Last we read the narrative of Luke 1 Zechariah was in the Holy Place of the temple listening to an angel from God announce the coming of one who would be the forerunner of the Messiah himself. He was to be a child of Zechariah and Elizabeth, old people who had longed for years for a child of their own but who had long since given up any hope of having a baby. Their waiting and the waiting of the people of Israel was about to end!
v.18 Zechariah was caught off guard. He wondered how what the angel had told him about him and Elizabeth having a child could possibly be true given their age. A human touch as so often in the Bible when the supernatural is encountered. This is not a myth, some fabulous story. Such stories are rarely as life-like about the difficulty people have accepting the eruption of the supernatural into their lives. And so Zechariah asks for a sign. He needed assurance, like Gideon or Hezekiah before him. On this narrative the famous French commentator, Godet, wrote: “What dignity, what purity, what simplicity, what delicacy in all this dialogue! Not a word too many, and not one too few. Such a narrative could not arise in any other sphere than the one in which the event itself took place.” Well said. And he might have added, “What honesty.” You have only to compare this account to those of the apocryphal gospels to see how very differently such stories are written when they have been made up! This was C.S. Lewis’s point, a man who probably knew more about mythical writing than any person alive in his time. Whatever the Gospels were, he wrote, they were not the sort of tales one finds in the ancient myths and epics. They are a very different thing, honest reports, historical in their nature and their style. They haven’t the typical features of invention; they have all the features, the telltale signs of reality.
v.19 The sense of Gabriel’s reply is debated, but there is certainly a rebuke in it. “For goodness sake, what is more difficult to believe: that an angel from God is standing right in front of you or that his words will come true?” Zechariah’s doubt does not make him an unbeliever, but it certainly was not an evidence of his faith!
v.20 Clearly the sign is itself a form of rebuke. Zechariah didn’t believe what Gabriel said to him so he won’t be able to say anything about it to others. Apparently he was also made deaf, because we read in 1:62 that later people communicated with him by signs, which would not have been necessary if he were still able to hear. He didn’t believe what he had heard from Gabriel, so he won’t be able to hear either. If a man doesn’t believe what God says to him, he might as well be deaf! No doubt the Lord had another purpose in this: it served to conceal the revelation until the proper time.
v.21 The people knew how long it ordinarily took a priest to burn the incense and come out to bless them and Zechariah had not returned well past the usual time. In the Mishnah we read that a short prayer is expected of the high priest lest the nation worry, the sense being that it was dangerous to be too long in the presence of God. [Bock, i, 94]
v.22 The people did not know precisely what, but the fact that their priest could not offer the blessing they expected, or, for that matter, say anything at all convinced them that something dramatic had happened while Zechariah was in the temple. They guessed he had seen a vision. They had no idea an angel had appeared to him. What is more, Zechariah’s condition continued; his muteness and deafness did not disappear in an hour or a day. Daniel was unable to speak after seeing and hearing an angel, but the condition was remedied quickly (Dan. 10:15-17). Not so here. As the angel predicted, Zechariah remained deaf and mute. One, of course, wonders what he may have written down for the benefit of his wife. She seems to know what had happened and what the angel had said to her husband when Mary arrived, as we will read later in vv. 42-45. The main point, of course, is that what happened to Zechariah confirmed the truth of what the angel had said. So does what follows.
v.24 We are not told explicitly why Elizabeth remained in seclusion and a number of reasons have been suggested. Some think she feared the reaction of her neighbors, perhaps especially those who had taken her childlessness to be an indication of impiety on her part, but Luke gives us the clear impression in v. 25 that Elizabeth was full of joy and, in any case, everyone would know soon enough. Others have suggested that she was using the time to prepare herself for the great work that would be hers in raising such a son. But perhaps the most likely is that her seclusion served the same purpose as Zechariah’s muteness, viz. to preserve the secret until the proper time. [cf. Bock, 95; Green, 79-80] The five months, of course, would have been the time when no one would have known she was pregnant. They counted ten months for a pregnancy in those days, lunar rather than solar months being the rule. After that the secret would be out no matter what. [Morris, 88] Perhaps it is this secretiveness that allows Mary and Elizabeth to confer, as they will in the next paragraph, a conference more difficult to imagine if Mary, pregnant but perhaps still unmarried herself, had shown up in Elizabeth’s home which was every day full of well-wishers. Who is to say for sure?
