5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:5-17 ESV
It’s interesting to note that, as Luke begins his record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he reminds his readers that there was a king ruling and reigning over the province of Judea, and this man’s name was Herod.
This is significant because Luke, like the authors of the other gospels, is going to establish Jesus as King of the Jews. But before Jesus even shows up on the scene, there is a contender or pretender for the throne. Herod was actually an Edomite, one of the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob. Before Jacob and Esau were born, God had given their mother a prophetic message concerning the fate of her two sons.
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV
After their birth, Jacob, the younger of the two, would bargain and deceive his way into stealing the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn from his older brother Esau. When the boys were older and their father Isaac was nearing death, Jacob disguised himself as his older brother and tricked the near-blind Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the oldest son.
“Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” – Genesis 27:29 ESV
This life-altering event left Esau angry and frustrated. He demanded that Isaac provide him with a blessing as well. But what he heard left him embittered and far from satisfied.
“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live,
and you shall serve your brother…” – Genesis 27:39-40 ESV
Now, centuries later, Herod, a descendant of Esau, was sitting on the throne of David in Jerusalem. But he was not from the tribe of Judah. Technically, he was not even a Jew. He was an Edomite. And he had gained his title by making alliances with the Romans. At one point, he had been appointed the governor of the northern province of Galilee. Herod’s father was a high-ranking official in the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had been ruling in Palestine until the arrival of the Romans. During a conflict between the Hasmoneans and the Romans, Herod chose to side with the Romans. As a result, the Roman Senate promised him the undeserved title of “King of the Jews,” if he could successfully conquer Judea, the largest Roman province that included all of Israel.
After helping to reign in the rebellious Judeans, Herod received his official title in 37 BC, and he would remain the unofficial king until 4 AD. So, as Luke begins his chronicle of the birth of the true King of the Jews, we discover that the position was occupied by a usurper. And we will quickly see that this two-king, one-title situation would prove to be a problem.
But after a brief, but important, reference to Herod, Luke introduces us to another character – a priest named Zechariah. According to 1 Chronicles, King David was the one who had organized the priesthood into 24 divisions.
David divided Aaron’s descendants into groups according to their various duties. Eleazar’s descendants were divided into sixteen groups and Ithamar’s into eight, for there were more family leaders among the descendants of Eleazar. – 1 Chronicles 24:2-4 ESV
Each group carried out its appointed duties in the house of the Lord according to the procedures established by their ancestor Aaron in obedience to the commands of the Lord, the God of Israel. – 1 Chronicles 24:19 ESV
Zechariah came from the division of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron. So, this couple had strong ties to the Aaronic priesthood. And Luke lets us know that this couple lived up to their priestly heritage.
…they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. – Luke 1:6 ESV
But this godly couple had never been able to have children because Elizabeth was barren. Now, to make matters worse, they were both advanced in years. Sound familiar? It should. Because it is reminiscent of several other biblical couples who found themselves facing similar circumstances. When Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, was called by God, he and his wife Sarah were advanced in years and she suffered from barrenness. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was also barren. Yet God allowed her to give birth to a son.
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph… – Genesis 30:22-24 ESV
Hannah, the mother of the prophet, Samuel, also suffered from barrenness. In fact, the book of 1 Samuel records that God had closed up her womb (1 Samuel 1:5). Yet, when Hannah called out to the Lord, He answered her.
…in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.” – 1 Samuel 1:20 ESV
God entered into the pain and misery of each of these women, providing them with hope even after years of desperation and despondency. He moved in the midst of their barrenness and produced fruitfulness. He brought light into the darkness of their lives, graciously blessing them with the sons for whom they had so long waited.
It is not insignificant that Zechariah’s Hebrew name means “Yahweh remembers.” God was going to remember Elizabeth but, more importantly, He was going to remember His people, Israel. For 400 years, the nation of Israel had lived in a time of silence, with no prophetic messengers having been sent by God. The last words of the very last prophet had been declared four centuries earlier when Malachi closed out the book that bears his name.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV
God was about to remember and fulfill that promise, and it would begin with an elderly priest and his barren wife. On the particular day of the year when Zechariah’s priestly division was scheduled to serve in the Temple, his name was “chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9 ESV). Everything about this scenario shouts the sovereignty and providential will of God. He was orchestrating every aspect of this scene.
While performing his priestly duties at the altar of incense inside the Temple, Zechariah was suddenly joined by an angel. The appearance of this unexpected visitor left Zechariah in a state of fear. But the angel assured the frightened priest that all was well. He simply had an important message to deliver.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” – Luke 1:13 ESV
It’s likely that Zechariah had been praying for his wife’s barren condition for some time. But the text seems to indicate that he had been taking advantage of his access to the Temple and the altar of incense to offer up a special prayer of intercession. And the angel informed him that God had heard his prayer and the answer was on its way. She would give birth to a son whose name would be John. And Zechariah must have chuckled to himself when he heard the angel exclaim, “You will have great joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14 NLT). Of course, he would. This was a prayer he had been praying for years, and now God was answering it. God was remembering him and Hannah. And when John was born, Zechariah would be beside himself with joy and gladness.
But the angel added that John’s birth would be a source of joy for a great many people.
“…and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.” – Luke 1:15 NLT
And the angel explains why this boy’s birth will have such an impact on so many.
“…he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.” – Luke 1:16-17 NLT
This birth, while a direct answer to Zechariah’s prayer, was going to be a fulfillment of God’s promise to send “Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 ESV). This would be no ordinary baby. He would be a prophet sent from God with a message regarding the coming Savior of the world. The deafening silence of the last 400 years would be broken at last. God uses this miraculous messenger to declare the pending arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. John would do so under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But to ensure that His messenger would remain pure and undefiled, God commanded Zechariah to raise his son as a Nazirite. He was to abstain from the consumption of any form of wine or strong drink. His role would be too important to risk the influence of alcohol. He would be filled with the Spirit instead.
John was going to be the preparer of the way. His job would be to declare the coming of the chosen one of God. John would serve as a herald, with a singular task “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17 ESV).
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.