Jan 8, 2012

The Benedictus (Part 2)

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.


This morning we’ll continue our study of the gospel of Luke, and we’ll return to the song of Zacharias, the Benedictus, the first section of which we looked at last time. My intent in this sermon is to look at the middle section. Then, next time we will see the final section of this hymn. Though I will only comment on the middle section, I will read the entire hymn once more this morning from 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.

This song was inspired by God the Holy Spirit and is recorded here in Luke’s gospel by His superintendence and inspiration. It is for our instruction in righteousness and our edification. Please receive it this morning as such. Let us pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we rejoice to be in Your house in this hour to hear, to contemplate, and to embrace with all our heart Your holy and true Word. So, illumine that Word to us even now that we may embrace it fully, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Horn of Salvation

Last time, I spent almost all of our time considering the significance of the first part of the Benedictus, when Zacharias praises God because He had visited His people in this marvelous way. That visit was one of redemption, and he goes on to say, “He has visited us and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us.”

It would be almost impossible to count all the titles that describe the Messiah in sacred Scripture, but here is one that we could easily miss by passing over the text too quickly. This visitation and redemption involve the coming of the Messiah, referenced in this text as a “horn of salvation” in the house of His servant David.

This image of the horn refers to those beasts of the earth that use their horns in battle. It is a symbol of great strength. In Jewish imagery, one such animal is the ox, and we have the expression in our own language of being “as strong as an ox.”

I can’t help but notice that among the symbols of the four gospel writers in the early church, one of them is given the ox, the author of the gospel that we’re studying now. In any case, it is the Messiah who is described as having the horn of salvation, as being the One who comes in His messianic office with enormous strength that cannot be overcome. He comes in the house of His servant David.

The Conquering Messiah

Notice that in this part of the hymn, Zacharias is not celebrating the role God gives to his son, who has been named John. That prophetic utterance comes at the end of the hymn. In this section of the hymn, Zacharias is extolling the greatness of God’s Messiah, whom God is raising up in the house of David. Zacharias’ own son, John, would be from the house of Levi, not from the tribe of Judah, from which we have the Messiah from the house of David.

He mentions that this realization of the horn of salvation’s visitation is not something that has come de novo out of the head of Zeus, without any word of preparation, but is merely the fulfillment of the promises that the prophets have given from the very beginning of time. The prophecy of the coming Messiah begins with Adam and Eve and the curse upon the serpent, whose seed would be crushed by the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, the prophets reiterate that gospel promise of the coming Messiah who will bring redemption with Him.

“That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” This reference in biblical terminology is not simply a promise that God is going to rescue the Jews from the Romans, or the Philistines, the Amorites, the Jebusites, the stalactites, the stalagmites, or any of those other “ites” that were constantly besieging Israel in Old Testament time. Rather, the ultimate enemy, who will be crushed by the Horn of Salvation who visits us, is the prince of darkness and all his minions and his allies, along with his ploys that are part of the curse: death, darkness, disease, and everything that puts a shadow over the joy of human life. All these enemies will be conquered by this Messiah, who will rise from the house of David to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant.

Covenant Theology

Notice, this covenant idea is the same theme Mary focused on in the Magnificat, when she said that God has remembered the promise that He made to their father Abraham. Sometimes in theological discussions, people will ask me the following question: “Do you believe in covenant theology?”

Covenant theology is often a nickname for Reformed theology, or more specifically for Calvinism. When people ask me if I embrace covenant theology, I always answer by saying, “Yes, I do.” But that’s not what I want to say. What I’m thinking, but biting my tongue and not saying to them, I’ll say to you this morning: “Of course, what other kind of theology is there for heaven’s sake? How can you read the Bible and not see that the basic foundational structure of all the history of redemption, of all the unveiling revelation of God Almighty, is the structure of covenant? That is the basis by which we enter into worship with God and into the salvific relationship that we have with Him, because He, apart from us and for us, unilaterally, made a promise of redemption, which promise cannot fail.”

