The Lord's Day Morning
December 14, 2008
“Scared Stiff by an Angel, Struck Dumb by Unbelief”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter one, as we continue to work our way through the Gospel of Luke and as we give attention to the things that led up to the Christmas story.
Today we're in the passage where John the Baptist's birth is foretold and promised by the angel. As we look at this passage, I want you to be on the lookout for several things. I want you to be on the lookout for the words of the angel. In this angelic announcement, we're told something about the plan of God. I also want you to be on the lookout for Zechariah's response to this message. We’ll learn something about the fear of God in Zechariah's response. I want you to be on the lookout for something this passage teaches us about true greatness, as the angel speaks about John the Baptist. I also want you to see something that the passage teaches about prayer, as the angel tells Zechariah and Elizabeth that their prayers have been heard. And finally, I want us to think a little bit about repentance from this passage, for the message that the angel says that John the Baptist is going to preach as he serves as the forerunner of the Lord (as the one who prepares the way for Messiah) is a message of repentance. So be on the lookout for all five of those things as we read God's word.
Now let's pray before we read and hear God's word.
Our heavenly Father, this is Your word, and You mean it for our profit, for our edification, to build us up in righteousness, to show us the way of salvation which is through faith in Jesus Christ. So grant that we would hear it not simply as the words of men, but as the very words of God to us, Your creatures. Grant that we would hear it in faith and that we would listen to it for all it's worth. In Jesus' name. Amen.
The word of the living God from Luke, chapter one, beginning at verse five:
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from 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 altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and 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. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And 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 the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’
“And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
“After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
So how would you react if you met an angel? You’re on your way into church, preparing to worship, and you encounter an angel. Zechariah was scared stiff by his encounter with this angel, and struck dumb by his unbelief, but in this story there are many things for us to learn, and I want to think with you about five things we learn in this great passage.
First, I want us to concentrate on the angel's announcement and see what it tells us about the plan of God, and then I want us to look at Zechariah's response to the angel and see what we learn about the fear of God. I want to look at the words the angel said to Zechariah about God's answer to his and Elizabeth's prayers that they would have a child, and see what we learn about God's answers to prayers. I want to think about his words about John the Baptist, and what we learn about true greatness. And then I want us to think about John's message as disclosed by the angel — a message of repentance — and see the significance of that not only for the Christian life but for John's purposes in redemptive history.
I. The angel's announcement is that God is preparing to fulfill His promises.
Now let's begin by looking at the angel's announcement. You know, if we were not gathered in a congregation of Bible-believing saints for the purpose of the worship of the living God but were instead in a liberal academic setting where a religion professor was about to give a lecture, we might in that setting hear the story of Zechariah's encounter with the angel debunked with something like this: ‘Well, these people were pre-scientific, pre-modern, superstitious people, and they just believed that you saw angels all the time. It was just part of their age and culture, but we moderns now know better. We know that people don't go around seeing angels all the time, and we know that this is just a product of a pre-modern, pre-scientific, superstitious age.’ And if the religion professor gave that kind of a lecture, he or she would have shown that they had missed the point entirely of Luke's recounting of the story.
You remember that Dr. Luke tells us that he recorded these stories in consecutive order based on his careful historical research in which he interviewed eye-witnesses and heard from them what had happened. And the fact of the matter is that when he records the story about the angel, he knows full well that this is not something that happens every day. That's the very point of it! In fact, if you take your Bible and you start looking back before Luke 1, move back into the Old Testament; see how far you have to go before you encounter another story about an angel visiting someone. It was far from a common occurrence in biblical days. When angels appeared, they appeared for very important unique purposes in the unfolding of God's plan, and in this passage the angel harkens back to a message that was given in the book of Daniel, and also to a message that was given in the book of Isaiah–literally hundreds of years before the time of Zechariah. And so Luke is telling you that by virtue of the Lord's sending an angel to encounter Zechariah that something is getting ready to happen here of messianic proportion.
The angel's announcement to Zechariah indicates that God is getting ready to fulfill His purposes promised in the Old Testament, brought to pass in the New Testament…promises made, promises kept. And you see that in a couple of ways.
First of all you see that in the very messenger that God sends to Zechariah. This is not just any angel, this is Gabriel. Now, a quick sword drill! When was the last time that you saw Gabriel appear in the Bible? It was in Daniel 9, when God had sent Gabriel to Daniel to tell Daniel that his prayers for the captivity of Israel to be ended and for the children of Israel to be able to leave Babylon and go back to Jerusalem, back to Israel, had been heard. And if you will remember, the angel Gabriel says to Daniel, ‘And, Daniel, by the way, not only will Israel be relieved from their captivity, but God is going to send His Son, the Messiah, into this world in response to your prayers.’ Now it is no accident that Luke is telling you that it's Gabriel now who's talking to Zechariah, because Gabriel is now about to announcement the fulfillment of the message that he himself gave to Daniel hundreds of years ago. And everyone that Luke is telling this story to, or who is hearing Luke's Gospel read in its earliest days, would have understood that significance. That's why an angel is here. It's not an everyday occurrence and it's not an everyday angel — it's Gabriel.
