Throughout the ages God’s people have been called to live by faith. There can be no doubt that this gift of faith is given and preserved by God Himself. Nevertheless, we are called to live in that faith. We are called as God’s people to cling to the promises given us in the gospel. We must embrace them to ourselves even when certain events of life are troublesome and seem to indicate that God is not blessing us. We must believe that God is our God, and that He saves us even when troubles in life make things dark and rocky for us. Such is faith. It is worked in us and preserved by God. But it also is an activity that we must exercise in this life. We must believe! Yet, even though we are those in whom God works faith, we are still often characterized by moments of unbelief. How often we pray with the father out of whose son Jesus cast a devil, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” Yes, it is true that believers can at times be characterized by unbelief. The account before us in today’s broadcast highlights that truth for us too.
We already learned last week of the announcement to Zacharias of the birth of a son. The aged priest Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth were both believers. In this dark time of Israel’s history, when most within the realm of the church no longer were true believers, this man and his wife yet looked for redemption in Israel. They still waited in faith for the coming Messiah. Zacharias was himself faithful in his labors in the temple as priest. He understood the meaning of the sacrifices made in the temple. His particular task, at this time, however, was not to offer sacrifices. He belonged to the course of Abia whose task it was, for the present, to offer incense to the Lord.
Our text finds its occasion in one of the visits that Zacharias was making to the Holy Place of the temple to offer that incense. Entering into the Holy Place, a priest would see to his right the table of show-bread and to the left the golden candlesticks. When Zacharias sprinkled incense on the altar, an angel appeared to him to tell him that he was going to have a son. In our last broadcast we learned that John would come in fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Today we are interested in the reaction of Zacharias to this message, because it reveals to us that even a child of God can be characterized by an act of unbelief.
We read of this account in Luke 1:18-20: “And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.” It is by means of Zacharias’ reaction of unbelief recorded here that we learn what must be our reaction to the gospel. We must believe.
I. An Amazing Announcement
It is obvious from verse 18 of the passage we read that Zacharias was responding to the news the angel just gave him. As we have mentioned, that news was the fact that he and his wife Elisabeth were going to have a baby—a son. Now, to place this response of Zacharias in the right perspective, we must understand something of him and his wife. First of all, Elisabeth was barren. Although neither the angel nor Zacharias mention this, we know it is true from verse 36 of this chapter, where Gabriel later refers to Elisabeth as she who was called barren. Elisabeth went through life unable to bear children. That was painful for her. In fact, it was quite the shame in the Old Testament when a woman in Zion did not conceive. It was so, because God’s blessing was tied to the bringing forth of children. Today, of course, this is no longer true in the church. God blesses with children, but when God withholds He still blesses! Nevertheless, even today godly women in the church hurt and sorrow when they are unable to bring forth the covenant seed.
But that was only one fact about Elisabeth. The other fact, Zacharias mentions, “I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” And the point he was making was this: he and Elisabeth were too old to conceive or bring forth children. Elisabeth’s womb was, so to speak, dried up. She had gone through her change of life and was an old lady—plain and simple. Not only had she been barren her whole life long, therefore, but she was also now well past the age that women could conceive. So, it was virtually impossible that she could bear a child. In fact, from a human point of view it was impossible for her to conceive.
Now this angel appears to Zacharias out of nowhere. This was an occurrence that had not happened for over 400 years. This angel appears and tells this old man Zacharias that he and his old wife were going to have a son. That was amazing! This announcement in itself was beyond all human imagination. How could this possibly happen? Gabriel tells Zacharias that he was sent by God to relate these glad tidings to this man and his wife. It was good news to these aged saints. For a long time they had longed for a baby. Now, when it was beyond hope, the good news came to them: you are going to receive what you have wanted!
But we must look beyond the mere natural here in our text. We must take a closer look at the spiritual character of this announcement. This boy, John, whom Elisabeth was soon to conceive in her womb, was going to perform a mighty work. We learned of that last week from Malachi’s prophecy. This son who was to be born to these aged saints was going to be the forerunner of Christ. He would turn the hearts of many of Israel to faith and repentance in order to prepare the way for the Messiah. He would be used of God to make ready God’s people, His elect from eternity, to receive their Messiah, their Lord.