Things That Are Impossible for God

In the mid-1960s, I was a professor at a college in Boston. One of our administrative members became sick unto death and was hospitalized at Massachusetts General Hospital. I would visit him several times a week during his dying days. His name was Deacon, because he was a deacon at his church, so everybody called him “Deac.”

He was such a wonderful, marvelous man, and a dear friend to us. I remember visiting Deacon in those days, and the day before he died, all I could do for him was put ice on his parched lips. It was the only physical comfort I could administer to him. By that point, he was not able to speak, but he would look at me, and I can still see the look in his eyes, his look of thanksgiving and appreciation.

What Deacon loved the most was when I would read the Word of God to him in his dying hours. The last text that I read to my friend Deac was found in the sixth chapter of the book of Hebrews, where we read these words:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel… (Heb. 6:13–17)

God was determined to make clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the immutability, the impossibility of His promise changing or weakening. Because He was so determined to do this, He “confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie…” (Heb. 6:18).

What are those two immutable things that make it impossible for God to lie? The first is a promise that comes from God. When God makes a promise, it is there forever, and it cannot be broken. The second is the oath by which He confirms that promise. By these two things we see that it is impossible for God to lie.

We say, “With God all things are possible.” That means all things that are consistent with His character and with His nature, but ultimately there are some things that are impossible. God cannot be and not be at the same time in the same relationship. God can’t die. Further, He cannot lie.

The impossibility that God could lie is one of the things that demonstrates the vast gulf between God and us. Scripture says that all men are liars. We are all covenant breakers. When we lack faith, we project upon God the weakness of our own character. We think, “We lie, so why can’t God?” Well, it’s possible for us to lie because we’re fallen creatures under the influence of the father of lies, but not God. For God to lie would be for God to stop being God altogether.

The author of Hebrews continues: “We have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” I read the rest to Deac: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner, has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19).

God’s Promise and Oath to Abraham

What we find in Hebrews 6 drives the Christian life: we are children of Abraham, God is the father of the faithful, and God made a promise to Abraham and confirmed it by an oath. This promise was not only to him as an individual, but to Abraham and his seed. Paul labors in his letter to the Romans that as many as put their faith in Christ are indeed the children of Abraham.

Let’s take a few moments to remember that promise and that oath, going back to the beginning of Genesis 12, where we read these words: “Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out.’” That’s where it all started: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Abram, get out of here!’” Get out of where? “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house.”

Abram’s land was given to idolatry. His home in Ur of the Chaldeans was given to idolatry. His family was given to idolatry, and God said:

Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And I will make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Then the next verse says, “So, Abram departed as the Lord had commanded him.” That’s where it starts. A couple of chapters later, we find the confirmation of this promise.

Abraham’s Belief and Unbelief

I recently officiated at a wedding service in Tampa, and I referenced Genesis 15 and my favorite verse in the whole Bible. I’ve told you about my favorite verse before, and some people look at me like I’m crazy when I give them that verse.

When people ask me for my life verse and I write Genesis 15:17 in their bibles, they come back to me later and ask: “Did you make a mistake? Did you write the wrong verse down?” I say: “If I’m ever in prison, in solitary confinement, and I can have only one book, I’d want the Bible. If I can have one book, but only one book of the Bible, I’d have the book of Hebrews. If I can’t have a whole book of the Bible, but only one verse of the Bible, the one verse I want is Genesis 15:17.”

Genesis 15:17 reads as follows: “And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.” It gives me chills up my spine every time I read that verse. Isn’t it incredible? Don’t you love it? Or have you joined the ranks of those who question my sanity?

In the beginning of Genesis 15, we read: “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham is saying: “What do you mean You’re going to be my exceedingly great reward? I’m one of the wealthiest men in the world. What can You give me that would make up for the fact that I have no son? My heir is my servant, Eliezer of Damascus. You’ve given me no offspring. Indeed, one born in my house is my heir.”

The text continues: “And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who comes from your own body will be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward the heaven and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”

In verse 6, we read these pregnant words: “Abraham believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” This is the sentence that the Apostle Paul uses to illustrate the faith of Abraham, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by the imputation of a righteousness that God gives those who have no righteousness.

