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 Rev. 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.”
When the angel appeared to Zacharias as he burned the incense in the temple, he was obviously surprised, Luke 1:12 says,
12 And Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear gripped him.
In those days the people always waited anxiously outside of the temple, hoping that the priest would not be killed for some impurity or some careless act. So when the angel appeared, Zacharias thought the angel was there to kill him. This is the reason that “fear gripped him.”
13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The incense represented the prayers of the people, many of whom prayed for the coming of the Messiah. The angel came to answer those prayers, as well as the prayer of Zacharias, who desired a son. But before the Messiah could come, a forerunner was needed to prepare the way before Him.
John was a Nazirite
This promised son was to be a Nazirite, according to the law in Num. 6:2-5.
2 … When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the Lord, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes… 5 All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.
Most Nazirites took such a vow of separation for a short season, but John was to be a Nazirite all his life. The meaning of a Nazirite vow seems to have a connection to being filled with the Holy Spirit. In that it is a time of “separation” (nezer), it was like being separated and consecrated to the priesthood.
Only consecrated priests were allowed to go into the Holy Place to minister. As such the Holy Place represented Pentecost, even as the outer court represented Passover, and the Most Holy Place represented the feast of Tabernacles. Nazirites, being consecrated to God, were thus the equal of priests, even if they were not descended from Aaron or even of Levi. Jesus’ brother James was of Judah and was also a Nazirite, and history tells us that he was allowed access to the Holy Place in the temple.
“He [James] alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like camel’s…. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II, xxiii]
Therefore, John too, as a Nazirite, was given continual access to the Holy Place in the temple. Yet we find later that he chose to minister in the wilderness.
The Spirit and Power of Elijah
The angel also told Zacharias that his son would minister “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” quoting two passages from the book of Malachi. First, Mal. 3:1 says,
1 Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me…
The rest of the verse speaks of Christ coming to His temple. Hence, the verse speaks first of the messenger and then Christ, who did indeed come suddenly and unexpectedly to His temple in John 7:10-14.
The other passage that the angel referenced was Mal. 4:5, 6,
5 Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.
In his well-known showdown with the prophets of Baal, Elijah himself had prayed in 1 Kings 18:37,
37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O Lord, art God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again.
The problem was that John was killed, his message rejected, and in this way he was the forerunner in death of the Messiah Himself. It would thus require a second coming of “Elijah” as well as of Christ in order to fulfill the promise of God.
It is also important to notice that the angel did not say that John would actually be Elijah reincarnated nor Elijah who would descend from heaven. He came “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” that is, having the same ministry or continuing where Elijah left off. This is made clear in John 1:19-21,
19 And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” …. 20 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” [referring to the one like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18] And he answered, “No.”
John was not Elijah himself but was a man like him who had been called to continue the ministry of Elijah. Our revelation in recent years has been that this is actually akin to Elisha, who was the first to continue where Elijah left off. John was a forerunner to Christ’s first appearance, but there is a greater forerunner ministry today, not of a single man but of a body of people, functioning in the spirit of Elijah yet with the double portion of Elisha. Only this double portion can complete the preparation for Christ’s second coming by truly turning the hearts of the people by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, before Christ’s second coming we must see a world-wide outpouring of the Holy Spirit to prepare the way before Him.
At any rate, the angel identified the son of Zacharias with the one who would prepare the way before Christ. It is clear now that his ministry would be limited, because he would seem to fail in turning the hearts of the priests who were in authority over Judea, as well as the king (Herod). He was destined to die, even as Christ was destined to die, giving the appearance of failure, and yet fulfilling the prophecies inherent in the sacrifices.
Luke 1:18-20 continues,
18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time.”
Elijah’s ministry was shortened because he ran in fear from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3). God then told him to anoint Elisha to replace him (1 Kings 19:16). Elisha’s ministry completed Elijah’s. So also Zacharias’ doubt foreshadowed John’s doubt while he was in prison. Luke 7:18, 19 says,
18 And the disciples of John reported to him about all these things. 19 And summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?”
