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 righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
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 call him 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents 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 said to him, “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 appointed 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.”
The last words in the last book of the old Testament are spoken through the prophet Malachi from God and read: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6. For the next 400 years the Jewish nation would look for God to fulfill this prophecy.
Luke very properly begins his Gospel with John the Baptist, just as a person who was going to speak about the daylight would commence with the dawn. For, like the dawn, he went before the Sun of Righteousness, which was shortly to arise. – John Calvin
Being that Luke was interested in recording all things pertaining to Christ’s life, he starts with the account of John the Baptist, and why John was given the great honor to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord‘. Zechariah, John’s father (and Elizabeth his mother), were of the line of Aaron and therefor had priestly duties at the temple. Luke notes that they were ‘righteous in the sight of God‘ – their hearts were dedicated to Him – and also that they followed the law. His point is to witness to the fact that these people were highly respected by the Jewish people because of their stature and status before God. Aside from this the apostle notes that they were old and childless. Just as Sarah was past childbearing age when Isaac was miraculously given to her (Genesis 17:17; Genesis 21:1-3), so Elizabeth was barren and past age when John was born. God shows His power through Elizabeth because she is old and barren to testify that it is He who sends this prophet.
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. – Malachi 3:1
So one day while Zechariah is performing his priestly duties he is visited by the angel Gabriel. The angel opens his message by explaining that Zechariah’s prayer has been heard and that they are going to have a son. Luke does not record how long Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a child, only that in their old age it would now be realized. In Psalm 6 David laments at the situations he is facing and exclaims that his bed is flooded with tears. By the end of the psalm he acknowledges that God has heard his cries for help and that what will be will be. This is a great example for us in that God does truly hear our prayers. They may not always be answered, but that does not mean that He isn’t listening. If your prayer is part of God’s will for you then you can expect it to come to pass… but only God knows the time in which that will happen.
The angel continues that John will be great in the sight of the Lord because he will ready the hearts of the people for His coming in the spirit of Elijah. Not only is the angel confirming the prophecy which will soon be fulfilled, but he is giving a glimpse to Zechariah of what he can expect and how he should raise his much awaited son. Elijah was a well known prophet of Israel whose life and works are recorded in the Old Testament. He performed many signs and wonders at God’s command to remind the people of their God, and to witness that they needed to turn back to Him. So by this same ‘spirit’ John would be endowed. Their jobs were the same, however John would have the great honor of ushering in the Christ. John’s name means ‘the grace of the Lord’, and it was fitting for him to usher in this grace by which we all might come to know the Lord.
Now in verse 18, staring into the face of an angel, Zachariah doubts with questioning. There are other times in the Bible that men have doubted and yet they were not punished like Zachariah when the Lord made him mute. There must be something deeper going on here than just outward doubt. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7. Though he has prayed and remained upright in the sight of the Lord, Zechariah now doubts that he might have a son, so he is temporarily punished for his disbelief.
The reason why Zachariah doubted was, that, stopping at the ordinary course of nature, he ascribed less than he ought to have done to the power of God. They take a narrow and disparaging view of the works of God, who believe that he will do no more than nature holds out to be probable, as if his hand were limited to our senses or confined to earthly means. But it belongs to faith to believe that more can be done than carnal reason admits. Zachariah had no hesitation with regard to its being the voice of God, but as he looked too exclusively at the world, an indirect doubt arose in his mind if what he had heard would really happen. In that respect he did no slight injury to God, for he went so far as to reason with himself, whether God, who had undoubtedly spoken to him, should be regarded as worthy of credit. – John Calvin
Though he doubted, he is noted as ‘righteous before God’. It is important for us to understand that doubts do occur and that it does not mean that we have left our God. Some people fear or doubt the ability of God to provide food for them. Some doubt the care of their loved ones. Some are anxious about their plans. These worries, doubts and fears are not of God. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6:10-12.
The angel makes very clear that he was sent by God, Himself, and that obedience is what is required in the presence of His messengers. Thus the angel declares through God that Zachariah will be punished for his doubt, and immediately he is mute. God will still deliver on His promise for a son to Zechariah, even though he is unworthy to receive it, having doubted. “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” – James 1:6-7
After these things Zechariah goes out into the courtyard where the people are waiting for their customary blessing. Luke notes that the people realized something was going on because it took Zechariah longer than usual, and when he came out he could not speak. It is important to note that the people recognize that he had seen a vision or had some encounter with God. This was not an ordinary occurrence or it would not have been mentioned in this way. God uses specific signs, miracles, and wonders to point to specific events or times where our attention needs to drawn. For 400 years there had not been a miracle or sign from God, and now Zechariah has gone mute and spoken face to face with an angel. The people knew something was happening, and it is likely that because of this, Elizabeth decided to remain in seclusion.
Notice the difference in acceptance between Elizabeth and Zechariah at the news of having a child. Elizabeth is happy, appreciative, and honored. Children were signs of blessing to the Israelites and they did not take it lightly. The more children you had, the more you were blessed by God in their eyes. This is why she proclaims that God has taken away her disgrace. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your child honor God as you do. It is our duty as parents to love them and teach them about our God who gives us a gift beyond compare and measure. “Train up your child in the way they should go and even when they are old they will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6.
Let parents learn to be thankful to God for the children which he has given them, and let those who have no offspring acknowledge that God has humbled them in this matter. – John Calvin