Then God said to Abraham, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” Here, Abraham stumbled. He was like all of us: “We believe, help Thou, our unbelief.” After Abraham’s remarkable profession of faith, he wavered and said, “Lord God, how shall I know I will inherit it?” He was saying, “I believe you, but how can I know for sure that this promise You’ve made will come true?”

God’s Deity on the Line

In response to Abraham’s question God said to him: “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” The text continues: “Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.”

In these verses, we see this gauntlet Abraham performs by chopping these animals in half and putting one half of the animal and the other half of the animal on each side of the aisle. Then, when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram shooed them away.

Picking up in verse 12: “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him.” As this dreadful darkness and horror encompassed Abram, God spoke to Abram, saying: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; but afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

In verse 17, the text says, “And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.” A flaming torch hovered over those pieces of animal and deliberately moved down that aisle, like a gauntlet between the pieces. This was the theophany. The smoking oven and the burning torch were the visible manifestations of the invisible God. This was God Himself going between the pieces of those carcasses set in that aisle.

God dramatically and demonstratively communicated this to Abraham: “I’m cutting a covenant with you Abraham, and what I’m saying is that if I don’t keep my word, if I fail to keep my promise, may I be torn asunder just as you’ve cut in half this heifer and this ram and this goat. May the immutable God suffer a permanent mutation. May the infinite surrender to finitude, the immortal to mortality. How do you want Me to swear, Abraham, on My mother’s grave? I don’t have a mother. On the altar? That’s something made by the hands of men. Abraham, there’s nothing higher upon which I can swear an oath than on My own, self-existent, infinite, eternal being.”

Do you see that when God made this covenant with Abraham and with his seed, he swore an oath based on Himself, on His own divine being? God has put His deity on the line to confirm the promise that God made to Abraham and to his seed.

The People of the Covenant

Is it any wonder when these promises are fulfilled that the servant of God, Zacharias, sings under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost? He realized that God had kept His promise to Abraham and to his seed.

This is the reason we baptize our babies in Presbyterian churches. In that original covenant to Abraham, Abraham was to be circumcised as a sign of that covenant, and he was commanded by God to circumcise his son, who had not yet come to faith, as a sign of the promise of God. That covenantal sign was not a sign of Abraham’s faith or Isaac’s faith, but the sign of God’s promise to all who believe. Though baptism is not the same as circumcision, baptism follows in the path of circumcision, just as the Passover is fulfilled by the Lord’s Supper. Circumcision is fulfilled by the new covenant sign of baptism, and that principle of family solidarity is never abolished in the New Testament.

In fact, in the book of Acts, we see that when people who come to faith as adults receive the covenant sign, not only do they receive it, but also their household. The principle in view for centuries was that the children of believers are not automatically saved because their parents are saved. They don’t automatically have faith because their parents have faith, but they do have the promise of God given to Abraham and renewed throughout the history of the old covenant and into the new covenant.

We are the people of the covenant. Zacharias extols this covenant. He exclaims that God has remembered the oath He swore to our father Abraham so that we might be delivered from the hand of our enemies and serve Him without fear. Do you remember the Exodus? What was God’s message to Pharaoh? “Let My people go, just so that they can be free, just so that they can do their own thing?” No! “Let My people go, that they can come out and worship Me at my holy mountain.”

We who have enjoyed the Exodus brought by one greater than Moses, having received the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham, are rescued from our enemies for the purpose of serving the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him.

In Tabletalk Magazine, we always have a section called Coram Deo, which is an application of the daily study to your lives. It’s a Latin phrase that was central to the Reformation. It means, “in the presence of God.” It means that every Christian is to live his or her life aware that he or she is living before the face of God, in His presence, under His authority, to His glory, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our lives. Let’s pray.

Father, how we thank You for this glorious promise that You swore to Abraham and repeated through the prophets and to David, coming down to the new promise of Jesus that You have fulfilled perfectly. We thank You, God, that there are two immutable things that make it impossible for You to lie: Your promise and Your oath that confirmed it. Thank you for Your promises. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.