Chosen by casting lots, Zechariah performed the duties of offering incense in the temple at Jerusalem during the evening sacrifice. While the great multitude was praying for Zechariah as he performed his duties in the Holy place, Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and informed him that his prayers had been heard by God and were about to be answered. Luke 1:12-13 says, And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’”

The time of the evening sacrifice seems to be a time God often used to bring His message to His people. Gabriel had appeared some 500 years earlier to Daniel in Babylon. The appearance happened at the time of the evening sacrifice. Another communication from God that happened at the evening sacrifice is reported by Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian. When the high priest, Hyrcanus, was offering the evening sacrifice and was alone in the temple, God spoke to him and informed him of his son’s success in the battle against Antiochus.[1] It appears to have been just a voice from God. There wasn’t an angel or apparition of any kind associated with the voice. But Daniel, like Zechariah, saw the angel, Gabriel. He describes his response by saying, “I was terrified and fell prostrate” (Daniel 8:17). Our text tells us that “fear fell” upon Zechariah. Daniel tells us that he was temporarily rendered speechless (Daniel 10:15), which was the same result that Zechariah was to experience. Hughes maintains, “Daniel’s encounter and vision had to do with the revelation of future messianic times, and Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel signaled the dawn of messianic times.”[2] It was Gabriel who made the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary. The specific communication from Gabriel was the announcement of a supernatural birth of a son to Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, even in their old age. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would think of other births announced beforehand, like Samuel, Samson, and others. But this announcement is more like that made to Abram and Sarah of their son, Isaac.

The role of prayer is unmistakable. Luke told us that many people were outside the temple praying when Zechariah went in. The table of incense is often seen as the ascent of a sweet-smelling savor to God. This is a standard connection in the Bible. Colin points out several passages, “Golden bowls of incense which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8); incense was mixed with the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3–4); may my prayer be as incense (Ps. 141:2); people praying at the hour of incense (Luke 1:10); the smoke of the incense went up with the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:4).”[3] The specific statement that his prayer had been heard and that his wife would bear a son lets us in on the fact that his specific prayer had been for a son of his own. For some time, Zechariah had prayed for a child. Perhaps by now, however, he had given up praying, resigned to the idea that God’s answer was “no.” Women carried the blame for barrenness. Gabriel mentions Zechariah’s wife by name! She will bear the son that Zechariah prayed for. He was then told what to name the son. He would be named after the nature of the event. John means “God has been gracious.” As Ryken puts it, “By the grace of God, new life would come from a barren womb.”[4] Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth held out hope that God would be gracious to them, we are encouraged by the outcome that God will also be gracious to us. Piper says, “If God were not a self-replenishing, all-sufficient, everlasting fountain of future grace, there would be no hope for sinners. If God has been gracious only in the past but will not be in the future, Christians are of all people most to be pitied. Our life hangs on future grace.”[5]

[1] Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. 1987. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

[2] Hughes, R. Kent. 1998. Luke: That You May Know the Truth. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[3] Day, A. Colin. 2009. Collins Thesaurus of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] Ryken, Philip Graham. 2009. Luke. Edited by Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani. Vol. 1. Reformed Expository Commentary. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

[5] Piper, John. 1995. Future Grace. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers.