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Luke's account of Zacharias, Part 1

Sep 23, 2013

After Luke’s introduction to Theophilus, he begins his account, starting with John the Baptist, whose beheading at Passover of 30 A.D. was well known to the entire nation. Joanna, Theophilus’ granddaughter, was an eyewitness to those events, and certainly would have told her grandfather in detail how John died. Luke 1:5 says,

5 In the days of Herod [“The Great”], king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

This Herod was the one responsible for killing the children of Bethlehem many years earlier shortly after Jesus was born. This elder Herod had four wives, each of whom gave birth to at least one son, including Herod Antipas, who put John to death. Luke mentions him more than once in his gospel, and we will have more to say about him later.

Luke begins with the account of John’s birth during the reign of Herod. Herod died about two weeks after a lunar eclipse on January 9, 1 B.C., as recorded by Josephus. We know that both John and Jesus were born prior to Herod’s death in 2 B.C. John was born around the time of Passover in the Spring of 2 B.C., while Jesus was born in September of the same year.

See When REALLY Was Jesus Born?

The story begins toward the end of Herod’s life with an account of a well-known and well-respected priest named Zacharias. This was the Greek form of the Hebrew name Zechariah, “Yahweh remembers.” It suggests that Luke was suggesting not only that Yahweh had remembered His people by sending the Messiah, but also that Luke was asking Theophilus to remember this event from the past. “Remember what Joanna told you many years ago?”

The Divisions of Priests

Zacharias was of the division of Abijah. A thousand years earlier, King David had reorganized the priests by families and had created 24 “courses” of priests to minister for a week at a time in the temple. Each “course” or “division” ministered twice during the year, accounting for 48 weeks. The other four weeks in the year were at the time of the feasts when they all served as needed in the temple.

David’s reorganization program is recorded in 1 Chronicles 24:3, 4,

3 And David, with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to their offices for their ministry. 4 Since more chief men were found from the descendants of Eleazar than of the descendants of Ithamar, they divided them thus: there were sixteen heads of fathers’ households of the descendants of Eleazar, and eight of the descendants of Ithamar according to their fathers’ households.

Sixteen priests were thus selected of the household of Eleazar, and eight from Ithamar, for a total of twenty-four. They are listed in order in verses 7-18. The eighth in the list was Abijah (1 Chronicles 24:10). Three centuries later, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and disrupted the entire priestly organization. After the captivity ended, not all of these priestly families returned to the land. In fact, only four priestly families returned (Nehemiah 7:39-42). Nehemiah 12 records the men who replaced them. Zichri carried on the family duty and continued to work the eighth division and was the ancestor of Zacharias.

The first division of priests began to minister in the week of the feast of Unleavened Bread, which began on the day of Passover (15th day of the 1st month). More precisely, since their work week began early Sunday morning and continued through the following Sabbath, the first division began on the morning of the wave-sheaf offering (“Easter”).

Hence, the eighth division of priests arrived early on the day of Pentecost Sunday, seven weeks later, to minister in the temple. Both Zacharias and his son, John, then, are thus associated with Pentecost, which may account for John’s reference in Matthew 3:11 to the baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire.” The feast of Pentecost itself is a forerunner to Tabernacles. So we can see shades of prophecy built into the specific division into which family Zacharias was born.

Luke does not tell us which day of the week he was the one honored to burn incense in the temple, but it is likely that he did so on that first morning, Pentecost Sunday. It was the year 3 B.C., for John would be born around the following Passover in 2 B.C.

Zacharias’ Credentials

Luke testifies of Zacharias’ character and standing in the priestly community. Luke 1:6,

6 And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

This was important to Theophilus. The credentials of Zacharias could not be questioned. We do not know if Theophilus knew Zacharias personally, but it is likely that they had seen each other in the temple, although Theophilus would have been nearer in age to John than to Zacharias. Luke tells us in verse 7,

7 And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.

One can only imagine the emotion and heartache in that family on account of their having no children. Yet Luke passes over this story with no further comment.

The Four Lots

Zacharias was chosen by lot to burn the incense.

8 Now it came about, while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

The priest who presided over the morning ceremony in the temple always issued the call: “All ye who have washed, come and cast lots.” [The Temple, Alfred Edersheim, p. 149]. They were not allowed to minister unless they first had baptized themselves. Those who had been thus cleansed, gathered to cast the lots. Edersheim writes,

“It was done in this manner. The priests stood in a circle around the president, who for a moment removed the head-gear of one of their number to show that he would begin counting at him. Then all held up one, two, or more fingers—since it was not lawful in Israel to count persons—when the president named some number, say seventy, and began counting the fingers till he reached the number named, which marked that the lot had fallen on that priest.

