04.03.01 Lk. 1:5-17 (c. 6-4 B.C.) Zechariah in the Temple
THE BIRTH OF JOHN FORETOLD
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years.
8 When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 it happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and overcome with fear. 13 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. 14 There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 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. 16 He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”
For more than four hundred years there was not a single voice from heaven; not by angel; not by prophet. Then an angel broke the silence and continued the sequence of Malachi 4:5-6. The sole purpose of John was the fulfillment of this passage. A number of Old Testament prophets were born under difficult circumstances, such as to elderly parents because the woman was barren, meaning infertile. In such cases the child was recognized as having a divine calling. It was a pattern repeated a number of times in Jewish history. So the miraculous birth of John to an elderly couple was likewise seen as a clear indication their son would be a prophet. People did not forget him and, therefore, as he approached the age of 30, an anxious audience was waiting to hear him speak.
John and his father Zachariah were descendants of Aaron. Every male descendant of Aaron was automatically qualified to be a priest. The problem arose in that since fifteen centuries had passed from the time of Aaron, that there were too many qualified priests for temple service. Therefore, they were divided into twenty-four clans or groups, known as “courses,” of approximately five hundred men each, who took turns serving in the temple. This also permitted them time to work at home in whatever careers or occupations they had. It has been estimated that about half the courses lived in Jericho, so they would have traveled the road of the Good Samaritan parable.
John’s father Zachariah (a/k/a Zecharias) was a member of the course of Abijah (Neh. 12:12; 1 Ch. 24:10). These courses were also known as “houses” or “families.” The name of the course, or group of men, that Zacharias belonged received its name from a priest who originally had it hundreds of years earlier, a descendant of Eleazar and of Aaron (1 Ch. 24:2-3). This established John as a descendant of Aaron in the tribe of Levi. His mother Elizabeth was also from the same tribe. Clearly, John was of priestly stock and the miracle of his birth did not go unnoticed by the temple elite. In this cultural context, he was a speaking voice before he was born — saying that God was going to do something profound. They wondered what it could be.
“In days of King Herod of Judah.” Since there was no universal calendar at this time, it was common practice to index major events to the year of the reign of a king. Luke made a general statement indicating that these events occurred during the reign of King Herod of Judah.
Herod was given his title by the Roman senate in 40 B.C., but he had to fight a formidable Zealot revolt for three years before he could enjoy his throne. Hence, his reign is generally recognized as being from 37 to 4 B.C. He remained a vassal of Rome, even though the title would imply he was an autonomous monarch. The phrase “the Great” was added in later years because of his incredible architectural construction achievements. Unfortunately, he was a tyrant whose evil reign created another dark and disastrous time in the history of the Jews as well as for his family.
“A priest of Abijah’s division.” As stated previously, the college of temple priests was divided into twenty-four courses (1 Ch. 24:7-18). Each group officiated in the temple twice a year, eight days at a time, from one Sabbath to another, every six months. On the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, all twenty-four courses functioned together in the temple. One of the priestly duties was to praise God throughout the temple services. The course of Abijah (Gk. Abia) to which Zechariah belonged was the eighth course. This tradition originated with King David, and is an important clue in calculating the birth dates of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Some critics have questioned the Jewish tradition of courses that ministered in the temple, in spite of overwhelming evidence in various Jewish writings. Then on June 11, 2011, archaeologists uncovered the ossuary of Miriam who was connected to the family of Caiaphas and in the Ma’aziah priestly course.
“Zechariah … Elizabeth.” The name “Zechariah,” a/k/a Zacharias, means “the Lord remembers,” and “Elizabeth” means, “the oath or covenant of God.” Together their names announced, “The Lord remembers the covenant of God,” which was literally fulfilled in their son John. They were righteous before God and, while unable to conceive a child, continued to demonstrate holy faith in their functions in life and in the temple. They continued to believe in the promises of God and when they were well into their old age, an angel appeared to them and said, “Your prayers have been heard” (Lk. 1:13). John, whose name means “the grace of God,” or “the Lord is merciful” was the answer to those prayers.
04.03.01.A. THE BURIAL OSSUARY OF MIRIAM. An ossuary, or bone box, discovered in 2011, has the inscription that identified the deceased as “Miriam daughter of Yeshua son of Caiapha.” It also identified Caiaphas family as belonging to the Ma’aziah priestly family who lived in the village of Beth Imri. Associated Press Photo.
The significance of this ossuary is that it is the first reference to the Ma’aziah course in an epigraphic find from the Second Temple Period, which was the last of the priestly courses that served in the first temple. The list of courses was formulated during King David’s reign and appears in I Chronicles 24:18. Zechariah not only served in the temple, but did so with some characters of less than favorable reputation.
“He was chosen by lot.” There were four lots drawn every day to determine who would minister that day and what they would do. These drawings are as follows:
- Before sunrise a lot was drawn that would designate the priests who were to clean the altar and prepare the fire.