Now there is something here of immense importance. It is something that you find, to be sure, on every page of Holy Scripture, but still, the fact that you find it here, in the account of the appearance of the Redeemer of the world, is revealing and immensely important. I am speaking of the place of man’s faith in God’s plan of salvation. Here we read of Zechariah’s doubt and the angel’s stern response to it. We may wonder at the punishment of Zechariah. Was it necessary to punish this good man simply for asking for a sign, for asking to be assured that something so extraordinary actually was going to happen to him and to his wife? But there it is in v. 20: “Because you did not believe…” There is an obvious lesson for us in this text, the very lesson that Zechariah himself was first taught, a lesson about trusting the Word of God, believing it to be true with absolute confidence and behaving accordingly. In other words, we have here a study in faith, to which dramatic events draw our attention in unmistakable ways. In English “faith” and “believe” are two different words. In the Greek of the New Testament they are two forms of the same word. The account is obviously written with the intention of drawing our attention to Zechariah’s lack of faith, the angel’s rebuke, and the subsequent punishment of Zechariah, which punishment itself, in its very nature, accented the failure of Zechariah’s faith. And in contrast to Zechariah’s doubt, we have Elizabeth’s expression of a sturdy faith. She knows very well – no doubt from her husband – what the Lord told Zechariah and she has no doubt that what has happened to her and what is happening in her is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. And she acts accordingly, even if we are not precisely sure why she acts as she does.
In the same paragraph and emphatically so we have a study in faith: weak faith and strong faith. It is, of course, the continuation of the narrative of the sudden and wonderful interruption of history by the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. We are after all talking about the appearance of Gabriel, the archangel! What Gabriel means by speaking of bringing Zechariah “good news” in v. 19 is precisely that: the inbreaking of the kingdom or rule of God, the coming to pass of God’s ancient plan for the salvation of the world. “Good news” comes from the prophet Isaiah and refers to the long promised fulfillment of the great promises of a triumphant kingdom of God being revealed to the people of God and to the world, the coming of the servant of the Lord, the Messiah, and the beginning of his reign of righteousness and peace throughout the world. The angel has brought this good news, this gospel, of which we heard more detail in the previous paragraph and of which we will hear much more in what follows: a savior who will save his people from their sins, a king who will rule over the earth in righteousness, fulfilling all the promises God made to Abraham, a king who will sit on the throne of his father David, and how of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Faith in this message and the true meaning of these events is a key theme in the opening narrative in the Gospel of Luke. I could have read a much longer text and pointed out the place of faith in Elizabeth’s continuing response to her good news in her conversation with Mary, Mary and Joseph’s faith, and Zechariah’s own faith expressed so beautifully later in this same chapter 1, the shepherds’ faith, Anna’s faith and Simeon’s, and in the Gospel of Matthew the faith of the Magi. But you know that history well enough for me simply to remind you that in case after case it is not only that God appears to men and women and reveals his plan for the kingdom of God and the salvation of the world but the people themselves believe what they are told and act accordingly. They take God or God’s messengers at their Word. They entrust themselves to the promises they receive. That is faith and it is a prominent theme in this opening section of Luke as it will be a prominent theme throughout the Gospel.
The eruption of the mighty power of God in the world, the dawning of the day of salvation, the revelation of the plan and purpose of God and the demonstration of his mighty and saving power did not occur apart from or without the faith of men and women. Alongside and woven within this account of events of cosmic, world-altering importance, beside this announcement of the coming redemption of the world, together with the appearance of God himself in human nature, is a story of men and women and how they responded to this good news, one at least at first rather poorly though not without faith altogether, others wonderfully well. It is the Lord himself, through his angel, who interwove the issue of human faith in God, in the Word of God, in the action of God, into this narrative of the dramatic and sovereign and saving action of God.
