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The Voice - Part 1

Tom Pennington • Luke 1:5-25

  • 2018-12-09 AM
  • Sermons


Well it is our opportunity today to step away from our study of the book of Romans, and to begin to look at the theme of Christmas. And to do that I want us to turn to Luke's gospel, because here in Luke chapters 1 and 2 we find, as you know the most complete version of the Christmas story. We just read a moment ago the announcement of Jesus' birth to Mary. But of course, that's in chapter 1. In chapter 2 there is the account of Jesus' actual birth in Bethlehem. And woven in and out of that main story line is the remarkable story of a man we call John the Baptist. In fact, there is more space given to John in these two chapters than Jesus. Not because he's more important than Jesus, but because he is so important in the story of Jesus. There are so many similarities between the records of their two lives here in these two chapters. In both cases the angel Gabriel brings the announcement of their birth. And in both cases their births and circumcisions are recorded for us. And both of their birth narratives are followed by a prophecy. In fact, these two stories parallel each other by divine purpose. They are inseparably woven together in the gospel record. But the question is why? Why is John so important?

It's interesting when you think about it that not all of the gospels detail for us and record the birth of Christ, but all of them record the truth about John. Now why is more space given to announcing John's birth here than to announcing Jesus' birth? The answer to that is because John is an absolutely essential character in the life of Jesus Christ. Why is that? Well there are two primary reasons that John factors so importantly into the life of Christ. Number one, because John serves as a hinge between the Testaments. He is the point of continuity. He is the last Old Testament prophet; at the same time, he was not part of the new spiritual kingdom that Jesus came to establish. In fact, let me show you Jesus' own testimony about John. Turn over to Matthew chapter 11 and notice verse 7.

As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces! What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE ME.'"

Jesus says, John is the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophecy. The messenger who would come. Verse 11, "Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he."

Jesus says when you look at the prophet John, understand that to his time there wasn't one person who was greater, and yet he's not part of the spiritual kingdom I came to establish and the one who is least, the least of us who belongs to Jesus' spiritual kingdom is greater than John. You see John was part of the Old Testament and he was at the same time the transition to the new.

You see the Old Testament in our Bibles doesn't end as a completed story. It ends leaving its readers leaning forward in anticipation. The Old Testament doesn't conclude, it introduces the conclusion. In fact, let me show you, go back to Malachi, Malachi the last book in the Old Testament in our Bibles, is also the last of the Old Testament prophets. He wrote his prophecy some 400 years before Christ. And notice as he concludes Old Testament revelation what he has to say, Malachi 3 verse 1, this is God speaking, "Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me." So God's coming, but He's going to send a messenger first. "And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming," says the Lord of hosts."

So, the Lord is going to come to His temple, fulfilled obviously in Christ our Lord, but He will be preceded by this messenger. Go over to chapter 4 verse 2, "But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in His wings"—obviously, a reference to Jesus as it's made clear in the New Testament—"and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall."

So the Lord is coming; the Messiah is coming. Now when you get to verses 5 and 6 of chapter 4, they sort of have a two pronged point of emphasis. Look at what the prophet writes as he ends the Old Testament.

"Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the father to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse."

Now that prophecy is partially fulfilled in John the Baptist because as we'll see in Luke chapter 1 verse 17, this passage is referenced in reference to John the Baptist and yet it's not fully and completely fulfilled in him because this one will come, notice verse 5, "before the great and terrible day of the Lord." It will be perfectly fulfilled by an Elijah like prophet in the future, in the end times. But regardless, Malachi and this is the point I want you to get, Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet ends with an incomplete story, because he ends saying "the Lord is coming and before He comes will come the messenger." The Lord Himself will enter time and space, but first He will send a divinely picked messenger who will come in the spirit and power of Elijah. That's John. You see, John the Baptist is how we know that our faith is not the badly doctored ending to an already completed story. Jesus and Paul didn't add to the finished faith of Judaism. Old Testament Judaism and Christianity are not two different faiths. One is the

completion of the other. The New Testament is not badly tacked on to a complete Old Testament. The transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament is in fact seamless. The Old Testament ends with a promise of the Messiah coming and how would we recognize Him? There would first come a special messenger, a unique prophet who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah and he would announce Messiah's coming. He would prepare the way before Him in the way that a king in the ancient world would send a herald to prepare the way for his announced coming. John, you see, is the point of continuity. He is the hinge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Or think of it this way, John is the stitching that holds the Old Testament and the New Testament together.

