The incarnation of Christ was indeed the most wonderful of God’s wondrous works. But it was the most unsurprising surprise. God’s hand had guided the story of redemption to this culmination. Like a lovely symphony, the OT introduces certain motifs which are picked up and expanded in the Incarnation of Christ. So, it would be wise for us to listen to those themes from the OT that anticipated the events surrounding Christ’s birth in order to better sing the Gospel song.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. … Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied.
Luke 1:5-22, 57-67
The Dumbstruck Prophet
Zacharias’ loss of speech is usually interpreted one-dimensionally. It is seen simply as a judgment on his lack of faith. But I think to stop there with interpreting his story is to miss the bigger picture being painted. This is not the first time that God has used this sort of miracle. If we look to some of the other instances where a man of God was struck dumb we get a fuller picture of the story of Zacharias.
Some commentators see an instance of Moses being dumbstruck in the strange episode when the Lord comes against Moses for not having circumcised his son (Ex 4). His wife quickly does the deed, satisfying the Lord’s anger. While this might be a display of the flexibility of some commentators, this episode is followed by Aaron arriving to be Moses’ spokesman. Moses is mute in his interactions with Pharaoh. God’s judgement upon hardened Pharaoh is displayed in a prophet who doesn’t speak, and uses others to speak on his behalf.
More explicitly there are several instances in Ezekiel’s ministry where he’s left dumbstruck. When he is first called to ministry by receiving a vision of God’s glory, he’s left speechless for seven days (Ez. 3:15). The Lord then tells him: “And I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth, that thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be to them a reprover: for they are a rebellious house (Eze 3:26).” Later on in the book of Ezekiel we have this statement from the Lord: “In that day shall thy mouth be opened to him which is escaped, and thou shalt speak, and be no more dumb: and thou shalt be a sign unto them; and they shall know that I am the LORD (Eze 24:27).” So, this sign of a prophet being struck silent and then his tongue being loosed would be a recognizable sign to the house Israel. The closing & opening indicates two things. First, the prophet being struck silent is a warning to the house of Israel that the Word of the Lord is withheld from them because of their rebellion. Second, the loosing of the prophet’s tongue compels them to acknowledge their God and return to faithfulness.
When an angel appeared to Daniel (after his three week period of fasting and prayer) we read this: “And when he had spoken such words unto me, I set my face toward the ground, and I became dumb (Dan 10:15).” Daniel is then strengthened when “one like the appearance of a man” touched him (Dan. 10:19), and Daniel is hailed as a man greatly beloved (Dan. 10:20). At the end of the book of Daniel he is told: “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased (Dan 12:4).” The angelic messenger, Gabriel, that meets Zacharias draws us back to the story of Daniel’s visions (8:16, 9:21). When this sort of thing happened in the OT it demonstrated that God was making ready to answer His people’s prayers for deliverance and overthrow wicked nations. Daniel had given the timeline for when the Messiah would arise and be cut off (70 weeks of years, Cf. Dan. 9:24-27); Gabriel’s appearance to Zacharias coupled with a similar sign of being dumbstruck like Ezekiel & Daniel should indicate that God was bringing all things to their fullness.
Zacharias becomes a symbol of the entire prophetic tradition. God seals and unseals His Word as He sees fit. The hiding of His Word is a judgement (Amos 8:11). But God’s favor is found when He lets loose His Word.
The Prophet & the Son of Man
It’s worth taking a moment as well and look into why God would bring to mind the ministry of Ezekiel. God calls Ezekiel “Son of Man” ninety times, and this becomes a favorite title for Jesus in the Gospels. It also comes up in Daniel’s awesome vision of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13, Cf. Ps. 80:17). In regards to Ezekiel, most commentators take it to be a term of humility. This is a half picture though. God summons Ezekiel to unfurl His mysterious & dark purposes to an apostate people; this term is humbling, but not because of its lowliness but because of its loftiness.
This Son of Man is calling Israel back to faithfulness, to take up the dominion of the earth by faith in Yahweh’s promises. In other words, Jesus is the “one like the Son of Man” described in Daniel, taking up judgement upon the world, and he is the True Prophet (likened to Ezekiel) summoning us to the New Humanity which His Kingdom is inaugurating. This also explains all the cherubic imagery throughout Ezekiel; the administration of angels is coming to a close as God will send a Man to be the mediator between mankind and Yahweh. Zacharias becomes a clear sign that the prophetic ministry is being resumed, and this means that the Son of Man shall soon be raised up to replace the angelic mediation with an eternal Mediator.
His Name is John
We should also take a longer look at what was going on with why the name John was selected for this Lord’s forerunner. We’re told that the friends & relatives were surprised at Elizabeth informing them that the boy’s name was John (Lk. 1:59-62). This name was not a family name, and so they were perplexed by this selection. However, once Zacharias writes down the name John His tongue is loosed.
But why John? His name means “Yahweh is Gracious” or “Yahweh has shown favor”. The Hebrew word for favor is (chen). Luke is wanting his audience to see that God has not forgotten His promise of setting His favor on Israel. Though there has been prophetic silence (symbolized by Zacharias’ own silence), God has not forgotten them. Indeed God has remembered His covenant promise to be unto them a gracious God. Zacharias’ name means “God has remembered”. Remembered what? To be gracious. To show favor.
This whole passage puts us in mind of the first of the great OT prophets: Samuel. His mother’s name, Hannah, is the feminine form of the same root word for gracious/favor found in John’s name.
God did not forget the barrenness of Hannah, and now we see Him remembering the barrenness of Elizabeth. The profound glory of all this is that when God shows His favor (chen) He does so by making His Word abundant. With Hannah, the text explicitly tells us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days (1 Sam. 3:1), and so God raised up the prophet Samuel. But now, in the fullness of time, God brings the prophetic office to a great crescendo in this father and son duo. Yahweh has remembered to be gracious, and now He brings to us the Word made flesh.
The Prophet’s Blade
The Lord promised that before the coming of Messiah a prophetic messenger would come to clear the way for the Prince to come into His kingdom, with the message that the Word of the Lord would endure forever (Cf. Is 40:1-8)). The prophetic ministry was used by God to do spiritual surgery. Imagine you have a splinter go so deep that you can’t easily grab it to remove it with just your fingers. You could just leave it alone, and adjust to life with it in your skin, hoping it just goes away. But the prophetic ministry was given to God’s people in order to point out the deep sin in our hearts. The only way to remove the tumor is to pierce the skin, harm the surrounding flesh, blood, and bone. But this is the only way to save the life.
In the story of John’s birth, the clear imagery for us is to see that the prophetic ministry had not passed away, but was coming to its greatest crescendo. Zacharias is a sort of OT prophet (Lk. 1:67), who raises up the greatest prophet Israel had ever known (Mt. 11:11), who himself gave way, in due time, to the final Prophet: Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:30).
All the words of the OT prophets from Moses down to John were Christ’s Words. He speaks to us in the preaching of His Word. Christ is speaking to you now in His prophetic ministry of preaching. He warns that rebellious people will be given dumbstruck prophets. Our American pulpits are largely filled with prophets who prophesy falsely; but when God sets about to grant us a reformation He will raise up men to fill our pulpits with the tremendous message of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of the Father. Jesus calls you to humble yourself and heed his call to cast aside the chains that have tangled you up. The prophet calls to you to prepare Him room.
Charge & Benediction
When God points out your sin through the prophetic ministry, you shouldn’t think that something has gone awry. If God has brought your sin to light it is only because He wants to bring you the answer to your sin which is Jesus.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. Jude 1:24-25