The Lord's Day Morning
December 10, 2006
“Luke's Christmas Liturgy:
Benedictus: Covenant Mercy and Remembrance”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke 1, as we continue to work through Luke's Christmas Liturgy, this set of four songs in the early chapters of The Gospel of Luke that give us a unique window into the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ from the perspective of those who were around Him before and during the time of His birth.
Last Lord's Day, we looked at The Song of Mary as she sang in response to the angel's announcement to her. Luke goes out of his way to give us a little genealogical information on Mary. He reminds us that she herself was of the line of David, and so in Mary's song we have someone from the tribe of Judah, of the line of David, approached by an angel speaking about Christ.
Now today for the first but not the only time in the early chapters of Luke, Luke gives us a priest – that is, someone from the line of Aaron, from the house of Levi – prophesying about the Lord Jesus Christ. Simeon will do the same at the time that Jesus is presented at the temple. It's quite interesting, isn't it, to have two priests, Mary from the tribe of Judah, speaking words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about Christ, who will be the King…Christ, who is the Prophet, Priest, and King, having two priests prophesy about Him being King, and having that same message come through the line of Judah as well. All part of the way that Luke testifies as to who Jesus is and what it is He has come to do.
The passage that we're going to read this morning is a beautiful passage. The Song of Zacharias is one of the most well known of the songs in the New Testament, though it's perhaps the least well known of the four songs we're studying this year. The Gloria of the angels is well known to us; it's in so many Christmas carols. The great musical settings of Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace perhaps ring in some of our hearts, and Mary's Magnificat has been the subject of countless musical works. This, perhaps the least well known of the four songs we're studying, is a song of great joy, and I'd like you to notice three parts of it before we read.
Firstly, in verses 67-69, notice the thanksgiving that Zacharias gives in light of this announcement from the angel about God's redemptive plan. Then in verses 70-75, notice how he proclaims God's covenant mercies to His people in announcing the coming of Messiah in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. And then, third, notice in verses 76-79 how he prophesies concerning his own son, John. And you’ll notice that in this prophecy that he virtually outlines John's life and ministry before he is born, in four parts; and when you study the rest of the New Testament, especially Mark, Matthew 3, John 1 and 2, you will find that this four-part description of John's life and ministry fits him to a tee, even though it is given before his birth.
Well, let's prepare to hear God's word by going to Him in prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this word of truth. We ask that You would by Your Spirit enable us to receive it not simply as something beautiful, not simply as something moving, not simply something that fills us with great sentiment; but something which is true, is life-changing, life-transforming. Grant that we would hear it with hope and trust in our hearts. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's hear the word of God in Luke 1, beginning in verse 67:
“And his Father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant–
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old–
Salvation from our enemies,
And from the hand of all who hate us;
To show mercy toward our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
To grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
You know, you really can't appreciate the extraordinary nature of this song being sung by Zacharias until you remember what Luke has already told you about him all the way back in verse 5 of chapter one. I'd invite you to turn there. Zacharias was a priest. It was his privilege on one particular occasion, and perhaps one particular occasion only in his whole life, and it was this occasion to go and to offer incense in the temple. While he was in the temple offering that incense, an angel met him. That angel was Gabriel.
Now, when Gabriel comes to meet you, it's very significant! You understand that Gabriel had been the angel sent to see Daniel. He was the angel that delivered that extraordinary vision to Daniel. Six hundred years ago it had been, and here he is again. And he says to Zacharias, ‘Zacharias, I've got some important news for you. The first news is you’re going to be a daddy.’ Now that was huge, because if you look in verses 5 and 6 and 7, you’ll find out that even though Zacharias and Elizabeth, his wife, were godly people, they were unable to have children. And they had been praying to have children for many, many years, and the Lord had never answered those prayers. So when the angel tells him, ‘Zacharias, you’re going to be a daddy,’ it's overwhelming to him. But the angel doesn't stop. He goes on to say, ‘And Zacharias, you need to understand that your son, the child that you are going to have, is going to be the one that Malachi prophesied would be as Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah to come.’ You can't imagine–I don't think any of us can imagine–how overwhelmed the heart of this father would have been at those announcements.
