By J.R. Miller
There was a wonderful preparation of the world for Christ before He came. There was a Jewish expectation of the Messiah. This hope had been diffused throughout the nations by the wide dispersion of the Jewish people, who carried their religion with them and had synagogues in every city, where also their holy books were read. It is wonderful to think what the world owes to the influence of the Jewish people. Amid the hills of Palestine were written a few little books or tracts whose teachings, like leaven, permeated the great nations of Asia and Europe in the time before Christ was born--and prepared the world to receive Him.
Rome also had done much to prepare the world for Christianity. It had brought all lands under one government. It had built roads everywhere, which became highways for the messengers of Christ. The Greek language was spoken everywhere, thus giving a medium for the carrying of the gospel to all the nations. These and other conditions were favorable to the dissemination of Christianity. This preparation was not accidental, a mere coincidence of events. There is evidence that the preparation was divine. The hand of God was in it!
"In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." Luke 1:5-6
We have a picture here, of the godly home--yet the times were not favorable to this. It is not hard to live a beautiful life amid kindly and favoring circumstances. If a child has a sweet home with only gentle influences about it--an atmosphere of love and prayer--it is not strange that the child's life grows up into beauty. On the other hand, if the home is cold and unkindly, without love and prayer and godliness, it seems to us almost a miracle if a child grows up in it loving God and with a true and beautiful character.
The "time of Herod" were not times when it was easy to be godly. The times were ungodly and the prevailing spirit was unrighteous. The holy lives which we find here in this story--are like lamps shining in the darkness. Amid the almost universal corruption of the priesthood, and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees; this old priest and his wife lived in piety and godly simplicity. The lesson is, that we may be holy and may live saintly lives--though everyone around us is evil. We need not be like those among whom we live. No matter how corrupt the times, or how unholy the influences, we ought always to strive to be holy and pure.
It is important to know the name and the character of the woman who helps to make the home. "Her name was Elisabeth." A great many Elisabeths will study this lesson. It is pleasant even by a name to be reminded continually of some other one who has lived a noble and beautiful life in the past. No thoughtful Mary can be altogether forgetful of the Marys of the New Testament, especially the Mary who was the mother of our Lord, "blessed among women," and the other Mary whom Jesus loved so tenderly, who sat at His feet as a learner and then anointed His feet with her ointment. There is ever an aroma of sacredness about this name.
Just so, the Elisabeths may catch an inspiration from the Elisabeth of this story. We are not told much about her. We know, however, that she was a godly woman, one who walked in God's commandments in times when such godliness was rare.
In these days, we are hearing a great deal about 'the new woman'. Some people think that woman heretofore has been living in a kind of darkness, not making much of herself, not realizing the possibilities of her life and her position. She has not understood herself and her power--and has been content to stay in obscurity--when she might have stood forth in splendor. Now, however, she has come to a time when she may make more of her life in many ways.
No doubt some phases of the thought of 'the new woman' are excellent. The last quarter century has been a wonderful era in woman's history. In all ways, women have moved forward with tremendous strides. Our colleges have given women opportunities for acquiring an education they could not get before. In church life and work, women have advanced to marvelous power and usefulness. In associated work in benevolence, women have shown great energy and wisdom. All this is very beautiful.
But 'the new woman' is not in all things so lovely as this. There are some things in her--of which the better women do not approve. She discards some of the most gentle refinements of the truest type of womanhood. "She tramples on the traditions of the mother who kissed her in the cradle and made a woman of her," says Mrs. Booth. "Such a woman could never be Christlike, because she is not tender enough. Her will is too strong to bow down to God." Let the new woman be as beautiful as she can make herself with the help of Christ--but let her be always a woman. A woman needs God to make her life in the way it should be, to give her the beauty and the glory which is her true heritage. A woman owes everything to Christ, who has redeemed her--and she needs Christ as her Teacher, her Master, her Friend, that she may reach the only worthy possibilities of womanhood.
They were truly mated, this godly pair. "Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." It is a beautiful thing when both husband and wife are godly. Then they can bow together in prayer and together read God's Word, and together go to the church and sit together at the Lord's table. Too often only one of the wedded pair is a Christian. Sometimes it is the husband--and the wife does not enter into his Christian life. Far more often, however, it is the wife only that loves Christ, while her husband leaves her to walk alone in all her inner spiritual life. In either case, the marriage lacks one of its holiest and most sacred bonds. The union of wedded life may yield much joy and very sweet happiness, where the two enter together into the holy of holies of prayer. The union means far more when they are one in trusting God and in communing with Him in all the great concerns of life. When both are Christians and walk side by side in all obedience, service, and worship, praying together, heaven's sweetest blessing rests over the home!
