Sermon preached on Luke 1:68-79 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/20/2020 in Novato, CA.
As Luke’s gospel opens its first two chapters to tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ, it is full of songs. This is one of them – Zechariah’s prophecy put in the form of poetry. Traditionally this has been referred to as the Benedictus after the first word in its Latin translation, or sometimes simply as the “Song of Zechariah.” Luke’s gospel is a reminder that there were many songs sung at Jesus’ birth, and God’s people continue to sing of Christ’s birth. Indeed, as the Psalter commands us to sing a new song at God’s key redemptive actions in history, the birth of Jesus Christ is worthy of such songs. Today then we get to consider one of those new songs given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through the priest Zechariah.
Before we dig into the song, recall the context. Zechariah was the father of the newly born John who becomes later known as John the Baptist for his forerunner baptism ministry for Jesus. Prior John’s conception, Zechariah had been visited by the angel Gabriel while serving in the temple. Gabriel had told Zechariah that his wife who had been barren would conceive and bear a son. They were to name him John, and he would be the long-prophesied forerunner to the Messiah. Zechariah asked the angel how such a thing could happen given their old age. In response, Gabriel rebuked him for his lack of faith and said he wouldn’t be able to speak until these things took place. So then, John had just been born and Zechariah had written down that he was to be named John. As soon as that happened, Zechariah’s speech was restored and he began to praise God, verse 64. What a great growth in faith happened in Zechariah through his period of speechless chastening, such that his restored speech is used to immediately praise God. This song and prophecy then records the formal praise that Zechariah gives. This prophecy is both a blessing unto God and a blessing bestowed upon his son John, which also contains praise for God. That’s how this song is divided up. The first two-thirds is verses 68-75 and is a blessing unto God. The last third is verses 76-79 which is a blessing upon John.
Let’s dig into the song. The first and larger section contains Zechariah’s blessing unto God. Verse 69 uses that language, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” We tend to think of superiors blessing inferiors, like how God bestows blessings upon us each week when we gather for worship. But Scripture does sometimes use the language of God’s people blessing God. Such is the language of praise. And so, this first section is Zechariah’s formal praise of God.
And yet notice what Zechariah’s praise is about. It’s basically about Jesus. We see that in verse 69 because Zechariah praises God for raising up a horn of salvation in the house of David. That’s a reference to Jesus. Zechariah and his son John are from the house of Levi – they are Levites. It’s Jesus who is of the house of David. And so, Zechariah is basically praising God for how he is finally saving his people through the arrival of the Davidic Messiah. Pause and think about that. Zechariah and Elizabeth, finally, miraculously, have a baby born to them. We might expect Zechariah’s first words of praise to God to be because of that. “Praise God you gave me a son! Praise God that we finally have had a child after so many, many years!” But that’s not what this first section is praising God for. Even in the other section of this song, when he turns to bless John, Zechariah still is not praising God for John. No, this whole song is about praising God for Jesus. But this makes sense. If this was just another story of God opening up a barren womb, it surely wouldn’t have even made the pages of Holy Scripture. No, the reason why John’s miraculous birth is Scripturally significant is because he is being born for a ministry to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus who would be the long-awaited savior of God’s people. To say it another way, John here is about Jesus! And so, Zechariah’s praise to God is not about John but about Jesus.
You’ll notice that after verse 68 records the call to praise God, it then gives a string of reasons for why God should be praised. Notice the grammatical tense for all these reasons here. They are put in the past tense. That would make more sense if this was about John being born. John’s birth was now a past-tense sort of thing. John had been born. But that’s not what Zechariah is describing in the past tense here. Look at verse 68, for example. Why praise God? Verse 68, “For he has visited and redeemed his people.” Verse 69, because he “has raised up a horn of salvation. These things are put in the past tense. But the salvation and redemption that God will do through the not-even-yet born Jesus hasn’t happened yet. But Zechariah’s song of praise is singing about them in the past tense. That’s the now grown faith of Zechariah. These events have not yet happened. God’s visitation and salvation and redemption in Jesus had not yet happened. But to Zechariah, with the birth of the forerunner John, they are now sure to happen. They are now, to him, as good as happened. And so Zechariah can praise God here for these events that have not yet come to pass as is if they have already happened.
