Luke 1:5-25 – Background of the story

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”


Luke begins his story with these words: ’’In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.”

He gives the reader a time, a place, a set of characters; he lets us know the implied promise that something is coming, creating an atmosphere of great expectation. Luke beautifully and powerfully captures in words one of those unique moments in time.

Herod was of Arab (Nabatean) and Edomite descent, whose ancestors converted to Judaism. Herod was born around 74 BCE in Idumea, south of Judea. He was raised as a Jew. He was  appointed Herod governor of Galilee at 25, and his elder brother, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem. He enjoyed the backing of Rome but his brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin.

He has been described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis”, “the evil genius of the Judean nation”, “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition”, and “the greatest builder in Jewish history”.He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Herod’s Temple), the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada and Herodium.

Thus, Luke is reminding us that there is a spiritual vacuum in those controlling the land and the Temple.

Because of this, many Jews were prayerfully waiting for God to change the leadership over both. As they intensely prayed for that outcome, many would have remembered God’s covenant with David, that there would come a time when He would send One to establish a new authority in the land and a new spirit of worship in the Temple. That is part of the backdrop that Luke assumes we realize as he starts to unfold this story. 

there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old .

Other than the issues associated with Rome’s oppression and the spiritual sterility of Temple leadership, we know little about the events, circumstances or issues surrounding Zechariah’s birth.

Because the Semitic meaning of Zechariah is “whom Jehovah remembers,” his son now had a name that invokes the personal, covenantal name of God, and recalls His promises and testimony to be faithful to his people.

The purpose of naming in first century culture often was to encourage the name-bearer to remember something about God and what He has done.

In choosing this name, Zechariah’s father drew upon a prophetic name that hearkens back almost 500 years in the nation’s history. In the time of returning from Babylon to rebuild the Temple, a prophet and priest named Zechariah was visited by an angel. From that vision, he penned God’s words of prophetic hope that promised a “restored kingdom community and a functioning temple.”

Zechariah’s father had just given him a name that came with a history and a legacy. He would now journey through the rest of his days never forgetting what the Lord had done for his father, as well as his father’s (and the nation’s) hopes for the land and the Temple.

Because Aaron had been Israel’s very first Chief Priest, and with Elizabeth’s name meaning “one who swears by God,” if one wanted a great name and legacy for a priest’s wife, this was it!

Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

In this religious culture, children were seen as God’s direct and evident blessing to His people.

However, if God looked with disfavor on you, you would have no children as punishment for your guilt. For most people,  there was no ambiguity in this way of thinking. Either God looked upon you with favor, or He did not. You were either “righteous” or you were a “sinner.

Luke informs us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright  (“righteous” in several other translations) in God’s eyes. In this culture, that meant that they were behaviorally obedient in observing the Ten Commandments, as well as all the Levitical laws concerning diet, including all the feasts and festivals. In describing Zechariah and Elizabeth this way, Luke is also telling us that God looked upon this couple with favor, not only because of their faithful behavior, but because their hearts were right in God’s sight as well.

Luke’s use of the present tense “observing” (“living blamelessly” ) tells us that this couple consistently lived out this righteous posture toward God. 

The extraordinary thing about Zechariah was his faith. He is often portrayed in a negative cast, as one with little faith, someone who did not believe and therefore had his speech taken away from him. However, it is critical that he be seen in the light of his own personal life situation.

He and his wife Elizabeth were both from priestly descent, from the line of Aaron. It was an honor to have a wife of priestly descent, as Zechariah himself was a priest. At that time there was no retirement age for priests, and Luke tells us that they were quite old, and still childless, something seen as disgraceful in the shame-based culture of the Middle East. In Jewish rabbinic law, failure to produce a child was grounds for divorce. And while not having a child was quite a negative stigma, not having a son was far more dishonorable.

Often children” and “sons” are synonymous in a patriarchal society.

Certainly, Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced a great deal of humiliation and most probably were shunned by some in the community. Many people at the time saw childlessness as a curse, and believed that someone in the family had probably committed some secret wrong.  Although Zechariah and Elizabeth appeared to be righteous, they must have offended God in some way, and He is punishing them for their sin.

Yet through all of these challenges Zechariah and Elizabeth’s hearts remained sensitive. Luke describes them as “upright,” carrying no bitterness in spite of their discouragement over the years.

Zechariah lived at a time that has been referred to as the “silent years,” a period between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament when in effect God seemed silent to the Jewish people, for what they called “prophecy” had ended. Ever since returning from their Babylonian exile, for almost four hundred years, the Jewish people had experienced a faraway and distant God. Nevertheless, they still prayed for (even if barely) and still hoped (even if just) that their Christ, the Messiah, their Savior, would come. And Zechariah was one of the priests selected to lead the people in this hopeful prayer, even though he, like his people, heard and saw nothing of the Messiah himself. 

An early theme in Luke is one of waiting with “unfulfilled longings.”

Waiting

  1. Every time Zechariah came to Jerusalem, he saw Roman soldiers standing guard around the Temple and wondered, “How long must the nation wait?”
  2. And whenever he thought about Elizabeth, he wondered how long must the two of them wait. What if they never had a child? Was Jehovah remembering him, or might the Lord have passed them by?

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.

One day as they cast the lot to determine who would keep the incense burning in the most holy place of the temple, the lot fell on Zechariah.

At that time there were approximately twenty thousand priests, far too many to serve all at the same time in the temple. Therefore, since the time of King David, the priests were divided up into twenty-four divisions of approximately one thousand each. Zechariah was of the division of Abijah.

