Selected highlights from this sermon.
Though Zechariah was a priest, his faith failed him when the angel Gabriel told him that he would have a son. God took away his voice until Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, was born. Zechariah received his voice back and his first words were praises to God. In this message, Pastor Lutzer will discuss the praises from the poem of Zechariah in Luke 1.
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The baby who changed the world! And that baby did change the world. I have an atheist friend who told me one time that he didn’t even believe that there was evidence that Jesus existed. I said to him, “All that you need to do is to look at a calendar and see that there is a B.C. and an A.D. and know that Jesus turns out to be the hinge of history. Of course, He existed. The manuscript evidence for Jesus and for the New Testament is overwhelmingly positive, and it’s compelling. Jesus changed the world back then. He changes the world now, and He especially is going to change the world in the future at His glorious return. Jesus is the baby that changed the world.
Take your Bibles for a moment and turn to Luke 1 where we have the remarkable story, not only of the visitation of the angel to Mary, but we have also the same angel coming to a man by the name of Zechariah. This is Luke 1, and when you look at this passage you must realize, of course, that Zechariah is not the Zechariah of the Old Testament. He’s not the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah, who lived hundreds of years before this Zechariah. But he goes into the temple, and there an angel appears to him, and says, “You are going to have a son, and he’s going to be the forerunner of the Messiah. And Zechariah doesn’t believe it, and as a result the angel said, “You’ll know that it’s true because you are going to be struck dumb. You are going to be mute until the baby is born.” And right on the spot he tried to learn sign language. The Bible says he came out of the temple and was trying to sign to people to try to explain to them why it was that he couldn’t speak.
Nine months later John is born, and this also is in Luke 1, and now we’re in verse 57. And after he is born they wonder what the child will be called, and normally in those days you called the child by his father’s name. So they expected this to be Zechariah Junior, but the angel had said, “No, he is going to be called John.” So now Zechariah takes a tablet, the Bible says in verse 63. He wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed and he spoke, blessing God, and fear came upon everyone.
Here’s a man who had not talked for 270 days, and though he had not talked for that long period of time, now he blesses God, and we have the content of what he said when he blessed God. And that’s why we ask you to turn now to verse 67 of Luke 1 where we begin this remarkable story, this remarkable poem called the Benedictus. You may find that in your Bibles. It is the Benedictus because in Latin the first word is Benedictus. You remember there was a Latin translation of the Bible made by Jerome, and when he made it, the first word blessed is Benedictus, and that’s why that may be a heading in your Bible – the Benedictus.
Next week we’re going to look at the Magnificat, and that word in Latin means my soul magnifies. That’s based on the poem of Mary, but this is on the poem of none other than Zechariah. When you look at the New Testament, which was written in Greek (remember that the New Testament was written in Greek), the word that is used here, blessed, is eulogatos. And what does that remind you of? It’s the word from which we get the word eulogies. So he is here eulogizing God.
All of us know what it is like to eulogize people. Usually we wait until they are dead, and then we say all of those nice things about them, and I’m sure that all of those nice things are true. But there is a story that you’ve probably heard that I’m going to tell you. It’s been floating around for many years. It’s about twins and these twins were really evil men. I mean they were thieves; they were liars. They extorted money from people. And when one of them died the other said to the pastor, “I want you, as you eulogize my brother, to make sure that in your eulogy you say, ‘He was a saint.’ I want those four words in his eulogy.” So the pastor, as he thought about it, gave the eulogy and said, “The deceased was an evil man; he was an extortioner; he was a liar; he was a thief. He even has a criminal record, but if you compare him to his twin brother, he was a saint.” (laughter) So he worked it into his eulogy.
But here we have eulogizing God. Have you ever wondered why the Bible says in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, oh my soul?” We are to bless God. You say to yourself, “Well, I know that God is to bless me, but why should I bless God. Does God need a blessing?” And the answer to that is found right here. The answer is yes, in this sense. We get to eulogize God. And if you are in trouble today, and you’re living in darkness and hopelessness and you don’t know what the future holds, and you don’t know where to go from here because life has done you many, many bad turns, and you are in pain either physically or emotionally, let me tell you that there is one thing you can do that will give God glory and praise, and that is to eulogize Him. Memorizes Psalms such as Psalm 103. “I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast of the Lord.” And on and on it goes. You bless God. You eulogize Him, and that’s what Zechariah does.
Now he gives us actually the outline of the eulogy by referring to two covenants that God made that He is in the process of fulfilling. Two covenants! Let’s look at them. First all, verse 68 through 74: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel (By the way, in the Bible the phrase the God of Israel occurs more than 200 times. You look at that thread running throughout the Scripture – the God of Israel), for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham (notice) that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear.”
David is referred to in verse 69 where it says, “a horn of salvation for us in the house of the servant David.” That’s the first covenant he refers to.
