Music playing Where is God in the middle of the mess that is my life? That was surely the concern of the Israelites as God was seemingly silent for hundreds of years. And today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg shows us how God was and is always at work.
Music playing I wanted you to turn again to the Gospel of Luke and to chapter 1. I'm sure that every young person has a day in their life that they imagine, if it could ever, ever happen, just one event, just for one chance, one opportunity to do this single thing. For some who are in the realm of academics, it may be the opportunity to present a paper or to win an award. For others, and for many, it will probably have to do with some musical or sporting event.
And certainly as a small boy growing up, playing soccer in Scotland, you dreamt of the possibility of ever being able to pull on the shirt of your country and represent your country. For some of you, it's standing on a baseball mound, it's standing on a high dive board in an Olympic event. For whatever reason, our minds play with these things. And it is a part of youthful wonder. It would have been no different from the man who is in the very focus of this morning's study. Growing up in a priestly family, he would be anticipating that there would come a day that would be the most important day of his life. And what we find here in the portion of Scripture before us is that this day comes, and it is not simply the most important day of his life, but it proves to be the most important moment of his life.
In order that you might have an idea of where we're heading, let me tell you that I'm going to gather my thoughts around four simple headings. The king, the priest, the angel, the people. The king, the priest, the angel, the people.
First of all, then, the king. Verse 5, in the time of Herod, king of Judea. You may recall we said that Luke was the one gospel writer who was concerned to intersect the biblical truth, not only with the events of Palestine, but also with the framework of the Roman jurisdiction. And we see this right from the commencement of his gospel. He sets the events before us within the framework of ongoing secular history. Many of you who are young people here today will be wondering, does the Bible really intersect with the real world? Did these events happen in the real time?
And the answer, of course, is yes. And Luke's narrative is set somewhere between 37 and 4 B.C. And what we find in the gospel record is more than amplified in the work of a writer like Josephus, the Jewish historian, and indeed, Octavius, the Roman historian. And in the reading of those parallel treatments, which is something that one has to do in the studying of church history, we discover that Herod was a piece of work.
Indeed, Josephus describes him ultimately as follows. First of all, that this king was a capable king. He was a capable king in terms of his military strategy, his oratorical ability, and his subtle diplomacy. Added to that, he was a masterful builder, and he left his stamp upon the precincts of Jerusalem in a number of structures which began to dominate the skyline.
Not least of all, in a rebuilt Jerusalem temple. So to say that he was anything other than manifestly capable is to do the king a great disservice. But he was not simply capable. He was actually crafty.
Indeed, crafty is almost too kind a word to use. Jesus referred to this king's son—that is, Herod Antipas—as that fox. And the son of this man was a wily character.
And the fact is, like son, like father. He was not above the use and abuse of any of his ten wives as a means of establishing his status or establishing control. And Herod, in his craftiness, was a masterful cover-up expert. He was, if you like, in 37 BC, a forerunner of Houdini—capable, crafty, and cruel. Cruel in the extreme, as, of course, we're about to see when his cruelty burst its banks in ordering the death of all these tiny boys because he is paranoid about the prospect of this announcement of the king of the Jews coming to take over his throne, His jealousy led to the murder of his brother-in-law Aristobulus.
He had him drowned on a swimming party. It led to the murder of his wife Mary Ann, whom he suspected of infidelity, but he was more concerned about the threat to his throne. It led to the murder of his mother-in-law and to three of his twelve sons. In other words, you couldn't think of this man Herod. You couldn't think of his rulership without it being absolutely impregnated by all kinds of deception and all kinds of destruction. It was said that it was far safer to be Herod's pig than to be Herod's son.
The pig had more of a prospect of living a long and prosperous life than any of the sons brought up in the home of this king. Now, when you think of this for a moment, we realize that at a time of political chaos, with a leader who was capable, crafty, and cruel, God was still at work. When the people of God were in the experience of silence in hearing from God, when they found themselves pressured by the surrounding political circumstances of the day, when they were tempted to look at the king in all of his crafty, cruelty capability, and tempted to say, you know, we are lost and trapped, God was still at work.
