The Lord Visits His Covenant People

John’s ministry of preparing Israel for the coming Messiah consisted of preaching and baptizing. He preached a gospel of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” He preached a gospel of salvation, pointing to the coming Messiah, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) And he baptized his followers with water in a purification rite as a sign of the forgiveness of sins.

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7;  John 1:1-16; Luke 1:57-80; Luke 1:68-79 (text)
December 5, 2010

‎"Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist" by Francesco Granacci (1469–1543, Florence)

‎"Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist" by Francesco Granacci (1469–1543, Florence)

Introduction

In the fullness of time, God began executing the drama of the end of the Old Testament age. The birth of Jesus was that time, and there were four main characters: Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth his wife; and Joseph the carpenter and Mary his betrothed wife.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were both advanced in years and beyond childbearing, but they had no child. On that one day that he was chosen to minister at the Temple, Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel who announced to him that their prayer for a child has been heard by God. Elizabeth would bear a son! He shall be called John, and he will come “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared,” a forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Although he was a righteous man, Zechariah doubted God’s promise as he requested for a sign, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” So God silenced his tongue. Six months later, Mary her young cousin, who was also with child, visited her. The six-month-old John in the womb leaped in reaction to Mary’s visit, which is taken to mean that even in the womb, the Spirit-filled infant John already recognized his newly-conceived Lord and Savior!

And after John was born, God loosened Zechariah’s tongue, and as he was filled with the Spirit, he burst into a song of praise to God beginning in verse 68, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Zechariah’s song is given the name “Benedictus,” from the opening word in the Latin Vulgate. This visiting and redeeming his people is the theme that brackets Zechariah’s song, as he repeats it in verse 78, “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.”

The word for “visit” is the same Greek verb from where we get the English word “episcopal,” which means to oversee, watch over or supervise. Thus, God’s visitation of Zechariah is a revelation of his merciful oversight and watching over redemption of God’s covenant people, which he now is accomplishing in the birth of two men: John, the older man, who will prepare the way of Jesus, the younger man.

In his song, Zechariah blesses and praises God for visiting his people to announce and accomplish three things:

1.   To Fulfill His Promises to Abraham and David
2.   To Prepare the Way of the Most High
3.   To Give Them Knowledge of Salvation

To Fulfill His Promises to Abraham and David

After the opening line of his song blessing the God of Israel, Zechariah sings the reasons why he praises God. The next line begins with “for”: “for he has visited and redeemed his people…” So the next eleven verses are a litany of all the mighty works of redemption and salvation that God has accomplished and is about to accomplish in the lives of two men about to be born.

This is the most common structure of psalms of praise. The psalmist would begin with the words, “Praise the Lord!” or “Blessed be the God of Israel!” Then he continues with the word “For,” which means that he is praising God because of all the things of which the psalmist is about to sing. The last verse would then summarize the whole psalm by repeating the praise. An example is Psalm 106, which begins with, “Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” and ends with “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” (v 48). Notice the “for” in verse 1, followed by a recitation of God’s goodness and steadfast love for his people in verses 2-47.

One of the most popular contemporary praise songs is “Give Thanks”:

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks unto the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son
And now let the weak say, “I am strong”
Let the poor say, “I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us.”

This is supposed to be a loose paraphrase of a few lines of Psalm 106, giving thanks to God, but nothing more is mentioned as to the reasons why the singer is praising God.

Zechariah’s song is unlike contemporary songs, and very much like the psalms. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” is a common line at the end of the first three books of the Psalms (Psa 41:13; 72:18; 106:48). He expresses gratitude to God for his redemption and visitation. God redeemed his people from Egypt by buying them back at a cost—the sacrificial Passover Lamb.

Whenever God is about to accomplish a work in redemptive history, it is usually referred to as a “visitation.” Just before Moses performed God’s mighty acts before Pharaoh of Egypt, he did wonders before the people, so that they said, “the LORD had visited the people of Israel” (Exod 4:31). Peter related before the Jerusalem council about the time when God first revealed to him the inclusion of Gentiles as God’s people, “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). And Peter encourages us to keep our behavior honorable so that when unbelievers see us, they will also glorify God on Judgment Day, “the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12).

This redemption and visitation by God has been promised to Zechariah’s forefathers Abraham and David, and prophesied by the prophets of old. God never reneges on his promises; his word is sure. What are these promises? First, he would raise up a “horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,” which is taken directly from Psalm 132:17. A horn symbolizes an animal’s strength, his power over other animals. From out of the Davidic line will come a powerful Messiah who would fulfill God’s promise of redemption and salvation for his people.

