Advent: Pointing to Jesus, the Hope of All of History
This is the third sermon in our four-part Advent series. As we’ve said before, our hope during this Advent season is that God would help our hearts to grow in celebration and longing for the coming of the King—greater celebration of his first coming and greater longing for his second coming. We want you to know that we’ve been praying for all of you that he would help your celebration and longing grow in these ways.
D.A Carson once said in one of his sermons on the gospel of Luke that, “Humans discover their greatest importance in pointing to Jesus.” We see this perhaps most starkly in the life of John the Baptist, a man whose life was set apart for preparing the way for Jesus to begin his ministry on earth. He had the unique privilege of pointing to Jesus physically, right there in front of him.
As we have been studying these passages in Luke, we have all been reminded afresh of God’s love for humility. He loves to do his work through the humble and lowly, those who recognize their deep need for him and also those who are small in the eyes of the world. In the first two messages we saw this in the life of Mary, and next week we will see this humility characterize his own coming to us as an infant. This week we will see it in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth and primarily in their son, John the Baptist, who had a large following but pushed them away from himself and toward Jesus.
So a quick roadmap: We’ll look at the birth of John the Baptist and his earthly ministry, apply it to our own lives, and then we will look at Zechariah’s prophetic song and apply that in a similar way as we reflect on what is so great about Jesus that makes spending our whole lives pointing to him totally worthwhile.
1.) John, Son of Zechariah
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”—Luke 1:57–58
The birth of John the Baptist was a big attention grabber. The first reason was the life stage of his parents. Being “advanced in years (1:7),” and being pregnant don’t typically go together, and this leads Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives to rejoice. They heard that the Lord had shown her “great mercy” (1:58). What kind of mercy is she receiving, aside from receiving a child in old age? Elizabeth tells us a little bit more in Luke 1:25. She says: “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” What she is saying is that she has received disapproval or disappointment from other people for the better part of her life, and this has now been taken away. That is what reproach means, “an expression of disapproval or disappointment.”
Now I think Luke is purposely pushing us to feel Elizabeth’s tension. In verses 6-7 it says that Zechariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren.” Zechariah and Elizabeth almost certainly knew the Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 7:12–14 that says “because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, Yahweh your God will…among other things…bless the fruit of your womb.” So if they were righteous and walking blamelessly, why no fruitfulness? This—among other reasons—caused many to look at barren women with reproach, thinking they must have done something bad to merit the unfruitfulness of their womb. But life is not always that black and white. Their situation is case and point. God had a different plan for them, and it would be worth it. But to say the least, this situation made life challenging especially for Elizabeth, and that is why this birth was a great mercy for her, and it totally grabbed the attention of others around them.
The second reason John’s birth was an attention grabber had to do with the circumstances surrounding Zechariah’s temple experience and the naming of his son. Starting at verse 59:
“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah, after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and 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 on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ’what then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”—Luke 1:59–66
We heard the first part of this story in Ryan’s sermon two weeks ago. Zechariah was met in the temple by an angel who told Zechariah he would have a son, that his name was to be called John, and then made Zechariah unable to speak for the entire length of the pregnancy because he faithlessly asked for a sign. So neighbors and relatives are getting hit by one thing after another. Not only are the parents very old, but the child seems to already have a name and this name is not at all what they would expect culturally. On top of this, Zechariah has been mute and mysteriously gets his voice back after he defends the name that the angel assigned to his son. So, as you can imagine, fear was coming on all the people and news of this birth was spreading around all of Judea, and people began to say, “What then will this child be?” His birth was the talk of the town.
So this is the buildup to Zechariah’s prophecy. The narrative finally brings us to this question, “What then will this child be,” and so when Zechariah opens his mouth, I don’t know about you, but I would have expected Zechariah to mainly answer that question. Instead, Zechariah focuses on a different son, a better birth. And right away we see that John’s birth serves as a sign or magnifying glass for that better birth. Zechariah knows that the coming of his son means the coming of THE SON, and it is that coming that he is ultimately consumed with. So even here we already are smelling the sweet aroma of John’s life. Though the hype around his birth and his ministry was intense, it always served to magnify Jesus. And that’s what Zechariah does in his prophecy. But before we go there, I want to pause to apply this by highlighting one particular story about John’s public ministry that looks just like what we see here in this text.
When John appears on the scene as an adult, we immediately see the same hype surrounding him as people mistake him for the Messiah. People asked him, “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” As John 1:20 says, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ ” Though John’s birth and ministry grabbed the attention of many, John did not himself grab for the attention of others. He used people’s attention and curiosity as a platform for pointing to the one they really should be enraptured by. I love the account in John chapter 3.
“Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ These people are wondering if John has a problem with this, that he is losing all of his disciples to this other guy. Here is John’s response: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”—John 3:25–30
Translation: The bride belongs to Jesus, the bridegroom, not me. For my whole life, my joy was to try to get his bride ready for him, not for me, because I love the bridegroom. And now that he’s here, I’m right behind everybody else, listening to his voice. Go! Seek his face! Bless his name. He is worthy of all our praise, and his ways are worth surrendering our lives to follow.
