call her an old woman) is advanced in years?” Did he forget that God is the God of the impossible? Did he forget Abraham and Sarah, and Elkanah and Hannah? That this is exactly the kind of circumstance God loves to work in – He is the God of the impossible? Don’t miss it – God had a purpose in Zacharias and Elizabeth being childless. Could that also be true of your life? Not necessarily the barrenness, although it could be that – but any less than favorable circumstance where you wonder if God is asleep, or uncaring, or unkind? Is it possible for His people, He always has His purposes and our best in mind?
So the angel answered him rather sternly. Don’t see this as, Oh, I didn’t introduce myself – I’m Gabriel, but you can call me Gabe. No. “I am Gabriel.” This is one of only two angels named in the Bible, the other being Michael. But Zacharias would have known the name Gabriel – he’s the one who appeared to Daniel, and the one who will appear to Mary later in Nazareth. And who is Gabriel? I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring this good news. He is not simply giving his credentials – he’s rebuking Zacharias for his unbelief. By the way, this good news is the same word from which we get our word, gospel. I’ve been sent to announce good news – the good news that John, and Jesus are on the way.
I’m not an angel – far from it. I’m simply a pastor saying, John, in the spirit and power of Elijah, and Jesus, the Son of God, have come. And they are coming again – Elijah, I think, in Revelation 11, before the second coming of Christ. I’m saying to you, Jesus is coming. Do you believe it? To disbelieve is to have grave consequences.
Verse 20 – Zacharias, you want to know for certain what I just said? You want a sign? Here it is – you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time. It’s going to happen, and the sign you want? You will be mute until then. Which means, when John leaves the Temple – what is he supposed to do? Pronounce the Aaronic blessing on the people. But he won’t. He can’t. Because of unbelief.
Very quickly, verses 21-25 simply fill in the rest of the story. The people are wondering what’s taking Zacharias so long – it’s usually in and out – you don’t want to hang out in there too long. When Zacharias appears on the most momentous day in his life, he is unable to speak. He makes signs to them, and they realize he’s had a vision. Then, at the end of the week when his priestly service was completed, he went back home. And soon thereafter – we don’t know how long –Elizabeth became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said. But his inability to speak would continue until the child was born, completing what the angel had said.
Then, interestingly, we read Elizabeth kept herself secluded for five months. We’re not told why – lots of guesses. Probably the best guess is, in five months I’ll be showing, and then, verse 25, people will know I am pregnant, and this is the way the Lord has dealt with me, looking with favor upon me, and taking away my disgrace. Again, disgrace because it was assumed there was something wrong with her – some egregious sin that kept her barren.
But God had His purposes, as He does with us. Because, this text shows in both a macro and micro way, that God’s promises and purposes, from eternity past, through the OT and the New, till eternity future, will be carried out. Will you believe it?