Called to Believe
Psalm 66:1–4, 16–20
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Describe the meeting between Zechariah and the angel Gabriel.
2. Explain why Zechariah should have believed the angel and why he doubted.
3. Confess one area of life where his or her faith could be stronger.
How to Say It
Moses. MO-zes or MO-zez.
Yahweh (Hebrew). YAH-weh.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Nov. 26—Sing God’s Praises (Psalm 66:1–4)
Tuesday, Nov. 27—Righteous Before God (Luke 1:5–7)
Wednesday, Nov. 28—Incense Offering Interrupted (Luke 1:8–13)
Thursday, Nov. 29—A Ministry Foretold (Luke 1:14–17)
Friday, Nov. 30—Zechariah Sees a Vision (Luke 1:18–23)
Saturday, Dec. 1—Elizabeth Conceives (Luke 1:24, 25)
Sunday, Dec. 2—God Listened to My Prayer (Psalm 66:16–20)
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 proper time.
Why Teach This Lesson?
Believers need to be reminded on a fairly regular basis of some realities concerning their faith and the God whom they serve. The most important is that God is God. Psalm 100:3 boldly declares “Know that the Lord is God.” Our Lord God is the creator and sustainer of life. Everything flows from him. All creation has come from his hand. All creation continues by his power.
Bad things happen when we lose track of these facts. We begin relying on our own strength. We begin walking by sight rather than by faith. We push God off the thrones of our hearts and put ourselves there instead.
We all drift into that mode at some time or other, don’t we? Today’s lesson provides the cure. Zechariah received this cure the hard way. But we can learn from his mistake. Today, we shall!
A. Tall Tales
The annual Liars’ Contest used to be a popular event within the Pennsylvania German community. Each person would tell a story to see who could go the furthest beyond the reach of credibility. It was all in good fun because no one was expected to believe the outlandish tales.
However, when God tells a person something that is frankly incredible, he expects to be believed. When God warned Adam and Eve that eating the fruit of the forbidden tree would result in their deaths, he meant it. When he told Noah, Abraham, and Moses things that seemed totally impossible, they believed him. Then the time came for Zechariah to take his turn. He was called to believe that God would give him a son and that son would prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
B. Lesson Background
Through the centuries of the Old Testament, God spoke to the Jewish people through the prophets at many times and in various ways (see Hebrews 1:1). But by the time we reach Luke 1, it had been 400 years since God said anything at all. So when an angel came from Heaven to announce that God was going to raise up a prophet, it was (or should have been) a stunning development for God’s people.
On a more personal level, the announcement was stunning to a priest named Zechariah. Although his name means “God remembers,” he and his wife, Elizabeth, could well have thought that God had forgotten them. They were childless because she was barren; in addition, they were “well along in years” (Luke 1:7). Still, they were wholly devoted to serving their God.
As God broke his 400 years of silence, the events would be carefully recorded by Luke, a physician and an associate of the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11). As Luke explained in the opening verses of his Gospel, he was the recipient of eyewitness testimony and had “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). We can put full confidence in what he wrote. The historical truth of these events teaches us a lesson that Zechariah learned the hard way: we are called to put full confidence in God.
What Do You Think?
Whom do you know whose life reflects a quiet, faithful walk with Jesus? What impact has that example had on you?
I. Ordinary Setting (Luke 1:8–10)
A. Faithful Service (vv. 8, 9)
8. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God,
On the surface, the day looks ordinary. The priests are performing their usual service, and people are saying their routine prayers. But something quite extraordinary is about to happen. Little does he (Zechariah) know what God has planned for him on this “ordinary” day.
Zechariah is a member of the priestly course of Abijah (see 1 Chronicles 24:10; Luke 1:5). As one of 24 such divisions of the priesthood (see 1 Chronicles 24:18), his group takes its turn to serve at the temple two weeks of every year. Then they serve with all the other groups during the major festivals.
Zechariah, now an old man (Luke 1:18), can look back over the many years that he has faithfully executed the priest’s office. In faithful submission to the will of God, he is like the priests who later become believers in Jesus (see Acts 6:7).
