Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:18-25 God judges unbelief

Luke 1:18-25 “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’ The angel answered, ‘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 proper time.’ Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Many people want to be sure of the truth of Christianity before they make a lifelong commitment to the Lord. That is a proper concern, and so the Holy Spirit directs and assists Luke to be scrupulous in researching and writing this gospel setting out the facts of the life of Jesus Christ. Luke recounts Jesus’ birth, his parents, a glimpse of his early years, his ministry, the great works he did, his death on the cross, his resurrection and his ascension into heaven. Then Luke was not finished; he wrote another book concerning the impact that his ministry and the Spirit of Christ made upon Jesus’ followers and on the ancient world. “This is who Christ is and what he did, and this is the effect of his coming on the people who knew him;” Luke tells the world these things in comprehensive detail. As God has supplied all this in divine revelation it cannot be wrong for a man to ask a Christian for information, knowledge, evidence and truth before he entrusts himself to Jesus Christ as his God and Saviour. Christian believing is not a leap into the dark; the true faith is not groundless. It is not wrong for us to ask for explanations when we Christians are perplexed, for example, we notice how prosperous are many of the godless. Why? Doesn’t God know how we obey him and yet we’re finding it hard to get by; life is a financial struggle for us? The psalmist who wrote psalm seventy-four is very troubled at this problem, and God never simply says, “Me Sovereign. You servant. Submit” He helped that believer to understand. He put him in the picture.

Notice how Mary replies to Gabriel when the angel tells her that she is going to have a baby, “How can I have a son when I have no husband?” (v.34). She wasn’t rejecting the possibility of motherhood in unbelief but she wanted to know how such an impossibility might occur. God doesn’t oppose our trying to understand his ways in history and in our own lives. “How can this be?” Mary asks. That is the acceptable question of an inquirer. Every preacher would welcome any member of his congregation coming on to him after the service and inquiring with these very words of Mary, “Preacher, how can this be?” (v.34). People in Corinth asked Paul how could the dead rise? That isn’t a sinful question. It’s a human inquiry and Paul supplies a divine answer. However, Zechariah was scornful and sceptical about the word he’d heard from God’s servant.

1. DOUBTING ZECHARIAH WAS A DEEPLY PRIVILEGED MAN.

I would remind you that Zechariah was not a cynical pagan. He was in fact “upright in the sight of the Lord, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (v.6). He was a true believer, in fact he was a priest who took his obligation to serve God with a proper seriousness. He knew the commandments and obligations of Scripture; he knew the Bible and the history of God’s dealings with his people; he knew the chapters describing the barrenness of the wives of the patriarchs, Sarah and Rachel, and later of Hannah, and the extraordinary gift of children in the old age of these women. These were familiar incidents to him. Zechariah also knew the divine promise that one day the Seed of the woman would come and bruise the head of the serpent. He even knew that before the appearing of the Messiah God would send a special messenger who would prepare the way before Christ. Malachi had prophesied such a herald preceding the coming of the King from heaven; “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5). All this was known to Zechariah. Two thousand years ago he wasn’t living in the darkness in which Welsh people lived at that time, afraid of the druids. Zechariah was living in the promised land amongst the people of God who knew a momentum of an earlier grace in knowledge and blessing. Zechariah himself was no nominal believer. He was a godfearing man, upright and blameless in the sight of the Lord and thus his guilt was greater. Spurgeon is very outspoken; “If there can be one sin more heinous than the unbelief of a sinner, it is the unbelief of a saint. For a saint to doubt God’s word – for a saint to distrust God after innumerable instances of his love, after ten thousand proofs of his mercy, exceeds everything.”