But there's a second crucial role John plays and that is John is the key witness of the true Messiah. And this is why John is so crucially entwined with the Christmas story. Because he's the promised one, he's the designated messenger to announce Messiah. He is the voice who would come and say, 'that is Messiah.' That makes him a unique witness to the identity of the Messiah. John then is the last Old Testament prophet, the promised messenger, the voice and his chief roles are one, to prepare the people for the Messiah and two, to clearly point to and identify Messiah. That's him. And so for the Sundays leading up to Christmas, I want us to look at a remarkable passage that is really the hinge between the Old Testament and our New Testament and it is the introduction of the messenger. The one who would say, 'there's the Messiah, that's Him.' Because when you think about it the announcement of John's birth is really where the Christmas story begins. Let's read it together. Turn back now to Luke chapter 1. Let me begin reading in verse 1. Here's how Luke writing under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, begins his gospel record.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.

In other words, Luke says listen there were the Apostles who witnessed this all first hand, they have handed down, they've passed down to us the truth of what happened, now many have written about that, of course including the gospel writers who wrote before Luke. He says in light of that, verse 3, "It seemed fitting for me as well," note this "having investigated everything carefully from the beginning,"

When did he do that? He did that during the two years that he was with Paul while Paul was in prison on the coast of Palestine in Caesarea. He would have had immediate access to all of the witnesses, to all of the people involved in these records.

Having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. 5In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6They were both righteous in the sight of the God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.

That is the beginning of the record of the preparation for the Messiah's birth. As you will see, it is a truly amazing story in and of itself. But as we walk our way through this story, I want you to note with me, as it unfolds in several remarkable movements. Let's look at the story.

The first movement is in verse 5 and we'll call it the historical setting. As we noted in the first four verses that we just read, in the first four verses there of chapter one, Luke was committed to the careful investigation and presentation of the facts. And so, he doesn't begin his gospel with 'once upon a time.' This is not a fairy tale. This is not fiction. This occurred in space and time. And Luke gives us the historical context in the beginning of verse 5. Notice he says in verse 5, it was in Judea. There's the historical place where it happened. In the kingdom of Judea. Here, meaning the land of the Jews, or the land of Israel, or the land of Palestine. Do you ever ask yourself why? Why did God choose that little piece of land in the Middle East? Well if you look on a map you'll discover that on the east of that land was desert. And on the west of that land was the Mediterranean, both of which were difficult to travel in the ancient world. That meant if you wanted to travel between Europe and Asia, or you wanted to travel between Europe and Asia and Africa in the ancient world, your path took you through the land of Israel. You see God placed Abraham and his descendants there so that they could be a light to the nations of the world. God didn't send them out to the nations of the world, God brought the nations of the world there as you had to travel through that tiny piece of land. You see that tiny strip of land called Israel is important, not because it's a beautiful piece of property, but because of its location. It is a land bridge between the three great continents of ancient history and that little piece of land is where this story and the story of the Messiah unfolds.

