The Truth About Christmas
by Bob Burridge ©2010
This article continues a series of studies about the events surrounding the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. The series begins with, Called To Bethlehem. There is also a complete index for all the articles telling The Truth About Christmas.
Part 6 Another Special Birth
At the beginning of his gospel account Luke introduces us to a godly married couple.
Luke 1:5-7, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.”
The days when the New Testament story begins were hard times for God’s people. Herod the Great had become king of the region exercising the power and authority of Rome. He was a political opportunist who was hated by the Jews for usurping the throne of King David. He introduced pagan ways into the Jewish lands, corrupted the youth, ruthlessly killed those who stood in his way, and by raising tribute money for Rome gained the protection of the Emperor. This is the same Herod who later killed all the infants in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
During this time of turmoil God had preserved faithful people who were blessed by his grace. There was a godly couple who were advanced in years, but had no children. Zacharias served in one of the 24 divisions that rotated priestly duties. Elizabeth was also a descendant of the priestly line of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Now that she was beyond the child-bearing years they had given up any hope of having children.
God had prepared this unassuming Jewish family to be part of his amazing plan. Luke continued his account in verses 8-10.
“And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.”
Early each morning a lot would be cast to choose one of the attending priests to serve by igniting the incense inside the holy part of the Temple. On this particular day Zacharias was chosen. It was a once-in-a-life-time honor, his first and last time to perform this holy duty. Two assistants entered with him into the holy place. The one removed the remains of the previous evening’s service from the altar. The other spread the live coals taken from the altar of burnt offering.
Zacharias then stood alone with the golden censer and approached the altar of incense. It was directly in front of the curtain that separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies. To his right was the table of showbread and to his left the candles of the menorah. Outside, the gathered worshipers silently bowed to add their worship and prayers to the rising of the incense before God. When Zacharias lit the incense he would worship for a moment then reverently leave the holy place.
Something happened that startled him, and made him stay where he was. Luke 1:11-12 explains.
“And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”
God had a special message for Israel. His special spirit messenger Gabriel appeared to this priest while he stood there to complete his special task. Understandably Zacharias was troubled and somewhat afraid. It says in Luke 1:13-17,
But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
This was quite an amazing and unexpected message. First the angel assured him not to be afraid. Then he told Zacharias that his prayer had been heard. Evidently he had prayed for a son. Since he and his wife were now quite old, probably this prayer was offered up to God many years ago. Reason and common experience would have made what Gabriel said seem impossible, but in God’s timing, in their later years, Elizabeth was going to bear him a son.
God’s messenger said that this son should be named John. He will bring great joy to his parents and to many others. The son will be great. He will be like those under a Nazarite vow who abstain from beverages made from grapes. He would be specially filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb.
In fulfilling God’s ancient promise, he will turn the sons of Israel to the Lord. He will prepare a special people for the Lord by going in the spirit and power of Elijah. The hearts of father’s would be turned back to their children, and the disobedient will be called back to righteousness.
The circumstances would make it obvious that God was specially at work. He chose a couple beyond the child-bearing years, and he sent his angel to announce it as an act of God.
With all that evidence, even with the supernatural appearance of an angel from God, Zacharias doubted what the angel told him. Luke 1:18-20 says,
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.
Admittedly this was an amazing message! Humanly speaking what was about to happen was very unlikely. That’s why God sent his special messenger in such a supernatural way. The angel clearly identified himself. He was Gabriel, the one who stands in God’s presence. God had sent him with this message of good news.
Because of his lack of trust in God’s words, Zecharias would lose his ability to speak until the promise communicated through the angel was fulfilled. This was a further confirmation that this was an act of God. His inability to speak would exactly coincide with the duration of the promise. It started with the angel’s announcement, and wouldn’t end until the child was obediently named as God said. (Luke 1:57-80)
Meanwhile, the people waited, and wondered about the delay inside the Holy Place. The scene is recorded in Luke 1:21-23.
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
John, the announcer of the Messiah, was conceived just as God promised through the angel.
Luke 1:24-25, “And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
Though yet unborn, already this child filled Elizabeth with joy. She would have the child she always wanted. She credited God alone for this blessing.
Jesus had not yet been conceived in Mary, but already the prophet who would precede him was growing in his mother’s womb. John would help clear away the confusion about God’s prophesies. He would straighten out the twisted path made by those who distorted the hope of the Messiah.
Today God calls his people to untangle the confusion about the birth, mission, and work of Jesus Christ. The Christmas season offers many opportunities to point out the world’s understanding about who he was and what he did. To many people it remains a twisted tale that misses the wonder of what really happened. The Gospel of Christ restores that hope in hearts that turn to him and trust in what he really accomplished.
Next Study: An Ancient Promise Fulfilled