As a priest of Israel, during the time that Jesus was born, you could only minister at the altar of Incense that stood before the great curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place once in your life. There were so many priests that they were divided into divisions and that division would serve for a two-week period at the great Temple in Jerusalem. Two priests were appointed by casting lots to serve each day, and as a result only 28 priests would have the privilege of representing their nation before God through supplication and prayer within the Holy Place.
It was with great excitement that Zechariah of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5) was called upon to, “enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” (v. 9) While he was serving as a priest before God Luke tells us, “The whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” (v. 10)
Now there is an interesting insight into Zachariah that we need to know. His wife was well advanced in years and was barren. She had prayed along with Zachariah for years for a child, but God had never answered her plea. Now when it was physiologically impossible to see her dream fulfilled the impossible was about to happen.
Zachariah had just entered the Holy Place and had made his way to the altar of Incense and was about to pray for Israel when his eye caught a figure standing at the right of the altar. Just imagine the shock, fear, surprise, and confusion that sprung up inside of Zachariah at the appearance of this figure. No one was allowed within the Holy Place except the priests twice a day, but there was the figure.
The first words out of the figure was, “do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall call his name John.” Luke 1:13 The Bible tells us that this being was no other than the angel Gabriel (v. 19) and he goes on to tell Zechariah how great and important this child will be for the history of Israel.
Zechariah was a priest of Israel, an educated man, who was hearing with his own ears the words of the angel Gabriel, the great news that Elizabeth and his dream for a child was about to be fulfilled. And yet he didn’t believe him. “And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘how shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’” (v. 18) Gabriel replied that he will be will be unable to speak until the baby is born, and Zechariah leaves the Holy Place and returns to the throngs waiting outside unable to speak.
What amazes me about this story is that Zechariah is a lot like us. We pray our hearts out for something and when God answers we doubt that God has answered. We find excuses for believing that God can’t do the things that we ask of Him and we end up content simply praying because deep down in our heart we don’t think God will help us. Zechariah, when confronted by Gabriel himself, still couldn’t believe and wanted a sign. What a contrast with the young girl Mary who, when she came face to face with Gabriel said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38 Sometimes in life, regardless of our learning and our status, we understand less about the workings of God than a theologically uneducated person who simply has an honest heart for truth. Mary had faith and needed no further proof that God was leading her, while Zechariah couldn’t accept by faith Gabriel’s announcement and asked instead for proof. It is fitting that Luke should remind us, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Luke 1:37 Regardless of what difficulties and problems you encounter, that text is as true for you as it was for Mary and Zechariah.