Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blameless Zacharias

It occurred to me, and I preached accordingly tonight, that the angel's reply to Zacharias in St. Luke 1 ("Behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed") was not necessarily a rebuke.

I've wondered about this, frankly, for years, ever since I read in Lenski's commentary a rather lame comparison between Zacharias 'disbelief' and the Blessed Virgin's question to the angel, in the same chapter, regarding her virgin conception of Christ. He declared, as I recall, that whereas Zacharias' question indicated unbelief on his part, Mary's question did not, but only an inquiry as to how she ought to expect the angel's word to come true, "seeing I know not a man." Hence, if you follow this line of reasoning, Zacharias was struck dumb, whereas Mary suffered no recrimination or ill consequence from her questioning of the angel.

All this assumes that what befell Zacharias was a punishment of sorts for his disbelief.

What's troubling about this assumption is that it is crystal clear, in the same chapter, that both Zacharias and Elizabeth were "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." We may deduce, I suppose, that suddenly Zacharias slipped up, or that in spite of his faithful blamelessness, he was nevertheless a sinner (which is certainly true, as in the case of all of us whose faith, like Abraham's, God reckons to us for righteousness). But neither of these explanations fits the context of this account.

Thus it occurred to me that the angel's rejoinder to Zacharias may not have been a rebuke at all. Perhaps it was merely an explanation for what followed. Because he did not believe the word of the angel, therefore a sign was given with it, to give him the confidence he otherwise lacked. Because he did not believe on the strength of the angel's word alone, therefore this was added: he was struck dumb.

Imagine it from Zacharias' point of view: first he experiences, and expresses, doubt over whether all this is really so. Then, he is struck dumb. How clearly this must have taught him the utter truthfulness of it all: he could not utter a word! There was the very proof he needed.

Similarly, we need additions to the sheer word of promise. So we are given Holy Sacraments, which are heavenly signs, seals from God, to accompany His promise. For we, like Zacharias, are prone to fickleness of the flesh. Hence God in His inestimable mercy grants to us the support we require, even as He did for this saint.


Petersen said...

Perhaps the problem is our understanding of rebuke. The angel has no malice or anger. He is not shocked or surprised by Zacharias' doubt. He does not look down upon him because of it. What the angel does, as an agent of Our Lord, he does for the good of Zacharias. I agree with what you've written except that I don't think rebuke is the wrong word, because there is suffering and shame in Zacharias' condition and it is a direct consequence of his doubt.

I don't know. Just musing along. I've not thought about this before. Nice post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Can punishment not still be a blessing?

I guess what I am asking is: why the fear in calling it a punishment? So what if Zachariah sinned?

Or am I missing your point altogether?

Thank you,

Pr. Jeremy Husby

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

My reticence about calling it punishment has partly to do with the fact that Christ takes away the sin of the world.

The lack of faith on the part of Zacharias, ironically, is related to our own lack of faith: the Gospel teaches me that Christ has removed my sin entirely; therefore I, too, am blameless before God.

In addition, my point about wishing to steer away from the angel's words as a rebuke is an exegetical one. I was wondering about another way to understand "because." Since Zacharias did not believe the word alone, therefore there was given to him something additional, to buoy his faith.

If it were I, then I don't really think I'd see a sudden, miraculous inability to speak as a punishment. I'd see it as an irrefutable sign.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Zacharias and Mary - Question

Hebrews 12 is helpful in understanding this issue.

More importantly, however, is the context.

Mary asks an entirely different question than that of Zacharias. Mary is going about her daily activities when Gabriel appears to her with an extraordinary announcement. This announcement has never been given to anyone else. She is told that she will be The Theotokos, the bearer of God in the flesh into the world. She is told that she has been chosen by God to give birth to God’s Son, the promised Savior.

Her response is to accept what the angel told her and to ask, “How shall be this, since a man not I know?”

Her question was one of asking what she should do with this word from the Lord. Should she now be joined with Joseph? How shall be this thing that you have told me? What now am I to do?

Zacharias, however, had been praying for the very thing which Gabriel was sent to announce. God sent an angel from heaven to say Amen to his prayer.