Consider the scene in the temple we’ve been considering here in Luke chapter one. To Zechariah in the middle of the day an angel of God appeared. Let me underline that this visitation didn’t occur in the wee small hours of the morning when fantastic dreams can trouble us. This sober mature man was on duty in the temple itself, and you remember that he hadn’t been drinking. Wine was forbidden to the priests on duty, so that Zechariah’s mind was perfectly clear and he was concentrating on the tasks he had to perform in the holy place. It was there and then that an angel appeared alongside the altar; this was not a ghost. This angel spoke words and sentences, unlike ghosts which fancy says may appear for a moment, waft along and disappear just as silently. Vividly this angel addressed Zechariah in quite some detail, declaring to him that God had sent him there, quoting to the priest from the Scriptures. Gabriel announced to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth in their old age were finally going to become parents, and that their son was going to be the predicted fore-runner of the Lord, just as Malachi had prophesied.

Again let me underline the fact that Zechariah was no sceptic, that he believed in angels; he knew that they first appeared with flaming swords to keep Adam and Eve from the Garden and the tree of life; angels had appeared to Abraham and to Lot, to Jacob and Joshua. They were on Sinai in the giving of the law to Moses. One had smitten the land of Egypt when Pharaoh would not let God’s people go. Another had destroyed the entire Assyrian army. Cherubim had been in the temple when Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, his train filling the building. Zechariah believed in angels and he knew, immediately he saw this glorious being in the temple, that this was indeed an angel sent from God. He didn’t say, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” It was an archangel, and Zechariah knew it. He was very afraid. This was not at all like the pleasant fear you get as you watch an episode of Dr. Who with the children. This fear was like the experience of lying in bed in an empty house one night and you hear footsteps on the stairs. This fear was like being in a bathroom drying after a shower with the children in school and your husband at work and you notice someone turning the handle on the door. That fear is horrific, and so it was with Zechariah; “He was startled and was gripped with fear” (v.12). Then as he hears the message of Gabriel calming his fears and bringing him good tidings of great joy you would expect to read of his falling down in wonder and praise before the angel, being overwhelmed with the honour that God had bestowed on him sending Gabriel to him with this great news. We expect this old man even to leap for joy when he heard what God had to say to him.

Zechariah did none of those things. It was not that he thought that this was a delusion or some prank. He didn’t have to pinch himself to know that this was real. He knew that this wasn’t a charlatan dressed up in a white costume trying to bamboozle him; this was the temple. It was indeed the angel of the Lord. There was no doubt in Zechariah’s mind that this was the case. He had seen people in fancy dress costumes, and he had been surrounded by religious people all his life. This was no mere mortal man but Gabriel, sent to him from God, the same Lord who had sent angels to his forefathers with similar tidings. Zechariah didn’t think for a second that this angel from heaven was a fake. He listened to an archangel speaking to him a word from the throne of the universe and then, incredibly, dismissed the angel’s message as impossible.

God had given instructions that day to this angel and immediately Gabriel obeyed him. This is the God who speaks and it is done. He commands millions of solar systems to cluster together in the Milky Way galaxy and the stars obey him. He orders the planets to soar in different orbits around our sun and they line up and do his will. He commanded two molecules of hydrogen to join to one molecule of oxygen and immediately water is formed. God commands and the universe obeys, but when he speaks to men they defy him.

Why does Zechariah disbelieve the message from the Lord? For the same reason some of you disbelieve. He judged it to be impossible to believe. Zechariah’s response was to say in effect to Gabriel. “Let me just explain to you something that you and your Master must have overlooked, the fact is that ‘I am an old man and my wife is well on in years’” (v. 18). He tells God how old he is; he tells God that when people reach a certain age they can’t have children. God needed that information from Zechariah? Zechariah’s religious mind had been saturated in the great works of God centuries earlier, in such events as how old Sarah, and Rachel, and Hannah became with child, but Zechariah failed to appropriate those truths to undergird this promise of God to him and Elizabeth. Pregnancy was simply impossible for his beloved old dutch, “well on in years,” but with God all things are possible and God had spoken to Zechariah very clearly, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Yet Zechariah had the effrontery to reply to the God of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, “I am an old man and my wife is well on in years” (v.13). That response was one of sinful unbelief. Zechariah’s sin lay in the fact that he knew very well the power and grace of God in the history of his people; he knew all too well many examples of such mighty acts of the Lord in the Word of God. Zechariah even knew that this was Gabriel the archangel who had appeared to him in the temple bearing a word to him from the Creator of the universe, but in spite of all this Zechariah disbelieved the word. In the face of all those encouragements of divine and personal revelation his response was to doubt. “I don’t know indeed,” he muttered. “I can’t be sure of this at all. I’m staying reverently agnostic.”

