What are we to do with God's Word?
Sunday by Sunday we meet together to worship God. An important regular part of our worship is to take the Bible and to read from it. We then spend around half of our time listening to a sermon which seeks to explain the Bible's teaching to us.
But why do we do that? What is the point of it all? What does God expect of us?
The passage before us this morning gives us an example of what not to do when we hear God's word. Thinking about this will put us in a better position to know what we should be doing.
Let me remind you what we're doing: we're taking a careful look at what Luke wrote for a friend of his called Theophilus. Now Theophilus had already heard a good deal about Jesus Christ – his teachings, his actions and his death and resurrection – but he'd only heard about it in a piecemeal fashion. So Luke wanted to give him an orderly account so he could understand how everything fitted together and also so that he could be sure about what he had been taught.
In order to present the record of Jesus' life Luke took a step back and began his account some 15 months before Jesus was born.
The days were dark and difficult ones for God's people and God himself seemed to be remote – the voice of prophecy was silent. The people may have been tempted to think that God's plans had been put on hold if not completely abandoned.
And then some extraordinary things began to take place – we started looking at these last week – an angel appeared to an old priest named Zechariah as he prepared to carry out his religious duties in the Temple. The service Zechariah was performing was a great honour for a priest – he would never again have the opportunity to do what he was doing that day – but in the carrying out of this service he received another honour he'd never even dreamed of – an angel appeared to him and gave him a message, it was the first message from heaven to earth in over 400 years.
The angel told Zechariah that God's plan of salvation was going into active mode and that Zechariah had a role to play in it. We thought about this last week now this week we must consider how Zechariah responded to the angel's message.
Zechariah's Poor Response
The angel had told Zechariah that his message would bring joy and rejoicing but Zechariah wasn't in a hurry to be convinced. Instead he asked a question.
On the face of it the question looks quite reasonable doesn't it?
v.18 "How shall I know this?"
Zechariah on the face of it is looking confirmation – and for those of you who know your Bibles well you know that there are examples of other people who asked for confirmatory signs: Gideon asked for signs and was given them, Hezekiah too.
And yet Zechariah's question revealed that something was wrong. The angel's message contained some momentous declarations but all Zechariah can see is the age problem he shared with his wife Elizabeth - they were has-beens. He is effectively arguing that what the angel has declared cannot possibly be right!
It wasn't that Zechariah didn't understand what the angel had said, he simply didn't believe what he heard. It is this unbelief that Gabriel tells us is the key to understanding what happens next:
v.20 "because you did not believe my words"
There is something here that is vitally important for all of us. It should be obvious but I will nevertheless underline it. How we need to take it on board!
When God speaks to us (as he does in the Bible) he expects us to believe what he tells us.
Simple, isn't it? This is not rocket science.
And this holds true whether you are a Christian or whether you are not yet a Christian. We are all created by him and he holds us all responsible for the way we live our lives. He does not give us his word primarily to satisfy our curiosity or just to inform us about things – though it does do that - he expects much more of us.
Many people who have little, if any, knowledge of the Bible assume that what God has to tell us is all about what we must do in order to work our way to heaven. The Bible does contain much guidance about how we are to lead our lives but its fundamental message lies elsewhere. It is not about what we must do but what he has done for us! That is why we are to believe and that is why unbelief is so serious.
He doesn't want us to admire his word, he wants us to believe it, and as we do it will have a profound impact on our lives. God doesn't want us to say yes, it's true, in some abstract sense and then ignore it. He wants us to believe it and believing what God says means embracing that truth for ourselves, allowing it to impact our lives, allowing it to transform our lives and allowing it to reorient them.
In such a context to ask a question is fine if our desire is to know just how his truth is to impact us but questions that are designed to sidestep any such impact are totally out of order (as it was here in Zechariah's case) . It is this that explains why Mary's very similar question receives a very different response when she asked it.
Belief and Unbelief
If you are a Christian this morning you may well be tempted as you hear this to think "I'm a Christian, a believer, so I'm alright; this is a message for those who haven't yet become followers of Jesus-Christ, this is for the unbeliever."