Notice when this story unfolded, verse 5 says, ''in the days of Herod, king of Judea." This man figures prominently in the early chapters of the gospels because he was the ruler of Israel. This Herod, the one discussed here, was a remarkable man in many ways. He was born in the year 70 BC and he died in the year 4 BC. So, after the murder of the innocents in Bethlehem recorded in Matthew 2 this Herod passes off the scene. In fact, he died while Mary and Joseph were in Egypt with Jesus in order to protect Him. But let's talk a little bit about this Herod because he factors into what we're going to study together this morning. When Herod was 25 years old, just 25, his father appointed him as governor over Galilee. Eight years later in the year 37 BC while he was 33 years old Herod was placed as the king of Palestine. In fact, you'll find this interesting in light of what will happen later in Jesus' story, that the Roman Senate gave Herod this title, 'the King of the Jews.' But he was insanely paranoid about losing his position and rightfully so when you understand his background. You see, Herod was not Jewish, he was Edomian. His father was an Edomite. That means that he was from the neighboring country of Edom and he was a descendant not of Jacob, but guess who? Esau. Clearly this was not a popular leader. To consolidate his power and to strengthen his political base with the Jews he decided to marry into the royal Jewish family. And he did so by marrying a Jewish princess named Mariamne.

So understand then that when you think of this man Herod, he was a man who at a very early age in life, 25 years of age, he came to power because he inherited it in a sense from his father and then beyond that he gained his position by conniving, flattering, bribing, buying and battling his way into it. He became called Herod the Great. And to be fair he was a brilliant man. His achievements and the reason he was called great have to do with his architectural abilities. Herod built magnificent cities, like the beautiful port city of Caesarea, on the Mediterranean which when you go to Israel with us next year you will see. He built incredible palaces like that at Masada. But the crowning achievement of Herod's reign was the re-building of the temple in Jerusalem. Herod the Great.

Morally Herod was anything but great. He had 10 wives and more than a dozen children. He loved "Mariamne" most of all, but he began to suspect her family of political intrigue, trying to unseat him and so he secretly had her brother and her grandfather killed. Later he came to suspect Mariamne of infidelity and so he had her killed. And then her mother and then in the year 7 or 8 BC he executed her two sons. And of course, you understand that we're talking about the man who ordered the execution of all the male babies in the village of Bethlehem two years of age and younger probably somewhere around 20 to 25 infants. In 4 BC just five days before his death, he had his favorite son executed. And when he knew he was about to die, he knew that absolutely nobody in Israel would truly mourn his passing and so he had his soldiers arrest all the leading men of the nation, put them into a coliseum and he instructed that at the moment he died his soldiers were to get word and they were to kill all of those leading Jewish people as well. He knew that way he could insure at the moment of his death there would be genuine mourning across the nation. Fortunately, his soldiers didn't follow through on that command.

When you put all of the Biblical chronology together, the account we're going to study in Luke 1 was probably around 6 BC. About two years before this man dies. Now why do I take the time to give you that background? Because you need to understand that for God's people Israel, it was the worst of times. Some of us feel that way now about our own situation. But for Israel, it was the worst of times. There was no Ark of the Covenant, there was no glory cloud, no evidence of God's visible presence among His people. They had been subjected to the brutal heel of Rome, fully subjected to Rome's rule. And Rome had placed over them an Edomite, a violent, immoral descendant of Esau. This was the space and time in which this story occurs. So, the first movement here provides the historical setting.

The second movement introduces us to a stark contrast to Herod. We'll call the second movement – A Godly Priest. We see it in verse's 5-7, notice verse 5, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth."

In the days of that monster King Herod there lived a man and his wife who displayed exactly the opposite character. Now before we look at them, let me just ask you a question, where do these details that we're going to study together come from? Obviously, they're received under the inspiration of the Spirit; at the same time, we know that Luke used sources. It's interesting to note that if you read the original language, the Greek of verses 1 to 4 of chapter 1 are written in a formal classic style of Greek. But beginning in verse 5 of chapter 1 and running through the end of chapter 2 you have a kind of Greek that's more Jewish in flavor, more Semitic. We know that under the inspiration of the Spirit, Luke used a variety of sources to write his gospel. So, most commentators agree that the events of the first two chapters come either from an interview that Luke had with Mary or perhaps a series of interviews. Again, you remember Luke for two years during Mary's lifetime was based with Paul in Caesarea as Paul was held prisoner there and so he would have had immediate access to the whole country of Israel. And so, it's very possible that during that time he interviewed Mary, or if not that then this comes from a document or a diary that Mary herself had written from which Luke under the inspiration of the Spirit borrows. So understand then that the details of this account probably came from what Mary learned firsthand during her three months stay with Zacharias and Elizabeth after she was told she would have our Lord.

