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004a Angel Gabriel Appears to Zechariah          Luke 1:5-25

With verse 5, the literary Greek of the first four verses disappears.  The introduction of Luke’s gospel is written in pure, classic Greek.  Luke was a doctor and as such was well educated.  From here until the end of chapter 2, we have the most Hebraistic passages written by Luke. Luke wrote for the world, but he did have to deal with the Jewishness of Jesus.  It appears as if Luke uses written documents to get the information to write these verses and these documents seem to end at Luke 1:80, Luke 2:40 and Luke 2:52.  It does not seem as if he talked to Mary, so we presume that she is dead at the point this is written.  If Mary had been still alive, he could have seen her and could have gotten the story from her personally.  If she had still been alive, Luke certainly would have wanted to talk to her, because as a physician, he would have taken special interest in Mary’s birth report.  He does not seem to dwell too much on the supernatural aspects, as the supernatural aspects would only disturb those who do not admit the real incarnation of Jesus Christ and are unable to believe that God is superior to nature.  This narrative is not to convince anyone that God is real or that Jesus is His Son and was born to a virgin; this is just to tell the story.  No place in the Bible tries to convince us that God is real; that’s assumed, and it’s simply stated that Jesus is the son of God.  Luke tells his story from the standpoint of Mary, possibly based upon her writings, whereas Matthew tells his story from the standpoint of Joseph.  Matthew was writing for the Jew and Luke was writing for the world.  The two don’t contradict; in fact, they complement each other.

Verse 5:  “There was – literally, there came to be – in the days of Herod, king of Judea…” This is referring to Herod the Great, who was king at the time that John the Baptist and Jesus were born.  The Roman Senate on the recommendation of Antony and Octavius decreed this title to Herod; Herod was not a Jew, and he had no right (no authority) to rule in Judea.  The note of time places these events before the death of Herod the Great, who was appointed ruler in 40 BC and died in 4 BC according to our current calendars.   He was the father of Herod Antipas, grandfather of Herod Agrippa I, and great-grandfather of Herod Agrippa II.  This is not an inaccuracy, it’s simply that our calendars have changed over the years, and simple clerical errors have resulted in our years on today’s calendars not quite matching up to ancient calendars.

“During the days of Herod, there was a certain priest named Zechariah, of the course of Abiah…” This word, “course”, literally means, “necessary for every day” or “daily routine”.  It is the daily service of the temple performed by the priests. 

When King David was not permitted by God to build the temple because of the blood on his hands, among the last acts of his life, he proceeded, with the assistance of Zadok and Ahimelech, to organize the priestly and musical services to be conducted in the house of God.  He divided the priests into twenty-four courses (you can find these in 1 Chr. 24:1–19), sixteen being of the house of Eleazar and eight of that of Ithamar.  Each course was under a head or chief, and ministered for a week, the order of service being determined by lot.  The rest of the 38,000 Levites (1 Chronicles 23:4) were divided also into twenty-four courses, each to render some allotted service in public worship: 4,000 in twenty-four courses were set apart as singers and musicians under separate leaders (1 Chronicles 23:5); 4,000 as porters or keepers of the doors and gates of the sanctuary, and 6,000 as officers and judges to see to the administration of the law in all civil and ecclesiastical matters.  Hold your finger in Luke 1, because we’ll be coming back to it, but turn with me to [2 Chronicles 8:14].   We’ll be turning a lot today, so try to you’re your finger or a bookmark here in Luke.  Only four of these courses (Jedaiah, Immer, Pashur, Harim) returned from Babylon, but these four were divided into twenty-four with the old names. Each of these courses did duty for eight days, Sabbath to Sabbath, twice a year.  The service of the week was subdivided among the various families that constituted a course. On Sabbaths the whole course was on duty; actually, two courses; if your course began on a Sabbath and ended on a Sabbath, your duty would overlap the duty of the other course, so you would both be on duty. On feast-days any priest might come up and join in the ministrations of the sanctuary; and at the Feast of Tabernacles all the twenty-four courses were bound to be present and officiate.  We’ll be talking a little more about the Feast of Tabernacles next week.