It is for the unbeliever because that the man or that woman who has not yet come to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ needs to do so and that the need is urgent and important. If you are not yet a Christian you must not react to God's word by, for example, saying nice things about Jesus, about Christians or about the church. You mustn't react by saying you'll try harder to please God but you must react by believing the word that you read or hear preached!
A brief summary of that word is found in Acts 16:31:
"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved".
It is not enough for you to know what ought to be done – you must do it yourself! It is not enough to applaud others who do so – you must do so. God never planned that his Bible should be admired and ignored, he planned that it should be believed and there is a world of difference.
But if you are a Christian then this sermon is still for you because Zechariah was not an unbeliever in the sense of being outside the people of God – he was an insider, a believer. If you like he was a Christian before Christ, an OT Christian. But he wasn't a perfect Christian and on this particular occasion he was a poor Christian responding, not with faith and trust, but with unbelief. Becoming a Christian doesn't resolve the question once and for all we need to respond with faith and trust each time God speaks to us in his word!
We need to think a bit more about this and Zechariah's example will help us.
Zechariah was a member of God's people. He wasn't indifferent to God but served and that in such a way as to merit a warm commendation: he was a righteous man who walked blamelessly before God (v.6). Now this is only ever possible when God's grace in poured into a human life.
Zechariah would have known about the promises of a coming Messiah and would doubtless himself have prayed on many occasions for the fulfilment of these divine promises. If you'd have asked him did he believe the Messiah was coming one day he would have replied positively.
Zechariah would have known too the history of his own people and how God had moved in the lives of his ancestors. If you had asked him he could have told you how the nation had begun as God kept his promises to Abraham and when Sarah his wife bore him a child in his old age when she was past the age of child-bearing.
Zechariah was a believer but as the angel personalised these things in a very direct way Zechariah's faith struggled and unbelief expressed itself – what was maybe easy to affirm in a general and remote way was a whole lot harder when it was made personal.
I wonder if this is where some of you are this morning. You have a general sort of belief in the abstract but when it comes to being more personal well that's a different matter. You are happy to say perhaps that Jesus is the Saviour of the World but hesitate to own him as your Saviour, you're prepared to admit that God has done wonderful things in the life of others but can't declare the same for yourself.
The Christian faith is all about becoming personal with God or rather him becoming personal with us! That lay at the heart of the angel's message to Zechariah:
v.16 "And he (John the Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus) will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,"
To become a Christian you must personally respond with belief and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ – don't put this off, do it today.
The Effects of Unbelief
Unbelief is a serious matter and one for which we are responsible. It is no good the unbeliever trying to suggest that it is due to some failure on God's part, that he hasn't given more evidence or more proof, God has spoken and that is sufficient. Just because so many live their lives in unbelief, don't imagine that you can safely do so too. Unbelief will keep you from Christ and away from Christ you are away from God and without the salvation which you need.
But unbelief in the life of a Christian is not without consequences too.
Zechariah apparently asked for a sign and was in the end granted one but doubtless this was not at all what he had in mind. Before the "sign" is announced by the angel, Gabriel appears shocked by the way in which Zechariah responded to his earlier message.
Let's consider why:
Gabriel identifies himself as "a man of God" or " the power of God". And further he is one who habitually stands in the presence of God. But on this particular occasion he has been sent from that presence on a mission. This messenger is a guarantee of the divine origin of the message. Zechariah is thus not questioning the faulty logic of a mere man he is calling into question the very word of God. We might become used to men and women joking about the Bible, we may become used to so-called experts dismissing the Bible, we may find the contents of the Bible ridiculed and caricatured and at the end of the day conclude that our attitude to the Bible doesn't matter that much. But my friend God still considers it to be his word, it is still true and it is still to be received with faith. Our contemporaries might revel in their unbelief and our media might like to parade their unbelief as they ridicule those who don't agree with them but not God.
Ps.33:11 "The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations."
Jesus tells us that heaven and earth may pass away but his words never will!
Does Zechariah doubt that God will keep his promises and do what he has said? Then Zechariah will experience divine discipline while he awaits the accomplishment of the divine plan and purpose!
Can God interfere in human lives? Can he really give a child to an old couple? Zechariah didn't think so but how he will long for God to do so as he experiences God's heavy hand of discipline for a little more than 9 months. Can God interfere Zechariah? What do you think now that he has taken away your ability to speak?