Moreover, Zacharias was in the place where God’s Amens were promised to be given. He was performing the Holy Office when Gabriel came to him with God’s Amen.

Moreover, this announcement was also directly connected to the prophetic Word that Zacharias was called and ordained to preach. Gabriel announced that not only were the prayers of Zacharias and Elizabeth being answered, but that the promise of the return of Elijah to prepare the way of the Savior was also being answered.

What was the response of Zacharias? “According to what shall I know this?”

Zacharias, who daily preached the Gospel to God’s people did not believe the Gospel when he heard it. How then could he continue to preach what he did not believe? The preacher of the Word must first believe the Word.

Instead of rejoicing and shouting Amen, Zacharias put the Lord to the test. Instead of rejoicing that the Lord had sent an angel to announce that the days were being fulfilled, he specifically demanded a sign.

To this, Gabriel responds by taking away from Zachariah the ability to perform the duties of the Holy Office. But not permanently, only for a time. For a time, the preaching office was suspended and what Zacharias was unwilling to confess would be preached even more powerfully by his silence. He would still be able to write what he knew, but until the fulfillment of the glad tidings he would not be able to preach it.

This was done not only for the sake of Zacharias, but for the sake of all the people of God. For it was necessary to teach that the preaching office is an office of absolute certainty in the promises of God’s Word. What God promises is to be believed and preached for all to believe with absolute certainty. Doubt cannot be tolerated, especially regarding those entrusted with the Holy Office. Doubt is to be preached into nonexistence by those who hold the office. Questions are to answered by the preaching of the clear declarations of God recorded in Holy Scripture.

Zacharias had received a sign but did not believe. Gabriel was that sign. So Zacharias was chastened according to the public office of the ministry. He continued at the temple until the days of his service were completed, continuing to serve without the function of speech, thereby standing as a sign to all that the preaching office is to be carried out with certainty and is to be believed with certainty.

This stands as an everlasting example for us all.

Zacharias learned the meaning of faith from this. He learned that what God declares is to be believed and preached without doubting. He confirmed this when he wrote “John is the name of him.” Elizabeth had been informed by her husband of the Word of the Lord that had been declared to her husband in the temple. Elizabeth announced the name of the one born to her. When others challenged this, Zacharias put it in writing. Moreover, he did not say what the child’s name shall be, but what the child’s name IS. End of questions. No more room for doubting on the part of anyone. John IS the name given by the Lord through the angel. John IS the name.

This is how the preaching office must be fulfilled. This IS the point of this text.

(Compare to the preaching of the Sacrament and of the unity of the body.)

Peter said...

Punishment? More like a gentle slap on the wrist. There is also something here about the way Luke tells the story; i.e., John's birth is great, but Jesus' is better. It's his way of honoring the OT (as represented in righteous Zechariah), while pointing to the OT's flowering in Christ.

Thanks for the post.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Speaking of honoring the OT, we ought not miss the prophetic nature of Zacharias' silence in the days before the birth of John. It is akin to the silence of all the prophets after the days of Malachi, leading up to the birth of Christ. In Zacharias' own life is a microcosm of all the prophets.

Anonymous said...

I guess I am misunderstanding your point still.

So, exegetically, rather than being punished BECAUSE of his sin, a causal "anti-own", Zachariah was instead given another miracle BECAUSE he sinned and didn't believe the first one?

I always thought that God blessed us in spite of our sin, meaning the only thing our sin earns (or effects in a cause and effect relationship) is punishment. Anything we do cannot earn God's favor or blessing. God acts independently of our sin and blesses us nonetheless, not because of.


Pr. Jeremy Husby

Amberg said...

I'm so glad my dad really punished me! I wouldn't believe a word he says otherwise. I'd hate him like Siddhartha's son.

The righteous doubt and God's reaction remains the same. God always rebukes and chides unbelief, disbelief, misbelief and other great shame and vice. How many times have we heard Him call us "of little faith?"