Second, because Zechariah and all Jews were longing for the coming of the Messiah, he connects the angel’s announcement of the coming of a forerunner to the Messiah with political redemption. Unlike us who have God’s full revelation of our salvation from sin, Zechariah saw in the Messiah someone like Moses who was coming to deliver them from their enemies, from all who hate them. For him, the coming of the Messiah must have meant freedom from the Roman oppressors, just as the coming of Moses meant redemption from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’ disciples, even after his resurrection, assumed that he was about to restore David’s kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6).

When they were slaves in Egypt, “their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God” (Exod 2:23) and the Lord had mercy on them. Why did God hear their groaning? Because he “remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exod 2:24). God never forgets his promises to his people. The psalmist says the Lord fulfills all of them because his Word is eternal, “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham” (Psa 105:8-9). This is why David praises God in Psalm 18:17, “He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.”

Third, God promised his people deliverance from their enemies so that they “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Remember what Moses told the Pharaoh as the reason why Pharaoh should “let God’s people go?” So that “they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exod 7:16). Zechariah’s song tells us that God is redeeming, delivering and saving his people from their enemies so they could worship him without fear. Not only that, his people are to live holy and righteous lives before God. Did Israel fulfill this purpose? We know that in most of their history, starting with their wilderness sojourning, they were a rebellious, disobedient and unfaithful people, always breaking God’s covenant laws. The end result? They were driven out of the Promised Land and exiled as slaves in foreign lands.

Did God then renege on his eternal promises to Abraham? His oath to Abraham was:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 22:17-18).

When Israel was driven from the Promised Land, it looked like the end of God’s promises to Abraham: no innumerable children, no promised land, no blessing of all the nations of the earth.

How about God’s oath to David? His covenant with David was:

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever (2 Sam 7:12-16).

God also promised deliverance from enemies and restoration to his people, “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil” (Zeph 3:15). Because the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians and Babylonians, how would God now fulfill his promise of an eternal kingdom to David?

No, God has not forgotten his covenant with his people. He has ordained his covenant promises. As Zechariah continues his song, he reveals that his son would be born as the forerunner and messenger of the Messiah, the Most High God, who is coming very soon. And with the coming of this Messiah, God would fulfill his promises to Abraham and David.

To Prepare the Way of the Most High

In verses 76-77, Zechariah’s attention turns to his son whom he is holding in his arms, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth must have been rejoicing with all their neighbors when John was born. Having a son after waiting for so long until they were old was more than enough reason for joy. But the angel Gabriel revealed to them more reason for rejoicing. Their son would be a prophet of the Most High God! Not only would he be a priest like Zechariah—for he was the son of a priest—he would serve as the forerunner or messenger of the coming Messiah.

These two verses give us an overarching summary of God’s redemption plan for his people. All the Old Testament prophets saw another Prophet coming, who would be greater than all of them. But before this greatest Prophet came, another great prophet would prepare God’s people for his coming. John would go before the Lord to prepare his ways, as Luke later tells us:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4).

Luke was quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of this forerunner:

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa 40:3).

After the Jews returned from exile, there were no more inspired prophets of God. For 400 years, God was silent, and the people longed for God’s word to be revealed again. They longed for the Seed of Abraham who would produce innumerable descendants, the Consolation of Israel that Isaiah prophesied, the Son of David who would inaugurate the everlasting kingdom. Finally, the angel Gabriel revealed to Zechariah that the fullness of time has come. His son John would be the prophet of the Most High. At long last, a prophet! After 400 years, God had heard the people’s groaning!

The angel told Zechariah that John would prepare the people of Israel for Jesus, the coming Messiah who would be born six months later by Mary their cousin, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Luke 1:16-17). He would live and preach in the wilderness, just as the prophet Elijah did, warning people to repent and believe because judgment is coming. Malachi also saw that a prophet like Elijah would come, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me” (Mal 3:1), and “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:5-6). This prophecy was applied by the angel Gabriel to John the Baptizer.

John is not Elijah who returned to the world, but his person and ministry would be similar to Elijah’s. Jesus himself confirmed that Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah’s return was fulfilled by John the forerunner, “But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased… Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Matt 17:12-13).

God fully equipped John for this ministry, filling him with the Holy Spirit even while he was still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), so that “the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:66). The summary of John’s preparation as the messenger of the Lord is in verse 80, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”

His ministry of preparing Israel for the coming Messiah consisted of preaching and baptizing. He preached a gospel of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” John preached a gospel of salvation, pointing to the coming Messiah, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) And he baptized his followers with water in a purification rite as a symbol of the forgiveness of sins, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In this way, he prepared the way of the coming Lord.

