Jan 1, 2012

The Benedictus (Part 1)

Luke 1:67–80

When John the Baptist was born, his father Zacharias praised God in song. Continuing his series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul examines this song, the Benedictus, to consider what the birth of the forerunner to Jesus means for God’s unfolding plan of redemption.


We will continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We give our attention now to the prophetic song of Zacharias found in Luke 1:67–80:

Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:

“Blessed is the Lord 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,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
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 the days of our life.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Once again, we have had the privilege to hear from God Himself with His inspired and infallible Word. Let us receive it as such to our hearts. Let us pray.

Our God and our Father, once again we appeal to You to condescend to our weakness, to the frailty of our understanding, and by Thy Spirit illumine our minds and our hearts by Your Word, that the song of celebration of Your servant Zacharias might indeed be our song as well. We pray that in this hour, as we come to the table of our Lord, that You would visit us with Your redeeming presence. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Zacharias Blesses God

We’ve already looked at some of the other songs of the infancy of Jesus: the Magnificat of Mary and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo of the heavenly chorus outside of Bethlehem. Later, God willing, we will look at the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. The other great hymn in Luke’s gospel is this one sung by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. In this song, there is both celebration and prophecy of what is to come.

The central and most important theme is expressed at the very beginning of this song, and it has to do with God’s visiting His people. I’d like to take a few moments to focus on that idea because, as I said in the case of Mary’s Magnificat, the content of this infancy song is also filled with references to the Old Testament that we don’t want to miss.

The song begins, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel.” Why is Zacharias attributing a beatific view of God at the beginning of the hymn? He clearly answers that for us. The reason he is blessing God is because God has visited and redeemed His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.

Episcopal Supervision

It’s somewhat unusual that the English version of the text doesn’t use the kind of language for divine visitation that the original uses. The verb translated “visited” in this text is the verb form of an extremely important noun in biblical categories: episkopos.

I’m sure that word sounds at least somewhat familiar to us because we think of the Episcopalian Church, named for its form of government. It is a church ruled by bishops, and when we talk of that which is episcopal, we’re talking about that which has to do with bishops. The English translation of the noun form of this verb is the word bishop. Episkopos in Greek is translated by the word bishop in English, and I want to take a moment to drill down a little bit into the meaning of that word.

The Greek word episkopos is made up of two parts: a prefix and a root. The root is the word skopos. That word comes right over into English. It’s the word that we translate in English as the word scope. Long-range rifles have scopes mounted on them. We have microscopes. We have telescopes. You get the idea—the scope is something used to look through. A microscope is used to look at tiny things that would be invisible to the naked eye. The telescope is used to see things far off in the distance.

The idea here is one of “vision,” of looking. Think of the relationship between the word vision and the word visit. They are very closely related. When I come to your house to visit you, it’s because I want to see you, and therein is the connection going back to the Latin videre. Both words come from that Latin root.

In any case, you have the root of the word bishop being scope, or skopos, with the prefix epi attached to it. The prefix epi intensifies the root. In Latin, the corresponding concept is the idea of supervidere, “super-looking.” In our culture, when we have people working and somebody watching them, the person who watches them is called the “supervisor.”

When we have a supervisor, the supervisor is not just a visor—he’s not just a looker—he’s a “super-looker.” That means he’s like Santa Claus. He’s watching you closely, making a list to see how you’ve been behaving, whether you’ve been good or bad. In other words, the supervisor or the bishop is not a casual observer. The supervisor is one who looks at things deeply, carefully, and fully, so that he perceives every single detail of what is happening.

God’s Providence Oversees All

The reason I labor the point above is that this title of episkopos is given to Jesus in the New Testament. We are told in the book of Hebrews that Jesus is the bishop of our souls. This title given to Jesus is merely a transfer of the understanding of the nature of God Himself to His Son, because ultimately the supreme bishop is God Himself, who totally and comprehensively observes everything that takes place in this world.

Jesus tells us that there is not a single bird that lands on the ground that our Heavenly Father does not see. He tells us that the very hairs on our head are numbered. David exclaimed: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold Thou art there. Before a word is formed on my lips, oh God, You know it altogether.” This has to do with God’s all-seeing eye and knowledge of everything that happens in this world.

Related to this is another word in our theological vocabulary that’s critically important for the Christian to understand, and that’s the concept of divine providence. Again, we have a root and a prefix, and it’s the same root, videre, which has to do with vision. Pro-videre is God’s seeing things beforehand, but it’s more than that. It’s not just that the providence of God refers to His knowledge of things before they happen, but more importantly, it has to do with His sovereign plan of what will come to pass. It is His provision for His people.

The Ultimate Provision

The first time we discover this concept of divine providence in the Bible is in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 22, God came to His servant Abraham after he had waited many years for the promise that God had made for an heir, and now he and Sarah finally have a son.

