The Parents of the Forerunner
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 1:5–1:7
The Parents of the Forerunner
January 25, 2015
Today we have the joy and privilege of getting into Luke’s gospel. I mean really getting into it. No more introductory messages, we’re into the flow. So turn in your Bibles to Luke Chapter 1. We spent a few weeks introducing Luke’s gospel, and it was important to set that foundation; be very careful about that, because we need to understand the import, the impact of this precious, precious book of Scripture. Here’s where the payoff comes in laying that foundation right here in the very first story that Luke records. And, as we noted before, Luke goes further back than any other gospel writer in telling the story about Jesus’ life and ministry. He goes all the way back to the angelic announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. Why does he do that? Is he just trying to show up the other gospel writers? No, he’s got a point. You have to keep in mind it had been more than 400 years since anybody had heard the prophetic voice in Israel. As Alfred Plummer wrote, when John the Baptist appeared, not the oldest man in Palestine could remember to have spoken even in his earliest childhood with any man who had seen a prophet. That was uncommon in Israel. The last time anyone had heard a word from God, it had come through the prophet Malachi, the last of the post-exilic prophets. Malachi wrote as basically, metaphorically I guess you could say, the sun had set on Israel. Assyria was a fading memory. Babylon had declined, too, having been defeated by the Medes. The Medo-Persian Empire had dominated the world in Malachi’s time, and though the darkness of night had set in, this had all happened according to God’s plan. Malachi’s final words, written in 424 BC, point to a new day in Israel, somewhere in the future. This is what he said, the last two verses, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” When Malachi put his pen down after writing that sentence, heaven went silent. Quiet. Spiritual darkness was then heavy upon Israel for 400 years. And it’s at the end of that long night that Luke brings us into the story as a dawn is breaking over the land. And it comes to us in the form of a birth announcement, a birth announcement.
Take a look at Luke 1:5, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the division of Abijah, and he had a wife of 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 alter of incense. Zechariah was troubled when he saw him; fear fell upon him, but the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; 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. He must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from 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 the fathers to their children, the disobedient to the wisdom of the just to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”
Fascinating. Malachi had promised the coming of the forerunner in Elijah the prophet. Gabriel announced the fulfillment, one who would come in the Spirit and power of Elijah. Folks, that is really significant. Luke is here making a point when he decided to begin the narrative this way. Listen, he begins his gospel with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth because it is a direct fulfillment of what Malachi wrote in Malachi 4, 5 and 6. He’s connecting promise with fulfillment. He’s connecting the prophecy with what actually is coming to pass. It’s kind of like the relationship between Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts. Remember that? We talked about that, how the prologue in Acts referred back to the final chapter in Luke’s gospel. It was a continuation of the story, a continuation of the narrative. It showed the unity of those two works, so whoever wrote Acts wrote Luke also and vice versa.
Well, Luke wants us to see something similar here. He wants us to see the historical continuity, the prophetic continuity between the Old Testament and the New. What Luke records here is not a break with the past at all. This is not a radical discontinuity; he’s not abolishing what is old, he’s writing about fulfillment. He’s writing about the continuation of a redemption story that began long, long ago. This is the fulfillment of promises that were made centuries before. What Malachi promised, what he predicted, fulfillment is recorded right here in Luke’s gospel in this announcement here to Zechariah about the forerunner of the Messiah.
Now, it’s impossible to really to overstate how exciting this would’ve been to those people living then in the first century when this actually happened. This is the most monumental story ever told. It’s fascinating how much was going on in the world at that time. There’s world history that is amazing; we’ll get into some of that, but what’s interesting here is Luke is less interested about the politics of the time. He’s not as interested about the events of the day. He brings us into the narrative through a humble couple, an older couple, happily married, probably in their 60’s. Zechariah and Elizabeth are two unlikely parents, but they are living out just the normal routine duties of everyday life. Zechariah was a faithful priest from the hill country of Judea. While serving Lord as priest in Jerusalem, Zechariah is in for an absolute shock. He has no idea what’s about to take place. He didn’t expect it, didn’t see this coming. Like any other faithful, believing couple, these Jews, Zechariah and Elizabeth, had to have been dismayed by what they saw around them, in the culture around them, spiritually, politically, culturally. They were living through some very, very dark times. The Jews, yes they were back in the land, but as a nation they were hardly faithful. Many were compromised by the influence of the Gentiles in their land. People who had conquered them and ruled them were influential throughout Palestine. Those who sought to remain faithful to the Law of Moses—many of them looked to the Pharisees and their example. They looked to the scribes, they looked to the rabbis and what did they learn? They learned about external observance of the law as a means to gain God’s favor. They looked to righteousness by works, not by faith. That left the land completely without hope. Most people were compromised. Most people were imbedded with Hellenism and the Gentiles and their lifestyles. Those who tried to escape that lived in a different way; they only escaped from the frying pan into fire of works righteousness, a tremendous burden over the people.