God does not work among men apart from faith. True enough, that faith itself is his gift, but it is essential to his plan not only that he act as only God can, but that he, his word, and his work be believed by men, that men and women be confident that what he has promised will come to pass and that then they live accordingly. And that is what we find everywhere in the opening narrative of the Gospel of Luke. God’s acts, to be sure; God’s salvation absolutely; God’s initiative and God’s intervention and God’s mighty grace, but everywhere we find people trusting the divine word and giving themselves over to the divine action. We will also see folk refusing to do so and so failing to receive or experience or even to recognize the salvation that has come into the world.
Always and everywhere in the Bible it is the same: God speaks and men and women believe and adjust their thinking and their behavior to what they have heard of the Word of God. From the beginning of the Bible, when it was Abel’s faith and Cain’s unbelief that distinguished their two sacrifices, making one acceptable to God and one unacceptable, and when it was Abraham’s faith that made him the Father of many nations to the very end of the Bible when it will be those who believe to whom the Lord Jesus will return on the last day, always the key factor on the human side is faith. Always God works to our faith, through our faith, and by our faith. It was never God’s plan to save the world without man’s faith as the essential instrument in his salvation. Our faith has always been essential to his plan. As Augustine put it long ago: “he who made us without us, will not save us without us.” [cf. Wainwright, Doxology, 490, note 216] We don’t even read the account of the greatest divine act ever performed, the incarnation of God the Son, without it becoming at the same time an account of the nature of human faith, the challenge of faith, and the power of faith. God’s will is to work through our faith! God acts; men believe!
Florence and I were privileged this last Tuesday mid-day to listen to Phillip Jensen, the Dean of the Cathedral in Sydney, Australia deliver his Tuesday lunchtime Bible Study. I had long admired Bishop Jensen from afar since my reading of a very fine study on the doctrine of Holy Scripture published in IVP’s Contours in Theology series. Or, at least so I thought. I introduced myself to him after the service as I wanted to compliment and thank him for his superb book. He kindly corrected me, however. That book, it turns out, was written by his brother, Peter Jensen, who happens to be the Archbishop of Sydney. I hadn’t realized there were two Jensen’s, one the Archbishop and the other the Dean of the Cathedral. He admitted it is a common confusion and very easy to understand, both first names beginning with P and both men in the highest leadership of the same Anglican diocese. He blamed the confusion on his mother who should have known better than to give to both her sons names that began with P! Anyway, gifts run in the family. Good a theologian and a writer as his brother Peter is, Phillip is as good a preacher and last Tuesday we heard a superb exposition of Habakkuk chapter 1 and the first few verses of chapter 2.
The subject was faith, faith in a time of confusion and doubt. Habakkuk, if you remember, was asking the Lord to intervene to clean up the spiritual and ethical mess that was Judah in the late 7th century B.C. Injustice was rampant, righteousness was laughed at rather than respected and rewarded, and no one feared the Lord or his judgments. Habakkuk was, of course, expecting a certain kind of answer. When we ask the Lord for something we ordinarily think we know what he ought to do in reply. Habakkuk expected the Lord to say, “I know how bad things are and I am going to correct them soon,” or “I am about to restore my people to faith again and godly living soon,” but instead the Lord told his prophet that he was about to bring the Babylonians against Judah. Not the answer Habakkuk was expecting or looking for! The Babylonians were worse than the Jews. How is that going to help with anything? How is that going to restore righteousness? Surely a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity would not add violence to violence and evil to evil. Surely he would correct the evil, not replace it with something worse. The Babylonians didn’t care about the honor of the Lord or his law or his worship. They were a cruel and utterly heartless people. What good could come of Judah’s being brought to its knees by such a pitiless and pagan people as the Babylonians?
