" And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense." (Luke 1:8-11 AV)
Luke's Train of Thought:
The word "incense" is used three times. The reference to the "whole multitude" praying is obvious on the face of the fact that it seems to have little to do with the story -- indicating that it may be the point of the story! That the angelic message was "your petition has been answered" seems to indicate that "prayer" is the focus here. We need to realize that everything moves in the direction of "relationship": there is nothing that goes on that is not designed to enhance our knowledge of God and, thus, our relationship to/with Him.
Luke's Bigger Picture:
The details regarding the arrival of John on the scene of history are important. It was important for Theophilus to understand that John's arrival on the scene was miraculous as an answer to prayer. The implication is that the Sovereign Lord works His will so that it will be seen as a solution to the unfulfilled desires of the godly. The godly desire what God desires; God desires also that the godly sense a participation with Him in the pursuit of those desires. There is here a focus upon the reality that life comes through participation with God in significant action. Accomplishing vanity leads to a sense of futility; accomplishing an enduring objective leads to a sense of fulfillment with joy.
- 1. The focus-event occurred while Zacharias was executing his priestly function before God.
- 2. The priestly function, assigned to him by lot, was to offer incense while the people were in prayer without.
- a. The statements "his course", "the custom", and "his lot" all point to the reality of life as a normally flowing continuum that has, as its major characteristic, "sameness", or "routine".
- b. The point of the record is, however, the introduction of the emphatically "non-routine".
- 1) There is little in the biblical record to lead us to think that life is a series of the emphatically non-routine -- in fact, if that were the case, the "routine" would not exist.
- 2) This implies one of two things: either the answers to prayer are non-routine, or the answers to prayer fit into the routine so that they escape our notice almost altogether.
- c. The emphasis upon the offering of incense is easily overlooked. From the very beginning of the worship of Yahweh, the offering of incense was so fundamental that it became, in the prophets, the central accusation of idolatry ("you have offered incense to Baal"). As one peruses the references to offering incense, the notion develops that the act is, itself, a statement of confident loyalty. It is tied to prayer -- as prayer and the offering of incense have the same root: the One to whom I speak in prayer/the One to whom I offer incense is the One on whom I depend for the quality of my experience. In one sense, the issue is not the quality of my experience, for that varies regardless of the "god"; rather, it is the root of my theological orientation as the final loyalty of my being. To push a bit deeper, the offering of incense is both a statement of my loyalty and a statement of my confidence in His loyalty. In some ways, the issue here is not whether the offerer gets what he seeks in terms of the specific details (which depend rather largely upon the perceptions of the seeker and the level of developed wisdom to which he has attained); rather, the issue is whether the Offered gets what He seeks in terms of the root level of loyalty -- so that He can, then, give to the offerer His fulness of blessing. ("Many committed themselves to Him but He did not commit Himself to them because He knew what was in them.") Even the development of the following story shows how John's birth was going to give Zacharias/Elizabeth great gladness, but the divine intent was far greater in that John would be an agent of God to bless a great multitude of people who would turn to Yahweh as a consequence of his Spirit-empowered ministry. And, indeed, Zacharias and Elizabeth had both been subject to a long life of frustration created by the denial of Yahweh to answer them in their time. The answer, when it finally came, was effective in wiping out the entire impact of the long years of denied petition. I am reminded of the athlete's extreme training regimen for long years for a few minutes of intense glory -- the universal testimony is that the result was worth all of the years and years of denial.
- 3. The phenomenal experience was to be confronted by an angel from the Lord standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
- a. The "right" side of the altar is mentioned particularly.
- b. The "right" side throughout Scripture is the position of greatest favor where the favored is encouraged to be served ("sit Thou at My right hand until I make your enemies the footstool of thy feet").