Remember, it was only about 100 years or so after the Persian king Cyrus decreed the return of the Jews to rebuild the temple, the city of Jerusalem. There had been another shift in world power since Cyrus’ time. Remember, Alexander the Great burst on the scene, and he raced across the Persian Empire with blinding speed, conquering, taking over the whole thing in just about twelve years. It was incredible for such a young man. Wherever he conquered, he spread Greek culture, language, philosophy, art, poetry, the myths of Greco-Roman world, or the Greek world, I should say. The process came to be known as Hellenization. Hellenization had a unifying effect on the lands that he conquered. He wanted to preserve some aspects of the conquered culture, but he infused it with Greek culture. He infused it with the art, the culture, the philosophy, the thinking of his native land. So, Hellenization was like a strategy of syncretism, trying to blend things together, blend Greek thinking into the fabric of other cultures, making them inseparable. Greek culture was as attractive to people as it was defiling. It led to compromise; moral and spiritual laxity became a continual snare to the Jews, who returned from exile into the land, into the land of Palestine. It was a continual snare to them. They loved what they saw around them; they were very attracted to it—you can understand that.
That’s what Zechariah and Elizabeth, coming from their rural ministry in the hill country of Judea, a very normal life style, very normal pattern of life. They came into the city of Jerusalem, and that’s what they saw all around them. And, perhaps, it saddened them, disturbed them to see their people, the people of Israel, the people who knew the law and the prophets, the people who looked to a coming Messiah, perhaps it saddened them to see their people drift spiritually adrift, still in darkness. They may have been reminded of the question David asked in Psalm 11:3, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Let me ask you, do you ever feel that way; are you ever saddened, or maybe even angered by what’s going on in the culture around you? Are you dismayed by the events of this rapidly changing world, so much sin, so little faithfulness, so much sadness, so little hope. I read the news like you do. Situations seem to worsen by the day: bloodthirsty men kidnapping, terrorizing, murdering people, sexual perversion that objectifies people, degrades people turning them into abused and abusers, coldhearted, loveless people who slaughter innocent babies in the womb, politicians who compromise, who refuse to take stands against moral corruption and evil. Since the righteous foundations in this country, since the foundations in any country, since they are destroyed, Psalm 11:3, what can the righteous do?
Well, I think we can find the way back by observing some of the people Luke introduces in these infancy narratives, starting with Zechariah and Elizabeth here, right in Luke 1:5. This righteous couple lived during some very, very dark times, and through this couple and others throughout Luke chapter one, we’re going to see that even in the darkest times that God is still sovereign. God is still on the throne. He is still executing his sovereign plan, and even through the sorrow, God still is there to comfort his people. Like we just said, God is near—He’s near and there is hope. He draws near to faithful believers; he comforts the hearts of people even during their severest trials, even personal trials.
So, let’s get into the text just a bit. Three outline headings for this morning. First, we’re going to look at number one: A godless culture judged by God, a godless culture judged by God. Notice how the story begins. In the first part of verse five, it says, “In the days of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the division of Abijah.” Stop there for a minute. By placing Zechariah in the context of Herod’s reign, Luke wants us to see the contrast between Herod the tyrant and Zechariah, this pious priest. To appreciate that, it’s going to help us to understand something about Herod. This is a wicked guy. Okay, let me just tell you. When Alexander the Great died in Babylon, he was at the young age of 33, and he left his empire to his top four generals. They kind of battled it out over the years and two of them, Seleucid and Ptolemy, became rivals. Their rivalry dominated Palestine for the next 200 years. Jews living in Judea at the time were squeezed between the two rivals—the Seleucids in the North and based in Syria and the Ptolemys based in Alexandria to the South—and they were fighting back and forth. It was like an accordion going back and forth. And at first the Greeks who ruled the land were relatively benign, tolerant toward the Jews living in Palestine. They allowed them to continue their customs, practice their religion, be in the temple. Hellenization kept the proper influence of Greek culture in the land; it kept Greek culture, Greek thought alive. Many of the Jews embraced it anyway, didn’t have a problem with it. It seemed to be going fine, but eventually their peaceful coexistence… I love those bumper stickers that say "Coexist," and the very first one on there making the C is the Muslim Crescent. They don’t want to coexist with any of the rest. You notice that? That eventually came to an end in Palestine as well. Peaceful coexistence came to a bloody and abrupt end.