God didn’t respond, “I’m sorry Zechariah. I shouldn’t have expected you to joyfully believe through just one mighty angel bringing you my message. My fault entirely . . .” If that had been God’s response we might have read, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying the same message, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord . . .’” Is that what Zechariah needed in order to believe the word of God? Another angel? A hundred angels? And what are you demanding before you become a Christian? A fifth gospel? You’ve not yet read the four we’ve got. Someone to rise from the dead? Four have risen from the dead. Are you wanting a voice from heaven? There’s been a voice from heaven, and God said, “Hear my Son.”

Zechariah had all this, an immense revelation from heaven and the supernatural sight of an angel, and he came to the conclusion that he wasn’t sure if it were true or not. Whereupon God pronounced his holy disapproval of the priest in no uncertain terms. The archangel – in immediate communion with the God in whom he lived and moved and had his being – responded to God’s directive by reminding the old priest who was this one actually standing before him, the one who’d been sent there by God to speak to him. He said in effect to Zechariah “I am Gabriel. I live in the bright reality of the presence of God, while you don’t.” Zechariah did not live there. He spent his years – as we all do – in the shadowlands of this world, amongst a people who tell lies to one another as easily as drinking water. We live in the midst of men and women who believe in aliens from outer space, and in the power of crystals, and in Mormonism, and in Scientology, and in reincarnation, and in horoscopes, and in spirit mediums, and in the most fanciful superstitions. There are intelligent and wealthy people who function at the most basic level in terms of old wives’ tales. They believe that the theory of evolution can explain Jesus Christ. They believe that a government can redeem and regenerate men and women. People we daily rub shoulders with, who will not tolerate Christian discussion in the office, who yet will believe in anything! They are living in an unreal make-believe world.

However, Gabriel lived his blessed life in the light of the presence of God. He knew the truth and he hated deceit, and God had sent him on a mission. Gabriel had not added one syllable to the words he’d been given; he hadn’t distorted the message in any way at all; “I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” (v.19). This is exactly what he had done; Zechariah had received this divinely-given gospel, and yet his response had been to say, “How can I be sure of this? That is something God cannot do.” So the Lord judged him then and there, communicating immediately to Gabriel this condemnation to tell the unbelieving priest, “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 proper time” (v.20). That voice that had spoken sinfully in God’s house was silenced by God; Zechariah could not mouth a word again until he submitted to the power of God. God was saying in effect, “You dare to think I cannot do for you and Elizabeth what I did for Sarah and Rachel and Hannah? I will show you what kind of God I am . . .” and he removed from Zechariah his power of speech. God can remove precious things from us. A miracle of judgment was performed on Zechariah. His last words to God had been to this effect, “How can I be sure of this?” and God showed his disapproval.

‘DOUBTING ZECHARIAH’’S UNBELIEVING WORDS WERE A SIN.