So the application for us: point to Jesus!
John the Baptist knew that it would be foolish for anyone to put their hope in himself. This is important for all of us to remember—at least everyone who struggles with pride. And perhaps it is extra important for those who have been gifted with leadership ability, those who tend to command a lot of attention, those who have gifts for counseling others, or those who feel a deep need to be needed by other people. Humility does not mean downplaying the gifts you’ve been given to lead, teach, counsel, help other people, but it does mean protecting others from a type of leadership or help that makes you the object of their hope and not Jesus. The most effective and most loving thing we can ever do for anyone is to point them, in the end, to the one who will satisfy them forever, who will heal all their wounds, and who can save them from all of their enemies, including their own sin.
Now as we look together at this prophetic song, Zechariah shows us what it looks like to point past the miraculous events in his own family to the one these events are truly about.
It’s not that Zechariah isn’t excited about and thankful for the birth of his own son and the privileged position his son has in history, but it is simply eclipsed by the greater significance of Jesus and what he brings. So let’s go to his outburst of prophetic praise.
2.) Jesus, Son of God
Now we don’t have time to go through each of these statements in depth, but I want to give us a quick overview of what each of these verses are claiming about Jesus.
An important thing to notice about this prophecy is how saturated it is with Old Testament language. As different moments of Israel’s history are recalled, Zechariah shows us how Jesus is the one to whom all history points and has been building toward. To help us move along more quickly I’m going to restate these verses with Jesus as the subject.
Verse 68 – Jesus has visited and redeemed his people
Zechariah begins his song of praise by thanking the God of Israel for visiting and redeeming his people. These two words, visit and redeem point back to the Exodus. When God’s people were enslaved by their enemies and breaking under the weight of their forced labor in Egypt, Exodus 4:31 says that
“Yahweh…visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction.”—Exodus 4:31
And he promised to
“redeem them with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” on their enemies”.—Exodus 6:6
Zechariah is connecting the visitation and redemption of God on behalf of his people in Egypt with the visitation and redemption that is now coming to God’s people through Jesus. And as we will see, Jesus brings a better, more lasting redemption that will not only deal with physical enemies but spiritual ones, including sin (Luke 1:77). Jesus makes the final redemptive transition toward full and lasting peace and deliverance from all enemies—physical and spiritual—forever.
The rest of this song unpacks why this Jesus is the one to make this final redemptive transition. Who is he that all of this great redemptive language would be attributed to him?
Verse 69 – Jesus is our horn of salvation and king forever
That Jesus is called a horn of salvation is very significant. It is a divine title used only one other place in the Bible. David used this phrase in 2 Samuel 22 to describe Yahweh as the one who was able to deliver him from all his enemies.
“Yahweh is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation.”—2 Samuel 22:2–3
So when Zechariah calls Jesus a horn of salvation, he is ascribing divinity to Jesus and claiming that Jesus will deliver us from all our enemies.
In the Old Testament, the word horn was used as a symbol for strength, power, or victory. The horn of an ox, for instance, was used for protection and fighting. So this title is ascribing power, might, victory to Jesus the God-man. And when Zechariah adds that this horn of salvation would be in the house of his servant David, Zechariah is connecting Jesus to all of the messianic prophecies about one who would sit on David’s throne, reigning forever. Just one example is Isaiah 9, a famous prophetic passage about the future coming of Jesus. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” This son, verse 7 says, will be on the throne of David forever. Zechariah is leaving no doubt here that Jesus is the anticipated coming king.
Verse 70 – Jesus is the one spoken about by the mouth of God’s holy prophets of old
The prophets of old were leaning on the future coming of one who would bring more lasting deliverance than what they were currently experiencing, and Zechariah refers to many of the things those prophets said in his song.
Verse 71 – Jesus will save us from all our enemies and the hand of all who hate us
This was a very common theme throughout the OT prophets because it was a very common problem for the people of Israel. They often were threatened on many sides by enemy forces and so had constant fear and anxiety. Jesus, the horn of salvation, will deliver us from the hand of all our enemies.
Verse 72–75 – Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s covenant promises
These verses are referring to a promise Yahweh made to Abraham in Genesis 22 that Abraham’s offspring will multiply, and they will be given a land free from enemy threats so they can worship Yahweh without fear. What’s interesting, though, is that Yahweh already fulfilled this promise to Israel. We can read about this in Joshua 21. Yahweh delivers Israel from their enemies and gives them the land he promised. So why is Zechariah suggesting that this promise is being fulfilled in Jesus? It’s because in Deuteronomy 4, Yahweh warned Israel that when they go into the land they should be careful not to forsake Yahweh, not to devote themselves to idols or walk in wickedness. But the Israelites did just that. They failed to keep their end of the bargain because of the depth of their sinfulness. This tragedy showed that they needed a more complete deliverance, not only from the enemies around them but from the enemy within them—their own sinfulness. Zechariah is suggesting that this deliverance will ultimately come in Jesus. Jesus will bring perfect fulfillment to the promise Yahweh made to Abraham. So it makes perfect sense that the rest of this prophecy focuses on Jesus coming to forgive sins, not just deliver from physical enemies.
