GRACE BIBLE CHURCH
Robert R. McLaughlin Bible Ministries
The Tree of Life is a weekly teaching summary.
for the week ending 12/28/03
God does His best work in impossible situations. Luke 1:5-25
God is full of surprises. In fact, God seems to specialize in surprises, but especially the impossible. Many times we expect Him to do one thing, and He does another. We anticipate His movement in one direction, but often it is in another. Sometimes we trust Him to handle something immediately, and He waits and it seems to take forever. Then other times we anticipate waiting for a long time, and almost overnight He has solved what appeared to be the impossible. God loves to do the things that we have absolutely no power to do, and that's the way He has planned our lives. What we call impossible, God sees as no problem at all, MAT 19:26, "With men this [insert your worst problem here] is impossible, but with God all things are possible"; LUK 1:37, "For nothing will be impossible with God." "Nothing," not even the most overwhelming obstacle, will be impossible to overcome with God. These things happen exactly as God has planned. His solutions are better than what we could ever devise. And it is often more impossible than we would ever believe. We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as "impossible situations." Many times, believers are convinced that there is no way even God could intervene in their life, and therefore, they miss out on some of God's best work. God prefers to work in that situation that you deem"impossible." When we throw up our hands and say, "There is no way," God loves to prove Himself God.
We are about to study an older couple in Luk 1 who became the recipients of an "impossibility" from God; they are going to have a baby in spite of their age. Some of God's best gifts come in the form of tiny infant surprises and unexpected arrivals. They can turn an entire family around and change lives. This case in point is found in the Gospel of Luke, the wonderful story of Zacharias and Elizabeth. No one knows exactly how old they were, but they may have even been in their eighties; they were past the age of being able to conceive.
The story begins with the words of the prophet Malachi, who four centuries earlier had predicted that One would come who would be the SUN of righteousness, that there would be a "sunrise" of righteousness, and He would have "healing in his wings." He, of course, would be Messiah, MAL 4:1-6, "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,' says the Lord of hosts, 'so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,' says the Lord of hosts. 'Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet [John the Baptist, according to MAT 11:14] before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.'"
The One called the "Sun of Righteousness," the Lord Jesus Christ, would be preceded by a forerunner with the "spirit of Elijah." This prophet that would come ahead of Jesus would come in the spirit of power, and he would turn the hearts of fathers back to their children. He would turn the disobedient back to God and His righteousness. His name was John the Baptist.
We read in LUK 1:16-17, "'And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'" It would be the role of the forerunner to announce the Messiah's arrival. Christmas is a time when we, as ambassadors of Christ (EPH 6:20, 2CO 5:20), should announce that the Messiah has come, by whatever means possible.
The words of Malachi, 400 years before the birth of John the Baptist, were written at the beginning of the intertestament period (between the Old and New Testaments), during which no further scripture was given to the Jews. The voice of no prophet was heard, and the pen of the scriptural writer was silent. It was as if God had abandoned His people, and they were left to wonder if Malachi's prediction would ever come to pass-if the Sun would ever shine again. No one in those days would have expected God to begin His process of change in the lives of a "senior citizen" couple, a couple who had long since forgotten about being all that significant in God's plan, especially since they lived in the days of Herod, Luk 1:5, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth."
Herod the "great" was the one who, according to MAT 2:16, murdered all the male children in Bethlehem and its suburbs, of age two years and under. Herod was a terrible tyrant and a political savage. At this time when violence, cruelty, and craftiness ruled the throne of the political authorities over the Jews, when the tunnel seemed longest and darkest, who would have ever expected that God would step in and bring fulfillment to the words of Malachi? No one did!
Notice something very interesting in Luk 1:5, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias." Notice the phrase "a certain priest." In the midst of the darkness, discouragement, and depression of an era when it seemed that God would be silent for the rest of time, God slipped onto the scene of this earth, and He pointed to an aging priest.
His wife was an aging, gray-headed woman; she was barren and many Jews believed that she had been cursed by God. Zacharias and Elizabeth were childless, which was a tragedy for a married couple in that time. According to the Jewish Rabbis, there were seven kinds of people who were excommunicated from God; the list began: "A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child." Today, we do not live in a land where childlessness is a disgrace. However, in spite of their times, and in spite of their barrenness, we read some beautiful words about Zacharias and Elizabeth in LUK 1:5-9, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Now it came about, while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense."
This may sound like a mundane, boring job to us in the twenty-first century A.D. However, at the time, it was considered a great privilege. The common practice was that the priest would go into the Temple accompanied by two associates who would stir up the coals and add fuel to the coals to get them burning hot. Then he would step into the holy presence of God, and he would pour the incense upon the altar, which would explode into a cloud of incense and smoke, an aroma for "the nostrils of God." It was Zachariah's privilege to perform this task because there were 20,000 or more priests who lived in or around Jerusalem, and many of them never had this privilege. It would not be uncommon for a man to go through all his years as a priest and never be drawn by lot to enter into the holiest place of all. Little did Zacharias realize it was about to become one of the greatest moments of his life, and that even this experience would be insignificant compared to what was coming in the future.
