It was a bloody mess. Blood on the floor. Blood on the walls. Blood on the garments. Jews from all over the known world were coming to the temple, as was their custom, to offer animal sacrifices to God—a picture to prepare them for the Messiah’s work on the cross.
The following is an adaptation from God Breaks His Silence, a Christmas study guide. It follows the narrative of Luke 1:5-25. Here is part one: Before the First Christmas.
The priests would receive the animal and butcher it, separating specific parts of its body for specific purposes of worship in the temple. It would be burned, poured over coals, and surrendered to God in prayer. It was a scene of death.
There were about 18,000 priests at that time, divided across 24 divisions. Twice a year, a division would serve seven days in the temple. Doing the math, 750 priests were performing their duties on any given day. Out of those, only one would be privileged to carry the bloody, burning coals into the Holy Place. They drew straws to choose that person. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, literally. A priest could enter the Holy Place only once.
Our story introduces Zechariah. He is that privileged priest, that randomly chosen, insignificant man who just happened to be doing his job the day God broke His silence. He was a common man. In fact, he was one of 18,000 priests who were just like him. On the surface, there was nothing extraordinary about him being chosen for the job. It was in the straws.
A Common Priest
Nothing about Zechariah was extraordinary. The Bible tells us he was an old priest with no children—which made him a sham of a man among the people (Ps. 127:3). He was one in a million, but in a bad way.
In God’s opinion, however, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were “righteous before God” (Lk. 1:6). This meant they didn’t simply go through the motions of worship. Their hearts were in it. They were “Old Testament Christians,” you might say.
Priests who entered the Holy Place would dress in a robe with bells that would ring with each step he took. A rope was tied to his ankle. The idea was if the bells stopped ringing, the priest was assumed dead and could be dragged out by his foot. Those who offered the sacrifices would gather around outside to pray until the priest returned.
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. And 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 was 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. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.Luke 1:5-12
An Uncommon Word
Zechariah was a common man, just like you and me. Being a priest was nothing extraordinary. He didn’t work his way into the priesthood. He was born into it. He had no choice, neither was he awarded the duty of offering in the Holy Place. God picked a common man for an uncommon purpose—to receive an uncommon word—and broke His silence.
Typically, people did one of three things when they encountered an angel: they died, they ran, or they feared deeply. The Holy Place had only one entrance. Gabriel could not have been a man who just “appeared” inside. So upon seeing him, Zechariah was troubled. He wondered if the bells on his robe were about stop ringing.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will 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.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am 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 and to bring you this good news. And 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. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.Luke 1:13-23
When God Speaks, We Should Believe
Zechariah, physically and emotionally drained, from years of priestly duties and unanswered prayers for a son, disbelieved God’s Word. As a result, the angel struck him mute and deaf (Lk. 1:62-63), a serious punishment for a man who wanted to tell all about his wife’s pregnancy.
Hebrews 1:2 tells us God speaks to us today through His living Word, and it is no less significant than if it came from an angel directly to you. Whenever and however God speaks, it is always Scripture. How do you typically respond to God’s Word?
With the coming of Christmas, consider your response when God speaks—is it belief or disbelief?