Redeemed From Crippling Doubt
The Point: God’s Word can be fully trusted.
Zechariah: Luke 1:11-20,63-65.
 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."
 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And they all wondered.  And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.  And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [ESV]
“[11-20] The announcement of John’s birth comes in three dramatic scenes. In the first scene we meet a couple without a child [5-7]. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived out in the hill country near Jerusalem. Both of them came from the priestly line of Aaron. And both of them were walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord . But Elizabeth was barren and both Zechariah and Elizabeth had to endure the disappointment of not having children. And Elizabeth had to endure the accusations that God was punishing her by not giving her a child. But God was not punishing her, but planning a miracle that would get His people ready for salvation. God had something special in mind, and the best way to show that John was a special child was to bring him from a barren womb. So Elizabeth was suffering because of the way that God wanted to be glorified through her life. Part of the Christian perspective on suffering is that even in suffering, there is a way for us to glorify God. The question to ask about suffering is not “What have I done to deserve this?” but “How can I glorify God through this?” Elizabeth is the perfect example. She did not wait for a child before her life could begin. She was busy serving the Lord, walking blamelessly in His commandments. For her, what some people considered a tragedy was an opportunity. No matter what suffering we must endure – and everyone suffers – there is still a way for us to live for the glory of God. What happened next was totally unexpected and utterly amazing. The man without a child met an angel with a gospel. Even without the angel, Zechariah’s ministry at the temple would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In Zechariah’s day, Israel’s priests were divided into twenty-four divisions, with each division serving at the temple on a rotating basis for two weeks a year. So Zechariah was at the temple, serving with the other priests in his division. Then he received a further honor. Every day two priests were chosen to enter the Holy Place and offer incense on Israel’s sweet altar of prayer – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Since there were so many priests, the choice was made by lot. This time, in the providence of God, the lot was cast for Zechariah. It was the greatest moment of his priestly career because once a priest was chosen, he was ineligible to serve again. Zechariah was standing in the presence of almighty God, burning the incense that wafted up to heaven with his prayers. His heart was pounding in his chest, and then suddenly it almost stopped! He was not alone, but in the presence of a heavenly being: And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense . The angel scared the priest half to death. This is what happens when people see angels – the glorious, supernatural creatures that God created to worship and work for Him. This particular angel was Gabriel, the messenger of salvation that God also sent to Mary, and before her, to Daniel. The first thing that Gabriel did was to speak words of reassurance. Then he told the petrified priest that his prayers were answered: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John . By the grace of God, new life would come from a barren womb. But this is not all that Gabriel had to tell Zechariah. In verses 14-17, Gabriel began to explain the significance of John the Baptist. This was no ordinary child. The angel said that his birth would bring great joy, not only to his parents, but also to many others. Joy is a significant theme in Luke, and this is the first hint of the rejoicing that his Gospel brings. The angel also said that the child would be great before the Lord . And he was great. The fact that he was born of a barren woman testifies to his greatness, because in the Bible this is always a portent of some momentous event in the history of salvation. Then the angel told Zechariah that his son would be set apart. As a sign of his holiness, he was not to have any strong drink. This was part of the Old Testament vow taken by the Nazirites [Num. 6:1-4]. Under ordinary circumstances, moderate drinking was permissible, but John was set apart for the holy service of God. He was an unusual person, called to an unusual ministry. To make sure that people knew that what he said came from God, rather than under the influence of alcohol, he was not permitted to drink. Instead, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb . Other prophets had been anointed by the Spirit, but John was the first to be filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb. What Gabriel had said to this point went well beyond what any parent could hope. Under the circumstances, it was amazing enough for Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a son at all, let alone a son who was called to greatness. But then the angel said something even more astonishing: 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 [16-17]. Zechariah would have understood these words to refer to the ancient promises found in Malachi about the coming of Christ. So when Gabriel appeared and started talking about the spirit and power of Elijah, about turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and about getting people ready for God, he was announcing the ultimate salvation. These promises were for the ministry of Zechariah’s son, but they went beyond John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the Christ. Gabriel’s prophecy clearly indicated that Zechariah would be the father of the forerunner. And if his son was the forerunner, the fulfillment was on its way. This is confirmed by the word that Gabriel uses a few verses later, when he says, I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news [Luke 1:19]. Here, for the first time. Luke uses the word that became the title for his book. Good news is another word for “gospel,” and what the angel proclaimed to Zechariah was nothing less. Because John would prepare the way for Jesus, the announcement of his birth was good news – not just for Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also for the nation of Israel and the entire world. Jesus was coming to save! The thing to do when Jesus is coming is to get ready. This is why the Gospel of Luke starts with John the Baptist. His calling was to get people ready for Jesus. He told them to repent and return to God. He restored relationships, turning the hearts of fathers back to their children. Getting ready for Jesus takes a change of heart, in which our lives are turned around for God. But there is also a horizontal dimension as we learn to love one another. This was the message that John preached – a message of repentance that prepared people for Jesus. Even John’s birth announcement was part of the preparation, except that Zechariah wasn’t ready. He knew that Gabriel was for real, but he still had his doubts: and Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years’ . The man without a child did not believe the angel with the gospel, and because of his unbelief, he became a man without a voice: And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands 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’ [19-20]. The objection Zechariah raised is the objection that people always raise: he did not believe in the supernatural power of God. He was looking at things from the merely human point of view. He had his biology right, but not his theology. This is where people always struggle. They believe that the Bible was written by men, but they doubt that it was written by God. They believe that Jesus was a man, but they doubt that He was also God. They believe that Jesus died, but they doubt that He rose again. It takes faith to accept God’s Word, to receive God’s Son, and to enter God’s salvation – faith in an all-powerful God. Zechariah couldn’t believe it. What is so ironic, of course, is that he had prayed for the very thing he ended up doubting that God could do! There he was, worshiping God in the Holy Place, praying for a son and a Savior. So when the anger told him that his prayers were answered, he had every reason to believe. The good news was delivered by Gabriel. It came from God’s mouth to Zechariah’s ear, by way of an angel. It fulfilled the ancient promise of salvation. But instead of believing, Zechariah asked for some kind of confirmation. Apparently, he didn’t really expect God to answer his prayers. Sometimes even a good man has trouble believing in the power of prayer or the truth of God’s Word. Eventually God made a believer out of Zechariah, but not before chastising him for his unbelief: 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 realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute [21-22].” [Ryken, pp. 16-27].