Back in Luke 1:5:  “Elizabeth was of the daughters of Aaron.”  To be a priest and married to the daughter of a priest was a double distinction.  Like a preacher being married to a preacher’s daughter.  We see already, that John, by lineage was to become a priest.

The name Zechariah means “Jehovah remembers” and the name Elizabeth signifies “what God swears”.  Jehovah now is about to “remember” what He has sworn to do for His people.  The result of their union will be John, which means “Jehovah is gracious”.

Here in verse 6, we see that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous or just before God.  Not just righteous before men, as the Pharisees were, they were righteous before God.  They went in the way of all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord.  Verse 6 tells it all:  They were blameless.  This does not mean they didn’t sin, but God sees the heart [Hebrews 4:12].  They weren’t just conforming physically to the law!  Even Paul, in everything that he did, kept the law externally.  What’s important is what’s in the heart.  Zechariah and Elizabeth had a real and sincere love of God.

Verse 7 tells us that they had no child, neither son nor daughter, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.  Notice, that it specifically says, “Elizabeth was barren”.  Barrenness was sometimes viewed as a vexation, but sometimes as a divine punishment.  Children were considered a gracious gift of God.  Compare that to today, when children are considered a vexation or some sort of punishment by so much of society.  Some societies not only despise children, they kill them, especially if they are the wrong sex or are not perfect [Wigdal].

Having children was a form of social security; they were to care for their parents in their old age.  They were a blessing to the parents and the parents were to be a blessing to the children, by raising them in a Godly home.  Today, we should be a blessing to our children, and our children should be a blessing to us.  Raise them in a Godly home, and be a blessing, and they will be a blessing to you.

Verse 8:  “It came to pass…” This statement signifies that it was not random chance; it came to pass because this was part of God’s plan.  “It came to pass”, while doing his priestly duties in front of God, his lot was to burn incense.  This was a custom of man, not an original settled law of God.  God specified what was to be done and how the priests were to be sanctified or set aside, but man decided how to choose which priest would do what.  God told them what to do, man chose who to do it.  Four lots were drawn to determine the order of the ministry of the day: the first, before daybreak, to designate the priests who were to cleanse the altar and prepare its fires; the second lot was chosen for the priest who was to offer the sacrifice and cleanse the candlestick and the altar of incense; the third lot was for the priest who should burn incense; and the fourth appointing those who were to lay the sacrifice and meat-offering on the altar, and pour out the drink-offering. There are said to have been twenty thousand priests in Christ's time, so that no priest would ever offer incense more than once.  This wasn’t just random chance.

The incensing priest and his assistants went first to the altar of burnt-offering, and filled a golden censer with incense, and placed burning coals from the altar in a golden bowl. As they passed into the court from the Holy Place they struck a note on a large musical instrument called the Magrephah, which summoned all the ministers to their places. When this sounded, it was time.

The magrephah is the original organ.  It is described in the Talmud as a bellows-operated pipe organ with ten different sized reed pipes, all pierced with ten holes and keyed to a reverberatory box.  The magrephah emitted "all the hundred sounds of which our rabbis speak.”

The Babylonian Bible describes one of its uses:  A Levite musician took the magrephah and sounded it… The priest who heard its sound knew that his brother Levites had entered to sing, and he hastened to come.  It was sort of an alarm.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, a ban was placed on the use in services of musical instruments giving forth "joyful sounds" until the Temple was restored.  Among the many Judaic musical practices the Christians adopted and continued was the use of the organ.  Some of the early church fathers campaigned to ban the use of this "Jewish instrument" because it would seduce Christians to the "hated religion".  Ironically, some contemporary Judaic religious groups disdain to use the organ in services because of its Christian association.

After everyone was in place, they ascended the steps to the holy place, and the priests spread the coals on the golden altar, and arranged the incense.  After they had it all spread out and arranged, the chief officiating priest was then left alone within the Holy Place to await the signal of the president to burn the incense.  When the signal was given, the whole multitude withdrew from the inner court, and fell down before the Lord. Silence pervaded the temple, while within, the clouds of incense rose up before Jehovah.  It was probably at this time that the angel appeared to Zechariah.

