The Sign of Silence Part 1
February 15, 2015
We’re looking at Luke chapter 1, the first two annunciation narratives. These were essentially birth announcements. When God announces the birth of a special child, He doesn’t send a fancy card in the mail. He sends a messenger from the throne room, an angelic messenger. The particular messenger who spoke to Zechariah more than 2,000 years ago is an angel named Gabriel, one who stands, as verse 19 chapter 1 says, “in the presence of God.” As we saw last week, what he told Zechariah was nothing short of amazing, absolutely amazing. And, to remind you where we’ve been for those of you who haven’t been with us over these last few weeks, I’m going to begin this morning by reading that whole narrative. We’re going to start in Luke chapter 1, verse 5 and we’ll read through verse 25, so follow along.
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 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.
Now, while he was serving as priest before God when his division on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. There appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the alter of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.’
Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I was sent to speak to you, to bring to you this good news. Behold, 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.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. When he came out he was unable to speak to them and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. He kept making signs to them and remained mute. When his time of service was ended he went to his home. After these days, his wife conceived. For five months she kept herself hidden saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, take away my reproach among people.’”
I want you to notice just a couple of things about this account we just read, this section, and the section we’re going to cover today we’re getting into 18 to 25. That section in particular, just a couple of observations. First of all, think about how this story would have ended if it weren’t for Elizabeth. Think about that. There’s a sense in which she rescues the narrative. This could have well ended with a real bummer, a real down note. It started well—a dramatic visitation from an angel, miraculous answer to prayer, spirit empower of Elijah visiting Israel to promote repentance, reconciliation, all just fantastic, total joy, excitement. But then it’s like someone lets the air of the balloon. Zechariah doubts, the angel rebukes him and sentences him to silence. What just happened? I mean talk about deflating! And yet the account ends with this glowing ember of strong faith. Zechariah returns home, the couple conceives together. Elizabeth makes this statement of what really amounts to a quiet, contented confidence in God. “Thus, the Lord has done for me.” Her faith here becomes the exemplary point in the narrative. She is now the example of a response of faith. And that raises a second observation here, which is really more of a question. Why did the Spirit include this section about Zechariah’s doubt? I mean you could actually skip over verses 18 to 22, just go from the angelic announcement, verses 15-17 there, and then follow Zechariah home to his wife starting in verse 23 and we’d stay completely positive. It would be a high note all the way through. “Your son John will be great before the Lord, no wine, instead he’d be fill of the Holy Spirit”— ministry of repentance and true conversion, prepare for the Messiah, wonderful! And then verse 23, when the time of service was ended, he went home. After that, Elizabeth conceived and so on. We could’ve just continued the narrative, right? No, no we couldn’t. The Spirit of God wanted to make sure we knew about this. He wants us to ponder Zechariah’s failure to believe just for a moment.
And for us today will be that moment, to reflect on this crucial part of the story. Just a footnote here. Notice that this is one of the really defining marks of Scripture’s truthfulness, Scripture’s veracity. This is what helps up to see how the Bible is unlike any other book in the world, how it’s truly God’s word. Because the Bible does not whitewash people’s failures. The Bible tells the truth about men and women— depicting times of victory and times of failures, times of great triumph, times of profound tragedy and disappointment. You remember Elijah. We talked about him last week. He was boldly confronting 450 prophets of Baal up on Mount Carmel, he wins, the whole thing is triumphant, and then what does he do immediately in the next chapter? He runs from an angry woman. I mean, I’d run from Jezebel, too, but come on! Peter, he makes the good confession, “Thou art the Christ.” He says, “Even if everybody falls away from you, I will not,” and then when Jesus would most benefit from Peter’s loyalty and friendship, Peter denies three times he even knew him. Look, there are no stained-glassed saints in Scripture. Every single one of them has flaws. The best of men are men at best, right? All men have sinned; all have fallen far short of the Glory of God, but only God is perfect and good and all glorious and worthy of all of our honor and praise. And that marks Scripture’s truthfulness. We can see that it tells the truth because it does not whitewash people’s sin.