The sign is that doubt may not speak where God has promised. And Zechariah learned. He was still and heard who God was and as soon as he could talk again He praised the Word of God.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

My suggestion is that the angel's reaction to Zacharias' unbelief may have had nothing to do with retribution or consiquences for sin; rather, that since he didn't believe the word alone (which, ok, he should have, but that's beside the point here, I think), he was given an added proof.

We all need sacraments.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

And besides, everybody seems to want to sidestep what I noted in the first place: Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless. That's what it says.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Pr. Eckardt,

“We all need sacraments” is not applicable to this. The angel did not give to Zacharias a sacrament. Sacraments are means of grace that are ordained by the Lord’s decree for the Church. This was an action of chastening administered to an individual. It was an application of Law, not of Gospel.

The Sacraments require faith in the Gospel. The Word is that which empowers the Sacraments and makes them efficacious. The Sacraments are an administration of the Word. Apart from faith in the Word the Sacraments have no power.

Gabriel clearly states that the action is one administered against the sin of doubting the Word of the Lord that was pronounced by God’s sent servant. Gabriel makes it plain that this was a call to repentance from the sin of unbelief and the sin of putting the Lord to the test.

Your reference to Zacharias and Elizabeth being blameless has not been sidestepped, but rather has been explained. But since somehow the explanation seems to be unclear, it certainly is worthy of further attempts.

Luke 1:6 reads:

“Were then righteous both before God journeying/walking in all the commands/ordinances and righteousness of the Lord blameless.”

This is the same language as in Romans 5:1-2

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (KJV) (Check the Greek and you’ll find the same words used.)

Luke informs us that both Zacharias and Elisabeth stood before God as declared righteous, continuing in the one true faith by which they received this righteousness of the Lord, continuing in the Old Testament liturgy and doctrine without faltering or without blame. They did not depart in any way from the holy doctrine of the prophets but journeyed in them by which the righteousness of the Lord was bestowed upon them. They were blamelessly holding to the pure administration of the Gospel so that Zacharias was even standing before the Lord in the divine service when Gabriel appeared to him.

Nevertheless, according to his own weakness, when Gabriel told him the glad tidings, Zacharias doubted the Word and was called to repent of it. He was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to accuse and humble him. This is an administration of the judgment of the Lord, as St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding how the Lord judges the churches and individuals when they do not rightly discern/judge the Lord’s body, pretending to partake of the Lord’s Supper in a divided church. The body of Christ is not divided he declares in 1 Cor. 1:13. Yet, in a church that was divided over the doctrine to such a degree that some did not even believe in the resurrection, they continued to administer the Sacrament and thereby all ate and drank judgment upon themselves to the point that some were even falling asleep in God’s judgment. He goes on to say in 11:32 that we receive the Lord’s judgment because we do not ourselves rightly judge. In 33 he says “But being judged by the Lord we are disciplined/chastened in order that not with the world should we be judged against/condemned.”

This is what Gabriel pronounces to Zacharias. The Lord Jesus later decried those who ask for signs as a wicked and perverse generation. Zacharias wickedly asked for a sign when the Lord had already placed him into the holy office and sent the sign of the archangel to bring the glad tidings both that his prayer was answered concerning a son but also the answer of the prayers that Zacharias offered in conjunction with the holy office. God sent Gabriel as a sign and gave the very Word in the very place where Zacharias had taught that this should take place. Moreover, the promise of the conception of John WAS a sign that pointed to the promise of the Christ!

Zacharias had fallen into the sin of doubt. He did not believe the Word of the Lord. Adam did this only once and brought everlasting judgment upon himself and the entire world. Zacharias could not be allowed to leave the holy place without being called to repent of his unbelief. Neither could this wickedness not be publicly denounced, since it was done while performing the public office. It is recorded for us as an example for us today.

The Word is the life of the Church. Doubt has no place in the Church nor in the office of Christ in which Zacharias stood. Doubt must always be condemned for what it is, the cause of everlasting separation from God’s holy communion. Doubt must be condemned and preached out of existence so that faith rules the heart.