Verse 10:  Because of the multitudes mentioned in verse 10, it would appear that this took place on a Sabbath.  During the week, there would only be the priest, the Levites of the course, the stationary men and the more devout sort of people; not multitudes.

[Temple overhead here]  Luke 1:11 says, “And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.”  This word translated as “appeared”, is the same word used by Paul of the resurrection appearance of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.  [1 Corinthians 15:5-8]  This sudden appearance disturbed Zechariah greatly.  Look down with me in Luke 1:12:  And when Zechariah saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”  I don’t know about you, but if an angel suddenly appeared before me, I would certainly be troubled; not only would I fear, but also I would have to question my eyes or my sanity.

Verse 13:  The angel says, “fear not, Zechariah”; he knew him by name.  Angels know righteous men by name; these are men to whom they are ministering spirits.  I’m sure the angel knew and saw by the countenance of Zechariah that he was greatly surprised and terrified.  This angel is trying to calm him down, and he tells Zechariah, “Fear not, for your prayers have been heard”.

The prayer was heard when it was first made, but it is being answered now.  Our prayers are heard when we make them, but the answers don’t always come immediately.  In some cases, the time is not right; in others, Satan hinders the answer.  [Daniel 10:12,13]  Our prayers are heard immediately.  We must also remember that sometimes, the answer to prayer is “no”.  Sometimes, we have an answer to prayer and don’t even realize it.  In this case here in Luke chapter 1, the time is now right and their prayers are being answered:  Elizabeth shall bear a son, and his name will be “John”.

Perhaps Zechariah and Elizabeth had accepted the fact that they would remain childless; perhaps they still had faith that they would have a child.  There are some other famous couples that had children in their old age:  Abraham and Sarah come to mind immediately.  Abraham and Sarah were deemed righteous and they were rewarded with a son in their old age.  They weren’t perfect; far from it; recall the story of Ishmael.  They took things into their own hands and had to suffer for it.

As a side note, verses 13-17, when converted to Hebrew takes on a metrical form, and is a prose poem in Greek and English.  There are many examples of this in Luke.  Luke has preserved the earliest Christian hymns in their oldest sources.  That’s what this is.

The angel continues in verse 14, telling Zechariah that he shall have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at John’s birth.”  Joy and gladness.  [John 3:29]  This is a good example of joy.  Agalliasis is the Greek word that is translated as “gladness” here, but it means exultant joy.  Zechariah would have joy and exultant joy!  Joy on top of joy because of John.  And many will rejoice!  The coming of a prophet will cause many to rejoice.  There hadn’t been a true prophet in Israel for a long time.  So, it seems that everyone will have joy and exultant joy, because they will rejoice.

Exultant joy is a marvelous characterization of John the baptizer and his career.  His name, which if you remember means Jehovah is gracious, indicates the return of Jehovah’s favor to Israel in sending them the greatest of all the prophets after Jehovah’s long silence.  The honor of being his parents will bring joy beyond the possession of many sons.  In that society at that time, many sons would be a great honor; John’s birth and life would bring greater honor, both in greatness of honor and how long he would be honored.  This birth would be another sign or miracle – one of many both past and future – that most in Israel, especially among the leadership, would ignore.

Verse 15, “For He shall be great before the Lord”, or in the sight of the Lord.  Exodus 20:3 says, “Thou shall have not other gods before me”, but it literally says “before my face” or in my sight.  John shall be great in the sight of the Lord.  Often, what is esteemed in the sight of men is an abomination unto God.  But John is pronounced by God to be not only a prophet, but greater than any prophet born of women.  [Matthew 11:9-11]  The angel says that John will be great before the Lord.  It is implied that he will not be great in the eyes of the world.  Indeed, he had none of the marks of earthly rank or power:  [Mark 1:6] His robes were rough, his food was forbidding and his home was a place in the wilderness.  This was not a man who was upper crust.  By contrast, the high priests were clothed in glorious garments and dwelt in the temple; they were self-righteous and were great in the eyes of men, yet they were contemptible before God’s eyes; Jesus goes so far as to call them hypocrites later.  Greatness before God’s eyes does not always mean greatness before men.

