THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia…
From the prologue about the historic certainty of the Christian faith, we now proceed to the first stage of the wonderful history in the annunciation of the birth of the Baptist. In this we have Luke mounting higher than either Matthew or Mark. We can understand this since he was writing for a Gentile audience, and the speculative turn of Grecian minds would certainly lead to inquiries as to the origin of the leaders in the dispensation of grace. Luke satisfies all just demands, and with that exquisite taste which should regulate thought upon such themes. Let us notice the facts as presented to us.
I. THE LORD UTILIZED EXISTING ORGANIZATIONS. Just as we believe the New Testament eldership was based upon the Old Testament office of elder, so here we have the great reformer taken from the Aaronic priesthood. Once more is honor put upon the line of Aaron. The parents of the forerunner both belonged to the priestly tribe. They are, moreover, godly people, being "both righteous before God, walking in all. the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (verse 6). By which could not be meant, that they were sinlessly perfect, especially since in such a case the ritual through which they regularly passed would have been strangely unmeaning. They were a pious, God-fearing pair, walking before the Lord, and striving to be perfect. And here we may draw attention to the advantage John thus had in pious parents. It is, we believe, a physical advantage to be the offspring of those who have learned by God's grace to subdue their passions, and who may otherwise be healthy. Other things being equal, their physical development must be superior to that of those whose parents may be addicted to any forms of sinful indulgence.
II. NOTICE THE TRIAL OF THEIR FAITH. This consisted in their having no child. With the Jews there was, added to the natural desire of husband and wife for children, the stimulus arising from the Messianic promises. A Deliverer is expected: why not in my family? Thus Jewish mothers were kept in an expectant attitude, not knowing but that the Messiah was to be their Son. We see in such psalms as 127, 128, etc., evidence how the Divine blessing was associated with fruitfulness. Zacharias and Elisabeth had hitherto been denied the blessing of any child, and, though they had continued to pray about it, they had ceased really to hope. Just like the people who prayed for the release of Peter, and then would not believe it was he when he came knocking at the door (Acts 12:12-16), so the aged priest and his wife seem to have kept up the form of prayer for a son long after they had ceased to expect such a gift. God keeps us waiting till we are hopeless, and then he surprises us with his blessings.
III. NOTICE NEXT THE PRAYING MULTITUDE AND THE OFFICIATING PRIEST. Zacharias belonged to the eighth of the priestly courses, and had consequently to come up twice a year for eight days' attendance at the temple. Those belonging to the same course met and cast lots for the privilege of officiating at the golden altar. So soon as a priest secured the privilege once, he retired from the contest, as once during the sojourn at Jerusalem was deemed ample honor. Zacharias happened to be successful; the Lord's will was that he should officiate on a given day. The lot left the destiny of each absolutely in the hands of the Lord. It is quite a different matter when people make an appeal to him in games of chance and such like. Into the sanctuary (ναὸν) of the Lord accordingly he went, to burn incense at the morning hour, as seems most probable. And while he burned the pure perfume within, the mnltitude of the people prayed without. It was an acknowledgment that their prayers required something to make them acceptable. They could not ascend alone. And was this not the idea of the arrangement? Man's prayers needed to be supplemented by a divinely arranged perfume, just as we now expect our prayers to be accepted only through the merits of Jesus Christ. Again, must we not suppose that the people were praying for deliverance and the advent of the Deliverer? Their prayers and the aged priest's were really one. There was unison and harmony, even though presented from different standpoints. The people without and the priest within were acting in "pre-established harmony."
IV. THE ANGEL OF JOY APPEARS IN THE SANCTUARY, It was upon the path of duty Zacharias met the angel, just as Jacob had done long before at Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1). Gabriel's visit at first terrified the solitary priest. But as the angel of glad tidings and so, as he has been called, "of evangelization" (cf. Godet, in loc.), he soon reassures Zacharias. He tells him that his wife is to bear him a son, and his name is to be called "John."