Another mark of Scripture’s truthfulness is how countercultural this is, to end on a high note with a woman being the example of faith. You have to understand that when the various books of the Bible were written, this was a male-dominated society, male-dominated, very uncommon to find a story like this in pagan narratives or historical accounts where the male is the one who fails and the woman is the one who shines. But God doesn’t care too much about cultural sensitivities. He doesn’t. He tells a story as it happened and he teaches us from that. Truthfulness is what matters. Telling it like it is—which is what you’d expect from a transcendent author who doesn’t take any person to account and that is exactly what we find. This is the Scripture, folks; this is what God does, and I just wanted you to see that.
So, what is the point of this section here on Zechariah’s unbelief? What is the point in this judgment here? Why is it necessary for us? We want to jump right into answering that question, to figure out why the Spirit wanted us to wrestle through this. We’re going to break down these verses 18 to 25 into four points. We’re going to get to two points this morning, two points next week. I was talking to the guys in the office and the elders throughout the week. I said, “I’m going to try to get through this whole section.” They kind of looked at me with a raised eyebrow—you know, like one of those Mr. Spock eyebrows—and said, “Yeah right.” And they were right, so what we’re going to learn through this account in verses 18 to 25 this week and next are really what amounts to genuine faith—the demands of genuine. But also we’re going to learn about the grace of God toward us even when we are inconsistent with genuine faith, even when we falter in our unbelief.
Okay, so two points for today. First point: We need to look at the sin of unbelief, the sin of unbelief in verse 18. That’s the first point. Look again at verse 18. The angel had just finished telling Zechariah why many would rejoice at John’s birth. John’s ministry would be sober-minded, Spirit-filled, God-centered. We talked about that last week. It would prepare people for the Lord—fantastic! And then this. Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Now at first glance, that may seem like a reasonable question. “How can I know this? I’m old, my wife’s old.” It’s honest, straightforward. He is old. You know he is acknowledging that. He’s married to an old woman, but there’s a pretty significant biological obstacle standing in the way of the angel’s plan, right? So, Zechariah feels obliged to point this out. “Uh, you sure about this, Angel—just want to remind you, look at me.” But it’s more than that, right?—more than that. If you remember back in the Old Testament the story of God promising Abraham a child, Zechariah’s questions might seem just a bit familiar. In fact, go ahead and turn back for a moment to Genesis chapter 15. Genesis chapter 15. Just want to remind you of that account, to see what happened there in Genesis 15. Abraham, here in Genesis 15, is just plain Abram then. Abram is the father of the Israelite nation, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. He’s the father through whose loins Zechariah has eventually come, right? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, one of those—and then out of those two sons eventually down the generations we get to Elizabeth as well; she is from a priestly family. But Abraham is not just the father of Israel; he is the father, as we find out in the New Testament, he’s the father of all those who believe. So look at here in Genesis 15 starting in verse 1:
“After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you’ve given me no offspring and a member of my household will be my heir.’ Behold the word of the Lord came to him. ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and number the stars if you’re able to number them.’ And then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord. And he counted it to him as righteousness.”
That is the seminal text on righteousness by faith, right? Righteousness comes on the basis of faith. Abraham’s pretty old here when he hears this promise from God. It says in Genesis 12:4 that he’s 75 years old when he leaves Haran. And in Genesis 16:16, he’s 86 years old at the birth of Ishmael. And the next verse, Genesis 17:1, it says he’s 99 years old when God reaffirms this promise here. So ,what does that make him in Genesis 15:1 to 6, around 80? He’s old. His wife, Sarah, is no spring chicken either, right?
But incredibly, Abraham believed God. He took God at His word. You know, what was going through his head? How in the world could he just believe? Well, on the divine side, this is the Holy Spirit’s work, but on the human side you know what Paul tells us what he was thinking in Romans 4:15 to 25. And you don’t need to turn there. I’m just going to read it to you because we’re going to stay here in Genesis 15 for a moment. But in Romans 4:15 to 25, Paul tells us what Abraham was thinking, and it’s absolutely amazing. He tells how Abraham reasoned it out using an enlightened mind that was enlightened by faith. In that passage Paul writes this, just a brief portion here: “In hope Abraham believed against hope that he should become the father of many nations as he’d been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.'” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead since he was about 100 years old or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised. That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness. If God is who He says He is, and God says, “I will do this,” then it is the smartest thing in the world to believe it, right? To take God at his word. Can anything stop God? That is faith. That’s faith.