But the Lord replied to his prophet, in effect, “Just wait and see. You must live by faith. Most people don’t, but you must. You can’t see the future as I can; you cannot grasp the whys and wherefores of my purposes, you certainly don’t know what is to come to pass in due time as I do; but trust me to put things right.” The Lord was calling Habakkuk to the exercise of faith, of trust, of confidence in the Lord. Indeed, as you may remember, in that passage we find the famous statement, the one Paul will make so much of in Romans, “the righteous shall live by his faith.”
Faith, Bishop Jensen reminded us, is nothing like a leap in the dark as some like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and others have thought. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Still less is faith a superstition, as many in our elite culture are now arguing. Faith in its biblical usage is something very different, so different Bishop Jensen wondered if we now need a new word for it so that people will not attach to the word the meanings that have become so common in our culture. Many of the old pews have been removed from the Sydney cathedral nave and replaced by more comfortable chairs. Faith, Bishop Jensen continued, is what you have in your chair. Unless you are the superstitious type who circles a chair three times before sitting down, or the paranoid type who picks up the chair and turns it over to inspect it before sitting down, you simply “plonk” yourself down in it. That was the word he used: “plonk,” a good English word as I remember. He admitted that some of the older folk may plonk themselves down more delicately, but still they fully expect their chair to bear their weight, they have every reason to believe that it will, and in that confidence, with scarcely a thought, they sit themselves down. They have confidence in the chair. That he said is faith. It is confidence; trust in the reliability of something or someone and in our case confidence in the reliability of God and of his Word.
Hudson Taylor used to render Jesus’ command to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22) with the words “reckon on the faithfulness of God.” Not exegetically exact but theologically correct. So John Calvin’s even more ponderous “presume on the veracity of God.” That is what faith does: it presumes that God will be true to himself and to his Word. That is what faith is: presuming on the veracity of God. If you remember, that was the Lord Jesus’ own definition of faith. You remember the account at the end of John 4 of the healing of the official’s son. The man had heard of the Lord’s power – more than simply hear, he had learned from eyewitnesses of it, perhaps from his own witness of it, learned that the Lord’s miracle-working power was absolutely real – power to heal the sick and with his own son nearing death he came to Jesus and pled with him for his life. Jesus told him, “Go, your son will live.” And we read: “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” That is faith; that is what faith is: believing the word that the Lord has spoken and then acting on that belief. Faith is confidence that what has been said is true, confidence that demands action. We have that definition of faith in the negative in Zechariah’s doubting and in the positive in Elizabeth’s confidence. And later in this same chapter, in Elizabeth’s remark to Mary we have that same definition of faith in a very pure form. “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”
But, isn’t the Bible wonderful in its realism and its down-to-earth honesty. The first faith we encounter in this story of faith is Zechariah’s weak faith. The fact is, while Zechariah was without excuse as Gabriel makes clear, we nevertheless tend to be somewhat sympathetic with the old priest. It is not an easy thing to believe that you and your aged wife would after all these years of disappointment conceive a child. And, no matter that an angel was standing in front of him, the news was so remarkable that it took the poor man some time to get his mind around it, however wonderful the news was; perhaps especially because it was so wonderful. Perhaps part of his difficulty believing was simply that the news was so wonderful. Perhaps he feared that it wouldn’t come true and their hopes would be dashed once again. It wasn’t as though the man was a dolt or uncaring of the Lord’s glory or unbelieving of the Lord’s Word. He was a man who had remained faithful to the Word of God when the Jews as a whole, as we read last time, had gone away from the Lord. Zechariah was a good man, a blameless man, an upright man. Luke tells us this about him before describing his stumble. Zechariah was a man of faith and a man of prayer. He took the duties of his office as a priest seriously. But he found it difficult to believe that his aged and barren wife could possibly have a child at this late stage. No matter that an angel had appeared to him, he struggled to believe what he had been told.
Well there is much in God’s plan and purpose that is either too wonderful or too difficult to believe easily. And so, like Zechariah, we stumble. We doubt. We struggle to accept the truth as the truth.
