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Christ’s Forerunner

If Luke were to visit our church in this age, let’s imagine how he might speak to us. He might say something like this:

“I want to prove to you that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Messiah of Israel. He is the Savior of the world. Jesus is God in the flesh who dies for our sins. The truth of Jesus is far too important to ignore. The stakes are very high.”

“Many people object to Jesus as being the Messiah of Israel because the Jews reject Him. They do not embrace Him as the Savior. I want to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that He is the Messiah. I can prove He is the one spoken of by the prophets in the Tanakh; the Jewish Old Testament.”

“If you give me time, I will show beyond the prophetic evidence, and I will tell you of the things He said and did. His birth, life, death, and resurrection all prove that Jesus is who He says He is. I am sharing with you what I believe to be the exact truth. I stake my life on my account.”

The first piece of evidence that Jesus is God in the flesh and Savior of the world is the account of an older couple who live in the hills of Judah. The evidence is that God fulfills Old Testament prophecy by sending a forerunner. Luke begins by telling us of the birth of Christ’s forerunner.

The attention to detail proves Luke is adamant about being careful with his research. He says the timeframe is when Herod is king of Judea. He introduces Zacharias and Elizabeth by giving us details of their heritage, Zacharias is a priest of the division of Abijah, and his wife is of the daughters of Aaron.

When Luke writes, there are people alive who can verify his account. The details make it possible for people to double-check the facts. Luke is confident what he writes is true. Luke’s account stands the test in his day and still proves to be historically accurate today.

Zacharias and Elizabeth – Righteous and Blameless

Luke begins his account about a year before Jesus is born. He starts the account by writing about Zacharias and Elizabeth. We learn in verse 39 that Zacharias and his wife live in a city of the hill country of Judah. It is believed they live in Ein Karem, which is about a two-hour walk from Jerusalem in the west. If we go to Ein Karem today, we can visit the Church of John the Baptist.

We learn two details about Zacharias and Elizabeth. The first is that they are advanced in years and without a child. They are beyond child-bearing years, so the hope of having a child is long past. In the first century, Jewish culture, to not have children, is considered to be a disgrace (as Elizabeth says in verse 25). To have children is to be blessed by God. Children provide a lineage to carry on the family name.

God tells the Jews to be fruitful and multiply. Zacharias and Elizabeth fail in their part to bless the nation of Israel with children who will worship God.

The second detail we learn about Zacharias and Elizabeth is that they are both righteous in the sight of God. They fear God and strive to obey His commandments and requirements. They are excellent Jews.

Application – We can learn from Zacharias and Elizabeth

Live, knowing God’s eyes are upon us.

When there is a police officer following us, do we drive the same, or do we drive differently? If we fear the eyes of the police, why do we not have the same fear of everything we do in life?

Don’t allow the hardships of life hinder our worship

The second detail speaks very highly about their character. They know God is the giver of life. They don’t blame God for the shame they feel around everyone else. Their neighbors and people they worship with at the temple, have children. Every day that they hear the laughter of children is a reminder, they are childless. But, they are not angry at God. They are not bitter. They continue their duties and responsibilities in serving and worshipping God. And, because they are righteous, we know they serve God with joy.

We must never allow the hardships of life to hinder our worship.

A Priestly Privilege

The day we read about in Luke is the most momentous day in the life of Zacharias. For us to understand the importance of that day, we need to know some background information.

When David is king, the priests are divided into 24 divisions. The divisions take turns throughout the year to complete the priestly functions at the temple. Each division serves for two one-week periods. In the first century, Zachariah is one of around 18,000 priests. His division, Abijah, is the eighth out of the twenty-four (1 Ch. 24:10).

The Abijah division is spending a week in Jerusalem serving in the Temple. Zechariah and about 700 of his Abijah colleagues are serving in the temple.

Every week, on the evening of the Sabbath, it is customary for the Jews of Jerusalem to gather at the temple for a time of prayer. Luke tells us that on this day, a multitude of people gathers to pray.

As part of the prayer ritual, one priest will go into the temple to burn incense and pray to God. The incense represents the prayers going up before God by the people.

It is a great privilege for a priest to go into the Holy Place in the temple, not the Holy of Holies behind the veil, which is entered only once a year by the high priest, but the place where the table of showbread, the golden candlestick, and the altar of incense are kept.

