The Gospel reading for December 19 contains the familiar story of Zechariah in the temple.
It is the occasion when the Angel Gabriel appears to him to announce the birth of John the Baptist.
Although the story is familiar, there are some fascinating details in this account, and their significance is not obvious.
Let’s take a look.
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1. When did this event take place?
Luke begins his narrative "in the days of Herod, king of Judea," by which he means Herod the Great.
When precisely Herod the Great ruled is disputed. According to a theory introduced a little more than a century ago, Herod reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C.
This view is generally accepted today, but it has been vigorously challenged in favor of a more traditional dating, which would extend Herod's reign to 1 B.C. (And also place the beginning of his reign in 39 B.C.).
Still, 39-1 B.C. is a long span, and we can narrow it down more precisely.
Once we clear away the error that Herod died in 4 B.C., it becomes clear that Jesus—in keeping with the traditional date given by the Church Fathers—was born in 3/2 B.C.
And since John the Baptist was around 6 months older than Jesus and was in the womb for 9 months, that would put this event around 15 months before the birth of Jesus--some time in 4 or 3 B.C. Most likely, it was in November of 4 B.C.
2. Why November of 4 B.C.?
Luke introduces the familiar figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who will become the parents of John the Baptist, and informs us that Zechariah is a priest belonging to "the division of Abijah."
At the time, the Jewish priesthood was organized as twenty four divisions or "courses," each of which went to serve at the temple twice a year for one week at a time.
The division of Abijah was the eighth of the twenty four courses.
Through a series of complex calculations and arguments that are too detailed to go into here, it is possible to estimate when the course of Abijah was on duty at the temple.
If you want to go into those arguments in all their geeky, chronological goodness, get a copy of Jack Finnegan’s outstanding Handbook of Biblical Chronology (see sections 467-473).
The upshot, though, is that Zechariah likely saw the vision when he was on duty with the rest of the course of Abijah between November 10 and 17 in 4 B.C.
That would put the birth of Jesus in the winter of 3/2 B.C., in keeping with the traditional date.
3. How did Zechariah’s vision come about?
Luke tells us:
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him 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 [Luke 1:8-10].
You might wonder: Why was Zechariah chosen by lot to offer incense?
The answer is that there were, at this time, as many as 8,000 priests in total, and they could not all offer incense, even when their division was on duty.
As a result, the decision of who would offer incense was left to God by the use of lots.
We know of this practice also from the Mishnah, a Jewish work written around A.D. 200 that records religious traditions and debates from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D.
The fact that the Mishnah sheds like on Luke 1 shows both the value of other ancient sources for understanding the Bible and how well Luke's account meshes with what we know about the ancient world.
According to the Mishnah, lots were cast to determine which priest would offer incense (m. Tamid 5:2).
In fact, there were so many priests that the incense service was performed by a team of priests whose individual duties were selected by lot.
They "won" various rights: the right to offer the incense, the right to prepare the incense, the right to scoop up ashes from the inner altar, the right to remove the ashes of the candlestick, etc.
There were even expert priests on hand to coach the newly arrived priests in how to perform their functions, since they did a specific duty so infrequently that they might be fuzzy on the details of what they were supposed to do.
Being chosen to offer the incense was a rare experience that might only come a handful of times during a priest's life, and so it is significant that God has chosen Zechariah to serve him in the holy place at this particular moment.
4. What happens in the vision?
An angel--who is at first nameless--appears "on the right side of the altar of incense," causing Zechariah to be afraid.
The angel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, that his prayer has been heard, and that Elizabeth will bear him a son.
He also says that they are to name the child John, which will turn out to be significant.
5. What will be special about the child?
The name "John" (Hebrew, Yohannan) means "Yahweh has been gracious."
The idea may include the idea that God has been gracious to Zechariah and Elizabeth, by giving them a child in their old age. But it also signifies God's grace to mankind in general, as he will be the forerunner of the Messiah.