The Seleucid General Antiochus the IV, known as Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and pursued an aggressive and exclusive Hellenization program. He banned Jewish sacrifice; he desecrated the temple by going to the alter and offering a pig on the alter—what the Jews called the abomination of desolation because it desolated the alter. It just completely defiled it, ending sacrifice. He burned copies of the Torah, banned them in the Palestine as well, and he installed a pagan priest in the temple. I mean he was systematically trying to root out the Jewish religion in Israel. He was brutal, too. He slaughtered men, women and children. He massacred an estimated 80,000 men when he entered into the city, capturing 80,000 others, selling 40,000 of those captives into slavery. This guy was so profane, so ruthless that this systematic persecution of the Jews prefigures the coming of the Anti-Christ in the Great Tribulation. Antiochus’ fierce and violent attempt to end the Jewish religion, added a drawback, it backfired on him a bit because it led to the Maccabean revolt under Judas Maccabeus. There was a rural priest names Mattathias. He had five sons, and Judas was the eldest, their leader. They conducted a 24-year war against the Seleucids, against the Romans and all the Roman influence. Maccabeus took back the temple, the priesthood. It was a bloody time. And while they were in power, they seemed to be doing well; things seemed to be prosperous, and the future looked even a bit glorious to some, leading to some to look back to the Old Testament promises and say, "Hey, this looks like the restoration of Israel." Many thought of Judas Maccabeus as the Messiah who was to come.
One of the Maccabeus descendants, Hasmonean, became High Priest and the progenitor of the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmoneans became High Priests even though they were not from the line of Zadok, so not allowed. They ruled as kings even though they were not from the tribe of Judah, so not Messianic. They made very poor Messiahs, these Maccabees, these Hasmoneans. Even though they had succeeded in ritually cleansing the temple, even though they reinstituted sacrifice, the practice of Jewish religion in the land, they succumbed like many other worldly leaders to worldliness, to political ambition to corruption. But one of the areas that was conquered by the Maccabees was northeast of Jerusalem, just south of Samaria. It was called Idumea. Idumea was inhabited by ethnic Edomites, the ancient descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother—cousins, basically, to the Israelites. And yet Esau hated Jacob. There was acrimony between Esau and Israel, but they lived there. Idumea was dominated, taken over and dominated by the Maccabees. They conquered the Idumeans, and then they forced them to convert to Judaism. Forced conversions never work. They don’t make the most devoted followers; they’re not making followers out of conscience, but out of fear. Nonetheless, that’s what happened. So, ethnically and racially, these were Edomites, but culturally, the Idumeans were religious, they were proselytes to Judaism.
Toward the end of the Maccabean rule in Palestine, the governorship of Idumea fell to a man named Antipater, Antipater. He was the father of several sons, including Herod the Great. Herod. Antipater was a shrewd man. He was conniving, he was ambitious, and he was loyal to one thing and one thing only: political power. That’s what he was after. Antipater and his sons always would align themselves with whoever would provide them with personal power and political authority. For example, when the Roman General Pompeii conquered Palestine, Antipater had demonstrated his loyalty to him, fell at his feet, welcomed him. But, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompeii, Antipater and then his son Herod, they both switched sides. Julius Caesar rewarded Antipater’s sons, Pasilius and Herod with governorships. Pasilius became governor of Jerusalem and Herod the governor of Galilee. Herod was 25 years old at the time. When Julius Caesar then later was assassinated, Antipater and Herod switched sides again. They aligned themselves with Cassius; he was the Roman Senator who instigated Caesar’s assassination. And then later, as you might figure, when Mark Antony and Caesar’s son, Octavius, when they defeated Cassius, guess what happened? Herod switched sides again. Octavius finally defeated Antony, and he took the title Caesar Augustus. Herod spend the rest of his life kowtowing to Caesar Augustus. That’s the kind of men they were. Just go with whatever way the political wind is blowing because "I just want one thing: authority to rule."
