The Book of Luke, The Entrance of John and Jesus, Part II – Lesson 4
8And it came to pass, that while he (Zacharias, the Lord remembers) executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course (Abia, ab-ee-ah', we would say Abijah), 9According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. 16And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, 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.
This is an excerpt from a commentary (Edersheim, I, pp. 137-138) on Luke.
“There were some thousands of priests at the time, and it was arranged that each course should in turn send a number of priests to the temple for a week to execute their office there. In this particular week it was the turn of the course of Abijah, (ab ee yah, father worshipper of Yah) and Zacharias was one of the priests of that course who had to serve. Each day the lot was cast to assign the various duties of the priests for the day. As there were so many priests, it was not allowed that a priest should burn incense more than once in his lifetime. On that particular day the lot had fallen upon Zacharias and he had to attend to the burning of the incense. This incense-offering had to be brought twice a day—early in the morning and again at about three o’clock in the afternoon (Exod. xxx. 7, 8).
7And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 8And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations.
Thus Zacharias had entered the temple after the lot had fallen upon him. The actual temple-building or sanctuary proper consisted of the holy place and the holy of holies. Into the latter apartment only the high priest was allowed to go (and that but once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement), while the officiating priests might enter the holy place twice a day.” Geldenhuys, pp. 62-63.
 “But the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him—somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar—that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated, that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighbor hood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship, in which record of past deliverance, longing for mercies promised in the future, and entreaty for present blessing and peace, seemed the ingredients of the incense, that rose in a fragrant cloud of praise and prayer. Deep silence had fallen on the worshippers, as if they watched to heaven the prayers of Israel, ascending in the cloud of ‘odours’ that rose from the golden altar in the Holy Place. Zacharias waited, until he saw the incense kindling. Then he also would have ‘bowed down in worship,’ and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps.” Edersheim, I, pp. 137-138.
Think how you would have felt in that awesome place, where you alone were allowed, when you suddenly realized that there was another person present with you.
If the angel Gabriel appeared in a burst of light and splendor as he did when he appeared to the shepherds in Luke 2:9, then the experience would have been all the more frightening.
Luke 1:11, And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
The angel’s first words were of comfort.
13But the angel said unto him, Fear not.
He assured Zacharias that he need not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard (v. 13).
At first you may think that prayer (singular) to be for a son but on further reflection it most likely is the official prayer of the priest, representing the people of Israel.
It would be a prayer that God’s kingdom would come. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done!
A prayer with which the people outside would be in agreement as they prayed.
It is easy to think that this prayer of Zachariah was his prayer for a son but this may not be in keeping with Zachariah’s priestly duty.
For sure Zacharias may have prayed such a prayer earlier, but now that its fulfillment seemed impossible for they were well past the age of child bearing and most likely they had given up all hope, and that perhaps he no longer had made this request.
His request of verse 18 “Whereby shall I know this?” seems to confirm this.
Thus, the angel’s words are to the effect that Zachariah’s prayer for Messiah’s coming has been answered, and in such a way that his own son, born miraculously to this elderly couple, will have a part in announcing the Messiah’s arrival.
God answers prayer but according to his will and his will was for his Son to be announced by Zacharias’ son John.
God had a higher calling in John than to simply be Zacharias and Elisabeth’s son.
Giving them a son was an added benefit but the first reason for John coming was to make ready a people for the Lord as the forerunner of the Messiah.
The name of this son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb, and who will cause many Israelites to repent, in preparation for Messiah’s arrival, was to be John (Jehovah-favored;).
John, as the angel’s words make clear, was to come in the spirit and power of Elijah.
John would be great in the sight of the Lord, and was not to drink wine or liquor (v. 15).
I believe that this was to assure those who beheld his ministry that his “inspiration” was from the Spirit of God and not from the “spirits” of strong drink, a not unfamiliar charge in those days (cf. Acts 2:13; Eph. 5:18).
Acts 2:13, These men are full of new wine!
Eph. 5:18, And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;
18And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings. 20And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. 21And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. 23And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
In spite of Zacharias’ godliness, his obedience to the Law, and his lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise.
The forerunner of the messiah was to come through him and his wife!
There in the shadow of this angel’s splendor, Zacharias made a request of the angel, that he provide some sign, which would assure him that this promise would be fulfilled.
He was given a sign, or should I say he himself became a sign, and in fact the sign was indicated by his speaking in “sign” language (1:22).
When the priest emerged from the temple, he was to pronounce a blessing on the people.
Zacharias must have known that he would have to explain what had happened inside the holy place, and was afraid that no one would believe what he was promised; thus he asked for a sign.
His speechlessness was an appropriate discipline for Zacharias, and it served to “announce” that something wonderful was about to happen.
What Zacharias could have announced with his tongue, God announced through his dumbness.
The sad thing about the unbelief of Zacharias is that there were a number of examples of supernatural births in the Old Testament.
God was not promising to do something for Zacharias and Elisabeth which he had not done for others before them.
Abraham and Sarah had a son in their old age, as did Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and the parents of Samson.
The virgin birth, on the other hand, was something entirely new, but Zacharias was not asked to believe this, only that he and his wife would have a son in their old age.
The angel Gabriel only now gives Zacharias his name (Gabriel), and he seems somewhat perturbed to have to do so.
In effect, Gabriel is saying, “Good grief, man, do you not know who is telling you that you and your wife will have a son?
I am Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence.
When I speak, I speak for God.
To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself.”
With this rebuke, Zacharias was struck dumb.
The task which Zacharias was to perform was one which should have been accomplished in a relatively brief period.
The longer the delay in his return, the greater the concern of the crowd assembled outside.
They may have wondered if Zacharias had been struck dead by God, just as Nadab and Abihu had been.
I can imagine that members of the crowd began to whisper to one another.
When Zacharias did emerge, the people waited for him to pronounce a blessing, as he would have customarily done.
Perhaps it was a blessing that Moses had been given by God to give to Aaron to bless the people in Numbers 6:24-26,
The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: 26The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
It must have taken a while for the people to grasp that the priests contortions and hand motions were an attempt to communicate and that he had been rendered unable to speak.
When this realization struck home, the crowds knew that he had seen a vision in the temple and that God was about to do something marvelous in their midst (v. 22).
22And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.