Who begins reading a book with Chapter Two?
When you pick up a book—fiction or not—do you typically skip the first chapter and begin with the second? On a few occasions, I’ve read the first chapter and thrown the book away. But I don’t recall ever having started reading a book in chapter two. The first chapter typically gives us the setting and framework allowing us to follow the plot and the progress of the whole work.
Why, then, do we begin the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2, that famous passage that says: Now it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up out of Galilee, out of the city of David, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem….
When we begin in Luke 2, we miss the actual beginning of the story and we forget the original heroes—an obscure couple, gray and aged, caring for one another and quietly serving the Lord in a small house in a hill town outside Jerusalem. They lived off the beaten track—but that’s just where God burst into history after 400 years of silence.
Before Joseph and Mary, there was Zechariah and Elizabeth; and before Jesus Christ there was John the Baptist.
Luke is a masterful historian, and he gave us parallel accounts in chapter 1 and in chapter 2. Luke 1 is primarily devoted to an older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth who lived off the beaten track, and of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist. Chapter 2 is primarily devoted to a young couple, Joseph and Mary. and to the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ.
The two stories mirror each other, as one commentator observed:
The same angel, Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah and Mary; both were troubled by the angelic visit; both were told not to be afraid; both were told of the future birth of a son; both births were associated with the work of the Holy Spirit; in both passages the angel gave the name for the son; in both the angel stated that the son would be great; in both the sons’ future roles in God’s plan were announced; and in both we are told of the birth, circumcision, and naming of the sons.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Luke 1,with this forgotten elderly couple in a nameless town—two people who had experienced heartache in life, yet had remained faithful to the Lord and to one another in the winter of life. God burst into their lives, giving them the unimaginable opportunity to set into motion the events of the first coming of Christ.
He wants to burst into your life too!
When He bursts in, there’s no telling what will happen!
Zechariah and Elizabeth teach the secrets of overcoming griefs, fulfilling the unique role God has for us, and hastening the coming of Christ. They can show you how to make the rest of our life the best of your life.
After 400 years of silently waiting, the Lord burst again into human history, and the story starts with an old couple in a humble home somewhere in the mountains outside Jerusalem…
…off the beaten track.
God Appointed You for This Very Time
I recall attending college chapel one day when Stuart Briscoe was preaching. In his inimitable British accent, he uttered a statement I didn’t write down but have never forgotten: “You were born at just the right time; you’ll die at just the right time; you’re living at just the right speed. You are exactly where God now wants you to be for His glory.”
About the same time, I found a verse in the Bible that I’ve sense adopted as my life verse: “You saw me before I was born and scheduled each day of my life before I began to breathe. Every day was recorded in Your book” (Psalm 139:16 TLB).
Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world….”
For the child of God, there are no accidents in our calendars.
After his matchless prologue in Luke 1:1-4, Luke began his story, saying, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah….”
Both these men seemed to be near the end of life. Zechariah was “very old” (verse 7), and as for Herod, well, that tyrant died in 4 B.C., as he was reaching the age of seventy. Years before, the Romans had appointed him “King of the Jews,” though he served at the pleasure of Rome. His royal title, it seems, was almost like a joke from God, for the real King of the Jews was to be born right under his nose, sending him into murderous convulsions during his final days.
Herod was cruel and paranoid. He killed his own family members like a farmer slaughters hogs, and he had no qualms about slaughtering the boys of Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill Jesus. In the days of Zechariah and as the birth of Jesus approached, Herod’s cruelty was amplified by a terrible disease.
One of the most unpleasant sentences I’ve ever read in a biography is this diagnosis of Herod’s disease from an early historian: “The chief violence of his pain lay in his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly…. His privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty breathing, which was very loathsome on account of the stench of his breath…. He had also convulsions in all parts of his body.”
Some historians believe he had been poisoned.
What if this man were your neighbor and the king of your little patch of the world?
Many of us are frustrated at the state of the globe, and we complain loudly (and often rightly) about our government and its policies. But in the Western World, none of us lives under a monster like Herod the Great.
Yet Zechariah and Elizabeth were born at just the right moment in history; they would die at the right time; they were living at the right speed; and they were just where the Lord wanted them to be at that moment in history so He could burst into the human story and bring the real King of Jews into the world. It was the fullness of times when world conditions were providentially opportune for the entrance of the Gospel.
John the Baptist—the son given to Zechariah and Elizabeth—was, in essence, the last of the Old Testament prophets. His ministry linked the Old and New Covenants, preparing the way for Christ, his cousin who was exactly six months younger than him. We can think of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John as the trio who ended the Old Testament story, began the New Testament history, and connected the two like the spine of a book.
Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, the very last words of the Old Testament say, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents….” (Malachi 4:5-6). The Gospel story begins at their very point with the coming of birth of John the Baptist who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children…” (Luke 1:17)
Do you see how remarkable this is! The Old Testament ends precisely where the Gospel story begins—one seamless tale spanning 400 silent years. And an old Judean couple provided the coupling.