As Zechariah in this first section here praises God for his salvation in the Messiah, notice the character of this salvation. It’s put primarily in terms of God’s people being redeemed from the hand of their enemies. Verse 71 speaks most clearly about this, saying how the Davidic Messiah would save them from their enemies and from the hand of all who hated them. Verse 74 also speaks of deliverance from the hand of their enemies. While we took a week off today from our 1 and 2 Kings series, this section of Zechariah’s song is a good follow up to what we studied in last week’s sermon in 2 Kings. Remember, God’s people had been largely conquered and exiled to Babylon. We’ll finish studying that next week. But from that point on, God’s people were largely under the hand of bondage from one enemy to the next. First, they were under Babylonian bondage, then Persian bondage, then Greek (Seleucid) bondage, and then Roman bondage. Throughout that time, the Davidic kingdom was never restored. So, the people had been waiting and waiting for God to restore it and liberate them from their enemies. Finally, here with the birth of John the forerunner, Zechariah signals that restoration of the Davidic kingdom. And he describes the salvation that Jesus would bring in terms of deliverance and redemption from the bondage their enemies had put upon them.
Zechariah sees this salvation and redemption as the fulfillment of God’s long-standing promises. His reference to the house of David in verse 69 invokes the promises God made to David of an everlasting kingdom that would ultimately be established from his seed. Likewise, his reference in verses 72 and 73 refer to God’s promises by oath in the Abrahamic Covenant. That’s where God promised a great and blessed nation to come forth from Abraham’s line which would even result in blessing to be held out to all the world. Zechariah praises God for how he has kept those promises with the birth of Jesus.
Verses 74-75 then describe what God’s people will do with that freedom. They will be able to serve God without fear. That service is worship language, and is especially fitting from a priest whose job was to serve God in the temple worship. And that they could then worship God without fear is very fitting when we remember the history that the Jews had experienced under their bondage from the nations. Things like when they were demanded to bow in worship to the Babylonians golden statue. Or when they were demanded to only pray to the Persian king. Or when the Greek Seleucids demanded they worship Zeus instead of the LORD. Even now under the Romans their freedom to worship God as he commanded was rather tenuous and restricted. By being delivered from their enemies, they’d have freedom to worship God without fearing their oppressing government would punish them for doing so.
Zechariah then goes on to further describe what this would be like. He says that they could then worship God “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” As we’ll get to in a moment when we turn to consider this song’s blessing upon John, this reminds us that God’s people got themselves into trouble in the first place because of a failing in holiness and righteousness. This future that involves not only peace from enemies but a life of holiness and righteousness speaks to how Jesus would also lead the people in the renovation of their souls to be a people whose hearts truly love the LORD and look to walk in his ways.
This is the picture of salvation that Zechariah rejoices in. For him, it’s as good as come with the birth of John the forerunner, because he knows the Messiah is soon to follow. Let me make application then here to us. If Zechariah rejoices in advance of such salvation, how much more us today. Jesus has already been born into this world. Jesus already did pay for our sins at the cross. Jesus already has begun to renovate our souls in holiness and righteousness. Jesus has already dealt a definitive blow against our greatest enemies of Satan and sin, and yes, even the unbelieving world when he died on the cross for us. That is all past tense for us. If Zechariah could sing in joy like this for what technically lay in his future, how much should sing for what now lies in our past. Yet, like Zechariah, we realize there is yet some of God’s promises in Christ to be fulfilled. Yet, Christ is coming again to finish the work he began. Yet, there are enemies of us who are God’s people. They yet try to subjugate us and silence us. They yet would look to impede our worship. They yet try to afflict us in different ways. But if Zechariah in faith could sing of God’s redemption as if it had already been accomplished, how much more us! Let us sing this song from the perspective of faith. For as much as John’s coming signaled this salvation in Jesus, Jesus’ first coming all the more has signaled the coming of this salvation. The kingdom is all the more at hand. Let us sing of this again today!