- The second lot was for the priest who was to offer the sacrifice, clean the menorah (sometimes called a candlestick), and clean the altar of incense.
- The third lot was drawn to determine which priest would burn the incense. Zechariah had drawn the third lot and entered the sanctuary of the Lord to burn the incense.
- The final lot was drawn appointing those who were to place the sacrifice and meat-offering upon the altar. This priest would also pour out the drink-offering.
Since there were an estimated 20,000 priests who were divided into the twenty-four courses, it is highly doubtful that any priest had his name drawn by lot more than once.
Scholars have asked an interesting question concerning this family: How old was Zechariah at this time? The issue is because the Bible suggests that Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly parents to John the Baptist. However, priests served in the temple for only a twenty year period – from the age of thirty to fifty. Others say that at the age of fifty they were still rendered fit to serve unless there was a physical defect, such as defect in the voice. However, just as Annas was referred to as the “High Priest” after he officially retired, so Zechariah and other priests could have been called “priest” after they retired.
“To enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense.” All services in the temple were performed according to a precise plan. Step by step, everything was in order and on time. The ritual was as follows:
- The priest, in this case, Zechariah, and his assistants, the Levites, first went to the altar of burnt-offering.
- He took some coals from that altar to be carried to the altar of incense.
- As they marched from the altar of burnt offering and went into the court from the Holy Place, they struck a large instrument known as the Magrephah. This summoned all the ministers to their assigned places.
- He ascended the steps into the Holy Place to pray and to drop incense on the hot coals.
- At the same time a signal was given from another priest to the people who withdrew from the inner court and knelt down before the Lord.
- The burning incense created a fine aroma of smoke. There was complete silence and reverence as the clouds of incense rose.
- It was probably at this time that an angel came to Zechariah and informed him that the Lord had heard his prayer.
To be chosen by lot was the culmination of excitement in the life of a priest; a day every priest prayed for. Many waited and waited all their lives to be chosen, but since there were so many of them, most never had the opportunity to serve in this honored capacity. Twice a day, morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed along with a meal offering of flour and olive oil and a drink offering of wine. Before the first sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice, incense was burned so that the sacrifices might ascend to God engulfed in a sweet aroma. This is what Zechariah was doing when he encountered an incredible heavenly creature.
“He was startled and overcome with fear.” It would seem reasonable that one would be startled and fearful at the unexpected sight of an angel. The moment fear gripped him; he no doubt thought he was ceremonially unclean for the most honored duty of his lifetime. He was near the Holy of Holies making an incense offering, and he remembered that when the sons of Aaron made an improper offering, they were instantly killed (Lev. 10:1-3). There was also a common belief that prior to the death of a priest, an angel would appear at his right side. To say that Zechariah was startled and gripped with fear is an incredible understatement – for a moment he was probably emotionally paralyzed! Some translations read, “He thought he was about to die!” Little wonder then, that he was startled and most certainly, somewhat troubled, thinking that his day of death had arrived.
“Your prayer has been heard.” Twice a day, morning and afternoon, eighteen prayers were prayed in the temple. These prayers were called in Hebrew Amidah which means standing because they were prayed while the worshiper was standing. One of those prayers was that Elijah would come as prophesied in Malachi 4:5. Since Zechariah was to be the father of John the Baptist, a type of Elijah, scholars believe that the angel told Zechariah his prayer had been heard, meaning Elijah was about to come. Little did Zechariah know that this “Elijah” would be his own son. Finally, in the technical aspects of Greek grammar, the aorist of heard suggests that past prayers were also heard, not only the one prayed that day.
It should be noted, however, that not all scholars believe Zechariah prayed the “eighteen prayers.”
Some believe Zechariah, like many other priests, prayed for the “Consolation of Israel” and “looked for Redemption.” In essence, they prayed for the long-awaited “Hope of Israel,” the messiah foretold by the prophets. Many of these older priests and Levites had seen the civil war of Hasmonean brothers, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus; the invasion of the Romans; three years of turmoil with the rise of Herod the Great to power; the Parthian invasion; and numerous Zealot riots and rebellions. Not only were they waiting for the messiah, but so were the Samaritans, the Romans, and many others. Everyone was completely exhausted by the violence and impoverished living conditions.
“He will be great in the sight of the Lord.” The word “great” was associated only with the Lord (YHWH). Now an angel spoke to Zechariah and told him that his son would be “great.” This had a profound effect upon the elderly priest. The life of the Baptist was already measured in terms of the greatness of the Lord. Note that in Luke 1:32 Jesus is called “great.”
04.03.01.B. A TEMPLE INCENSE VESSEL. This replica of a second temple incense vessel that may be similar to what Zechariah used when he had an angelic encounter. The incense was representative of the prayers of the people. Photo courtesy of the Temple Treasures, Jerusalem.
