Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 1 (KJV)
Zacharias Hears from God
Devotional Reading: John 10:22–30
Background Scripture: Luke 1:5–23
8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course,
9 According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.
15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.
19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.
20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
The angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.—Luke 1:13
From Darkness to Light
Unit 1: God’s Preparation
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. List elements of Zacharias’s doubt and fear.
2. Explain why his doubt was inexcusable.
3. Voice or write a sentence of repentance for harboring an inexcusable doubt.
How to Say It
Elias Ee-lye-us. Gabriel Gay-bree-ul.
A. Does History Rhyme?
A popular claim is that history repeats itself. But does that claim hold up? Perhaps a more accurate claim is that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. This means that while no one historical event is exactly like any other, similarities may exist between the two events.
Events in God’s plan of salvation are frequently similar to His earlier work among His people. These similarities can help people understand the singular, focused plan of God. His work consists of more than isolated events in history. Instead, His work is a grand epic to turn rebellious, hostile humanity into His holy people.
Today’s Scripture text highlights one of these rhythms of God’s plan. Would the recipient of this good news trust that God would be faithful to His promises?
B. Lesson Context The Gospel of Luke is one of two Gospel accounts that describe Jesus’ birth and its context. The other account comes from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:18–2:23).
Luke’s account is distinct in at least two ways. First, Luke’s account is interwoven with events regarding the birth of Jesus’ cousin John (Luke 1:5–25, 57–80). Both pregnancies were announced by an angel (1:13, 30–33), were accompanied by great wonders (1:62–66; 2:13–15), and had prepared the people for God’s salvation (1:32–33, 67–79).
Second, Luke’s account highlights the significance of these parallel birth narratives through depictions of worship. Mary (Luke 1:46–55; see lesson 4), Zacharias (1:67–79; see lesson 2), a heavenly host (2:13–14), and Simeon (2:28–32) all give praise to God for His work.
Luke’s account opens by way of introducing Zacharias, the father of John and a priest in the division of Abia (Luke 1:5). Zacharias and other priests descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses (see Exodus 28:1). Over the centuries, Aaron’s descendants became numerous to the point that they could not all serve in the temple at the same time. King David had organized the priests into 24 divisions for service (1 Chronicles 24:1–19). The divisions required adjustment following a season of captivity (see Ezra 2:36–39). These divisions apparently continued into the New Testament era.
Every division would serve in the temple for roughly two nonconsecutive weeks each year. The assigned priests would complete the necessary tasks for the temple, including accepting and offering sacrifices, burning incense, and leading prayers.
Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth, also a descendent of Aaron, were “righteous before God” and “blameless” regarding obeying His commandments (Luke 1:6). The couple was without children due to their ages and Elisabeth’s barrenness (1:7).
I. Holy Occasion
A. Post of the Priest (vv. 8–9)
8. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course.
The time had arrived for Zacharias and his priestly order to begin their service in the temple (see Lesson Context). The events that followed would take place against the backdrop of a priest performing his duties before the presence of God.
9. According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
The renovation and expansion of the temple of the Lord in Jesus’ day began during the reign of Herod the Great (ruled 37–4 BC). Herod’s efforts in this regard took at least 46 years (see John 2:20). He used the temple as a political and religious tool to gain support from the Jewish people. The layout of Herod’s temple paralleled its predecessors. The temple complex consisted of a series of outdoor courts, a large porch (see 10:23), and a building that housed the inner sanctuaries (compare 1 Kings 6:2–10, 16–36)—the center of the entire complex.
Twice daily, a priest would enter the outer sanctuary and burn incense on the altar of incense (compare Exodus 30:1–8; 40:26–27; 1 Kings 6:20–22; 7:48). The rising smoke and the fragrant aroma represented the people’s prayers going up to God (compare Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3).
Because of the numerous priests, the custom of drawing lots determined the priest who would fulfill this particular duty. The practice was not intended as a pagan lottery (compare John 19:24). Rather, it was a way to determine God’s will (compare Proverbs 16:33; Acts 1:21–26). The chosen priest would fill this role one time in his lifetime. We can imagine the sense of awe and reverence that Zacharias felt as he received his lot and entered the sanctuary.
