************ Sermon on Luke 1:5-7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 2, 2018
"Zechariah, a Faithful Priest"
Advent 2018, #1
Are you ready for Christmas? At my house the lights are hung up. The grandkids decorated the tree. A multitude of Christmas thingies are kind of floating around everywhere. We went online and bought presents. We are trying to figure out a day our family can get together. Someone already gave me a neat Christmas present (HOLD IT UP).
I The Christmas Story Begins with John the Baptist
A Luke begins his gospel with the story of John the Baptist. Do you know what Luke is doing? Luke is telling us that the story of Christmas begins with the story of John the Baptist. To see this and understand this we have to go to the last book of the Old Testament. Listen to what the prophet Malachi tells us:
(Mal 3:1) "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.The people are looking for the Lord, also known as the Messenger of the Covenant. Elsewhere He is known as the Messiah. They have been waiting and waiting for the Messiah's appearance. They have been waiting and waiting for the light and glory of His presence (cf Lk 1:78).
How will the people know when the Messiah has come? Because, as Malachi tells us, there is another messenger, a messenger who announces the arrival of the Messiah. This messenger prepares the way for the Lord. This messenger is the forerunner for the Messenger of the Covenant. We all know that this messenger who prepares the way for the Lord, who announces the arrival of the Messiah, is John the Baptist. Luke knows this, so he begins the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist.
B Luke's story of Jesus begins with the birth of John. Luke is telling us two different things.
First, Luke is telling us the connection between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is the promise and the New Testament is the fulfilment. The story of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament fulfills Old Testament prophecy. We also see that the New Testament continues the story of the Old Testament. They are the same story, the same religion, the same revelation, the same Lord, the same faith, the same God and Father Who is over all and through all and in all. Both the Old and New Testaments teach the same story of salvation -- the story of salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf Eph 4:4-6).
Second, Luke demonstrates that John the Baptist is the messenger, the forerunner, who prepares the way for the Lord, who announces the arrival of the Messiah. Therefore -- and this is very important -- therefore, Jesus must be the Messiah. And, if Jesus is the Messiah, then all must bow before Him as Savior and Lord.
II In the Time of Herod king of Judea
Notice the opening phrase of our Bible reading: "In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). What Luke writes isn't fiction. It isn't Grimm's Fairy Tales. It is real history involving real people.
"In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). Herod went by the title "Herod the Great." Herod was one of the world's great men, a mover and shaker in the Roman Empire. One of the problems the Romans had to deal with in the land of Palestine was terrorism. Freedom Fighters. Jews who assassinated Roman soldiers and Roman citizens. Herod was very successful in stopping these terrorists. Furthermore, when Palestine was invaded by the Parthians, Herod succeeded in driving them out of the land. A grateful Rome declared Herod to be "King of the Jews."
Herod was a clever man, a capable warrior, a gifted speaker, and knew how to play politics. For instance, when there was a great famine in the land of Palestine, Herod melted down some of the golden objects in his palace to buy food for the poor. He built or rebuilt Samaria, Caesarea, Beirut, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, and Rhodes. He contributed to the rebuilding of Athens. He built the fortress of Masada as his summer home.
Herod was also one of the ancient counterparts to Hitler today -- someone evil and cruel and insecure and vicious and jealous and suspicious and merciless and paranoid. For example, he drowned his wife's brother, the Jewish high priest. When his wife protested, he had her killed and then to cover the bases, he had her mother killed too. He viewed three of his sons as a threat and had them killed. You might remember what he did so people would mourn when he died. As he was dying he rounded up and imprisoned the leading citizens of Jerusalem. He ordered that at the moment of his death all of these nobles were to be executed so that there would be mourning in Jerusalem -- even if it wasn't for him. And, you all know his most barbaric and horrifying act: the slaughter of Bethlehem's baby boys.
"In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). Luke reminds his audience of the darkness of those days, the corruption, the abuse of power.
III A Priest Named Zechariah
A From Herod the king we go to Zechariah the priest. What a study in contrasts as we go from a high and mighty king to a humble and lowly priest.
Zechariah is a common name in the Bible; we count at least 19 different men with this name. It means "the LORD has remembered." What a wonderful name, "the LORD has remembered." We know this is part of God's care over His people -- He remembers His people; He doesn't forget His people.
The Zechariah of Luke 1 was one of about 18,000 priests in Palestine at the time of Jesus. He was just one priest of many who carried out his priestly duties. Even though Judea was under Roman rule -- and under the frightful rule of King Herod -- the Jews were given the freedom to practice their religion.
Zechariah had a wife named Elizabeth. Some say this is also the name of Aaron's wife (Ex 6:23), meaning Elizabeth was named after the wife of the first high priest. Elizabeth, by the way, means "My God is faithful." It is a name that celebrates the covenant faithfulness of God.
We are told Elizabeth "was also a descendant of Aaron" (Lk 1:5). This means Zechariah married the daughter of a priest. This means her brothers, if any, were priests. This means her grandfather and great grandfather and great great ... on her dad's side were also priests. This means her uncles on her dad's side were priests. She grew up in a world of priests. She grew up knowing what it meant to be a priest in Israel. She knew all about Israel's religion and religious practices.
