And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to the, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”Luke 1:18-25
To Err is Human…
Zechariah has already been described in glowing terms. He and his wife were said to be positionally righteous in the sight of God and walking morally blameless in reference to the commandments of God. Sometimes we read about men in the scriptures like Zechariah and immediately feel less than. That feeling may be the grace of God in our lives, prodding us on to repentance and sanctification. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that Zechariah, and men like him in the scriptures, are a different breed of human. Usually, God’s Spirit reveals the true nature of God’s pilgrim people. Look at Luke 1:20 and you’ll notice this servant of God has a chink in his armor too.
The famous reformer, Martin Luther popularized a Latin phrase that I find to be incredibly helpful. “Simul justus et peccator” is Luther’s phrase in Latin and it means to communicate that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners. This idea wasn’t a protestant invention. Luther saw this strange phenomenon in both the scriptures and in personal experience. Zechariah was on the one hand righteous before God and simultaneously a sinner on the other hand. How was Zechariah a sinner? Gabriel announced the good news of an answered prayer for a son who would be a great man and prophet of God, but Zechariah would temporarily suffer as a mute “because (he) did not believe”.
Unbelief is a sin (Rom 14:23). This saint of God didn’t lose his standing before God, because his standing before God wasn’t based upon his own goodness. True saints of God are made by God’s grace apart from their own merits. This is good news because the assurance of our salvation is able to be found despite our own unworthiness. Your righteous standing before God is an objective reality outside yourself. All Christian people saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone are not assured of that salvation as long as they do not sin. We are like Zechariah. We are simultaneously saints (righteous in the sight of God) and sinners.
Learning the Hard Way…
Luke includes the details of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s old age for at least two reasons. First, this seems to be a catalyst for the priest’s unbelief. Second, the detail helps us to see the natural improbability of this couple having a child. The phrasing of Zechariah reminds me of another birth announcement that was met with unbelief. In Genesis 18 God visited Abraham and Sarah to announce they would have a child in their old age. When Sarah heard this announcement she laughed to herself and thought “I am worn out, and my (husband) is old, shall I have pleasure?”. Sarah has pointed out the obvious physical problem that was seemingly insurmountable. God assured Abraham and Sarah with a reminder of His infinite power. Zechariah knew this story and ought to have applied its truths, but instead, he responded like Sarah. “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years”, the priest said.
Gabriel’s response was to cause Zechariah to be unable to speak until the fulfillment of God’s plan for the elderly couple. What would Elizabeth’s husband do now? My guess is that he went home and made signs with his hands, drew in the dirt, or wrote on a tablet exactly what Gabriel said and did to him. I can’t help but humorously imagine that Elizabeth laughed too, but thinking her husband was trying to pull a fast one. No matter how the couple’s conversation was actually resolved isn’t really our concern. However, what is important for us not to miss is the fact that Zechariah learned to believe and obey because Elizabeth became pregnant.
If you are anything like me, learning the easy way doesn’t come naturally. I feel like I am a living testimony to the truth of Martin Luther’s famous phrase “simul justus et peculator”. I am certainly a child of the King, saved by grace through faith. I am righteous in God’s sight because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to me (Rom 5:12-21). Although I am righteous I am simultaneously a sinner who often learns the hard way. Can you relate? God forbid that we, Christians, continue to willfully sin (Rom 6:1). No, we don’t imagine God’s saving grace to be an excuse to live unrighteously. However, we do struggle against our sinful inclinations in the way that Paul describes in Romans 7, hating the sin we find ourselves participating in and longing for the day of our deliverance from “this body of death”. My dear friend, we are saved by grace through faith, sanctified by grace through faith, and we persevere by grace through faith. “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).” Hallelujah.