Zacharias, a Prophetic Type
Issue No. 304
Luke is the 42nd book of the Bible. Israel had 41 camps under Moses prior to crossing the Jordan, and the 42nd camp was in the plains of Jericho under Joshua, a type of Christ. Luke, then, gives us the prophetic fulfillment, likening John the Baptist to Moses and Jesus to Joshua.
Luke 1:5 says,
5 In the days of Herod [“The Great”], king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
The story begins toward the end of Herod’s life with an account of a well-known and well-respected priest named Zacharias. This was the Greek form of the Hebrew name Zechariah, “Yahweh remembers.” Luke was suggesting that Yahweh had remembered His people by sending the Messiah and His forerunner.
The Divisions of Priests
Zacharias was of the division of Abijah. A thousand years earlier, King David had reorganized the priests by families and had created 24 “courses” of priests to minister for a week at a time in the temple. Each “course” or “division” ministered twice during the year, accounting for 48 weeks. The other four weeks in the year were at the time of the feasts when they all served as needed in the temple.
David’s reorganization program is recorded in 1 Chron. 24:3, 4. Sixteen priests were thus selected of the household of Eleazar, and eight from Ithamar, for a total of twenty-four. They are listed in order in verses 7-18. The eighth in the list was Abijah (1 Chron. 24:10).
Three centuries later, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and disrupted the entire priestly organization. After the captivity ended, not all of these priestly families returned to the land. In fact, only four priestly families returned (Neh. 7:39-42). Nehemiah 12 records the men who replaced them. Zichri carried on the family duty and continued to work the eighth division and was the ancestor of Zacharias.
The first division of priests began to minister in the week of the feast of Unleavened Bread, which began on the day of Passover (15th day of the 1st month). More precisely, since their work week began early Sunday morning and continued through the following Sabbath, the first division began on the morning of the wave-sheaf offering (“Easter”).
Hence, the eighth division of priests arrived early on the day of Pentecost Sunday, seven weeks later, to minister in the temple. Both Zacharias and his son, John, then, are thus associated with Pentecost, which may account for John’s reference in Matt. 3:11 to the baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire.” The feast of Pentecost itself is a forerunner to Tabernacles. So we can see shades of prophecy built into the specific division into which family Zacharias was born.
Luke does not tell us which day of the week he was the one honored to burn incense in the temple, but it is likely that he did so on that first morning, Pentecost Sunday.
The Four Lots
In Luke 1:9 Zacharias “was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.”
The priest who presided over the morning ceremony in the temple always issued the call: “All ye who have washed, come and cast lots.” [The Temple, Alfred Edersheim, p. 149]. They were not allowed to minister unless they first had baptized themselves. Those who had been thus cleansed, gathered to cast the lots. Edersheim writes,
“The first lot was for cleansing the altar and preparing it. The second, for those who were to offer the sacrifice, and for those who were to cleanse the candlestick and the altar of incense in the Holy Place. The third lot was the most important. It determined who was to offer the incense. If possible, none was to take part in it who had at any previous time officiated in the same capacity. The fourth lot, which followed close on the third, fixed those who were to burn the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar, and to perform the concluding portions of the service.” [The Temple, p. 150]
We see, then, that there were four lots cast at that time. Edersheim tells us that “the third lot was the most important.” Luke tells us that Zacharias was chosen by lot that morning to burn the incense in the temple. Though he was elderly and had ministered for many years already in the temple, he probably had never been chosen in the third lot. If the third lot had fallen upon one who had already ministered the incense previously, the lot was done again to find one who had not had this privilege in the past.
Edersheim continues, saying,
“For the first time in his life, and for the last, would this service be devolved upon him” [p. 158]….
“After this the lot was cast for burning the incense. No one might take part in it who had ministered in that office before, unless in the very rare case that all present had previously so officiated” [p. 166]
Zacharias had no children, and he had never been chosen by lot to burn the incense. How many times might he have wondered if God had forsaken him? Yet on this day of Pentecost he was chosen to burn the incense.
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,
“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.
Edersheim also gives us the prayer 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.”
The Angelic Message
When the angel appeared to Zacharias as he burned the incense in the temple, 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…. 15 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. But before the Messiah could come, a forerunner was needed to prepare the way before Him.
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. The angel identified the son of Zacharias as the one who would prepare the way before Christ. It is clear now that his ministry would be limited, because he failed to turn the hearts of the priests who were in authority over Judea, as well as the king (Herod).
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. Zacharias’ doubt also 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.
The Blessing Not Given
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 what is recorded in Luke is not a complete account at all.
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 Numbers 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.
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.
John and Jesus succeeded in fulfilling the portion of the promise that was prophesied in Passover and Pentecost. However, the Tabernacles portion remained unfulfilled.
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. This prophetic promise is repeated in Ps. 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….
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.
The Chiasm of Luke’s Account of Zacharias
The entire section concerning Zacharias is built upon a loose chiasm (or parallelism), which is a Hebrew literary device designed to portray a well-organized section of writing. We may outline it as follows:
A…Elizabeth’s Barrenness (1:5-7)
B…The Ministration of Zacharias (1:8, 9)
C…The People Pray (1:10)
D…The Vision (1:11)
E…Zacharias Troubled (1:12)
F…The Angel’s Promise (1:13-17)
E1…Zacharias Doubts (1:18)
F1…The Angel’s Penalty (1:19, 20)
C1…The People Wonder (1:21)
D1…The Vision (1:22)
B1…The Ministration of Zacharias (1:23)
A1…Barrenness Removed (1:24, 25)
It is apparent in this that Luke constructed his account carefully to emphasize the Angel’s words. F and F1 form the center of the chiasm, showing that Luke considered the words of the angel to be the most important part of the passage.
Intermingled with this, of course, is Zacharias’ doubt. This is the second most important element, because his doubt reflected the heart of the nation according to the divine plan in the first coming of Christ. It is only in the time of the second coming that the Elijah’s anointing is doubled (as Elisha) in order to succeed fully.