Our generation is fascinated with angels. Google “angel” and you will find more than 60 million web pages. There always seems be a new book or a new TV show about angels.
We can’t say what angels look like, because they are spirits. They have no physical form, though, obviously, there were times when God gave them the ability to manifest themselves in human form when they appeared to Abraham and a host of others, including Zechariah here.
Sometimes, God has them to appear with wings, as they did to Isaiah & Ezekiel, but there they actually have six wings, not two (Isa. 6:2). In the Book of Revelation, we read about an angel “coming down from heaven, clothed with a cloud. And a rainbow was on his head, his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire” (Rev. 10:1).
By using the word “like” – it is a hint to us, that this description is teaching us something. Sometimes they are described having 4 different faces, and the image is really quite overwhelming, and it is not easy to picture.
I strongly doubt that the annual Christmas Pageant would attempt to duplicate a true Biblical picture of an angel. But isn’t it interesting that, in virtually every Christmas Pageant, angels are portrayed as cute little girls?
You might remember the once popular television show, ‘Touched By An Angel’, where the main character is an angel portrayed by an attractive woman. Or you might remember ‘Highway To Heaven’, where a handsome Michael Landon played an angel. All this is evidence of the fact that the world feels quite capable to create their own idea of religion, and to feel very comfortable with the result.
So we know that Angels are spirits – & very powerful & holy & incredibly knowledgeable. In just about every instance in the Bible where angels appear, they appeared to the very best of people – people like Zechariah here, who is described as a genuine believer in God – well instructed and upright “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” – and in just about every case, these best of people meet the angel with sheer dread.
We all know, cute little girls do not scare people. In some of the renaissance paintings, which show little girls with wings appearing to the Shepherds, you wonder, who is afraid of who. And yet, the biblical presentation of angels is that frequently they have to convince people not to be frightened by their presence.
And this was the case when Zacharias the priest was visited by the angel Gabriel. Zacharias is described as being “advanced in years” (1:7), meaning that he was probably considered to be among the most experienced & mature believers of his day.
And yet we see this very good man disciplined for his unbelief. And he becomes for us a striking example of the discipline a Christian may have to endure as the result of unbelief.
We are told that he and his wife “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years”. It was the appointed time for Zachariah “to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense” (1:8, 9). This was nothing out of the ordinary but it was an extremely special occasion for Zechariah, – most priests only had this privilege once and it came by drawing lots.
Zacharias got far more than he expected. Vs.11 – On this day “an angel of the Lord appeared to (Zacharias), standing to the right of the altar of incense” (1:11). And of course, he was like everyone else before him, very “troubled & and fear gripped him” (1:12). Gabriel calmed him and said, “Don’t be afraid . . . your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John” (1:13).
It is not likely he had been praying for a son, seeing he was of advanced age. It was more likely as Hughes says “he was praying for the redemption of Israel.” And Gabriel says Israel will be redeemed, and Zacharias will have a son, and he will be the “forerunner” of the Messiah. And he will prepare the way for Israel’s redemption (1:17).
Now this is great news. This is exactly what Zacharias wants to hear – or is it?’ Well instead of 3 cheers he has 3 doubts.
‘How shall I know this for certain? I am an old man? My wife is an old woman’ (1:18).
Let’s be fair. That does seem like a reasonable response. I would probably have a similar reply. But, as we see by the angel’s response, Zacharias’ question was regarded as totally inappropriate.
Spurgeon said, “here’s a man thoroughly schooled in sacred truth, who for many years instructed others in the oracles of God, and what a shame for him to say, ‘How can I be sure of this?’” He knows this is an angel. The angel says, “I stand in the presence of God” – so this is a message straight from the throne of God. And he should have known better.
For some of us, nothing would surprise us more than to know God has actually answered our prayers. Even when we say He has, there is some doubt in our mind as to whether it would have happened anyway.
We profess faith in God’s promises, but there are times when our faith is so weak that when the promise is delivered, we are astounded. Sometimes we are so inattentive, we don’t bother to acknowledge thanks.
So it should be of interest to us to see that Zacharias was physically disciplined for his unbelief. The angel answers Zacharias and says, in Vs.19 “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. 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”.
Now put yourselves, for the moment, in Zacharias’ shoes. We struggle with unbelief, don’t we? We are like the man who said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”(Mk. 9:24).
Think about what it would be like to be mute for more than 9 months. Unable to bless or instruct or rejoice with Elizabeth when she is suddenly pregnant. Surely, this was painful discipline. All because he doubted a promise from God.
Consider your reading of the Scriptures. It contains many promises from God—do you believe them? Or, are you like many who believe a few of the promises, but not all of the promises?
Friends, the lesson here for us is that it is a dangerous thing to harbour unbelief. It is a dangerous thing to doubt the truthfulness of God’s Word.
When Jesus visited Nazareth, we are told that He did very few miracles because of the unbelief of the people (Mk. 6:5,6). The Israelites could not enter the Promised Land because of unbelief. We may be quite unaware of God’s chastisement, but the Scripture confirms that God does indeed discipline His children for unbelief.
As we approach Christmas, familiar stories will be told and ancient promises will be repeated. I implore you: Believe them. Believe all of them. Believe them with all your heart. More than that, I encourage you to urge others to believe them. Act upon what you believe.
If we are unbelieving, then I believe in the love of God, and the Bible says, “As many as I love I chasten and rebuke.” Unbelief, makes us vulnerable to corrective discipline. Faith in God’s promises brings a Divinely bestowed peace and a joy that is beyond all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
I want that for us. I would have us all to be solid and unwavering. I would have us all to experience the fullness of joy at Christmas time. This is the best news in the world, and we ought to rejoice! Amen.