To enter the Holy Place, the priests draw lots. Zachariah is chosen. His lot being drawn is no accident. God makes sure it happens.

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)

Once a priest is chosen, they will never again draw lots to perform this priestly duty. It is a once in a lifetime privilege.

Imagine how excited Zachariah might be to be finally chosen. He is an old man. He only gets about two chances a year to draw lots. He has been through many chances, but has yet to enter the Holy Place. But, today, it’s his turn.

At the appointed time, Zacharias, dressed in his priestly garments, brings a gold vessel with incense and a gold vessel with burning coals, into the Holy Place. He has never been inside, but he knows what to do. Imagine the fear and excitement in performing such a holy ritual as he knows on the other side of the curtain, is the Ark of the Covenant where God dwells!

Angelic Announcement

Imagine being Zacharias. You set foot in the second most holy place on earth, standing outside the veil of the holiest place on earth, for the first time. Imagine smelling the incense and feeling the heat of the coals.

As your mind races, you set out to perform your duties. You think about God’s presence in the next room. Your heart is full of worship — prayers of thanksgiving flow from your lips. You set the burning coals on the incense altar and place fresh incense on top. As you do so, a sweet-smelling smoke rises and fills the room. Your mind thinks of the crowd of people praying outside and how the incense represents their prayers. Maybe you can hear people’s voices as they pray!

As you are busy, concentrating on the incense and praying, an angel of the Lord appears, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah is troubled, and fear grips him. It’s very difficult to compare his experience with anything that we might encounter.

The angel takes control of the situation and tells Zacharias not to be afraid. The angel brings amazing news. Zacharias’ prayer request is answered. Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and they are to name him John, which means “The Lord is gracious.” We know him as John the Baptist.

The angel proclaims to Zacharias that he will have joy and gladness because of John. Many people will rejoice when John is born. John will be a great man in the eyes of God and he will live a life of abstinence and purity. We know this is true because later in his gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus says of John, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28).

The angel of the Lord announces one more amazing truth about John, which explains why John is such a great man. John will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.

There is only one other person the Bible tells us is filled with the Spirit of God before birth, and that is the prophet Jeremiah (Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah 1:5).

Luke’s account reveals a truly special situation. A childless old priest is caring for the incense in the Holy Place of the Temple. It’s a once in a lifetime privilege. An angel of God appears to and announces that his prayers are answered, he will have a son, and his son will be filled with God’s Holy Spirit from the womb.

It’s truly remarkable!

The forerunner

The reason Luke includes Zacharias in his account to Theophilus is because of what he says next. The angel tells Zacharias that his son is a fulfillment of prophecy.

Let’s always remember the big picture. Luke’s account about Zacharias is not about Zacharias, Elizabeth, or their son John. This account is about Jesus. Luke is proving that Jesus is indeed the Messiah because prophecy proves it is the exact truth.

There are two Old Testament prophecies that say that before the Messiah of Israel is born, a “forerunner” will be born first. A forerunner is someone that comes before a more important person. They are like a herald who blows trumpets before a king enters.

Luke is using this account to prove John the Baptist is a fulfillment of the prophets, Malachi and Isaiah. Before Jesus, there will be a forerunner. The forerunner will go before the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah and will call people to repent.

Just as a horn blasting the entrance of a king warns people to get ready, John will tell people to get ready for the Christ. We will learn more about John the Baptist, and his prophetic calling, in later sermons.

A major reason for us to believe the prophecy is that the circumstances of the birth announcement follow a similar pattern of the Old Testament. In Jewish history, there are four Old Testament examples of people who receive a supernatural birth announcement. Hagar and the birth of Ishmael; Abraham told by an angel of the birth of Isaac; Rebecca is told by the Lord of Jacob and Esau; and Manoah is told by an angel of her birth to Samson (Gen. 16:10–11; 18:10–15; 25:23; Judg. 13:3–21)[1].

Students of the Bible know this is how God operates. We know God is involved because the birth announcement has God’s signature! The nature of the announcement and the fulfillment of the prophecy are reasons to believe God is at work, and this is the truth.

Lack of Faith

As we know, the world is full of people who don’t always believe in God’s work.