The first lot was for cleansing the altar and preparing it. The second, for those who were to offer the sacrifice, and for those who were to cleanse the candlestick and the altar of incense in the Holy Place. The third lot was the most important. It determined who was to offer the incense. If possible, none was to take part in it who had at any previous time officiated in the same capacity. The fourth lot, which followed close on the third, fixed those who were to burn the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar, and to perform the concluding portions of the service.” [The Temple, p. 150]

We see, then, that there were four lots cast at that time. Edersheim tells us that the third lot was the most important. Luke tells us that Zacharias was chosen by lot that morning to burn the incense in the temple. Though he was elderly and had ministered for many years already in the temple, he probably had never been chosen in the third lot. If the third lot had fallen upon one who had already ministered the incense previously, the lot was done again to find one who had not had this privilege in the past.

Edersheim writes,

“For the first time in his life, and for the last, would this service be devolved upon him” [The Temple, p. 158]….

“After this the lot was cast for burning the incense. No one might take part in it who had ministered in that office before, unless in the very rare case that all present had previously so officiated” [p. 166]

Zacharias had no children, and he had never been chosen by lot to burn the incense. How many times might he have wondered if God had forsaken him? Yet on this day of Pentecost he was chosen to burn the incense. Why this particular year?

The Timing of Zacharias’ Revelation

Zacharias was chosen for the third lot at Pentecost of 3 B.C., telling him that he would have a son in the next year. John was thus born around Passover in 2 B.C. This was 532 years (7 x 76) since the end of the Babylonian captivity, when the first immigrants prepared to return to the old land.

Seventy-six is the number of cleansing. The first 76-year cycle (534-458 B.C.) was necessary to cleanse the land in order to renew the calendar and start the “clock” with Daniel’s 70-weeks. In 534 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia issued his edict allowing all deported people to return to their original land (Ezra 1:1). Seventy-six years later, in 458, King Artaxerxes issued a second decree allowing Jerusalem to be rebuilt (Ezra 7:11), and this is the decree that began the seventy-week countdown to 33 A.D.

From 534-458 was the first of seven 76-year cycles. When the final time of cleansing ended in 2 B.C., first John and then Jesus were born.

The Angelic Appearance

Luke 1:10, 11 says,

10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.

To get the full sense of awe that Zacharias experienced, we must look at the actual order of events in the ceremony that he was called to perform. He who was chosen to burn incense was to pick two assistants to accompany him. As Zacharias approached the altar of incense, no doubt he prayed from Psalm 141:2, “May my prayer be counted as incense before Thee.” Edersheim tells us,

“The incensing priest and his assistants now approached first the altar of burn-offering. One filled with incense a golden censor held in a silver vessel, while another placed in a golden bowl burning coals from the altar. As they passed from the court into the Holy Place, they struck a large instrument (called the ‘Magrephah’), at sound of which the priests hastened from all parts to worship, and the Levites to occupy their places in the service of song; while the chief of the ‘stationary men’ ranged at the Gate of Nicanor such of the people as were to be purified that day.

“Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place, preceded by the two priests who had formerly dressed the altar and the candlestick, and who now removed the vessels they had left behind, and, worshipping, withdrew. Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense; and then the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place, to await the signal of the president before burning the incense.

It was probably while thus expectant that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias. As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come’, ‘the whole multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court, and fell down before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer.” [p. 166, 167]

We see, then, that the angel appeared in the period of silence while the multitude in the outer court were bowing with their hands spread in silent prayer. It is the same time of silence depicted prophetically in Revelation 8:1-5 when the angel is seen offering incense in the temple of heaven.

Edersheim also gives us the prayers offered by the priests and people at the time of the incense offering:

“True it is that Thou art Jehovah our God, and the God of our fathers; our King and the King of our fathers; our Saviour and the Saviour of our fathers; our Maker and the Rock of our salvation; our Help and our Deliverer. Thy name is from everlasting, and there is no God beside Thee. A new song did they that were delivered sing to Thy name by the sea-shore; together did all praise and own Thee as King, and say, Jehovah shall reign who saveth Israel….”

This prayer refers to the song of deliverance that Israel sang at the shore of the Red Sea after Pharaoh’s army was thrown into the sea. In that song, we read in Exodus 15:2,

2 The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation [Yeshua]; This is my God, and I will praise Him; my father’s God, and I will extol Him.

The song prophesies of Yeshua, Jesus Christ. So it is only fitting that as they prayed that day, Zacharias was receiving an angelic visitation, announcing the soon-coming birth of his son who would be the forerunner of Yeshua, the “salvation” who “is my God.”

To be continued

This is part 1 of a mini-series titled "Luke's account of Zacharias." To view all parts, click the link below.

Luke's account of Zacharias

This is part 2 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke

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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones

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