When Unbelief Becomes Belief: Zechariah’s Story

The first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke introduces us to Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom were descendants of the priestly line of Aaron.

They were clearly a godly couple. They kept the Commandments and were careful to seek divine favor. But in spite of all this, they were now advanced in years, perhaps 80 or so, and had remained childless throughout their long life together.

The numbers of Aaron’s descendants had increased across many generations, so all priests could not be on duty at the same time. So they were divided into groups, each with its assigned time of service.

On this occasion, Zechariah’s task was to burn incense at the altar in the temple room adjoining the Holy of Holies, the latter room believed to be where God dwelt among his people.

To the worshipers outside the temple, Zechariah appeared to take much longer than usual and this made them uneasy. The holiness of God was a mystery not to be lightly regarded.

Luke, a doctor known to research and report meticulously, must have learned the details of Zechariah’s experience of that day: An angel had appeared to him. He was startled and shook with fear. The angel calmed him before delivering his special message.

The message was that their decades of prayer about childlessness had been heard. (We might assume they had long since ceased praying for a child. In the world of prayer inexplicable divine delays are not uncommon and are tests to faith.)

The angel went on to tell Zechariah: Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son. His name will be John. He will be a delight to you; he will bring rejoicing to many beyond his parents; the Lord’s blessing will be on him in abundance; he will never drink wine or other fermented drinks (Luke 1:13b-15a).

This amazing news was followed by a more astounding prophecy in three parts. (1) This child will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. (2) He will be God’s instrument to bring a great revival of faith to Israel. And (3) His ministry will be as though Elijah had reappeared (1:15b-17).

Just as in Elijah’s sweeping ministry, Zechariah’s child was promised to bring healing to the broken relationships between parents and children or children and parents all across the nation. There was to be a great revival of family unity and strength. This promised likeness of miraculous events spanning four hundred years between the Testaments was uncanny.

Zechariah responded in unbelief. He cited his and his wife’s advanced age as a ground for his not believing. Given the long delay of unanswered prayers and the natural impossibility of a pregnancy at their ages, the reader might at first sympathize with his unbelief. But a second look makes it harder to let Zechariah off.

Consider that it was an angel who addressed him. The angel had introduced himself: I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent (1:19). Gabriel is named explicitly only four times in the Bible. He is one of God’s most elevated servants.

Moreover, Zechariah, the Aaronic priest, must have known about the promise of the miraculous return of a prophet in the form of Elijah as given in the last lines of the Old Testament.

In addition to all the above, Zechariah received the announcement while he was burning incense in the Holy Place. Where would one get a more convincing revelation of some miraculous and hoped-for event? Where would it be easier to believe? Despite the long-practiced faith and piety of Zechariah, he is caught in the clutch of unbelief.

All of this explains why Gabriel pronounces a temporary judgment on him. Zechariah is told he will be speechless until the promised event is realized. In this way, God would both chastise his doubting servant and at the same time promise to be gracious.

Doctor Luke tells how all this came out (1:59 – 66). After the birth of John the Baptist there was general disagreement in the community over the baby’s name. Asked to weigh in on the controversy, and remembering Gabriel’s words, Zechariah took a tablet and wrote on it: His name is John!

Zechariah’s unbelief had been grave but its penalty was erased by this moment of obedience: Immediately his powers of speech were restored and he began to sing: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them (1:68).

Photo credit: Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana (via flickr.com)

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