And so naturally we're told in Luke 1 early on that Zacharias struggled a little bit to believe what he was hearing, and he says — if you’ll look in verse 18 — he says to Gabriel, “How shall I know this for certain?” Now, friends, you don't ask that to Gabriel! If Gabriel tells you you’re going to be a daddy and that your son is going to be the messenger of the Lord, the Elijah back from the grave to prepare the way of Messiah, you don't say, “How can I be certain, Gabriel?” But that's exactly what Zacharias does. And Gabriel says ‘Let me tell you how you can be certain: I'm Gabriel! That's how you can be certain!’ But then he goes on and he says ‘And you can be certain because you’re not going to be able to open your mouth until the day that this child is born.’
And so there Zacharias is, dumbstruck. And the words that you have just heard read today are among the first words that came out of his mouth upon the fulfillment of Gabriel's words.
You see how special these words are. They represent the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on a godly believer who had the word of God stored up in his heart, and who had been answered in his prayers by the Lord in a most extraordinary way. And so I want to think with you for a moment about two or three things that we learn from this great song.
I. The thankfulness of Zacharias.
And the first thing I simply want you to see is the thankfulness of the believer in the thankfulness of Zacharias, because Zacharias’ thanksgiving for the Lord's grace in redemption as recorded in verses 67-69 is patent, it's open, it's overwhelming. He's overwhelmed by God's redemptive plan, by the fact that his son John is going to play a significant role in the unfolding of God's sending the Messiah into this world, and it causes Zacharias to break forth in praise and thanksgiving to God.
And you know, my friends, every believer reacts that way to the redeeming plan of God. Now you yourself may remember a time when God's redemption has come home to you in such a way that it really did overwhelm you. I can remember a time in my own youth when the Lord had spared me from straying, and He had brought me back to my family and back to my God, and back to the church. And I was sitting in the pews as a young man from Mississippi was being ordained in Augusta, Georgia; and I didn't want to leave that sanctuary that night. The reality of the Lord's redemption was very powerful. All of us can perhaps share a word like that, where the Lord pressed home the greatness of His redemption to us.
And here is Zacharias praising and giving God thanks. You know, this was a time when Zacharias could have been very self-focused. This whole song could have been about ‘Lord, You've given me a son!’ But isn't it interesting how this song is all about God, and it's all about His redemption? It's so God-centered and God-focused; it's so focused on how God saves us and that we don't save ourselves; [it's] about what God is doing. I want you to realize how extraordinary what Gabriel said to Zacharias was, and how extraordinary what Zacharias says here in verses 68 and 69. Notice that he tells you in verse 69 that as a part of this plan of redemption, God is going to “…raise up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant….”
Do you realize what Zacharias is saying? He's saying that that promise which had been given to David a thousand years before that he would never lack a man to sit on the throne of Israel, that his descendant would reign forever and ever on the throne of Israel, on the throne of his God; that God was now in an extraordinary way before Zacharias’ very eyes going to fulfill that.
Now you need to understand that that is the single greatest theological problem that faced the Old Testament prophets, because four hundred years after that promise was given to David, David's throne fell and there was no man in David's line to sit on that throne. In 586, Jerusalem itself was carried off into captivity, and for six hundred years the people of God had been asking themselves the question, reverently: “Lord God, has Your promise to David failed? Will You ever come back and restore Your people again? Will You ever raise up the fallen booth of David? Will You ever set up the throne of David again? How is it that You could have promised that David would reign forever, and yet there's not even a king of Israel now? We’re ruled by these alien, pagan Romans who occupy our land.”
And you see, the angel Gabriel says to Zacharias and Zacharias sings in this song that that promise made six hundred years ago to David was going to be fulfilled before his very eyes. You can imagine how that would have impacted a faithful believing Israelite in Zacharias’ day.
You know, some of you support teams that have been on losing streaks for a long time. Some of you were Red Sox fans, and a couple of years ago a losing streak that had stretched back almost a hundred years was ended. Well, friends, the children of Israel had been on a losing streak for six hundred years. And the angel is saying to Zacharias ‘God is about to turn things around.’ They’d been saying ‘Wait till next year’ for six hundred years, and now God says the time has come, and I am going to fulfill that promise. You cannot imagine the joy in Zacharias’ heart! And then to be told that his son was going to have a part in announcing that–and he's filled with thanksgiving in his heart.
