Advent Ponderings: Why was Zechariah struck dumb?

During advent, our church is reading through parts of the Christmas story week by week.  These ponderings are based upon those readings and designed to get us thinking about Christmas keeping Christ at the center.  I hope you will enjoy them.

Luke 1:5-20 

Have you ever wondered why Zechariah was dumbstruck by Gabriel?  I mean, on the surface, it seems harsh.  Zechariah asks a simple question followed by an obvious observation:  "How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."  (Luke 1:18)

Zechariah was just promised some incredible things.  He and his wife were going to have a son in their old age who was going to be "great in the sight of the Lord" (v. 15).  I think that I would want some assurance too.

The problem with angels

Wouldn't the appearance of an angel be enough to heed whatever words he was saying?  If there was an angel that suddenly appeared to us in all of his glory that told us not to be afraid (as angels often do in Scriptural accounts) and that they had a message for us, I'm sure many would be tempted to obey simply out of fear.

However, as believers, we are instructed to test the spirits to make sure that they are from God (1 John 4:1-3).  Angels have been used by many both in biblical and modern day times to cause people to stray from the truth.  To the Galatian believers, Paul was contending with false doctrine when he penned these words twice, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:8, repeated in v. 9)  The religion of Islam was introduced after Muhammad's account of his encounter with an angel.  Mormonism is said to have begun with the angel Moroni and the unveiling of the golden tablets from where the book of Mormon was translated.  Obviously, from these three examples that stray from the truth revealed in the Scriptures and the Jesus of the Scriptures, we would not want to follow their message.  To do so, would put us in danger of the condemnation Paul warns us of.  Paul further warns that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).  Therefore, we have to be careful what we trust with our eyes.

In the light of those warnings, it is understandable and seemingly more than reasonable that Zechariah would want some verification that what he is seeing and hearing was a real message from the Lord.  In the light of that, it would seem almost cruel or petty to strike Zechariah with the dumbness in order to prove a point that Gabriel was indeed an angel sent by God.

Accounts like this have been the mantra of modern day atheists decrying God as a cruel and petty dictator created by man only for the sake of controlling their fellow man.  "A God as petty and vindictive as the one found in the Bible," they would say, "is not one worth serving in the first place."

And at first glance, it may seem that they have a point.  I mean, here we have Zechariah who is described, along with his wife, as "upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (v. 6).  If this was his character as God sees it, why would God then strike him dumb just for wanting assurance that what the angel said was true?

Context is everything

First, we have to understand that Zechariah wasn't just any ordinary Jew...he was a priest.  Not only was he a priest...he was a priest who had the privilege to burn incense before the Lord in the temple, the place of worship before God.  The burning of incense was the symbolic representation of the the prayers of God's people rising up to Him.  A priest at the time of Zechariah's life would most likely only have one opportunity his whole life for such a honor.  Of all places to meet and talk with God or be visited by an angel, this would be the place to expect it.

Second, when the angel Gabriel appears, he doesn't spout some promise foreign to the promises of God.  Rather, he speaks of their fulfillment through Zechariah's promised child.  The phrasing of the promise given to Zechariah about his son is unmistakable in its allusion to God's promise found in Malachi 4:5-6:  "See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."  These are words that Zechariah should have been familiar with as priest.  As a matter of fact, with the fervor around Israel concerning the Messiah in Zechariah's day, he should have been even more prepared to hear them in this context.

Finally, the sign of muteness as a temporary punishment given because of "unbelief" of Gabriel's words is appropriate to the knowledge and responsibility Zechariah had as priest (v. 19-20).  Gabriel was sent to give good news that God was fulfilling His promise.  In reality, it wasn't Gabriel that Zechariah wasn't believing, but rather God who gave the original promise in Malachi and now was revealing its fulfillment through the blessing of Zechariah's son.

When seen in this context, it becomes offensive that Gabriel would have to offer any more proof than he already did.  He appeared to Zechariah in the Lord's temple while Zechariah was burning incense representing the prayers of the people before the Lord.  He referenced the promise of a child through the lens of God's already revealed promises that Zechariah should have recognized.

"How can I be sure of this?"...Really?  Wasn't Zechariah, as priest, the one telling the people of Israel to trust the promises of God?

With greater responsibility...

It may seem odd, but God often punishes believers more harshly than unbelievers, not eternally, but here on earth.  The simple reason is that we should know better.  We say that we know Jesus, but don't trust His promises or obey His commands.

Peter tells us that judgment begins with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17; 4:12-19 in context).  James tells us that we should not presume to be teachers because we will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).  In other words, the more we know about God, Jesus and the Bible, the less excuse or leeway we have in our ignorance or disobedience.

We see this same judgment given to Moses who wasn't allowed to enter the land of promise after striking a rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:1-13).  We see it with the death of Uzzah as he reached out to steady the ark of God, as it was being brought to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:1-11).  We see it in Ananias and Sapphira's deaths, who tried to lie to the apostles concerning the amount of money for which they sold a plot of land (Acts 5:1-11).  We also see it in the Corinthian believers who were struck dead or sick because of their mistreatment of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:28-32).

Small sins, we may say, especially in the context of all the sins the people committed around them.  However, each of them knew better because they knew God and God takes His name, His promises, His commands and His honor seriously (especially honor toward His Son, Jesus) and displays that reverence for His name, not among the nominal, but through the committed.

Zechariah was dumbstruck until the birth of his son.  A small price to pay for unbelief.  But it begs questions for you and me:  What promises/commands are we deliberately forgetting that we may do what we want to do rather than what God wants us to do?  What are we striking ourselves with because of our unbelief disguised as ignorance and disobedience in the light of knowing and following Christ?

As we reflect on the life of Zechariah, may belief to the promises of God fulfilled in Christ mark our lives through obedience to His commands...even and especially the small ones. 

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