To Give Them Knowledge of Salvation

In the last two verses of his song, Zechariah then shifts his focus from his own son to the Messiah of whom his son is a messenger. Why would God, after 400 years of silence, suddenly come and visit his people? Zechariah says it is

because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).

God has mercy on his people. He never forgets his covenant promises to Abraham and David. In the fullness of time, he would send the One who would save his people from sin. The Greek word used here for “tender” actually means the inward parts of a body, particularly the viscera or bowels, which for Jews, also means the seat of tender emotions such as kindness, mercy and compassion. So in this verse, it literally means “tender heart” or “merciful heart.”

God’s mercy and compassion towards his people come from within his very Being, his very essence and nature. In his mercy, he could not forget his people’s longing and groaning, and their slavery to Satan, sin and death. How did he accomplish such tender mercy?

By sending his “Sunrise… from on high.” Here, Zechariah uses several metaphors which refer to the Messiah as the Light. The word “sunrise” is also translated sometimes as “rising sun,” “dayspring” or “dawn.” [1] Jesus is this Sun, Dayspring, or Light. This is why the apostle John declares that Jesus is “the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:4-5, 9). The Old Testament prophets referred to him also in the same way:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Isa 9:2).

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising (Isa 60:1-3).

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings (Mal 4:2).

Even the false prophet Balaam saw from afar this Light whom the prophets of old spoke about, “a star shall come out of Jacob” (Num 24:17). All the way to the last chapter of Scripture, Christ is called “the bright morning star” (Rev 22:16). The words of the great Christmas hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are based on the Scripture texts above:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

These are also the same metaphors that Paul uses to describe the state of believers before and after salvation: darkness and light. He describes unbelievers as those who “are darkened in their understanding” (Eph 4:18). And, “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Since we are now children of light, we are to live as such, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).

This is why earlier, Zechariah says that Christ will deliver us from Satan, sin and death so that we may serve and worship God “in holiness and righteousness.” Because we believers now have spirits that are renewed, we are “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). While we wait for Christ’s appearing, we who are in God’s saving grace are “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit 2:12).

Contrary to the belief of many of his disciples, Christ did not come to deliver his people from political oppressors and enemies, but to reconcile us with our No. 1 enemy—God himself—who is wrathful against condemned sinners like us. He also delivers us from our bondage to sin and Satan, the murderer, liar and oppressor who hates all mankind, especially those of us who belong to the kingdom of God.

Although he has been given a “horn” of great power and authority, Christ the Messiah and the Dayspring is also God’s Suffering Servant, as Jesus himself declared, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Isa 49:3; Matt 20:28). This is an integral part of God’s covenant promises to our forefathers: the redemption of all his people from sin, both Jews and Gentiles, a multitude of Abraham’s children. All of them will receive the promised eternal inheritance through the death of Christ, the mediator of the new covenant (Heb 9:15). This is how God will bless all the families of the earth through Abraham.

As a result of our salvation, Christ will guide our feet (Isa 42:6-7) through his holy Word, a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psa 119:105). What is our guide in our life? Is it the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God’s Word? When his Word is our guide, Christ will lead us into the way of peace, because he is the Prince of Peace, and his government is a government of peace, justice and righteousness (Isa 9:7). It is those who preach the Word of God who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation (Isa 52:7).

Conclusion

Beloved friends, as you begin celebrating Christmas this year, consider John, who was a herald for Christ, preaching repentance and giving knowledge of salvation to the people in the forgiveness of their sins. Most of all, he pointed them to the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Since you have been redeemed by the Savior, you too are heralds of Christ, having the beautiful feet of those who bring the good news of peace, happiness and salvation to your family and friends by your words and deeds of holiness and righteousness.

Consider Jesus—the Sunrise, Dayspring and Dawn—who shines light to a dark and hopeless world by visiting and redeeming his people from Satan’s kingdom of sin and death. John preached repentance and forgiveness, but Christ accomplished all salvation. He came down from heaven to be born in human flesh and blood, fulfilled all righteousness in his life and death, and rose from the grave for our justification and new life. Amen.


[1] The Greek word anatole can also mean “branch” or “scion” (Ezek 16:7; Zech 6:12), the same name used for the future Davidic king (Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8; Jer 33:15; Isa 11:1-10; Mal 3:20). But “from on high” harmonizes better with the motifs of light and darkness, hence “Sunrise” is a better interpretation.

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