As Christians who are growing in the faith, we know that God has called us to join Him in His work of grace. What are some of the things that we do, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to further the Gospel? Devoted Christians pray, seek obedience to God, try to respond to situations as Jesus would do, love all people, and minister to people in Jesus' name. What are some of the things we could be doing, but we are not?
The messages we can find in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke are often overshadowed by the spectacular message of the birth of Christ that is described here. This lesson, however, will focus more on the experience of Zechariah, and the faithfulness that he demonstrated. In his life, Zechariah illustrates the very nature of faithfulness to God. What is necessary for us to exhibit such faithfulness to God in our lives?
1. Salvation. The very first step for any man is that of turning to God in faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6) because those who reject God will find no fellowship with Him. Jesus paid the penalty for sin that would separate man from God, and man can only turn to God on the basis of that event. It is only through faith in Christ that we are found blameless in the presence of Holy God. So, without exception, the very first step to faithfulness to God is to turn to God in saving faith.
2. Commitment. Salvation alone is not sufficient for living a life that is characterized by faithfulness. God has a purpose for those who turn to Him in faith, and that purpose involves a continual relationship with Him. Faithfulness is characterized by a consistent commitment to God as the highest authority in one's life. When one turns away from that commitment, they are no longer demonstrating faithfulness. One who is faithful is consistent in that faithfulness.
3. Self-Sacrifice. Accepting God as the authority in one's life involves surrendering to Him the role of Lord. It is natural to consider one's self to be the primary authority, but to maintain that attitude is to reject the Lordship of God. If one is, indeed, submitted to God as Lord, one is submitted to His calling and purposes. Those purposes involve demonstrating His love to others in ways that often involve self-sacrifice. A Christian who does not demonstrate self-sacrifice has not yet submitted to God's Lordship.
4. Prayer. True, heartfelt prayer is the primary means by which Christians discern the will of God in their lives. God hears the prayers of man, and is responsive because He loves them. Prayer for a faithful Christian is as natural as talking and thinking. God hears all of your words and thoughts, and through these one communicates with Him.
5. Listening to God's Spirit. Where prayer might be the mechanism for speaking to God, listening to the Holy Spirit is the mechanism for listening to Him. The Holy Spirit, given to each Christian as a seal of their commitment to Him, reveals the truth to those who listen. Often that truth is communicated simply through a peace of knowing that an issue is true and right. One has a peace about issues that are consistent with the Holy Spirit's purposes. One can communicate with God as freely as one would communicate with a close friend. A faithful Christian is characterized by such a prayer life.
What will happen in our lives when we make a commitment to be faithful to God? Those who live lives that are faithful to God have God-centered homes, they find themselves a part of God's plan and work, and they receive God's continuing blessing.
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.
Faithfulness comes from loving God
Tradition, and the opinion of most scholars, identify the writer of this gospel, and the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, to be the physician, Luke, who is often referred to in the New Testament as one of the early evangelists who worked with Paul. Most argue that Theophilus is a particular individual, however, since the Greek word, Theophilus means "lover of God," I would assert that Luke wrote this to those who love God as an open letter so that they would have a more accurate account of the Gospel than that which they might be hearing from others. Theophilus loves God in the unconditional manner of close family. Furthermore, Theophilus is characterized by faith, and one who is faithful is both encouraged and strengthened when certainty in theological issues is attained. When one loves God, their faith is strengthened when they see God work in their lives.
As the writer states, many were writing about the events surrounding the ministry of Jesus, and without first-hand knowledge, much of it was erroneous. Having worked in ministry so closely with Paul, and having such close association with the eleven apostles and Mary the mother of Jesus, Luke was in a position to provide an accurate account. The canon of scripture was formed from those documents which were deemed accurate and consistent with the doctrine and history of the faith. Of the documents that had been written, only the four gospels of the New Testament contained such consistent material. Because of this, the content of the gospels is reliable.