Do you remember 2 Samuel 7? God comes to David. And David says, “God, I want to build You a house.” You know, the old tent, the tabernacle, had been used for worship, and of course it was tattered. It no doubt needed repairs and David said, “I want to build the permanent place for the tabernacle. I want to build you a temple. I want to build you a house.” And God said, “No, David, you can’t do that, but I will build you a house.” He says, “After you have died there will be posterity that will come. You’ll have a son, and he may disobedient (and that’s a reference to Solomon) but then your kingship and kingdom will be established forever.” And that was God’s promise to David.
And now Zechariah is looking at this and he is seeing the birth of Jesus, which is to take place in chapter 2. Of course, John was three months older than Jesus, and so he is giving this, and he is saying that this is a fulfillment of the promise made to David. And you’ll notice that he goes on to say, first of all, that he has redeemed his people (verse 68). The redemption of God means the fact that God came to save us from our sins. That is the redemption that we have. And he has raised up a horn of salvation – imagery, a figure of speech. When the ancients began to think about strength they would think about oxen. And here was a horn that was being raised up as a very strong force that would be able to crush whatever it is before it, and that this promise of God for victory was being fulfilled in Jesus.
Now we have to back off for a moment. And I know that your Bibles are open (or your cell phones as the case may be). Let’s look at this more carefully. Jesus Christ is about to be born, and you’ll notice verse 70. “As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers.” Was that ever fulfilled? Has there been a time when the God of Israel has preserved Israel from those who hate Israel and from its enemies? No, that has not yet happened.
Let’s be clear about this. When Zechariah is speaking, he is thinking about an immediate fulfillment. The Redeemer has come to redeem us from our sins, but in his mind, he is also thinking of an ultimate fulfillment that is referred to in the Old Testament as the coming kingdom when Jesus will be established as king in Jerusalem, finally fulfilling the Old Testament promises. But Zechariah didn’t see that. He didn’t necessarily see that Jesus was going to die and be crucified and there was going to be a church age of 2000 years before Jesus Christ returns to fulfill all of those promises, and Israel saved from its enemies and delivered from all those that would exterminate her. That has not yet happened, but happen it will.
So Zechariah here is in an outburst of praise. This particular poem is laced with Old Testament Scriptures. Clearly he was a man who was steeped in Old Testament so he has illusions and sometimes direct quotes to the Old Testament and the fulfillment of prophecy. But not all of the prophecies have yet been fulfilled. For example, you remember the angel said to Mary, “He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father, David, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” Has that been fulfilled? Has Jesus reigned on the throne of David? I don’t think so. Not yet! But it will be fulfilled someday.
Do you remember those Old Testament promises such as Isaiah 11 (Yes, also Isaiah 2) where it says these words, “He shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” You know that across the street from the United Nations there is what is known as the Isaiah Wall, and it quotes, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” and underneath it says Isaiah. It doesn’t give the reference because if it gave the reference people might actually look it up and discover that this was Messianic. It is when Jesus shall reign among the nations. Then there shall be peace. Then the lion and the lamb shall lie down together. Nowadays if the lion and the lamb lie down together, if you notice carefully when the lion gets up the lamb is missing. It’s not there, but the day is going to come when all those prophecies shall be fulfilled.
But here Zechariah is speaking about when the Redeemer has been born. He’s looking at it as if he’s been born. He knows that Messiah is coming, and he rejoices in the fact that even now today you can be redeemed by God because the Redeemer has come. So he refers to the promise made to David. That’s verse 69.
Notice in verse 73 he now refers to the promise that was made to Abraham. “He swore to our father, Abraham, to grant that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear in righteousness before Him all of our days.” Once again he’s referring now to the oath that God made to Abraham.
If we were to go back to Genesis 12 we would discover that God said, “Abraham, I’m making you certain promises. First of all, your name shall be great,” and that has been fulfilled. “Not only shall your name be great, but also you will be a blessing, and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” In other words, it was an allusion already to the coming Redeemer. And when God made that promise to Abraham, He ratified it eight times in the book of Genesis alone, and it was what was known as an unconditional covenant, that is to say a covenant that would be fulfilled by God, and not even dependent upon the faithfulness of the Jewish nation.
The Jewish nation, throughout its history, as you know, has been wracked by idolatry, apostasy, turning from God, and all those things, and still the angel comes to Mary and assures us and Mary that in the future those kinds of covenants are going to be fulfilled, dependent upon the faithfulness of God. And in Abraham’s seed, all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed.
And so what Zechariah is saying is that he’s seeing the beginning of the fulfillment of these prophecies because without the Messiah the prophecies cannot be fulfilled. Jesus as Messiah (and Jesus as King) comes and the prophecies are going to be fulfilled. So what you have in this Benedictus (in this eulogy to God), is first of all thanksgiving for the promises God gave to David. And then he goes a thousand years before that - thanksgiving for the promises that God made to Abraham, and the fact that the fulfillment of those prophecies is beginning.
