[K:NWTS 10/3 (Dec 1995) 31-34]

The Speaking Priest

Luke 1:67

(Scripture Reading: Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 1:57-80)

John W. Mahaffy

Kerux V10N3A2

God broke his 400 year silence by sending Gabriel to Zechariah with good news. But when the priest's faith staggered, he was struck silent until the birth of his son. As his speech was restored, the first words from his mouth were faith-filled praises.

Believe because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Believe the good news! Gabriel's news had been overwhelming to Zechariah, and he was struck mute until the birth of his son, John.

The punishment worked faith in Zechariah. Picture his frustration at the inability to speak. Imagine the embarrassment of living in a small Judean town and trying to explain (in writing and through gestures) to concerned and nosy neighbors that the reason you are unable to speak is that your faith was not great enough to accept the message of an angel that you and your aged wife were about to become parents! But during the nine months, Zechariah's faith grew. Every time he tried to speak and couldn't, he was reminded that at least one thing the angel had said was coming true. He came to believe, not only what became progressively obvious, that he and his wife were becoming parents, but also that this child would indeed be the fore-runner for the Messiah.

God calls you to believe the good news that in his Son he is involved in your lives. He comes to deal with your deepest problem—the sin that separates you from a holy God. Remember that the trials in your life can be used to help nurture your trust in your God. Despite appearances, God has not abandoned you or this world in which you live.

But this faith is not self-initiated. Believe through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Luke emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks. The Spirit has been emphasized throughout the birth narratives: John will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb, v. 15; Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, v. 35; Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit as she greets Mary, v. 41; and (by implication) it is the Spirit-filled character of her yet unborn child that makes him leap for joy, v. 44. The words that Zechariah uses in his song of praise are taken from the Spirit-inspired Old Testament (see 2 Peter 1:21).

Note the role of the Spirit in the Luke-Acts volumes. These fillings in the birth narratives have an Old Testament character, where the Spirit does work, sometimes spectacularly, but still far less fully than in the New Testament. However, Jesus at his baptism will be filled with the Spirit for his calling of being the Messiah, Luke 3:22. And, when that work is completed, Volume 2 will open with another baptism of the Spirit—this time coming upon the church, so that it (and you, as part of it) can carry on the work that Jesus began to do (Acts 1:1-8). The work of the Messiah and the work of the Spirit are never contrasted. They never compete. Rather, they complement each other and cooperate in the closest possible way.

It had been the quiet working of the Spirit in the heart of Zechariah that had led him from doubt to trust. The same Spirit draws you to the Savior. You cannot respond appropriately to God's presence in your own wisdom and strength. The response of natural man to God's work is silence, unless it is words of rejection and rebellion. But God has poured out his Spirit. That Spirit does draw you to the Savior. As you give thanks for the birth of the Christ, rejoice also in the gift of the Spirit, who enables you to recognize him, to trust in him.

Recognition involves obedience. Zechariah not only began to believe, he obeyed by naming his son "John," as the angel had commanded. The trust the Spirit works in your heart will be expressed in your life, or it is not genuine faith.

As that Spirit works, praise your God. Respond to God's message.

Mary's song in Luke 1 is a psalm or hymn. Zechariah's words are also poetic, but they are more in the nature of a prophecy. God not only acts, he also provides the interpretation of his activity, showing us what it means. (That pattern is repeated in the birth narratives, just as it characterizes the entire Scriptures.)

This song is a genuine composition by Zechariah. It reflects his being steeped in the Old Testament prophecies. Though some have claimed that this is a hymn of the church placed here in the mouth of Zechariah, note that this song has an Old Testament character. Salvation is described in terms of deliverance from enemies, vv. 71, 74, rather than the more explicit language of salvation from sin you would expect from an early Christian reflecting on the completed work of Christ.

At the heart of the song is the message that God has been faithful to his covenant promises. He is coming to be with his people, and this child is going to prepare the way for God. Luke includes this song in his Gospel because of the light it sheds on John's work, and ultimately Christ's. He wants Theophilus and you to understand. As you celebrate the season, respond verbally to what God has done. Confess your faith in Christ. Sing God's praises. Communicate the good news to neighbors and friends. Perhaps some are more open at this time of year.

As you respond, praise God for his salvation.

Zechariah's song is the Benedictus. He blesses God for his saving work. He draws from the rich songs of praise and prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Among the passages cited are Psalms 106:10, 45-46, 48; 119:9; Genesis 17:7; 22:16-17; Malachi 3:1; 4:2; Isaiah 9:2; 58:8; 60:1-2, though we do not have time today to examine those references in detail. Zechariah does grasp the fact that the covenant God had made with Abraham and had renewed with David is now coming to fulfilment. The darkness of sin and ignorance of God is about to be pushed back by the dawning of the Lord's presence. This elderly priest has a sense of the unity of God's revelation in the Scriptures (a unity that Jesus would convey to his disciples after his resurrection, Luke 24:44, 45). His song is full of an awesome joy that all this is falling together. The son he holds in his arms is the herald, the messenger of the covenant, who prepares for the very presence of God!

Zechariah recognizes that he is seeing God bring his covenant promises and blessings to fulfilment. Yes, Zechariah had been familiar with these passages before. Now he knows they are being fulfilled.

Respond to God's presence by praising him. Your assembling as God's people to sound his praises is precisely what you should be doing as you reflect on God's great work in his Son. That response also involves repentance. The "preparing the way" of v. 76 is explained in v. 77 as the people gaining the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. That message will be elaborated as John commands the crowds to repent, Luke 3:3. The Spirit's instruction to you today is a similar command to turn to God in repentance and faith.

As a priest in Israel, Zechariah had a special calling to speak to the people for God and to God for the people. That task was interrupted by his silence, but, by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit, was resumed in a more eloquent and meaningful way. Your knowledge of God's saving work is even richer than Zechariah's essentially Old Testament perspective. As you, the people of God, experience the power of the Spirit, as you trust the one who has become life-giving Spirit, can you respond with less than a voice of praise and a life of obedience?

Trinity Presbyterian Church of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Newberg, Oregon