And everyone who trusts in the gospel of Jesus Christ believes in exactly that same way. They don’t look at their own circumstances; they don’t look at their own failures, whether their own failures or the failures of others. They don’t look at obstacles. They don’t look at barriers. They don’t look at impossibilities. They don’t even look at how badly they’ve sinned and blown it in the past. They see all of that, but those who are of the household of faith look beyond it. They look beyond all that and they put their hope in God. And that is why Abraham is the father of all who believe, Romans 4:11. He’s the father of all who believe. His faith is the original example. But look again at the text in Genesis 15 and notice what happens as God continues to speak to Abraham just one verse later. Genesis 15:7, “And he [God] said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’ But he [Abraham] said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’” Stop there—does that sound familiar to you? That’s the same question Zechariah asked in Luke 1:18. “How shall I know this?” Same thing. You know what, Zechariah was silenced for asking that question. He was literally struck mute.
Look what happened to Abraham, verse 9:
“He [God] said to him, ‘Bring to me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle dove and a young pigeon.’ And he brought him all these, cut them in half.” That was normal: God says bring animals, you just always bring them and cut them in half. There was a reason for this; I’ll get to it in a moment. “Here are some animals; let me cut them in half for you, God. But, “He brought all these, he cut them in half and each half over against the other,” that is he put one on one side, one on the other. “He did not cut the birds in half,” sparing them I guess, “but when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. And then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in the land that’s not theirs, they’ll be servants there, they’ll be afflicted for 400 years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’ When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass between these pieces. And on that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, ‘To your offspring, I give this land, from the river of Egypt (that’s the Nile) to the great river, the river Euphrates.’”
Let’s stop there and save me from pronouncing all those ‘ites. There it is. He makes a covenant with him. God started by making a promise to Abram about his offspring. Abraham didn’t doubt that promise about the child—he believed. God made another promise to Abram about the possession of the land; this time, apparently, Abram hesitated. We might say he faltered in believing, right? Now the text doesn’t explicitly condemn Abram for asking that question, but God does respond to this request that Abram made for assurance. God graciously—listen—accommodated Abraham by making a covenant with him. Covenants in those days were kind of like contracts in our day, okay? If you break a contract today, you’ll be penalized or fined or forfeit property or whatever. You might even be sued. In those days, if you broke a covenant, you were calling upon witnesses to do what Abraham did to those animals. Cut me in half, disembowel me, it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Do this if I don’t keep the covenant. That’s why it was called cutting a covenant. You actually cut those animals and you say, “May it so be done to me.”
So, covenants are like contracts today. Covenants were based on an inherent sense of distrust that people had toward one another. They didn’t trust the other person just to keep their word; they had to have something a little bit more, right? Something in writing, something in blood, even. People don’t trust each other, so they provide themselves with a bit of a strengthened guarantee, a legal guarantee that the other party will follow through with their obligation, that the other person will fulfill what’s required, they will do what’s promised—and the covenant or even the contact gives strength to that. Now, was there any cause for distrusting God? No. None at all. There never has been a reason to distrust God, and there never will be. He always does what He says, whether good or bad; He always keeps His word. So, the wavering, the breakdown in this relationship between Abram and God, it’s is not in God’s trustworthiness. The fault is entirely in Abram’s proclivity to distrust—his tendency, or his propensity in his fallen nature to disbelieve God. Listen, without sin, if we didn’t have sin, every time God says, “Hey, I’m going to do such and such,” we’d say, “Great, let me praise you for it. How can I be involved?” There would be no question. Without the influence of sin on our minds, we’d take God at His word every time He speaks without qualification, without hesitation. That’s what heaven’s going to be like, right? That’s what heaven’s going to be like. The power of sin has already been conquered for all who believe. We’re no longer enslaved to sin’s temptation and enticements. But you know what we do face? We face the continued presence of sin. And that’s no fun. In heaven, though, even the presence of sin is going to removed. We’re going to be free, and that poison is no longer going to cloud our minds, it’s no longer going to distort our thinking, and it’s no longer going to pervert our judgment. I long for that day. Don’t you? Yeah, I wish it could be now, right?it’s
