Zechariah is startled by an angel of the Lord, “standing on the right of the altar of incense.” (Luke 1:11, NEB) Zechariah is in the sanctuary to offer incense while “the whole congregation is at prayer outside.” (Luke 1:11) Fear overwhelms him. But the angel says, “Your prayer is heard: your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son, and you are to name him John. Your heart will thrill with joy and many will be glad that he is born; for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-15)
Zechariah doubts. He’s an old man and his wife “is well on in years.” (Luke 1:18) Because he questions the angel, Gabriel says, “Now listen: you will lose your power of speech, and remain silent until the day when these things happen to you, because you do not believe me.” (Luke 1:19-20)
Sure enough, Zechariah emerges from the sanctuary mute. He remains unable to speak until “the time comes for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gives birth to a son.” (Luke 1:57-58) “When her neighbors and relatives hear what great favour the Lord shows her, they are as delighted as she is.” (Luke 1:59)
On the eighth day as they arrive to circumcise the infant, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives are going to name the boy after his father. “But [Elizabeth,] his mother speaks up and says, ‘No! he is to be called John.’ (Luke 1:60) The neighbors and relatives are bewildered as there’s no John in Zechariah’s family. However, Zechariah gestures for a writing tablet and scribbles, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:64) “Immediately his lips and tongue are freed and he begins to speak, praising God.” (Luke 1:65)
When these things happen, says Gabriel. These things are essentially four – 1) Elizabeth is with child, 2) A son is born to her and to Zechariah, 3) Their neighbors and relatives rejoice; then “everywhere in the uplands of Judea the whole story becomes common talk. All who hear it are deeply impressed,” (Luke 1:65-66) and 4) Zechariah names his son, John.
With these things, Gabriel releases Zechariah’s power of speech: “Praise to the God of Israel! For He has turned to His people, saved them and set them free, and has raised up a deliverer of victorious power from the house of His servant David. So He promised: age after age He proclaimed by the lips of His holy prophets, that He would deliver us from our enemies, out of the hands of all who hate us; that he would deal mercifully with our fathers, calling to mind His solemn covenant. Such was the oath He swore to our father Abraham, to rescue us from enemy hands, and grant us, free from fear, to worship Him with a holy worship, with uprightness of heart, in His presence, our whole life long. And you, my child, you shall be called Prophet of the Highest, for you will be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare His way and lead His people to salvation through knowledge of Him, by the forgiveness of their sins: for in the tender compassion of our God the morning sun from heaven will rise upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the cloud of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)