Luke presents us with a historical presentation of the life and ministry of the Savior, Jesus Christ. He begins with the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christ Child (literally meaning, Messiah Child) and the faithfulness of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We can find in Zechariah an example of how faithfulness is demonstrated in the life of one who truly loves God.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
Faithfulness comes from the heart
How are Zechariah (NIV) and Elizabeth (NIV) described? They had the best possible ancestry for the priesthood, and God saw them as righteous, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. We see two people who loved God, and they continually desired to honor God in their lives. They diligently seek to keep His word. Zechariah was a priest, one of many who rotated through times of service in the Temple. During Jesus' ministry He often encountered priests, scribes, and Pharisees who, like Zechariah, thought they observed the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. What is the difference between Zechariah and those others? "God saw" Zechariah and Elizabeth as "righteous." Their faith in Him was sincere. Their righteous acts were done for and before God, not before men. Though faithful to the Law, their love was for God. They were open to His purposes in their lives.
And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
Faithfulness is not based upon circumstances
What were the consequences of a couple who had no children in their society? Barrenness was considered God's punishment for their sin, or the sin of one of their ancestors. Consequently, they would receive little respect from others. Also, there would be no children to receive their inheritance and blessing. They saw their future through the lives of their children, so without children, their influence would die with them. Zechariah and Elizabeth. demonstrated faithfulness to God, despite their disappointment. It would appear that they did not blame God for their barrenness.
Have you ever experienced disappointment in your life? Have you been tempted to use that disappointment as a reason to compromise your faithfulness? One example might be to cut back on your giving to the church when you are disappointed with what the church is doing with it. It would be easy to get into an, "I will serve you if…" theology. People do this all the time, particularly when in the middle of a disappointing circumstance. They say, "God if you will get me out of this I will …" Is this what God considers faithfulness? We see in Zechariah and Elizabeth a faithfulness that is not diminished by circumstances, but is based upon a decided and consistent commitment to God.
What do you base your faithfulness on? Is your giving based upon how much money is left over after all other expenses have been paid? Is the time you give to God that time that is left over when you have done all of the other things that you want? Is your faithfulness based upon gratifying experience? Or is your faithfulness to God simply a faith that comes from loving Him, a faith that is not impacted by circumstance?
Faithfulness is patient
We also see that Zechariah's faithfulness is illustrated by his patience. Zechariah did not give up when a child was not born in his youth. Zechariah continued to pray even now in his advanced years. Faithfulness understands that events that God works in our lives transpire on His time table, and not on our own. One would not give a chain saw to a preschooler. Like a child who must wait to grow before he can have that complex or dangerous toy, we may have to wait until we are prepared for God's application of our own desires in our lives. We may simply have to wait in order to be in synch with God's purposes. This was what Zechariah experienced.
A fine discipleship training course written by Henry Blackaby is entitled, "Experiencing God," and the main point of his advice involves discovering what God is doing and joining Him in His work, rather than trying to get God to bless our work and join with us in the direction of our choosing. To join with God necessitates our knowing God's will. Finding God's will requires spending more time in prayer, and listening to God's Spirit within you as you seek to find where God wants you. This often involves waiting.
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah 40:31 ).
What does it mean to "wait upon the Lord"? This verse follows words of encouragement that God will strengthen and prepare his faithful followers for service. The word "wait," is more literally, "wait in hope." This involves waiting on the promises of God in the hope of their fulfillment. We will find that God chose to reward Zechariah's patient faithfulness in a way that he and Elizabeth never could have imagined.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, 9According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
When the nation of Israel was formed upon entering the promised land, one tribe, the tribe of Levi, did not inherit land. Instead, they were to be the priests who would serve God by serving the people in religious matters. The remaining eleven tribes were commanded to tithe to the temple to support the Levites. Consequently, because of this organization, there were a tremendous number of priests. A priest would be chosen by lot to enter into the chamber of incense, a privilege experienced only once or twice in their life. Most priests never experienced temple service. The area where the incense is burned is in the Holy Place, one wall away from the Holy of Holies. The priest would enter the chamber alone, with the people assembled outside in the Outer Court. While Zechariah was preparing the incense and presenting his petitions for the people, the worshippers were also praying. One would think that if any miracle were to take place at this time it would be related to the nation, not to Zechariah himself.