And then he turns to his own son, John, and this is what he says. I’m now in verse 76. “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.” And you know that John the Baptist, of course, when he went out into the wilderness and preached to the people, the people actually came to him because they recognized that he was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
You know, the Scripture says in chapter 1, verse 17, right here in Luke, that he will go before Him in the strength and power of Elijah because one of the last prophets of the Old Testament, Malachi, predicted that Elijah would come before the day of the Lord. And John the Baptist fulfills that because he actually has the role of being a prophet, and is, so to speak, the forerunner of Jesus. In fact, he also fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah when Isaiah says that there is a voice crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord. Get ready for the intervention of God. Be ready because it is going to happen.
And then the text goes on with this beautiful language. It says, “In the forgiveness of their sins 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.” The imagery there would have been much more pronounced and clear to the people of the first century. Sometimes when people were in a caravan they were delayed for whatever reason, and they were overtaken by darkness. Now if you are overtaken by darkness and you are in a caravan, number one, the road is unclear. You’re not sure exactly where you should be going, and therefore you can become confused easily. It is very dangerous because you don’t know what animals there are that lurk in the darkness. And the Bible says in the book of Psalms, and how accurate the Scripture is, “Those who are wicked stumble in the darkness and they don’t even know what it is they are stumbling over.” They don’t know whether they are stumbling over a piece of gold, or a piece of steel, or some wood that was left along the way. They do not know. Darkness is terrible and it is terrifying.
But Jesus Christ is the sunrise. If you are in that caravan, what you are looking forward to is morning. You want that sun to come up, and you want the sun to bless you so that you can look around, find out where you are, find out your trajectory so that you can continue on again on your path, but this time with certainty. “The people who sat in darkness,” the Scripture says, “saw a great light.” What they saw was God entering into their world, giving them hope at a time of darkness.
You see, you must understand that when Jesus came to the world at that time, it was a time of political darkness. Pompeii had captured Palestine in 63 B.C. He had done that and so they were under Roman occupation. Wherever you went there were Roman soldiers. And not only that, it was always humiliating and there were high taxes. All of these things were true of the people of that day. And they believed that Messiah was going to come, bring political deliverance, free them from Rome, and let them be a great nation. They did not understand that that will happen, but for the time being, Jesus comes as Redeemer, and takes us from our sins and brings light into the human soul. Not only politically dark, but spiritually dark! People went into the temple. They had their rituals. They performed their ceremonies, but it was all empty. And Jesus comes and brings light to their situation, and He brings light to your situation. In the midst of your emptiness, in the midst of your frustration, in the midst of your hopelessness, Jesus is a beam of light coming to us in our need to redeem us.
Now, John the Baptist is blessed here by his father. He goes forth and he proclaims the forgiveness of sins and in about three years’ time (I think it’s about three years’ time) he is beheaded, so he has a three-year ministry. What a tragedy that it wasn’t any longer, but yet he fulfilled the will of God in those years because the measure of a life is not in duration but in donation. It’s not how long you live but what you do when you are alive that really carries you along. And so John the Baptist died doing the will of God, and he was beheaded for his faith and his trust in Jesus.
And by the way, if you are a doubter today, if you have honest doubts, John the Baptist had honest doubts in prison. He sent a delegation and said, “Now are you the one that we should look for, or do we look for somebody else?” And Jesus, when the delegation came to Him, said this. He said, “Of those born of woman there is none greater than John the Baptist,” and he said that when John the Baptist was seated in prison, doubting whether Jesus was the Messiah. And the reason that he doubted was because he too was expecting political deliverance. He wasn’t expecting a Messiah who says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And when Jesus didn’t bring about that deliverance he began to doubt.
Honest doubts are welcome in God’s presence. What you do is you come to God, you read the Word, and you seek and He will overcome your doubts. And Jesus was grateful for John the Baptist, despite the fact that he went through a time of doubt.
Now what I’d like to do is to think about this and draw this together so that this can be transforming for all of us today as we learn the powerful transforming lessons that I see in this passage of Scripture.
First of all, God keeps His promises. God promised to Abraham. God promised to David. He ratified His covenant and here we see the beginning of the fulfillment of all that. The fulfillment is still future. Follow carefully. There was a time when the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus was all future. And all that we had, all that the Old Testament people had, were the prophecies. And during that period of time of hundreds of years they asked the question, “Where is the promise of His coming? Hundreds of years have gone by and it hasn’t happened.” But eventually it did.
