Gabriel’s Announcement of John’s Birth (Luke 1:5-25)

Submitted by admin on Mon, 2007-05-21 11:57.

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Aged priest Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth, also in the line of descent from Israel’s first high priest Aaron, lived uprightly and blamelessly, conscientiously observing God’s commands set forth in the Mosaic law. In the culture of that time, their childlessness would have been stigmatized, with many considering it to be a sign of divine disfavor. (Luke 1:5-7)

As a member of the division of the priestly division of Abijah, Zechariah carried out his duties during his designated period of service. Centuries earlier, King David had arranged for 24 divisions of priests. The division of Abijah was the eighth of the 24 divisions. (1 Chronicles 24:3-10) Each division served for one week every six months, with the entire priesthood being present for the annual festivals.

It was then toward the close of Herod the Great’s long reign over Judea. One day, during the period of his priestly service, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple to offer the incense. According to the Mishnah (Tamid 5:2), the superintendent or officer of the temple invited priests who had not shared in this service before to cast lots. Twice each day, in the morning and in the evening, a priest would burn incense on the alter inside the holy of the temple. (Compare Exodus 30:7, 8.) When he did so, no one else would be inside the sanctuary. The account does not indicate whether Zechariah entered the sanctuary in the morning or in the evening. If the Mishnah reflects the procedure then followed, Zechariah would have shared in this honorable service for the first time in his life. Outside, the assembled worshipers prayed while he officiated in the sanctuary. (Luke 1:8-10)

The sight of an angel on the right side of the altar of incense startled Zechariah and made him apprehensive. “Fear not,” the angel reassured him, and added that his prayer had been answered. (Luke 1:11-13) It is not likely that this would have been a personal prayer for a son. In his capacity as priest, Zechariah would more likely have prayed for the “redemption of Jerusalem” or the deliverance the coming of the Messiah would bring about and which godly Israelites eagerly awaited. (Compare Luke 2:38.)

The angel related the joyful news that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth would bear a son, to be named John. This son would be a source of great joy to him and to many others. John would be great before God. As one specially chosen, he was not to drink wine or any other intoxicants. From birth, he would be filled with holy spirit. His role would be to cause many Israelites to change their ways and to return to God. The dynamic energizing spirit and power in evidence on the earlier prophet Elijah would be at work in John. He would turn the “hearts of fathers to children and the disobedient to the understanding of the upright, to prepare a people for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17)

The angel’s words indicated that John’s activity would lead many to a major transformation of their lives, involving the “heart” or the deep inner self. The focus would be on the restoration of proper relationships, which would start with the family and extend to fellow Israelites. Ultimately and most importantly, the people needed to come into a right relationship with God. John would be urging his people to cease being disobedient to the Almighty and start acting in harmony with the understanding or wisdom that distinguishes upright persons. All responding properly would thus be made ready for the Lord, the promised Messiah.

As a priest, aged Zechariah would have been well-acquainted with the history of his people and that long-barren women like Sarah, Rebekah, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, and the hospitable woman of Shunem did become mothers. Moreover, he found himself in God’s temple and heard the promise from an angel, a reliable messenger. Yet, Zechariah’s response was not one of joyous acceptance with unwavering faith. His words reflected doubt, “How am I to know this? For I am old and my wife is advanced in days.” (Luke 1:18)

The angel replied with words of strong reproof. “I am Gabriel, who stands before God, and I was sent to speak to you and announce these glad tidings to you. And, see! you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things occur, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:19, 20) Especially because of what he knew and the unique circumstances, Zechariah had a sound basis for believing the message conveyed to him. His doubting merited correction and discipline.

The interchange with Gabriel resulted in Zechariah’s being in the sanctuary much longer than was customary. So the assembled worshipers began to wonder about the delay. For Zechariah, confirmation of Gabriel’s words followed immediately. On coming out of the temple, he could not speak. His inability to vocalize the priestly blessing, coupled with the signs he made (likely with his hands, head and lips), made the people realize that he had seen a vision. (Luke 1:21, 22)

Zechariah completed his period of service and returned home, unable to speak about his experience to Elizabeth. (Luke 1:23) Based on what happened later, he probably communicated with her by signs and in writing. (Compare Luke 1:62, 63.)

After Elizabeth became pregnant, she remained in seclusion for five months. When it would have been clear to observers that the reproach of barrenness had been removed from her, she resumed her usual routine in the community. (Luke 1:24, 25)