The Consequences of Unbelief
Because we know that God is love, and because we have read about the gentleness of Jesus, Christians sometimes forget that there are, in fact, consequences for our sins. What we often fail to understand is that God's love is not at odds with His judgment.
And the reason God's love is not at odds with His judgment is explained by the author of Hebrews, "(God) disciplines us", he writes, "for our own good, that we may share in His holiness", and, "to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness"(Heb.12:10, 11).
God disciplines us, not because He is a tyrant, but because He wants us to be holy. Those of you who are parents know what I am talking about. We discipline our children, not to exasperate them, but in order to protect them and to help them. Such is the case with God--His discipline is always aimed at accomplishing a holy purpose.
But let's be honest. Holy purpose or not, discipline is not pleasant. Discipline brings us sorrow, not joy. So, even though we regard the discipline of God as a good thing, it is not something we invite. I suspect we would all agree that we would rather grow in holiness by believing and obeying than by the means of God's correction and discipline.
That being the case, the discipline of Zacharias should serve as a helpful example to us. We want to avoid discipline, and we do so by trusting in, and following, the Word of God.
We learn, first of all--in verse 5, that Zacharias was a priest. Secondly, we learn in verse 6, that both he and his wife Elizabeth were considered "righteous in the sight of God". We infer then, that Zacharias was a genuine believer in God. And not simply a genuine believer, but Zacharias was also a well-instructed and upright man who Luke describes as "walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord"(v.6). In addition to that, Zacharias is described as being "advanced in years"(v.7), meaning that he was probably considered to be among the most experienced saints of his time.
This is important to remember because, very shortly, we will see Zacharias punished for his unbelief. This is important to remember because, since we know Zacharias was a genuine believer, he becomes for us a striking example of the pains a Christian may have to suffer as the result of unbelief.
Before Luke explains the priestly activity Zacharias was chosen to do, he includes some personal information when he reports that Zacharias and Elizabeth "had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years." This information will come into play in a few verses.
Verses 8 and 9 explain that it was the appointed time for a priest "to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense." While there is nothing out of the ordinary about a priest burning incense in the temple, it was an extremely special occasion for the priest carrying out the task. You see, in those days, there were many priests and not enough sacred duties and so, as verse 9 tells us, lots were cast to see who would perform each function. Extrabiblical sources indicate that a priest could not offer incense more than once in his entire lifetime(Mishnah, Tamid 5:2), and some priests never did receive the privilege. Thus, when Zacharias offered incense in the temple, it was to be a very special occasion.
As you can tell by verse 11, this occasion became more special than Zacharias could have ever imagined. What ultimately made this day special was that "an angel of the Lord appeared to (Zacharias), standing to the right of the altar of incense."
After calming Zacharias down, the angel proceeded to give Zacharias the most extraordinary news of his life, "Zacharias . . . your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John"(v.13).
As Calvin and others have said, "it is hardly probable that Zacharias did, at that (particular) time, pray to obtain a son, of which he had despaired on account of his wife's advanced age". It is more likely that the angel was reporting that Zacharias' prayer for a child throughout his life was now being answered.
And how does Zacharias respond to this news? He says to the angel, "How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?"(v.18).
To us, perhaps, this seems like a reasonable question. But, as we'll soon see by the angel Gabriel's response, Zacharias' question was not appropriate. As Spurgeon has said, "because (Zacharias) was a venerable priest, one thoroughly schooled in sacred truth, a man who for many years instructed the people of Israel in the oracles of God, it became a crying evil for him to say, "How shall I know this?"".
Two things are present here that make Zacharias' question sinful. The first is that Zacharias doubted the promise of God. He makes reference to his age and to Elizabeth being beyond childbearing years. Zacharias doubts that what the angel is saying is physically possible. The second thing indication of unbelief is that Zacharias asks for a sign. He asks, "How shall I know this?".
Of course, those of you who know your Old Testament well, know that this is not the first time someone doubted a promise given to them from a heavenly source. And this is not the first time someone asked God for a sign. Abraham doubted that he could have a son in his advanced years, but he was not rebuked by God. Gideon asked God for a sign and was given one without any rebuke.
So what is the difference? Is God arbitrary? Is God inconsistent with how He deals with us? No, of course He isn't. The first thing we should recognize as we compare Abraham and Gideon with Zacharias is that we are only able to examine words. God, on the other hand, does not make His judgments simply on words. God does not discipline us solely by what we say because His eye is able to pierce the depths of our heart. We cannot see the spirit behind Zacharias' question, but God can--and on this basis, Zacharias is rebuked.
Keep in mind, also, that the thing the angel pronounced was the very thing Zacharias had been praying many years for. And even though the angel's promise was a distinct answer to his prayers, Zacharias still asked, "How shall I know this?".
If the promise of a child came as a surprise altogether, as it did to Mary, there would be excuse for Zacharias' doubt. But since the promise was a direct reply to his prayers, since the promise was a gracious answer to his intense requests, Zacharias' unbelieving question is regarded by God as sin.
Yet, even as I bring you this Scripture that shows the judgment of God on Zacharias' unbelief, I am aware that from time to time we too are guilty of this sin. For some of us, nothing would surprise us more than to actually receive a positive answer to some of our prayers. Though we believe in answered prayer, at times our faith is so weak that when the answer comes, we are astounded and amazed.
Since we too are often guilty of this unbelief, we should be sobered by the fact that Zacharias was physically disciplined for his unbelief. The angel answers Zacharias and says, "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. 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"(v.19, 20).
Zacharias was made mute because he did not believe Gabriel's words. Moreover, Zacharias had the additional affliction of being made deaf at the same time. How do I know that he was deaf? Have a look at verse 62, "they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted (the child) called". If Zacharias had been able to hear there would have been no need to use signs; but he could not hear any more than he could speak. Zacharias was made both deaf and dumb because of his unbelief.
Put yourselves, for the moment, in Zacharias' shoes. We know what it is like to battle unbelief--don't we? We can surely identify with both Zacharias and the man who exclaimed, "I do believe; help my unbelief"(Mk. 9:24).
Think about what it would be like to be both deaf and dumb--not simply for a day, but for more than 9 months. Surely, this was painful discipline. Zacharias could no longer bless or instruct the people as their priest. Even worse, at the news of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Zacharias could not audibly rejoice with her.
All this because Zacharias doubted a promise from God. Look at the Bible in front of you. It has many promises from God--do you believe them? Or are you like many who believe some of the promises, but not all of the promises? It is a dangerous thing to harbour unbelief. It is a dangerous thing to doubt the veracity of God's Word. The difficulty is that we are little aware of how many Divine chastisements come upon us as a result of our unbelief.
We can be sure that we are disciplined by God for our unbelief because this is the consistent pattern of Scripture. When Jesus visited Nazareth, we are told that He did very few miracles because of the unbelief of the people (Mk. 6:5,6). A more striking example is found in Numbers 20:12 where we learn that the unbelief of Moses and Aaron was the direct reason for why God did not allow them or their entire generation to enter the Promised Land.
When we are unbelieving we cannot properly glorify God or enjoy Him. There can be no joy or comfort where there is doubt and unbelief. We must trust in God's promises if we are to glorify God. We see this in the book of Romans, where Abraham is described as glorifying God by "not wavering in unbelief" and by "growing strong in faith"(Rom. 4:20).
My prayer is that you could be described in these terms. As you read the Scriptures I pray that you would not waver in unbelief, and that you would grow in your faith in Christ.
By this, your joy is preserved and God's glory is displayed in us. Amen.