He always has been, and he always is. As Mary was about to sing in verse 50 of the opening chapter, his mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. What possible significance, I ask you, could there be in the lives of this elderly couple who were childless? Do you think for a moment that there was any significance in this rather insignificant character and his barren wife? Do you remember in the past when Naaman, in all of his finery, with his limousine, finds himself at the home of the man of God? He is there, not as a result of God coming to him in the palace directly, but as a result of God being at work in the broom closet with this little servant girl. And I want to remind you this morning, because many of you are bedeviled by the fact that you feel yourselves to be in this very framework, under the domination of one who is crafty, capable, and cruel. And you're saying to yourself, is God anywhere in all of this?
And the answer is yes. And he comes in the most unexpected ways to some of the most unlikely people in order to forward his purpose. None of the events of Herod's reign took God by surprise. And in all of the political ebb and flow, God was bringing down the rulers from their thrones, and he was lifting up the humble. So when men and women are tempted to look at the king and at the rulership, the chances are we're looking in the absolutely wrong direction. So from the king to the priest. There was a priest named Zachariah. We don't really know much else about him. In verse 39, we know that he came from the hill country. In other words, he didn't have a large city center parish. He wasn't overseeing a flourishing suburban ministry.
He was one of a large number of individuals. The priestly function was divided into twenty-four divisions. The division of Abijah was the eighth.
Each of these divisions, as we discover, were divided up in such a way that they went on duty for one week twice a year. This particular character had the advantage of marrying the daughter of a priest. It wasn't demanded, but it was desirable. And he had married this lady Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. As a couple, verse 6 says that they were pious, which was very good. Namely, they were righteous, they were blameless, they were serving God faithfully. But they were childless, verse 7, and that in itself was very sad. In the King James Version, it says they were stricken in years.
And the reason that that little piece of information is provided is to make the point that not only were they childless, but from a human perspective, they could expect absolutely no change in their circumstances. So here we have the priest, a devout man with a devout wife, living a devout life, one of some eighteen thousand priests who were functioning at that time. Because there were so many priests, there were not enough duties to go around. And so, Luke tells us that they cast lots, verse 9, in order to see who would be responsible for the performance of each function.
God is seen to be sovereign over this event. And of all the assigned tasks, none was greater than the offering of incense. Now, in order to understand just how significant this was, you need to realize that once a priest had been assigned to the offering of incense, he could never do it again in the whole of his life. And indeed, it was such that many priests went through the whole of their activities, never ever once being granted the opportunity of this most significant event.
Let me try and picture the scene along with you. Zechariah, having been entrusted with the responsibility of burning the incense, would have proceeded towards the golden altar with two assistants. One of the assistants would have a golden bowl in which he had placed hot coals from the altar of the burned offering. The assistant would then proceed in the company of the other two, and he would take these hot coals, and he would place them on the altar of incense.
Once that had been done, the two assistants would withdraw and would leave the priest, the designated offer of incense for that day, alone, as close to the presence of God as any person other than the high priest might ever come in all of their life. Now, it's hard for us living as we do distance from this kind of thought form to understand the dramatic significance that is wrapped up in this event, but try if you can. For Zechariah, this was not simply to be the most important day of his life, but he was proceeding towards the most important moment in all of his life, and everything in his expectation led up to this. And as the time dawned, and as the men departed, and as the signal was given, he would then offer this incense, pouring it onto these warm coals, and the aroma would arise, at least in terms of symbolism to heaven, and would mingle with the prayers of the priest.
