At church this morning, the pastor preached about the story in Luke 1, which is about the birth of John the Baptist.
Zechariah was a priest who was old, and he and his wife, Elizabeth,
wanted a child. Zechariah’s priestly section was on duty, and he was
selected by lot to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and offer incense. At
the right side of the altar of incense, the angel Gabriel stood.
Gabriel promised Zechariah that Zechariah’s wife would bear a son named
John, who would cause many to rejoice and would turn many people to
God. This son would not drink alcohol. Because Zechariah was old, he
was skeptical about this promise, so Gabriel said that Zechariah would
be mute until the promise was fulfilled. For months, Zechariah was
holding in the excitement of what he had seen and heard. When John was
born and Zechariah could finally speak, Zechariah, filled with the Holy
Spirit, delivered a long prophecy about what John would do and how that
fit into God’s plan for Israel.
There are two aspects of this story that have long bothered me, and I
will interact with those, while also sharing how my pastor this morning
interacted with those aspects.
A. Why was Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple? I
thought that only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of
Holies, and that occurred only once a year, on the Day of Atonement
The answer to my question is probably that there were three places in
the Temple. There was the courtyard, which was where the bronze altar
for the burnt offering was, along with the bronze laver for washing.
Further inside of the Temple/Tabernacle was the Holy Place, which had
the golden lampstand, the table for the shewbread, and the golden altar
of incense. Further inside, and behind the veil, was the Holy of
Holies, or Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was. (Well,
it was not there during the time of Zechariah, but that was still
considered to be a very holy place.)
The high priest could only enter the Holy of Holies, behind
the veil, on the Day of Atonement. But Aaron entered the Holy Place
right outside of the Holy of Holies at other times. He was to
burn incense every morning (Exodus 30:7-8) and regularly keep the lamps
burning (Leviticus 24), and bread was to be arranged on the table every
Sabbath (Leviticus 24). See here for a blog post, which includes a helpful map of the Tabernacle.
I should also mention Hebrews 9:1-7’s distinction between the Holy
Place and the Most Holy Place. Vv 6-7 say: “Now when these things were
thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle,
accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high
priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for
himself, and for the errors of the people” (KJV).
Many commentators interpret Luke 1 in light of the twenty-four
courses of priests in I Chronicles 24. According to I Chronicles 24,
there was an order for these courses of priests to come into the house
of God. Some commentators who are Christian believers and accept Luke 1
as historical use the alleged timing of Zechariah’s “turn” in the
Temple to calculate Jesus’ birth. In any case, only the high
priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that occurred only once a
year. But perhaps the other twenty-four courses of priests, depending
on when their turn was, came into the Holy Place at other times and fulfilled the
duties required for that: keeping the lamp burning, burning incense,
etc. Zechariah’s duty in Luke 1 was to burn the incense.
The pastor was saying that Zechariah, by lot, got the job of going
into the sanctuary and offering incense, whereas other priests (perhaps
in his course, or section, that was on duty) got more menial jobs, such
as sweeping the ashes. I thought that the Levites, not the priests,
were the ones who did the menial stuff. But who knows? Would the
Levites have been allowed into the Holy of Holies to clean? Maybe not,
since they had a lower level of holiness than the Aaronide priests. I
Chronicles 23:28-29 says, however, that the Levites cleaned the holy
objects and were in charge of the bread laid out on the table, both of
which pertained to the Holy Place. Yet, II Chronicles 29:18 presents
the Aaronide priests entering the inner part of the House of the LORD to
cleanse it. Could the Levites perform their duties for the Holy Place,
without actually entering it? Perhaps the Aaronide priests brought out
the holy objects for the Levites to clean, or the Levites gave the
Aaronide priests the bread to take into the sanctuary.
I should mention that there is a Christian tradition that
Zechariah was the high priest and that the events in Luke 1 occurred on
the Day of Atonement. See here.
Maybe this tradition was wrestling with the same sort of question that I
had. I am not convinced that Zechariah was the high priest, however,
for Luke 1:8 says that he was in the sanctuary burning incense because
it was his section’s turn to be on duty, and he was chosen to burn
incense by lot. These were the reasons that he was there, not any high
B. A second question that I have concerns Zechariah’s prophecy. Zechariah
seems to talk about Messianic expectations that many Jews of his day
had: Israel would be saved from her enemies and serve God without fear
(Luke 1:71-74). Zechariah was excited because he thought that his son
John had something to do with that. But that did not happen. Rather,
Israel’s Roman oppressors destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.
Perhaps Zechariah’s prophecy was conditional: if Israel
repented at John’s preaching, then God would save Israel from her
enemies. There is good reason to think this.
Luke 7:30 states that the Pharisees and lawyers, by not being baptized
by John, rejected God’s plan for themselves. Jesus in Luke 13:34-35
says that he desired to gather Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her
brood under her wings, but Jerusalem was not willing, and thus her house
is left to her desolate. In Acts 3:19-21, Peter seems to be telling
the Israelites that, if they repent, God will blot out their sins and
send Jesus to inaugurate the restitution of all things.
I have problems with this approach, however. For
one, Zechariah does not appear to be making a conditional prophecy: he
seems to be saying that John will (not might) bring people back to God,
and that God will save Israel from her enemies; in a sense, that
happened, for John did help convert many people. Luke 7:29 mentions tax
collectors who were baptized by John; but there were influential people
who did not receive John’s preaching. Second, there is an
indication even early in the Gospel of Luke’s story of Jesus that the
rejection and crucifixion of Jesus was not God’s Plan B in case Israel
failed to repent, but rather was God’s plan all along. Simeon
tells Mary when Jesus was a baby that a sword will pierce her soul (Luke
2:35), which may refer to the sorrow she would feel at Jesus’
Can all of this be reconciled? Perhaps. Maybe
early Christians believed that Jesus’ death was part of the
eschatological pangs that would precede Israel’s deliverance from her
enemies. Or perhaps the hope was that, after Jesus died for the sins of
Israel, Israel would repent, and God would send Jesus back to do what
the Messiah was expected to do (Acts 3:19-21). The hope may
have been that John set the stage for that, or cultivated the soil for
it, by bringing people to repentance and receptivity to what God was
about to do.
Turning to my pastor’s message, the pastor was saying that
Zechariah was excited because John was involved in a new way in which
God would relate to people. God would no longer simply be in the Temple, amidst smoke from the incense, but would be out there, with the people.
I would be hesitant to say that Luke has a view of the incarnation, of
God becoming a human being in Jesus. At the same time, I would agree
that a case could be made that John and Jesus were bringing God “out
there.” John was baptizing, offering forgiveness of sins outside of the
Temple. Jesus’ ministry was bringing God’s healing and forgiveness to
people, allowing them to experience God more tangibly. Jesus still
respected the Temple in the Gospel of Luke and encouraged lepers to
follow the Torah’s procedure (Luke 17:14) after being healed, but, in a
sense, Jesus was bringing God “out there.”