And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. 16And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Faithfulness is characterized by prayer
Zechariah certainly received quite a shock when he was supposed to be alone. An angel appeared to him in the Holy Place. Most likely, Gabriel did not look like movie actor John Travolta with wings, but like a plain person in bright raiment. Wings and halos were assigned to traditional angels during the 15th- and 16th-century period of the Mediterranean Renaissance and portrayed in its works of art. Knowing that no other person could enter the room with him, the angel presence of the angel frightened Zechariah, prompting God's messenger to first say, shalom, be at peace, do not fear.
In addition to being a man of faith, we see here that Zechariah was a man of prayer. Obviously, within this context we see God's response to a specific prayer, the prayer concerning his desire for a child. How long did Zechariah persist in this prayer? We are not sure of the age of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but in verse 18, Zechariah refers to himself as an "old man," and he identifies that Elizabeth is well-past child bearing years. What kind of patience do we have when desiring to receive something from God? Often I desire to see those lost friends of mine to come to faith. How long should that process take? I want it to happen tomorrow, but it will simply take as long as it takes. God does not work in my time frame; He works from His plan as He desires. In the events surrounding Zechariah's life, there was great purpose in God's timing as he would use it to reward Zechariah's faith in a unique and powerful way.
Faithfulness prepares us to receive God's blessing at our point of need
The angel pronounced that Zechariah would have a son. However, this son would be special from birth. What was that specialty? He would be brought up, some argue, under the vow of a Nazirite (Num. 6:18, a vow similar to that taken by Samson). Though this is not specifically mentioned here, the command does identify that the child would lead a holy, separated life. He was to be set apart for God's purpose. How do you think the faithful Zechariah would respond to hear that his son would be a joy and delight, one who would bring people to God, the one who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah? How would Christian parents of young children respond to a similar description of the future of their children? Would you want your child to be a joy and delight to the Lord, one who would turn many people to God? For a man like Zechariah, the pronouncement of his son was wonderful enough, but the nature of his son would bless him even more.
A very unique description of John is that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth (vs. 15). It is the very nature of man to be born in sin, without the indwelling Holy Spirit, separated from God until he/she turns to God in faith and receives the Him. John would have the full power and resources of God as he grew from a child and moved towards the ultimate purpose that God had for him.
Zechariah prayed over his desire for a son, and waited many years to see the prayer answered as he desired. Look how God answered the faithfulness of that prayer. The child would be born, and would be very special to God. When we are faithful, God can reward that faithfulness by answering our prayers in a way that is beyond our wildest imagination. We should continue to pray, without regard to whether or not we see an answer, or whether or not we see the answer that we desire. We are called to simply pray persistently in faith.
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings. 20And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
Faithfulness does not imply perfection.
What was Zechariah's actual response to the message from the angel? It is encouraging to know that Zechariah was a simple, real person. Zechariah doubted the angel to the point of arguing with him. How could Zechariah doubt the angel's words? We speak of Zechariah as being faithful, but still, he is not perfect. Like us, we sometimes have a hard time accepting what sounds unrealistic. Gabriel's response was firm. First, he identified himself by name. Recall that in their society, a name represented the character of the person. Gabriel means "strong man of God," and by voluntarily revealing his name, he was emphasizing his character, and establishing the dignity of who he is. He repeated that he was from God, sent to Zechariah to give him this good news. When God speaks, we can respond in faith, or in doubt. When we feel the spirit of God pulling on our heart, and we hear the quiet and sure message, "I want you to (fill in the blank)," how do we typically respond? Do we overwhelm the message with doubts, with statements like, "Surely, not me… I can't do that sort of thing," and then list all manner of rationalizations to convince ourselves that God's message is not relevant? Like Zechariah we find ourselves arguing with God. Who is going to always lose that argument? God is honored and glorified when his children act in faith without doubts or objection. When we respond to God's promises in doubt, we are dishonoring God, and are doubting God's very character.