“Will never drink wine or beer.” Some other translations read that John the Baptizer was never to drink wine or any other fermented drink; a phrase that implies that he took the Nazarite vow. A person taking this vow was not to partake of any alcoholic beverages, cut his hair, or touch a dead animal or person. The restrictions of this lifelong covenant is a reflection of the lifestyle and message of three significant Old Testament prophets, who had taken the same vow centuries earlier: Samson (Jg.13:4-7; 16:17), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5), and Samuel (I Sam. 1:11). It was Samuel, the first major prophet, who anointed the first king and John the Baptist who was the last prophet and baptized the eternal King.
The uncut hair was, without question, the most visible sign of the sacred and committed surrender to Jehovah; the untouched locks of hair symbolized the consecration of the reason and higher powers of God. His lifestyle, primitive garments and hair most certainly captured the attention of those who saw him and recognized a “holy man” in Nazarite dress. Since the institution of the vow had all but disappeared, John’s vow heightened everyone’s attention to his message. That said, there were two important aspects to the ministry of John that God had prepared beforehand.
- Several rabbis had given such predictive warnings of divine judgments during the Inter-Testamental Period, but they had not taken the Nazarite vow nor were they born of an unusual birth (late in the life of parents). So when John preached similar sermons predicting divine judgments upon a rebellious nation, his words were by no means new to the people. He caught the attention of everyone, even the historian Josephus.
- The rabbis said that the messiah would not come until all Israel would repent for a single day. That proclamation is still made among orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews today. So when John called the people to repent, the rabbis listened.
“In the spirit and power of Elijah.” John lived and functioned as did the prophet Elijah, who preached repentance and holy living centuries earlier. As such, he was the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Malachi (4:5-6; cf. Mt.17:10-13). He gave strong allusions of being the prophet by his clothing, his diet, and declaring that he would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Finally, on an interesting side note, because Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, Jesus and John the Baptist were second cousins. Family ties can be interesting. Even among the disciples there were three pairs of brothers.
. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, eds., “Barrenness.” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. 75.
. There were four kinds of people that were considered as good as dead, and it was believed that in all four situations their situation was a divine judgment. They were the blind, the leper, the poor, and the childless.
. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 1:99.
. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:9.
. The name Zechariah is sometimes spelled “Zacharias.” See Feinberg, “Zechariah.” 5:1043; Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 40.
. The “Course of Abijah” had a tradition in Solomon’s Temple of which additional information is found in Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.7.
. Geikie, The Life and Words. 1:86; Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:10-11.
. De Vaux, Ancient Israel. 191.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:254; When priests and Levites served in the temple, they stayed in rooms within the temple buildings. Otherwise, they lived in communities throughout the countryside. Deut. 16:16; Ex. 23:14-17; 34:20, 23-24; Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:93.
. Scholars believe the oldest extra-biblical description of temple worship is contained in Jesus ben Sirach’s praise of the high priest Simon the Just, who was probably the son of Onias II, in Ben Sirach 50:11-21.
. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:95.
. Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.7.
. The term “course” refers to a group of priests who served in the temple twice a year for two weeks each time. During the spring Passover and fall Tabernacles festivals all twenty-four courses, or groups, of priests were in service. Deut. 16:16; Ex. 23:14-17; 34:20, 23-24.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 40; Geldenhuys, “Luke.” 3:107.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 42.
. See http://www.jpost.com/VideoArticles/Video/Article.aspx?id=227184. Michelle Morris. “2,000 Year Old Ossuary Authentic, Say Researchers.” Jerusalem Post. June 29, 2011.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:254.
. The figure of 20,000 priests appears to be realistic although the population estimates given by Josephus appear to be highly exaggerated according to most scholars.
. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:22-23; Bemidbar Rab. 222.3.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:255; Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:98.
. Scott, Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 151.
. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, and that was only once a year. During the first temple period, the Ark of the Covenant was in the Holy of Holies, but it was removed when that temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. In the second temple, Josephus said it was completely empty (Wars 5.5.5) but the Mishnah (Yoma 5.2) says there was a stone in its place.
. According to the Torah, all the sons of Levi were to be workers in the temple but only the sons of Aaron were to function as priests, ministering in the Levitical rituals.
. Fruchtenbaum, Life of the Messiah. Tape 2, Side A; Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 3, page 2; Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 2:3.
. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. 94; See the Eighteen Benedictions in Appendix 18. Some scholars believe that righteous priests prayed for the “consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25) and the “redemption of Israel” (Lk. 2:38).
. Chumney, The Seven Festivals of the Messiah. 178-79.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:255.
. Appendix 18.
. Vine, “Comfort, Comforter, Comfortless.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:110.
. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:100.
. Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2.
. Jerusalem Talmud, Tannith 64.1; Midrash on Song of Solomon 7.4; Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:393, 405.
. See the similarities between John the Baptist and Elijah as well as those of Jezebel and Herodias in 10.01.11 “Wanted to kill him.”
. See 07.03.03.A for a listing of the disciples and the related comments.