Before coming to the narrative of Christ’s birth, there is a dramatic conversation which takes place between a priest called Zechariah and the angel Gabriel. One day Zechariah was serving in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him.(1) Zechariah was very afraid but Gabriel spoke to him saying, “Do not be afraid. Your prayer has been heard.” Gabriel continued to tell Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son and they were to name him John. Ultimately, John would be the one to prepare people for the Lord Jesus.
Yet instead of rejoicing over the news brought to him from Gabriel, Zechariah objects, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Gabriel responds by explaining to Zechariah precisely to whom he is speaking and also cites the authority on which he bears this news:
“I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
One only needs to read the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel to find out that this promise from the Lord was fulfilled. Elizabeth and Zechariah have a baby boy and they name him John. It is only after the naming of John that Zechariah is able to speak again.
There are many aspects of this story that are remarkable. First is the context in which the story takes place: the people of Israel, of whom Zechariah and Elizabeth were a part, have not heard from God for a period of roughly 400 years! When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, it is highly likely that this is the first time Zechariah has heard from God in such a way.
To make theological matters even more complicated for Zechariah, Gabriel’s second statement, after telling him to not be afraid, is “Your prayer has been heard.” There is deep irony in this statement primarily because of the theological background leading up to this conversation. For all of Zechariah’s life, he had never heard God’s voice like this. The very act of God speaking to him would seem preposterous. Therefore, it is understandable why Zechariah questions Gabriel. Zechariah and his people have prayed to God, many for their entire lives, and they have never heard anything. How could Zechariah be sure this was truly a message from the Lord? This encounter undoubtedly marked a watershed moment, not only for Zechariah, but for God’s people and the entire world. God would speak now and humanity would be silent.
God’s silence is often a challenge to belief. One point I glean from the early part of this story is that God’s silence does not necessarily imply that God is inactive. In Israel’s case, God had been silent for years, yet in this angelic encounter, nearly the first words of instruction from the Lord are, “Your prayer has been heard.” For those of us who are immersed in the urgency of the digital world, we would do well to heed the implicit lesson of patience found in this story. God had been silent for a long time, but God was listening. There are times in our lives in which we do not hear God’s voice. Gabriel’s words tell us that although we might not hear God speaking, God is still listening.
After Zechariah objects to the seemingly audacious promise given from the Lord, Gabriel points out that it is not on his own authority that he speaks, but God’s. Implicit in Gabriel’s statement is the reality that God is bringing help to Israel, not because of what Zechariah or Elizabeth have done, but rather because of who God is. Historically speaking, God was the one who helped, rescued, and saved Israel countless times. The people of Israel knew this history well and they also knew why God had reached down and helped them. This much was clear in the mind of Israel: God’s salvation came only because of God’s character. God’s saving power came, not because of humanity’s effort, but because of God’s nature to save.
Gabriel then tells Zechariah that he will be silent. This is what strikes me most about the story: Gabriel appears to Zechariah in a time during which the people of Israel had not heard from God in years. The Lord speaks to Zechariah and tells him that God will act and fulfill his promise, but while God does so, Zechariah will be silent.
Generally I have viewed the silence of Zechariah as a punishment for not believing in God, and that may well be true. But I also see this act of silence pointing to something far deeper than one man receiving a punishment from God for not believing, and here’s why: The people of Israel knew that God had helped them; they knew why God had helped them and they also had learned how God had worked in history. Over time they had realized that God’s grace and salvation would be worked out through quietness and trust. Israel’s strength lay not in activity and being busy, but in silence. This was how God worked.
Zechariah’s silence is a symbol of God’s salvation. John’s life was spent concentrated on preparing people for Christ, the means by which people could be saved. But before John came, the Lord visited his father through Gabriel, telling Zechariah that He had heard his prayer, and was going to rescue his people not in a flurry of human activity, but in a way in which people could only watch him work and hear him speak. Perhaps one of the vital lessons we can learn from the Incarnation is to prioritize silence before God. At the very least, being quiet will remind us of a greater time, one of the greatest in history, when God spoke and humankind was there only to watch and listen.
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) See Luke 1.