Silenced by an Angel – Luke 1:18-25
By: Alistair Brown
Many people are tricked into bad deals. Vacations with accommodation that doesn’t exist. Products that don’t work. Services that are never provided. Unwary consumers fall for these scams because they’re a bargain. Who wouldn’t want a luxury two weeks in the Caribbean for just $100? So the naïve hand over their money, only to find the $100 dream vacation vanishes quicker than the mist over that golden shore. Financial experts give one piece of advice over and over: “If something seems too good to be true, it is!”
That is good advice except, of course, one time in a million along comes something that is true even though it seems impossible. That was Zechariah’s experience. Zechariah is a priest, and his once-in-a-lifetime moment occurs when he enters all alone into the most holy part of the temple to offer incense for the nation. Everyone else is outside.
Well, not quite everyone else. Zechariah is startled – he has company. An angel is standing right beside the altar of incense. The angel speaks and tells Zechariah his prayer has been heard, and even though he and his wife are old, they will have a son whose name will be John. John will be great in God’s eyes, filled with the Spirit, and he will turn the people back to God and prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. For Zechariah and his wife these promises are life-changing. For Israel they will be eternity changing.
What is Zechariah to make of this? The angel’s words are either too good to be true or he’s describing that once in a million miracle. How will this old, godly priest respond?
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.”
In many ways, the lesson in these verses is simple. There are moments when we do not respond well to God and we suffer because of that. But ultimately the God of grace still uses and blesses us and his will gets done. It is that straightforward, and ultimately it’s very comforting and positive for us. Let’s see how it unfolds.
- Zechariah wanted proof when he should have shown faith.
From any ordinary human point of view what the angel said could never happen. People of ancient times did not have the medical and biological knowledge we have, but they understood very well that elderly people do not conceive babies. Zechariah was old. Elizabeth was old. People of their vintage just did not have children.
But here is an angel telling Zechariah that Elizabeth will conceive and they will have a son. We can’t be surprised that he asks: “How can I be sure of this?”
His question is understandable, but it is also unwarranted. Effectively, he’s asking the angel to give better proof than only his words, and that was wrong. Let me illustrate why this way:
Let’s say you have a friend who always talks big, how he’s going to buy a dream home and he’ll build one for you alongside, or he’s getting a luxury car and he’ll buy one for you as well, or he’s taking a fabulous vacation and will cover everything for you to be with him. You have next to no money, so these are things you could never do. But you know your friend is broke too, and every one of those wild promises will come to nothing. And that is exactly what has happened time and time again. All his boasts proved to be just words.
But you have another friend, and he is a billionaire. Down through the years he has been really generous to you and to others. You’ve seen and experienced his kindness. Perhaps he gifted a car to you, or he helped to pay for your education, or he took care of an unexpected medical bill. This friend has shown you only kindness. He has always been faithful and good towards you. Now this billionaire friend who has a consistent record of generosity says he’s taking a luxury vacation, and he wants you and your whole family to be his guests on that vacation.
Is that the moment to doubt? Is that the moment to ask to see his bank and business accounts so you can be sure he can cover the cost? To want proof would be to deny his ability to pay or the sincerity of his care for you. Given everything you know about this friend, and given all the ways he has already provided, doubting his word would be very wrong – a grave insult.
Zechariah has devoted his life to the God he knows to be powerful, whose resources are unlimited, who has proved over and over through Israel’s history that nothing is too hard for him. Now, his angel – one who makes it clear that he stands in the presence of God and has been sent to speak to Zechariah – that angel is promising him his wife will conceive and have a son with a very special future. And Zechariah questions?
“How can I be sure of this?” he asks (v. 18).
That is an unwarranted question to put to God. Zechariah has no reason to doubt God, and no reason to doubt that Gabriel has been sent by God. His question is the equivalent of wanting to check God’s accounts to be sure he’s good for the money. It’s unnecessary. It’s inappropriate. It’s unwarranted.
Gideon was guilty in a similar way. After God had already spoken with Gideon, shown him signs, and begun to use him to turn people away from false gods, then – despite the remarkable ways in which God had proved he was with him – Gideon tested God. He laid out a wool fleece on the ground and asked for the miracle that only the fleece would be wet with dew while the ground was dry. It happened. But that was not enough for Gideon. He wasn’t satisfied. Gideon asked God to do the miracle again but in reverse, that he would make the fleece dry while all the ground was wet, and that happened too (Judges 6:36-40). God was very patient, but God should never be tested. No wonder Gideon prays to God: “Do not be angry with me…” (Judges 6:39).
Doubt is a normal human reaction when faced with the seemingly impossible. Doubt which asks questions is usually healthy. When Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive even though not married, Mary asked: “How will this be…?” (Luke 1:34). There was nothing wrong with that question.
But doubt which denies God’s word is true, or doubt which demands God prove himself, is of a very different kind. Zechariah was thinking: ‘I am too old and my wife is too old. This can’t happen.’ That’s unbelief.
And Zechariah pays a price. Gabriel says: “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” (Luke 1:20).
Zechariah should have shown faith and not demanded proof. Instead he responded with unwarranted doubt, and now he will not say another word until this special child is born.
- Wonderfully, despite all that doubt, the miracle happened and Elizabeth conceived.
God is gracious, and Zechariah’s doubt did not nullify God’s promise.
Zechariah had lost the power of speech, so he could not tell anyone what had happened. He made signs and people realized he had seen a vision.
Of course it was more than a vision. He had heard a promise from God. He went home and within a short time Elizabeth was pregnant. Zechariah had doubted – he had questioned the promise of God in an unwarranted way – but his failure did not negate God’s faithfulness.
There are two lessons to learn:
An error to avoid – to think doubting God is of no consequence. Zechariah was struck dumb – he lost months of talking with Elizabeth or with anyone about the promise God had made or even just the excitement of having a baby. That imposed silence on Zechariah was a strong sign of God’s displeasure at his doubt. It had mattered. Failing to take God’s word seriously is never acceptable.
But there is another lesson:
A truth to cherish – that God’s promises are bigger than our responses, good or bad. John was born. The promise of God was fulfilled, and not just about his birth but everything God had purposed for him. He would go before the Lord, filled with the Spirit and bring many people back to God.
God’s grace is bigger than our failures. For that all of us can be thankful.
How many times have we doubted his promises?
How many times have we fallen short of his standard?
How many times have we chosen our way rather than his way?
How many times have we known his command but failed to carry it out?
“Innumerable times” is the answer to that question. But still God loves us, and still God uses us, and still God promises us a place in his glory. God’s grace truly is bigger than our failures.
This part of the story ends in a lovely way. Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, may have had a husband sentenced to temporary silence. But she was not silent, and she started speaking enough for both of them!
“‘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.’” (Luke 1:25)
This is one excited lady!
- Very sure God has made this baby possible.
- Very grateful he has shown this old couple his blessing.
- Very thankful that her neighbors can no longer think she is out of God’s favor.
Her life is changed. Zechariah’s life is changed. God has been very good to them.
God loves us with a love not dependent on our goodness. He challenges us to accept his promises with faith, but even when we fall short he is still true to his word. Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, we find ourselves amazed at what God has done in pouring out his grace on very undeserving people.