Each priest was responsible for a week’s service at the temple every six months, which entailed teaching the Scriptures, directing worship, and maintaining the upkeep of the temple.

The division of Abijah was eighth on the roster. At the beginning of each week they drew lots (cast dice) as to who would do what: the ultimate responsibility and honor was to be selected to go into the most holy place, and to refresh the supply of incense on the altar, in order to keep it burning, before the morning and evening sacrifice. As the smoke of the incense rose from the altar, the people outside in the courtyard joined in silent prayer. The smoke drifting upward symbolized their prayers ascending to God’s throne for the coming of the Messiah. And a priest could be assigned this duly only once in a lifetime.

While on duty yet again with his Division and family clan,  and perhaps now approaching his fourth decade of service in the priesthood, Zechariah was finally chosen by lot to perform the coveted incense offering. At last, he would enter the Holy Place in the Temple to perform this offering at the Altar of Incense. Given the design of that part of the Temple, he would now be within thirty feet of the Holy of Holies, separated only by the  massive veil that divided these two chambers  In Temple worship tradition, the upwards trail of incense smoke was viewed as signifying the ascending prayers of the people rising up to God

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 call him 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents 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 said to him, “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 appointed time.”

Clothed in white robes, his head covered, shoes off, incense in hand, facing east, he enters alone, the most holy place in the temple. And there, while filling the incense and praying his greatest prayer, with reverence and even trepidation, an angel named Gabriel appears to him between the altar of incense and the golden candlestick, and says to him, “Your prayer has been heard.” In fact, the angel’s announcement has a double meaning: You will have a son, he tells Zechariah, and that son will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

His son would be John the Baptist. Characteristics of John:

A he would be great in the sight of God

B he would drink no wine and thus live the ascetic life of a Nazarene, setting him apart from ordinary people

C he would be filled with the Spirit from his conception

D he would prepare for the Messiah and thus be a catalyst between Israel and God. 

Zechariah is honored by God to be the first person to learn that  the Messiah’s coming is imminent.  He asks for a sign – “How can I be sure of this?” “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” He can’t trust the Lord’s promise of a son, which suggests that perhaps he had prayed his ascending prayers without any conviction they would be answered. While Zechariah has long been faithful, he is not perfect, nor can he be expected to be.  He will not be able to talk until the child is born.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances, Zechariah quibbled. He expressed doubts that this could happen. He discreetly implied that he was no longer capable of sexual intercourse, and that his wife had ceased menstruating.

There was genuine confusion on his part here, but there was also the sense that he was objecting, as he asked for a sign – just as Abraham did (Genesis 15:8), and Gideon (Judges 6:36-40) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:8-11).

The angel responded by naming itself – ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God’. Only the highest officials in an oriental royal court stood in the presence of the king. Protocol demanded that most people bow or prostrate themselves, so Gabriel was telling Zechariah he had committed an offense in not believing the message.

As punishment Zechariah was reduced to silence, probably becoming both deaf and mute. In one way it was a reassuring miracle, but in another it was a punishment, one that would last until the birth of the child set him free.

Part of the protocol of the incense offering was for the officiating priest to pronounce the prescribed Numbers 6:24-26 blessing at the end of the liturgy.

When Zechariah came out of the Temple he was unable to speak. Clearly something momentous had happened. The priests and people interpreted his silence as proof that he had had some profound religious experience, possibly a vision, but Zechariah could tell them of his experience. Frustrated by his inability to speak, he tried to explain by signing. This had limited success. He finished out his allotted time of office, then headed for home.

Silence is often God’s prescription for those times when we are having difficulty listening to Him, when we are so preoccupied with our own issues that we don’t hear, or can’t take time to listen to God’s “still small voice.”

Going home, Zechariah now has a new challenge. Now mute, and considered by his culture to be possibly deaf as well, he cannot easily communicate. How will he explain all this to Elizabeth? For starters, Zechariah now needs to find a writing tablet so he can share this incredible experience with her.

Zechariah had doubted but Elizabeth had not, and so now she, not her unfortunate husband, moved into the spotlight, favored above her husband. Home at last, Zechariah found comfort in the arms of Elizabeth. One thing led to another, and she became pregnant – to her surprise and the amazement of her family and friends.

When she realized she was pregnant, she went into seclusion. This meant she did not leave her house for any reason, nor receive any visitors. She stayed like this, leading a calm and quiet life, until her pregnancy became physically obvious to all who saw her.

These two announcements – the Messiah’s coming and the coming of a son for them as couple  are jointly pronounced. They cannot be separated, for the angel’s announcement interweaves the Messiah’s coming and the coming of a son for them as couple. . Old and childless, Zechariah and Elizabeth are to receive a son who fits into the larger purposes of God in their nation: the coming of their Messiah.

Zechariah and Elizabeth then go to the hills for five months, perhaps not only to get away from the rumors flying around, but also to ponder what all this meant for them. In the sixth month, Zechariah would have returned to Jerusalem to serve again at the temple.

In Luke’s compelling narrative, not only does the Lord remember  this couple, He rescues them. In so doing, He honors their decades of righteous waiting. In the process of being released from her cultural disgrace, Elizabeth is restored to social acceptance in a most significant way. In opening her womb, God has not only taken away her disgrace, but has also lifted her up to an honored position in the family clan. She has gone from being on the “outs” to being very “in,” from being marginalized and excluded, to being at the epicenter of inclusion. What a reversal! That is often God’s way.

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