Angelic appearances only happen by God’s design. Angels are often the carriers of His divine word. Other times, they announce and execute His divine judgement. In either case, they come in the name of God, and they are always terrifying.
Our story picks up just inside the Holy Place. Zechariah, now holding a large bowl of burning coals, has entered alone to make his final offering. His robe is covered in blood. He is physically and emotionally exhausted from a week of slaughter. Yet, he is invigorated by the opportunity to make an offering in the Holy Place this one last time. The excitement of the moment is overwhelming. But it was nothing compared to what was about to happen.
An angel appears to him, “standing on the right side of the altar of incense” (Lk. 1:11). Zechariah must have assumed the angel walked out from the Most Holy Place—the place behind the curtain where only the high priest would enter and only once a year. It was the place of God.
Zechariah “was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him” (Lk. 1:12). Fear was the expected response when standing before an angel of God, especially in the Holy Place. The priests would wear a robe into the Holy Place lined with bells so that those outside would hear the jingle of a living man. Additionally, a rope was tied to his ankle. In the event that the jingle would cease, the priest—assumed killed by God—would be pulled out. It wasn’t called the Holy Place for nothing.
Zechariah Before the Holy One
While the appearance of an angel would be terrifying, it was the purpose of an angel appearing that frightened people the most. The presence of a holy being makes people acutely aware of their unholiness. And, in light of personal sin and the judgement of God usually brought by angels, this experience was all the more terrifying. Zechariah’s reaction was very typical.
Unlike the unrighteous hypocrites of his day (cf: Matt. 6:2; Jn. 5:44), Zechariah was a man of humility, keenly aware of his own sin and in need of God’s salvation. He knew the law was not something he could keep, so he turned in repentance and faith (Hab. 2:4; Lk. 18:13-14) to a merciful and gracious God. Still, before the Lord’s mediary, he knew he was among holiness.
You Before the Holy One
Christmas is a called a holiday, a holy day, set aside for the Holy One. It is a time of reflection—to ponder the day God came through the womb of a virgin. It is also a time of contemplation—to consider the reason God came into the world.
The sacrifice for sin required a holy offering. This is why God came. This is why we celebrate this momentous day. We are before Holy God when we are before the baby Christ. God put it in perspective: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2).
When we open God’s Word, we are even closer to God’s Son than Zechariah before God’s angel. Do you tremble at His Word?