The final prophecy of the Old Testament is found in Malachi where God promised to send the prophet Elijah before the coming Day of the Lord. According to Luke, John would not only embody the prophet Elijah, but also the messenger who would be sent before the coming Messiah (Luke 1:15-17; cf. Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). It was John’s responsibility to turn the hearts of the people back to God in repentance, thus “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” or their Messiah (Luke 1:17; cf. Malachi 3:1). Moreover, Moses claimed he would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15), and God would hold his people responsible for not believing the Messiah’s teaching (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The Day of the Lord was a time of God’s judgment, and John (Elijah – Luke 1:17) was sent to turn the people’s hearts to God in repentance to save them from judgment (Malachi 4:5-6).
This is what the scriptures tell us, and there is no reason why Zacharias didn’t believe them. He executed his office as priest, standing between the people and God, and prayed for the appearance of the Messiah (compare Mark 15:43; Luke 2:25, 38; 23:51; 24:21; Isaiah 25:9). We have no reason to believe Zacharias didn’t believe the angel, when Gabriel said his prayer was answered (Luke 1:13). He didn’t fail concerning the big things of his faith. Zacharias failed with the little things, namely that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Why would this be a problem with God, since the scripture already tells us that Abraham was given a child through Sarah long after what would be considered childbearing years? Yet, it is precisely at this point that Zacharias failed. After so many years of disappointment, God would finally answer that prayer—a prayer no longer offered.
God was about to touch Zacharias and Elizabeth in a personal way, so that all their years of waiting and embarrassment would be set right. Yet, Zacharias was unable to believe God would do this thing—a very personal thing. It is at this point that many of us fail as well. How could God forgive this thing that I’ve done? Why would God do this for me? Most believers have no problem believing the big impersonal things. We fail when faced with the prospect that God is a personal God who loves even me. Sure, God sent his Son into the world to save the world, but sometimes folks fail in their faith on a personal level—God saves even me. All the religions of this world have no problem believing in a far-off, impersonal God. What folks have a problem with is— God face to face (cf. 2Corinthians 3:18).
Zacharias asked for a sign, not for the coming of the Messiah, not even that Elijah would come, but he asked for a sign for the sign that Gabriel gave him that his prayer was heard. All Zacharias had to do was wait a month or two and he would know of a surety, but he couldn’t believe God would be this personal.
Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were faithful to God, blameless with respect to the Law (Luke 1:5-6). Yet, they had to endure the criticism and judgment of others, whose hearts were hard, naming and claiming scriptures like Deuteronomy 7:14. Many of the rabbis would have thought Zacharias should have divorced Elizabeth and taken to himself a fertile wife. Nevertheless, Zacharias was righteous before the Lord (Luke 1:6), having compassion for his wife and cleaving to her (cf. Matthew 19:3-9). However, the Jewish scholars of that day taught otherwise:
“Seven are banned by Heaven; these are they: A Jew who has no wife; he who has a wife but no children…” [Babylonian Talmud – Pesachim 113b – 18].
Elizabeth’s infertility was a stigma that both she and Zacharias had to endure most of their married life. To believe that this stigma would finally be lifted by God, after so many years of silence that resulted in their despairing of relief, was too much for him to believe. As a result, the angel struck him dumb (Luke 1:20) and probably deaf (cf. Luke 1:62), until all those things that the angel predicted about the child’s birth were fulfilled. In other words, the unbelief of Zacharias resulted in his inability to praise God for what the Lord was doing for him, and he was unable to hear the praises of others for what God was doing. Unbelief doesn’t alter God’s work, but it does keep us from embracing God’s work with the joy of praise that should be offered such a wonderful God.