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 give him the name 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 from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back 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 fathers 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 answered, "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 proper 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."  Version: New International Version

COMMENTS

General:

  • Zechariah belongs to the clan of Abijah (1 Chronicles 24:10). There were 24 priestly divisions, and each served in the temple for two weeks a year. That is, most priests had other jobs; they rotated in and out of Jerusalem when their time came up.
  • The priest Zechariah is on duty (v.8ff) when a remarkable thing happens: an angelic visitation. It is Gabriel (v.19), archangel of the Lord (Daniel 8:16; 9:21). Quite naturally, he is terrified (v.12).
  • The angel tries to calm him, and gives him instructions about his special son (v.13ff).
    • He will be named John. This is a name from the intertestamental period, and is associated with revolution and independence -- how appropriate for the one who will introduce the Messiah to the world! In Hebrew, Yohanan means "God has been gracious."
    • His birth will bring joy to many, and he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
    • He is to abstain from alcohol (part of the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6).
    • He will be filled with the Spirit of God, and will go forth in the spirit of Elijah. (Of course his being filled with the Spirit from birth is nothing compared to Jesus' being filled with God from birth (the incarnation)!
    • He will lead a large number of Israelites to repentance, just as Malachi prophesied.
    • He will turn people from disobedient ignorance to the wisdom of the righteous. See Psalm 37:30; Proverbs 10:31; Daniel 12:3.
  • Zechariah responds incredulously (v.18).
    • As a result, he is punished, becoming a mute for nearly a year! He also appears to have become deaf (see v.62).
    • Contrast this with Mary's open response in 1:34, which contrasts with Zechariah's skepticism.
    • The crowd outside the sanctuary realizes that he has had a vision (v.22). Ironically, it was his failure to see, to grasp what was happening, that led to his inability to speak.
  • The people were all "waiting" (v.21) because as officiating priest, Zechariah would have pronounced the final blessing after the incense offering (according to the rabbinic m.Tamid 7:2). Yet he has been struck dumb (and perhaps deaf as well), and so cannot conclude his expected duties.
  • All the same, Elizabeth conceives (v.24).
  • She is thrilled that her "disgrace" has been removed (v.25). In biblical (traditional) culture, childlessness was a stigma; children were a mark of God's favor (Genesis 30:1; Deuteronomy 7:14; Psalm 127:5). But the significant point is not that she (finally) became a mother, but that God used her in salvation history as she became the mother of the bridging figure between the testaments, John the Baptist.

Advanced:

  • According to the rabbinic source m.Tamid 5:2-6:3, temple duties were allocated by lot. With many thousands of priests in Israel, this meant that Zechariah's chance to offer incense was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This was no routine trip to Jerusalem.
  • For the background of verses 16-17, see Malachi 3-4. John prepares people for the coming of the Messiah by:
    • Calling Israel back to obedience to the heart of the law (Malachi 4:4).
    • Boldly challenging the religious and national authorities (Malachi 4:5).
    • Helping people to be reconciled to one another (Malachi 4:6), as a precondition of being reconciled with God.
  • He came in the spirit and power of Elijah (v.17). For more, click here.
  • Though John was "Spirit-filled" (v.15) from birth -- putting him way ahead of any other O.T. prophet -- he never did anything miraculous (John 10:41). This gives the lie to the common belief that being Spirit-filled means the ability to prophesy, speak in "tongues," etc.
  • Gabriel (v.19) is one of the chief angels, and in fact one of the seven who ministered in the presence of God, according to 1 Enoch 20; T. Levi 8; Tobit 12:15; Revelation 8:2-6.
  • The Greek kophos can mean both "mute" and "deaf." Zechariah was unable to hear (v.22), which may have been a result of old age, or else it could have been a consequence of the (temporary) divine discipline.
  • In regard to verse 24, it is interesting that Elizabeth concealed her pregnancy for five months (as long as she could). In the sixth month, Mary visits her, following which Mary becomes pregnant. 6 months + 9 months + 40 days (Jesus' age at being presented at the Temple) = 490 days, or 70 weeks. Could this connect to Daniel 9:24?

Thought questions:

  • Parents, what is your vision for your child? Is it "to be great in the sight of the Lord," or something less lofty (easier)?
  • When you read something astounding in God's word, do you tend to react, "How can this be?" (Zechariah) or "How will this be?" (Mary)? Do you tend to be doubtful, or hopeful -- unbelieving, or believing?
  • When it comes to telling others about God's will, do I "have a voice," or has it been muted through unbelief? And if so, how long before I "talk" again?