I am aware that not everyone agrees, but I personally find history fascinating and intriguing. This was not always my perspective while studying history at school, but in retrospect I do sometimes wish that I had paid closer attention to my history teachers during those years.
As I have read about and found myself increasingly interested in history in my older years, I have found that it is often incredibly difficult to summarise in a simple and straightforward manner what took place in a particular historical situation. The various layers and nuances of fact are frequently difficult to capture in a succinct manner. There usually seem to be multiple perspectives that need to somehow be fairly represented in the narrative.
This is obvious as you consider the historical narratives that we have, particularly in light of revision that must frequently take place as fresh evidence is unearthed. We know, for example, that history is often written from the perspective of the victor. Frequently, when there is a change in regime, history is rewritten so as to remedy certain biases that were written into former accounts.
Let’s consider two historical situations by way of example.
This year was the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Act of Uniformity.1 This act of English Parliament prescribed the form of public prayers, administration of sacraments, and other rites of the Established Church of England, following all the rites and ceremonies and doctrines prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.
At the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II demanded of all Christians and churches the adoption of the Act. Those who refused to comply—most notably some two thousand Puritan ministers—were expelled from the Church of England, in what is historically known as the Great Ejection.2
In fact, the very Sunday on which this message was preached in our church would was the 350th anniversary of the first Sunday after which these men had been ejected. We can imagine what it must have been like for them. Ever since that time, we have had the notion of the Dissenters—those who turned their backs on the Church of England’s ways of worship. Brackenhurst Baptist Church stands in that tradition.
There are many layers that need to be appreciated when one thinks of the Act of Uniformity. To gain a full-orbed understanding of all the players, scenes and agendas that interacted with that scene in history is not an easy matter.
Similarly, as a second example, consider the historical event known as the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This ecumenical council was called and constituted by Emperor Constantine to deal with the Arian heresy, which was simply a heretical denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. This heresy was threatening the unity of the church, and in fact it continues to our own day in the form of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the Council of Nicaea, various political and religious agendas were at stake and were being played out. Different history books will focus on different players, scenes and agendas involved at the Council. Once again, it has not proven easy to summarise the historical facts of the Council. (We are, however, thankful that the Council did produce the Nicene Creed,3 which is a good part of our Christian heritage.)
In this study, I want to take you to another scene from church history. We have briefly considered one scene from 1662 and another from 325, but the primary historical scene on which I want to focus takes us back even a little further. Unsurprisingly, this scene also has many players and agendas. This scene, however, has been summarised for us authoritatively by God the Holy Spirit in His written Word.
The Historical Narrative
In the scene presented in Luke 1:5-25, you will notice that there are no fewer than five parties and four scenes presented to us.
The text opens with reference to “Herod, king of Judea” (v. 5). Herod is not, however, one of the players in the story; his name is mentioned simply as an aside in order to establish historical chronology. Herod reigned from 37 BC to 4 BC. The events recorded for us, then, took place around 4-5 BC.
The first scene is presented to us in vv. 5-7:
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. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
The first major character in the historical saga before us is “a priest named Zechariah” (v. 5). There were 24 divisions of priests in the Aaronic priesthood. Zechariah was “of the division of Abijah” (v. 5). According to 1 Chronicles 24, Abijah’s was the eighth of the 24 divisions. Each division ministered in the temple for two weeks per year. Not every priest had the opportunity to minister in the temple. Ministry was determined by lot, and so in our story we understand that the lot had fallen to Zechariah. This was his red-letter day, the high point of his priestly career.
But there was a certain taintedness to his joy: he and his wife were childless. Like most married couples, they had wanted a child for some time, but they had not yet been privileged to experience the joy of childbirth. Their prayers in this regard had, as yet, gone unanswered. Zechariah may have carried with him a sense of hopelessness. He was now an old man, and his wife an old woman, and any hope of having a child was surely gone. Their childlessness was not a form of punishment, for “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (v. 6), but was nevertheless a great burden to them.
In the midst of this burden, Zechariah was chosen by lot—privilege of privileges!—to serve God and Israel in the temple. Here was an opportunity for special ministry.
The second, far lengthier, scene is painted in vv. 8-20:
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
Here, we find Zechariah in the temple, burning incense to the Lord. Incense in the Bible is sometimes a picture of prayer, and so the connection between Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers and Zechariah’s ministry ought not to be overlooked.
Zechariah would have walked by the multitude outside—the second group of players in our story—as he entered the temple. He would have entered the temple with several other priests, but they would eventually leave and he would remain alone in the Holy Place to burn the incense to the Lord.