While he was inside, the congregation remained outside, LUK 1:10, "And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering." They would be waiting in prayer; sometimes they would break into spontaneous song, which they would sing awaiting the return of the priest. No priest stayed inside the temple long, lest he profane the sacred place of the Shekinah glory of God. But Zacharias was gone for quite a while, LUK 1:11, "And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense." There are two angels named for us in scripture-Michael and Gabriel. This is Gabriel, the messenger angel, who will come again in the near future to bring a message to Mary (who has no idea that she is about to be visited by the same angel). He is the same angel who visited Daniel centuries ago. The limitations of space and time do not affect supernatural beings.
We now read in verse 12, "And Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear gripped him." Of course he was troubled and fear gripped him; the same would be true of you and me. But God is full of surprises, He never runs out of fresh ideas, and He wants to get Zacharias' attention. Zacharias stands and stares and cannot believe his ears, when the angel speaks to him, in fact calling him by name.
We need to start thinking "vertically" ("Set your mind on the things above," COL 3:2), rather than limiting ourselves by thinking "horizontally" ("Do not love the world," 1JO 2:15). We are trained and experienced horizontally in this world, which is all the more reason to become good students of the scriptures so that we may be trained vertically. And if we do, we will not be so surprised when God does something great in our lives. Zacharias is stunned and awakened by the presence of the angel, who says to him, "your petition has been heard," LUK 1:13-14,"But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.'" He was essentially saying, "Malachi told the truth." What Malachi had prophesied was coming to pass.
Gabriel continues in LUK 1:15-17, "For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother's womb. [The Greek word for "filled" here is not pleroo, used for the filling of the Spirit; it is pletho, which means supplied, accomplished, or furnished.] And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." The angel is saying that Malachi's words are true, and your wife will bear the forerunner of the Messiah.
What an honor for Elizabeth and for Zacharias to be the parents of the forerunner of Messiah! However, Zacharias gets hung up on the statement, "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son," and this is where he stops listening. Like many of us, he was a man who was fixed on the horizontal rather than the vertical. He focused on age; he gave in to doubts and skepticism. People will always remind us of the limitations, but we must learn to live in the freedom of the future rather than the guilt of the past.
Zacharias does not come right out and say, "I don't believe you Gabriel." He does it much more subtly, LUK 1:18-19, "And Zacharias said to the angel, 'How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.' And the angel answered and said to him, 'I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news.'" Gabriel says, "I am the mighty one of God (which is what the name "Gabriel" means), and I stand in the presence of the living God." Imagine the centuries Gabriel has been there and the things he has seen and heard. He has known one miracle after another. It is unacceptable to Gabriel to question the power of the living God, even by implication. So he responds with words of judgment, but also of mercy, LUK 1:20, "And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time." Until Zacharias' wife conceives, carries, and bears the child and he names him John at his circumcision, Zacharias will not speak a word.
The people are still outside the temple waiting for him and wondering where the priest could be, wondering if perhaps he profaned the altar of incense. Perhaps he had incurred reproof, or even his own death! The story continues inLUK 1:21, "And the people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple." This is the greatest message of Zacharias' life; God's message delivered by Gabriel, instilled in his soul, and left for him to announce to the nation, and all he can do is go out and shake his head and move his arms and hands, LUK 1:22, "But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute." This man has had such a great experience, but he is not able to communicate it! And he will learn a lesson in silence he never learned when he had speech. He is learning that when God gives you a promise, you can count on Him keeping that promise. To think that an "ordinary" couple would be the vehicle for giving birth to the forerunner-what a contribution to the world! And they were not better than you and me-God used them, and He can use you.
Notice that there is nothing mentioned of any unbelief on Elizabeth's part; as far as we know, she never questioned it,LUK 1:23-25, "And it came about, when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home. And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant; and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 'This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.'" Notice the difference. She says, "This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me," as opposed to her husband, who said, "How shall I know for certain?"
When God sends those surprises, He has something very special in mind. The story of Zacharias and Elizabeth is not over, but we have already seen some great lessons to live by:
1. Our impossibilities are the platforms upon which God does His best work. You may have a son or daughter who is out of control and impossible for you to discipline&ldots;you may have a marriage that is waning and it looks as though there is no hope&ldots; This is where God proves that nothing is impossible with Him.
2. God can do His best work when we are faced with such impossible situations. Your health, job situation, and all other problems can never frustrate God and His plan. There are lessons to be learned in the waiting period until He comes through and deals with the situation.
3. God's delays are not necessarily His denials. Don't misinterpret a "wait" for a "no." Don't assume that if the solution has not come in a matter of a few days or a few weeks, that God is saying "no" or "never"; He is simply saying, "not right now." And rather than allowing this to be a cause for doubt, let it be a cause for growth. Use this as a time to dive into the doctrinal principles that you have so long taken for granted.
4. When God intervenes, His surprises are always for His immediate glory and for our ultimate good&ldots;even the unplanned pregnancies, the unexpected calamities. As Job said, "Shall I receive good at the hand of God and not calamity also? Shall I give him praise for good health and curse His name when ill health strikes?"
God is a sovereign God who has the right to say "no," just as He has the sovereign right to say "yes." If you believe that He is a gracious God only when He says "yes," you will live a very confused life. He is a sovereign God who has every right to surprise us. Whatever your life has been like over the last year, you are no match for God. He has wonderfully and graciously brought you to this place where you will listen, and He is pointing you to His son Jesus Christ, who has now come and died, and He is saying to you, "Start there, at the Cross." Begin rebuilding your whole life around His eternal perspective and you will never be the same. We are all facing a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.
For a more detailed study, order tapes IA11-357 to IA11-359.