It is absolutely wrong to reduce the condemnation of Zacharias’ expression of doubt concerning the clear declaration of the Word of the Lord. Taking away the ability to preach was not a small thing for one who stood in the preaching office. This was a judgment of the Lord against all who would turn aside from the Word without believing. This was a very strong chastening. Not only was it strong, it was public. For when Zacharias came out he had to explain, without his voice, why his voice was taken from him. Then he had to continue publicly to serve without his voice before ALL who came to the temple, until his time of service was completed.

This was not some small thing. This was a very humbling experience. Everyone who came to the temple would discover that Zacharias had not believed the Word of the Lord that was delivered by God’s archangel in the holy place. In the Holy Place! By one ordained into the Holy Office of the Word! Everyone would know the faithlessness of Zacharias. Everyone would see that the blamelessness of Zacharias was not because of his faithfulness, but because of the means of grace, and humbled by this, Zacharias openly confessed the truth to all, although without the use of his voice.

I wonder, did Zacharias write it on a parchment so that he would not have to write it on the ground each time that someone asked? Or did he appoint a spokesperson to give the explanation for him?

This kind of chastening would make a servant of the house of the Lord wish that he could take a sabbatical. But then, Luke tells us that Zacharias was blameless in walking in the righteousness of the Lord. Therefore he would have surely confessed his sin openly and received the holy absolution publicly, rejoicing in the grace of the Lord for himself and for all who came to the temple.

Rebuked? Yes. Humbled? Beyond any doubt.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

You said, "The Sacraments require faith in the Gospel. The Word is that which empowers the Sacraments and makes them efficacious. The Sacraments are an administration of the Word. Apart from faith in the Word the Sacraments have no power."

It never fails to amaze me that when a wider interpretation of "sacrament" is brought into play, somebody will throw the 1943 catechism at me. I have the scars to prove it.

So here we have a sign (the silence of Zacharias) accompanied by a word of promise: you will be unable to speak until these things are accompished. How is this act of the angel not an administration of the word? By your own admission, it is.

Of course it is not a dominical Sacrament, nor does it forgive sins; it is, however, a sign from God.

I'm not denying the possibility that this could be seen as a rebuke; what I am saying is that it really seems to be something more in the way of the Gospel. The angel uses Zacharias to demonstrate how true his promise is.

Forget about Zacharias for a minute. What does his silence say to you? I expect you'll say that it is a warning always to believe whatever God says to you, or else.

But maybe it says something more. Maybe it's this: this extraordinary story of an angel appearing to Zacharias may surely be believed, just as surely as Zacharias was struck dumb afterwards.

That's kinda like a sacrament, no?

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Pr. Eckardt,

I did not throw anything at you, let alone the 1943 LC-MS Synodical Catechism. To be clear, you threw it at me. Don’t worry, I’m not hurt.

I referenced Article XIII of the Augsburg Confession and of the Apology. In doing so I was not throwing them at you, but stating what I presumed that we both confessed and believed.

The Sacraments are not the issue, except that you made them an issue by trying to use an unwarranted application of sacramental language to justify challenging what Matthew records that the angel clearly said to Zacharias. Matthew records that Gabriel used anth or anti with this sign. Anti means over or against or opposed or because.

This is not sacramental language. The sacraments are not given over or against those to whom they are given. While this is most certainly a sign, it is a sign against something. It is a sign against unbelief. The sacraments are signs for those who believe, not for those who do not believe. Gabriel is clearly stating this as a rebuke, not as something to aid in faith. He is rebuking the unbelief of Zacharias, just as the Lord Jesus rebuked the disciples.

Abraham disbelieved God’s promise in Genesis 17, falling on his face and asking for Ishmael instead to be counted as the son of blessing, and was rebuked for it. In Genesis 18 Sarah refused to believe and laughed, and was rebuked for her unbelief. She even lied about it on account of being afraid. Rebukes are not sacraments. They are calls to repentance. Sacraments are for the penitent.

Your challenge of this as a rebuke is off base. To turn a chastening into a sacrament is not a helpful thing. It works the opposite of what the rebuke is given to accomplish. The chastening of the Lord is for leading us to repent and then to receive the Sacraments in true faith. To redefine a rebuke as something else counters the effect of dispelling unbelief.