God came to Abraham, and He said, “Now Abraham, take thou thy son, your only son, the one whom you love, and go to the mountain that I will show you, and there I want you to sacrifice him to Me.” We’ve looked at that text before, and I remind you that if God came to Abraham and said, “Take now your son to that mountain and sacrifice him to Me,” and that’s all the information God gave him, Abraham would have headed straight for Ishmael, taken him to Mount Moriah, and sacrificed him there. But God was very specific. He says, “Abraham, take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and take him to that place where I will show you, and there you offer him to Me.”

You know the story. Abraham got up early in the morning, he chopped wood for the sacrifice, he mounted his beast of burden, and he took his son, his only son, the son whom he loved, Isaac. As they were moving along the road with Mount Moriah in the distance, Isaac looked at his father and asked: “Father, I see the wood for sacrifices, but where is the lamb? Aren’t we supposed to have a lamb to offer as a sacrifice?”

I think that is one of the most poignant moments in the history of redemption. What was going on in Abraham’s mind? What was going on in his heart? Was he going to say to his son Isaac, “Don’t worry about the lamb, you’re the lamb”? Instead, Abraham said to his son: “Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will provide. We are going to trust in the provision of God. We are going to trust in the providence of God.”

You know the rest of the story. When they got to the top of the mountain, Abraham took his son and bound him with ropes, placed him on the altar, and raised the knife above his head. At the last second, as he was about to plunge the knife into the heart of his son, God spoke and said, “Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand upon your son, because now I know that you trust Me.” Behold, off to the side, there was a ram caught by his horns in the thicket that could be used as a substitute for the sacrifice. God had provided. Jehovah Jireh had provided the lamb to be slain as a substitute.

Do you realize that two thousand years later, at that same mountain no longer called Moriah, but now called Calvary, God took His Son, His only Son, the Son whom He loved, Jesus, and put Him on the altar of sacrifice? Only this time, no one shouted, “Stop!” The ultimate provision was made. All of that is incorporated, dear friends, in this concept of divine visitation.

Redemption or Judgment?

In Greece, the bishop was like a general, who would come to the armies from time to time and inspect the troops to see whether they were battle-ready or had been negligent and grown rusty, lazy, and incompetent in the general’s absence. If he found the troops battle-ready, he would pronounce his benediction on them, but if he found them ill-prepared, the general would bring judgment. Again, the verb form of “bishop-ing” is “visiting,” and the troops never knew when the general would pay them a visit.

In the Old Testament, there is the idea of the supreme, providential Lord who will visit His people. Those visits can be either wonderful and redemptive or tragic as they bring His judgment.

The people of God in the Old Testament looked forward to the promised day of the Lord. In the beginning, the day of the Lord was a future day when God would come and redeem His people, bringing peace and justice to them, redeeming them from their enemies, and fulfilling all of His covenant promises. But as the people of Israel grew cold in their hearts and became hard-necked, they were warned that the day of the Lord might not be so good. The prophet Amos said to them, “The day of the Lord is a day of darkness and there is no light in it.” So, you have this two-edged sword in the Old Testament: on the one hand, the looking forward to the bright dawn of the day of God’s visitation; on the other hand, the fear that day might be a day of judgment.

Beloved, the ultimate visit from on high was the entrance of Christ into the world, and for those who received Him, to them He gave authority to be called the children of God. To those who received Him, it was the day of the Lord of redemption. But for those who reject Him, it is the day of darkness, with no light in it.

Dear friends, it is impossible to be neutral with respect to Christ. There is no neutral territory. Jesus said, “He who is not with Me, is against Me.” You’re either a disciple of Christ or you’re His enemy—which is it? Only you know, in the deepest chambers of your heart.

God Hears Our Cries

In the Old Testament, at the formation of the Jewish nation, when the people were in their darkest hour, enslaved by the Pharaoh of Egypt, given quotas to fulfill and no straw for their bricks, they cried and groaned, and were hopeless and in despair. Then, one day, God heard their cries. He said, “The groans of My people have come up to Me,” and He called Moses and said to him: “Go to Pharaoh and tell him that I say, ‘Let My people go.’ And if he doesn’t want to let them go, tell him that I’m going to visit him, and I’m going to visit My people.”

The Exodus was the supreme visitation of God to His people in the Old Testament. It looked ahead to the ultimate visit, the incarnation of Christ Himself, who would deliver His people from the bondage of sin.

Finally, we think through Christian history and consider this: How many times have both the great saints and we ourselves, the lesser saints, felt the absence of God? We wonder where He is. We don’t sense His nearness to us. I think of Luther at Worms, the night before his trial, praying his heart out in his monastery cell, crying out: “God, where are You? Send help. I need You. This isn’t my cause; this is Your cause. The cause is Yours, and I am Yours.” Well, God was not gone, He was just hidden. Luther prayed that on the morrow God would visit him and give him strength, and the next morning the Lord God Omnipotent visited His servant and upheld him.

So, He visits Zacharias and Elizabeth, and He’s about to visit the whole nation with the birth of His Son. That makes Zacharias sing, “Bless the Lord, the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.