One of Rome’s most persistent enemies were the Parthians. Parthians are kind of in a section of Iran, and they used to come in and give Rome a lot of trouble. They conquered Palestine when Herod was there, and he was forced to flee to Rome. Herod was too Hellenized to switch sides to join the Parthians in the East, so he stuck close to Rome and took their side. And while in Rome, Herod ingratiated himself to the Romans. Ingratiated himself to Caesar, to the Senate. He was very good at that, and so the Roman Senate conferred upon him the title, King of the Jews. They didn’t go in there for him and conquer and dominate; they gave him an army and said, "Okay, you go ahead and take care of it." So he took an army. They let him return to Judea to see what he could do. And Herod went back to Jerusalem for Rome as a vassal king, and he became the sole ruler of Judea. He was effective. Luke describes him here in verse five as King of Judea. That’s accurate, but Judea actually included the territory in his time of Galilee, Perea, and Samaria as well. It was a fairly significant region, and Herod was in some very important way a significant figure in world history. All of his accomplishments aside, though, the rest of Herod’s life is really a chronicle of a brutal tyrant—paranoid, suspicious of everyone, and willing to kill even his own family members, his closest relations. He kept 2,000 body guards, had secret police spying all over the city, reporting to him about everything. This guy was paranoid and murderous. A bad, bad combination. Herod had several wives; he had many, many sons, and he didn’t trust any of them. He had married a Hasmonean princess named Mariamne. She became his favorite wife of all of them, but eventually he became so suspicious of Mariamne that he’d leave her under guard when he traveled. When Herod’s wicked sister, Salome slandered Mariamne to Herod, Herod had Mariamne executed in a fit of rage. He believed his sister’s report. He soon regretted that rash order that was given in a fit passion; it burdened his conscience terribly, but still he continued to give in to paranoid suspicions.
This is the same Herod, you remember, who received the wise men from the East coming to worship the newly born king of the Jews. You remember he dealt with them pretty shrewdly. He pretended interest in their desire to worship the Christ. His real motive, though, was to discover the whereabouts of the baby Jesus and kill him. He wouldn’t tolerate any claimant, any rival to the throne, especially one with the support of Biblical prophecy. It didn’t matter if he was a baby. Unable to get the wise men to reveal the location of baby Jesus, Herod ordered the massacre of all the male children in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, just to make sure. Absolutely dreadful. Herod was maniacal about maintaining power, and he even accused two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, of high treason. After putting them through a mock trial, he had them executed, and that meant he had to change his will because whoever he was going to leave everything to as successor was dead now, so he named Antipater his successor, named after his father. Antipater was also charged in an assassination plot, so Herod had him killed as well just five days before his own death. Herod’s reputation for murder was such that even Caesar Augustus reportedly said, "It’s better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children." It’s true. At the end of his life, Herod was suffering from an excruciatingly painful intestinal disease. He knew he was dying and he was so worried that no one would mourn his passing that he decided to send an invitation about 30 or so of the city’s nobles, to bring them all in. You know, to refuse an invitation from Herod meant certain death, so they all accepted. "Oh, wonderful, we all go into town." So they went into town; it was really a round-up. They rounded them all up, captured them, held them hostage in one of the coliseums until his death, and upon his death, the order was that they were to be slaughtered and that way, there would be mourning in the city when Herod died. Whoa! That order was never carried out, thankfully.
Even though Herod was a brutal tyrant and the list of things are long, very, very long about his brutality, he was nonetheless an effective and shrewd politician. Rome kept Herod on, kept him on the leash, so to speak, because he was good and effective in ruling the land. He subdued the unruly Jews, collected taxes. As a puppet of Roman power, Herod extracted exorbitant taxes from the people. Part of the money went to Rome; that kept Rome happy. Part of the money went to himself to fund extensive building projects. That’s where he gets the title "The Great" from—his building. He wanted to make a name for himself, to leave a legacy of what he did and what his life accomplished. A lot of great men try to do that. He built the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem. He built the fortress palaces at Masada and Herodium. He built a city in the harbor at Caesarea. He called it Caesarea Maritima. And the most beautiful of all was his ongoing project to beautify the temple at Jerusalem. He started that project in 20 BC, which continued on well after his death in 4 BC. It was a beautiful, beautiful restoration project of the temple, the second temple. And it earned him favor, the favor he really sought with the common people and also the corrupt leadership, the Sadducees, who were corrupt leaders over the temple. Even Jesus’ disciples, remember, admired the temple. They said, "Look Teacher, what wonderful stones, what beautiful buildings." Jesus said, "You see these beautiful buildings? I tell you not one stone is going to be left on another."