So, let's look then at what is provided to us from Luke and ultimately probably from Mary. Zacharias is this godly priest. Now Zacharias was a common Jewish name. It's also Zachariah, 31 different Biblical characters share this name. The name simply means 'Yahweh remembers.' That is 'He remembers His covenant promises.' He remembers what He's promised to do. Zacharias was a simple priest. He wasn't one of the priestly aristocracy who lived in Jerusalem, the Sadducees in wealth and power, instead verse 39 tells us that Zacharias and Elizabeth lived south of Jerusalem in that rugged part of the land of Israel called the hill country of Judah. Now you'll notice verse 5 also tells us that he belonged to the division of Abijah. What does that mean? Well, from the time of David the priests had been divided into 24 divisions. So, a thousand years before Christ, they set up 24 divisions of priests and even though only four of those divisions returned from captivity, the Babylonian captivity 500 years before, those who returned were again divided up again into those 24 divisions. And each division was given its original name. Zacharias belonged to the 8th division listed in 2 Chronicles, the division of Abijah. And he had married; notice verse 5 tells us, "a woman named Elizabeth." Elizabeth means 'my God is an oath.' What does that mean specifically? It means my God is absolutely reliable. His word is dependable, my God is like His oath, He can be counted on.

Now a priest was only allowed to marry a virgin from within Israel, but Zacharias married a woman who was also a descendant of Levi and Aaron. That meant two things, it meant one Zacharias was very serious about his duties as a priest and secondly that Elizabeth understood her husband. Since she was a descendant of Aaron, almost every male relative, her brothers, her uncles, her cousins, her father, her grandfather, her great grandfather would all have been priests as well. Now to be a priest in Israel was a wonderful thing. But to be a priest married to the daughter of a priest that was a great blessing. In fact, a common saying in that time for an excellent woman was, 'she deserves to marry a priest.'

But I want you to notice in verse 6, God's assessment of this couple. "They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord."

Now that verse is not telling us one thing about this couple, it's telling us two things about this couple. Two important spiritual realities about them. First of all, they both enjoyed imputed righteousness. They were both righteous in the sight of God. That does not mean they were inherently righteous. That God chose Zacharias and Elizabeth because they were such wonderful people. The Old Testament makes it clear. There is no one living who is righteous in Your sight O God. And Zacharias and Elizabeth were not an exception to that, just as I'm not and you're not. So, they weren't inherently righteous before God. That means that they had received this righteousness the same way we do. They had come to understand their sin; they had repented and they had embraced the work of the coming Messiah as their only hope for forgiveness and salvation. You say, "Did they really get all of that?" Turn to Luke chapter 1 and verse 67. Here's after John's birth, Zacharias makes a prophecy, verse 67, he "was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying," the first half of this poem is devoted to the Messiah's rescue of His people politically and physically from their enemies. The second half is about the Messiah's rescue of His people spiritually. Look down at verse 76, "And you, child," speaking about his son John "will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on BEFORE THE LORD TO PREPARE HIS WAYS;" you're going to be the one who prepares for Messiah and in so doing, verse 77, you will

"give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, 78because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, and to guide our feet into the way of shalom."

The way of spiritual wholeness. Yeah, Zacharias got it. He understood that his righteousness was not inherent. That his only way of a right standing before God was through the work of the coming Messiah. That's the same way we're made right with God as well. Let me just say if you're here this morning and you're not in Christ, you will never stand before God based on your own righteousness, you will never be good enough, in fact the Old Testament's clear. No one living is righteous in His sight. I'm not the exception to that, you're not the exception to that. As Zacharias and Elizabeth were not, your only hope like his is to come to the knowledge of your sins and to find forgiveness in Messiah, the One he anticipated.