9.… he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
When priests and their assistants serve at the temple, their responsibilities include sacrificing animals, filling the oil in the lamp stand, and setting out the “showbread” on the sacred table. At special times they also lead the people in prayer and praise to God. According to the custom of their office, the priests cast lots to decide who will do which duty. Casting lots keeps the selection process impartial (compare 1 Chronicles 24:5, 31; 25:8; 26:12–16).
The specific lot that falls to Zechariah on this day is to burn incense at the altar of incense. This is a wooden box overlaid with gold, standing in front of the Holy of Holies. According to Exodus 30:1–10, incense is to be offered twice daily. Since there are thousands of priests, each is permitted to burn this incense no more than once in his lifetime. Thus Zechariah knows this “ordinary” day is special for him in a certain way. But he does not yet know just how special it will be!
What Do You Think?
What was a time when a certain event or routine in your life proved to be something special for God in a way that was above and beyond your beginning expectation?
B. Expectant Moment (v. 10)
10. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
The scene is typical and ordinary: while the priest goes into the Holy Place, the surrounding courtyards are filled with worshipers. But “ordinary” need not imply “unsacred.” This is always a sacred moment. The sacredness is about to be enhanced by what God is going to do. A devout priest is serving, the people are praying, and God’s silence of 400 years is about to be broken.
II. Extraordinary News (Luke 1:11–13)
A. Startling Appearance (vv. 11, 12)
11. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
The altar of incense is next to the giant curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (also known as the Most Holy Place), the two rooms of the temple (Exodus 30:6; 40:5; 1 Kings 6:22). The fragrance of the burning incense is a sweet aroma in God’s presence.
As Zechariah goes about his duties of replenishing the incense, an angel of the Lord appears beside the altar. Named later in the narrative as Gabriel (v. 19), this is the same angel who will carry God’s message to a young virgin named Mary in a few months.
12. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
The reaction of Zechariah is not surprising except in its understatement! He is startled because he cannot fathom what is happening. In addition, he is gripped with fear since the event is clearly supernatural.
Visual for Lesson 1
Keep this visual posted all quarter as a reminder of how our 13 lessons fit together.
Speaking to an Angel, Responding to God
The title of a syrupy love song from the 1950s asks “How Do You Speak to an Angel?” The point of the song is that a young man has met the perfect girl, but he is tongue-tied.
Obviously, the recording artist was using the word angel in a figurative way. But if we take the question of the song title literally, Scripture provides insight. Appearances by angels sometimes cause fear (Daniel 8:15–17; Luke 1:12, 29-30; Acts 10:1–4). In such cases, the angel may speak words of comfort so the human will be able to respond. In other cases, people react to angelic encounters in a rather human-to-human way. See the cases of Abraham, Lot, and Gideon in Genesis 18:1–5; 19:1-2; and Judges 6:11–13.
Despite the apparent calmness of Abraham, Lot, and Gideon, knowing that an angel was coming from the presence of God would cause any of us to become a bit “startled” at the appearance of such a heavenly being! I don’t expect to receive a visit from an angel (none of us should), but if it happened I think I would be terrified. I probably would be just as tongue-tied as the young man depicted in the 1950s song.
However, the fact of ultimate importance is that Zechariah and others who received angelic appearances listened and obeyed. God has much to say to us through the pages of his Word. We need not react with dread at his words, but we must indeed listen and obey. —J. B. N.
B. Stunning Promise (v. 13)
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 give him the name John.
Zechariah does not know what is happening, but the angel does. Gabriel knows both Zechariah and Elizabeth by name; he even knows that the faithful priest has been praying for a son. Elizabeth is to bear a son; his name will be John (which means, “Yahweh has been gracious”).
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you prayed for something and you were surprised when God answered your prayer? What did you learn about yourself as a result?
At certain times in Scripture, God sends angels to deliver news that is simply unbelievable from a human perspective. But people are expected to believe it anyway. Such is the case here. Against the laws of nature, Zechariah is going to have a son! That son will be the one to prepare for the coming of the Christ.