[63-65] “As Luke tells the story of John’s nativity, he starts with the facts: Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son . Imagine the scene. After long months of pregnancy and hard hours of labor, old Elizabeth had her baby and the whole town came to celebrate. In a small village any birth is a public event, but especially under these circumstances. The people praised God for His mercy to Elizabeth in giving her a son. The angel’s promise had come true: You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth . On the eighth day it was time for John to be circumcised. According to the law [Gen. 17:12-13], he needed to be given the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Zechariah and Elizabeth believed the promise of salvation, and by faith they presented their son to God. Everyone in the village showed up at the family’s house to welcome their child into fellowship with the people of God . It was at this time that a child was formally given his name. Naturally people expected Elizabeth to name her son Zechariah . According to custom, a firstborn son was always named after his father. But Elizabeth surprised everyone by calling him John . Elizabeth was emphatic. The baby’s name was John, not Zechariah. Whether by direct revelation or by written communication with her husband, Elizabeth knew that this was the name the angel had given to Zechariah. Immediately her family and friends started to protest . Naming the child Zechariah was the only way to carry on Zechariah’s good name. Calling the baby John didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t even a family name. In their consternation, the people appealed to the child’s father. Elizabeth wasn’t playing by the rules, but maybe Zechariah would listen to reason . To this point the old priest had been watching in silence. Because he had balked at God’s promise, his encounter with the angel had left him unable to speak, and apparently also unable to hear (note that the people make signs for Zechariah rather than speaking to him). Zechariah had been deaf and dumb for over nine months, and his disabilities kept him out of the conversation, as disabilities often do. Presumably he did not even know what Elizabeth had called their son. But now everyone wanted to hear what he had to say. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John” . Zechariah was as stubborn about the child’s name as Elizabeth was. Both parents were willing to go against the wishes of their family and friends to do the will of God. This was not a name that Zechariah had chosen, but a name that was given by God to express the child’s new identity. As we listen to the names in this story, we begin to sense that God is up to something big. Zechariah means that God remembers. Elizabeth means that God is faithful. John means that God is merciful. Then there is the sweetest name of all: Jesus, which means “God saves.” Luke is telling the story of salvation, and these people are part of the story. The faithful God who shows mercy to sinners has remembered His promise to save. At the very moment Zechariah wrote down John’s name he finally found his voice: And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God . The timing of Zechariah’s speech was significant. The angel had said to him, 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 . Given this prophecy, we might have expected the man to get his voice back the day the baby was born. Yet strangely Zechariah was speechless for another week. He did not find his voice until he named his son John. Only then did the angel’s promise fully come true. Or to put it another way, God waited until Zechariah acted on his faith. By calling him John, the priest showed that he truly believed what the angel had said. By naming the boy John – in obedience to God – Zechariah was proving his faith in God’s promise. The words on the tablet showed that God had done a gracious work in Zechariah’s life, bringing the old man to sure and certain faith. At first Zechariah doubted, but God disciplined him in a way that taught him to trust. This is something God often does, and it is always a mercy when He does it. He uses the hard experience of suffering to teach us to trust in Him. Zechariah was not able to speak for at least nine months, which is a long time to remain silent. So perhaps it is not surprising that when he finally broke his silence, he had something important to say. The first words out of his mouth were offering praise to God . This showed the true condition of Zechariah’s heart. His suffering had done him spiritual good. Before he did anything else, he wanted to give praise to God. What came out next was an exuberant eruption of praise. All of the joy that had been pent up inside the priest during the long months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy now came pouring out in a cascade of exultation [67-79]. Once he believed, he had to worship, because whenever we know what God has done for our salvation, we are compelled to praise Him for it. Genuine faith always expresses itself in jubilant praise, and where there is no real worship, we may wonder if there is any true faith at all.” [Ryken, pp. 54-64].
Questions for Discussion:
1. Zechariah and Elizabeth suffered through a life without children. Now they were old and past the child-bearing age. Describe how they lived in the midst of disappointment. What question should we ask ourselves in the midst of suffering? What did God have planned for the couple? How do you think they viewed their suffering after God gave them a son? What can we learn about dealing with disappointment from this passage?
2. What did Gabriel tell Zechariah that John would do [14-17]? What impact would John have upon the nation of Israel? Why did Gabriel call this message to Zechariah good news?
3. What lesson was God teaching Zechariah in taking away his ability to speak? What evidence do we see that Zechariah learned his lesson?
Luke 1:1-9:50, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.
Luke, vol. 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P & R Publishing.
Luke, Robert Stein, NAC, Broadman.