1. This itself is significant. The word "John" is derived from יָהוָה, and הָנַן, and means "Jehovah giveth grace." It thus signalized the dispensation." The Baptist was really the morning star of the gospel dispensation.
2. He was to be morally great. The gracious name would not belie his character. He would be "great in the sight of the Lord," who "looketh on the heart."
3. He was to be separated from the world as a true Nazarite. He was not to drink either wine or strong drink.
4. He was to be inspired from the womb. The inspiration from wine was needless, when he was to be borne upwards and constantly exhilarated by the Spirit of God (cf. Ephesians 5:18).
5. He shall be correspondingly successful. Many of the Jews shall he turn to the Lord their God."
6. His reformation is to resemble that of Elias. Elijah lived to turn the nation to the worship of the true God; his work was preparatory, like the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, before the still small voice. So was it to be with John. He was by stern and solitary moral grandeur to bring the people to a sense of sin, and thus prepare them for the advent of the Savior. No father ever got a more magnificent future laid before his son. The angel sketched a destiny which was fitted to make the old priest glad.
V. UNBELIEF INSISTING ON A FURTHER SIGN. The appearance of Gabriel, the transparent honesty of his words, the holy place, the whole circumstance of the vision, ought to have assured Zacharias and rebuked his unbelief. Here, after four hundred years of silence, a message has come again from God; and surely it should have been believed. But no! Zacharias asks for a further sign. Has he forgotten Abraham and Sarah? Has he forgotten Isaac and Rebecca? Surely the priest, though aged and with an aged wife, had every reason to believe the angel-brought promise of his God? His unbelief was criminal. He deserves a chastisement. The demand for miracles at the present day is on the part of some just as unreasonable. Unless some additional sign is granted, then faith will be withheld. There is a scepticism which deserves chastisement instead of sympathy or encouragement. And Zacharias is struck dumb. He is doomed to speechlessness for the most of a year. His dumbness was to be a sign of his unbelief and a pure judgment from God. We may compare his case with that of the man born blind (John 9:2, etc.). In this case the deprivation was to be the basis of Divine mercy; in the case of Zacharias it was a clear note of Divine displeasure. Yet with judgment there is mixed mercy. He is promised a release on the day of the birth of John. For God's "anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5).
VI. THE PATIENT WORSHIPPERS AND THE DUMB PRIEST. The burning of incense occupied usually a certain length of time. But Zacharias tarries long beyond this. The people wait, but marvel as they wait. They wish his benediction. But when he at length appears, he can only make signs to them, and dismiss them without a word. And yet a sign is there for them. They see that a vision has been vouchsafed in the temple. If the priest is silent, it is because God has spoken. Better that man should be dumb before God, than that Heaven should be silent for ever! Zacharias's judgment is to the people a merciful sign. The week of temple-work was no sooner over than he went home to his house in the hill-country of Judaea. His affliction must have been very painful and humiliating. He would be regarded by his friends as one "smitten of the Lord." But in due season the mercy and grace of God are realized in the Baptist's conception. If Zacharias mourned over his unbelief and its chastisement, Elisabeth was enabled to rejoice over her good fortune and the removal of her reproach. We have thus gone over the announcement of a great man's advent. Are not the truly great the gracious gifts of God? They should be called "John," as indicating whence the true heroes come, and to whom we should ascribe the blessing of their lives. A recent writer says that society has progressed mainly through a succession of great men, and he adds, "Society makes only so much of the great man as goes to the composition of the average man, leaving an overplus which is not to be put to the credit of society or previous human acquisition, but which is a gift from nature - from the Unknown. It makes all of the great man except his special genius, which is afterwards to improve society."ft6 If in this quotation we substitute for "nature," nature's God, we shall have the true idea. Great men are God's gifts, and though the world may, as in this case, misuse and murder them, they confer, through confession and martyrdom, incalculable blessing upon the race. It is only right for us to recognize in God the Source of great souls, and to use them for his glory. - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.