And as a result of that, he would then have had a unique opportunity. Now, while there is much that is obviously wondrous and awesome about it, in the same way that each of us, in the experiencing of one of these moments, engages in whatever it is, perhaps as a pilot, and some of you are pilots here this morning, some event that you enjoyed, and you were responsible for making sure that everybody landed safely, you were responsible for the instrumentation, you were responsible for the air traffic control, you were responsible for a myriad of things, and your mind was processing all of that, but at the same time, in a little section of your mind, you were saying, I can't wait to tell my wife. And that would be exactly what was taking place here for this man Zachariah, because his wife was a partner with him in it all. And in his mind, in this dramatic experience, he would be saying, I can't wait till I get home and let Elizabeth know, because she only knew that it was his week of service. She didn't know that he had been called to this position.
She did not know that he was there in that moment. And while he was there, verse 10 says, the worshipers were praying outside. Now, just when it couldn't get any more dramatic than that, it did. So from the king to the priest to the angel. Verse 11. Then an angel of the LORD appeared to him.
Notice, there's no description of his appearance, mercifully. The Bible is very guarded about most of these things. Whenever you find people telling you what the explanation is for that which is not disclosed in the Bible, you ought to be very wary. And so many of the books on angels have to do with a closed Bible and a fertile imagination.
The Bible has a decorum to it in relationship to these things. So there's no description, but there is an immediate reaction. And when Zachariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. Now, for those of you who know your Bibles, you will recognize that that is the standard response to the appearance of an angel. All of a sudden, there's a strong, holy, dazzlingly brilliant angel standing beside you. And you might say to yourself, well, I just say, good morning, angel, or good afternoon, or hey, nice to see you, shining one, but the fact is you wouldn't, and neither would I.
You would be completely paralyzed because of the inrush of this individual. When Mary sees the angel come, she is greatly troubled, it says. When the shepherds are aware of the arrival of the angel, it says they were terrified.
And so, small wonder that this man who thinks he has had just about all there is to have of this dramatic moment suddenly turns around and is confronted by not only this shining person but also by his quite staggering declaration. First of all, he says to him, Do not be afraid, Zachariah. It's interesting that that's kind of one of the angel songs, isn't it? And any time you find angels arriving, they're always going, hey, do not be afraid. No wonder they say it first, because everybody is afraid. Hey, Mary, don't be afraid.
Okay, fine, I'll try. Shepherds, don't be afraid. Well, all right, easy for you to say, angel, but we'll give it our best shot. And now, Zachariah, I don't want you to be afraid. No, that's okay, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'll be okay.
No, I'm okay, yeah, no, no, no, no, I'm fine. In fact, if you read your Bible, it's staggering how many times the Lord, by himself, by his servant, by his angel, tells people not to be afraid. I didn't do the research, but I know that it's time after time after time after time, you will find God speaking to people throughout all of history, just saying one phrase, I don't want you to be afraid.
Why? Because he knows our tendency to fear. He knows the fact of our fears. He knows we're fearful about illness. He knows we're fearful about the future. He knows our fears and our concerns. That's why he comes to us and says, Now, don't be afraid. And sure, our answer is, Oh yes, that's easy for you to say, yes, but let us not miss the point that the very word he speaks is a power-giving word when we receive it in faith. He says, I don't want you to be afraid, because your prayer's been heard. Now, think about that for just a moment. Zechariah has gone for the one moment in time, goes in, offers the incense, says his prayer, and boom, there's an angel who says, Your prayer is here. You say, What? So soon?
Yes. What do you think he was praying for? If this was a class, I'd ask you to put up your hands if you think he was praying for a son. Then I'd ask you to put your hands down and say, Who thinks he was praying for something else?
And we go through that whole business, but we don't have time. The fact is, I think he was praying for the salvation of Israel. I don't think he was praying for a son. It would have been downright selfish. And after all, remember, he was stricken with age. You know, his wife might have had a bit of zip left in her, but he was pretty well finished. So, you know, as faithful as he may have been, of the one thing you might have said to him, What do you expect for your Christmas?
