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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Larsen

The Role Zechariah and Elizabeth Play in the Jesus Story


The New Testament of the Bible starts with the birth of Jesus, right?  Well, that’s right, but each of the four gospel writers decided to start the story in a slightly different way.

Matthew starts by listing out the long genealogy of Jesus, then moves to the appearance of an angel to Joseph, assuring him that the baby Mary was carrying was conceived from the Holy Spirit.

Mark begins with John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus in the wilderness.

Luke tells the story of how an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah, telling him that his childless wife Elizabeth will bear a son who will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.

And John begins with a truly poetic section about the Word (Jesus) becoming flesh and then he moves into the mission of the adult John the Baptist.

I wanted to explore Luke’s story since he alone shared it. Who were Zechariah and Elizabeth and how do they play into the story of Jesus being born?

Turns out, Zechariah was a priest of advanced age around the time that both John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived (thought by scholars to be between 8 and 6 BC). Jewish priests during this time had different responsibilities than Jewish rabbis.  A rabbi was a religious teacher who operated out of the local synagogue and was not required to belong to any particular family or tribe in order to hold his position.  Priests, however, came from a prestigious bloodline. 

Remember the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Those qualified to be priests had to descend from Aaron, Moses’ brother. They worked at the temple in Jerusalem.  (My thanks to the website Catholic (dot) com for this information.)

Luke 1:5 gives us more of a specific bloodline for Zechariah: In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. (New International Version translation).

So – both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth descend from Aaron, the original priest of Israel. So, who is Abijah?  According to I Chronicles, at the time of King David, the priests of the Jewish faith were split into twenty-four divisions.  Abijah was the eighth of the twenty-four.

Luke 1:8 tells us, Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. (NIV)

Let’s look at this a little closer.  Zechariah was inside the temple in Jerusalem burning incense.  Typical priestly duty?  Well, yes … and no.

At this time in history, there were many descendants of Aaron who filled the ranks of Jewish priests to work in the Temple.  Because so many priests crowded the twenty-four divisions, a priest was only selected (by lot, or basically throwing dice) to perform this task for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which comes around only once a year. In other words, this particular task Zechariah was doing didn’t come around often.

And where did they burn this incense?  Luke tells us it was in the temple.  But further research shows that it was in the most holy place within the Holy Temple.  (Stay with me … I’m about to make a point!)

In the Old Testament, God appointed King Solomon, the son of King David as the king to oversee the building of his Holy Temple which would house the Ark of the Covenant.  In 1 Chronicles 28, King David gave detailed plans to Solomon, including designs for the Temple buildings, and literally everything else within its walls.

The room known as the Holy of Holies was the innermost and most sacred area of the ancient temple of Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies was constructed as a perfect cube. It contained only the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God. The Holy of Holies was accessible only to the Israelite high priest. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest was permitted to enter the small, windowless enclosure to burn incense and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial animal on the Ark. By doing so, the high priest atoned for his own sins and those of the people.  (Thank you to the website, GotQuestions, for this explanation.)

It was when Zechariah was performing this special task that he was approached by Gabriel, the angel of the Lord.  Luke, of course, described the scene accurately, but with minimal details.  Just the facts, ma’am. When you add in the additional facts of just how extraordinary it was that this particular man was performing this particular holy task during this particular time in this particular holy place – well, it just becomes that much more amazing to me.  How about you?

Luke continues his story in chapter 1, verse 11: Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. (NIV)

Paraphrase time: the angel speaks to Zechariah, tries to reassure him not to be afraid, and informs him that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth will bear him a son who is to be named John.  And John will be great in the sight of the Lord.  Everyone will be so happy at his birth, and he’ll be a great son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will draw many people of Israel to the Lord their God and he will go on in the power of the prophet Elijah to make ready for the Lord.

It all sounds great, right?  For a distinctive priest of a long line of holy men, to be there in the Holiest of Holies, talking to Gabriel and hearing this fantastical news – Zechariah should be jumping for joy, right???

No. He says, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

He doubts!  He argues with the angel! Remember the room he was standing in was almost impossible to get into.  It was the innermost room in the temple, inaccessible except for one man, and that year it was him! No random passersby could have gotten in and made up a story of being an angel!  He had to have known that God had sent this angel, and that he was legit.

But the realities of the world invaded his mind and despite the miraculous circumstances that had brought the angel to come visit him, the first thing he thought was, Elizabeth and I are too old to have children.  This can’t be true.

But it was true.  And his doubts and disbelief were documented for us, thousands of years later to read and learn from.  Because honestly, can we blame Zechariah for his doubts? He and Elizabeth had been yearning for a family their entire marriage and despite them being righteous and blameless in front of the Lord, as described in verse 6, it had never happened.  Scholars have reached the conclusion that Elizabeth was approaching her 60’s when she became pregnant so I’m sure they both felt that the chance of having a family of their own had long since sailed.

The consequence that Zechariah faced due to his doubts was swift and immediate: in verse 19: The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

There’s more to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, including the same angel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her about her own miraculous conception and the visit Mary makes to Elizabeth, but let’s move on to the part beginning in verse 57 of John’s birth. On the eighth day they held a traditional Jewish bris celebrating the baby boy’s circumcision and Elizabeth announced that the baby’s name would be John. The attendees asked Zechariah to confirm, and since he was still not able to speak, he asked for a tablet, on which he wrote, “His name is John.”

Then, verse 64: Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.  (NIV)

Wow!  I’m quite sure that Zechariah believed the angel’s claim during the nine months prior to getting his speech back, but what fabulous proof that God keeps his promises and chose this special couple to hold a vitally important role in the greatest story ever told.

Have you ever asked God for something that you desired, over and over ... and then when it finally came true, you had trouble believing it was a gift from God?  I’m sure we can all think of at least one example in our lives, and if so, I think we can all extend a little bit of grace to our friend Zechariah.

Dear God: thank you for this story about a very holy man who, when the time came to show his faith, faltered a little bit. It helps us to remember that even when we ourselves make mistakes, you can always still come back and use us for your purposes here on earth.  You don’t give up on us and don’t expect us to be perfect.  Thank you for that.  Amen.





30 views2 comments


Dianne Miley
Dianne Miley
Jul 02

Thanks be to God that He forgives our doubts and uses us anyway!

Laurie Larsen
Laurie Larsen
Jul 02
Replying to

Amen!! 😁

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