400 years of silence! This was a long time to wait for God to reveal the Saviour, who had last been spoken of by the prophet Malachi, in the very last book of the Old Testament.
Many of the Jews had forgotten all about it. In many Jewish families, husband-wife relationships were breaking down and little love was evident between parents and children either. For these, family life was full of tension, while religious life was largely empty and lacking in joy and reality.
Not so with Zacharias and Elisabeth. God had kept his promise of a Saviour alive in their hearts — their very names echoed that hope — Zacharias means ‘the Lord remembers’; Elisabeth means ‘God’s oath’.
In spite of the disappointment of their childless state, these two old people had kept themselves as a devoted couple, obedient to God’s Ten Commandments and avoiding the sins so common to their culture. They regularly prayed that God would fulfil his infallible Word.
In Luke’s wonderful account in the first chapter of his Gospel, we see God entering into this dark and doleful world and doing what only he can do in desperate situations. ‘With God nothing shall be impossible’ (Luke 1:37). In Luke’s narrative we can only stand back and marvel at the works of God!
God steps into Zacharias’ life just when he is at his most busy. How often God does this! Zacharias has been chosen for the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of offering incense in the holy place, in God’s temple.
Just as the incense is filling this place, just as the people in the temple court outside are praying, Zacharias is told that his prayer for a child has been heard. Gabriel, one of God’s chief angels, tells Zacharias that Elisabeth, though well past the age of child-bearing, will have a very special son, as part of God Almighty’s plan.
God had spoken all those years ago to Malachi of a messenger who would be sent before the promised Saviour (Malachi 3:1). His job would be to prepare the people for Christ’s coming, showing their need to repent of sin and believe in the Christ to come.
That Christ would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and Elisabeth’s son would be his promised forerunner to Christ.
How often do we react to God’s Word in the Bible in the same way as Zacharias did? In unbelief he blurts out to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? I am an old man’ (Luke 1:18). Until God fulfils his promise in the birth of John, Zacharias is struck dumb.
How useful those nine months of enforced silence were to the old man! He accepted it as discipline from God; acted as a true husband to his wife, and used the time wisely in studying and refreshing his memory with all the Bible prophecies about the promised Messiah. How God used this we shall see in his message (below).
We learn from Zacharias that even in the best people there is sin still lurking within. Just as Zacharias found, we all desperately need a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Elisabeth’s faith in God is stronger than her husband’s at this point. When her pregnancy becomes obvious, she hides away for five months, reflecting on the special goodness of God. She willingly gives all the glory to God: ‘The Lord has dealt with me in this way’ (Luke 1:25).
When her cousin Mary came to her house bearing Jesus in her womb, Elisabeth recognised the wonder of what is about to happen and broke into a song of God-given faith, which encouraged Mary in her faith too: ‘Blessed is the fruit of your womb! Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord’ (Luke 1:42-45).
Faithful Elisabeth finds that she needs a Saviour too. This is why she is so thrilled that God has fulfilled his promises and provided for her needs as well.
The account of Zacharias and Elisabeth reaches its climax at the birth of John. Zacharias recognises after nine months searching that what he needs, like every other sinner, is the grace of God in forgiving his sins.
The very name of his newborn son indicates this: ‘John’ means ‘God is gracious’. Zacharias insists, in the face of opposition from the relatives, that this is and must be his name. Just at this point, God opens his mouth again and he can barely contain the good news that he preaches to everyone.
Zacharias’ message applies to us all this Christmas. It proclaims:
God has given a light
This light is his Son, Jesus Christ, given to all those who sit in the darkness and misery of sin. Like the bright daylight of the rising sun, Jesus Christ shines in the heart of all who truly believe.
God will give deliverance
God delivers from the slavery of sin and Satan. All who repent and believe are freed for ever by the victory Jesus obtained, when he bled and died on Calvary for the sins of his people.
God will freely forgive
God freely forgives the sins of those who believe in his Son. They will be saved eternally; God will cast their sins behind his back, remembering their evil deeds no more.
This is the glad tidings, the good news that the angel Gabriel announced to Zacharias all those years ago.
Jesus Christ is a living Saviour, at God’s right hand in heaven today. God remembers his promises and is gracious to all those who trust in his Son today.
The author is an elder at Welcome Hall Evangelical Church, Catshill
Picture one: Mary visits Elisabeth, by Philippe de Champaigne
Picture two: Zacharias writes the name of his son, by Domenico Ghirlandaio