The Story of the Angel By the Altar    /p1

At the time when the story of the New Testament begins, the land of Israel, called also the land of Judea, was ruled by a king named Herod. He was the first of several Herods, who at different times ruled either the whole of the land, or parts of it. But Herod was not the highest ruler. Many years before this time, the Romans, who came from the city of Rome in Italy, had won all the lands around the Great Sea, the sea which we call the Mediterranean; and above king Herod of Judea was the great king of Rome, ruling over all the lands, and over the land of Judea among them. So Herod, though king of Judea, obeyed his overlord, the emperor at Rome. At the time when this story begins, the emperor at Rome was named Augustus Cęsar.

At this time, the land where the Jews lived was full of people. Jerusalem was its largest city, and in Jerusalem was standing the Temple of the Lord, which king Herod had lately built anew, taking the place of the old Temple built very many years before, which had long needed repair. There were also many other large cities besides Jerusalem. In the south was Hebron among the mountains; on the shore of the Great Sea were Gaza, and Joppa, and Cęsarea; in the middle of the land were Shechem and Samaria; and in the north were Nazareth, and Cana; down by the shore of the Sea of Galilee were Tiberias, and Capernaum, and Bethsaida. Far up in the north, at the foot of snowy Mount Hermon, was another Cęsarea; but so that it might not be confused with Cęsarea upon the seacoast this city was called Cęsarea-Philippi, or "Philip's Cęsarea," from the name of one of Herod's sons.

One day, an old priest named Zacharias was leading the service of worship in the Temple. He was standing in front of the golden altar of incense, in the Holy Place, and was holding in his hand a censer, or cup, full of burning coals and incense; while all the people were worshipping in the court of the Temple, outside the court of the Priests, where the great altar of burnt-offering stood.

Suddenly, Zacharias saw an angel from the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. He felt a great fear when he saw this strange being with shining face; but the angel said to him:

"Do not be afraid, Zacharias; for I have come from the Lord to bring good news. Your wife Elizabeth shall have a son, and you shall name him John. You shall be made glad, for your son John shall bring joy and gladness to many. He shall be great in the sight of the Lord; and he shall never taste wine nor strong drink as long as he lives; but he shall be filled with God's Holy Spirit. He shall lead many of the people of Israel to the Lord, for he shall go before the Lord in the power of Elijah the prophet, as was promised by Malachi, the last of the old prophets. He shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and those who are disobeying the Lord to do his will."