Herod also, in addition to currying favor with the Jews, had to keep a lot people happy, he was so wicked, but he also curried favor with the Gentiles, and that’s really where his heart was. He was really Greco-Roman in his thinking. He built many temples in honor of Gentile idols, and coliseums to host Roman games. He kept some of that out of Jerusalem, but not all of it. Gentiles felt so at home in Herod’s lands that G. Campbell Morgan said the land was swarming with Gentiles. All of that was repugnant to devout Jews—Jews like the Essenes and the Pharisees, men who prided themselves in self-righteous dedication to the traditions of their fathers. They couldn’t stand that, and they counted themselves above it and wouldn’t live by it. So they wanted to return to the old ways, to the old traditions. But it was also repugnant to faithful Jews as well, to humble believers like Zechariah and Elizabeth. The land of Judea was pretty godless during Zechariah and Elizabeth’s time. And as Luke reminds us in verse five, these events took place in the days of Herod, King of Judea. But only those who were truly righteous, only those who truly worshipped God, not out of an external adherence to the law, but out of an internal devotion— only they would look back and see in the law and prophets that all the cultural and religious degradation in the land was a result of one thing: divine judgement on their sin. And that’s what Luke hints at in verse five when he says, “There was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah.” Abijah. It may not stand out to you, but if you do a little research, you find out that Aaron had four sons. Nadab and Abihu, both of those died early in their life, you know, offering strange fire to the Lord; but Eleazar and Ithamar were the priests who succeeded them and carried on the high priesthood from Aaron.
According to I Chronicles 24:1-19, David divided all the priests into 24 divisions to serve at the temple in Jerusalem, each taking turns throughout the year. Abijah was the son of Eleazar, and he was in the eighth division. Each division was on duty in the temple of Jerusalem twice a year, and after they rendered their priestly service in the temple at Jerusalem, then the priests would return back to their town, back to their hometown where they’d continue in regular ministry, teaching people in the synagogues, adjudicating disputes according to the Law of Moses. You can think of these priests as really the shepherds of Israel. They’re the ones who taught the people; they’re the ones who were pastors to the people throughout the Old Testament. Zechariah was one of those faithful pastors.
So this division of Abijah—Zechariah’s division—was the eighth of the 24 divisions, but what is significant here is that Zechariah’s assignment to the division of Abijah was somewhat artificial, and that’s because of the original 24 divisions that David set up, only four of those returned from captivity; Abijah was not one of them. Many Jews, including many priests, got pretty comfortable in exile; they got pretty comfortable in Babylon, and they kind of liked the way life was there. They didn’t mind living in pagan lands among all the pagan idols. So they stayed. Even when they were given an opportunity, even a command by Cyrus, a proclamation to send them back to rebuild the temple, the land, the wall, they said, you know, "No thanks, I kind of like my life right here." Abijah didn’t go back. In fact, 20 of the 24 did not go back. So after the return from exile, Ezra had to divide the few returning priests in to 24 divisions once again. He retained the old names, and so Zechariah was not from the original division of Abijah, but the post-exilic one. This is just another reminder of the dark days in which Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Yes, they lived in the time of Herod, the domination from Gentiles’ influence throughout the land. Many of the countrymen they had lived with and were surrounded with—their neighbors—were Hellenized in their thinking. But other people didn’t even recognize this as an abandonment by God, a judgement upon their sin. How sad. They were living in the midst of a godless culture, one that was under the judgment of God. God had abandoned his people. He had allowed them to be dominated by foreign powers for centuries, and he was denying them the prophetic word, letting them suffer the consequences of idolatry.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, as we read, certainly weren’t godless, but they suffered with the godless, didn’t they, right alongside them. They weren’t personally the targets of God’s judicial abandonment, but they suffered along with the rest. All Israel—believers included—were under the darkness of judgement. Listen, that’s instructive to us, isn’t it? Believers don’t always escape God’s judgments on the wider culture, do they? We often suffer, right along with everyone else. We experience the consequences of bad leadership, corrupt politicians, cultural sins, social strife.
