In his account of the life-story of the Lord Jesus, Luke devotes a large part of the first chapter of his Gospel not to the experience of Mary and Joseph, but to that of Zacharias and Elisabeth. This elderly couple, living in the hill country of Judah, v. 39, no doubt had little idea that God would use them to bring into the world a child who would fulfil prophecy, call the favoured nation out of its spiritual slumber to prepare the way of the Lord, and become the baptizer of the Messiah Himself. There are many different ways of looking at their story, but it is interesting to consider some of the contrasting expressions that we find in Luke chapter 1.
The Spirit of God has given high praise to these two saints. They were meticulous in their observance of divine commands, to the extent that they are described as ‘righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord’. Not only that, but they are called ‘blameless’, v. 6. Of course, this does not mean that they were sinless, but it carries the idea that they were beyond reproach. This is a great commendation, and, in a sense, it is something that is open to any believer; obedience to the word of God, a quietness of spirit, and a heart of love can lead to any believer being described as ‘blameless’, Phil. 2. 12-15; 1 Thess. 3. 12, 13. Let us challenge ourselves as to whether we could be held up as examples in the same way as Zacharias and Elisabeth were.
And yet, there was a great sadness in their home – ‘they had no child’. The first thing that we learn from this is that godliness of character is no protection against sorrow of heart. We are not told how long they had been married for, but it had been long enough for it to become apparent that their union would not be blessed with children. Perhaps their hopes slowly faded over the years, and they had to come to terms with the fact that the joy of parenthood would not be theirs. How they coped with the sadness of this is not told to us, nor is any record left of their feelings as they tried to rejoice with other families in the town as children were born into other homes while their own remained childless. It must have taken great strength of character to continue to walk blamelessly before their God when all the prayers that they offered went seemingly unanswered, v. 13, but their commendation remained – ‘righteous before God’. May God give us all help to be worthy of similar praise in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
It must have been a great day for Zacharias when the privilege of entering the Temple to burn incense fell to him. Little did he know that in one sense it would be both the greatest and lowest day of his life. In the silence of the sacred shrine, with the prayers of the people ascending outside, he stood before the altar and offered the incense in the prescribed manner. Suddenly, there appeared an angel from heaven, bearing the news that he had long thought he would never hear, ‘thy prayer is heard … thy wife shall bear thee a son’, v. 13. A literal rendering of this verse is, ‘thy prayer was heard’. The idea is not that God, having ignored his prayer for many years, had now decided to answer it, but rather that the prayer was answered on the day that it was made, but the revelation of that answer to Zacharias had been withheld until the fullness of the time in the divine programme had come. We can scarcely be critical of the elderly priest, but the fact remains that when he should have been praising God for His kindness, his faith in God failed and he focused more on the earthly problem than on the heavenly promise. God had sent a messenger from His own presence, and yet all that Zacharias could think of was ‘his own body, now dead’, cp. Rom. 4. 19. Indeed, the fact that God had in the past wrought a similar miracle in the life of Abraham and Sarah should have been enough ground for his faith to rest on, and yet it stumbled because his focus was not on the word from heaven but on the limitations of human flesh. Consequently, the sentence of judgement was pronounced by Gabriel, and when Zacharias emerged again to meet the waiting multitude he had no blessing to give to them.
Have we not found ourselves often in a similar situation? A promise comes to us from the scriptures, but we cannot think how God will bring it to pass, so we fail to trust Him. Or, our prayers seem to have gone so long without an answer that we begin to doubt God’s ability or desire to answer us. Of course, not every request will be granted; if we ask for things that are ungodly, or ask out of a selfish motive, cp. Jas. 4. 3, we cannot expect to receive what we want! Alternatively, God may have some higher thing that He will give us, or it may be that in His wisdom it is necessary for us to wait before He moves to bless us. And yet the God that we serve is a God who has promised to answer His people’s prayers! Let us, therefore, see to it that we do not, like the people of Nazareth in the Lord’s day, limit His ability to work by our lack of trust in Him.
While it is often dangerous to speculate regarding the reasons why God has acted in a particular way, it is certainly possible to see in this chapter the results of God’s dealings with this couple. Notice some of the outcomes of what they experienced at His hand:
The people of God were helped When Mary was visited by Gabriel, one of the things that he told her was that Elisabeth was expecting a child, v. 36. This proof of the fact that God not only could work miracles, but was at that time acting in this way, would no doubt be a help to Mary in her acceptance of the divine message she had received. It is interesting to note that when the angel left her, Mary’s instinct was to go to see Elisabeth and spend several months with her, vv. 39, 40, 56. We can only imagine the fellowship and conversations of those days as Mary and Elisabeth prepared to bring their respective children into the world. How different things might have been if the birth of John had followed the normal and natural pattern! There is a great challenge in this – would I be prepared to sacrifice some joy in life in order to be a help to someone who has a greater part to play in the things of God than I do?
There is a remarkable amount of praise in this chapter; from the praise of Elisabeth in verse 25 to the prophecy of Zacharias in verses 68 to 79. Notice particularly, the twofold effect that this had on the people in verses 65 and 66; they acquired a greater reverence for God, perhaps because of the way He had dealt with Zacharias, but they were also prepared for the future ministry of John. When he came into the countryside around Jordan there must have been those who remembered the remarkable circumstances of his birth, and were ready to acknowledge him as a prophet of the Lord, 3. 2, 3. Again, there is a great challenge in this – if my sorrow leads to the greatness of God being more widely understood and enjoyed, would I think that a price worth paying?
The months must have been long and weary for Zacharias as he sat silent in his own house. No doubt the consciousness of his own failure lay heavy upon him, as day followed speechless day. ‘Thou shalt be dumb’ – how tragic for a priest to be unable to pray audibly or speak to his fellow man! And yet the situation was not hopeless, for the angel had said ‘Thou shalt be dumb, until’, and so eventually the day came when the time of discipline was past, and his speech was restored, v. 64. Indeed, verse 67 goes on to tell us that he was filled with the Spirit, and prophesied. How gracious of God! How kind, to allow a failing man to be the channel of divine revelation! Let us take heart from this; failure is not final, and those who are willing to submit themselves to the hand of God can, despite their shortcomings, be usable once again in the hand of God.
In summary, then, what can we learn from the experience of Zacharias and Elisabeth?
May God help us to follow the example of this godly couple!
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