The Birth of John the Baptist is Announced Part 2 of 4 (series: Harmony of the Gospels)
by John Lowe
8 So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division,
9 according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
One day Zacharias was performing his priestly duties in the temple. This was a great day in his life because he had been chosen by lot to burn incense in the Holy Place. The incense was kept burning perpetually in front of the veil that divided the holy place from the Most Holy Place. The incense was offered daily before the morning service, and after the evening service. Probably the evening service was assigned to Zacharias. Three priests took part in the ceremony. They began by removing the ashes from the former service. Next, they would bring in and place on the golden altar the pan filled with hot burning coals taken from the altar of burnt offerings. They would sprinkle the incense on the hot coals and while the smoke that was created ascended, they made intercession for the people. This was the most distinguished part of the service (13Rev. 8:3). The people had gathered outside the court in front of the Temple, where the altar of burnt offerings stood. The men and women were in separate courts praying, but the alter could be seen by all.
It is inspiring to notice that the Gospel opens with people praying at the temple and it closes with people praising God at the temple. The intervening chapters tell how their prayers were answered in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus.
With priests and people engaged in prayer, it was an appropriate time and setting for a divine revelation. An angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the altar—the place of favor. No description of angels is given in the NT, but they must have had some distinctive features to differentiate them from men.
12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
Zacharias was standing by the altar of incense and at this point of the service; he was to place the incense upon the altar. An angel appeared and his reaction was just like you or I would react; he was afraid. None of his contemporaries had ever seen an angel.
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.
At that moment, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, who was suddenly shaken with fear, but the angel reassured him with wonderful news; his prayers had been answered. A son would be born to Elizabeth, and he was to be named John (the favor or grace of Jehovah). Zacharias’s prayer could have been (1) his long-standing request for a son, or (2) his general petitions for the coming of the Messiah, or (3) both. Both were shortly accomplished. This Gabriel was the same angel who appeared five hundred years earlier to Daniel (Dan 8:15–16; 9:21). No recorded revelation from God had been given to men for over four hundred years. Naturally, Zacharias was stunned. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother.
Zacharias and Elizabeth will have this delightful boy to love and enjoy. In addition to bringing joy and gladness to his parents, he would be a blessing to many. This is truly a gift from God, and answered prayer. He must have been an exceptional child and young man, because he was filled with the Holy Spirit; chosen by God and anointed to preach repentance, that the Kingdom of God is very close (the Messiah) and to prepare the way for Christ. As a man, when he preached, many would repent of their sins and return to God. This child would be great in the sight of the Lord (the only kind of greatness that really matters). First of all, he would be great in his personal separation to God. Secondly, he would be great in his spiritual gifts; he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (This cannot mean that John was saved or converted from birth, but only that God’s Spirit was in him from the outset to prepare him for his special mission as Christ’s forerunner.). How great was John? For the answer, listen to what Jesus said about Him:
• “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt.11:11).
• “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin
of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
John will be a Nazarite. The vow of a Nazarite is found in Numbers 6:1-8. This was a voluntary vow and they were forbidden to do three things. First, he was not to drink wine or strong drink. He was not to have anything to do with the fruit of the vine. Today, there is a debate about whether a Christian should drink alcoholic beverages, but for the Christian, it is not a matter of right or wrong. The question is what is the purpose for doing what you are doing? Is it meant to please Christ? Do you want to live for Him? That is the question. Wine in the scripture represents earthly joy. The whole point is that a Nazarite is to find his joy in God. Second, when a person took a Nazarite vow, he was not to shave his head (cut his hair). Third, he was not to touch a dead body. And finally, in Numbers 6:8, it says, “Throughout the period of his separation he is concentrated to the Lord.” Just as the leper was the living symbol of sin, so was the Nazarite the symbol of holiness. Probably the best-known Nazarite, if it is not John the Baptist, is Samson.
16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Elijah, like John the Baptist, was known for his bold, uncompromising stand for the Word of God—even in the face of a ruthless monarch. The final two verses of the Old Testament (Mal 4:5-6, See note 1) had promised the return of Elijah before the Day of the Lord.
Although John was to have the spirit and power of Elijah, he was not that prophet. He would bridge the generation gap between young and old. Today, we hear that there is a generation gap, but that is not the problem. The problem is the gap that exists between God and mJohn was to prepare the way for the Messiah. He would be great in his role as the herald of the Messiah. He would turn many of the Jewish people to the Lord. His ministry would be like that of Elijah, the stern prophet of repentance—seeking to bring the people into a right relationship with God. Their success was great, but it was only partial—the nation never came back to God. As G. Coleman Luck points out: His preaching would turn the hearts of careless parents to a real spiritual concern for their children. In addition, he would bring back the hearts of disobedient, rebellious children to the “wisdom of the just.” In other words, he would strive to gather out of the world a company of believers who would be ready to meet the Lord when He appeared. This is a worthy ministry for each of us.
Notice how the deity of Christ is implied in verses 16 and 17. In verse 16, it says that John would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Then in verse 17, it says that John would go before Him. To who does the word, Him refer? Obviously, to the Lord their God in the preceding verse. Yet we know that John was the forerunner of Jesus. The inference then is clear. Jesus is God.
The fathers are the patriarchs. The conversion of many people through John’s ministry would cause the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.—to look down favorably from Heaven on the formally disobedient, but now transformed children. Support for this theory—that the souls of the departed are spectators who are constantly looking down on their struggling descendants who are still living, is found in Hebrews 12:1—“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
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.”
The aged Zacharias was really questioning God’s ability to fulfill His own Word! He was struck by the sheer impossibility of the promise. Both he and his wife were too old to become the parents of a child. His sad question expressed all the pent-up doubt of his heart. He had forgotten what God did for Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:9-15). Did he think that his physical limitations would hinder God? But before we criticize Zacharias too much, we should examine ourselves and see how strong our own faith is.
Now I find this funny. Zacharias is a priest and he asks God for a son. But when an angel tells him that he will have a son, he can’t believe it. Are you ever like that? Have you ever prayed for something even though you did not believe God would give it to you? This is the reason that some prayers are not answered.