We’ve already established that God chose John the Baptist from all eternity and he was predetermined to be the Voice preparing the way for Jesus. We established the amazing truths that through God’s grace He chose John, yet despite this, it was unknown to anyone other than the Lord who would be the man to perform this important task. The prophets talked of this person, but they did not identify who he was or to whom he would be born. It’s on this point we’ll begin today’s lesson.
Faithful Parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth
John the Baptist was born to two faithful parents who lived to serve the Lord. Luke 1:5-7 provides some insight into the nature of Zechariah and Elizabeth, “5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.” In this passage of scripture we learn that both of John’s parents were righteous before God, keeping His commandments and statutes. This is exactly what God calls each one of us to do and Jesus asserts in John 14:15 that it is actually a reflection of our love toward Him, “15 If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Not only were they keeping in step with God’s commands, but they were following God faithfully in service. In fact, as we read later in this chapter, Zechariah was a priest in the temple. Continuing on in Luke, his Gospel points out that they had no children because of Elizabeth’s barrenness, which is extremely important information. In ancient Jewish times, the lack of children was often seen as a sign of disfavor from God. As Elizabeth points out in Luke 1:25, their childlessness created a reproach for them among the people. If that weren’t enough, now the couple is advanced in years and outside the normal child-bearing years.
In accordance with Jewish priestly custom, a great honor was bestowed to Zechariah as he was chosen to perform the duty of burning incense in the temple. During this time, a large crowd of people had gathered to pray outside and about the time Zechariah was finishing up his work, “11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.'” Luke 1:11-13 The first point we want to focus on is that the angel says Zechariah’s prayer has been answered. This indicates to us that despite Elizabeth’s barrenness, despite the couple’s advanced years, we have to assume that they continued praying for a child. They had faith that one day God would bless them with a child. Even though this had yet to happen, up to this point Zechariah remained faithful to his priestly duties and as Luke alluded to, the couple remained righteous before God and faithfully obeyed His commandments.
Faithfulness of God
In Exodus 34:6 God describes His own attributes to Moses on Mount Sinai as He declares, “6 The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” When an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and declared his wife would have a child, God was about to reveal His faithfulness (longsuffering) to the elderly couple. I Samuel 26:23 ESV says, “23 May the LORD repay every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness” and we’ve already learned that this describes Zechariah and Elizabeth perfectly. Their “earthly” reward was going to be a child that would grow up to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. What an amazing honor!
Let’s look again at the revelation given by an angel of the Lord, “13 But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.'” Luke 1:13 This isn’t a random name that their child was given; this was a name given to him by God. He was to be called John, meaning “The Lord is Gracious”1 and God was about to prove His graciousness to John’s parents. God’s plan of grace was unfolding beginning with the birth of John, the one that would prepare the way for Jesus Christ. So much was happening all at once for Zechariah, God’s faithfulness was about to be revealed, his graciousness soon bestowed by the birth of John and on top of all that an angel was standing before Zechariah declaring this all to him. Biblical history tells us that angels hadn’t appeared in hundreds of years so no doubt this entire event was overwhelming to Zechariah. One can hardly blame him for his response to the angel, “18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” Luke 1:18 Isn’t that typical of our own sinful response to God? We pray and pray for something and when God reveals His plan to us, we doubt, have fears, or ask for more evidence. Why do we struggle so much to simply take God at His word and trust Him? Simply put it’s due to the presence of sin in our lives. All of those fears, doubts, and questions are sin and as Zechariah would soon find out, God would punish his disbelief swiftly. At the instant of his doubting reply, the angel, who now reveals himself as Gabriel, declared that because of his disbelief, Zechariah would be struck mute until the birth of the child. Picture what’s happening here; Zechariah has been praying for a child and it’s finally been revealed that his wife will conceive. As we’ll learn in the next lesson, this son will prepare the way for the Messiah by turning the children of Israel back to God, but Zechariah is unable to speak a word of it to anyone. If only he had trusted God!
A lot happens in the next nine months as the child begins to develop in Elizabeth’s womb, all the while Zechariah is still rendered speechless. In Elizabeth’s sixth month, the angel Gabriel appears to a relative of hers named Mary, to whom Gabriel declares will give birth to a son and His name will be Jesus and “32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:32-33 The miracles that were happening in these passages are just precursors to the ones that will happen once these two infants become men. Nevertheless what’s transpiring is simply amazing. As Gabriel leaves, he tells Mary that Elizabeth too is pregnant and reminds her that this is despite barrenness and old age, 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” Luke 1:37 Mary then visits Elizabeth and at the instant they meet, the baby (John) leaps in her womb. Luke 1:42-55 documents the exchange between Mary and Elizabeth.
Up to this point in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth, they have displayed their faithful, righteous commitment to God and God has answered their prayers by blessing them with the conception of a child, despite Elizabeth’s inability to have a child and their elderly age. God has revealed His amazing plans for the life of John to Zechariah yet he has been rendered mute because of his disbelief. As we just learned, Elizabeth’s relative Mary is also going to give birth to a son named Jesus who will save the people of the world from their sins. After Elizabeth gave birth to her son and he had been circumcised, all the family and friends gathered around to ask of his name, she replied, “he shall be called John.” Luke 1:60 The replies weren’t so atypical than those today as everyone started questioning the name choice because no one else in the family had ever been named John. At this time, Zechariah requested a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John” and immediately his speech was restored and he subsequently praised God and delivered a benediction to his son declaring all that the angel Gabriel had told him. Luke 1:63-79
Zechariah and Elizabeth both lived righteously and obeyed the commandments of the Lord. Despite being unable to have children and being advanced in age, they continued to pray that one day God might bless them with a child. Through their faithful lives God promised to give them a child that would become the herald for the Messiah. As we learned in I Samuel 26:23 God repays every man for their faithfulness and righteousness and that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Despite the lesson in doubting that Zechariah received by losing his speech, God, being faithful as we learned in Exodus 34:6 delivered His promise by allowing Elizabeth to give birth to a son and it was truly miraculous. Remaining obedient to what they had been commanded the new parents named their son John, meaning “The Lord is Gracious.” John is now on the scene, fulfilling the prophecies that we discussed in Lesson I and his preparation for a ministry can now begin.
The faithful couple should serve as an example in our lives to continually obey the Lord, follow His commandments, and dutifully serve Him even if things aren’t going exactly how we hope or if prayers haven’t been answered on our terms. Everything happens in God’s time. His plan for their lives was perfect and God’s glory was definitely on display. Would His glory have been as magnificent if Elizabeth had been many years younger or if she had not been barren at all? If Zechariah had not had his speech taken away, would the people have been amazed when it was loosed at the written name of John? Luke 1:66 documents that at that moment the people asked “What kind of child will this be?” And the hand of the Lord was with him.” Anything less than these miracles and perhaps God’s power would not have been felt. Everything that God does is big, because He is a big God and deserves our wonder, praise, and faithfulness.