You talk about good news—glad tidings! This was the glad tidings that Zacharias received. Christ was soon to be born. And God was going to use this son of Zacharias to prepare the way for Christ to be born!
That was good news!
Why was this such good news? Because the church needed salvation! Think of it in these terms, fellow believers: if this Messiah would not be born, the church of the entire Old Testament would perish in its sin. If Christ did not come, the church of the New Testament would perish in its sin. If Christ was not born, then the church of all ages would cease to be. God would not be true to His promises, neither would His eternal purpose according to election stand. In other words, if Christ was not born, then God would not be God! His eternal plan would be useless. You and I would be lost in our sin!
Do you understand the glad tidings of this message of the angel? By means of Christ’s birth, salvation would now be made possible—and that because Christ alone is able to bring the people of God to glory. The promise of the gospel is this: Christ and Him crucified. The good news of the angel, the glad tidings, is this: Jesus Christ has come into this world to save sinners such as we are. That really is at the heart of the message of the angel Gabriel. That is what you and I must grasp and hold dear to us as God’s people. That must be the content of our faith. We believe that Christ has taken away our sin and removed our guilt. We believe that this Messiah has indeed brought us back into the favor of the ever blessed God. Our sins are covered over in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. We are made righteous before God. We have been received into God’s favor and fellowship. We share in communion with Him and with His Son.
It is really this part of the good news that is such an amazing part of the announcement that was given by the angel. It is not merely the fact that it was an impossibility for Elisabeth to conceive a son—it was the human impossibility for us to be saved. How can a woman who has always been barren and is now old conceive a baby in her womb? How can we who are sinners, who are not able to pay the price of sin ourselves and are unable to find any other creature to do this work for us, how is it possible for us to be saved from the wrath that is to come? Here is the good news: for with God nothing shall be impossible! Even as the very conception of John is a miracle, so also is our salvation. When Zacharias questioned the possibility of his own son’s conception and birth, he was questioning the possibility of salvation.
He was a believer. He believed the Messiah was coming to save Israel. But he failed to realize that this salvation was going to be the wonder of all wonders. That work of God in our salvation started with the very conception of this forerunner to Christ. Zacharias at this point stumbled in unbelief at the announcement of this salvation.
II. A Doubtful Response
Notice his words to the angel in verse 18 once again: “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” It was not that he asked this of the angel because he believed and simply wanted confirmation. The angel tells Zacharias that Zacharias “believed not his words.” This was an act of unbelief. Zacharias, in hope, looked for and believed in the salvation that would come with the Messiah, but at this moment when his faith should have lived, Zacharias stumbled. He became guilty of unbelief. He faltered and failed. Take note of that, dear listener. It may be true, on the one hand, that God grafts His people into Christ by a true and living faith. But faith comes to fruition in the lives of God’s saints by their knowing and trusting God and His Son Jesus Christ. In other words, it is not a question as to whether Zacharias was a believer. He was. But at this point Zacharias was not acting in faith. He did not place his trust in God, that God would indeed fulfill what He had spoken.
Compare Zacharias to Abraham when God told Abraham to offer up Isaac, his only son. Abraham could have reasoned that God was requiring something of him that was unreasonable and even downright wrong. But he did not. Abraham believed that even if he took Isaac’s life, God would be able to raise Isaac up again. Abraham’s faith was tested and he walked in that faith. Zacharias’ faith was now put to the test too, with something as simple as believing the good news that he was going to have a son. But Zacharias was not trusting that God could do what He promised. Zacharias doubted it. And that was an act of unbelief.
Yet, at the same time we ought not to judge Zacharias too harshly, should we. We who are God’s people saved in Christ are given faith too. God has grafted us into Jesus Christ by a true and living faith. We are one with Him. Because this is true, we also are given to know and trust in God and His Son. We know that God is our God and that He will always bless us as His people, no matter what befalls us. We know that, but how often when God tries us, puts our faith to the test, we too can falter and stumble? We know God is our Father who loves us and who therefore sends us everything in this life for our good. But how many times, when problems arise in our lives, we can be like Zacharias and forget about the blessings of the gospel. We forget about the promises of God, the glad tidings that we belong to Christ and that nothing will separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. We then doubt and fear rather than trusting in our faithful God and Father. Certainly, we are not unlike Zacharias are we? We must believe when God puts our faith to the test. We trust God. He will make everything turn out to our advantage in life. We learn that from this account before us today. Zacharias faltered, and in doubt he asked the angel for a sign.
