When I say, “That person is devote,” what picture comes to mind? A “devote Jew” or “devote follower of Mohamad” or “devote Hindu.” What does a “devote” Christian look like? In 2 Corinthians 11:3 Paul says that he was afraid that, “Just like the serpent deceived Eve, your thoughts will lead you away from sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” What does sincere and pure devotion look like?
The Passage: Luke 1:5-25
By the first century, the estimated number of priests was 18-20,000. Those were divided into groups, called “courses” in order to divide up the duties that needed to happen in the temple. Each course did duty for eight days, all joining in on the Sabbath. About fifty were engaged every day, the duty of each being determined by the white-stone “lot,” that there might be no contention in the house of the Lord. The offering of incense was considered the highest duty and could be exercised only once in a lifetime. (Pentacost)
Zechariah was a common priest of one of the 24 courses, the Course of Abijah. The lot on this particular Sabbath had fallen at last on Zacharias for this high task.
The ponderous Temple gates swung open and three blasts of the silver trumpets of the Priests summoned the people of the city to a spirit of worship. The priests on the pinnacle of the Temple’ gave the signal for the beginning of the services of the day. One of the assistants of Zacharias reverently cleaned the altar and retired. A second reverently placed the live coals taken from the burnt offering on the altar and, worshipping, retired. The organ sounded through the Temple. Zacharias took the live coals from the altar of sacrifice outside the Temple building and brought them into the first room of the Temple, which was the Holy Place. The Holy Place was lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candle-stick on the right, bearing in his hand the golden censer. On his left was the table of shew-bread. In front of him beyond the altar was the thick curtain which separated the Holy of Holies. (Pentacost)
He put the hot coals upon the altar of incense that stood in front of the thick curtain, separating the Holy of Holies from the holy place. Then he dropped some incense on the coals. This caused a sweet-smelling smoke to ascend and penetrate the thick veil into the Holy of Holies. (Fruchtenbaum)
As this offering coincided with the evening prayer, it was often well attended, and it seems from what Luke says in Luke 1:10 that Zechariah’s encounter with the angel took place during the evening service as the whole multitude of the people were present. The people outside were prostrate in silent worship. Zacharias alone in the Holy Place awaited the kindling of the incense on the altar, when he too would bow in worship and then withdraw in reverence.
The honor of being the priest who would enter the Holy Place and present to God this symbol of intercession on the altar of incense was already great for Zechariah. That God would now speak to him through an angel is most certainly the climax of his career.
In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, improperly burned the special incense before the Lord and were smitten dead. This incident led the rabbis in Zechariah’s day to teach that if any priest burned the incense improperly, he would also be struck dead. However, before death came, the Angel of Death would appear, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Luke 1:10 states that while Zechariah burned the incense the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the hour of incense. While performing the ritual, Zechariah suddenly saw an angel standing on the right side of the altar of incense (Lk. 1:11), and Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him (Lk. 1:12). Naturally, he was troubled and fearful, as he had been taught he was about to die. However, the message of the angel was not one of judgment and death, but that of blessing and new life to come. (Fruchtenbaum)
Up to this point in the account, Zechariah had only been listening. When he finally spoke, he uttered a question of unbelief: Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years (Lk. 1:18). The question could be rephrased as, “How can I know that this is really true?” When Zechariah spoke, it was a word of doubt and unbelief. In response, the angel declared that the priest would speak no more until the promise was fulfilled. (Fruchtenbaum)
Generally, at the time for the burning of the incense, the priest would go into the Temple, drop some of the essence on the coals, and come out. The procedure did not take very long. However, having a conversation with an angel would mean it took a bit more time than normal. By now, the crowd had finished the evening prayers, and Luke says, they marveled while he tarried in the temple (Lk. 1:21). Perhaps they were wondering if he had been smitten dead. When Zechariah finally left the sanctuary, he stood on the steps with the other priests overlooking the crowd and was unable to tell them what had happened. He had not been smitten dead, but mute.
There was certainly a lot of ritual and liturgy in the religious system in Jesus day. Here’s a few things I discovered from a quick investigation about the daily prayer habits of the Jews. I can’t say dogmatically, but I think this is probably what was going on outside among the people, while Zachariah was inside offering the incense.
Until the Babylonian exile, all Jews composed their own prayers. After the exile, however, when the exiles’ understanding of Hebrew diminished and they found it difficult to compose prayers in Hebrew, Ezra and his court composed the Amidah prayer.