Now go back to Luke 1 verse 6, because there's a second spiritual reality that's shared about this couple. Not only did they enjoy imputed righteousness, they were declared righteous through the work of the Messiah, but verse 6 says in addition they were walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. That isn't sinless perfection. It just means that the direction and pattern of their lives was in step with scripture. Let me ask you if you're here this morning and you're in Christ, you enjoy imputed righteousness. You sit here righteous because of the righteousness of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. Can you be described as walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord? Is your life in step with Scripture as theirs was? Is your spouse? Do the people that live in your house? Do they think of you in that way? That's how it ought to be in all our lives. If it's not true, then it's time for a change.

But in the sight of God this was a couple with an unblemished reputation. But that was not their reputation with everyone. Look at verse 7, "But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren," so in God's sight Elizabeth is righteous and blameless, so her barrenness has nothing to do with His disfavor. But that's not how everyone in the culture saw it. In fact, look down in verse 25, when Elizabeth learned she was going to have a child, notice how she describes it, "the Lord has intervened to take away my disgrace among men."

Now why would she think that way about not having children? It's because she lived in a culture that was heavily influenced by a theology called retribution theology. Retribution theology, and unfortunately there're still people who believe this today, retribution theology teaches that your circumstances in this world are directly the result of either God's favor or His disfavor. So, all you have to do is look at the outward circumstances of someone's life and you can know whether God is pleased with them or not pleased with them. When it came to children, when it came to offspring when you had that kind of theology, it meant that if you had children, God was pleased with you and had blessed you. If so, there are a lot of really blessed families in our church. If you had no children on the other hand, God must be displeased with you; there must be some hidden secret sin in your life. You remember that's how Job's friends thought as well when they saw the circumstances of his life. So ironically, these two who were righteous in God's eyes, who were blameless in their pursuit of the Scripture may not have been in the eyes of many of their peers. Folks don't ever forget that the prosperity preachers have it completely wrong. One state in this life does not necessarily reflect God's ultimate assessment. If you doubt that, read the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And let me just say pointedly to those of you that are here who are married and have wanted children and the Lord hasn't provided that, you just need to trust the Lord, that's His plan, it doesn't mean anything about His disfavor in your life any more than it meant that for Zacharias and Elizabeth.

But in the case of Zacharias and Elizabeth they had no hope because verse 7 adds, "they were both advanced in years." Now we're not told here how old they were, but in typical Jewish thinking and Jewish writings—I'm about to make some people uncomfortable here—typically old age is assumed to begin at the age of 60. I'm not saying that's still true, I'm just saying

that's what they thought. So, at this point the majority of this couple and their lives, the majority of their lives were gone. They had waited for many years, undoubtedly prayed fervently for a child in that culture until their hope had died to a flicker, and then the flicker had died. In spite of the fact that they had lived their entire lives with huge personal heartbreak and disappointment and even the sort of frown and disapproval of many in their culture, they still remained faithful to God, into old age. Faithful to His word, faithful to their calling. May God enable us to end our lives as well. You know I pray—myself—I pray for you all of you who are in Christ—I pray God help us to finish well. Read your Bible and it is shocking how many truly righteous good people live in honor of God through most of their lives and make a shipwreck at the end. May that never be true of us. May we be diligent to pray and to continue to walk blamelessly in the scripture as they're described.