A young man once sat listening to a group of Christians discussing whether unbelief was a sin. He got quite agitated and then he burst out saying to them, “Are you evangelical Christians?” They were a bit insulted that he had asked them, nodding their heads vigorously. So he quoted to them the words of Jesus in John sixteen about one of the reasons why our Saviour must send the Holy Spirit into sinners’ hearts. It is to convict them of sin, “because men do not believe in me” (Jn. 16:9). That is the chief sin that the Spirit of Christ convicts them of. It is not the sin of gambling. It is not the sin of adultery, or violence, or thieving, or stealing. It is this sin, of refusing to come to Jesus Christ for salvation. Why is this? It is not because the other sins are not serious sins. It is not that they don’t need to be repented of and mortified; it is not that they don’t do great harm to the perpetrator and all his or her family. It is just that belief in Christ, the one thing that God requires for salvation, is the mother sin. The sin which most cleverly disguises itself as not a sin at all but an ‘inquiring spirit’, ‘open-mindedness’, ‘a search for God’, ‘intellectual sophistication.’ The unbeliever can speak so condescendingly about admiring our faith and even saying he would like to have it, but alas, he says, he cannot; “I wish I could believe,” he sighs, and only when the Spirit of God comes upon him are those pathetic words seen to be the most daring, and decisive, and damning of all sinful words.

Let me use this illustration; here is a wife who loves her husband very dearly. She cares for him, satisfies his every whim; his slippers are warming by the radiator when he comes home; she prepares his favourite meals; his clothes are always clean and ironed; she brings up the children just as he wants; she will watch the programmes on television that he likes to watch – his hand alone operates the remote control; she genuinely finds him amusing and scintillating company; she has learned to be interested in the things he likes; she delights in satisfying his every need and never complains or whines about anything he ever does. She adores him; she feels it a privilege to be married to him. She is also wise; she gives him space. She is most kind, but she is also spiritual; she prays for him every day. Then one day he comes home and after a long silence he announces that he believes that she doesn’t love him. She is utterly stunned; all the strength leaves her and she has to sit down dumbstruck and afraid. He has been confronted with all this evidence of her peerless love for many years, and yet he dares to face her and say to her, “I don’t believe that you love me.” Isn’t that the most wicked thing to say to a devoted wife? You’d all agree that it is inexpressibly evil. What blindness! What ingratitude! What love for evil rather than for good. She has loved him dearly; there are all these evidences year after year of her deep devotion. What possible justification can he have for telling her he doesn’t believe that she loves him? He has none. His professed disbelief in her love is a sin. His words are in fact masking other things in his heart that he hasn’t said to her. Men love darkness rather than light, says Jesus. What a barometer of the state of our hearts!

So it is with any man’s unbelief in God. He has sent his Son Jesus into the world. Christ is utterly sensational as a teacher, as one who can do miracles and also in the transparent integrity of his life. He preaches the Sermon on the Mount; he tells the parable of the prodigal son; he sits with his disciples in the upper room and delivers an extraordinary discourse which is studied by scholars in the world’s universities today. His words made an extraordinary impact on the people listening. They’d never heard anyone speaking like him. They sat down in their thousands to listen to him. His life was utterly blameless; women were safe in his company; he was loved by children; he attracted men. He never overcame the evil he received with evil but with good. When they drove nails through his hands and his feet he prayed for them – “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” He was utterly without guile. He did the most extraordinary signs; he healed every single illness of every person who came to him; blindness from birth; advanced forms of cancer; total paralysis, a withered arm, any sickness at all. He even raised from the dead three people. When he spoke the stormy winds and waves obeyed him. He could walk on water. He made some staggering claims, to be the judge of the world – your judge – and that he went back to the very beginning, before the world began. He claimed to be the only way to God, and also of being an utter equal with God. Imagine it, on the same standing as God – “I and my Father are one.” Those who knew him best said he was ‘the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of his person.’ One fell before him and said, “My Lord and my God,” while another said, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.” One who died next to him prayed that he would remember him when he came in his kingdom. They were overwhelmed with Jesus of Nazareth. They looked at him and listened to him. There was only one honest and unbiased conclusion they could come to, that he was God in the flesh. They spent their lives worshipping and serving him.

