In the Gospel of Luke, the Bible describes Archangel Gabriel visiting a Jewish priest named Zechariah (also known as Zacharias) to tell him that he would become the father of John the Baptist -- the person God had chosen to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah (the world's savior), Jesus Christ. Gabriel had recently appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her that God had chosen her to serve as Jesus Christ's mother, and Mary had responded to Gabriel's message with faith.
But Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had struggled with infertility, and then they got too old to have biological children naturally. When Gabriel made his announcement, Zechariah didn't believe that he could become a father supernaturally. So Gabriel took away Zechariah's ability to speak until after his son was born -- and when Zechariah could finally speak again, he used his voice to praise God. Here's the story, with commentary:
Do Not Be Afraid
Gabriel appears to Zechariah while Zechariah is performing one of his duties as a priest -- burning incense inside the temple -- and worshipers are praying outside. Verses 11 through 13 describe how the encounter between archangel and priest begins: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: '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."
Although the incredible sight of an archangel showing up right in front of him startles Zechariah, Gabriel encourages him not to respond in fear, since fear is incompatible with the good purposes for which God sends his holy angels on missions. Fallen angels allow people to feel fear and even use fear to deceive people, while holy angels dispel people's fears.
Gabriel tells Zechariah not only that he'll have a son, but that the son should have a specific name: John. Later, when Zechariah faithfully chooses that name for his son rather than following other people's advice to name his son after himself, he finally demonstrates faith in Gabriel's message, and God restores Zechariah's ability to speak that Gabriel had temporarily taken away.
Many Will Rejoice Because of His Birth
Then Gabriel explains how John will bring joy to Zechariah and many other people in the future when he prepares people for the Lord (the Messiah). Verses 14 through 17 record Gabriel's words about John (who, as an adult, would become known as John the Baptist): "He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous -- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus Christ's ministry by urging people to repent of their sins, and he also announced the start of Jesus' ministry on Earth.
How Can I Be Sure of This?
Verses 18 through 20 record Zechariah's doubtful response to Gabriel's announcement -- and the serious consequences of Zechariah's lack of faith:
Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'
The angel said to him, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.'"
Instead of believing what Gabriel tells him, Zechariah asks Gabriel how he can be sure that the message is really true, and then gives Gabriel an excuse for not believing: the fact that he and Elizabeth are both old. Zechariah, as a Jewish priest, would have been well aware of the Torah story of how angels announced that another elderly couple many years before -- Abraham and Sarah -- would bear a son who would play an important role in the story of God redeeming a fallen world. But when Gabriel tells Zechariah that God will do something similar in his own life, Zechariah doesn't believe it.
Gabriel mentions that he stands in God's presence. He is one of seven angels whom the Bible describes as being in God's presence in heaven. By describing his high angelic rank, Gabriel tries to show Zechariah that he has spiritual authority and can be trusted.
Elizabeth Becomes Pregnant
The story continues in verses 21 through 25: "Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 'The Lord has done this for me,' she said. 'In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.'
Elizabeth remained in seclusion for as long as she could hide her pregnancy from others, because even though she knew that God had allowed the pregnancy, others wouldn't understand how an elderly woman could become pregnant. However, Elizabeth was also glad to show others that she was finally carrying a child, since infertility was considered a disgrace in first-century Jewish society. Luke 1:58 says that after John's birth, Elizabeth's "neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy." One of these people was Mary, Elizabeth's cousin, who would become Jesus Christ's mother.
John the Baptist is Born
Later in his Gospel (Luke 1:57-80), Luke describes what happens after John is born: Zechariah demonstrates his faith in the message that God gave Archangel Gabriel to deliver to him, and as a result, God restores Zechariah's ability to speak.
Verses 59 to 66 record: "On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, 'No! He is to be called John.'
They said to her, 'There is no one among your relatives who has that name.'
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, 'His name is John.' Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.
All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?' For the Lord’s hand was with him."
As soon as Zechariah could use his voice again, he used it to praise God. The rest of Luke chapter one records Zechariah's praises, as well as prophecies about John the Baptist's life.