It is a beautiful thing, also, that we read of this godly old couple, that they were "righteous before God." Some people appear to men to be righteous, who before God have no such record. Our real character is what our hearts are. So we ought not to be satisfied with doing well the things that men can see us do; we ought to work and live ever for God's eye. Sometimes we say it does not matter how we do certain things, because no one will see them; but God will see them, and we should never do careless, faulty work--for His eye.
The word "commandments" suggests that the holiness of these people, was of a very practical kind. Some people's religion is chiefly notional or emotional or sentimental. They talk about loving God--but they pay little heed to His commandments. They may worship together in formal ways--but they are not careful to do the things that are right, that please God. There are too many whose religion is of this kind--all devout feelings--only the observance of forms of worship--but little practical Christian living. They go from fervent worship services--to practice selfishness, greed, dishonesties, and inhumanities. God is pleased with ardent devotion--but he wants us to prove our religion by obedience, by doing the things He gives us to do, by fidelity in all Christian duty.
Another beautiful word in the description of these good people is the word "blamelessly." Of course, this does not mean sinless, absolutely faultless--but only that their lives were so beautiful, so sincere, and faithful--that there was nothing in them to blame or rebuke. It is in this way that God wants all His children to live. He wants them to be unrebukable. "That we should be holy and without blame before Him in love." (Ephesians 1:4). "That you may be blameless in the day of our Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:8). "That you may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke" (Phil. 2:15). "I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thes. 5:23). These are a few of the words of Holy Scripture, which indicate the kind of life we are expected as Christians to live in this world.
There was one thing lacking in this godly home. "But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." They were not young. They had been married many years--but no child had come to gladden them. Children are a great blessing in a family. They give much joy to their parents. They brighten the home into which they come. They cost much care and toil; but no true parent ever counts such cost--for love rejoices in making sacrifices. The hearts of parents are made glad by the presence of a little child in their home.
The old priest was in his place in the temple that day, and his particular duty was to burn incense on the golden altar. Incense was a symbol of prayer. While the priest was offering it on the altar the people were standing outside, engaged in prayer. The prayers arose to God purified and sweetened by the holy offering. It is a beautiful thought that prayers rise up to God--as perfume; that true prayer is fragrant in heaven. This symbol of incense teaches the acceptableness of prayer as it goes up to God.
There is another thing that we should remember, however, in this connection. The burnt offering was offered at the same time that the incense was burning, and the incense itself was kindled by fire brought from the altar of burnt offering. Prayer needs the efficacy of Christ's atonement to make it acceptable. We can pray only in Christ's name and in dependence on His sacrifice.
The vision of the angel that Zacharias saw awed him. "When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear." We do not know in what form the angel appeared. He was a messenger from God, however, and had come to announce to the priest that he was to have the high honor of being the father of the forerunner of the Messiah.
Sometimes God seems to wait a long time before He gives us what we ask for. One reason is to teach us faith and patience. Another reason is because He has a time for giving us blessing. John could not be born until the date fixed in God's plan, for he was to be forerunner of the Messiah. We always see in the end, that God's time for blessing us--is the right time. We may be sure that when God puts it into our heart to pray for something--He means to give us that thing in due time.
The angel told Zacharias that now a son was about to born to him, and he would have joy and gladness. It makes great joy in any true home, when a child is born. In this case the joy was unusual, since the birth of John was the token of the speedy coming of the long-promised Messiah. It was like the rising of the morning star, which heralds the approach of the day. Not only would the parents rejoice--but many would mingle in the rejoicing.
Every child should seek to be a joy to parents, not only in its infancy--but always. Children hold in their hands, the happiness of their parents. It is in their power, too, to give them great grief and sorrow. Many children do indeed break the hearts of their parents. Many do it by their bad conduct, their wrong actions. Then there are many children who make great joy for their parents. They do it by their gratitude and love, and by lives that are full of beauty and honor, of which their parents cannot be anything but thankful. All children should seek to live in this way. Then it should be the aim, too--to live so that others shall have occasion to rejoice over their birth, because they are blessing in the world.
The angel said further, that John should be great in the sight of the Lord. There are people who are great in their own eyes or in the eyes of their friends--who in God's sight are very small. It is well to have people's approval of us and our work--but it is incalculably better to have God's approval. We should strive always to be and to do--what Christ would have us to be and to do. It is well to ask ourselves quiet often--what God thinks of us. We like to please men; let us seek to please God.
Zacharias asked for a sign to prove to him that this astonishing thing should be fulfilled. His request was granted, and the sign given to him was that he should be speechless until the child was born. God wants us to believe His promises without a shadow of doubt, no matter how extraordinary they may be. We should trust God implicitly. Unquestioning faith is not presumptuous; it honors God and brings fullest blessing.