Aren’t you without excuse to say, “The jury is out on Jesus”? What more would you want? Another Jesus? Another New Testament? What more do you want the Lord to do? Where is he lacking? What more inspirational teacher could you desire? On the third day he rose from the dead and he transformed the lives of the fearful disciples who had been following him. They laid down their lives testifying that he was God and Lord. Not to believe in this Jesus is sin because the life and actions and teaching of Jesus Christ make one moral demand, call for one response, and that is that we acknowledge that he is God incarnate. The one true and living God has visited us in his Son. So unbelief is a sin.

I have said that it is the mother of all sins. It was what caused Adam and Eve to defy God in Eden. It hardened the heart of Pharaoh in the experience of the mighty acts of judgment in Egypt. It was responsible for the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Unbelief is the reason many people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Thousands of crimes accompany the sin of unbelief. It sins itself, and it is the reason for other sins. It is the seed of every offence. It is the sin for which God sent his Son to die on Golgotha.

Why do people refuse to come to Christ? Unbelief. Why do they ignore the Bible? Unbelief. Why do they stop away from church? Unbelief. It is the bomb-shelter in which the sinner hides so that no heavenly sword can pierce his heart. It is the inoculation that will prevent the sinner getting saving faith. One jab of unbelief and he will fear no hell, and hope for no heaven. Because of unbelief it is nothing for him that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount died on a cross. Zechariah’s sin was unbelief and God’s judgment came upon it as it always does and will.

DOUBTING ZECHARIAH’S UNBELIEF WAS A TEMPORARY BLIP.

Zechariah’s sin was unbelief, but Zechariah was not an unbeliever. Noah was once drunk, but he wasn’t a drunkard. Abraham lied that his wife was his sister, but Abraham wasn’t always a liar. Moses lost his temper and killed a man, but he wasn’t a man possessed by a violent murderous spirit. David’s sin was adultery, but David was not a perennial adulterer. David’s sin was fearful, and it brought in its train, deceit and murder and death and shame, but David was not a man who bedded any woman in Jerusalem whenever it pleased him. Peter once swore and cursed as he stood alone at a fireside one night when Jesus had been arrested, but Peter was not a constant blasphemer. He did not spend the rest of his life lacing his speech with four letter words and blasphemies. It was a temporary blip of a man afraid and under pressure.

Let us always remember the distinction between temporary lapses and a way of life, but let’s make sure we never abuse the distinction. The unbeliever is an actual slave to unbelief. Unbelief says to him, “You can’t trust in Jesus; you can’t believe the Bible; you don’t have to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved; if you are going to be safe then it will be by the wonderful grace of God, but not through faith.” The voice of sin constantly says to him, “Without faith it is quite possible to please God” and all sinners do what they are told by their master sin, because the whole world is a prisoner of sin. That is the reason why people don’t come to the Lord that they might have life. They stay serving their own master because that’s what ‘lord sin’ tells them to do.

The Christian is quite different. John the Baptist was temporarily uncertain whether Jesus was the Messiah because no fiery judgments had poured down on the nation. John sent from his prison two disciples to ask Jesus should they be seeking for someone else. It was a temporary doubt. Peter is told by God to get up and kill and eat all the animals in the great sheet let down from heaven, but Peter says, “Surely not, Lord!” (Acts 10:14) – it was a temporary blip of disobedience. A member of the Corinthian congregation fell into notorious sin, but it was for a while only; he ended the relationship, repented and came back. Zechariah the righteous priest was not a chronic unbeliever but his act of doubt was serious enough to bring an immediate chastening judgment upon him. His power of speech was taken away and he could only speak by signs, and the people knew that he’d had an encounter with God in the temple saying to one another, “Zechariah has seen a vision.” But at the end of the fortnight Zechariah went back home to the hill country and he slept with his wife and soon this old lady was actually with child. Soon they were the excited parents of baby John.