Continuing in verse 15:  “And shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.”  [Numbers 6:3]  Numbers 6:3 tells us that John is to be a Nazarite.  Only Nazarites are forbidden the fruit of the vine.  Strong drink, or “sikera” is a word transliterated from the Hebrew into Greek, and is derived from a root word that signifies “to inebriate”.  The English word “cider” comes from the same word.  We all know what wine is, but strong drink is any sort of intoxicating beverage that is not made from grapes; this is not referring to distilled alcohol.  An Arabian discovered distilling in the 9th century, and Arabia promptly banned it; perhaps, they could see the terrible effect it would have on society.  What was called strong drink would be fermented beverages made from dates, palm trees or other fruits; perhaps old wine or even a drink from the Medes made from barley.

The word “Nazarite” is from the Hebrew word “nahzar”, which means to sequester, and has no connection with Nazareth, which means a scion or shoot of a plant.  [Zechariah 6:12]  We don’t want to confuse Nazarite and Nazarene.  Our Lord, who is presented to us later in Luke’s account as “the man whose name is the sprout or the branch”, was called a Nazarene, being an inhabitant of Nazareth.  Jesus was not a Nazarite.  Just as a reminder, I want us to remember that Nazareth was where He was conceived, not where He was born; life begins at conception, if anyone has any doubts.

As a first-born son, John would be consecrated or set apart or devoted unto the ministry.  Not only would he minister, but also he would be a Nazarite until his public ministry began.  Being a Nazarite involved a lonely and consecrated life until his public ministry began.  The Spirit of God came upon the prophets occasionally, but verse 15 tells us that John was filled with holy spirit before his birth.  (There is no definite article here; this is not referring to the Holy Spirit; he was simply filled with a spirit that was holy.)  What a way to be equipped for ministry!  Just imagine how it would be for us today, if we could all be filled with a holy spirit from before we are born!

Look with me in verse 16:  “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.”  Literally, this word “epistrepho” means, “he shall be turning back”; “Many of the children of Israel shall he be turning back to the Lord their God”.  Oh, if only we could get people to turn back to the Lord today!  Many need to find the Lord, but many also need to return to the Lord!  Israel knew about God, but they had quit following Him; they had quit following His teachings; they were being disobedient, preferring to follow the corrupted and perverted teachings of man.  [Mark 7:7]

Verse 17:  “And he shall be going before Him.”  The “Him” here refers back to the Lord God in verse 16.  There is no mention made here of the Messiah, but we will find out that John is the forerunner of Jesus the Christ, and Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus the Christ is the Lord God.  [Malachi 4:5,6]  Malachi 4:5,6 tells us that Elijah the prophet shall come as a forerunner to “restore the hearts of the fathers to the children and the stubborn to the prudence of the just, to make ready a people for the Lord.”

These last three verses summarize Malachi’s entire message.  Verse 4 exhorts the people to follow the law of Moses.  If they had been, they would have been tithing, not intermarrying, not getting divorced, etc.  Verses 5-6 that we just looked at give a promise for the future.  Verse 5 promises that God would send Elijah the prophet to announce the arrival of Day of the Lord.  Verse 6 says that his ministry will be to restore the hearts of the fathers to the children (the way things ought to be; this is referring to Israelites living when Elijah comes).  If the children don’t respond, God would smite the land with a curse.  This prophecy was partially fulfilled by John the Baptist who came to announce the Day of the Lord was at hand and to call the people to repentance. But the nation rejected Jesus and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

Notice what the last word of the OT is “curse.”  What a way to end.  The mass of Israel is dispersed throughout the Persian Empire, with a remnant, mostly of the tribe of Judah, led by Zerubbabel and survivors of the priests and Levites in Israel, and there’s threat of a curse.  It leaves you hanging, anticipating, and searching for resolution.  And the resolution would come in the Messiah.  Before the Messiah comes, Elijah would come as His forerunner.