And that's why, you remember, when Zechariah says, ‘How do I know that this is going to happen?’ the first thing out of the angel's mouth is, ‘Because I am Gabriel.’ So Zechariah would have immediately been flooded with the sense of the significance, because he had been reading Daniel since he was a little boy, and he with all Israel had been hoping for the coming of the Messiah into this world. And now this angel who has met him and scared him witless has said to him, ‘Zechariah, I am Gabriel. And the last human being that I spoke to was Daniel, and I told Daniel that God was sending His Son into this world. And I'm telling you, Zechariah, He is sending His Son into the world, and your son John is going to be His forerunner.’ That's what's going on in Luke, chapter one. This isn't pre-scientific, pre-modern, superstitious people who thought they saw angels all the time. That's not Zechariah's response, is it? Zechariah is absolutely terrified! Look at how it's described. If you look in verse 12, “Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Zechariah doesn't walk into the temple and say, “How ya’ doin’?” and go on! Zechariah is absolutely terrified.
You understand the significance of this. In the days just before Jesus came, there were more priests than there were jobs to do in the temple. So if you were a priest, you only got one chance in your entire life and ministry to offer a sacrifice in the temple. And so Luke tells you that the way that was decided was that you literally drew lots, or cast lots. And one time you would get to go into the temple and offer a sacrifice, and that was it. You were done. So this is a big day for Zechariah. You can imagine that there was some significant rejoicing with Elizabeth and some great anticipation of the day that he was going to offer incense. And he gets in there, and there's an angel! And his response is not ‘ho-hum’–his response is fear and awe and trembling, troubled in his heart. Now, the angel's announcement is not an everyday occurrence. No. This is a special announcement about the plan of God for redemption.
II. Zechariah's response manifests the fear of God.
And that leads me to the second thing that I want to say, because Zechariah's response is one in which he manifests the fear of God. I mean, if you study your Bible, when believers encounter God (some manifestation of God), or when believers encounter a divine messenger (an angel or some other supernatural being) manifesting the presence of God, regularly those people report two responses: one, a sense of the grandeur of God; two, a sense of their own sinfulness. You remember Isaiah, in Isaiah 6. He's asleep, minding his own business, and suddenly he's captured by this vision of God, “In the year that King Uzziah died,” and he sees the Lord Himself on the throne and angelic beings worshiping Him, and he's caught up with a sense of the majesty and the grandeur of God, the greatness of God. But at the same time what does he say about himself? “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and I've seen the Lord of hosts!” (‘I deserve to be incinerated on the spot!’) There's simultaneously a sense of the greatness, the grandeur of God, and also our sinfulness.
Why is it that Zechariah fears when he encounters this angel? Because when we come into contact, when we come into the presence of God or of His messengers, we're made to sense something of His greatness and something of our sin. And I want to ask you this: Is that a part of your experience in the Christian life and the worship of God? I don't mean that every Sunday you’re struck to trembling with a sense of the greatness of God and the greatness of your sin, but have there been times when in your Christian experience under the ministry of God's word you have been so brought into God's presence that you tremble at His greatness, and you recognize your sin and its deserving of judgment, and so His grace to you is magnified in such a way that that very encounter with God is written down on your heart and you can never forget it?
So many times in the presence of God over the course of my life I have had those experiences. I was at the ordination service of John Hutchinson, who is the pastor of the McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia. When John was being ordained — a good Mississippi boy and RTS graduate — he was my youth director. And he was being ordained at the First Presbyterian Church of Augusta. I drove from Greenville, South Carolina, with my parents for that ordination service one Sunday evening, and the greatness of God and the reality of my sin, and thus of the greatness of God's grace, was so palpable that night I did not want to leave the room. I can remember other occasions when I've been under the ministry of God's word and the grandeur of God and the reality of my sin and the greatness of His grace was brought home to me. Friends, that's what it's like to encounter the living God. Is that an experience that you know? From time to time has God made you deeply aware of His greatness and of your sin, and of His grace?
That's why Zechariah trembled. That's the fear of God, and the Old Testament rightly says that it is the very beginning of knowledge and wisdom…the fear of the living God in that way.
III. Prayers are not rejected just because God's answers are delayed.
But there's something else we learn in this passage. We learn something about prayer. Not only something about the plan of God and the angel's announcement; not only something about the fear of God in Zechariah's response; but we learn something about prayer.
Isn't it a beautiful phrase that the angel says in response to Zechariah's trembling? Look at verse 13:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you shall call his name John.”
Now I don't know how many times that Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a child. I don't know how long it had been since they prayed for a child. They were old; it might have been a while. They may well have given up on that prayer a while ago. And in quelling Zechariah's fear, the angel has this to say: “Zechariah, don't be afraid. Your prayers have been heard.” Now Zechariah and Elizabeth may have long considered that prayer a hopeless prayer that was never ever going to be answered. But here's what we learn about prayer: your prayers are not rejected just because God's answers are delayed…your prayers are not rejected just because God's answers are delayed.