And my friends, a believer's heart is filled with joy and thanksgiving at the thought of redemption. In the midst of all that goes on in the Christmas season, it would be easy to find our joy and delight in things other than the Lord's redemption, but the believer delights in that above everything else.
II. Zacharias proclaims God's covenant mercies to His people
The second thing I want you to see is in verses 70-75, because Zacharias not only concentrates on how the coming of Jesus is going to fulfill God's promise to David, but he concentrates on the fact that the coming of Jesus is going to fulfill God's promise to Abraham. Notice how he does that as he speaks to you in verses 72-73:
“To show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which he swore to Abraham our father….”
In other words, Zacharias is telling you that the Messiah's coming into the world is the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham and the patriarchs, and so Zacharias proclaims the Lord's covenant mercies and remembrance in verses 70-75. It's not just that Jesus’ coming, the Messiah's coming, is going to bring a fulfillment to a promise made six hundred years ago: it is that Jesus’ coming is going to be the fulfillment of the oldest promise ever given in the Bible. It's a promise that stretches all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12, and 15, and 17; but from there, all the way back to Genesis 3:15. And Zacharias is being told ‘In your own day, Zacharias, that plan which I have been unfolding from the beginning of mankind's history is going to come to pass. The Messiah who will crush the serpent's head, I am now going to bring into the world. The One who is going to establish My promises to Abraham, I am going to bring into the world.’ And Zacharias wants to proclaim that! He wants to proclaim this emphasis on God's rescuing His people, and God accomplishing the salvation of His people.
Do you see how this song constantly emphasizes the activity of God in our redemption? It's not a song about how we save ourselves. It's not a song about how God helps those who help themselves. It's a song about God's sovereignly coming in answer to His own word, His own promise, His own oath, His own covenant, and redeeming and rescuing His people. And Zacharias proclaims that with great joy.
And again, my friends, that is the sum, that is the substance, that is the stuff of the greatest joy for the believer. That ought to be the thing above everything else that we thank God for, and that we meditate upon, and that we grow in the knowledge of, and that we proclaim to the world around us.
III. The prophecy concerning his son, John.
But then Zacharias (in verses 76-79) has a third thing to teach us, and you see it in this prophecy that he gives concerning his son, John. He tells us of the themes of judgment and forgiveness and mercy in John's preaching. They’re foretold here.
Notice what he says:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; …” [Remember that phrase, to prepare His ways.] “…to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins…” [Remember that phrase, the forgiveness of their sins] “…because of the tender mercy of our God…” [Remember that phrase…] “…to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the ways of peace.”
You know, I don't know how old Zacharias was when he died, but he was already an old man when the angel came to tell him that he was going to be a father; and I don't know how old John was when Zacharias would finally die. But Zacharias perhaps knew that he was not going to see his son into adulthood. I mean, how old would John have been? Would he have been three years old? Or seven years old, or ten years old when his father would die — already an old man? I don't know. But I do know this: that this prophecy given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by Zacharias also bears the marks of the prayers of a man for his son.
You see, this man has been told by the angel that his son will be the messenger to prepare the way for Christ. And you can immediately see Zacharias plundering the Scriptures here for the prayers that he is going to offer up for his son's life and ministry until his last breath.
And I don't know whether Zacharias was ever able to tell these words to John himself. I don't know whether one day Zacharias said ‘Elizabeth, you must tell this to our son when he grows up and I'm gone.’ I don't know whether he wrote them down on a scroll and said ‘Elizabeth, when our son comes to manhood, you give him this scroll.’ And I don't know whether one day John opened up that scroll and read the prophecy of his father for the first time. I don't know whether some relative of Zacharias and Elizabeth maybe came to them and said, ‘You know, you've got to write down that prophecy that Zacharias uttered on the day that John was born, because John needs to know that someday.’ And I don't know whether maybe Luke came to one of Elizabeth's or Zacharias’ relatives and found out about that and got a copy for himself, which he included in his gospel. But I do know this: These words entail the prayers of a godly man for his son, that he would fulfill these things in his adulthood.
