I wish my husband had a blog because I love what he reveals about God from his time spent in the Word. I’ve asked him to guest post on A Lady in France and he’s considered it, but the truth is he’s pretty swamped with work, and when he prepares something (a message or Bible discussion or a written study), he spends a lot of time in reflection first. And loads of time is in short supply. But I’ve the next best thing here because I’m going to share with you the discussion he did Friday night.
Our Friday night Bible Talk has 5 regular couples besides us (with kids in tow) plus 3 couples who come semi-regularly, and then the odd visitor that wants to check it out. We feed the kids first then send them to play. Then we open the Bible and Matthieu asks the questions he’s prepared and we discuss it, then we all eat a copious fare prepared by talented cooks. It’s a win all around.
This past Friday night he wanted to focus on the story of two pregnant women because in our group there are two pregnant women – one about to give birth, and the other, four months behind. (Almost the interval between Elizabeth and her young cousin, Mary).
The passage is in Luke 1, and since it’s a long passage, I’ll highlight some of the words to help them stand out.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Zechariah and his wife were righteous, and they observed all of God’s commands and decrees blamelessly, yet they were without child and already very old. When the angel came to Zechariah, he said, “your prayer has been heard”. Not “your prayers have been heard.” One prayer. What do you think that one prayer had been all those years? (Matthieu clarified that this doesn’t mean he prayed for it one time, but rather that it was the prayer – his central desire).
The answer? To have a child.
Gabriel announced that they would, indeed, conceive and went on to say all the amazing things that would come with this child – filled with the Holy Spirit, bring people back to God, go in the spirit and power of Elijah, many will rejoice because of his birth. All amazing things, right? But apparently, the presence of an angel in the quiet, sacred part of the temple where no other human was allowed, apart from the one chosen by lot, was not enough to convince Zechariah that all this was going to happen, that what the angel said was true. Because he asked, “How will I know?”
And what was Gabriel’s response? Well, it seems here he was shocked. Indignant. Look, mister, he seems to say. I stand before God. I see his face. What he says will happen will happen. How can you doubt? And Gabriel strikes him mute for his lack of faith until everything he says will happen happens.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth did become pregnant, and then we come to the next part of the story.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
So what’s interesting in this story (besides the crazy fact that God came down to earth in human form, and that He decided to do it as a helpless baby) is that He announces this incredible news to Mary. Keep in mind that after the last prophet in the Old Testament – Malachi – there were 400 years of silence. Four hundred years where none of God’s people heard any new revelation. And now the angel announces that she will have a son, and He will be called the Son of the Most High – that He will reign on David’s throne, that his kingdom will never end. Absolutely incredible. Of course it beggars belief and we can see that Mary felt the same way. What was Mary’s response? Why, the same as Zechariah!
How can I be sure of this? How will this be?
But what’s interesting is, this time the angel didn’t strike her mute. Same angel. Same human response. But the angel reacts differently. Instead he explains how it will be done, that the Holy Spirit will come on her, that she won’t be alone because even her cousin will have a child, (and I know it’s difficult for you humans to believe, but) God’s word never fails.
So, why do you think Gabriel responded to her incredulity in a different way?
One person responded that it was because Zechariah had been praying for it. It wasn’t news being announced out of the blue. If he was asking for it, he should have believed when his prayer was answered. But in Mary’s case, the angel came when she hadn’t asked for anything. She needed more explanation, more guidance.
I hadn’t thought of that. My first reaction was similar to Matthieu’s. He could imagine Gabriel reporting back to God (mission accomplished. announced the good news). And God saying, really Gabriel? You struck him mute? Could you not have shown a little more grace? Some more compassion because Zechariah does not, in fact, stand in my presence and see my face? Perhaps Gabriel got schooled by God and it was because of that he came six (plus) months later with an attitude more adapted to humans.
In any case and for whatever reason, when Gabriel came back to announce the news to Mary, it was done in a manner that showed much more patience and grace than before.
Now let’s look at the closing passage as it pertains to this story. Not the one about Jesus’ birth, which deserves its own focus, but rather on Zechariah and his son.
57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things.66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
Do you know what Zechariah means in Hebrew? It means, God remembers. Zechariah’s friends urged him to call his son Zechariah. God Remembers. Of course they wanted him to name his son that. Not only because it would carry on the tradition of father-son naming, but don’t you see, Zechariah? God saw your righteousness and he remembered. All those years you stayed faithful though you didn’t get what you wanted, and God saw that. And he gave you a son. Every time you speak his name, you will think of this. God remembers because He remembered you.
But no, that would not be his name. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” Do you know what John means in Hebrew?
God gives grace.
By obeying the angel, Zechariah was saying not by my righteousness was my heart’s desire granted. Not by my righteousness was my prayer heard. Not by my righteousness did God remember me. Only – only – was my heart’s desire granted because God gives grace.
And because he showed his faith, his mouth was opened and he could speak. Notice, in verse 20 in the NIV it says you won’t be able to speak until the day this happens. But in the King James (and the Louis Segond French version we were reading) it says you won’t be able to speak until these things have happened. It doesn’t say you won’t be able to speak until your son (John the Baptist) is born. It says until these things – he brings people to the Lord, he goes in the power of Elijah, he makes ready a people prepared for the Lord – until these things will happen.
But because of God’s grace, He didn’t even wait for all these things to happen before He gave Zechariah speech. God just gave grace and allowed Zechariah his speech at the first act of faith following the birth of his son.
God gives grace.
You know, the New Testament was written years after it happened (by three of his disciples, the apostle Paul, a Greek doctor, a Roman citizen, a few unknowns, and – as is commonly accepted- by two of Jesus’ blood brothers). So it took time for people to step out of the current events that shook the world, and be inspired to put pen to paper and write about it. But, if you think about it, know what the first real words of the New Testament are, written before Jesus was born?
They’re the ones Zechariah wrote when he asked for a tablet. “His name is ‘God gives grace‘.”
And if you look at the very end of the New Testament, know what the last words are in Revelations 22:21? “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.” God gives grace. In perfect harmony, the New Testament begins – and ends – with God’s grace.
To Him be the glory.