Now that brings us to a third movement in the story here, let's call it a unique privilege. Verses 8 through 10. Verse 8 says, "Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division." Now I think you understand that there was only one temple, but of course there were many priests. Josephus tells us that in the first century there were about 18,000 priests who served the temple. And so they couldn't all show up at the same time most of the year. You didn't need 18,000 priests every day at the temple. And so they served on rotation and all 24 of the priestly divisions; they were all on duty three times a year. They were on duty at the required national feasts where all the Jewish males were to come. Now obviously they had a huge volume of people showing up, you needed more priests, so they were all there, all 24 divisions were there for Passover. They were there for Pentecost in the summer, and they were there for Tabernacles or Booths in the fall. In addition to those three annual feasts, every year each of the division were responsible to serve at the temple two separate weeks during the year.

So the rest of the year you lived in your own town somewhere in Israel, you lived and you did your job. Maybe you were a farmer, maybe you were a tradesman. You did what you were responsible to do week in and week out. And then on the Sabbath Day wherever you were living in the land of Israel as a priest, you were to teach the people the law of God. But then for two weeks every year, if you were a priest, you would travel to Jerusalem and assist with the duties of the temple. Much of the responsibilities of a priest had to do with a sacrificial system. The priests were in effect butchers, dealing with the huge volume of animals that were brought by individuals for sacrifice. We're told here that these events occurred during one of Zacharias' two annual weeks of service. Verse 8,

Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

Josephus tells us that each of the 24 divisions contained about 750 men. Because there were only a few really special duties to do during your two weeks' service and there were too many priests to spread them among, every day they drew lots for who would get those special duties. But by far the premium duty, the most sought after duty by every priest was burning the incense in the temple. You see twice a day at 9 a.m. and at 3 p.m. as Exodus 30 verses 6 through 8 required, a priest would enter into the temple. And he would go into the holy place to burn incense on a golden altar of incense in order to represent the prayers of God's people.

Sitting here today, we can't fully appreciate the unique privilege this was. But think of it this way. This was such a special privilege that the Jewish Mishnah said a priest could only do this one time his entire life. Many priests died without ever getting the opportunity because remember you had a one in 750 chance 14 days a year. This was in reality a once in several lifetimes' opportunity. Think about Zacharias, he had become a priest as they all did at the age of 30. He became active in his service as a priest. Now he's older than 60, so for more than 30 years Zacharias has served his two weeks in addition to the national feasts at the temple. But this was the only time the lot fell on him. The only time he got the white stone. You remember Proverbs says that the lot is cast into the lap, but the outcome is of the Lord. That meant that on that day Zacharias had been chosen by God Himself to actually enter the temple.

Again, we really have no sense of how magnificent that building was. Herod's temple was an incredible piece of architecture. By the time of Jesus' death, they had been working on it for nearly 50 years. Let me see if I can describe it for you. Herod had created a huge raised platform for the entire temple area. Think of it as an upside-down shoebox that is covering the hill that is Mount Zion. And that platform was huge, in fact it was 400 yards long by 330 yards wide. It was more than four football fields long and over three football fields wide. It was some 35 acres. There were huge courtyards surrounded by beautiful arched balustrades. But the focal point of that huge temple mount was right in the very center a building, and that was the temple proper. Think about that, the temple itself on that huge temple mount. The temple itself at its front was 150 high by 150 wide - in other words, 50 yards high by 50 yards wide. It was a massive structure. If you had walked inside of it, you would have entered immediately into the Holy place where the priests ministered by lot daily. If you walked to the back of that room the holy place you would have come against a huge veil. And behind that veil was a small room that was a perfect cube, 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet. It is the Holy of Holies, is it where the ark of the covenant was, it is the throne room of Israel's God, it's where the glory cloud lived and made its presence known. And that room the Holy of Holies, that perfect little cube was accessible only by one man the High Priest, and only one time a year on the Day of Atonement.

