Did you know that even the oldest, godliest believers can doubt God…and be disciplined for it?
If you were a member of the clergy, a priest of God, and a blameless man who had served the Lord for many decades, and an angel appeared to you announcing that God heard your prayer and would answer it, would you believe the message?
Before you answer, think of Zacharias. In Luke 1:18 we read: And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” This is a humbling passage. It means that even godly people who believe a great deal of truth about God, who are well advanced in their walk with God, can still struggle with doubt and unbelief in other areas. Some people believe that God gives “the elect” special faith that can never fail. Not true. As Ryle comments, “The stories of Abraham and Isaac and Moses and Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat all show us that a true believer may sometimes be overtaken by unbelief” (Ryle, Luke, 24). So does the story of Zacharias. If a godly and mature believer like Zacharias could not believe the angel’s good news, how would carnal and rebellious Israel respond?
Notice why Zacharias had trouble believing the promise? He and Elizabeth were too old! In other words, what did he focus on? The problem. That is, he was focused on their infertility instead of on God’s sufficiency. He had his eyes on the creature, not the Creator; their problem, not His promise. So, standing before an archangel, gloriously giving him good news, Zacharias wanted proof! But you have to wonder, how much more proof could Zacharias want? He had Malachi’s prophecy, and he heard the words directly from an angel!
To be fair to Zacharias, Abraham asked a similar question when God promised him a son, saying, “Lord GOD, how shall I know that I will inherit it?” (Gen 15:8). Although Zacharias asked a question similar to Abraham’s, it appears his question was asked out of disbelief. He wanted a sign, but perhaps out of the wrong motives, an issue explored and condemned elsewhere in Luke (cf. Luke 11:15-16, 29). Consequently, Zacharias was disciplined for his disbelief.
Gabriel reminded Zacharias of his authority: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.” Gabriel means “man of God.” Incidentally, there are five angels named in the Bible, and two are unfallen, Gabriel and Michael. Though there is very little Biblical information about Gabriel, he previously appeared to Daniel to give him an understanding of a vision (cf. Daniel 8:16; 9:21), and he now appeared to announce two births. In fact, Gabriel was sent “to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings.” The word translated as glad tidings is euaggelizō, meaning “bring good news, announce good news” (BDAG, p. 402). The good news is not the message of how you can be born again. At least, not necessarily. It is used 25 times in Luke-Acts and refers to good news about a great many things. Here, it is about Messiah’s birth. Elsewhere, it is the good news that Jesus is the Christ (e.g., Acts 5:42), or more emphatically, the good news of the kingdom of God (e.g., Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16). In other words, what Zacharias doubted was the gospel! No wonder, then, that Zacharias would experience temporal discipline for doubting God’s word.
As part of his discipline, Zacharias would be “mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” His discipline was being mute until after John was born, which is ironic: Gabriel spoke glad tidings to him, but because of his unbelief, he would not be able to share those glad tidings with others! God’s prophetic silence had been momentarily broken, only to be extended another ten months and eight days (there is a popular belief that pregnancy is nine months long, but that is wrong). J. C. Ryle says that Zacharias “was daily reminded that through unbelief he had offended God” (Ryle, Luke, p. 25). On the other hand, John R. Rice thought that Zacharias would have been strangely comforted by his silence. How so? “Every day Zacharias, who could not speak, had the evidence that God would fulfill the promised answer to his long beseeching prayer” (Rice, Luke, 35). Likely, Zacharias had both kinds of thoughts. But every failure to make a sound was another day of expectantly waiting for the birth of his son and the coming of the Messiah after him.
Zacharias’ experience is also a reminder to all believers that you cannot rest on your laurels. Your past obedience is no guarantee of your future faithfulness. And contrary to what many preachers say, continuous belief is not guaranteed to even the most mature saint. I say it is not guaranteed, but it is expected and commanded (Heb 12:1-2). And the one who stumbles on the promises and doubts God’s Word, can expect to experience some “quiet time” to rethink his position.