In the opening section of this gospel, Luke gathers together a group of visions and prophesies. For Luke, these herald the dawning of the messianic era; they testify that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah. The first vision records Zechariah's encounter with an angel. Zechariah's angelic apparition is typical of visions in that the angel speaks, there is fear and this is dispelled by the angel's message. Then there is doubt, settled by a sign.
v5. A priest would get to preside at the morning or evening sacrifice in the temple once in their life, if they were lucky. Zechariah was a member of Abijah, the eighth of twenty-four ancient priestly orders. His wife was also of a priestly family. His opportunity to serve comes during Herod's reigns in Palestine (Judea means Palestine here).
v6-7. Both Zechariah and his wife were, in an Old Testament sense, godly people, yet they were aged and childless.
v8-10. It was in his old age that the priestly lottery fell on Zechariah. One of his duties was to keep the incense burning on the altar in front of the Most Holy Place hidden from the worshippers outside.
v11-12. In the quietness and solitude of the Holy Place, an angel appears and speaks with Zechariah. Fear is a reasonable response, given the circumstances. The term "angel of the Lord" means "the angel who serves the Lord."
v13-15. The angel tells how Zechariah and Elizabeth's prayer for a child is about to be answered. The child will be a son and they must name him John. He will be a "joy and delight" to them. His birth will cause great rejoicing. He will be "great in the sight of the Lord". He is not to drink alcohol and will be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth." He will be stimulated by the Spirit rather than alcohol. The Holy Spirit had come on the Old Testament prophets intermittently, but John is to reflect the dawning of the new age where the Spirit is poured out permanently.
v16-17. John will gather many of the lost of Israel into the kingdom. He will be the long-awaited Elijah who will turn the hearts of the people in preparation for the coming of the messiah, Mal.4:5.
v18. Zechariah doubts the veracity of the vision; a typical response.
v19-20. The angel gives his name, although it is more rightly a function. Gabriel foretold the messiah's coming and now proclaims that the day has come, Dan.9:25. We are told that Gabriel's final proclamation is the sounding of the trumpet at the parousia. Doubt has its cost and so Zechariah is given a sign; he is rendered speechless until the birth of John.
v21-22. The sacrificial service was proceeding outside while Zechariah served before the Most Holy Place. As part of the ceremony, the priest would come out and pronounce a blessing. Zechariah was delayed by the vision, and when he did come out, the best he could do was gesture to the gathered worshippers. They reasoned rightly that he had seen a vision.
v23-25. The service completed, Zechariah and Elizabeth return home. Elizabeth concealed her pregnancy for as long as possible, most likely to saviour its joy for herself. In Jewish society, to be found childless was regarded as a "disgrace", a "reproach".
Zechariah's priestly order was assigned a week's service at the temple and Zechariah was given, by lot, the privilege of offering incense before the Most Holy Place in the temple. In the stillness of the temple he is confronted by the angel Gabriel ("the man of God"). Gabriel tells him his prayers have been answered. His fatherly prayer for a son and his priestly prayer for the coming of the new Elijah (he who heralds the coming kingdom), will be answered in a first-born child to be named John. John will be no ordinary prophet, he will take a special vow (he will not drink alcohol) and he will receive special grace (the Holy Spirit will be poured out on him permanently). Yet, his greatness will be found in proclamation - turning the hearts of Israel toward the coming messiah and his kingdom.
It was not unreasonable for Zechariah to ask for a sign ("How can I be sure of this"), but by doubting the Lord's word ("I am an old man and my wife is well along in years"), the sign became a chastisement as well as a blessing. Until John's naming, Zechariah couldn't speak.
For Luke, the vision in the temple serves to authenticate the ministry of Jesus. It proclaims the dawning of the messianic age, an age that finds its fulfillment in Christ. The long-awaited dawning of the messianic age begins with a message from God through Gabriel, the very angel who will also end the age in a trumpet blast. Against the rigors of age, one greater than a prophet will be born to herald the coming messiah.
Although not central to the passage, the response of Zechariah to Gabriel's message is one we can all identify with. Authenticating a vision, authenticating a word from the Lord, is one thing, doubting that word is another. We possess substantial truths from the Lord, promises of forgiveness, acceptance, an eternal possession..... Verifying such promises is one thing, doubting them is a disaster.
1. Note John's role and discuss how he prepares the way of the Lord.
2. How was Zechariah's faith tested?