Faith healers pronounce men, women and children healed but when the symptoms return they cover their lying by saying, “You did not believe enough. ‘Be it unto you according to your faith.’ If only you had believed deeper, higher, stronger you would be well. You wife would be pregnant today; her barrenness would be over.” Yet Zechariah did not believe and still Elizabeth was pregnant. Man’s unbelief could not prevent God accomplishing his purpose. God was powerfully merciful; God kept his word to a sinner who doubted him, and aren’t we glad he did? Wasn’t there a time when we were so suspicious of the Bible and of the Christian faith? Didn’t we say, “How can I be sure of this?” God looked at us and could tell we didn’t believe his words, and yet God was gracious to us. He brought tough times into our lives. It was no life living without him; he came to us in mercy and the Holy Spirit convicted us of the sin of unbelief and planted his life in our hearts. He gave us our heart’s desire, even though we had been so suspicious of him.

Let me conclude by addressing those of you who as yet are not believers. Let me ask you if any of you like Zechariah have determined that you can’t become a believer until you get something extra from Christ some plus which you are sure will create faith. You might not lay it down that it has to be a vision or a voice in the night, of course, but still you are waiting for something more than the commands and promises of the gospel; you have set your soul on something special. You are insisting on the tingle factor, the hairs on your neck standing on end, some exultant feeling of joy, some tears under the word, some overwhelming sense of God’s presence. You are saying that if only this happened that then you could confess Christ as your Saviour. But what do we have in our text? Zechariah actually saw Gabriel the arch-angel, and he heard a personal message from God; it was just for him from heaven, but that didn’t have the effect of creating the assurance of faith in his heart.

You have the Scriptures. You have the whole word from God. They are Spirit and they are life. They are preached to you by the power of the Holy Spirit each week. Isn’t it wicked to lay down terms with God and say you want more? You are in no position to dictate terms in coming to the Lord. Your sins have forfeited all such demands. Jesus said, “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me.” The Lord could have said to Zechariah, “If you really believed what Moses wrote about Sarah and Rachel then you’d believe me when I said that you were going to be parents of the messenger I’m sending before the Messiah.” In other words, the Lord would have been saying, “What the Scriptures say about me, from the earliest writings of Moses to its closing words, is all the warrant you need to believe in me. You shouldn’t wait and say, ‘How can I be sure of this Bible?’ I tell you its promises are sufficient.”

Are you sighing to have some spectacular revelation from God before you’ll come to Christ? Are you ignoring the message of “Moses and the prophets” which we have in the Bible? Do you see that such waiting is inexcusable? Don’t think that your attitude is one of humble submission before God. Your reluctance is actually a proud and arrogant demand upon God, telling him how he ought to act if he wants to enlist your support in his cause. In effect you are saying with the rich man in hell, “God, I have a better plan of salvation than your ordinary methods. I have a special way for you to call me, and I’m waiting for this special revelation. Send someone back from the dead.” Someone has gone back from the dead. The truth is, God’s own Son has been presented plainly and simply to you through the message of the prophets and apostles. The wedding feast of the gospel has been spread, and God invites you to have eternal life. All you need to do is come. You are sick; “Come to me,” says the doctor. Your car won’t start; “Come to me.” says the mechanic. There is no power in the house; “Come to me,” says the electrician. You have a burst pipe; “Come to me,” says the plumber. That’s right! You’ve done right! But for their guilty souls people make all sorts of bad decisions. Terrible decisions. You refuse to come to Christ that you might have life!

Is Jesus Christ calling to you? Do you see yourself, not as a special sinner, but as a needy, lost, hell-deserving sinner? Then come to him in repentance and faith. Look upon Christ as a marvellously suitable friend of sinners. See how his perfect righteous life fully satisfies the requirements of divine law. Consider how his substitutionary death fully satisfies divine justice for your sins. Do not make complicated what God has made beautifully simple; just come. Come to Christ because of God’s gracious directive: “This is his commandment: that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23). Come to Christ because of God’s gracious promise: “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). May you this day put aside any reasons that stop you. Come to Christ, that you may have life.

20th May 2007 GEOFF THOMAS