On regular weekdays, the Amidah is prayed three times, once each during the morning, afternoon, and evening services. The weekday Amidah contains nineteen blessings. Each blessing ends with the signature “Blessed are you, O Lord…” and the opening blessing begins with this signature as well. The first three blessings as a section are known as the shevach (“praise”), and serve to inspire the worshipper and invoke God’s mercy. The middle thirteen blessings compose the bakashah (“request”), with six personal requests, six communal requests, and a final request that God accept the prayers. The final three blessings, known as the hoda’ah (“gratitude”), thank God for the opportunity to serve the Lord. The shevach and hoda’ah are standard for every Amidah, with some changes on certain occasions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amidah
Most of the Jewish liturgy is sung or chanted with traditional melodies or trope. Synagogues may designate or employ a professional or lay hazzan (cantor) for the purpose of leading the congregation in prayer, especially on Shabbat or holidays.
This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah. To be the nation’s representative before God to present the offering symbolizing their prayers, worship and devotion to God! While scripture is clear that Zachariah was righteous, and therefore had the right perspective regarding the sacrifices and his need before God, for some reason, when the angel gave him the message, he doubted and questioned God. Isn’t that interesting that in the very act of presenting the offering of remembrance of the worship and prayers of the people, Zachariah forgot and doubted the greatness of God.
This scene is quite remarkable. I really enjoyed how Pentecost and Fruchenbaum described the scene. The offering of the incense was to symbolize God’s approval of the prayers and the sacrifices of the whole nation. But, what was the point of it all? Matthew Henry in his commentary says the following in reference to Luke 1:10:
“That is not enough for us to be where God is worshipped, if our hearts do not join in the worship, and go along with the minister, in all the parts of it. If he burn the incense ever so well, in the most pertinent, judicious, lively prayer, if we be not at the same time praying in concurrence with him, what will it avail us?”
There were many that were looking to their prayers and sacrifices in themselves, to make them acceptable to God, as I think about the purpose of the daily prayers, and the content of the Amidah, I wonder if we could learn a thing or 2 from their worship.
John Maxwell in chapter 7 (The Law of Design) of his book “15 invaluable laws of Growth” said this, “Most accomplishments in life come more easily if you approach them strategically. Rarely does a haphazard approach to anything succeed. And even the few times a nonstrategic approach to achievement comes to fruition, it’s not repeatable. You will never grow by accident. So how do you accomplish something strategically on a consistent basis? By creating and using systems. One of the greatest secrets to my personal growth and high productivity is that I use systems for everything.” The Jewish nation had worked hard at developing a system to help their people remember who they were, remember who their God is, and to enable them to live as God intended. While they went overboard, and their system became their God, the concept is still a good one.
What would it do for your spiritual life for instance, if you had a system that would cause you to intentionally, genuinely, think about God 3 times a day? If you were to stop 3 times a day to worship God through praise, prayer and thanksgiving. That’s in essence what the Amidah prayer was. It was something they memorized and recited 3 times a day!
With this being a new year, it would be a great time to make a plan for where I want to grow this year. That is part of what this study is for. I want to become more like Jesus, and I believe studying his life and ministry will help me to do that.
In lesson 01 we talked about the value of God’s Word, and that I will not receive the benefits of God’s tailored message to me, if I am not in it EVERY DAY. But, what specifically do I need to grow in this year? What system do I need to develop / put into place that will aid me in developing that as a habit.
John Maxwell said, “Of all the laws of growth, I believe the most valuable one is the law of consistency. When it comes to personal growth, motivation gets you going, but discipline keeps you growing. Consistency is all about being disciplined. You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. That means developing great habits. People do not decide their future; they decide their habits and their habits decide their future.”
So, here’s a couple habits I want to work on developing this year:
- Prayer – I have always strayed away from “rote” prayers, but I am seeing the value in having things that I pray consistently and regularly. I have made lists and even developed a prayer “guidebook” for myself, but I don’t use it. I need to get back to that.
- Empathy – I want to develop a heart of empathy this year. I will look for resources to read, sermons to listen to… I will start a journal of my interactions with people to evaluate my progress.
John Maxwell also talks about what he calls, the rule of 5. The Rule of 5 is simply a series of activities that you do EVERY DAY that are fundamental to your success. For John, his Rule of 5 are as follows: every day he reads, every day he files, every day he thinks, every day he asks questions and every day he writes. I am going to be praying and asking the Lord for what my 5 things need to be.
The Power; Declarations of Truth:
- Growth will never happen by accident. I need to be intentional and consistent to grow
- Systems help you discipline yourself. Prayer is something I need a system for.