B What does it mean that Zechariah was a priest? To be a priest was an honor. Because a priest was a representative of God. Because a priest was a son of Aaron, Israel's first high priest. Because a priest was able to go into the Temple and offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. Because a priest pronounced God's blessing upon the people. Because it was the priests who interpreted the Scriptures and taught the Scriptures.
As I said, there were about 18,000 priests. So many priests they couldn't all serve in the Temple at the same time. So David divided the priesthood into 24 different orders. Each order served two weeks per year in the Temple. Why 24 orders? Because Eleazar and Ithamar, the two sons of Aaron, combined had 24 sons. David declared each of the 24 sons to be the head of one of the orders and their sons and grandsons after them would belong to their order. The eighth order or division was that of Abijah -- according to Luke, that was the division or order of which Zechariah was a part.
An historical oddity is that after the Babylonian captivity only 4 orders of priests came back to Palestine. Yet, a decision was made at the time of Ezra to keep the same 24 divisions of priests. Just because Zechariah was of the division of Abijah does not mean he was a descendant of Abijah because the order of Abijah was not one of the 4 that returned. So Zechariah, while not in the line of Abijah, did serve in the division of Abijah.
C "Both of them were upright in the sight of God" (Lk 1:6). Now, realize this was during the dark days of wicked King Herod. It was also a time of Jewish apostasy. A time of Jewish defection from the true worship of God. A time of legalism. A time of hypocrisy. A time of self-righteousness. And in the midst of this darkness there is what? There is a pious, devout, Jewish couple: "Both of them were upright in the sight of God" (Lk 1:6).
Our pew Bibles use the word "upright." Another word we can use is "righteous." This was God's assessment. This was God's judgment. The God Who looks in the heart, the God from Whom nothing can be hid, He is the One Who says they are righteous. God said they were upright, righteous, in His sight. This does NOT mean they were perfect and sinless. We all know that in the history of mankind after the fall into sin there is only One Who is perfect and sinless -- the Lord Jesus Christ!
"Both of them were upright in the sight of God" (Lk 1:6). God says, "They are righteous before Me." What does this mean? It means their sins were covered. It means God does not count their sins against them. It means God declared them to be righteous in His sight.
How did that happen? Why did it happen? The same way it happens through all the history of salvation. The same way it happened with Abraham:
(Gen 15:6) Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.God gives righteousness as a covering to whoever believes in Him.
So Zechariah and Elizabeth, they believed in God. They believed in the true and living God. They believed His Word and His promises. They believed what the Law said about guilt and punishment and atonement. They knew they were sinners who fell short of the glory of God. They knew God was a God of grace and mercy. So they went to God as penitent sinners. That's what this means.
How can God be this way? How can He cover up sin? How can He cover up the sin of Abraham, Aaron, Moses, David, Zechariah, Elizabeth? How can God cover your sin? Because of the Messiah, that's why. Because the Messiah was the suffering Son of Man. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew this. They knew the Messiah was coming. They knew He would bear their sins and carry their sorrows. They knew He would be pierced for their transgressions. They knew their iniquity would fall upon Him. They knew this was how God would cover their sin. They knew this was how God would declare them to be righteous. They knew. They believed.
"Both of them were upright in the sight of God" (Lk 1:6). They were believers, this aged couple. They knew they needed something beside the awful butchering of the Jewish sacrificial system. I said earlier that the priests got to serve only two weeks of the year. That is not quite true. Every priest, all 18,000 of them, also got to serve during Passover week. All of them needed to serve. Because a quarter million lambs were slaughtered during that one week. One order of priests could not manage. All 24 orders were on deck. All 24 orders were involved in the butchering. They slaughtered lambs all day long. That's what they did when they were there for the Passover. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew better than almost anyone how hopeless the entire system really was. Never was sin taken away. Never was the price fully paid. Never were the souls of people truly ransomed. You can imagine the joy felt by their son the day he pointed to Jesus and said,
(Jn 1:29) Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
D "Both of them were ... observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Lk 1:6). The Bible teaches us that those who are justified are also sanctified. When God imputes righteousness to you, He also imparts righteousness to you. Again, it does not mean they were sinless. It does not mean they were perfect. But it does mean they were transformed, regenerated, converted, new creatures. So Zechariah and Elizabeth were not hypocrites. They practiced what they preached. They walked the talk. They lived out their faith. Nothing fake or forced about them and their religion.
E "But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren" (Lk 1:7). They were upright in the sight of God but -- at that time and place -- they were not upright in the sight of men. Their fellow Jews must have wondered about them, even accused them, because children are a sign of God's presence and a lack of children shows something must be wrong.
Not only did they have no children, but they also could not expect to have any children because "they were both well along in years" (Lk 1:7).
So why does Luke give us all these dark details at the start of the Christmas story? Why does he remind us of wicked Herod? Why are we reminded of Jewish legalism and its empty sacrificial system. Why are we told about an elderly, childless couple?
God is setting the stage, preparing the stage. The situation is humanly hopeless. That's exactly what God wants. That's when God prefers to act. When we give up all hope in ourselves. When we realize human endeavor means nothing. When we throw ourselves on God and His mercy. When we know we need the light and glory of the Messiah.
That's what we see at the beginning of the Christmas story. Our only hope is Jesus.
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