Because of this response of unbelief, the angel now speaks again to Zacharias. We read, first of all, these words of Gabriel in verse 19: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.” These few words in which Gabriel introduces himself are not arbitrary. Zacharias did not need to know Gabriel’s name to understand what he had done, but Gabriel is making a point for Zacharias to see. First, Gabriel was an angel! Zacharias had recognized this, as is evident from verse 11 of this chapter. He then explains that he was sent by God to speak of these things to Zacharias. Should not that in itself have been sign enough that what was spoken would come true? An angel spoke these words. Who needed more proof than that, that what he had come to say would indeed happen. But Gabriel adds to this another argument: I am Gabriel! Zacharias must have known immediately from that name that this was the one and the same angel that had revealed himself to Daniel and to Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Why would Zacharias doubt then that these words that were spoken to him of the miraculous conception of his son would surely come to pass? The faith that had characterized the Old Testament saints must characterize him too. Yet, it did not.
But then there is one more all-important truth that Gabriel points out. I am Gabriel. This name means “man of God.” It pointed therefore to the fact that God was speaking to Zacharias! I stand in the presence of God. God sends me to you. God commanded me to show these glad tidings. And God is faithful to perform everything that He says!!! Does God lie? Does God make mistakes? Does God fail to perform what He says? God is God. And He has spoken this word. You have no reason whatsoever to ask a sign that what I say will come true. That is unbelief.
So, a sign is given to Zacharias. This sign will both prove to him that these things will come to pass and will also chastise him for his doubt. We read of this in verse 20: “And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.” Immediately what Gabriel spoke came true. Zacharias became dumb, that is, he was not able to speak. From verse 62 of this chapter, where Zacharias’ relatives make signs to him in order to ask him what John’s name would be, we see that it must also have been true that Zacharias was struck deaf. But it is to the fact that Zacharias could not speak that Gabriel calls his attention. Here is a fitting sign for Zacharias’ doubt and unbelief: he could not speak.
He was unable to speak, much less sing of the wonderful gift that God had given to him. The praises of his mouth were withheld. As soon as his tongue was loosed after John’s birth, those praises poured out of his heart and mouth. But until then he had to hold them all up inside of himself.
We can rejoice, fellow believers, that God has not held our tongues silent. We are able to speak and, yes, also to sing the praises of God. He has performed His work of salvation in the birth of Christ. He has delivered us from sin and adopted us into His family. He has in His grace made salvation possible for us in Christ. Now, we come before God—no matter what difficulties we may face in life—and we rejoice in the living God. We speak of His grace to us in every circumstance of life. We live in the consciousness that God saves us unto Himself in all things.
III. A Wondrous Fulfillment
We cannot end without telling whether this word to Zacharias was fulfilled or not. We of course know the end of the account. Elisabeth does conceive, and John the Baptist is born. God made possible that which was humanly impossible. God always performs what He says. God does this because He is God. Faithful and just is the God whom we serve.
But again, we look beyond this simple story and see its end. John the Baptist does prepare the way for the Savior. The Messiah is born in an even more miraculous way than was John. A virgin conceives by the power of the Spirit and she brings forth the very Son of God! God makes our salvation possible even though humanly it is impossible. God does this because God is faithful to His promise to us. God performs what He says. Even as He has promised His chosen people of all ages and all nations salvation from sin and life everlasting, He has made it possible through the birth of His Son. We rejoice in this time of the year, but we rejoice in that all our lives.
Dear listener in whom God has worked by His grace that blessed work of faith, let us walk in that faith. May God by His Spirit guide us in order that we in faith might find joy in the birth of Christ in the various circumstances of our lives. In this we rejoice: with God nothing shall be impossible!