If God had wanted you to have been born in the days of Herod the Great, He could have done that. He could have dropped you into the fifth century amid the collapsing ruins of the Roman Empire. If He had wanted you to help Martin Luther with the Reformation in the 1500s, He could easily have brought that about. Perhaps you would have loved attending the D. L. Moody evangelist campaigns of the 1800s or wondered what it was like to serve to live in the Roaring ‘20s.
But the Lord, in His sovereign decree and omniscient wisdom, brought about a chain reaction of generational descent through cascading rivers of genetics over thousands of years through ancestors whose names are lost to history—all to make sure you came into the world at the very moment He needed you.
God has appointed you for this time, and He has a plan to use every day of your life to fulfill His goals and achieve His glory.
It’s no accident you’re alive today!
God Ordained Your Background
When I need an occasional pick-me-up, I pick up one of Florence Littauer’s books. She died at age 92 in 2020, but her 40 books are tonics. Florence was born during the Great Depression and lived with her family in two rooms behind her father’s general story. Her dad encouraged her to memorize Bible verses and poems, which she did. She took elocution classes in elementary school and wrote poems in high school. She was in the senior class play, and in college she became involved in the drama department. She majored in English, speech, and education, and she became a schoolteacher.
Along the way, she faced some deep heartaches. Two of her sons were born with degenerative brain disease and died young. That sent Florence into a deep depression, but also brought her to faith in Christ.
One day she read Paul’s words to Timothy about passing along the things she had learned to others who, in turn, pass them to others (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul was talking about the Gospel, and Florence felt he was writing just to her. She felt God was calling her to a special ministry—one that everything in her background had prepared her to do. She became one of the most popular Christian speakers and writers of her era.
Later when a student asked her about her career, she said, “I told him that my whole life had been a preparation to get me to write: my childhood memorization, my high school plays, my college speech and drama training, my English and speech teaching, the loss of my sons, my Christian commitment, my Bible teaching, my speaking ministry.”
She added, “It took time to realize that my hurts and victories could be used to give others hope. My whole life had been a training ground for. Christian service.”
Every single person on earth has a different background. Things have happened to you that haven’t happened to anyone else in the same way you’ve experienced them. We all travel an original road, and we all encounter our own unique blessings and burdens.
What we discover is that every single strand of our lives is God’s cross-stitching, and He prepares us for the glorious purposes He has for us. Looking back, that’s certainly been true for me, as it is for you. No detail is wasted.
That was true for Zechariah and Elizabeth. Notice, for example, just one important part of their background. Luke 1:5 says: “Now 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 Zechariah and his wife were from the tribe of Levi, and both were direct descendants of Aaron. Zechariah was a priest who married a priest’s daughter. They were part of the priestly line of Aaron.
That means their son, John the Baptist, was a Levite, a priest. I had never realized that until I dove deeply into this chapter, but it was a vital part of John’s background. He, like his father Zechariah, became a member of the Division of Abijah, which ministered in the Temple. John must have been trained by his father from infancy, and he was undoubted given the formal education he needed to fulfill his office.
According to Numbers 4:3 and 1 Chronicles 23:2-3, priests could not begin serving in the temple until they were thirty years old.
John the Baptist began preaching when he was thirty years old (see Luke 3:23), but it wasn’t in Jerusalem and it had nothing to do with the temple on Temple Mount. He was there as a special priest to introduce the world to the Man who said about Himself, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” speaking of His body (John 2:19).
And look at this! The Gospel of John says: “And the Word (Christ Jesus) became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth. John (the Baptist) doth testify concerning him….” (Young’s Literal Translation).
Jesus Christ was the walking, living, true, holy embodiment of the tabernacle or temple of the Lord, and John was assigned to serve that temple. He exercised his qualification as priest when he baptized the sinners and when He also baptized the Savior. All the strands came together as a beautiful cross-stitching, preparing Him to introduce the One who was destined for the cross.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Whatever your background, look back at it with sanctified gratitude, because God is weaving all the threads so as to make your life His handwork, prepared to do the God works God has planned for you.
No detail is wasted.
God is Serious About Personal Holiness
When First Lady Rosalynn Carter passed away in 2023, her family held a small funeral for her with about 200 people. Pastor Tony Lowden said in his eulogy, “There’s no place on this Earth that you can find anyone that has anything bad to say about Rosalynn Carter. Not one person on the left or anybody on the right.” That was because, he said, “she did not worship the donkey or the elephant. She worshiped the Lamb.”
What would you like said at your memorial service? It’d be nice if someone could say of us: It’s hard to find anything bad to say, for they worshiped the Lamb. They were God-fearing, upright, honest, followers of the Lamb.”
Here’s the way Luke described Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:6: “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”
That doesn’t mean they were sinless. It means they were endeavoring every day to be increasingly sinless with all the righteous energy of God’s amazing grace. They were serious about personal holiness.
