Luke’s infancy narratives are peculiar to Luke’s Gospel. One would find it difficult to connect Luke to Matthew, for example, if all one had were the infancy narratives. Moreover, most of the commentary that concerns itself with the birth of John seems to center around John and his family, rather than pointing toward the coming of Jesus. This is odd, if one considers the fact that John comes to reveal in or prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. It was so in John’s ministry, and it should be no less so in his birth. John came as a witness to bear witness to the coming of the Lord. His mission was to prepare for God a people who would be ready for Jesus’ preaching.
Luke tells us in Luke 1:5-9 that Zacharias was chosen by lot that day to burn incense at the altar of incense, which stood within the Holy Place of the Temple. This ceremony was performed in the morning and again in the evening (Exodus 30:7-8), but it is probably impossible to know at which time Zacharias served, because a different priest was chosen by lot for each time of prayer/incense. If Zacharias was chosen at the beginning of the week of his course, he would have performed the duties of his office in the late afternoon (cir. 3 PM) after all the sacrifices were completed for the day. If, on the other hand, he was chosen by lot at the end of his week, he would have burned incense on the altar early in the morning before any sacrifice was slain that day.
Incense represents the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4; Psalm 141:2), and the altar was the vehicle used to burn the incense to show the prayers of the faithful rising up to God in his House. Zacharias went into the Holy Place away from the view of other worshipers in the Temple, while the people prayed outside (Luke 1:9-10). While Zacharias was performing the duties of his office in the Temple, an angel (Gabriel) appeared to him. Gabriel stood at the right of the altar of incense and told Zacharias that his prayer was heard, AND that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, whose name would be John (Luke 1:11-13). How should we understand Gabriel’s statement: your prayer is heard?
Most likely Zacharias was praying for the redemption of God’s people, through the coming of the Messiah. There were many Jews at this time who believed that the 70 Weeks Prophecy of Daniel 9 was about to be fulfilled (compare Mark 15:43; Luke 2:25, 38; 23:51; 24:21; Isaiah 25:9). The prophecy’s 490 years was coming to a close, so the Messiah was soon to appear. This national prayer was probably the prayer of Zacharias – the Jews’ then national representative in God’s Temple. It was, therefore, this prayer that the angel indicated God had heard (Luke 1:13). Notice that the main theme of Gabriel’s announcement was not that Zacharias would have a son, but that his son would go before the coming Messiah (Luke 1:16-17). It was the promise of the Messiah that is in view of the angelic visit, not the birth of John. John’s birth was the sign that the angel’s claim that the Messiah was coming was true.
Notice, as well, that both Zacharias and Elizabeth point back to Abraham and Sarah in that Elizabeth was barren, and they went without a child long after one could expect the Lord to bless them with a son (Luke 1:7). It was in the promise of Isaac that the Lord said all nations would be blessed in Abraham’s seed (Genesis 18:10, 18; 22:18). Yet, it is clear that Abraham had many sons, but God’s covenant was not with them, but only through Isaac (Genesis 17:19, 21). Nevertheless, even Isaac had more than one son and certainly all nations were not blessed through either of them specifically. Paul argues later that this argument indicates that God’s covenant was with Abraham and his Seed, meaning Christ (Galatians 3:16). It is interesting, too, that the meaning of the names of Zacharias and Elizabeth point to the Messiah. They mean God remembers (Zacharias or Zechariah) his Covenant (Elizabeth)!