It is hard to believe that the kingdom of God is moving inexorably to its day of triumph when unbelief is as powerful and prevailing as it is in so much of the world. It is hard to believe that the day is coming when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea when the gospel seems to be going backward in our part of the world. But like the Lord’s message to Habakkuk, how little do we really see or understand of the Lord purposes.
We are reading of the coming of the Messiah. No one – and I mean no one – expected the Messiah to be arrested, abused by Jews and Romans alike, and then put to death in the most cruel and humiliating way possible. No one imagined such a thing. Nobody thought this would happen to the King of Kings when he made an appearance in the world. But it was in that death that the world was redeemed; it was in that suffering and ignominy and humiliation that the way to heaven was opened for countless multitudes of human beings. And so with a thousand and one other things in life that are addressed by the Word of God and the promises of God and which we are called to accept in faith as the perfect will of God and the means by which his plans and purposes will be accomplished.
When the missionaries were ejected by the communists from China in 1948, it was universally thought by Western Christians to be a terrible, tragic development. How would the gospel advance in one of the most populous nations on earth with an aggressively atheist government and no missionaries present to proclaim the Word of God? The Chinese communists were as bad as the Babylonians. How could they possibly bring about the progress of the kingdom of God? But, now, of course, how foolish, how short-sighted, and how faithless that thinking appears to have been. Less than a million Chinese Christians in 1948 have become upwards of a hundred million today, by the Chinese government’s own reckoning! What is impossible for man is possible for God. We should have known that the gates of hell could not prevail against the church of the Lord Jesus Christ; that no evil in the world and no power of evil in the world could possibly compromise the sovereignty of God. We should have known but almost nobody did. We doubted the Word of God and the plan of God and the purpose and power of God just like Zechariah did.
While we were in Australia I learned that a Christian friend, younger than I, a shirt-tail relative, has cancer in his brain, inoperable and terminal. How hard it is to believe the Word of God in such a time, in the face of such a tragedy – and it is a tragedy surely! To leave behind many loved ones, including his wife and one child still at home. How hard to believe that all things work for the good of those who love God. How hard it is for all of us to believe that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us. How hard it can be to believe that for a Christian to die is better by far.
But that is precisely what we are called upon to do: to presume on the veracity of God; to trust that what God has said to us is true and to act accordingly. Not wishful thinking; certainly not superstition; faith, confidence, trust. And why? Because God has proved his Word true to us times without number. Because he has kept all the promises he ever made to us that can yet be fulfilled. Because the Messiah did come. Because Zechariah lost his voice and then found it again just as the angel said he would. Because he and Elizabeth did have a baby, a man who prepared the way for the Lamb of God who then took away the sin of the world.
When John Bunyan was a new Christian he expressed the challenge of faith, the struggle to believe, really believe what God has said this way: “God had a bigger mouth to speak than I had heart to conceive with.” [Grace Abounding, paragr. 249] Surely we can all say that, can’t we? But let’s not stand still. Let’s take our marching orders from what happened to Zechariah. His quibbling over the Word of God is held out to us as a warning and as a challenge. It was foolish, unnecessary, and resulted in the good man’s trouble for some time. But he learned his lesson and when he was granted his voice again he spoke with absolute confidence in the promise of the Lord. No need to make his mistake in order to come to that conclusion!
Why faith? Why throughout the Bible this constant emphasis on faith, on trusting the Word of God, on believing it to be true and acting accordingly? Why does God make so much of faith; why does he pin everything on our faith? Because to say that we are saved by faith or that we live by faith is simply to say that we are saved by Christ and live by Christ. Faith is that state of mind and heart that looks away from oneself to something or someone else. And if only God and Christ can do for us what we need done, in the nature of the case, faith is essential. Absolutely essential because God is essential to us and Jesus Christ is essential to the fulfillment of all of our longings, the making up of all of our needs, the satisfaction of all of our hopes.
Faith is essential because the Lord is essential and our faith is what connects us to him.