You say:

“I'm not denying the possibility that this could be seen as a rebuke; what I am saying is that it really seems to be something more in the way of the Gospel. The angel uses Zacharias to demonstrate how true his promise is.”

This text is loaded with Gospel. Even the fact that the Lord rebukes His unbelieving saints is a display of Gospel from the standpoint that God speaks the condemnation of the Law so as to call His children to repent and be saved from their unbelief. But a rebuke is still a rebuke. Rebukes are not in themselves Gospel and they are not sacraments.

You seem to want to reduce the seriousness of the unbelief of Zacharias. Gabriel took the opposite perspective. He declared it to be of such a serious nature that it had to be dealt with by making him to become siopon (silent) taking away the dunamenos lalesai , the being empowered to speak. These are the same words as in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 where St. Paul commands the women to be silent and not to speak in the ecclesia. Gabriel temporarily stripped Zacharias of the preaching office in direct response to the sin of unbelief.

If that can be called anything but a rebuke, I don’t know how.

You say: “Forget about Zacharias for a minute.”

WHAT? This entire question is about what was done to Zacharias in opposition to his clear statement of unbelief. Gabriel says that this is in response to his unbelief.

You say: “What does his silence say to you?”

It says to me what there is no place for unbelief in the communion of the saints and especially in the preaching office. It says that our idle words, our words that counter faith, are not minor matters. It says that we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” It says that a person is better off keeping his mouth shut than to open it in opposition to Word of the Lord.

You say, “I expect you'll say that it is a warning always to believe whatever God says to you, or else.”

Of course that is what I say. Anyone who refuses to believe the Word of God stands condemned. That is the “or else” against which Zacharias was warned and from which he was called to repent. Jesus says that we are truly His disciples if we keep/guard His words.

Which ones? All of them. As Peter rightly confessed, His words are the words of everlasting life. What words of God can be denied by one who believes His Word? To deny any of the words of God is to oppose the Word.

You say:

“But maybe it says something more. Maybe it's this: this extraordinary story of an angel appearing to Zacharias may surely be believed, just as surely as Zacharias was struck dumb afterwards.”

Absolutely not! It says that this appearance of the angel and the words that the Lord sent him to declare MUST be believed, not that they may surely be believed. It says what Moses and the Lord Jesus said, that a man lives by EVERY word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

It is not possible to deny God just a little. It is not possible to disbelieve just a little. Either one believes God and counts Him as faithful and true, or one calls God a liar and stands separated from God and His Word. There is no middle ground.

This issue is the most serious issue facing those who would be saved. We dare not allow it to be in any way minimized. Unbelief is never a little thing. It must always be rebuked. The preaching of the Church must always call everyone to repent of all unbelief, completely. This is what Gabriel proclaimed to Zacharias, and that Zacharias scribbled until he was restored with the power to preach.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Well, sir, you almost had me.

I was reading along, and thinking, hmmm, he's making a good point here, and another good point there, although a couple of times I found myself thinking, ah, there's some question as to whether Zacharias was in the preaching office. He was a priest, not a preacher. His office was to offer sacrifice. The Predigtamt is the Office of Christ, in fulfillment of the Old Testament. Now I'm sure we can argue about this too, till the cows come home, but honestly, I've decided I don't really want to argue with you any more.

Here's why.

As I said, you almost had me, until you jumped on my words "may surely be believed" with a foolish rejoinder: "Absolutely not!" saying that they MUST be believed.

What this form of argument tells me is that you really have no interest in getting at the truth here, but merely in seeking to show that I am wrong, somehow.

Listen: "may surely be believed" means exactly the same thing as "must be believed," for, as any grammarian can tell you, "may surely be believed" in this context does not mean "might be believable," but rather, "you are encouraged, Zacharias, to believe this because it is surely so." See there, "surely" does not give you license to jump all over "may." But you have rushed in like the horse into battle. All you care about is winning an argument. Go bother someone else, then.

Here, in all seriousness, is what I was trying to say in the first place: the angel's word to Zacharias may be counted as a rebuke, but it may also be seen as a blessed opportunity for "blameless" Zacharias to be strengthened in his faith, where before he was weak. And so also for our faith.

Amberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.