10. Impossible Things Do Happen—The Story of Zacharias and Elizabeth
There has been a class consciousness in almost every culture in history, and the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was no exception. The upper class of that social structure consisted of the descendants of Aaron, the officiating priesthood. There were about 20,000 of them in and around Jerusalem at the time, and unfortunately many were proud, bigoted, overly indulgent, self-seeking men, religious only in those external matters that would impress other people. The priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan was a typical example. He considered himself to be above helping the unfortunate victim of a mugging and robbery.
But there were a few who were different and among them was an old priest named Zacharias, whose name means “the Lord remembers.” Since the law of Moses insisted that a priest marry only a woman of highest reputation, Zacharias had chosen the daughter of another priest to be his wife. Not only was she a descendant of Aaron, but she bore the name of Aaron’s own wife, Elisheba or Elizabeth, which means “the oath of God.” Their names would spring alive with new significance before the sun set on their life together.
Look, first of all, at their devout example, “And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). The lives of both Zacharias and Elizabeth were pleasing to God. They submitted to the will of God and obeyed the Word of God. And they did it “in the sight of God,” that is, to exalt the Lord alone rather than to make a good showing before men. In that they were different from most of their contemporaries. They did not even care about the status that went with the priesthood. They lived in some obscure village in the hilly region south of Jerusalem rather than, as the other priests, in the elite section of the city itself, or in Jericho, the luxurious city of the palms. Their piety was no outward show; it was a heart relationship with the Lord. They cared more about what God thought of them than what men thought. And that, incidentally, is an important foundation on which to build a good marital relationship. The quality of our walk with God determines our ability to walk happily and harmoniously with each other. And that walk with Him can only grow as we seek to please Him rather than impress men.
That is not to say that Zacharias and Elizabeth had no problems. While many of our problems stem from our own sins, God does allow some to invade our lives for no other purpose but to help us grow. He wants them there, and no amount of obedience can possibly bring immunity from them. Zacharias and Elizabeth had one like that, and it was a big one. “And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years” (Luke 1:7). It is difficult for us to imagine the intense stigma attached to childlessness for them. Many Jewish Rabbis insisted that it was an evidence of divine disfavor. While Zacharias and Elizabeth may have been righteous before God, some of their friends probably suspected them of serious secret sin. And there was no way to erase that blot. The phrase “advanced in years” meant at least sixty years of age, well beyond the time of childbearing. It was a hopeless situation.
Zacharias could have exonerated himself by divorcing Elizabeth. In their society, barrenness was a commonly accepted grounds for divorce. Zacharias could have gotten rid of her, married a younger woman, had children by his new wife, and gotten that damnable curse off his back. That was the route many other men would have taken. But not Zacharias. Instead he prayed (cf. Luke 1:13). He committed the situation to the one person who could do something about it. And while I cannot prove it, I would imagine that he prayed about it together with Elizabeth, and by that means ministered to her spiritual needs. He was also a man of the Word, as his famous “Benedictus” later revealed (cf. Luke 1:67-79). So he probably shared with his wife the great Old Testament Scriptures which would console her and encourage her in her plight.
That is a husband’s responsibility as the spiritual leader in his marriage. The short time he has known the Lord may hinder him from fulfilling this role effectively at first, but as he grows in his understanding of the Word he will feel more comfortable encouraging his wife through the Word. Too often a wife has to drag her husband along spiritually; she coaxes, begs, and badgers him for every step he reluctantly takes in his spiritual growth. God does not want any of us trying to drag others along spiritually, but he does want husbands out in front, taking the spiritual lead and ministering to their wives and children in the things of Christ.
After Zacharias had committed his problem to God, he simply kept on with the job God had given him to do. He did not stop praying and bail out because his situation looked hopeless. And neither should we. Our God is the God of the impossible! He delights in doing impossible things for us when He knows we shall give Him the glory. It is so much easier to quit and run away from difficult circumstances, but that usually compounds the problem. God wants us to take our difficulties to Him in prayer together, search the Word together for encouragement and direction, and then wait patiently for Him to work.