Unfortunately, at the moment, Zacharias does not believe the angel. He hears about John, and asks, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Zacharias’s unbelief results in God, striking him mute. He will be unable to speak until John is born.

There are at least three reasons for Zacharias to believe the prophecy.

First. He is standing in the presence of an angel. It is likely the angel looks like a man because Gabriel did when he appears to Daniel (Dan. 8:15). It’s hard to imagine Zacharias not realizing this as a supernatural event.

Second, as a student of the holy scriptures, Zacharias ought to know that an angel announcing the birth of a barren woman is how God works. It is rare, yes, but not new.

The third reason Zacharias should believe is that he prays for a son, and the angel says it is the answer to his prayers. If he never prayed for a son, then perhaps the news would be hard to believe. But, he has been praying. And the Lord answers his prayer.

It is as if the angel scolds Zacharias. “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” Zacharias, you should believe!

This is not the first or last time Gabriel shows himself. The prophet Daniel sees Gabriel twice. Mary, the mother of Jesus, will also see Gabriel. Gabriel is no ordinary angel, but one who stands in the presence of God. Imagine having a conversation with a creature who stands in the presence of God, supernaturally gifted to do whatever God asks.

Notice something very important. Gabriel does not tell Zacharias God doesn’t love him less because of his unbelief. God still gives the gift of a son. Zacharias doesn’t lose his position as a priest. God still loves Zacharias. Before Zacharias enters the temple, God knows Zacharias will not believe the news. God likely tells Gabriel, “When Zacharias doesn’t believe, I will make him so he cannot speak.”

Zacharias spends more time than unusual in the Holy Place. His exit is delayed, and the people start wondering what is going on. When he finally does come out, he is supposed to pronounce a blessing, and the people will go home. Instead, Zacharias is speechless.

The people realize Zacharias saw a vision, and he explains what took place as best as he can using his hands. It must have been very frustrating. At the end of his priestly service, he went back home. Elizabeth his wife becomes pregnant. She rejoices that God took away her barrenness and her disgrace.

The bridge to today

How ought we look at this account in Luke? What should we do when we walk out that door? How should our lives change?

There are many ways this account is beyond our experience as people.

None of us are going to be putting incense in the Holy Place anytime soon.

It’s very unlikely one of us is going to have a visit by Gabriel to let us know our days of barrenness are over, and we are going to have a baby. This account is very, very rare.

Hopefully, God will not strike any of us mute because of our unbelief.

There are two ways we can apply this account in our lives today.

Be faithful, even when life doesn’t go as you wish.

The first way, we’ve already talked about, and that is to live life in the eyes of God as people who seek to please God. Zacharias and Elizabeth serve God even though they know God does not give them a child.

When bad things happen to some people, such as being childless, death in the family, sickness, house fire, accidents, and so forth, some people will blame God and become bitter. They will stop going to church. They stop reading the Bible. They get angry at God. Zacharias and Elizabeth are excellent examples of having great shame and heartache, yet they trust God and serve Him with gladness.

Believe God will fulfill His promises

The second way we may apply this account to our lives, which is the most important, is that we are to believe God with all our heart that what God promises, He will perform.

The Old Testament is written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. Bible scholars say that there are over 300 prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfills with His birth, life, death, and resurrection. In this account, Luke begins his task in proving Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies.

When we believe God will do what He promises, we have hope. We have hope because there is more prophecy to be fulfilled. God fulfills over 300 prophecies about Jesus. We have no reason to believe God is done. We have every reason to believe the remaining prophecy about Jesus will come true.

This world, with all the pain and suffering, the death and sorrow, the hatred and evil, is not the end. God says there is more prophecy about Jesus, we may believe.

Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Think about what this means! The ramifications of the truth reach beyond our imaginations.

Jesus promises to save those who put their faith in Him that He will present them before God as holy, blameless, and above reproach. We will enjoy eternal life with Jesus in perfect pleasure and joy. It is just as Jesus says to the man on the cross who believes Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells him, “today, you will be with Me in paradise.”

We live knowing to live is Christ, and to die is gain. We have a great inheritance. We are adopted sons and daughters of God. We have hope beyond this world.

[1] Bock, Darrell L.. Luke: The NIV Application Commentary from Biblical Text to Contemporary Life (p. 49). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.