B. Prayers of the People (v. 10)
10. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
Because only the chosen priest entered the Holy Place where the altar of incense was located, the whole multitude of the people was scattered throughout the temple’s courts as the priest burned the incense. The people were restricted to the various outer courts because of God’s requirements regarding who could enter that space. It was not as though the people were unholy—their acts of praying highlighted their commitment to the Lord.
The content of the crowd’s prayer at the time of incense is unknown. The worshippers would bring their requests before God. One request was probably paramount: that God restore Israel and free them from their bondage to foreign empires (compare Isaiah 2).
II. Profound Announcement
A. Fearful Reaction (vv. 11–12)
11. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
Frequently in the writings of Luke, a declaration that someone appeared indicates a supernatural presence (see Luke 9:30; 22:43; 24:34; Acts 9:17). This appearance to Zacharias was no exception.
A heavenly visitor, such as an angel of the Lord, was a representative of God (see Judges 6:11–22; Matthew 2:19). Though not used here, when Scripture includes the definite article the with “angel of the Lord,” the reference can be to the presence of God himself (example: Exodus 3:2–4). Zacharias did not have to wait long to discover the identity of this mysterious heavenly visitor (Luke 1:19, below).
12. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
This feeling of fear meant a sense of deep respect combined with sheer terror. Such a reaction was common when a person experienced the appearance of a messenger of God (see Judges 6:22–23; 13:21–22; Daniel 8:16–17; Luke 1:29–30; 2:9).
What Do You Think?
How can a believer respond with joy rather than fear to God’s unexpected acts?
How does love serve as an antidote to fear? (See 1 John 4:18.)»
B. Future Realities (vv. 13–17)
13a. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard.
The first words of the angel provided comfort to the troubled priest. Other depictions of heavenly visitors also include the imperative fear not (examples: Daniel 10:5–12; Matthew 28:5; Luke 1:30; 2:10). The command reassured God’s people of His presence and calmed their nerves.
The text is unclear which particular prayer of Zacharias had been heard by God. Zacharias and Elisabeth had likely prayed countless times for a child of their own. However, it is unknown whether they continued praying that request. Perhaps they felt that because of their advanced ages (Luke 1:7) having a child of their own was out of the question. Such a prayer, however, would have been consistent with the prayers of their ancestors (examples: Genesis 25:21; 30:22; 1 Samuel 1:10–11).
Other students of the text have proposed that the prayer in question was a prayer of Zacharias at the altar of incense concerning Israel’s salvation. However, Scripture is silent on this point. This proposal assumes that it would have been inappropriate for a priest to offer personal prayers while serving in the temple on behalf of the people. Perhaps Zacharias prayed along the lines that Israel would see the “horn of salvation” (Luke 1:69) and that they would “be saved from [their] enemies, and from the hand of all that hate [them]” (1:71).
Whatever the content of Zacharias’s prayer, God answered the prayer in a way that possibly addressed both the desire for a child and a desire to see Israel’s salvation (see commentary on Luke 1:16, below).
What Do You Think?
How can believers remain faithful in prayer even if their prayers are not answered on their preferred timetable?
How can Romans 5:1–5 and 8:18–27 provide encouragement to believers to exercise patience in this regard?
13b. And thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
The angel’s declaration that Elisabeth would bear … a son was likely surprising to Zacharias. However, the announcement of a child to an elderly, childless couple is not without precedent in Scripture (example: Genesis 17:17–19). Only the one, true God could work such a miracle.
The name John was common among men in the New Testament era (see Matthew 10:2; John 1:42; Acts 4:6). However, the name likely came from the Hebrew name Johanan (see 1 Chronicles 3:15, 24, etc.), the meaning of which describes God’s graciousness. Zacharias and Elisabeth were to experience God’s graciousness firsthand in the birth of their son.
14. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.
Feelings of joy and gladness would replace feelings of fear (see Luke 1:13a, above). But the birth of this child would have a much wider impact than on just this couple. Many other people would rejoice because of the role this child would have in declaring God’s plan for His people (compare 2:10). John would not bring the long-awaited salvation to God’s people. Instead, he would be a forerunner, preparing the way for that salvation (3:15–18; see lesson 3).