Thus the angel also indicates that this will be no ordinary child. He "will be great before the Lord" and have a special mission.
As part of this mission, "he shall drink no wine nor strong drink." Not drinking alcohol was a special sign of consecration in the Old Testament.
- Priests were not allowed to drink alcohol while they were serving at the temple (Lev. 10:9).
- Nazirites--men and women who made a special vow of consecration to God--were not allowed to drink alcohol during the time of their vow (Num. 6:3).
The prophecy that John would not drink alcohol echoes the births of the Old Testament judge Samson (Judg. 13:7) and the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 1:11), both of whom were consecrated from birth.
What is more, "he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb." At this time the Holy Spirit was not given the way he would be in the Christian age (cf. Acts 1:4-8, 2:1-4, 17-18, 38-39).
However, the Holy Spirit was given to the prophets to enable them for their ministry (1 Sam 10:10, 2 Sam 23:2, Is. 61:1, etc.).
The fact that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit "from his mother's womb"--literally, before birth, as we shall soon see--is unprecedented and indicates that he will be a particularly powerful prophet.
In fact, he has a special role to play in God's plan of the ages. He will fulfill the prophecy,
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse" (Mal. 4:5-6; cf. Matt. 17:10-13).
6. Does this mean that John is the reincarnation of Elijah?
No. Note that the statement that John will have the spirit and power of Elijah does not mean that he is Elijah reincarnated.
Elijah never died. Instead, he was taken directly to heaven and his successor, Elisha, inherited a "double portion" of his spirit.
This indicated that he was Elijah's rightful successor, comparable to a firstborn son, who inherited a double portion of his father's estate (2 Kgs. 2:1-15; Deut. 21:17).
The fact that John operates with the spirit and power of Elijah means that he exercises the same kind of prophetic ministry as Elijah, not that he inherited Elijah's individual soul.
7. How does Zechariah's respond to the vision?
Zechariah does not accept what the angel has told him. Instead, he challenges the angel: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."
The angel then gives him several pieces of information that collectively serve as proof of the prophecy.
a) He reveals his identity: He is Gabriel, an angel known from the book of Daniel.
b) He indicates that he stands in the presence of God, making him a high ranking angel who regularly is present in the heavenly throne room, giving him direct access to God.
c) He says, "I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news." The implication is: God himself sent me to give you this good news, you unbeliving man.
d) As an earthly proof of these heavenly realities, "you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass."
So Zechariah is struck dumb, providing physical proof to him that what the angel says will come to pass.
9. What happens next?
Luke notes that the people were wondering why Zechariah was taking so long in the temple:
And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple [Luke 1:21].
The delay need not have been a long one.
Because the offering of incense involved a team of priests with different duties, the offering of the incense itself took only a short time.
According to the Mishnah, the other priests did their work and left.
Afterwards, the one who had won the right to offer the incense did so, prostrated himself, and went out (m. Tamid 6:3 G).
Thus even a brief encounter with Gabriel would mean that Zechariah spent more time than normal.
But we have another question about the people waiting outside: Why were they waiting?
The answer, supplied by the Mishnah, is that they were waiting for Zechariah to come out and lead the other priests in pronouncing a blessing on them (m. Tamid 7:2), but when he emerged, he was unable to speak.
Thus he made signs to them (presumably gesturing to heaven, the temple, his mouth, etc.) and was able to get across the concept that he had seen a vision in the temple.
10. How does the story end?
Despite the amazing vision and his being struck dumb, Zechariah did not proceed home immediately.
In keeping with his fundamental piety (Luke has previously noted how holy he and his wife, Elizabeth, were), he fulfilled the time of his service before returning.
Afterward, Elizabeth conceives the promised child and goes into seclusion, rejoicing that she will now be freed from the public humiliation of being childless (often considered to be a sign of sin, a charge Luke has already indicated would be false; cf. Lk 1:6.)
The time of Elizabeth's seclusion lasts five months, but in the sixth month, she will have a visitor.
But that’s a story for another time.
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