Some of God’s greatest works are often overlooked because He is working through common, humble believers like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary. God does not call us to be great people in this world but to be people of great faith.
When the Will of God Turns Life Upside Down
So far in our Wisdom Journey in the Gospels, we have studied the realities of Jesus’ life prior to His birth; and we noted the unusual declaration of grace in the women Matthew included in Jesus’ human genealogy. Now it is time to slip over to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and listen in on two separate angelic announcements. And these angels and their announcements are going to turn some lives upside down.
Luke says at the outset of his Gospel that he is presenting an “orderly account” of Christ’s life and work (verse 3). He is not an eyewitness to the events, but he has done the research and had personal interviews with eyewitnesses and apostles; and God’s Spirit has inspired him—guided him—in writing this account for a prominent Gentile named Theophilus.
In fact, Luke tells us why his Gospel account has been written—so that Theophilus might “have certainty concerning the things [he] has been taught” (verse 4). By the way, Theophilus is the same man to whom the book of Acts is addressed; so, the Gospel of Luke is volume 1, and the book of Acts is volume 2. Both are written by Dr. Luke.
Now with that, Luke records this first unusual visitation. An angel is about to appear to an old priest named Zechariah, who, we are told in verse 5, served “in the days of Herod, king of Judea.” This was Herod the Great, a wicked and paranoid ruler who was insanely jealous of his power and his favorite title, “King of the Jews.”
To win Jewish approval, Herod expanded and beautified the temple in Jerusalem. Writing in the first century, Josephus the historian, described the temple as a magnificent building made of stone, much of it covered with “massive plates of solid gold.” He said the rising sun reflected off that gold with such brilliance that you would have to cover your eyes.
At this time, verse 5 says, “There was a priest named Zechariah . . . and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.”
Luke describes this godly couple in verses 6-7:
And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Their lack of a child would have been viewed in those days as a mark of God’s displeasure, perhaps over some unconfessed sin in their lives. But this was not the case. Their childlessness clearly was not because of sin; it was a part of God’s plan.
While Zechariah is serving at the temple, he is “chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (verse 9). Many priests never even made it inside the Holy Place, where the bread and the candelabra and the altar of incense were located. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him.
Verse 10 tells us, “The whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” Zechariah enters the Holy Place, just outside the Holy of Holies, and I can imagine him, with trembling old hands, sprinkling incense over the coals of the altar as the sweet-smelling smoke begins to rise. Then, suddenly, Zechariah realizes he is not alone in there.
Verses 11-12 record, “There appeared to him an angel of the Lord . . . And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.”
I can imagine! The angel speaks in verse 13:
“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.”
Not only is Zechariah and his wife going to have a baby boy, but also their son’s future ministry will be “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (verse 17).
Zechariah’s immediate response is not “Hallelujah” but “How?” “How shall I know this?” he asks (verse 18). In other words, “This is unbelievable! Can you give me some proof that God will do this?”
Just as Abraham and Sarah of old did not believe God could produce through them the forefather of the Messiah, Zechariah did not believe God could produce through him and Elizabeth the forerunner of the Messiah.
The angel answers in verse 19, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” This is another way of saying, “What more do you need to prove God’s word? You have an angel standing in front of you who has come from God’s presence. But if you want more proof, here it is”—verse 20:
“[Zechariah,] 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.”
We know from history, that it was the custom of the priest to offer this incense and then come out and stand on the porch and give a blessing to the people. But Zechariah cannot speak. In fact, he will not be able to talk for the next nine months.
Can you imagine his frustration? He has news from God, yet he cannot say a word. Well, this gets Zechariah’s attention and his wife’s attention as well—and it develops their faith in the word of God.
Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel is about to turn the lives of another couple upside down. We read in verse 26:
In the sixth month [that is, of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
Gabriel greets Mary in the name of the Lord and then gets right to the point:
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (verses 31-33)
There can be no doubt in Mary’s mind that this child is the promised Messiah. He will fulfill the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7:16, reigning as king forever. He is uniquely God’s Son and will be named Jesus, which means, “The Lord Saves.”
Mary staggers under the weight of this news. Notice Luke 1:34: “Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’” And the angel answers in verse 35:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
The Greek word for “overshadow” here is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the overshadowing presence of God in the Holy of Holies. Gabriel now goes on to tell Mary that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant in her old age, which is another proof, Gabriel says, that “nothing will be impossible with God” (verse 37).
Mary responds with great faith and trust in verse 38, as she says in total surrender, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
This was no ordinary surrender. Mary and, later, Joseph are both going to have to reveal that she is now carrying a child—and it is not Joseph’s. And they are not even married officially yet. In surrendering to the will of God, they both will experience ridicule and slander and suffering.
Maybe following the will of God right now is bringing difficulty and suffering upon you, maybe slander and ridicule. Let us all say to the Lord, even today, “I am Your servant, Lord. Do as You please with my life. I surrender to You.”