15a. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.
John’s great standing would not be measured by worldly standards of success. Years later, Jesus affirmed the angel’s prophecy: “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28). John’s greatness in the sight of the Lord would come from his role as the person who would announce the good news of the arrival of God’s salvation (Mark 1:14–15; Luke 3:1–6).
15b. And shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.
Alcoholic beverages were common in the biblical world. Wine was served by itself (see John 2:3–10) or mixed with other substances and served for pain relief (see Mark 15:23). Any other fermented alcoholic beverage made with natural sugars was a strong drink. The alcohol content of these beverages is unknown. At no point in John’s life would he drink these beverages (see Luke 7:33). Because of his chosen sobriety, John would be marked as someone who had a distinct role for God.
The Law of Moses described two specific situations when a person would make a vow of abstinence from alcohol. First, priests were to avoid alcohol during their service to God (Leviticus 10:8–11; Ezekiel 44:21). Second, Israelites who had taken the vow of a Nazarite were also to avoid alcohol (Numbers 6:1–3; compare Judges 13:2–7). Both priests and Nazarites were set apart from others in order to serve God and His people.
However, John would not become a priest like his father, and it is unknown whether John became a Nazarite. Either way, John practiced asceticism, a self-denial of earthly pleasures, in order to focus on a lifelong service to God (see Luke 7:24–28).
15c. And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
Instead of being filled with alcohol, John would be filled with the Holy Ghost (compare Ephesians 5:18). A characteristic of God’s prophets in Scripture was that they were filled with God’s Spirit (see Isaiah 61:1; Ezekiel 11:5; Micah 3:8). John would serve as a prophet of God, even from his mother’s womb, where he “leaped … for joy” in the presence of the unborn Savior (Luke 1:44).
16. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
The angel’s message transitions from who John would become to what he would do. As God’s messenger, John would call his own people, the children of Israel, to return to God. Part of this message warned the people that their being Abraham’s descendants was no indicator of the presence of true repentance (Luke 3:7–9).
In the Old Testament, God’s people showed true repentance when they put away their lives of sin and returned to the Lord their God (Deuteronomy 30:2–3; 1 Samuel 7:3; Hosea 3:5; 7:10; compare Acts 11:21; 26:20; 1 Peter 2:25). John would call people to turn from their wickedness and enter the life of God’s salvation. In this way, John was like Israel’s prophets who proclaimed the “law of truth” and “did turn many away from iniquity” (Malachi 2:6).
Have you ever heard someone claim to be an influencer? An influencer is a person with whom brands collaborate to sell a product on the influencer’s social media platforms. The more followers an influencer has on social media, the more valuable that influencer’s platform will be to brands. And so, brands and businesses pay to be showcased on that influencer’s social media platform.
Through social media, the influencer can advertise brand-name makeup, trendy clothing, or the latest electronic device. One influencer has even reported being offered thousands of dollars to place a brand-name beverage in the background of a video that he filmed for his social media!
While an influencer’s advertisements appear innocent, they are essentially pointing people to consume—perhaps mindlessly. Followers of Jesus, however, should be spiritual influencers for the world. John the Baptist would influence many of his peers to turn to the Lord. He would be an influencer for spiritual matters and would point others to the Lord’s salvation. Are you living as a spiritual influencer, advertising a life changed because of God’s salvation? —P. L. M.
17. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. John would not be unique as a prophet of God’s salvation; many other prophets had gone before the Lord and had proclaimed the hope of God’s salvation. John came in the type, the spirit, and the power of the prophet Elias (Elijah; see Matthew 11:12–14). As God’s prophet, Elijah had confronted the people’s unfaithfulness (see 1 Kings 18:16–46).
Similarly, John would confront the people’s unfaithfulness as he called them to repentance. His teaching would lead to changes in the lives of those who listened to and heeded his message. The reconciliation of fathers to their children (compare Malachi 4:6) and the turning of the disobedient to the way of wisdom (compare Proverbs 1:2–3; 10:23–24) would confirm John’s prophetic message.