But going back to the holy place, from the porch of the holy place if you came out of the holy place and began to exit the temple there were 12 steps that led down to the court of the priests and in the middle of the court of the priests there was a huge bronze altar. That altar was 30 feet long by 30 feet wide and 15 feet high. You could only access it by steps, by stairs. So with that in mind think about what happened that morning. That morning that's recorded here Zacharias was chosen by lot to enter the temple. Can you imagine the shock? This man has served for more than 30 years as a priest and it's never been him. But he was chosen. We don't know

whether he drew lots for the 9 o'clock the morning time or for 3 o'clock the afternoon time, but we do know this he would have immediately chosen two fellow priests, family members or friends to help him and then he would have immediately begun to prepare himself. When the time came, either 9 or 3, Zacharias and his two assistants would have gone into the court of the priests and they would have walked up the stairs to that huge altar on which there was a constant fire burning the sacrifice and there they would have taken a metal fire pan, a flat saucer-like dish held by chains and carried by those chains and they would have put on that fire pan with the tongs that were selected, burning coals from the altar. And then with trembling hand and heart they would have walked off of that altar down the steps back to the court of the priests, having gotten the burning coals from the altar they would have also acquired fresh incense. And then with their hearts racing I can promise you, they walked across the court of the priests and then slowly with all of the other priests, the 750 other priests on duty and the crowds of Israelites surrounding them and watching they ascended those 12 steps to the porch of the temple. Then they opened the door and they walked in.

Once their eyes adjusted to the light they would have seen only three pieces of furniture. To their left was a golden lampstand, to their right would have been the table for the Bread of the Presence as it was called. And straight ahead of them would have been that massive curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies and just in front of that curtain was a golden altar of incense. Here's what happened once they got into that room, one of the men took the hot coals in that fire pan that they had taken in the bronze altar in the courtyard, and went up and emptied those coals with the tongs onto that golden altar of incense and then he would have without turning his back to that curtain and the Holy of Holies behind it, he would have backed himself slowly out of the temple and withdrawn himself from the temple. The second assistant that Zacharias had chosen would have then taken the fresh incense and have walked up to the altar of incense and have placed the incense there beside those burning coals and he too would have slowly without turning have backed himself out and removed himself from the temple. Zacharias then was left inside the temple all alone.

When you read your Bibles try to do so with a glorified imagination. Imagine for a moment what that would have been like. When you knew this was the place that God Himself had chosen to manifest His Presence. This was the throne room of your God and you are there alone. He had waited his entire life for this moment. What did he do? Well he did what all the priests were supposed to do when he came to this moment, he said a prayer for the redemption of Israel. And then he walked forward and he placed the new incense that was there on the Altar of Incense onto those burning coals and immediately they began to flame and the smoke began to rise from that incense and it rose into the air and over and around that massive curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies and it was to picture the prayers of God's people. The prayers of God's people rising from them through the mediator into the very presence of God.

Now while all of that was happening notice verse 10, "And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering."

You see at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, many of the people of Jerusalem and those who were guests who had come to visit the temple from all over the land and beyond. They would gather at the temple at those two hours, why? Because at 9 and 3 two things happened. One, was a sacrifice was offered, and the other was the lighting of the Altar of Incense. And they would gather at that time for prayer and that's what they were doing. What an unforgettable moment for Zacharias. It was the most solemn moment of his entire life. And what a beautiful picture for us because that ceremony that we just discovered was intended to picture spiritual realities that haven't changed even to this day. Realities that are still true for you and me even as we sit here this morning.

What are those realities? Reality number one. No one can approach a Holy God directly. No one can approach a Holy God directly. That's what the whole thing was meant to picture. The priests and the priests alone and only one of them could bring and ignite that incense picturing the prayers of the people. Why? Because the prayers had to come through a mediator. Through the priest. Secondly and that's the second lesson. We can only enter the presence of God through a mediator. The second reality is that we can only enter the presence of God through a mediator. Even our prayers, think about this, this is just how sinful we are, even our prayers are not acceptable to God apart from a mediator. But today it is no longer an earthly priest. First Timothy 2 verse 5 says, "there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus." In fact, this reality of the prayers of God's people offered to God through the mediator is still very much a reality.