But Abram, like us, with a mind weakened by the presence of sin, you know what? He needed a little assurance, some reassurance from God. He should simply take God at His word instead of asking, “How shall I know I’ll possess the land?” You know what he should’ve said: “Great, when do we get started? Am I involved?” Instead, Abram wanted to be reassured. You know what? God, in His grace, accommodated that request by condescending to perform this socially, culturally accepted form of giving full assurance between two parties. God made a covenant with Abraham, and that became the occasion for all future generations to learn some very important aspects of God’s holy character. If Abram hadn’t asked for this and there was no covenant, we couldn’t look back and see what God did. But we do see what God did. God made a covenant, and it was an unconditional covenant. Abram didn’t need to do anything for his part; he didn’t need to sign anything on a dotted line, nothing. This Abrahamic covenant was unilateral; only God obligated Himself to perform anything, which is why only God is the one that’s the smoking furnace and fiery torch passing through the pieces. That was God in a manifestation in His present pillar of fire, pillar of smoke coming through the pieces to demonstrate to Abraham, “I’ve got this. You can trust me. I make promises. When I speak it is a promise, believe it.” Abraham didn’t do anything here but go to sleep, and then he woke up to find God doing what He promised.
Now, with that in mind, turn back to Luke 1:18. And let’s see how all of this helps us understand not only what Zechariah did wrong, but also how we should learn something from Zechariah’s failure. As we said, Zechariah asked the same question as his father Abraham, using exactly the same words, and like Abram before him, he’s asking for assurance, some kind of confirmation, some way to know for sure God’s going to overcome the natural barriers that have been preventing him all these years from conceiving. What sign would God provide for him? And you might think, “Aha, there it is, that’s what he did wrong. Zechariah asked for a sign—shouldn’t do that to God. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “An an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” But again Abraham asked for confirmation. God responded by making a covenant with Abram—and in a dramatic fashion, too. Gideon asked for signs. Remember the fleeces, Judges chapter 6. God didn’t condemn Gideon. He performed what Gideon asked. Hezekiah asked for a sign that he would be healed, and he asked God to move the sun’s shadow backwards ten steps. Think about that. That really scrambles your brain with regard to—wait minute, do you turn the earth backwards or the sun? What about the whole universe, what does that do? That’s messing with the physics in my head. But God did it. He did it. God even gave a sign to King Ahaz and, you know, he commanded Ahaz to ask for a sign. And Ahaz in this kind of faux humility said, “Oh, I will not presume to ask God for a sign.” Wait a minute, God just commanded for you to ask for a sign. Don’t tell Him you’re not going to ask for a sign. Even when he refused to obey, God gave him one anyway: “So the virgin will be with child.” That is Isiah 7:10 to 14.
So, Zechariah is in a sense following that same pattern. But he gets his hands slapped. Or maybe better, he gets slapped with a gag order. I know it’s a bad joke. He’s completely silenced. (All I have is bad jokes, okay? All I have is bad jokes.) Then again, why? Why is it different with Zechariah? A couple things to see here. First, let’s start with the question he asked. He said, “How shall I know this, for”—that word “for” means he’s about to give a reason for asking the questions: “for I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Zechariah here is doubting whether the angel really understood his situation, and he’s pretty emphatic about it. He’s like, “Look, pal, we’re way beyond having children here, okay. Trust me, I, myself”— it’s emphatic in the Greek—”and my wife is a couple of decades past her childbearing years. People our age don’t have babies. Are you sure about this?” That may seem mild, may even seem understandable, but whose word is he questioning here? Look back at verse 13. The angel said, “Your prayer has been heard.” Well, by whom? The passive subject of “your prayer has been heard” is God. God is the one who heard Zechariah’s prayer, and that means God is the one who sent this angel to tell him his prayer had been answered. Zechariah was mistaken. It’s not the word of an angel he’s asking about; he’s contending here with the word of the eternal God. And don’t miss the irony here. Very ironic because Zechariah had just been praying in the temple sanctuary for exactly what the angel promised—a child for his wife and restoration for his nation. Now, when he’s told he’ll receive what he asked for, both in one child, he doubts. He falters in unbelief.