Though John was the greatest of the prophets up to that time, Jesus said in Luke 7:28, the plan of God called for him to be succeeded by one greater than he, one with a double anointing to complete the preparation ministry.
We are thus fortunate in our time, for we are called to prepare the way for the second coming of Christ. We are to be given a double anointing to complete this ministry. I believe we will indeed see the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit in world history before the second coming of Christ.
In Luke 1:19 the angel finally identifies himself as Gabriel in answer to Zacharias’ question about his ability to produce a son in his old age. The angel’s name comes from the Hebrew word geber, “strong man,” which in turn is derived from the root word gabar, “to prevail, have strength, be strong, be powerful, be mighty.” In other words, when Zacharias asked “How can this be?” the angel said, “I am Gabriel.” Zacharias would have understood this to mean, “I am strong enough to fulfill this word.”
Many people today call upon angels to help them in difficult situations. It is common for some to search for the most powerful angels they can find to help them with their most difficult problems, as if some angels are stronger than others by virtue of their rank. But the fact is, even the weakest angel (if there are any weak angels) is capable of handling the worst of our problems. Whenever an angel is sent to assist us, the word of God is in that angel, as well as all the power necessary to fulfill its mission.
Gabriel had appeared twice to Daniel. The first time was in Dan. 8:16, when Gabriel was told to give the prophet understanding about the beast nations of Media and Persia (Dan. 8:20) that were yet to arise. The second occasion was after Daniel had prayed his prayer for national repentance at the end of the seventy years in Babylon. In Dan. 9:21 Gabriel appeared to the prophet to tell him about the seventy weeks of years (i.e., 70 x 7 years) leading to the Messiah and His work. In each case, Gabriel’s name indicates the strength to fulfill those prophecies, as history subsequently proved.
Luke 1:21 continues,
21 And the people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple.
No doubt some were becoming anxious, wondering if he might have been killed by God. Obviously, this shows that the angelic visit took some time, and Luke’s record is sketchy.
The Blessing Not Given
22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute.
Normally, the priest who had offered the incense came out of the temple and pronounced the blessing from Num. 6:24-26,
24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 The Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; 26 The Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.
This blessing in Numbers 6 follows the law of the Nazirite, so it is obvious that Gabriel links the two passages. But on this occasion, the blessing was not spoken, because Zacharias was mute. Zacharias had questioned Gabriel’s ability to bring about the promise, and the result was that the blessing was withdrawn from the people. This foreshadowed the fact that John’s ministry would fail to prepare the way fully for the Messiah, and that the Messiah would fail to receive the scepter of the Kingdom in His first appearance.
Instead, He would fulfill the feast of Passover by His death on the cross, the wave-sheaf offering by His resurrection and presentation to the Father, and Pentecost when the Spirit was sent to the church. The Spring feasts were fulfilled, but not the Autumn feasts, which included the feast of Tabernacles.
The blessing that Zacharias did not give to the people stated in part, “The Lord make His face shine on you,” and “The Lord lift up His countenance on you.” These blessings speak of the face of God shining in our face, as seen with Moses when he came off the mount with His face shining (Exodus 34:29). This is the blessing of the glorified body, seen also when Jesus was transfigured in Matt. 17:2.
We see this prophetic promise repeated in Psalm 80:3,
3 O God restore, and cause Thy face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.
Hence, the promise of Tabernacles, the full salvation of God, was withheld from the people in the first appearance of Christ. It remains, then, for us to see this promise fulfilled when the words of the Apostle Paul are fulfilled in 1 Cor. 15:51, 52,
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery [secret]; we shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet….
The forerunners of Christ in His second appearance will succeed in their mission of turning the hearts of the people. The Spirit of God will be poured out in a mighty way in the days ahead. We will not become mute but will speak the blessing of God upon all flesh, and we will see the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles as the sons of God are manifested to the world.