Look next at their most memorable day. The day began with a great deal of excitement for Zacharias. “Now it came about, while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:8, 9). It was his turn to minister before the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place, possibly for the first time in his priestly service. The priests had been divided into twenty-four courses by King David, and the order of Abijah, to which Zacharias belonged, was the eighth in line. Each course would be called to minister in the Temple on only two occasions during the entire year, each occasion lasting for one week. With nearly a thousand priests in each course, it becomes evident that entering the Holy Place and kindling the incense upon the golden altar was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But this was Zacharias’ day.
First he would choose two special friends to assist him. One would reverently remove the ashes from the previous evening’s sacrifice. Then the second would enter worshipfully and place new burning coals on the altar. Finally, Zacharias would enter the Holy Place alone, bearing the golden censer, and at the given signal he would spread the incense over the coals. As the incense kindled and a cloud of fragrance arose from the altar, the prayer of the worshipers outside would rise into the presence of God (cf. Luke 1:10). It was a beautifully symbolic experience of worship.
The ritual was finished now and it was time to leave the Holy Place. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, standing to the right of the altar of incense. The personal visit of an angel from God was a distinction that had been afforded only a few people in the history of the human race. And as you might imagine, it was a frightening experience. But immediately the angel spoke: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Luke 1:13, 14). God can do impossible things, and that is exactly what he promised to do for Zacharias and Elizabeth. But their child was not to be just any ordinary child. He would be the forerunner of the Messiah predicted by the Prophet Malachi (Luke 1:15-17; cf. Mal. 3:1; 4:5, 6).
All this was too much for Zacharias to grasp. He had been praying for a son, but admittedly, his faith had been weakening. Now this Word from God—it was too good to be true. Before he had a chance to get his thoughts together, he blurted out, “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Zacharias was a man of God, but he was a man, and he had human weaknesses. God understands a weakness like this faltering faith. He is not exactly ecstatic about it, but He does understand it, and He goes to great lengths to stimulate and strengthen that faith. That is one reason he gave us His Word, and one reason He includes these great historic events in the Word. God’s Word excites faith as we meditate on it and its application to our lives. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Zacharias knew the Old Testament Scriptures. He knew how God had given a son to Sarah in her old age. But he did not think about that great Old Testament precedent at this moment of need. Even men of the Word may fail to appropriate it at times. But God did something very gracious for Zacharias to help him believe. He gave him a sign. “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time” (Luke 1:20). It was not very pleasant for him to lose his voice, and his hearing, as we later learn (cf. Luke 1:62). But I don’t think Zacharias minded very much. His inability to speak and hear were God’s confirmation of His Word, and they served to strengthen his faith in God’s promise.
When Zacharias emerged from that Holy Place he was a different man. He had long been a godly man, but his encounter with the angel Gabriel left him with a new awareness of God’s greatness, a new sense of his own unworthiness, and a strong, virile faith. When his week of priestly service was over, he hurried home to share with Elizabeth every detail of that memorable day, and they rejoiced together in God’s grace.
“And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant; and she kept herself in seclusion for five months” (Luke 1:24). That conception was a miracle. Impossible things do happen! And God is the same today as he always was (cf. Mal. 3:6; Josh. 1:17). He can solve our problems, and He put this story in His Word to prove it and to strengthen our faith.
Knowledge of this miracle stimulated the Virgin Mary’s faith. God told her she would conceive a son without ever having relations with a man. That was rather hard to believe. But listen to the angel’s reassuring message to her: “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God!” (Luke 1:36, 37). And with that amazing news, Mary responded, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Some will invariably protest, “But you don’t understand. My situation is impossible.” “My husband will never change.” My wife will never learn.” “We’ll never get out of debt.” “I’ll never be well again.” “My unsaved loved one will never come to know Christ.” “This job will never improve.” Listen to God’s Word again: “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” Believe that. Obey him. Then keep on keeping on.
The next major event in the lives of this godly couple was their visit from Mary, Elizabeth’s young cousin from Nazareth, and through this visit we gain a little deeper insight into Elizabeth’s character. It was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, and no sooner had Mary greeted her than her unborn baby leaped within her as if prompted by the Holy Spirit to salute the Son of God. Then, illuminated by that same Holy Spirit, she uttered these amazing words: “Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42, 43).