There is a wise purpose of God in all of that, so we can empathize with people around us as we bring the gospel to them. But look, in the midst of a godless culture that was judged by God, that’s point one in your outline, we should ask the question again: "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" How do we live in the midst of that? Well, we can find out by taking a closer look at Zechariah and Elizabeth. So here’s point two for your outline: a righteous couple faithful to God, a righteous couple faithful to God. Look at verse five again: “There was a priest named Zechariah […] and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” Elizabeth—a name that means God keeps his oath, God keeps his promises. Just an economy of words here. And Luke introduces this couple with high praise that really stands out, especially to a Jewish reader. The Law only required a priest to marry a virgin Israelite from any of the tribes, Leviticus 21:14, but Zechariah was especially blessed finding a significant compatibility with a woman from the daughters of Aaron. She was the daughter of a priest. In fact, Elizabeth is the name of Aaron’s wife, Exodus 6:23. The fact that Zechariah was married to the daughter of a priest and particularly at a time when marriages were arranged by the family, several things here are evident. First, Elizabeth’s family thought very highly of her character to make sure she married a priest. Secondly, they thought very highly of the priesthood. They considered marriage to a priest as actually a noble thing, something to be sought after. Thirdly, though, they thought highly of Zechariah and his family, highly enough for their daughter to get into a marriage contract, to be betrothed to him, and to be married to a priest’s daughter meant blessing. And in fact, it became a colloquial expression to summarize an excellent young woman by saying, “She deserves to marry a priest.” In our day, that would be true of pastors. "She deserves to be married to a pastor," and then not be a slam on her character, right. Having been raised in the household of a priest, Elizabeth would’ve understood the life of a priest, the demands on a priest’s family. Even though Zechariah lived in the times of divine judgment, he was personally blessed.
Look at verse 6, a very important insight about their character—a huge, huge verse. It says, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.” That is an astounding sentence. They were both righteous before God. They were righteous literally in God’s sight. These were true believers, folks—Old Testament saints. Now, at first glance, it might seem they earned their righteousness by works because Luke further describes their righteousness as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.” By commandments, Luke is referring specifically to the direct commandments of the Mosaic Law, the "thou shalts" and the "thou shalt nots." But by "statutes of the Lord," which you could also translate ordinances or requirements or regulations, Luke is pointing to the daily habits of this couple. The statutes refer to the practice of holiness—the way life was lived in adherence to the Law. They did everything required by the Law; they lived in a way that was consistent with all those commandments. Listen, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t walk in all the commandments and statues of the Lord to earn God’s favor. Walking in the commandments and statutes of the Lord blamelessly—that was evidence of God’s favor. That was evidence of a changed life. These people were devoted to God. They loved him sincerely, which is why Luke writes literally with emphasis; they were righteous, both of them, in the sight of God. In ordering their life this way, Zechariah and Elizabeth were conscious of their accountability to God. They were conscious of the fear of God. They were governed in their hearts that way and they conducted themselves, as Calvin said, with a sincere heart and pure conscience. Their whole life testifies that they were devoted to righteousness, that the fear of God dwelled in them. They thought about the choices that they made. They thought about the associations that they kept. They thought about the commitments in their life. And people all around them could see a concern for holiness by the way they lived. Everyone knew it.
Look, blameless here does not mean perfect, okay—just want to clarify that. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and that includes Zechariah and Elizabeth. But listen, the Law made a provision for dealing with the guilt of sin before God, and by following the Law, Zechariah and Elizabeth, by dealing honestly and righteously with their sin, by bringing the required sacrifices to the temple, by making atonement of their guilt before God, Zechariah and Elizabeth could be said to be blameless in the Law. They were faithful to keep it. They were faithful to do it. Even the parts that said when you sin, here’s what you do. So they were found blameless not just by men, but by God—by God who sees the heart, by God who gets into the thought life, by God who can shine his light of omniscience on every corner of our lives and see everything we’re involved in, everything we’re committed to, everything we love, everything we hate. He can see everything. What is the testimony of Scripture? They were righteous before God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, like all Old Testament saints, would’ve received a temporary pardon under the Law of Moses. Like all Old Testaments saints, they awaited the full eternal pardon that would come in Jesus Christ. And it was coming, it was coming. In fact, you could be sure that they hoped for final pardon, they longed for it. As a country priest who ministered to the people of his synagogue, you know what, Zechariah was constantly exposed to the truth in the Law and the Prophets. I understand this. His sin was exposed. He knew he could not keep the Law. He knew that it was impossible for him and he sought pardon from God. He followed all the prescriptions for atonement, offering the sacrifices required by the Law, but he knew that those sacrifices didn’t save him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have to keep offering them. Sacrifices merely pointed out the need for a more perfect sacrifice, the one pure sacrifice, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world—the one that God would provide like the one he provided to Abraham on Mount Moriah.