Episode 11 - Zechariah and Elizabeth - Opening Up the Gospels

Well, we’re finally here. After 10 episodes of introduction, today we begin actually looking at the story of the Gospels and the life of Jesus. If you haven’t had the chance to watch some of the introductory episodes, I’d encourage you to go back when you have some time and watch them as they really give a lot of important context for why I’m doing this series and for why the Gospels are so important for us as Christians. Today I want to start by looking at Luke 1 and the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. Let’s read starting in Luke 1 verse 5. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now before even getting into Jesus and who He was, Luke opens his account by telling us the story of the parents of a man named John the Baptist. He gives us a real, historical marker so we know what time period this was actually taking place in. He says “In the days of Herod, the king of Judea”. Think about this for a second – if, perhaps 20 years from now, you started reading a news article that began with “In the days of President Barack Obama”, that would instantly evoke thoughts, memories, positive or negative feelings, historical events, what life was like, and all sorts of other things in your mind. That’s exactly what Luke is doing here. For the people reading or hearing his Gospel, he is giving them a real historical context for when these events took place. For us even 2000 years later, this means that this story is not just a fairy tale. It’s real history. It actually happened. So who is this Herod guy? At that time in history, the Roman empire was in control of the entire region. Herod the Great, as he has been called, was a half-Jew and became the king of Judea in 40BC by a decree of the Roman senate, but he didn’t actually take up power until a few years later in 37BC. Herod was an incredibly wicked, vile man. When he first came into power, he executed 45 of the most influential Jews in Jerusalem. Throughout his reign, he would murder many of his wives and children in fear of them usurping his power. After an initial period of strife, murder, and consolidation of his power through manipulation, Herod had a relative period of peace. He embarked on an aggressive building program where he built fortresses, temples, and cities throughout the land. In the beginning of 19BC, he began construction on the Jerusalem temple, which is the temple we see mentioned throughout the Gospels. This temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world and it was so much bigger than we’ve probably imagined. We’ll get to this a little later. Herod died in 4BC, but the construction of the temple would continue until 63AD, just seven years before it was to be destroyed by the Romans. There’s so much more that could be said about Herod, so take a look at some of the links I have on my website under this video for more. Luke begins by identifying a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both of them are of priestly descent from Aaron, and thus would have been held in high honor in Israel. Luke says they were righteous and blameless before God. So not only are they from a distinguished family line, but they have walked faithfully all their days. This distinction is biblically very rare. By talking about their priestly lineage and their blamelessness to the law, Luke is really linking them in to the Old Testament story and giving them as models of faithfulness and obedience to God. But look at verse 7. Luke says they had no child because Elizabeth was barren. What a tension! Their blamelessness should have ensured them favor in the eyes of the Lord. But they were actually bearing a reproach – because to be unable to bear children would have been a tremendous disgrace and stigma for any couple to bear in those days. Elizabeth was beyond the age of childbearing, her womb was closed, and there seemed like there was no hope for them as a couple. Let’s keep reading in Luke: Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. Alright, so after introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke brings us to the city of Jerusalem and into the temple that Herod had built. The scene begins with Zechariah in the temple, ministering with his priestly division. According to the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 24), the priests in Israel were divided in to 24 separate courses, and each division would minister in the temple twice per year with special times when they were all there. We don’t know how large each course would have been, but some early estimates say there were perhaps around 700 priests per course. Now the priests were required to offer corporate sacrifices and prayers twice per day, once at 9am and then again at 3pm. In the temple as the entire course had gathered, lots would be cast to see who would have the privilege of going into the Holy Place in the temple and offering incense before the Lord. This entire act symbolized Israel’s prayers ascending before God and being accepted. Now because each course was only there twice per year, it would have been an extremely rare occurrence for the same priest to be chosen by lot to perform this act. This time, the lot fell to Zechariah. Maybe he had done it before, maybe he hadn’t. But it would not have been something that he did all his life. This would have been a very sober thing for him to be chosen to do. Just imagine what he must have been feeling at the moment he had been chosen. If he was older, maybe he had done this before. Maybe it was his very first time. Was he nervous? Was he calm and collected? This really happened in a real moment in history. So Zechariah’s job was to go into the Holy Place, through the main doors that stood at the entrance to the temple. When he walked in, there would have been a thick veil in front of him, separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. Now unlike Solomon’s day, there was no glory of God in the Holy of Holies. That had left in Ezekiel’s day. That’s a huge point we’ll talk about in the future. So he walked in and stood before the altar of incense, which was right in front of the veil. In the Holy Place was also the table of showbread and the golden lamp stand. Zechariah would have gone in, approached the altar, and put on the burning coals taken from the burnt offering on to the altar. Then he would have taken incense from a censer, put it on the coals, waited a little bit until he saw the incense arising, and then would have bowed and walked out backwards. It would have been a silent, very short ordeal. This was all part of the duties of the priesthood, again, representing Israel’s prayers arising before God. And verse 10 even tells us that a multitude of people were praying outside as Zechariah went to minister in a representative way. But this was no normal day – something absolutely unprecedented happened. I’m sure this was the last thing Zechariah was expecting. As he was performing his duty, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar. Now think about it – the last time scripture tells us that Gabriel appeared to anyone was with Daniel, in Daniel 8 and Daniel 9, about 600 years earlier. What is Zechariah thinking? What could this mean? Did he have any idea what was happening? And what does it all have to do with Israel, prayer, or his wife’s barrenness? Well in the next episode we’ll look at what this angel actually said to Zechariah and why it’s so significant. Now for just a few suggestions for points to look up on your own and a few questions for your meditation this week: – I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with the Holy Place in the Temple. It really will help to bring this scene to life. – As you’re spending time pondering this scene, imagine you’re a priest in Zechariah’s division or you’re just in the temple during the morning offering. What would it have been like to be there? – Or perhaps imagine you’re Zechariah. How would you have felt if Gabriel appeared to you? What mixed emotions would you have had? First, the honor to be chosen, with excitement with trembling, then real fear and dread when you see Gabriel. Would your knees be shaking as an old priest?