Common Person, Uncommon Priest
There was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
John the Baptists’ father was a common man. You might have expected him to be a great leader or even some kind of revolutionist. But he was very much common. In fact, the New King James Version introduces him as only “a certain priest.”
He was one of 18,000 priests in Palestine during the rule of Herod. The priestly division to which he belonged was one group out of twenty-four. Thus, there were around 750 priests in the same division. Together the priests served twice a year at the temple. But seven were chosen to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense. Such a duty was given to these priests only once in their lifetime. After a priest served the burning incense, he could never do it again. Those who were chosen to serve were selected by the casting of lots.
Casting lots seems like a strange way to decide things – especially in our day with so many ways to take chances at gambling. But this was not so in Ancient times. The Israelites believed that when lots were cast, God revealed His will. It was a way of removing the depraved wisdom of humans from the picture. The idea is that “if we come up with a decision on our own, it will not be the Lord’s decision.” So instead, they would cast lots and trust that God will have them fall how He wills.
So, the casting of lots has some kind of chance to it – at least from man’s perspective. But this was how Zechariah was chosen to enter the temple and burn incense during one of his fourteen yearly days serving. This moment was a once in a lifetime moment for him.
He was chosen by lot. One of 18,000 priests. He would enter the temple once in his lifetime. There was little that made him special. He was a coincidental straw in the haystack. Thus, he was only “a certain priest.”
He belonged to the division of Abijah, which was the eighth division of the twenty-four that were formed. And, just as a further note, the divisions were also made by the casting of lots. This furter points out his ambiguity. Still yet, this common priest was not so common among the priests. Luke records some things about his devotion to God that really sets him apart from the priests of his time.
Zechariah was going to be the father of John the Baptist who, by Jesus’ words, was the greatest man alive (Matt. 11:11). So, maybe there is more to Zechariah than we see by his coincidental service in the Temple. (This is not to suggest that God makes His decisions to chose some among others based on their works, but it is an attempt to show that God raised up Zechariah to parent such a great man to be the Harold of Jesus. In short, Zechariah’s devotion to God and religion proved him to be a very uncommon man among the common priests.
First of all, priests were born priests. They were not adopted into the priesthood. They did not win their way in or purchase some position into the sect. They were priests because their fathers were priests, and so were their fathers, and so on. They were male descendants of Aaron, who was the first high priest. So a male in the lineage of Aaron was a priest by birth and without choice.
Such a call to duty without the opportunity to select led most to be quite callous to their exclusive function. Their roles were indeed special and high. They were representatives of God who counseled and taught Scripture. They were the butchers who sacrificed the animals on Passover. They were the ones who pronounced blessings. These were exclusively special people.
Some thought their specialty was on their own credit. Many of the priests became arrogant and prideful. In fact, throughout the gospels we encounter the pride of the priests over and over again. One would get the idea that all of the priests were just self-righteous, hypocritical, power-hungry men who altogether forgot how they were selected – not on any account of themselves.
But this was not so of Zechariah. He was a devout priest who filled his life with religion. It is in this that we find his peculiarity. He was not like the other priests. He was pure and righteous (1:6). We can know that he was so religious because of what we know about his choice in marriage. (They say that you can tell a lot about a man by his wife!)
He married a woman named Elizabeth, whose name means, “my God is faithful.” Luke records that she was from the daughters of Aaron. That is to say that she too was born of the priesthood lineage. Her father was a priest. Her brothers and uncles were priests. Her male cousins were priests. She was raised in a priestly family and was familiar with the functions and roles of priests. She was of the devoted people.
Then, to push things a bit further, we can assume that her parents were unlike the common priests in their devotion as well since they named her after Aaron’s wife. Her family must have been serious about their religion and no doubt they were. They raised a woman who was righteous in the sight of God.
Zechariah was serious all the more. He too was likely raised to take his religion serious for he is also called righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah was religious in every way – even to the extent of his marriage. He wanted someone who knew and understood the ways of the priest.
Luke describes them both as walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. This is in contrast to the other priests who were righteous in the sight of men. Matthew 23 records one encounter where Jesus describes these men as those who “do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt. 23:5). They are said to be “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).
But this is not so of Zechariah and his wife. God calls them righteous in His sight. And what else can it mean, but that their sins were covered. Genesis 15:6 could be said of them, “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” These two were believers – ones devoted to God in all their ways. They understood the words of Isaiah 53 where the slaughtered Lamb is prophesied to come and be butchered for the sins of man. Zechariah knew this everytime that he grabbed the animal for sacrifice and covered himself in its blood.
They knew this to be true and you can see it ring when John the Baptist first gazes upon Jesus and says “Behold the Lamb of God!” rather than “Behold the King!” (John 1:29). They believed God’s word unto righteousness. For this reason, Zechariah is distinctly set apart from the common priests of his day. He was common, yes. But he was also uncommon.