The key to this passage is in its symbolism. Certainly it’s historical, but the elements of the story carry far more punch when we see the context and the purpose.
The story starts with some old folks named Zechariah and Elizabeth. He’s a priest, and these are two exceptional people. They are known for doing what’s right and for being obedient to the laws of God. Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find any faults in them. They were just those kinds of people.
They are symbols of the Old Testament itself: the priestly system, the Law of God as revealed in the books of Moses, and the religious following of that Law. They are like old wine in a dusty cellar—a vintage with a balanced bouquet.
But notice also that they are barren. Alas, for all its merits, it’s sterile. The old system, as well as the old couple, has no place to go, and cannot procreate new life.
Stick with me, though, for the plot sweetens. An angel appears to Zechariah while he is serving the Lord as he was called to do (another symbol)—burning incense, a symbol of the prayers of God’s people. So also the law was doing what it was supposed to do, and God’s people supported it.
The angel announces a miracle. The “old wine” will give birth to “new wine.” In its old age, when no one would suspect that it was capable of conceiving anything but what it already was, new life would come. It will be part of the old, and come out of it, but it will be miraculously new!
The “old” was the law; the “new” would be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Elijah prepared people for the judgment of the Lord; John prepared people for the coming of the Lord. They both speak the word and will of the Lord. They both aim to bring people back to God.
Even in the story itself we feel the strength of life coming into old bones. The new wine is about to be poured, and it will burst the flask it is poured into: the OT religion of sacrifices, rules, and rituals. The old guard won’t believe, though, as is represented by old Zechariah’s disbelief. “How can I be sure of this?” If that doesn’t summarize a common Jewish response to Jesus, nothing does.
His silence is also a symbol. Notions of religion and works of the law are about to be silenced by the new Song of Heaven, sung by the One who stands in the presence of God.
Meanwhile, the people are waiting…The vision has been given. Elizabeth says it well: “The Lord has done this.”
Here’s the point: The way of rules is giving way to the way of life. Religion no longer has a place. A whole new reality is dawning. The tight restrictions, confining boxes, and lists is being forced open into a huge world of expanding horizons, unparalleled experiences, exciting possibilities, mind-expanding realities. Isn’t that what you want? You may ask, “Are you telling me that’s what this story of the old guy and his wife having a baby is all about?” You BET it is.
One additional point: this story is not an allegory, as might be interpreted from my exposition. It is history, but with a strong symbolic meaning.