Zechariah was a priest and the father of John the Baptist. The Bible says (NRSV), “Once when he was serving as priest before God” he entered the temple sanctuary at Jerusalem to burn incense as the people were outside praying (Luke 1.8, 10). The angel Gabriel then appeared to him, standing beside the altar, and Zechariah was terrified. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (v. 13). Gabriel further said, “he will be great in the sight of the Lord…. even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him” (vv. 15-17).
Then we read, “Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur'” (vv. 18-20).
Was Gabriel bragging? Not at all. Zechariah had been praying for this, and now an angel appears and tells him God is going to grant his prayer request. Yet Zechariah was not believing it. Besides, Gabriel isn’t just any ole angel. Him saying, “I stand in the presence of God,” indicates at least two things.
First, according to Jewish tradition as well as the New Testament (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4.16; Jude 9; Rev 8.2; cf. 15.1), God has seven special angels who are called “archangels” because they are supeior to other angels. Evidence of this is that they regularly stand in God’s presence before his throne, always prepared to do his bidding. Thus, their orders come directly from their enthroned God.
Second, Gabriel tells who he is to indicate that Zechariah has disrespected him. Because of this, Gabriel said Zechariah would become temporarily deaf. God always fits the penalty to the crime. Zechariah heard the angel’s promise-prediction with his ears, yet Gabriel had to say to him, “because you did not believe my words,… you will become mute,” in which he cannot either speak or hear.
Zechariah had asked, “How will I know that this is so?” The Apostle Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1.22). Even though Gabriel predicted this sign, which may have been an actual physical miracle, Zechariah was asking indirectly for another sign! Yet, all he had to do was wait on the Lord, a concept that is repeatedly stated in scripture. For he would soon see that his wife had gotten pregnant. That is why Gabriel had said to him, “You did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” It happened immediately. When Zechariah came out of the sanctuary, “he could not speak to them [the people],… He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak” (Luke 1.22).
Mary was not disrespecting the archangel Gabriel by asking this. Evidence of this is that Gabriel did not reprimand her. Rather, he answered her question by saying, “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will called Son of God…. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1.35, 37-38).
After this, Elizabeth visited her friend Mary. That is when Mary proclaimed the blessed Magnificat. It begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1.46-50). What a prophecy that testifies to the truth of Christianity, since billions of people so far have called Mary blessed.
When John the Baptist was born first, six months prior to Jesus’ birth, on the eighth day when Jews circumsize male babies, Zechariah wrote down what name the child would have, which was “John” in accordance with Gabriel’s command. And immediately Zechariah received his speech (Luke 1.64). Then we read, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke” a “prophecy” about his son John (Luke 1.67).
All of these proceeding must have been so fascinating and precious for both humans and angels to witness. And they have had such a profound impact upon so many people afterwards, not just Jews but billions of Gentiles. Praise the Lord!