Between the two testaments, there were ‘four hundred silent years’ without a word from God.1 How would heavenly communication be resumed? Who would hear the first fresh word from the Lord? The answer is that divine revelation came initially to a priest engaged in temple service; his name was Zacharias.

Throughout his writing, Luke focuses keenly on human interest. The character sketches in his narrative are literary masterpieces. Among the many notable individuals featured by Luke, Zacharias the priest is the first person we encounter. This priest’s name means ‘God will remember’. Luke highlights Zacharias’ devotion, his doubt, and his declaration.

His devotion

This man was dedicated to his wife, who was also a member of the priestly family of Aaron. Together, Zacharias and Elisabeth lived a consistent life of faithful obedience to God, despite the disappointments of their childless marriage. We learn from Gabriel’s message, Luke 1. 13, that the couple had committed their situation to the Lord in prayer.

The moment of divine revelation coincided with Zacharias’ allocated shift of temple service. This was likely to have been part of an annual cycle of activity for his division of the priesthood, 1 Chr.

24. 19. Barclay speculates that it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Zacharias to light the lampstand and burn incense in the holy place.2 Whether the occasion was unique or routine, Zacharias was diligently performing his duties.

His doubt

Devotion does not guarantee immediate acceptance of God’s word, as the experience of Zacharias makes clear. When Gabriel appeared with a surprising message about a baby boy for Zacharias and Elisabeth, the elderly priest responded with hesitation and doubt, Luke 1. 18. Unbelief is the most common ‘sin which doth so easily beset’ all of us, Heb. 12. 2. Although Zacharias was in the house of God, he initially rejected the divine message. His attitude contrasts sharply with Mary’s later response to Gabriel, Luke 1. 34. Her questions were offered in a spirit of humility rather than incredulity.

The result of this angelic encounter in the temple was a speechless priest, v. 22. If Zacharias could not accept God’s word, then he would be left with no words to say. The priest had no blessing to give to the people, Num. 6. 24-26, and no prayers to make on their behalf, 2 Chr. 30. 27. Using sign language and eventually resorting to writing, Zacharias improvised communication with the waiting crowds; presumably by similar means, he gave full details of the incident to his wife.

His declaration

Heaven had been silent for four centuries; now Zacharias was silent for nine months, the full term of Elisabeth’s pregnancy. However, it is apparent that his early doubt was replaced by increasingly fervent faith. He claimed God’s promise of a child, since we presume Elisabeth’s conception was entirely conventional. Nevertheless, Zacharias remained without the power of speech until he ratified the antenatal, angel-given name for the baby, ‘His name is John’, Luke 1. 63. John means ‘Jehovah is gracious’, a fitting title for the herald of the ‘dawn of redeeming grace’.3

At last, Zacharias’ mouth was opened! Immediately, he began to utter praise and prophecy. His allusions to the Psalms, Isaiah and Malachi indicate a deep familiarity with scripture. The key biblical themes of redemption and deliverance, central to Gabriel’s original message, became the focus of Zacharias’ interest. Perhaps the old priest had been meditating on these ideas for the previous nine months, and now his praise bursts out, Ps. 45. 1.


Zacharias had the privilege of receiving the earliest New Testament revelation. As we consider his experience, we face a double challenge:

  1. When we hear God’s word, how will we respond to it? Let’s be like Zacharias in his ultimate response, which demonstrated genuine faith in God.
  2. Our words are important. When we speak to others about our relationship with the Lord, what will we say? Zacharias’ words are consistent with scripture and filled with praise.



H. A. Ironside, The Four Hundred Silent Years, Loizeaux Brothers, 1914.


W. Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke, Saint Andrew Press, 1954.


‘With the dawn of redeeming grace’, in my opinion, is the best line from Silent Night - one of my least-favourite Christmas carols since (apart from this line) it has minimal doctrinal content.