John would not be the source of God’s salvation. Instead, he would get people ready and prepared for God’s salvation. His role would be like that of a “voice … that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3; see John 1:23).
What Do You Think?
How can believers prepare others for Jesus’ second coming, just as John prepared people for Jesus’ first coming?
What distractions do you need to remove so that you might better be able to prepare people for this news?
III. Skeptical Exchange
A. Desiring a Sign (v. 18)
18. And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.
In the Old Testament, requesting a sign from God was common and seen in a positive or neutral light (see Genesis 15:8–9; Exodus 4:1–5; Judges 6:17–18, 36–40; 2 Kings 20:8–11; Isaiah 7:11–17). In the New Testament, however, requests for signs are depicted in a negative light (see Mark 8:11–13; Luke 11:16, 29–30; 1 Corinthians 1:22–23), unless God initiated the sign (Luke 2:12).
The angel’s promises appeared impossible to Zacharias. He desired a sign to know if these promises would come true. If a couple could not become pregnant before, then surely they could not do so when they were old and well stricken in years.
What Do You Think?
In what ways are doubting God, questioning God, and unbelief toward God similar or dissimilar?
Who is the person that you would turn to if you experience doubt or unbelief?
B. Embodying the Sign (vv. 19–20)
19. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.
Scripture frequently leaves angels unnamed (see Genesis 19:15; Exodus 14:19; Luke 2:13–14; Acts 10:1–3). However, this angel revealed his name (compare Jude 9; Revelation 9:11; 12:7). Gabriel also appeared in and interpreted the visions of the prophet Daniel (Daniel 8:16; 9:21). The same angel would later appear to Mary to announce the pending arrival of the Son of God and the eternal rule of God on earth (Luke 1:26–37). The lowly virgin Mary accepted Gabriel’s message to her with faith, humility, and rejoicing (1:38, 46–56). However, the knowledgeable priest Zacharias responded to Gabriel’s message with skepticism and doubt.
Zacharias’s skepticism toward Gabriel’s message was called out. When God speaks through His messenger, there is no uncertainty with regard to that message. Instead, God’s people are to submit to the message that brings glad tidings.
A Messenger of Life
A little after midnight local time on July 30, 1945, an enemy submarine torpedoed the USS Indianapolis. Twelve minutes later, the ship sank in the Philippine Sea.
This was a tragedy for my family—my great-uncle was among the hundreds of sailors who died on the ship. Several days after the ship sank, an official military messenger informed my great-aunt of her husband’s death. Military families fear the worst possible message from these messengers.
Not all messengers bring news of death. Through a heavenly messenger, Zacharias received a message of life. Now God has spoken to us through His Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). God has brought us life through His Son. How can you be a messenger of this life in the Son to someone else? —P. L. M.
20. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
Zacharias himself would embody the sign that he desired. This sign was the result of his unbelief regarding God’s words through Gabriel. A demonstration of God’s power and Zacharias’s failure to believe was for Zacharias to be not able to speak.
But Gabriel’s sign also came with mercy and promise: on the day that Gabriel’s promises were fulfilled, Zacharias’s sign would lift (see Luke 1:57–66, lesson 2). At that point, Zacharias’s unbelief would be replaced with praise to God for fulfilling His promises (1:67–79).
What Do You Think?
What is the appropriate response of a believer if God seems to be showing discipline for unbelief?
How would you respond if another believer came to you with doubts, questions, or unbelief toward God?
A. Rhythms of God’s Plan
Zacharias expected that God would use someone exceptional, not ordinary, to work out His divine plan of salvation. However, God frequently calls the unassuming or the seemingly ill-equipped. Zacharias and his family were the latest iteration of God’s working through people who least expected it. Though Zacharias served as a priest, he was skeptical that God would work though him and his wife.
Of course we are not the parents of the forerunner of Christ, but Zacharias’s story shows us that God will work through our lives as well. Will we doubt that God is serious when He calls us to fulfill His plan? Or will we believe and trust that God, who often has worked through ordinary people, will work through ordinary us?
God of our salvation, we acknowledge that we sometimes doubt Your work and that You would choose us. Strengthen our faith so that we can be ready when You call us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
God works extraordinarily through the ordinary.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (pp. 338-355). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.