Verse 76 – John will prepare the way for Jesus
In verse 76, we come to the one verse that answers the question about John the Baptist. “Who then will this child be?” “And you child,” Zechariah says, “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” So even this verse about John describes him in light of his role of pointing to Jesus, preparing the way for another son.
Verse 77 – From Jesus comes salvation and forgiveness of sins
This is particularly refreshing news for the people of God. Hebrews tells us that the Old Testament sacrifices couldn’t take away sins. The blood of bulls and goats can’t save humans, only the blood of a perfect human can. Israel’s problem of sin was their constant downfall. It didn’t matter what sort of redemption Yahweh brought Israel and how many physical enemies he saved them from, they would continue to sin and rebel against him. But Jesus now comes to put a decisive end to the problem of sin. Hallelujah!
Verses 78–79 – Jesus will bring light to those suffering in darkness and death
Verse 78 shows that this salvation through forgiveness of sins is coming because of his tender mercy, the steadfast love of our God. He is committed to the promises he has made, and Christ’s coming is the ultimate proof of that commitment. As for the rest of these two verses, we see that Christ’s coming is compared to both a sunrise and a light that shines upon a dark world and the people who sit in darkness. Zechariah is pointing to Malachi 4:2 and Isaiah 9. Malachi 4:2 refers to the sunrise. It says,
“For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”—Malachi 4:2
And Isaiah 9 says,
“the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.”—Isaiah 9:2
Both these texts were referring to the future Messiah. Jesus is bringing light to the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome him (John 1).
So there is a quick overview. Before we touch on the last clause of this prophetic song, let’s review what we learned about Jesus.
Jesus has visited and redeemed his people.
He is our horn of salvation and king forever.
He is the one spoken about by the mouth of God’s holy prophets of old.
He will save us from all our enemies and the hand of all who hate us.
He is the fulfillment of all God’s covenant promises.
From him comes salvation and forgiveness of sins.
He brings light to those suffering in darkness and death.
Now the last clause of the prophecy is a very fitting end because it uses what I think is one of the best words in the Bible to summarize all that Jesus brings with both his first and second coming. That word is peace. Jesus will guide our feet into the way of peace. This Greek word for peace is the New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew word shalom, a word that may sound familiar to many of you. This word means completeness, wholeness, or well-being across a wide spectrum of human experiences. Tim Keller has defined it this way: “It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy.”
So to have peace in the full sense of the word means to live with an absence of any type of threat in all of these dimensions. No threats to your health or safety in any way. No threats to your emotional security, nothing to create any sort of inner turmoil, and no threats to your relational harmony with anyone. Best of all, there is nothing between us and God. Perfect peace. None of us have ever known completely what that feels like. That feels like a dream. But it’s coming in Jesus. He is a whole Savior. He came in his first coming to deal with sin, the root of everything that is not right in the world, and he is coming again to put a final end not only to sin but all the threatening fruit sin has produced in the world. This is good news, and I want to apply this as we close.
Jesus is the only one who can save us from the evil around us because he is the only one who can save us from the evil within us.
As Christians we know that without the right man on our side, our striving will be losing. Evil will continue to thrive around human hearts that have not been re-shaped by Christ. All of the evil around us flows from the evil within one another. The world seeks answers to world peace—peace in their homes and peace within themselves—by applying any number of methodologies, but they are doomed to fail if Christ is not breathing new life into their hearts and satisfying them with his love. There may be glimpses of peace, but it will not last, for the human heart is not basically good, it is basically “deceitful above all things,” as Jeremiah the prophet once said. It is basically self-seeking, self-centered, self-worshiping.
So what do we do as Christians in a world that is overwhelmed with a thirst for peace? We point to Jesus. In this season of Advent, we are reminded that we are to point both backwards and forwards. When we point backwards to his first coming, we remember Jesus’s sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 53, said that the coming king would be one who would endure a punishment that brings us peace. Jesus did just that on the cross. He took the punishment we deserved for our wicked hearts and made peace between us and the father. And just as sin broke peace with the father and caused the breaking of peace between us and everything else, so the sacrifice Jesus made to bring us peace between us and the father will begin restoring peace in us and around us.
But we also point forward to his second coming. Though darkness has been defeated by Jesus, the Light of the World, it has not totally lifted. Though death has been dealt its own death blow by Jesus, the horn of our salvation, it still tears hearts apart on this broken earth. Though our sin has been rendered unable to finally condemn us, it still rears its ugly head in our lives. Though the removal of all pain and insecurity has been secured, he has not yet finally delivered us from these things. He has been away. So we long for him and point each other and this lost world toward the all-encompassing salvation that he will bring when he returns! We ache for full restoration, for lasting peace. Jesus is coming to give for his people this absolute peace. He secured it at his first coming, and he will bring it into perfect reality when he returns. There will be no potential threat to our perfect peace whatsoever, forever. May the world look at us and see a people who neither look for answers within themselves nor make light of suffering here on earth, but who are filled with the hope of final deliverance from the king who is coming!