The book of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. Many believe that when the early Church was deciding which of the Gospels should be first in the New Testament, they chose Matthew because he did such a good job showing the bridge between the New Testament and the Old Testament. The genealogies paved the way!
Matthew was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He wrote down the story of Jesus’ life to show the Jewish people that He truly was their Messiah. For centuries, the prophets had told of the coming King, and Matthew wanted to show how the Lord fulfilled those prophecies through His birth and His life and through His death and resurrection.
The book of Luke is the third book in the New Testament. It also tells us the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. But Luke was different than Matthew. He didn’t know Jesus when He walked the earth. Luke heard about Jesus after Christ ascended into Heaven. He put his faith in the Lord Jesus because faithful men proclaimed the story of Jesus to him. Luke was so passionate about the gift of salvation that he traveled all over with the men who were telling the world that Jesus had come. He spent years journeying with the Apostle Paul as he proclaimed the Good News to the people of his time. He even stayed with Paul when he was locked up in prison. At some point, he decided to research the stories of Jesus’ life and write them down. He wanted his friend Theophilus and other new believers to understand who Jesus was and what He had done for them.
Luke was a doctor and a very careful writer. He made sure to record important historical facts that would help the reader understand the timing of when things had happened. He often interviewed the people that were a part of each story. When we read Luke’s stories, we often learn about the character’s thoughts and feelings because they shared them with Luke! Through his writing, we hear their ancient words! Even though Luke worked hard to write his stories well, it was still God who worked through the power of the Holy Spirit to give Luke the words to say. We can trust that the words of Luke, just like Matthew and all the other books of the Bible, are the very words of God.
While Matthew wrote his book to show the Jews that Jesus was their Messiah, Luke was written to show that Jesus had come to bring salvation to all nations. Matthew teaches about how Jesus was the Son of David, the great King, and the Messiah of the Old Testament promises. But you remember that the Old Testament also told about a Suffering Servant through the prophecies of Isaiah. This person would bring hope for the poor and would heal the sick. He would lay His own life down as a sacrifice, and somehow, through His wounds, he would pay a ransom price for others. Luke wanted to show through his stories that this beautiful, mysterious character from the Old Testament was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our story begins in the time of King Herod, probably somewhere around 7 B.C. Herod was not a king that God had anointed to lead His holy people. He was not a descendant of the great King David. In fact, it was the powerful, oppressive Roman Empire that made Herod king. The Romans ruled over the nation of Israel and controlled their government and their lives. Sometimes they even worked to control their faith and obedience to the Lord! The Romans made Herod king over the Jews to keep that control over them. They knew Herod would be loyal to their empire.
In the eyes of the Jewish people, Herod was a traitor. In truth, he was a murderous, cruel man who cared nothing about the ways of the Most High God. The people of Israel had good reason to fear what he might do next. Imagine how much they must have despised this pretender to the throne!
In those days, a man named Zechariah lived in Judea. He was a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses, which meant that he had the high and holy honor of serving as one of God’s priests for the people of Israel. His wife Elizabeth was also a descendent of Aaron. When Luke, the man who wrote this story down in the Gospels, told this story, he wanted to make sure we understood that Zechariah and Elizabeth were a very noble couple. He wrote, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” It’s a pretty high honor when an author of the Word of God itself says that about someone.
And yet, in spite of their goodness, there was a great sadness for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They had never had any children. Elizabeth was barren. Everyone in their society would see this as a great disgrace for her. She had never provided a son for Zechariah! Who would carry on his name? For how many years did Elizabeth hope and pray for a child, but now she was old, and it seemed impossible. How grieved she must have felt to have never held a child of her own in her arms. How saddened to know that her husband carried the loss with her. How painful it must have been to see other women whose homes were filled with the chatter and bustle of many children.
In spite of this great heartbreak, Elizabeth and Zechariah honored God with their lives. And little did they know it, but God was going to honor them by working out His grand, historic plan for the whole world through the desires of their hearts! Elizabeth’s barrenness and suffering would become a part of God’s glorious salvation story! Her mourning would become a part of the greatest dance of all!
Zechariah was a priest of Israel. For all of his life, Zechariah was called by God to serve the people of Israel in a special, sacred way. The job of a priest was to act as a mediator between the Most High God and His beloved people. The Lord loved His nation, they were His treasured possession, but they were also sinful. They contaminated themselves with the pollution of their sin, and this evil offended the bright, pure, perfection of God’s holiness. So God made a way for the people to bring sacrifices to His holy Temple. Somehow, in the mysterious beauty of God’s plan, these sacrifices gave the people a way to atone for their sin. They purified the people so they could live in His holy presence. It was the job of the priests to take the sacrifices for sin and the offerings of praise from the people and bring them to the Lord. They stood between God and His people and reconciled them to each other. What a breathtakingly important thing to do!
The time came when Zechariah and the division of priests he belonged to were called to serve in the great Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. This was a very high honor, but there was an even higher honor to decide. They had to choose one priest to go into the Holy Place and offer burning incense at the golden altar. This golden altar was built by the craftsmen of Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai. Next to the altar hung a thick blue curtain. On the other side of that curtain sat the Ark of the Covenant. It held the Ten Commandments. The lid of the Ark was called the Mercy Seat, and it was declared by God to be His throne on earth! It was an image of God’s exalted Throne in Heaven! Wow! Which priest would be given the unimaginable honor of entering the inner chamber of the Temple to burn incense before the presence of the Most High God?
The priests cast lots. This was a way the Jewish people asked God to show them His will. When the lots were thrown, Zechariah was chosen! God was working out His special plan in a very special way. He had a special announcement for Zechariah, and He was going to give it to him in the most sacred, holy place on earth. Zechariah would have to go through rituals of preparation and cleansing just to enter that room, but God was preparing the way for something far greater.
As Zechariah entered the Holy Place to perform the priestly ritual, worshippers gathered outside and prayed. Nobody was expecting what happened next. As he stood at the incense altar, a mighty angel of the Lord appeared to him on the other side of the altar!
Zechariah was shocked to see this glorious being. He began to tremble and shake with fear! Angels are heavenly creatures that God made before He created the world. In fact, they watched and shouted for joy as God created the universe! They are glorious beings who live in Heaven with Him and serve His every word with perfect obedience. Imagine how you would feel if one appeared right before your eyes! This angel came with a message. What a mighty moment, and what an important message it would be! He said:
“‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”
As Zechariah listened to the angel, he was still filled with doubt. He asked, “‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’”
The angel answered him, and what a fascinating answer it was! He said, “‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news.’” Wow!
This glorious being before Zechariah was one of the highest angels of all. He had come as a messenger from the throne room of Heaven itself! But Zechariah, the priest, did not have faith to believe him! That was rather a disrespectful way to treat an angel. So Gabriel went on, “‘And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true in their proper time.’”
As Zechariah spoke with Gabriel, the worshippers outside began to wonder what had happened to him. Why was he taking so long? When Zechariah walked out to them, he must have looked stunned. He couldn’t talk! He made signs, trying to explain to them what happened. They realized that he must have seen some kind of vision in the Temple.
Zechariah continued to serve in the Temple until the time of his duties were over. Then he returned home to his wife. Just as the angel said, Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept herself secluded and hidden from the world for five months. As she savored the precious, miraculous gift that God had given her, she said, “‘The Lord has done this for me…in these days he has shown me favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’” What a precious, thankful heart…and what a generous and awesome God!