Can you believe that? Yeah. I can too. If we’re honest, we’ve got to admit how often we do exactly the same thing. Sometimes, you know, it’s like we pray in doubt, not in faith. It’s as if we think God really doesn’t hear our prayers, or maybe He hears, but since our prayers are way too low and unimportant, He doesn’t bother with these silly requests. He’s got universes to hold on to and make them spin in the right orbit and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes, we can pray like a bunch of gamblers rolling the dice, hoping against all probability that God’s going to hear and answer our prayers. And when He doesn’t seem to respond immediately to us, when He doesn’t seem to give us what we asked for, we kind of shrug our shoulders and move on. We never really expected them to happen anyway, right?
Listen, if we can trust God for the big things, like forgiveness of sins, punishing the wicked, rewarding the just… If we can trust him to rescue our souls, if he can run the universe, why don’t we trust Him for the smaller things as well? How often do we fail to really believe Romans 8:32, where Paul said, “He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him, graciously give us all things?” Zechariah’s doubt had nothing to do with God’s redemptive plan for the nation. It had to do with God’s plans for himself in particular, right? Zechariah doubted God’s blessing for himself, for his aging wife. It’s as if to say, “God’s only interested in the bigger things,” but that strikes a blow against his imminent, loving character for each one of us as individuals to think that He doesn’t care about me and my aging wife, right? That’s a contrast with Abraham, really. Think about it, Abraham believed God when it came to the personal thing—the birth of Isaac. But he doubted the seemingly larger issue of receiving the Promised Land. What an interesting contrast. Listen, this should teach us here that we need to trust God in the main as well as in the particulars. We need to trust the general, wider promises of God, as well as the specific, narrower promises of God. We can tend to worry so much about the things of this life, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, our circumstances, our jobs, our families, our children. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:30, if God can take care of the seemingly insignificant things in this world like the birds of the air, the grass of the field, “will he not much more care for you, O you of little faith.”
Having entered by faith, we need to press on from faith to faith. We need to learn to trust God in absolutely everything don’t we? Big and small, wide and narrow, general and particular. That’s what it means to live a life of faith. Because to God, nothing is big or small, nothing is great or little. He recognized distinctions, obviously, but come on. Is anything too hard for God? Is any interest, a personal interest of ours or a larger interest of a nation or entire civilization or an entire history of humanity—is anything too hard for him? Now, on a merely human level, Zechariah’s sin was unbelief, but it is still indefensible. Zechariah had just questioned God’s word, and he did so when he had every reason to believe. By asking the same question that father Abraham had asked, you know what, Zechariah acknowledges that story. He knew what happened with Abraham—that God had given him a child when he was a 100-year-old man and his wife was a 90-year-old woman. He knew that. Zechariah also knew what came next in the Biblical record. Having believed God, Genesis 15:6, Abraham and Sarah had faltered in unbelief. Remember the two conspired together to get the child through Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. Ishmael was born from that union; he’s a child of unbelief. He wasn’t the child of promise. They tried in their own way to perform God’s will, and when God revisited Abraham to reaffirm the covenant that the child of promise would come through Sarah, not through any other woman, Abraham sounded a lot like Zechariah. Because in Genesis 17:17 it says, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man that’s 100 years old and shall Sarah who is 90 years old bear a child?’”