How can we deal with doubts? One way that doubts can be dispelled comes from a long-term investment in a commitment to faithfulness. When we are faithful, we will experience events in our lives that serve as milestones. When we look back on those milestones, our faith is strengthened, and when we face another need, we can be more confident that God will still be faithful.
Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. 59And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him (Luke 1:57-66).
Faith praises God for what He has done.
What did Zechariah do upon the birth of his son? He praised God. His family and friends had demonstrated interest in this unusual birth, one made unusual by the age of the parents, by the visitation of the angel, and by the very strange and exciting prophesy the angel brought. They knew that God's hand was in these circumstances. Everyone expected that the child would be named Zechariah after his father and referred to him by that name. Elizabeth insisted that the name was to be John. At the 8th-day circumcision, Zechariah settled the dispute by writing in the tablet that the name would be John. Immediately, the curse of muteness was lifted, and Zechariah could speak, and spoke aloud the words that he wrote. The first word of Zechariah's prophesy that follows this passage is "Benedictus" in Latin, hence this is the name of this particular poem. Zechariah praised God for the deliverance He would provide through the coming Messiah, and rejoiced in John's role in that deliverance. He knew that John would be the one to prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah, and consequently, this assured him that the coming was imminent.
Israel had just experienced 400 years of spiritual darkness. 400 Years prior, the temple was destroyed and the pillar of fire that had been over the temple for 1200 departed over the mountain, over the clouds, and was seemingly gone forever. It would never again come down and consume the sacrifice. The sacrificial system lost its power to convict people of God's presence, and hence its power to provide forgiveness. The pillar of fire did not come back until there were shepherd in their fields watching over their flocks by night when the Angel of the Lord appeared to them and the Glory of the Lord shown round about them and they were scared out of their sandals. Zechariah knew that the period of silence was over, because He personally received the first visitation in 400 years. How would you respond if you knew that the second coming of the Lord was imminent. We have waited over 2000 years, during which time there has been no need for new prophesy or revelation. What would you do if an angel of the Lord came to you and told you that Jesus was returning within the next few years? What would you do if you had such a special revelation? Would you change your lifestyle?
From the experience of Zechariah we see several characteristics of faithfulness that we can continue to develop in our own lives.
Faithfulness is Patient. True faith waits upon the Lord; to avoid getting ahead of His plan by substituting our own. Faith listens to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit as He communicates His unique message to each of us. God works in our lives in many ways, and in His own time.
Faithfulness is characterized by Prayer. True faith never fails to pray persistently for those things that we feel are important to us, and important to God's work.
Faithfulness Prepares us to receive God's blessing at our Point of need. True faith places us in the position where God can use us, allowing us to receive the blessings from God that He intends.
Faithfulness does not imply Perfection. True faith does not mean we may still have to work through doubts. We can, when we trust God, work through those doubts that inevitably arise when we do not see what we expect from our prayers. God is not honored by doubt. Rather, it is a rebellious way we can argue with God that He does not know what He is doing.
Faith Praises God for what He has done. Faith is ready to praise God when we see Him at work in our lives and in the lives of others. We can develop a sensitivity to seeing God's impact on the world and use it as an opportunity to praise God before other people and to affirm our identity with Him.
We may not receive the same kind of news from the LORD that Zechariah and Elizabeth received, but any work that God does in our lives is no less important. Let us commit our hearts to the LORD so that we will be in a position to reap the blessings that God has promised to those who place their faith in Him.