If unbelief in the life of a non-Christian keeps him from being saved, unbelief in the life of a Christian leads to painful discipline which deprives him ,for a time, from the fullest enjoyment of his salvation. In the case of Zechariah the ramifications were wider still.
Not being able to speak Zechariah when he does emerge from the Temple is unable to communicate clearly with those who were waiting for him to do so.
They had been intrigued by the amount of time Zechariah remained in the Temple – after all a priest would usually come out as quickly as possible for fear of giving offence to God either by presumption or by committing some other sin in his presence. We know what took place inside but they didn't.
A message from heaven had been given for the first time in 400 years and Zechariah couldn't explain that. All he could do was to make some gestures with his hands. How do you explain with yours hands that an angel of God called Gabriel has appeared and spoken wonderful words to you? He tried and he tried but he couldn't make it clear and they assumed he'd seen a vision. Now seeing a vision might be impressive but they couldn't be told that the divine plan of salvation was going into active mode, that the forerunner of the Messiah was soon to be born and that not long after the Messiah himself would come.
When something happens to us we like to be able to tell someone else about it – it's one of the hard things for people who live alone there's no-one there to tell at the end of the day – Zechariah had heard some of the best news for centuries and his lips were sealed, he couldn't pass it on and he probably would have wanted to shout it from the roof tops (or at least from the top of the Temple Mount).
And because of Zechariah's unbelief the crowds were not given a clear explanation – maybe they went home a little curious at the events of the day but without the joyful good news ringing in their ears.
Unbelief impacted Zechariah's life and ministry and it also had an impact on those who might otherwise have been his hearers. Unbelief is no small matter.
It must have been a hard thing for Zechariah to stay on in his mute state until the work of his priestly division came to an end. Conscious of his recent unbelief how tempting it must have been to flee, to get away from the place of such a fall. But he stayed on carrying out his duties as best he was able – how important it is not to add sin to sin.
At last the week ended and home he went where he had to face his wife – he couldn't pretend nothing had happened!
And yet there is Hope
But there is something else I want you to see here. While Zechariah's unbelief was serious, affecting not just himself but others too, it did not lead to his exclusion from God's people! He was a member of God's people and God knows how to look after his own.
Zechariah went home and his wife Elizabeth became pregnant – just like the angel said – and was she glad! It was considered an awful thing not to have children in those days, a punishment from God for some awful sin was the way most people viewed it. But now the Lord was taking away this shame from Elizabeth and she hides herself away until there is not the slightest doubt and until the baby is well developed and not likely to be lost.
Zechariah's unbelief does not prevent God using him to be the Father of the forerunner of the Messiah!
Somehow during that time Zechariah found a way of explaining to Elizabeth all that had happened. He still couldn't speak so he probably wrote it out – I wonder how long that took but they say don't they that where there's a will there's a way. If Elizabeth couldn't read then Zechariah would have had to get someone else to read what he wrote but I think she could probably read herself.
Now we might tolerate someone who messes up big time like Zechariah did but we might not be so keen to entrust him with important work in the future – still a Christian yes, but hardly one who can be trusted. How different it is with our gracious God!
Just a few months later, once the discipline has run its course we will meet Zechariah again. There in Lk.1:57 the first words he speaks demonstrate his confidence in what the angel had told him! Discipline has had its positive effects in his life. And then filled with the Holy Spirit he is made the mouthpiece of God and speaks forth prophetic words that have been forever inscribed in the Bible: Lk.1:68-79.
Have you messed up in your life as a Christian? Have you acted in abject unbelief – others might not know but you do and you know that God knows too? Well there is hope there is always hope with our gracious God. He sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners – there is no other type of person on earth – believe in him and you shall be saved! Confess your sin and he will forgive you.
Your failures are not pleasing to God but neither do they thwart his purposes no more than did Zechariah's unbelief.
We began by asking the question "What are we to do with God's word?" – well I hope the answer is clear to us all now: we are to receive it in faith. It is true, it is trustworthy (just like its author) and its content is so good for us (just like its author)!
Listen then to the word of God in order to believe it, to benefit from it and to enjoy it. In doing so you will bring honour and glory to God because you will put your trust in his beloved Son and you will honour him, Jesus, to the glory of God the Father.