To be childless in the Jewish culture is considered to be a severe misfortune (Luke 1:25). We may assume that Zechariah has prayed year after year for a child, to no (apparent) avail. In his old age he may have begun to pray that prayer less and less often. But God has heard, and God has not forgotten. God answers the prayer on his own timetable (compare Genesis 15:1–5; 21:1–7; 30:1, 22). The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth will go on to be one of the most remarkable men in history: John the Baptist.
III. Exceptional Son (Luke 1:14–17)
A. His Character (vv. 14, 15)
14. “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
The fear and confusion of Zechariah eventually will be replaced with joy and gladness. Like Abraham in his old age, Zechariah is going to have a son!
While the birth of a baby is generally a time of celebration and happiness, this birth will be something more. More than just the family and friends, many will rejoice at John’s birth (compare Luke 1:57-58). The effects of his birth bring joy even across the centuries to our own time.
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 from birth.
Many movie stars, athletes, and politicians are great in the sight of people. But John will grow up to be great in the sight of the Lord. It is, after all, the Lord’s evaluation that is important! Jesus will later say of him, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
Like those who took the Nazirite vow to separate themselves to the Lord, John will drink nothing intoxicating (compare Numbers 6:1–3; Judges 13:2–5; Amos 2:11, 12). But John is not just another Nazirite; he is far more special. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Three months before he is even born, he leaps for joy, undoubtedly by the Spirit, when Mary comes to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:41).
“He Shall Be Great”
I once knew a man who had a very high opinion of his granddaughter. His view of her was always expressed with highest praise: she was beautiful, smart, and talented. I didn’t want to disagree with him, but I thought he overrated her. She was an attractive teenager, but I would not have called her beautiful. She got good grades in school, but I would not have called her exceptionally intelligent. As for her talent, I was equally underimpressed.
As the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I didn’t share his estimate of her abilities. But then again, I don’t think he had a very wide exposure to people of talent and intelligence with which to compare hers. The girl was outstanding in his eyes. And that’s all right; I appreciated his devotion to his granddaughter. Yet if this same estimate had come from an experienced judge of beauty and talent contests, I would have been more inclined to take it at face value.
John was to be “great in the sight of the Lord.” The Lord is objective about such things (remember, he “does not show favoritism”; Acts 10:34). He has wide experience in knowing and judging people. Being judged “great” in the Lord’s sight certainly puts John in a special category. May God see each of us as “great” as we do our parts to prepare the world for Christ’s return! —J. B. N.
B. His Mission (vv. 16, 17)
16. “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.
Gabriel’s prediction that John’s mission will be to call the people of Israel to return to the Lord implies that many Israelites have fallen away from God. Many eventually will flock to hear John, will repent, and will be baptized by him (Matthew 3; Mark 1:1–8; Luke 3:1–20; John 1:19–28).
17. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John’s mission was also predicted at the end of the Old Testament: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah. … He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5-6). In this way John is to prepare the people of Judea for the coming of the Messiah. Although John himself may or may not have been aware of his importance as a “type” of Elijah, Jesus understood it perfectly (see Matthew 17:10–13).
What Do You Think?
How does God interact with us today? [Hints: John 16:5–15; Acts 2:38-39; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; James 1:2–4; 5:16; 1 Peter 4:10-11.] What are some reasons for failing to notice God working in and around our lives?
It is striking that God’s closing words in the Old Testament and some of the first words in the New Testament are about John the Baptist. Although there have been more than 400 years of silence between the times of Malachi and Luke, God’s plan has not changed. Now John will have a significant role in helping to make that plan a reality. He will be wholly devoted to preparing the way for the Messiah. John will have no regard for his own importance. Right up to the time of his grisly death, he will live only to answer the call of God.
IV. Divine Confirmation (Luke 1:18–23)
A. Human Doubt (v. 18)
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.”
What the angel has just said is more than Zechariah can swallow! In his human weakness, Zechariah is reluctant to believe (compare Genesis 18:12). So Zechariah blurts out the thought of his heart: How can I be sure of this?
Zechariah needs some kind of proof that such things will be so. After all, he is an old man and his wife is well along in years. The years have taken their toll on them both. While the unbelief of Zechariah is understandable, we should not make excuses for it.
