Was Zechariah really praying for a child in that famous passage at the start of Luke’s Gospel? Stephen Catto offers a new perspective

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”

It’s one of my favourite questions to ask a first-year New Testament class: “In Luke chapter 1, what was Zechariah praying for when the angel appeared to him in the temple and told him that his prayers had been heard?” Nearly everyone replies: “He was praying for a child, because he and Elizabeth didn’t have any kids.” Indeed, this is also the answer provided in some commentaries. But as Zechariah stood in the temple, was that the major focus of his prayer? Perhaps not that day!

Within the verses of the first chapter, there are some interesting details that Luke provides for us that may lead to a different, and more plausible, solution. The first hint comes in verse 18, where Zechariah gives his immediate response to the angel telling him that Elizabeth’s going to have a child. Effectively, he says to the angel: “Don’t be daft, you’ve got it all wrong, I’m an old bloke and my wife is old too, there’s absolutely no chance of us having a baby – maybe if you’d popped by 15 or 20 years ago, but not now!” Wouldn’t this be a strange response if Zechariah had just finished praying about the fact that he was childless, and had been asking God to act in some miraculous way so that Elizabeth could bear a child? If that was his request, then surely we might expect him at least to be open to the possibility that his prayer would be answered! The complete surprise that he shows in his response to the angel suggests that his prayer was for something else.

The second reason to think that his prayer was not for a child is a little more complex. In verse 8, Luke records that “Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God.” Zechariah didn’t live in Jerusalem; in the next chapter we find out that he lived south of Jerusalem, in the hill country of Judea. So if that’s where he lived, why was he there standing in the Jerusalem temple? 1 Chronicles 24:7-18 records that the priests were split into 24 divisions, and each of these would take it in turn to have a week on duty in the temple. So, Zechariah had travelled up to Jerusalem from Judea and was fulfilling his responsibilities in the temple precincts. Further details emerge in the next verse: “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” Zechariah was chosen to go and represent the people as he took part in the twice-daily incense offering. The chances of him being chosen were small; it’s something that perhaps only happened once or twice in a lifetime – this was a very important day in his life as a priest. And so, as he goes in to take part in the sacrifice, he is there as a representative of the whole people of Israel. And this background also makes it unlikely that he was praying about a child. Given the importance of this role, I don’t think he would have felt it appropriate, on this occasion, to bring up details of personal concern.

Early in Luke’s account of this event, we are told that Zechariah and his wife were upright in the sight of God, and I’m quite sure they would have spent time in prayer about a child. However, as Zechariah stood in the temple in Jerusalem, his prayer would have been for his nation and for God’s favour on his people. It is that prayer that God hears, and, excitingly for Zechariah and Elizabeth, it’s that prayer that God is going to answer through their son, John the Baptist. In time, John was to be the one who would urge the people of Israel to repent and be ready for Jesus.

Undoubtedly these early verses from Luke will be read often in the run-up to Christmas, and the way we understand them will impact on how we apply them to ourselves. That Zechariah was praying for God’s favour on the people of Israel not only makes good sense of the early verses of Luke, it also affects the way in which you and I apply it personally. Often, we can be overly concerned with ourselves; we focus on what is going on in our own little world and, in so doing, we lose God’s perspective on things, or at least we don’t allow him to give us a bigger vision. How often my prayers look like a shopping list rather than a time to listen to what God might want to say; how often am I more interested in regaling God with something really important that’s happening in my life, rather than praying for the community in which I live. Sure it’s right to bring our day-to-day concerns to God, but we also need to broaden our prayers to encompass the wider world in which live. The words of Harry Emerson Fosdick seem appropriate: “A person wrapped up in himself makes a small package.”

As we move towards a new year, what is God’s vision for us; for the place where we live; or even our nation or our world? Do we have that bigger perspective, or are we too preoccupied with the things that are going on in our lives? The exciting thing is that if we do allow the focus to move away from ourselves and on to others, we may need to be ready for surprises. As Zechariah prayed, little did he suspect that his prayer would be answered in such a dramatic and personal way. As God works out his purposes in Christ, we need to be ready for surprising answers to prayer, whether that be in our personal, church or national lives. Now if that does not make for a happy Christmas, what will?

Stephen Catto is a lecturer in biblical and theological studies at Moorlands College