So then, let us turn now to the shorter second part of this song. This is verses 76-79 where Zechariah bestows a blessing on his newborn son John. Again, while this attention in one sense focuses on John, even that is in connection with the birth of Jesus. That’s seen first in Zechariah bestowing upon John the role as the forerunner to the Messiah. We see that in verse 76, that he will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. That echoes prophecies like Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi chapter 3 which prophesy a forerunner to come before the Messiah to prepare for his coming.
Zechariah further describes John’s work of forerunner to Christ in verse 77. “To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins.” Elsewhere in the Gospels we see that John describes his ministry as a call to the people to repent of their sins. Such a ministry of repentance by the forerunner is in line with the Old Testament prophecies about the forerunner’s ministry. Since the Messiah will be coming to bring judgment on God’s enemies and righteousness back to God’s people, the fitting preparation is to repent. Repent of one’s sins in light of Christ’s coming. Yet, Zechariah’s prophecy makes clear that there will be forgiveness in Jesus for those who repent. There will be salvation from the judgment the Messiah will bring to those who turn in repentance and look to the Christ for grace. That’s, of course, implied even in John’s name which means roughly the LORD gives grace. But God gives that grace in the Messiah. Christ Jesus will bring the salvation from the guilt of sin. Jesus will bring the forgiveness of sins. John’s job will be to start to communicate that message in advance of Jesus’ coming. This will be so that the people can know the tender mercies of God when Jesus comes, as Zechariah describes there in verse 78.
Then you have Zechariah speak of the sunrise in verse 78. This is the verse the KJV translates as the Dayspring on High. It has long been recognized for what it is, another description of Jesus. O come, thou Dayspring from on high and cheer us by the drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. With Jesus coming, it’s like the dawn of a new day for God’s people. Before they had lived too often in rebellion from him. Too often they had lived in sin. God had brought chastening upon them by their enemies being allowed to afflict them. They had fallen into a state of darkness and gloom; the shadow of death and damnation hung over them. But now with the coming of Jesus it is the dawn of a new day, an everlasting day, one where God’s people will live in righteousness and eternal peace. This is what John’s birth signals. It’s what his life will prepare the people for. It’s what Jesus’ birth and life will be about.
And it would be what Jesus’ death would be about. So that God’s peoples’ sin wouldn’t just be overlooked and ignored. That wouldn’t be righteous of God. But in the mercy and grace of God he would forgive his people by Jesus bearing their punishment for sin in their place. And that is what Jesus did on the cross.
We thank God that while this song doesn’t go into it, elsewhere we learn that this forgiveness of sin is also extended to the world. That those would repent of their sin and turn and put their faith and hope in Jesus, that they too would be made a part of God’s people. In Christ, both Jew and Gentile can be united in this coming kingdom of peace and holiness and righteousness. In Christ, both Jew and Gentile can know forgiveness and also know God’s transforming work in your heart. That means if you are here today and haven’t yet found this salvation, it is yet available to you too today. The Bible says to confess your sins and turn in faith to Jesus as your savior and Lord. Become his disciple today and you can sing too of your salvation in Christ Jesus!
To say it another way. John prepared the way for Christ’s first coming by communicating this knowledge that there is forgiveness and salvation in Jesus who takes away our sin. Well, Jesus is yet coming again for a second time. When he comes it will be for the world’s judgment and condemnation. But for us who are in him, it will be the day of our vindication and salvation. It will be the day when everything Zechariah sung about in this song will come to its full fruition. The way we prepare for that coming of Christ is similar to how John prepared for his first coming. We communicate again today this knowledge of salvation in the name of Christ Jesus. Believe on him today!
In conclusion today, I point out how Zechariah couldn’t at first sing this song. He lost his voice at first when he had a failing of faith in God. But as his faith became sight, it grew into an even greater faith for things yet to come. And that faith led him to use his restored voice to sing of God’s salvation and blessing. So too, as we look back with sight at the birth of Christ and the cross, may we look ahead with faith and sing of the Lord’s salvation. Let us from faith praise our God again for the birth of Christ and the mighty salvation that we have in his name. Blessed be the LORD God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed us his people and has raised up a horn of salvation in Jesus Christ, just as he promised and covenanted from long before. Let us be prepared for his return and be praising God in faith until then. Blessed be the Lord for our Dayspring on high! Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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