Her words are unusual for several reasons. For one thing, they reveal that she understood who Mary’s child was. She calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” “My Lord” was a messianic title taken out of Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my Lord....” She acknowledged by divine revelation that Mary would give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God. But more amazing than that was her attitude toward Mary. While she knew that she herself had been honored of God, she realized that Mary had been infinitely more honored; in fact, more honored than any woman on earth. She did not even feel worthy of Mary’s visit. Such utter humility and self-abasement are rare qualities. And although she was older than Mary and had every right to ask, “Lord, why didn’t you choose me?” there was not one trace of jealously or self-seeking in her spirit. We can understand why God could bless her so richly.
Jealousy is a destructive emotion. It eats at our own souls, creates a hostile atmosphere in our homes, and ruins our relationships with our friends. But there is no jealousy in the life of one whose trust and hope are in God, as with Elizabeth. If we believe that God is doing what is best in our lives, and if we expect him to work out our impossible problems in His own time and in His own way, how can we be jealous of anybody else? We know that we are God’s ill-chosen vessels to fulfill His special purposes for us. We know that He is at work in our lives to accomplish His own good pleasure, and there can be no higher calling than doing His will. That confidence gives us an inner contentment, and contentment removes all jealousy. Learning to believe God will flush the biting jealousy out of our lives.
The last thing we want to notice in the lives of Zacharias and Elizabeth is their miracle son. I am sure they pored over the Old Testament Scriptures during the last few months of her pregnancy, reading every passage they could find concerning the Messiah and His forerunner. The nation had looked forward to this for centuries, and God had chosen this godly couple to be part of these thrilling events. Their excitement mounted daily, until “the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she brought forth a son” (Luke 1:57).
As the custom was, their relatives and neighbors gathered to rejoice with them over this extraordinary event, and on the eighth day, at the child’s circumcision, they tried to call him Zacharias after his father. But Elizabeth protested, “No indeed; but he shall be called John” (Luke 1:60). Why John? This was unheard of. Nobody in either of their families had ever been called John. Maybe this was just Elizabeth’s folly. They had better ask Zacharias. “And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet, and wrote as follows, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all astonished. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God” (Luke 1:62-64).
John means “The Lord is gracious.” And how very gracious He had been to them. They merely asked for a son to carry on the family name and priesthood. God gave them the forerunner of the Messiah, a child upon whom the hand of God was evident from his earliest days, a man whom Jesus Christ would call the greatest among men (cf. Matt. 11:11). God does not always give according to our asking, and certainly not according to our deserving. He gives according to the riches of His grace. He does “exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). And He loves to do that for people who trust Him and obey Him, even in impossible situations.
The greatness of God’s grace inspired Zacharias to utter a magnificent song of praise to God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant—as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father” (Luke 1:68-73). That oath which God swore to Abraham is a reference to the Abrahamic Covenant in which God promised to bless the descendants of Abraham and make them a blessing to the whole earth. Many Jews were beginning to think God had forgotten His promise, that their national situation was hopeless. But Zacharias and Elizabeth never thought so. Together their names were a constant reminder that “Jehovah remembers his oath.” And their miraculous experience proved it to be true. God not only remembers His promises, He keeps them!
Maybe you think the Lord has forgotten you in your hopeless situation. He hasn’t. He does impossible things for people every day, and you may be next. So don’t chafe and fret under the burden. Believe him. Keep on faithfully living for Him and patiently waiting for Him to work, just as Zacharias and Elizabeth did. While their names are not mentioned again after the birth of John, they have left us a lovely legacy of faith in the promises of God, the God of the impossible.
Let’s talk it over
1. Zacharias and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God.” What things in your lives might make it difficult to apply that same statement to you? Would you be willing to covenant with God to seek His victory in these areas?
2. Why do you think so few Christian husbands take the spiritual lead in their homes? How can a wife encourage her husband in this matter without nagging?
3. Do you find traces of jealousy in your life periodically? If so, try recounting some of the special things God has done for you.
4. What promises in God’s Word do you find difficult to believe? Memorize them, meditate on them, and claim them from God.
5. Is there a situation in your lives that seems impossible? Commit it to God in prayer together and ask Him for the patience to live with it graciously until He changes it.