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were like those that Jesus described in Matthew 5:6. They knew themselves to be poor in spirit, they mourned over their sin, and they also, Matthew 5:6, they hungered and thirsted for righteousness. They hungered and thirsted for righteousness they didn’t have, that they didn’t possess, and they knew it. These folks weren’t interested in mere outward conformity to a set of rules. They were interested, like William Hendrickson said, in the underlying principle of the law and its application to concrete life situations, not to earn God’s favor, but because they had God’s favor. They loved him dearly. People like that demonstrate their longing for God. They demonstrate that they want to pattern their lives after his life. They demonstrate that they want to please him, not themselves, certainly not anybody else, not trying to gain the good opinion and favor of other people. In fact, by what verse 7 says, they probably didn’t have the good favor of other people. They were judged for not having children, but just as Abraham believed God and God reckoned it to him, imputed it to him as righteousness, Genesis 15:6, it’s the same with Zechariah, same with every Old Testament saint. And you know what, the same thing is true of us today. If we put our faith in Jesus Christ, if we put our faith in God and his atonement, his atoning sacrifice, God will reckon that to us as righteousness. We have a righteousness that’s not our own, a righteousness derived not by works, but a righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Listen beloved, what can the righteousness do in the midst of dark, ungodly times? You know what? They can trust God. They can trust him, believe his Word and obey him in the midst of these times, obey him in faith. The righteous can love God, worship him, serve him out of a sincere heart of righteous devotion. The righteous can walk before God in the fear of the Lord. They can order their lives according to righteousness. What can the righteous do? That’s what they can do, right? Zechariah and Elizabeth, they lived in a godless culture under divine judgement, but they conducted themselves in a righteous way, and it was out of whole-hearted devotion to God.
Another testimony to their righteousness comes in verse 7. Here’s our final point for today, point three, a childless couple prepared by God, a childless couple prepared by God. Verse 7 says, “They had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” Luke writes this sentence really to stir our sympathies. It should stir our sympathies. This is an intimate insight into the personal pain of this dear couple. Not only that, but the social stigma they endured, especially so for Elizabeth who described her barrenness in verse 25 as her disgrace, her reproach. This past week marked the 42nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Since that time in America, an estimated 57 million babies have been murdered through abortion. That’s 57 million. How far have we fallen that so little is thought of motherhood? It is a sign of a very, very sick society that we perpetuate such a crime upon our own women, upon our sisters, upon our daughters, so tragic. The verse says here they had no children, not because they didn’t love motherhood, but because Elizabeth was barren. She was infertile. She wanted children, she just couldn’t conceive. Not only that, but their advanced age meant they’d lived with infertility for many, many years, and they had no hope for being able to produce children.
So, no child, no hope of a child. This is terribly painful to read. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” If anyone should be rewarded with children, shouldn’t it be this couple? These two would make such excellent parents. And, in fact, you see their heritage, you see their lifestyle. We know the rest of the story—great parents for John the Baptist. Such a shortage of good parents in the world… Why hadn’t God given them a child? This deep, deep sorrow—that’s a deep, deep sorrow for a woman. Women are hardwired by God for motherhood, to bear and to raise children. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:15 that women are saved from the stigma of the fall through childbearing if they raise their children “in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” You know what? Godly women long to do just that. In fact, Paul tells Timothy not to put a widow on the list to receive church support unless she has a reputation for good works, and what are those works? 1 Timothy 5:10, the first on the list, if she’s brought up children, if she’s brought up children, she has shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, cared for the afflicted, devoted herself to every good work, but the first in the list, raised children. Again, how far have we have departed from the Biblical pattern. That is not the model in our society for an excellent woman, but it is the Biblical model. Certainly Elizabeth longed to do that very thing. She wanted to be a mom so badly, her barrenness no doubt produced no end of sorrow for her. Not only that, but Middle Eastern culture in particular viewed barrenness as a social stigma. It was an ancient attitude evident as far back as Genesis 30, verse 1. When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, "Give me children or I will die." Wow. 1 Samuel 1:6 says Hannah’s rival used to provoke her grievously over her barrenness. How cruel. Women could face even a deeper sorrow, though, strengthened because of a theological concern; barrenness was commonly believed to be a punishment for sin. In fact, the Law said those guilty of heinous sexual sin would die childless, Leviticus 20:20 and 21. Oooh. That certainly isn’t the case with Zechariah and Elizabeth, but did people wonder? They looked good on the outside. I wonder what really happened way back when—what were they really like? The righteousness and blameless of verse 6—it’s hard to reconcile with the barrenness of verse 7. What do other people think of them, what questions did they even ask themselves? "God have I sinned, have I done something wrong? Is there some unconfessed thing in my life?"
