Zechariah – God Changed the Heart of an Old Priest
Have you ever prayed about something for years and received seemingly no results, but because it’s now part of your daily rhythm, you still utter the words? Your heart has grown numb to the request, but your mind still goes through the motions?
It had been four hundred years since there had been any sign or word from the Lord. The continued silence had brought despair on many, and growing control to others. Many of the religious leaders in fear of the people losing focus on the Law began creating extra rules around what the Lord had given Moses, in order to maintain a righteous people.
But all the added religious rules became more than the people could bear. And more than the religious leaders were meant to enforce. The division grew among the Israelites. The priests going from the sacrificial servants of God and people, to taking the place of ruler over them. And the people, God’s precious people, became their subordinates, when it should have been one family, respecting each other in the roles God had ordained for them.
There was a great stir among the temple. All the people began to pray as they gathered for the sacrifice. The priests anxiously assembled and cast lots to see who would be God’s chosen one to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense before Him. It was the priestly division of Judea’s turn to serve. Only one man would be chosen.
This opportunity to burn incense before the Lord was the highest privilege. With there being thousands of priests at this time, one could but dream for a chance to serve the Lord in His sanctuary on this day.
Zechariah was a righteous man; one who sought to honour God by his person and position. Finally, the Lord had chosen him on this sacred day. He went over the checklist and began the routine of tending to the fire on the altar of incense, pouring the powerful mixed herbs and oil over the altar as he began his cries to the Lord for deliverance of His people. Deep within Zechariah’s heart, not only did he groan for the family of God; he mourned for his own. His wife, Elizabeth, now far along in years, carried the societal shame of barrenness. She was a devout Jew, a righteous and honourable daughter of the Most-High God, so why had He not opened her womb?
Zechariah raised his hands to the heavens. In the dark sanctuary, dimly lit by the fire in front of him, and the candles around the room, he wondered when God would break the silence for all.
Suddenly, in the quietness of the temple, Zechariah was no longer alone!
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. 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 fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.’
‘How can I know this?’ Zechariah asked the angel. ‘For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.’
The angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them. Then they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was making signs to them and remained speechless. When the days of his ministry were completed, he went back home.” Luke 1:11-23
The shock quickly came over Zechariah at the news he was about to become a father. Signs and wonders had been a thing that happened centuries ago. The earth had been void of God’s extraordinary work, apart from Him continuing to sustain it with life itself. All had been silent for so long, that doubt crept into his spirit. It was like the scrolls of old had become a textbook to study rather than a source of life for his soul. Now, as he heard this great news, his heart was like that of Abraham’s Sarah, doubting the miraculous.
Part of me wonders if his doubt was like what you and I would probably experience if we were told we’d start a family in our 70’s or 80’s. We know anything is possible with God, but why then? And why him and Elizabeth? Why change what they had been used to for so long? He had prayed for this, but those prayers seemed to be part of routine, a comfortingly common experience. And yet, I also wonder if his silencing was as much for the community as it was for him.
Something incredible happened in that sanctuary of whom only Zechariah, God, and heaven was aware; Something that left people in awe and questioning what this might mean. What an unusual and amazing experience that would have been to witness, like dry bones coming alive!
It is truly beautiful to read what happens when God does great work in a person. After being silenced for at least ten months, Zechariah’s first spoken words were all praise to God.
“When they came to circumcise the child on the eighth day, they were going to name him Zechariah, after his father. But his mother responded, ‘No. He will be called John.’
Then they said to her, ‘None of your relatives has that name.’So they motioned to his father to find out what he wanted him to be called. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came on all those who lived around them, and all these things were being talked about throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard about him took it to heart, saying, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him.” Luke 1:59-66 (Bold added)
The fascinating part is that during his time of silence, Mary had visited for three months. He had witnessed the prophecy from Gabriel fulfilled about John being filled with the Spirit in Elizabeth’s womb by the fact that the baby leaped in her womb when Mary arrived (also pregnant with Jesus at this time). He witnessed the prophesied “forerunner” of the Messiah, and the Messiah Himself come together in the wombs of his wife and cousin.
Did he spend that time in silence studying all the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming? What about the prophecies about his own son? How powerfully would that have resonated in his spirit?
Look how closely this prophecy in Malachi is to what Gabriel prophesied about Zechariah’s son, John:
“Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah 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. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Malachi 4:5-6
“And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.” Luke 1:17
Zechariah went from a doubter to a believer. He modeled what it looked like to go from having head knowledge to heart experiential belief and application. He had been a righteous and devout follower of the Law, but now he was beginning to understand the reality of the prophesies he had studied for decades, and indeed, the time had come for the Messiah!
Do you believe in God, but the whole Jesus story seems a bit too much for you?
Are you a follower of Jesus, but feel dry in your faith like the the beginning of Zechariah’s story?
There’s hope for you! Jesus is alive and He does care about every single one of your prayers! Please reach out. We’d be happy to explain the good news about the reality of Jesus, and/or pray for and with you about this dry season.
If you’re in a sweet season with Jesus where you are rejoicing greatly, don’t hide it! Share it with others. Show them the hope that’s there for the taking by the experiential gift you’ve received, just like Zechariah did after he obeyed God and named his son, John!