18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” – Luke 1:18-25 ESV
Having recovered from the initial shock of his divine encounter with the angelic visitor, Zechariah gathered his wits about him and assessed the content of the message. He immediately saw a problem and shared his concern with the angel.
“How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” – Luke 1:18 NLT
He desperately wanted to believe the news that his barren wife would have a son, but he needed proof. After all, the odds were stacked against them. Even if God could arrange for Elizabeth to get pregnant, there was another pressing problem: She was well beyond child-bearing age. So, as wonderful as this news sounded, Zechariah was having a difficult time accepting it as true.
You would have thought the appearance of an angel would have been more than enough for Zechariah. As a priest of God, he would have known about Israel’s history and the other divine encounters his forefathers had experienced, including Abraham the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. As we saw yesterday, there are glaring similarities between the story of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both couples were advanced in years and the two women were suffering from an inability to bear children. Yet, centuries earlier, God had appeared to Abraham in a vision and declared His intention to bless this elderly couple and make of them a great nation.
“Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” – Genesis 15:1 NLT
But Abraham, like Zechariah, had found the good news to be a bit too good to be true.
“O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:2-3 NLT
Abraham saw a glaring flaw in God’s plan and couldn’t help but share it. Yet God was nonplused, responding to Abraham’s doubt with further assurances of His intentions to make of Abraham a great nation.
“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” – Genesis 15:4-5 NLT
What happens next is significant and often overlooked. We are told that Abraham believed God and “the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Abraham is recognized for his faith and declared to be righteous accordingly. Yet, moments later, after God reiterates His promise to give Abraham the entire land of Canaan as his possession, Abraham responds in doubt.
But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT
Within minutes, Abraham went from believing God to having serious concerns about God’s ability to pull off what He was promising. So, he asked the Lord for a sign and received one. It may be that Zechariah had this story in mind when he said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” Abraham had asked for and received a sign, so why shouldn’t he? But what Zechariah got was a stern answer from the angel.
“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” – Luke 1:19 NLT
This was not just any angel, but the well-known and revered Gabriel. Zechariah would have recognized the name because the prophet, Daniel, had recorded about his two encounters with the very same angel.
As I, Daniel, was trying to understand the meaning of this vision, someone who looked like a man stood in front of me. And I heard a human voice calling out from the Ulai River, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of his vision.”
As Gabriel approached the place where I was standing, I became so terrified that I fell with my face to the ground. – Daniel 8:16-17 NLT
Daniel would have a second and equally memorable visit from Gabriel.
As I was praying, Gabriel, whom I had seen in the earlier vision, came swiftly to me at the time of the evening sacrifice. He explained to me, “Daniel, I have come here to give you insight and understanding. The moment you began praying, a command was given. And now I am here to tell you what it was, for you are very precious to God. Listen carefully so that you can understand the meaning of your vision.” – Daniel 9:21-23 NLT
This was the very same angelic being who was appearing to Zechariah, having been sent from the very throne room of God with a personal message for this elderly priest and his barren wife. But because Zechariah had chosen to doubt the veracity of the message, Gabriel delivered a stern word of rebuke along with a promise to give Zechariah the sign he had requested.
“…because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” – Luke 1:20 NLT
Zechariah was immediately struck dumb. He lost his ability to speak. He had asked for a sign and received one. And it is interesting to note that, with the sign, Zechariah had the proof he needed to believe the message of Gabriel. The good news was true. But now, because of his lack of faith, he had lost the ability to share that news with anyone. On leaving the temple, he was immediately confronted by those in the courtyard who had begun to worry about his long delay. They peppered him with questions, but unable to speak, Zechariah was forced to use his hands to try and explain what had happened inside the temple. But despite Zechariah’s hampered communications capacity, the onlookers could tell that something significant had taken place.
They realized that he had seen a vision in the Holy Place. – Luke 1:22 NLT
When he had completed his priestly duties for the day, Zechariah returned home. He couldn’t wait to share the good news with his wife but would find it virtually impossible to convey the content of Gabriel’s message without the ability to speak.
Somehow, Zechariah was able to let his wife know the exciting news. At some point, he probably took a stylus and a sheet of parchment and inscribed the details of his encounter with Gabriel. And it seems likely that Elizabeth would have been just as incredulous at discovering the content of the angel’s message. But as the months passed, she soon received irrefutable proof that all Gabriel had said was true. She was pregnant. Despite her old age and barren state, she had a child forming in her womb. And she immediately recognized her condition as a gracious gift from the hand of God.
“This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.” – Luke 1:25 NLT
Her words echo those of Rachel, another barren woman who was given a child by the gracious hand of God.
She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. – Genesis 30:23 NLT
Elizabeth shared the same boundless gratitude to God that Hannah expressed when her years of barrenness ended with the birth of Samuel. She proclaimed her joy and thanks to God in the form of a son.
“My heart rejoices in the Lord!
The Lord has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
I rejoice because you rescued me.” – 1 Samuel
Whether these women realized it or not, they were speaking on behalf of the entire nation of Israel. Each of them had suffered through years of childlessness, bearing the shame and indignation that accompanied their inability to provide their husbands with offspring. In their culture, that was a fate worse than death. They were fruitless and powerless to do anything about it. Yet, each of them had called out to God and He had heard their cries and answered.
Elizabeth had longed for God to remove her reproach. She was tired of being the focus of everyone’s cruel gossip. She knew that other women were talking among themselves, spreading the vicious rumors that she had done something to anger God. These women would have assumed that Elizabeth was being punished for some hidden sin or moral indiscretion. Her inability to bear children must have been a curse from God Almighty. But they were wrong. Her barrenness, like that of Hannah, Sarah, and Rachel, was meant to be a sign that God could reverse the fortunes of the fruitless and hopeless. He could turn a barren womb into a place of sanctuary and nurture for the next generation of Israelites. He could use a woman’s reproach to bring about the world’s redemption. Elizabeth would have a son who would grow to be a man. And this man would herald the coming of another baby, born from the womb of a young Jewish girl named Mary.
In reality, the spiritually barren people of Israel were going to give birth to the Savior of the world. God had promised to give Abraham as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and to make his offspring a blessing to the nations. And that promise was about to be fulfilled but in a way that no one expected. The apostle Paul would later explain that all the promises that God made to Abraham were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV
God was about to do something spectacular, and it would begin with the birth of a son to an elderly priest and his barren wife. The spiritual desert that Israel had become was about to burst forth with fruitfulness and abundance in the form of a prophetic messenger and his news of the coming Kingdom of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.