In the next chapter, when the angel of the Lord visited Abraham and Sarah to deliver their birth announcement, we read Sarah’s response in Genesis 18:11. Again, it sounds very familiar. “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years.” It sounds like they just copied and pasted that right into Luke 1, right? “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” The angel of the Lord rebuked the unbelief that he found in Sarah as she’s laughing to herself. Listen, what makes Abraham and Sarah less culpable than Zechariah is this: Abraham and Sarah didn’t have the benefit of God’s word. There was no precedent of anything God had promised them. But that was not true for Zechariah. He had read the account. He could believe what was written. In fact, he probably taught on this. When something similar was announced to him, he should’ve taken God at His word because after all, Zechariah had, as Jesus said later in Luke 16, he had Moses and the prophets, let them believe them. Folks, if Zechariah had the advantage of a written record, which gave him a clear vantage point for belief even over and above Abraham, you know what? We have an even greater advantage than Zechariah. We have an advantage over John the Baptist. We’re seeing it all. We have the entire New Testament unfolded before us, right? God holds us accountable for every word that’s written here. You know what that means? We need to take up and read. We need to believe every promise of God and trust his faithful, merciful, kind, loving character. We need to obey him fully, cheerfully. We need to offer him the sacrifice of gratitude and praise, to live a life of obedience, right? We might ask here, you know, come on, why didn’t God just let this one slide, I mean 400 years of silence, no revelation, no prophet in Israel and an angel comes along, Zechariah’s faith falters, and the hammer comes down. Why? Why so harsh. Well, listen that’s not harsh, it’s loving. It’s not God’s way to let us slide in sin and unbelief. He’s gracious not to leave us in our sin and error and unbelief. He’s gracious not to let our failures go. He’s gracious enough to confront us, to rebuke us, to lead us toward even greater faithfulness.
But there’s something else going on here, and we start to see that in point two. Point one we just talked about the sin of unbelief, verse 18. But point one, the sin of unbelief leads to point two, the judgment on unbelief in verses 19 and 20, the judgement on unbelief. First comes the indictment in verse 19 and then the sentence in verse 20 and in all of this, we learn something about God. We learn something about his holiness, we learn something about our need to approach him in total and complete trust. Verse 19 says, look at it there, “The angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.’” Stop there for a minute. All of that he said there, the angel’s name, his position, his mission—those things serve to shame Zechariah for failing to trust in the promise of God. But let’s start first with his name Gabriel. Zechariah had said, “I, myself am old,” and the angel replied, “Well, I myself am Gabriel.” The two phrases really do parallel each other in the language there, with Gabriel directly countering and contradicting what Zechariah was saying. And the implication here in Zechariah’s statement, “I, myself, am old,” is that old people are weak. They’re powerless; they’re beyond bearing fruit. So, the angel counters: “You, yourself may be old, but, I myself am Gabriel. That name Gabriel comes from the Hebrew word geber and it means “to prevail, to be mighty, to have strength.” And the noun geber, it refers to a man at the height of his powers, at the height of his strength—and as such, that word, geber, often speaks of a young man, like a warrior in his prime.gebergebergeber
So, by telling Zechariah his name, he is calling Zechariah to look past his own age and to trust instead in the power of God. Zechariah may be old, yes, but God had sent strength to Zechariah. Not only that, but out of the myriads of angels in existence, only two are named in Scripture: Michael and Gabriel. Zechariah would’ve recognized Gabriel as the angel that God sent to Daniel. Daniel—you read about him in Daniel 8:16, Daniel 9:21. Zechariah even taught those passages. Gabriel is always sent to interpret, to explain divine revelation, and that’s consistent with what Gabriel says next. He says, “I stand in the presence of God.” That’s reference there to his position, and he’s like a man, like a royal attendant serving in a king’s court. That’s his position in God’s throne room. He is like the other angels of God who always see the face of the Father who is in heaven—Matthew 18:10—but Gabriel here is a special envoy, taking the King’s word from the throne of God and delivering it down to people like Daniel and now Zechariah.
Well, that’s got to be pretty humbling for just a simple country priest, right? There he is, in the hill country of Judea. He and his wife are old, childless. They’ve been living a life of quiet, faithful obedience to God’s word. They’re just country folks, relatively unknown outside their local environment, seemingly insignificant. But now, because of this visit from the angel Gabriel, Zechariah is on the map. He stands in the company with Daniel, the heroic, historic man of faith. God is truly no respecter of persons, is He? Sometimes He calls and uses great men like Nehemiah, who was cup bearer to the king, Isaiah who attended the king’s court. And other times, He pulls someone out of obscurity to fulfill His sovereign purposes. You know, to the great God in heaven, a man’s relative position, his station in life, his location in a country, his relative giftedness in the eyes of men—you know, since God is the one who directs all those things by His mighty providence—He’s not overly impressed or dissuaded by men or their circumstances because God does whatever He wants with whomever He wants, whenever He wants. The fundamental connections we can see in all the servants of God in Scripture is the simplicity of trust and obedience. Trust and obey. You learned that in Sunday school. “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” No many wise, not many mighty, not many noble—just those humble souls who trust God and obey Him. Just those humble souls who will humble themselves to diligently study and worship and pursue God. You know what? Those are the people God uses.