How long had it been since Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed that prayer? My guess is they started praying that prayer early on in their marriage, and now he says, “I'm old.” And, he says very tactfully, “And my wife is…advanced in years.” Now there is a man who has some experience! He's old, but she's just “advanced in years.” They’d started praying that prayer, my guess is, a long time ago. And maybe they’d even forgotten about it.
You may be here this morning with your own hopeless prayers. And you may think that your prayer is rejected, when in fact God has simply delayed His answer. I love what our African-American Christian friends say: “He may not come when you want Him, but He's always on time.” That's the message of the angel to Zechariah. “He may not come when you want Him, but He's always on time.” Just because the answer of the Lord has been delayed, do not think that your prayers have been rejected. That may be a message that is deeply needed by some saint here this morning. May God minister His word to you by His Holy Spirit from Luke, chapter one.
IV. True greatness is greatness in the Lord's estimation
But there's a fourth thing that I want you to see here, and that is a word of the angel to Zechariah about Zechariah's son John. Look at what we're told in verse 15: “He will be great before the Lord.”
Now the fact of the matter is there were many people in John's own time who knew him and who saw his ministry who thought that John was crazy and dangerous. He ate weird food, and he dressed funny, and he ruffled lots of feathers. There were many people in John's time who thought that he was crazy or dangerous, but that was not the Lord's estimation of John. The Lord's estimation of John was that he was great. In fact, God's own Son, Jesus Christ, would say of this John, “There has never been one born among women greater than he.”
Let's remember that, my friends. Those who are great in this world on the Last Day will not be the ones who are honored as the great. I look forward…I think one of the things I look forward to most about the Judgment Day is seeing scores and scores of faithful believers who lived and ministered in obscurity, just faithfully serving the Lord, and the world didn't know about them and the world didn't pay them attention, and the world didn't give them any acclaim. And on that Last Day they are going to be ushered forward and God is going to say, ‘Let me introduce you to the great ones.’ The ones who have received fame here — they will be far back in the crowd, for the last will be first on that Day. And it will be a glorious thing to see, and all of us, even those of us who have received some acclaim in this world, will not begrudge those saints who have faithfully served the Lord in obscurity just doing what He called them to do. They will be the great ones.
Well, John was accounted by no one as great, except the Lord Jesus Christ, and that was the only one who mattered. Herod will be forgotten on the Last Day; John will not. True greatness is greatness in the Lord's estimation. Is that an important message, young people, for you? What your peers think of you is not nearly so important as what the Lord thinks of you. It is the Lord's estimation that matters. True greatness is greatness in the Lord's estimation.
V. Repentance is an indication of the work of God's Spirit in us to show us our sin and need for God's grace.
One last thing. The angel tells Zechariah that John's message is going to be this:
“He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God [verse 16], and he will go before Him [that is, the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Now the Gospels tell us what John's first message was. You remember what it was? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Notice, my friends, that this is the way that the people were prepared to hear the message of grace through Jesus Christ. Where did it start? Repentance. Why? Because if you do not understand your need for grace, you are in no position to appreciate how amazing and undeserved grace is. If you don't understand your need for grace, you’re not ready to reach out for grace. If you don't understand your need for the forgiveness of sin, you are not overjoyed at the forgiveness of sin. This is why Jesus said to His disciples that “those who are forgiven much love much.” He didn't mean by that that there were some people that didn't need forgiveness, or that some people didn't need much forgiveness, but He did mean that there were many people who didn't see their need for forgiveness, and therefore they don't love Him much.
My friends, repentance is an indication of the work of God's Spirit in us to show us what we really are, to show us how we need God's grace; and until we see our sin, we're not ready to see the marvelous grace of our Savior. Zechariah had a sin that needed to be forgiven. What was it? Unbelief. He didn't believe God's word. The Lord had sent him Gabriel himself to announce His promises, and Zechariah's response is, ‘How do I believe this?’ When the Lord gives you a promise, your answer is, “Yes, sir. I believe.” Zechariah's response should have been the response of the disciple: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Zechariah needed to be forgiven of unbelief. He needed to repent of unbelief.
What do you need to repent of this morning? What sin of yours do you need to reckon with so that you can see the marvelous grace of our loving Lord forgiving you where you don't deserve forgiveness? My friend, until you realize that you don't deserve forgiveness, you’ll never be forgiven. Because when God works grace in our hearts to believe in Him, He also works grace in our hearts to see why we need to believe in Him in the first place. And so it is so appropriate that this ministry of the gospel, this good news announced by Gabriel, begins with the work of repentance. May God do a work by His Spirit in our hearts…a work of repentance.
Heavenly Father, we bow before You this day asking that by Your Spirit You would grant us repentance. We know that it is a gift. So many times we have seen our sins, and yet, because of our pride we will not repent. By Your Spirit, give us repentance. In Jesus' name. Amen.