What Do You Think?
Scripture offers us examples of God-fearing individuals who struggled to understand or believe something that God told them. What Bible passages do you struggle to understand or believe? How do you remain faithful in spite of doubt?
B. Angelic Sentencing (vv. 19, 20)
19. The angel answered, “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.
The angel now identifies himself. In so doing, he shows why Zechariah should believe what he has just been told. Gabriel is the same angel who had carried God’s message to Daniel five and a half centuries earlier (Daniel 8:16; 9:21). This exalted being, who regularly stands in the very presence of God, has come with a message directly from on high. It is God’s message, and it is good news. So why shouldn’t Zechariah believe it? Zechariah surely knows how God opened the womb of Sarah (Genesis 21:1–7)!
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 proper time.”
God, in an act of stern kindness, gives Zechariah both punishment and confirmation: he will not be able to speak for the entire period of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Until the day when these things happen—and they most certainly will—Zechariah will suffer the consequence of his unbelief. God has spoken and Zechariah does not believe. Now Zechariah cannot speak further words of unbelief or any other words at all. God will lift the punishment at the time of John’s naming (Luke 1:62–64).
C. Divine Proof (vv. 21–23)
21. Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple.
The crowds pray and wait outside in the temple courtyards. On this day, Zechariah is their closest link to the presence of God, so they are eager to see him emerge from the sacred building. Usually the stay of a priest in the Holy Place lasts only a few minutes. Then he comes out and pronounces the familiar Aaronic blessing on the people (see Numbers 6:24–26). When Zechariah delays, taking much longer than a priest usually does, they are concerned. What is happening?
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.
Zechariah finally emerges. He does not say the expected words of blessing on the people; indeed, he is unable to speak to them at all! Instead, he uses hand signals to explain what has happened. The fact that he is speechless is proof that the hand of God is upon him.
23. When his time of service was completed, he returned home.
When the two weeks of his ministry in the temple are over, Zechariah returns to his own house in the hill country of Judea (see Luke 1:39-40). The chief priests and their important assistants have houses in Jerusalem itself, but lesser priests live out in the countryside. There they farm, keep livestock, or work at a trade.
Zechariah’s return home is not the end of the story; it is only the beginning. After four centuries of silence, God has spoken to his people once again. God’s plan of salvation is moving forward!
A. Zechariah: “God Remembers”
God tells no tall tales; it is impossible for him to lie (see Hebrews 6:18). Throughout history, God has required that people listen when he speaks and that they believe what he says.
God’s expectation applied to Zechariah, perhaps especially so. Yet even though he was a faithful priest (Luke 1:6), he stumbled at believing God’s “impossible” promise. Since we have the advantage of hindsight of the completed New Testament, we may be tempted to excuse Zechariah’s failure because we know some things he didn’t. But Zechariah also had hindsight to draw on: he undoubtedly knew of the Old Testament accounts of how God intervened to bring sons to elderly, childless couples. Having hindsight is no guarantee that we will always exercise faith!
God did not intend to leave us in the bondage of sin. From the beginning of our disobedience, when God promised that the seed of woman would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15), God had a plan to save us. After many centuries, God still pushes his plan forward. Now we—like Zechariah—are called to believe.
B. John: “Yahweh Has Been Gracious”
John the Baptist was rightly named. He was living proof of God’s graciousness. To Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age, God extended grace by granting them a son. To the entire human race, God proved his grace by sending his own Son—whose way John the Baptist prepared. As this all unfolded, one thing was clear: Yahweh (God) has been gracious.
As we enter this Christmas season, let us remember again each part of the sacred story. Let us rejoice to hear Gabriel’s glad tidings to Zechariah and to Mary; let us echo the multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God. We believe in the baby of Bethlehem; we believe in the Christ of the cross; we believe in the future return of our king. We have been called to believe—and we do!
Thought to Remember
God yet calls us to believe.
Our Father, we thank you for remembering us in spite of our sins and for opening the door of salvation. Thank you for providing all we need to be able to believe in your Son Jesus. He is the one by whom we are saved. In his name we pray, amen.
J. B. N. James B. North
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 123