So, Zechariah has stumbled in his faith because he’s focused on his own limitations rather than on God’s infinite power, and God sent Gabriel, the strong one, the one who attends him at his throne. And, notice why God sent Gabriel, verse 19, “I was sent to you and to bring you this good news.” The emphasis there is on the personal nature of Gabriel’s visit. He says, “I was sent to speak to you to bring you this good news.” Zechariah is the recipient of a very special privilege. He shouldn’t be taking this lightly. Incidentally, this is the first use of the word “gospel” in Luke’s account. “I was sent to speak to you this good news”—that’s the word euangel, gospel; it means good news, and in a Biblical context that Zechariah would’ve heard, it refers to the promises of hope and restoration that were promised to Israel. Specifically, those things outlined in Isaiah 40 through 66. Chronologically, though, Zechariah is the very first one to stand at the precipice of this gospel about to be fulfilled. He’s hearing it announced. He’s about to see its fulfillment. An incredible privilege! But as John Calvin said, that privilege only aggravates the crime of Zechariah’s, for he was ungrateful to God, who kindly promised a joyful and desirable event. You know, it’s not everyone who gets an angelic visitation. No matter what your Christian bookstore says, this was incredible privilege, a unique privilege not to be taken lightly. But Zechariah’s unbelief had so clouded his vision, he was unable to recognized how highly God had favored him. Blinded by unbelief, Zechariah’s reception here of the angel was cold. His response to the message was dull. He lacked the appropriate gratitude, humility, belief. Listen, that’s what our unbelief does, doesn’t it? It dulls us. It makes us cold and unfeeling. Unbelief strengthens our pride, which then robs us. Unbelief robs us of joy and gratitude. It removes our ability to see how greatly we’ve been favored by God.euangel
Just to be clear, you have to see that Gabriel is not personally offended here. He’s not. His job is simply to bring God’s message. He’s an ambassador of heaven, so when Zechariah doubts the message, he hasn’t slighted the messenger—he’s offended the King who sent the message. He’s insulted God here. Look, it may be difficult, but we have to learn from this to sympathize with God and His interests rather than man’s. We need to see Zechariah’s doubt in the light of the incredibly gracious condescension of God to send an angel to speak so clearly, so plainly so graciously. I know we can understand how hard it was for Zechariah to believe. It’s because we’re human; we disbelieve, too, sometimes. We can sympathize with the fact that he was foolish and slow of heart to believe. Which one of us can’t see ourselves responding like Zechariah did here? But shouldn’t we train our minds, our sympathies, our feelings to favor God and His interests? Isn’t He the one who’s offended whenever men treat His word with contempt? Isn’t it His grace that’s muted and distorted and shrouded by our sinful unbelief? The fact that we tend to feel more for Zechariah than we do for God is a clear indication of our own fallen condition. It’s a clear indication of our habit of sympathizing with the sinner, rather than the Savior.
Listen, I know this is a hard teaching, but it’s not okay to excuse our doubt, our unbelief, our disobedience. We have to repent of that as sin as well as everything else. It’s the most subtle and fundamental of all sins. Unbelief quietly foments and incites all manner of rebellion and disobedience, and that’s why we ought to hate unbelief whenever we find it in ourselves more than any other sin we commit because unbelief, prideful unbelief is at the heart of every other sin. Whenever you sin in any other way, it’s because you’ve disbelieved God and you’ve believed yourself. It’s because you’ve disbelieved God and you’ve believed yourself. A demonic doctrine to disbelieve God and to believe Satan’s narrative. This is more satisfying to you than God. This is a better ambition than God, than what God has written about.
