In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zachariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elisabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” (Luke 1:5-7)

Zachariah, whose name means “God remembers” was a priest during Israel’s Second Temple period.  Both he and his wife Elisabeth were devout in their faith, conscientiously following the requirements and traditions of Judaism. By now Zachariah was an old man, and Elisabeth was beyond child-bearing age; all hope of having children had now diminished with the advancing years, and all that seemed to be left for Zachariah was to live out his remaining days being faithful to his calling as a priest, serving in the temple when his family’s allotted time came round. He had seen dramatic changes in the temple during his lifetime. Gone was the small, quaint rustic edifice constructed by Zerubbabel  after the Babylonian exile some  500 years ago – that rough and run-down temple had been a mere shadow of the original built by Solomon, lacking the glory and grandeur of the first temple. It seemed to Zechariah that it was symbolic of Israel itself; God had been silent for 400 years, the prospect of Roman occupation loomed large, with the Zealots engaging in their campaign of guerrilla warfare – how long before the Deliverer, the long-promised Messiah would come and save Israel from her enemies?

Today Zachariah approached the temple and lifted his eyes to take in the new magnificent structure.  He could still scarcely believe the scale of the transformation: the Temple Mount expanded to cover the whole of Mount Moriah, and in the centre the glorious temple, rebuilt to the same scale and magnificence as that of Solomon. Lavish to the extreme, was this a prophetic sign that the fortunes of Israel were about to be restored? All this had been accomplished by King Herod some fifteen years ago, a no-expense-spared exercise culminating in a state-of-the-art temple for the people of Israel.  Zechariah felt a little uneasy: he couldn’t help feeling that the new structure was more a testimony to the glory of Herod than that of Jehovah. There was no shekinah glory in the holy of holies – there was no ark of the covenant. “Ichabod” thought Zachariah – there was an ache in his heart for the former glory of the temple to return.

Zachariah shook his head and shifted his thoughts to what he was about to do. Making his way through the crowds that had gathered in the courtyard awaiting the time of sacrifice, he entered the temple. Crossing the inner courtyard he headed for the door to the sanctuary. Once inside the sanctuary he could see the huge curtain resplendent in blue, white, scarlet and purple that separated the holy of holies from the inner sanctuary. There in front of the curtain was the golden altar of incense, and today it was his duty to administer the burning of incense on the altar. God had commanded the priests to burn incense on the golden altar every morning and evening, the same time that the daily burnt offerings were made. The incense was to be left burning continually throughout the day and night as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It was made of an equal part of four precious spices (stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense) and was considered holy. God had commanded the Israelites not to use the same formula outside the tabernacle to make perfume for their own consumption; otherwise, they would be cut off from their people (Exodus 30:34-38).

All was going well: the incense was burning as it should, and the intense fragrance was filling the room. Zachariah took a moment to savour the pleasure of the fragrance and to offer a prayer before Jehovah. On opening his eyes he was startled to see a figure standing to the right of the altar – the figure of a man, but a man like no other he had ever seen before. He looked at Zachariah with piercing eyes, and there was in intensity and an authority about him that cut Zachariah to the heart and made him feel…. well, sinful. Seeing the fear in Zachariah’s eyes, the figure spoke, his voice both commanding and yet reassuring. “Do not be afraid Zachariah, for your prayers have been heard, and your wife Elisabeth will bear you a son. You are to call him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before Jehovah. He must not drink wine or strong drink, for he will be a Nazirite; he will be filled with Ruach, the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to Jehovah their God, and he will be a forerunner in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just – to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Zachariah was struggling to take it all in, his mind was reeling. Who was this man, and what did all this mean? Doubts flooded into his mind. He blurted out, “How will I know this is true? Look, I’m an old man, and my wife is also advanced in years.” The figure replied, “I am Gabri’el. I stand in the presence of God – I was sent to you to bring you this good news. Now as a sign to you, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place because you did not believe my words. But they will be fulfilled in their time.”

The rest is history. Luke tells us that every word that Gabri’el spoke came to pass, and Elisabeth did indeed bear a son whom they named John. We will look at the rest of the story in subsequent days, but there is one more thing related to Zachariah that I want to look at, which has a greater significance than may be immediately obvious. From the scripture at the top of this page we can calculate when Yeshua was born. The result may surprise you!

The scripture tells us that Zachariah was “of the division of Abijah”. The priesthood was divided into twenty-four divisions, and they served in the temple in Jerusalem on a rotation system.  These divisions are listed in 1 Chronicles 24: 7-18. The way the system worked was that each division carried out their priestly duties in the temple twice a year for a week at a time; and in addition, during the festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Succoth) all the priests were required to serve. So the key question is, when did the division of Abijah serve in the temple?  

The first division served at the beginning of Nisan, or the first week of April in our calendar. The division of Abijah was the eighth division, so counting 8 weeks forward we arrive at a date of the first week of June. Now the conception of John the Baptist was by natural means (no doubt with a measure of supernatural assistance!), so by the time Zachariah had finished his week of duty in the temple and returned to his home in the Hebron hills, it is reasonable to suggest that conception took place towards the end of June. The rest is basic maths:  when Elisabeth was 6 months pregnant she was visited by Miriam (Mary) – this would have been late December. Thus the time at which Miriam conceived by the Holy Spirit was – late December. So Christmas is actually the time of Yeshua’s conception, not his birth. A normal term of pregnancy is about 38 weeks, so projecting forward 38 weeks from late December brings us to about the third week of September, or around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles! How appropriate it is that John tells us “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”. And of course, as if we needed another clue, the Feast of Tabernacles is also known as the Feast of His Appearing…….

Tomorrow we will look at the rest of this part of the story from Elisabeth’s perspective.