It’s a testimony to how much this grieved this aging couple that even when their old age meant they were well beyond hope of having children, Zechariah was still praying for his wife. That’s what Gabriel said in verse 13, right? “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” What was that prayer? “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Ah, this hurt them terribly. Just as a footnote, the fact that Zechariah prayed for his wife like that, in the midst of his temple duties, that’s a significant testimony here, isn’t it, of his tender love for his wife, the intimacy and closeness of their relationship. Husbands, do you pray for your wife like that? You should. You should sympathize with her in her weaknesses, her difficulties, her challenges.
Listen, perhaps some of you know this kind of pain, this kind of sorrow. Maybe it’s not barrenness; it’s some other kind of trial, and you wonder if you’ve done anything wrong. You wonder if God’s abandoned you somehow. You wonder if he’s left you to experience the consequences of some sin you’ve committed. Look, I can tell you confidently that God has not abandoned you. God loves you. God cares. Perhaps he’s trying to drive you through this experience to repentance. Sure, he wants to cleanse your conscience through the confession of sin, but maybe, just maybe, he intends your trial for a greater purpose. We don’t always have the advantage of learning why we endure trials of many kinds, but with Elizabeth—as it was with Sarah and Hannah before her—it was the Lord who kept Elizabeth from conceiving. The rabbis used to say that when a woman is childless, it’s because God intends to give her a child. Abraham and Sarah were barren, advanced in years; God gave them Isaac, a child of promise. Hannah was barren; God gave her Samuel, a prophet. Manoah and his wife were barren and God gave them Samson, a judge. And God intended the same thing with Zechariah and Elizabeth, but an even greater honor was in store for them because they were the parents of the forerunner to the Messiah. Nobody else had that honor. The situation of this couple provides really a symbolic picture of Israel’s condition. Think about it—no fruitfulness, no hope of fruitfulness. These two become a picture of a nation that is languishing apart from the presence of God. God promised, Deuteronomy 28:1, “If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” And then this in verse 4, Deuteronomy 28, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb.” “The Lord will make you abound,” verse 11, “in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground.” There was also, though, a curse for disobedience. Same chapter, Deuteronomy 28 verse 15, “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statues that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” And one of the first curses, verse 18, is “Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb.”
Elizabeth—a righteous woman walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord—you know what? She’s becoming a picture for Israel of its own barrenness. Even though she didn’t deserve any of this—she actually deserved great blessing because she was a shining counter-example to the rest of the nation of how she ought to live, how they ought to live; but Elizabeth’s situation here is absolutely hopeless, isn’t it? She’s barren, she’s infertile, and she’s well advanced in years. She’s not going to have a child. Absolutely impossible apart from divine intervention, huh? That’s the same predicament Israel was in, isn’t it? In fact, isn’t that true for all of us? Apart from God, we languish in deadness, fruitlessness, darkness, no hope. This couple’s situation isn’t just a picture of Israel under divine judgment. You know, this is a picture of fallen humanity, all of us. There is no hope apart from God; there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. There is no new birth apart from the Holy Spirit of God. But, for all who will follow the pattern of faithful believing, a pattern that’s set by regular people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will do something utterly exceptional, he’ll regenerate, he’ll give new life. He’ll bring about the new birth, he’ll save, he’ll sanctify. He’ll give eternal hope through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Well, that’s all we have time for now, but for next time, for Zechariah and Elizabeth, we’re going to witness their sorrow turn to joy. As Psalm 113:9 says, God “gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!” Let’s bow and give thanks to him now and praise him for that very thing.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for this story. This story of hope in the midst of darkness, illustrated to us in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We thank you for their life, their example. We thank you for how you used them, how you sovereignly planned her barrenness to provide a picture, not only of Israel, but of all of us. Apart from you, we are barren. Apart from you, there’s no hope, there’s no fruitfulness, there’s no joy. And yet, as we see in the rest of the chapter, the coming, the whole Gospel of Luke, we see that there is hope and joy and restoration in Jesus Christ. We thank you for sending him to save us all. We pray that even now, people would put faith in him and trust him for salvation, to receive a righteousness that’s not their own, but a righteousness that comes by faith through Jesus Christ. It’s in his name we pray, Amen.