For their part, the worshippers outside would wait for the priests to exit the temple. They would know that the priests represented them to God. They would see the first set of priests exit the temple, and would then wait for the final priest, Zechariah, to complete his ministry and join them outside. Having finished his ministry, Zechariah would ordinarily walk outside to pronounce a blessing on the people—but they were not aware of what would soon unfold inside the Holy Place.
It is in v. 11 that the third player in the story unexpectedly enters the scene, and he is none other than the angel Gabriel. Gabriel’s presence was unusual here. The priests did not normally expect to converse with an angel during their priestly duties. Zechariah was no doubt busy with his service, perhaps with a sense of trepidation as this may have been the first time he had actually performed this service. Suddenly, left alone in the Holy Place, Zechariah came face-to-face with the angel Gabriel.
We should note that the same angel had appeared centuries earlier to Daniel with a message from Yahweh (see Daniel 8:15-26, 9:21-27), and now he appeared to Zechariah, likewise with a message from God. The same angel would be sent shortly to Mary with a message from God (vv. 26-27ff).
We know that Gabriel is an angel, one of only two named in the Bible.4 He is evidently a special angel, frequently used by God to carry special messages to His people.
Gabriel, in this context, was sent by God to carry good news to a priest whose wife was barren. If Zechariah was excited about his ministry, we wonder how excited Gabriel must have been about his!
The sudden appearance of Gabriel was a terrifying experience for Zechariah, who was “troubled” and filled with “fear” (v. 12). One wonders what it must have been like for Zechariah. He believed that he was all alone in the dimly lit Holy Place, only to suddenly find out that he was not, in fact, alone!
The angel then spoke to Zechariah, and his speech introduces us to the fourth character in the unfolding drama: a baby to be named John.
Let’s notice briefly some of the details surrounding the promise of John’s birth.
We must see that the promise was given in answer to Zechariah’s “prayer” (v. 13). While there is no doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a long time for a child, the reference here seems to be to a particular prayer. Perhaps as he offered incense to God, Zechariah had likewise offered a special prayer to God for a child. And now God had heard.
The prophecy of the child to be born is an incredible one. This would be no ordinary child! Hear the words of Gabriel:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.”
The name “John” means “God has been gracious.” John would be a great source of joy and gladness to his aged parents, and he would have a vital ministry to be fulfilled.
John would be a Nazarite from his birth, like Samson of old, and would therefore be permitted to drink wine or strong drink (v. 15). Further, in an incredible promise, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (v. 15)! That seems to be entirely unique. All others are filled with the Spirit only at the new birth, but John was different: He was filled with the Spirit from the womb!
This baby would be the fulfilment of a very important Old Testament prophecy. We need to appreciate this fact. Luke offers us information here after a four hundred year period of revelatory silence. To find the prophecy referenced, then, we must flip back in our Bibles to the Old Testament.
Malachi 3:1 reads, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare 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.” And then in the closing verses of Malachi’s prophecy, we read, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6).
It is these prophecies that referred to John the Baptist. Zechariah, a just man, would no doubt have been familiar with Malachi’s prophecies, and would immediately have realised the significance of Gabriel’s words. His son would be the very one who would act as a forerunner to the long-awaited Messiah!
This must have been an overwhelming experience for Zechariah. In our day, we are so accustomed to having God’s Word readily at our fingertips, we cannot imagine what it must have been like to live in that period of revelatory silence. But now God was speaking again—to a priest in the temple regarding a son in his old age. A special gift was to be given to a barren womb.
But as this particular scene closes, we find that Zechariah was not only the recipient of good news, but also the recipient of a punitive burden of muteness. Zechariah was not quite prepared to easily believe God’s promise to him, and so he expressed his doubts by asking for a sign: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (v. 18). Having allowed his scepticism and unbelief to get the better of him, Zechariah was now to be punished: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (vv. 19-20).
Imagine not being able to speak for nine months. It is one thing to wish that someone else could not speak, but to be struck dumb for nine months ourselves would be no easy burden!
How many there are like Zechariah today who are wilfully deaf, sceptical and unbelieving! Take not: In your scepticism and unbelief, note that Zechariah’s did not go unanswered by God.
And so Zechariah entered the third scene in this saga unable to speak. The third scene is painted for us in vv. 21-23:
And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
By now, the people had perhaps realised that something unusual had unfolded in the Holy Place. The serving priest did not ordinarily take so long. What had become of Zechariah? When would he emerge? Would he emerge at all?
As he finally emerged from the temple, the people perhaps breathed a collective sigh of relief. Perhaps waiting with bated breath to hear from him what had caused the inordinate lapse of time, they were greeted with an awkward silence and wild gesticulating. It finally dawned on them that he must have seen some sort of vision.
We must wonder how much information the people were able to glean at this point. How would you indicate in a game of Charades that you had seen an angel who had promised you the birth of a son who would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb and who would serve as the forerunner to Messiah? It was no easy task for Zechariah to explain what had happened.