You know, it wouldn't be a son, you know. So, I think the idea that he was there praying for a son, and then the angel said, Hey, you're going to have a son. He goes, Whoa, hey, good stuff. No, and he's praying for the salvation of Israel. Oh, Lord, send the ruler of your people Israel. Oh, God, come and speak to us. And suddenly, God comes, and the whole unfolding message of redemption is beginning to be answered before him.
Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son. Can you imagine how staggering that must have been? You know, if you'd said to him when he woke up that morning, Let's suppose an angel came to you and just said one thing. What is the most outlandish thing that an angel could ever say to you, Zachariah?
He probably would not even have included this on the list, because it is so far off the charts. The one thing people knew about Zachariah, beyond the fact that he was pious, that he was a priest, and that his wife was a nice lady, was that they were an elderly couple. They already could fly for reduced fares, and the fact was, they had no kids. And people used to say, There goes old Elizabeth again. She would have made a lovely mother.
But she doesn't have any kids. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son. And let me give you his name as well, says the angel. You're going to call him John.
Can you imagine him rubbing his eyes, shaking his head, going, Man, I lied. This is fantastic. I thought it was good enough doing the incense thing, but this is brilliant.
Keep going, man. What else have you got for me? Well, let me just tell you, he says, verse 14, he's going to bring you a lot of joy. Well, okay, that's normal for parents. But he's also going to be a delight, and the cause of delight, for many beyond his immediate circle. And he describes his destiny. He says, This child is going to be great in the Lord's sight. Great in the sight of the Lord. Think about that for a moment. Great in the sight of the Lord.
How is it possible to be great in the sight of the Lord? Imagine you've got a torch, a flashlight, and it's a big honking flashlight, you know, with those batteries that you can kill somebody with if you hit them over the head. You've got this big torch. You're really proud of it, you know, like, Hey, hey, where do you see this light?
Okay? But when you get to where you're going, somebody brought in one of those strobe lights that's just fantastic, and suddenly, your thing is like nothing before the grandeur of this light. You think you could be great before this light with this little pipsqueak thing? How are we great in the company of one another? As a result of our intelligence, as a result of our endeavors, as a result of our status, as a result of our money, as a result of our position. There we're great, you see.
Now I'm great, because I've done this, and I have this, and I went there, and I'm about this. And so we establish our greatness before one another. So what could you ever bring that would make you great in the sight of the Lord? See, he knows everything. He owns everything. He has everything. He made everything. There is nothing that we could ever bring that would be impressive in the sight of the Lord. And yet Jesus says, among those born of women, there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist. Whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not, God is always at work, sometimes in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.
He's always advancing his plan and his purpose. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life. Now the Advent season began this past weekend. It's a reflective time for all of us who are followers of Jesus as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas. If you haven't yet requested Sinclair Ferguson's Advent devotional, The Dawn of Redeeming Grace, it's not too late. Today is the last day you can ask for your copy when you give a donation to support the teaching you hear on this daily program.
Go to truthforlife.org slash donate. And as we know, Advent is a time of joyful expectation for those who trust in Christ. But for many of our friends and neighbors who don't know Christ, Christmas can be a time of disappointment.
They have oversized expectations for the holiday that permeate the culture and it leaves many of them feeling sad or empty. So today we want to make available to you a little book. It's just 60 pages long, but it's a book you can give to friends or neighbors. It's called The Four Emotions of Christmas.
This book explains why feelings of disappointment or stress or sadness can seem amplified at Christmas. And then the book redirects our unbelieving friends to the gospel, explaining who Jesus is, why he came, how he provides the peace and joy that many of them may find so elusive. And each book is just $1. So you can purchase multiple copies to give away to friends when you go to truthforlife.org slash gifts.
Maybe think about buying a dozen of these books and give them to friends along with a plate of cookies and an invitation to your church's Christmas Eve service. I'm Bob Lapine. What does God consider greatness to be? Does it involve wisdom or achievement or power? Find out as you listen tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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