Well, not only did Gabriel indict Zechariah for his unbelief, he is also sentenced there in verse 20: “Behold, you will be silent, unable to speak until the day that these take place because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” There’s a principle here: If you don’t believe God’s word, you’re not going to make a very convincing witness of it, are you? If you don’t trust God’s word has power to save, sanctify, convict, transform, you’re not going to rely on it exclusively as the utterly sufficient power of God to salvation, right? That’s why this judgment on Zechariah’s unbelief is so fitting, so appropriate. It just paints the perfect picture. It illustrates the effect of unbelief. It silences our witness. The sentence that Gabriel pronounces here is pretty comprehensive. He says, “You will be silent and unable to speak.” That is, Zechariah will become deaf and dumb—and it took immediate effect. Look at verse 22: “When Zechariah came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he’d seen a vision in the temple. He kept making signs to them and remained mute.” And that silence was complete because he couldn’t hear anything either. It says in Luke 1:62 that when John was born they wanted to name him something else. He was supposed to be named John. They didn’t just say, “Hey, Zechariah, what do you want his name to be?” and he wrote it down. They had to make signs to him. He told them, “His name shall be John.” He couldn’t hear them. He sat in silence then for nine months. The entire time Elizabeth was pregnant. Ladies, sometimes you feel like your husbands are deaf, right? He had a legitimate excuse, but he couldn’t tell her about it. Pretty significant handicap for a man who used his mouth and his ears for a living as a teaching priest.
And that provides a pretty important lesson for us too, doesn’t it? The judgment on Zechariah’s unbelief illustrates for all of us that God calls us to believe all biblical precedent. Everything we see written in Scripture we need to believe. We’re to trust what the Bible teaches about the character of God. We’re to rely upon, lean on, rest in all the promises of God. That’s faith. We’re not to waver even for a moment in unbelief. And when we do waver, it affects our certainty, it uproots our conviction. It makes us fear. It makes us anxious. It sets us adrift in a sea of doubt. The only answer is to return to believe God fully. As that hymn writer, Francis Havargal, wrote in her hymn “Like a River Glorious,” “We may trust Him fully all for us to do. They who trust Him wholly, find Him holy true. Stayed”—that is, fixed—“Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blessed. Finding, as He promised perfect peace and rest.”
Just one more thing. As we draw this to a close, don’t miss the fact that even in a believer’s punishment, there remains hope and promise. You see that there? Zechariah was a believer, he really was. He simply wavered, like all believers do from time to time. So the judgment will only last, he says there, “until these things take place.” You know what that means? First, it means the silence is not going to last forever; it’s only for a time. Second, these things will take place. They’re going to happen, and Gabriel’s emphatic on that point, “my words will be fulfilled in their time.” God did not repent or change his mind here. He will follow through. He would allow the birth of John the Baptist to happen just as He said it would. Luke 1:13: “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, but your prayer has been heard, your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, you’ll call his name John.” God is so gentle with us, isn’t He? Even when our faith is weak. Even when we sometimes walk by sight and not by faith, when we falter in unbelief, God still holds us safely in the palm of His very hand. He keeps us as the apple of His eye. It’s just like God, right? He doesn’t excuse sin, He doesn’t let us go. He loves us enough to confront us, to deal with our sin, and yet, even in his punishment on a disobedient believer, before the period is fastened to the end of the sentence, he reiterates those words of promise: “My words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Listen, that’s the joy and mercy that we find, finding absolute certainty in the character and promise of our good and loving God.
Well, that’s our first two points in this two-part message—the Sin of Unbelief and Judgment on Unbelief. We’re going to tackle the final two points next time.
Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father thank you so much for teaching us about the seriousness of unbelief and the nature of true belief and we thank you that you, in your grace, are kind to us, you’re gentle with us because we are weak. We do waver in unbelief from time to time and we just ask that you would strengthen our believing. Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief. Father, as we turn our hearts toward communion—the communion table—we’re reminded that we entered in to this relationship with you through believing. Just as Eve exited the garden through unbelief, through distrusting you, we now enter into a relationship with you through your beloved Son by believing. We trust you, we ask that you would honor and glorify Jesus Christ in the celebration of communion. Honor and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ in our own lives as we believe every one of His promises in the Gospel. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.