Chapter 1

Zechariah’s Hope—Encouragement When You Struggle with Unbelief

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (luke 1:18)

When we think about the Christmas story and the part Zechariah, John the Baptizer’s father, played in that story, we think of a doubter—a person who had an angelic encounter while serving in the temple and yet still surprises us with words that sound like he dares question the authoritative message of God.

Zechariah was one of the good guys—an insider whose ancestors had dedicated themselves to the care of temple, the keeping of the law, and the high calling of representing the people before God. Zechariah and his wife were both descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest of Israel. As priest, Zechariah’s job was to represent the people before God to serve as an intermediary by offering sacrifices for the sins of Israel (luke 1:8–9).

Faithfulness was a hallmark of Zechariah’s family. He was a priest in the division of Abijah—a man who had returned to Judah with Zerubbabel for the purpose of rebuilding the temple (nehemiah 12:4) and who was chosen by God to lead a post-exilic priestly division (1 chronicles 24:10).

But just like today, things do not always work out in the good guy’s favor. He lived and ministered in difficult and doubt-filled times. It had been four hundred years since the death of Malachi and a great deal had happened since that last prophet of Israel pronounced judgment on God’s people for their unfaithfulness (see malachi 1). Malachi specifically called out the priests and Levites for their disobedience and lack of reverence, telling them he would send a curse on them and their descendants if they did not repent and respond to God’s covenant love expressed to their ancestors (malachi 2:1–9).

This sounds more like it. The good folks get rewarded and the evil ones get punished. It’s the law of sowing and reaping. Bad guys go to jail; good guys walk free. Bad guys bring shame and reproach upon themselves and their families; good guys bring honor and blessing to those they love. Right?

Not always.

Zechariah lived in a society where Roman oppressors ruled God’s people and occupied the land that God had promised to Abraham. The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, who had controlled the region before the Romans took over, offered a short season of freedom through violence and bloodshed. But God’s people still staggered and swayed—as they had for centuries as different occupying forces controlled the region—under the oppression and heavy taxation of Rome. Adding insult to injury, Rome had installed an Edomite, Herod the Great, as ruler of the Palestinian region. A descendant of Esau, not Jacob or David, sat on the throne and ruled Israel.

It wasn’t just the wider world that seemed to conspire against Zechariah’s faith. The ramifications of sin and the fall had come home. Zechariah and Elizabeth had no child—no son to carry on his name or his family’s priestly line. All his life Zechariah had tried to do what was right (luke 1:6). Not only had he observed the commands and decrees of God, he had been faithful to his calling to help others do the same. Yet despite Zechariah’s faithfulness, despite the cries of God’s people, God still seemed absent and silent.

I wonder if Zechariah felt like he was living under the curse—both personally and societally—Malachi talked about so long ago? I wonder if Zechariah, as I often do, misunderstood God’s silence. I get impatient. I want God to move on my timetable and when he does not, I can get a little skeptical, asking questions like, “God, are you really there?” “Do you really care about me?” “Do you not see what a mess we are in down here?” So much so that even when God finally shows up, I wonder if it is really him.

This is the context into which God sends his angel to Zechariah with a message that will not only change Zechariah’s life, but the trajectory of the entire world.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (luke 1:11–17)


After generations and generations of silence from heaven, God has finally spoken again. Not only that, if you are Zechariah, he has spoken to you—and not just about your particular situation of childlessness. In one short message God, through his angel, announces the remedy not only for personal suffering for you and your wife, and not only for the tribal suffering your people have endured, but also an end of suffering for the world.

Finally, at least in Zechariah’s mind, all is about to be right with the world both societally and personally. That is why his response to the angel of the Lord is so interesting.

Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years’” (luke 1:18).

In responses to passages like this, we modern Bible readers may be tempted to shake our head in disgust, wondering how anyone could still doubt after such a supernatural encounter. Three things should have been clear to Zechariah based on this angelic interaction. First, this message is from the Lord. Zechariah’s angelic encounter in the Temple made it clear that God was up to something out of the ordinary. Second, God was going to redeem Zechariah’s personal pain and shame of childlessness. Third, God was going to make good on his promise to bring a Messiah who would relieve both Israel’s tribal suffering and the global suffering of all humanity. Zechariah’s son was to be the forerunner of this promised king. But something—a sickness of sorts—crowded out the joy that should have accompanied such a revelation. It was doubt. Even after this supernatural encounter, Zechariah’s experience of deferred hope made him doubt what he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears.

Proverbs 13:12 tells us that “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” It seems safe to assume that we see the sickness of delayed hope in Zechariah.

There were consequences to Zechariah’s doubt—nine months of muteness being the most tangible. But just as human faith does not dictate God’s plan, neither does human doubt derail it. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t stop God’s plan, but it did limit Zechariah’s ability to participate in it. Doubt does not inhibit God; it simply limits our participation in what God is doing because it keeps him at a distance. Doubt asks a version of the question the serpent asked Eve in the Garden, “Did God really say?” Doubt asks, “Can God really be trusted?”

Human faith does not dictate God’s plan, neither does human doubt derail it.

Our doubts do not tie God’s hands so much as they can lead us to despair. We have all heard the phrase, “That’s too good to be true.” Doubt did not creep up on Zechariah. It was, from a human perspective, the natural response to a lifetime of waiting.

I wonder how many of us are honest or courageous enough to admit that our doubts have led us to a place of discouragement and hopelessness. We have prayed and hoped and waited. And still, God seems silent and distant.

All of Zechariah’s life had been spent waiting. Hoping and waiting for Messiah. Hoping and praying and waiting for a son. And here, in his old age, when God finally shows up with answer to Zechariah’s prayers, his initial reaction is to question God. The answer did not come in the way he expected or in a time that was convenient. The long wait had led him to doubt.

Every year the church of Jesus Christ gathers to anticipate afresh the arrival of our King, Savior, and Messiah. God did not follow Zechariah’s timetable, nor did he follow Zechariah’s plan or take his counsel on how best to fulfill his promises.

This can be a hard thing to hear. It is hard to hear that God is doing something in our waiting that could not be done any other way. It is hard to hear that maybe, just maybe, I am not the center of God’s plan. I can wait and God can still be true to his word of “not [being] slow in keeping his promise.” (2 peter 3:9). But consider this: after his angelic encounter, Zechariah went home and trusted the Lord to accomplish all that had been spoken to him. He no doubt communicated to Elizabeth what had happened, and it is likely that she, seeing the miraculous sign of her husband’s sudden inability to speak, showed faith too.

Doubt’s consequences may well outlive doubt itself. In the end, Zechariah’s faith overcame his doubts; but the effects of those doubts—nine months of muteness—lasted until the day his son received his name. Happily, the effects of a thing are not that same as the thing itself. Doubt wins in our lives only when we persist in it—when we cling to it. And hope dies only when we give up on God’s ability to make a way in a hopeless situation. The moment doubt gives way to faith, hope is born. Doubt is understandable; it was understandable for Zechariah and it is understandable for us.

The moment doubt gives way to faith, hope is born.

Be encouraged. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a promise-keeper. The hope of Christmas is that despite our doubts he is faithful.