That’s the kind of person the Lord is looking for. The Bible says, “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
At the dawning of the Messianic Age, the eyes of the Lord ran up and down the streets of Jerusalem and the hills of Judea, looking for an aged couple whose hearts were fully committed to Him. And He found one couple who were righteous in His sight, taking His commands and statutes seriously.
J. I. Packer wrote a book called Rediscovering Holiness in which he said, “…the sidelining of personal holiness…has been a general trend among Bible-centered Western Christians during my years of ministry. It is not a trend that one would have expected, since Scripture insists so strongly that Christians are called to holiness, that God is pleased with holiness but outraged by unholiness, and that without holiness none will see the Lord.”
I’ve noticed, for example, that the language we use has gotten very profane and obscene. If you go into a bookstore and look at the titles of books, a lot of them have words on the cover that would keep me from reading the title out loud. If you listen to a politician speak, profanity is sprinkled through the words like red pepper. Television shows and movies are riddled with words I don’t want to hear. And for some reason people get a real kick out of seeing videos on social media of children going on cursing binges.
What’s wrong with that?
Colossians 3:8 says, “But now you must rid yourselves of…filthy language.” And Ephesians 5:4 says, “Nor should there by obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place.”
This is only one of a thousand areas the Lord wants to perfect in our lives. Many times, we’re not even aware of areas within us needing attention. So we have to be courageous enough to ask the Lord to show us and help us. The Psalmist said, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
There’s no question Zechariah and Elizabeth had offered that prayer many times, for pious Jews were devoted to singing the Psalms regularly.
Unrecognized, unconfessed sin can make us spiritually ill.
One of the most frightening times in the life of our family involved my granddaughter, Audrey, who was two years old at the time. She became very sick. It was the weekend of the 2010 flood in Nashville, and it was hard to get to the hospital. But Joshua and Grace kept taking her to the pediatrician. Audrey simply grew weaker and weaker until she developed a high temperature and was listless. She looked like a dying child. The children’s hospital at Vanderbilt took over, and the doctors gathered around to discuss what was wrong with her. They suspected leukemia and every other illness you can imagine.
Finally one of them said, “Let’s do a chest X-ray.” The others said, “We’ve all listened to her chest and her breathing is fine. That’s not the problem.” But the man insisted. In a few minutes, the doctor came running back saying, “I’ve found it. I’ve found it.”
There was an undetected spot of very virulent pneumonia in one of her lungs. Instantly they knew how to treat it, and she came back to life, as it were, almost miraculously.
Is there an undetected, unnoticed spot of sin in your heart, in your mind, in your habits, in your life that is weakening you spiritually and making you sick in your souls. Ask the great X-Ray Technician of the heart to search you and see if there is anything amiss, and to lead you in the way everlasting.
And the Bible says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him and to strengthen those who worship the Lamb.
God Works Grace into Your Grief
A wonderful daily devotional book is just celebrating its 100th anniversary: Streams in the Desert, compiled by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman. I bought my first copy at a flea market in Detroit in 1981 for fifty cents. The contents are priceless.
Here’s just one sentence for Mrs. Cowman’s devotional material, this one included in the material for July 6: “It is such a comfort to drop the tangles of life into God’s hands and leave them there.”
We don’t get very far into the Gospel of Luke or chapter 1 until we come face to face with some painful emotional entanglements for Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s continue our story: “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 righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive….”
I’ve been a pastor long enough to realize how infertility can be to a young couple, and how much heartache occurs with pregnancy problems and with miscarriages and all kinds of issues related to childbearing. The feelings of sadness, anger, depression, hope, disappointment, and fear are overwhelming.
In Elizabeth’s case it was ever more difficult, for two reasons. First, she was now very old, and now time had passed her by. Second, she was Jewish. For a Jewish couple to be childless was a sign of double sorrow because it meant they could never be in the lineage of the coming Messiah. They could never be the parents or grandparents or great-grandparents—they could never be in the chain of forebearers who would make up the Messianic line. Some people would view them as unworthy.
This sorrow had descended on them decades before, but it still hung over their lives like a small dark cloud that never seemed to blow away. They had undoubtedly accepted it and learn to live with it; they still had joy and purpose in their lives. But still, it was little cloud that always floated over their home.
Yet that is exactly the point at which God was going to do His greatest work in their lives.
I don’t know how to explain it and I don’t fully understand how it works out this way, but God works His greatest grace into our greatest griefs, and He causes all things to coalesce together for the good to those who love Him and who follow His purpose for their lives (Romans 8:28).
He turns misery into ministry, adversity into advantage, burdens into benefits, and human pain into divine gain. He knows how to download grace into our discouragements, and uplift our circumstances until they synthesize with His purposes. Our entanglements become His enablements.
There’s much more to learn in this chapter, but I’ll leave that for you. In the meantime, I want to thank you for following my weekly podcast and sharing it with others. From all of us here in our studios, we wish you a very Merry Christmas.