Focus on Jesus Series
Zechariah the Priest and Father of John the Baptist
by Ed Vasicek
The Christmas narrative really begins by setting the stage for Jesus' coming through explaining how his forerunner, John the Baptist, was miraculously conceived. Our narrative begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple (probably mid to later 50s) who had never been blessed with children.
Zechariah was a priest, but not of the high priestly family. This meant he was one of many hundreds of priests who only occasionally served at the Temple. Today Jewish men with the last name of Cohen, Conn, Cohan (or similar names based on the Hebrew word for priests) are likewise priests, descendants of Aaron. These priests did not receive much compensation for their work but supported themselves through a trade or skill; they were what we might call "lay priests."
Since there were so many male descendants of Aaron (and therefore priests), the priesthood was divided into divisions. Twice a year, a lay priest would take his turn to journey to Jerusalem and serve by offering sacrifices, etc., for one week. Anne Punton writes:
The priests did far more than offer daily sacrifices, burn the incense, care for lamps and provide the weekly shewbread. In addition, there were special sacrifices ordained for Shabbat, new moons and other festivals and feasts. They also dealt with the public…. Practically every aspect of a religious person's daily life focused on the Temple. The priests received freewill gifts, tithes, offerings and firstfruits. They absolved vows, supervised rituals to do with the redemption of the firstborn, the conclusion of a nazirite vow or for a cleansed leper…" (from The World Jesus Knew, p. 171)
The priests cast lots to determine the special task of offering incense. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; after a priest served, he was no longer involved in the lot. Zechariah's turn had come.
While the priest offered incense, the Jewish ma'amad would gather outside the Temple and bow down before the Lord with outstretched hands offering silent prayer while the incense was offered. The entire Temple area was in a hush. These ma'amad were laymen who were likewise organized in divisions. Other devout Jews would gather in synagogues throughout the land during the time of the incense offering. Revelation 8:1-5a describes the exact same scene in the heavenly sanctuary:
When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth....
Highland Park Church