And I just want you to look with me very briefly in Matthew and in John as to how John the Baptist fulfills these things. First, turn with me to Matthew 3, and notice how Matthew describes John the Baptist in verse 3 — Matthew 3:3:
“For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying,
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!’”
Now notice in that how Matthew describes John's ministry. Matthew says his ministry was this: he was preparing the way of the Lord, and he was telling us of His judgment to come. And what did Zacharias prophesy? “That you would go before the Lord to prepare His ways.” The Lord is coming! Judgment is coming, Israel! And I am here to prepare you for the coming of the Lord. That's what Zacharias had prophesied when John was a day old, and that's how Matthew will describe the life and ministry of John.
But not simply that. Look back at verse 2 — Matthew 3:2. What is John's first message, according to Matthew? “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” By the way, that's Jesus’ first message, as well. And where did we see that in Zacharias’ prophecy? Notice verse 77: “To give His people the knowledge of salvation…” how? “…by the forgiveness of sins.”
Now, you can't preach the forgiveness of sins unless you preach repentance. And so there is Matthew saying, you know, his whole ministry was characterized by this proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There it is: John living out in his life and ministry the prophecy made of him in this passage.
And then turn with me to John 1, because John the Baptist's ministry was also a ministry of grace. He was going to prepare the way of the Lord, to make people to know God by the forgiveness of sins, to point to the tender mercy of our God and guide them in the way of peace, Zacharias said. Notice what we're told in John 1:21: that the day John is out preaching in the wilderness and he sees Jesus coming, what does he say?
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sins of the world.”
The ministry of grace, and it's all there in Zacharias’ prophecy of his son on the first day of his life.
I'm sure that Zacharias would have wished to have seen his son's ministry. It would have brought him great joy to know his son's faithfulness in his ministry. But I also want to say that I think John, upon hearing of the prophecy of Zacharias, would have been very proud of his father and of what the Lord had called his father to do and to announce.
You know, one of the greatest privileges of my life was sitting around the table and listening to John Piper and John MacArthur talk about their dads, who were both preachers — preachers far more obscure and less well-known that John Piper and John MacArthur. But one thing that came through in the 45 minutes or hour that those two dear brothers in Christ talked about their dads was that they loved their dads, and that they had tons of regard for their dads even though the world knew nothing about them. You know, even though the world would know a whole lot more about John the Baptist than they would know about his father, no doubt there was a great, great love in John's heart for his father as he reflected on these words that the Lord had used Zacharias to bring into the Scripture and into this world.
But, my friends, the real issue is what will we do with Zacharias’ words. J.C. Ryle, in his Meditations on The Gospel of Luke says:
“We should notice what clear views of doctrine Zacharias enjoyed. He ends his hymn of praise by addressing his infant son, John the Baptist. He tells him that he shall go before the face of Messiah and give the knowledge of salvation that He is about to bring in: a salvation which is all of grace and mercy; a salvation of which the leading privileges are the forgiveness of sins, light, and peace.
Now let us end the chapter by examining what we know of these glorious privileges. Do we know anything of pardon, of forgiveness? Have we turned from darkness to light? Have we tasted peace with God? These, after all, are the realities of Christianity. These are the things without which church membership and sacraments save no one's soul. Let us never rest until we are experientially acquainted with them. Mercy and grace have provided them. Mercy and grace will give them to all who call on Christ's name. Let us never rest until the Spirit witnesses with our spirit that our sins are forgiven us; that we have passed from darkness to light; and that we are actually walking in the narrow way, the way of peace.”
Friends, it would be a great tragedy to enjoy and delight in the sentiments and the memories of this season without reveling in the greatest delight of all: peace with God, because of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of your sins. May God grant that all of you would know that eternal peace through trusting in Christ for forgiveness and salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
O God, may our rejoicing this Christmas be the rejoicing of Zacharias: that there is a sovereign God with sovereign grace, Who sent a sovereign Savior to die for our sins, to give us forgiveness, to receive us into His family, to His praise forevermore. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.