In the very same way, I remember when I was a boy attending a prophecy conference in our church, and the pastor preached in such a way that I thought the Lord was going to return before the service was over. (laughter) It seemed as if the coming of Jesus was so imminent. Well that was a long time ago, and He still hasn’t come. And it’s easy for us to say in the very same way, “Well, where is the promise of His coming?” Second Peter refers to this. “For as the fathers fell asleep, everything is continuing the way it has always continued until the end of the age.” Why all this business of looking forward to the return of Jesus? The Church has been doing it for two thousand years, and He still hasn’t come.” But my friend today, He will come. He will come and we anticipate that day. (applause)
There is a time coming. As the Apostle Paul says, “The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout and with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God. And the dead will rise.” And all of those transformations are going to happen. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, “We shall not all sleep. Not every generation of Christians is going to die. But we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trump. And the trumpet shall sound and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” So the Apostle Paul refers to that, and someday it will happen. And all that we have to go on are the promises at this point, but that’s all the Old Testament saints had, and God fulfilled His promises. And there are still promises that we know that God will fulfill in the future. It will happen amazingly because God keeps His promises.
Secondly, Christmas is not about gifts and parties. I heard on the radio this morning that on so-called Black Friday Americans spent 9 billion dollars. I can’t believe that, and when you realize that a billion is a thousand million. I think a billion is a thousand million. I mean that to me is absolutely astounding. They didn’t get a penny from me but they apparently got it from somebody else. Amazing! I was very careful in what I said. I think I figured it out ahead of time because you’ve probably heard that five out of four people have trouble with mathematics. (laughter) But the fact is that that much money is not Christmas. Christmas is the in breaking of God – the intervention of God to redeem us from our sins, to pay a penalty, to pay for our sin in such a way that we could be loosed from our sins and from our bondages, and to bring us into God’s presence and declare us as righteous as God Himself is. That’s what Christmas is all about. (applause)
And the fact is that we miss it all. You’ll notice that he says that Jesus Christ redeemed us. This is in verse 68. He has redeemed His people. Verse 77 says, “He brought forgiveness for their sins,” and when you think of the mystery of God you realize that God is mysterious. (And I’d like to preach on that. I may have the opportunity to preach on the mysteries of God.) But what do we do in our mystery? What do we do when we can’t figure God out? We rush to Jesus who is God in the flesh. And there we see more concretely and definitely what God is all about, and we realize that His program is to save sinners from their sins. And that’s what it is that God wants to bring about. And that’s what Christmas is. It may involve the rejoicing of our families. It may be the giving of gifts in context, but it is certainly not what the merchants along Michigan Avenue think it is. That is not Christmas. How we have distorted it!
There’s a final lesson and that is this: The coming of Jesus doesn’t benefit everybody. You look at the opening chapters here in the book of Luke. Who does the coming of Jesus benefit? Well, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth! You have Mary and Joseph, of course. You have Simeon. You have Anna, and later on there are going to be many people who are going to believe on Jesus. But don’t get the idea that the coming of Jesus somehow is beneficial to everyone. In fact, later on in a message we’re going to point out how that Jesus actually turns out to be a stumbling block to many people.
The fact is that unless our hearts are tuned to Him and we have faith in Him and trust in Him, His coming does not benefit us at all. It doesn’t benefit us!
You know this week, and I’m not sure why, there’s a parable that Jesus told that has been swimming around in my mind. Jesus said that there is such a thing as the wheat and the tares that grow together because apparently there are tares (that is a certain kind of weed) that look like wheat. So you and I don’t know who is who, but Jesus said it will be separated at the harvest. And even here today there could be those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior. Even those of you who think you have, you may never have believed on Jesus as Savior, and you may not be the real deal. You may be a tare, so to speak, amid wheat.
Let me illustrate it this way. There was a counterfeit dollar bill that bought some groceries. It did a number of things. It purchased groceries. It helped people along the way, but in the end it was disqualified when it was brought to the bank and seen to be fake. In the very same way, I urge you today to ask yourself whether or not you are wheat or whether you are tares amid the wheat. Not everybody benefits from the coming of Jesus Christ. If you believe on Him and receive Him as your Savior, it is then that we benefit in His redemption, His freedom that He brings from sin. It is us being reconciled to God, and the only way to be reconciled is through God’s chosen redeemer, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
You may be listening to this in many different ways, but for the people who are here today, could I urge you today to ask yourself who you are, and whether or not the coming of Jesus benefited you? And above all, if you are a believer, eulogize God. In doing so, we honor Him.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we ask today that in grace You shall come to us, that we might understand You better and appreciate the redemption that came to us in Jesus our Lord. Now throughout this congregation, we pray, may Your Holy Spirit work mightily. May You show Your glory and Your strength. Overcome our darkness. Help us to see that we exist to bring You honor and glory and praise. And above all, we give You thanks for the birth of Jesus, our Redeemer. In His name we pray, Amen.
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