Further, the people had been waiting expectantly for the serving priest to emerge and pronounce a blessing upon them, but now Zechariah was unable to do so. We can only speculate as to what he tried to communicate and how it was received. Regardless, he completed his time of service and then returned home to his wife.
The scene at home must have been an interesting one. Zechariah returned to his wife, excited about the promise that the angel had given him, but now he had the challenge of communicating it to her. Perhaps with a combination of gesturing and writing, he finally communicated to her what had happened and what God had promised. In faith, they must have consummated their marriage once more, and then the wait began.
The fourth and final scene is painted in vv. 24-25, and it tells us of the fifth and final character in the story. We have already been introduced to her, but she has remained somewhat in the shadows until now.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
We were informed earlier that Elizabeth, like her husband, was of the Aaronic line, and that she too was a faithful servant of God (vv. 5-6). With her husband, she had experienced an adult life of heartache, disappointment and unanswered prayer. She had no doubt faced reproach in her culture in ways in which her husband could not fully understand. But her reproach was soon to be wiped away. With great rejoicing, she conceived, and kept herself hidden for five months.
And so we have been introduced to five characters in this story: Zechariah, the crowd, the angel, John and Elizabeth. But let us not forget that there is another, unseen character present. In fact, He is present in every story in history, and in every story of our lives. In every scene that unfolds in our broken world, there is always an unseen player: Almighty God.
The Underlying Lessons
The sovereign God behind the scenes wants to reveal to us, by means of this historical narrative, that we must take on board the truth that there are things that are visible and things that are invisible. He wants us to see that there is fallen mankind, and unfallen, elect angels. He wants to reveal to us that there is the possibility of our heartache and our sorrow being turned to joy. Those who are barren can, in fact, by the sovereign power of God, bring forth children! Those who are sad and downcast can, by God’s kindness, have their heads lifted and their joy restored!
This God wants to show us that He is willing and able to meet the needs of individuals and nations. He wants to call us to patience and to perseverance. Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for many years for a child, and just when they had begun to give up hope God graciously swooped in to answer their prayers. This story is surely an illustration of David’s promise: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
But as you delight yourself in the Lord and wait for him to graciously change your circumstances, realise that Council of Nicaea did not eradicate Arianism, and the Act of Uniformity caused problems for many godly men and women for many years. God didn’t change adverse situations overnight.
We dare not expect that God give us exactly what we demand. Not all missing pets are returned safe and sound. Criminals do not always stop in their tracks when it is a Christian they are attempting to harm. Cancer doesn’t always go into remission. Barrenness does not always give way to the joy of childbirth.
There is great mystery in the divine providence of God. Nonetheless, we are invited to delight ourselves in the Lord, and to anticipate with great hope that He will give us the desires of our heart. Perhaps that will entail that He will first change our desires so that we will no longer desire that which we once desired. Perhaps there is need for us to not set our desires on those things which bring us such sadness, disappointment and loss. Perhaps we need to look beyond those desires and see greater things on the other side. Perhaps we need to come to the point where we see our circumstances as a blessing rather than a curse.
These historical facts give us the hope of the gift of the Spirit. They show us that God uses means and messengers to prepare the way for the Messiah. In a broken world, the only way to find wholeness and lasting satisfaction is to come to put our faith in the Messiah, for whom John would prepare the way. John came to prepare the way; the one who came after John—Jesus Christ—is the way. He deserves our response.
And so the appeal goes out: Fear God, and obey Him, for He commands all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).
Here we have a story of a barren woman who was to have a son. Her son would prepare the way for the Messiah. That Messiah came. He lived, He died and He rose again from the dead. He then ascended to the right hand of the Father, where today He intercedes for all those who have faith in Him. There He prepares a place for all those who believe in Him. And when He comes, He will come to fetch those who are waiting for Him.
Are you one who waits for Him? Let this historical narrative encourage you to see how great a Saviour Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby would prepare the way for. Let us be enthralled with Him, and let us put our faith in Him afresh. Let us pray for revival in the world and in our own hearts, and as we do so, let us patiently pray for God to bless us and the world for the sake of His Son. There is a better day ahead as we use the means that God has given to us. Let us, by faith, pray and work to this end for the glory of God.
- Wikipedia, “Act of Uniformity 1662,” http://goo.gl/xE0O2, retrieved 26 August 2012. ↩
- Wikipedia, “The Great Ejection,” http://goo.gl/hx3tm, retrieved 26 August 2012. ↩
- Wikipedia, “Nicene Creed,” http://goo.gl/H2JtO, retrieved 26 August 2012. ↩
- The other named angel is Michael, though it should be noted that there are some who consider Michael to be a Christophany, a preincarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. ↩