Turn to the book of Revelation. Revelation chapter 5, you're familiar with the scene here, the Lamb who has just been slain picturing our Lord. Takes the title deed to the earth, the book, the scroll. It's the title deed to the earth sealed with seven seals and as He takes that title deed and begins to break each seal judgement rains down on the earth as He takes it back for Himself. This is an event still future. But I want you to see how this is described, verse 8 of Revelation 5, "When He had taken the book,"—when the Lamb had taken the title deed to the earth—"the four living creatures,"—these are heavenly beings, angelic beings—"and the twenty four elders"—in the book of Revelation that represents the church, it represents believers—"the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb," and notice "each one of the saints are holding a harp" that represents our praises to God "and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."

When you fast forward into the future, God still is thinking of the prayers of His people in this way. When John wrote the book of Revelation, it was some 15 to 20 years after the temple had been destroyed and he's still thinking of the prayers of God's people in this kind of picture. Go over to chapter 8, Revelation 8 verse 3,

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hands.

In other words the events of the judgements that unfold on earth during the tribulation are seen as an answer to the prayers of the saints and those prayers are pictured with that same picture of incense offered to God.

And that brings us to the third spiritual reality that's pictured in that scene. Number one, no one can approach a Holy God directly. Number two we can only enter the presence of God through a mediator, and thirdly and this is amazing, our prayers are a sweet smell to God. That's what it's intended to picture. It's incense. A sweet smell of incense and as that odor, that fragrance rises into the air and goes beyond that curtain, into the Holy of Holies, it pictures God smelling the prayers of His people and finding them sweet to Him. You see, we are commanded to pray. We are invited to pray. But have you ever thought of the fact that our prayers are a sweet smell in the nose of God? He finds joy and delight when we pray to Him. Why? Because we are acknowledging our dependence on Him for everything.

That day, Zacharias participated in the ancient ceremony that pictures what still happens every day today, we pray and our heavenly mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ takes those prayers and He offers them to the Father on our behalf. He is the intermediary. He is the mediator. He is the priest. Hebrews chapter 7 verse 25 says of Jesus, "He always lives to make intercession for us." He is the one who takes our prayers and offers them to the Father and as they rise to the Father they're a sweet, sweet fragrance to Him. Have you ever thought about your prayers that way? That's the picture God gave us.

Little did Zacharias know that God was about to answer both his prayers. You say what were his prayers? Well number one, a personal prayer that he had undoubtedly stopped praying years before, the prayer for a son. And the priestly prayer that he was praying at that exact moment. A prayer that God would send the Redeemer, that He would send a Savior, that He would send theMessiah. And as he prayed that prayer wafted into the nostrils of God like incense. At that moment all heaven stood breathlessly waiting for what would happen next. And Lord willing we'll see it together next week. Let's pray.

Our Father, we are amazed at Your grace. That You not only command us to pray. You not only invite us to pray, but that You find our prayers like sweet incense rising into Your presence. O God forgive us for not being more diligent to pray. Thank You Father that You also respond to prayer. Thank You that You're about to respond to Zacharias and Elizabeth's prayer for a son. That You had already determined to do this but that You would do it through answering their prayer is amazing to us. Father, even more astounding is that You're about to send the Redeemer in answer to the prayers of Your people. Father, help us who are Your own to celebrate this season, remembering that our Lord Jesus Christ is an answer to the prayers of the saints. May we celebrate His first coming and may we pray diligently for His second coming. Father, I pray for those here this morning who are not in Christ. Lord help them to see their only hope is to be righteous like Zacharias and Elizabeth. Not with their own inherent righteousness, because no man living is righteous before You. But with the righteousness that comes through the work of the Messiah, through the work of Jesus of Nazareth, His perfect life, His substitutionary death and His resurrection. And Father may this be the day when they really for the first time begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We pray it in His name, thank You that even this prayer that we pray together is a sweet fragrance to You, in Jesus' name, Amen.