Even though we've covered three lessons (examining the gospel writers, Jesus' preexistence, and Jesus' genealogy), we are just now starting into the story of Jesus' life. It begins with a couple of birth announcements (more accurately, conception announcements). And the first announcement isn't even about Jesus. It's about his cousin John - now commonly known as John the Baptist.
There is one very important historical context to keep in mind to fully appreciate the impact of the story below. It's the fact that God has essentially been silent for 400 years. It's been four centuries since He has spoken to or through a prophet announcing what He is going to do. The last thing He said is recorded in the last book of the Old Testament. He said:
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-10)
Now let's read the passage.
An Angel Tells Zechariah that He Will Have a Son Who Will Be a Prophet Like Elijah
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years.
8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteousâto make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
19 The angel said to him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time."
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."
An Angel Tells Mary that She Will Have a Baby (though she is a virgin), and He Will Be the Son of God
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth's
pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth,
a town in
Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
35 The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail."
38 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me according to your word." Then the angel left her.
- It is approximately 6 B.C. (It can be no later than 4 B.C. because Herod, also known as Herod I, or Herod the Great, died in 4. B.C.)
- We are introduced to a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. They are described as righteous in God's sight, but they have been infertile and are now elderly (probably well past 60).
- Zechariah wins a lottery for priests - he doesn't win money - he wins the honor of preparing and burning the incense (which represented people's prayers going up to God) in the temple.
- An angel appears; (it even gives a specific detail - at the right side of the altar). Zechariah is "gripped with fear", and the angel says what angels usually have to say when they show up "don't be afraid." Apparently angels don't look like chubby baby cherubs.
- The angel says that Zechariah's prayer has been heard. It seems to be very likely that Zechariah stopped praying that prayer a long time ago. He probably prayed for it when he and his wife were in there 20's, 30's, and 40's, but he knew that the time for having a baby had passed several decades ago.
- Then angel is very specific in his description of this
- The baby will be a boy
- Name him John (meaning God is gracious)
- He will be a joy to you
- Many will rejoice because of his birth because he will be a great in God's sight
- He is never to have any alcohol
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born
- He will bring many Jews back to God
- And this one is the biggie - this one fulfills the 400 year old prophecy: He will appear before the Lord appears, in the spirit of Elijah, making people ready for the Lord.
- Zechariah reveals his doubt about this. He explains to the angel that he and his wife are too old to reproduce. (Maybe he figures angels don't know about that stuff.) So Zechariah basically asks for a sign, some proof, that this will happen.
- The angel is a bit put off by Zechariah's skepticism. His reply is basically saying, "Do you know who you're talking to?" He finally introduces himself. He says, "I am Gabriel." Then he lists his credentials: He stands in the presence of God, and he has been sent by God to tell Zechariah this good news.
- Gabriel says to Zechariah, "because you don't believe me, here's your sign: you will be deaf and mute until what I said would happen comes about." (It is clear from this passage (v. 20) that Zechariah will be mute, but not as clear that he will be deaf. The verse says "you will be silent and not able to speak." What does "you will be silent" mean? It probably means that he will be deaf (as in "live in silence") because later on (in v. 62) people use sign language to talk to Zechariah.
- After being in the temple unusually long, Zechariah comes out literally speechless.
- Zechariah and Elizabeth go home, and she gets pregnant. She remains by herself for five months and thanks God for making this happen.
- When Elizabeth is six months pregnant, God has another assignment for the angel Gabriel. He doesn't send him to Jerusalem again; instead Gabriel goes to a small town called Nazareth to appear to a young girl who is engaged to a man named Joseph.
- Joseph is a descendant of King David (the Messiah must come David's lineage).
- The girl's name is Mary. Gabriel opens with a warm greeting; he tells her that she is highly favored and that God is with her.
- But Mary is "greatly troubled" by his words. So Gabriel
has to resort to his standard line, "don't be afraid." Then he gives his second
birth (conception) announcement.
- She will have a son
- His name will be Jesus (meaning God saves)
- He will be great
- He will be called the Son of God
- God will give him the throne of David
- His reign and kingdom will never end
- Mary asks how this is possible since she is still a virgin. This is an important verse, because the words used to describe Mary as a "virgin" can also be translated to mean "young woman" (but not a virgin). But in this verse she makes it clear she hasn't ever had sex.
- Gabriel answers that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her. He makes it clear that this virginal conception is from God by saying "so the holy one to be born" (an interesting phrase in itself) "will be called the Son of God."
- He then further convinces Mary of God's ability to do this by informing her that her relative Elizabeth is six months pregnant. He then finishes with this exclamatory statement: "for no word of God will ever fail."
- She must know that what is going to happen to her is going to throw her world into chaos. The man she loves will think that she was unfaithful to him. The ramifications were huge: Joseph could break the engagement, she could be ostracized from her family and friends, and she could even be put to death. But unlike Zechariah's skepticism, Mary responds with utter trust. She says that she is God's servant and may what she heard be done to her.
- The angel leaves her and, as far as we know, never appears to her again.