The Benedictus, Zacharias’ hymn of praise, is a celebration of God’s unfailing promise of redemption. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke to consider how the birth of Jesus fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham.
We will continue this morning with our study of St. Luke’s gospel and the Benedictus of Zacharias. We’ve looked at the first two sections of it in previous sermons, and now we will look at the third and final section of this great hymn. As I did in the last two sermons, I will be reading the hymn in its entirety, 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.
Again, I remind you that the Holy Ghost inspired this song of Zacharias, and its inclusion in sacred Scripture came by the same Spirit’s superintendence and inspiration. It is objectively, really, and eternally the very Word of God, whose truth you can rely on all your days. Please receive it as such. Let’s pray:
Our Father, as we contemplate this final section of the Benedictus, we ask that by Your Spirit we might understand the depths and riches of the content in it, that we may embrace with our minds, hearts, and souls the good news declared therein. For we ask these things in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Prophetic Silence Broken
We might say that this final section of the Benedictus gives us the gospel in a nutshell, as John’s father prophesies about his son and about his son’s ministry for the Son of God. Let’s look in verse 76:
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.
You might remember from looking at the ministry of John the Baptist that the work of prophecy ceased after the work of Malachi, the last of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. The voice of prophecy was silent in Israel for four hundred years.
When we look at ancient history generally and scriptural history particularly, we have a tendency to telescope together various portions of time. We think that, in the Old Testament, miracles happened on every page, and prophets could be found appearing from behind every bush. A more careful study, however, shows that there were concentrated periods of time in Old Testament history containing an outbreak of miracles.
During the time of Moses, the mediator of the old covenant and the giver of the law of God, there was a whirlwind of miraculous activity around him. Later we see the outbreak of miracles in the ministry of Elijah, who stands at the front of a long list of Old Testament prophets.
For the most part, however, there was very little miraculous activity after the prophets until the coming of Christ, where once again there was a marvelous outpouring of miracles, heralding the earthly ministry of our Lord. These miracles were given by God to certify the Law with Moses, to certify the Prophets with Elijah and his successors, and above all, to attest, authenticate, and certify the messianic ministry of God’s only begotten Son.
A New Prophet Foretold
After years of prophetic voices being given to the people of Israel, where the Word of God was announced by Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and all the rest, there was not a word from God for four hundred years. Many people believed that the voice of prophecy had been silenced forever, yet students of the Old Testament prophecy knew that some prophecies foretold a time where one would rise up like Moses.
In the last prophecy of the last prophet in the Old Testament, in the book of Malachi, we read these words:
Remember the law of Moses, My servant,
Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel,
With the statutes and the judgments.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:4–6).
Beloved, that was the last prophecy of the Old Testament, where Malachi said, “The day of the Lord is coming, but before it comes, I will send my prophet Elijah.” Remember, Elijah did not die but was carried up bodily into heaven by chariots of fire. Because of this prophecy, the Jews look forward to the return of Elijah every time they celebrate the Passover, even to this very day. At the table of celebration, there is a chair that always sits empty with no one in it. If you were to go and visit Jewish friends at that time and ask them, “Why this empty chair?” they would say, “That chair is for Elijah, because God promised that he will come back.”
We see this prophecy fulfilled in the unfolding of the New Testament record and the teaching of our Lord Himself, as He says of John the Baptist, “This is Elijah, who was to come.” This is the one who comes in the spirit and the power of Elijah, and in this prophetic hymn of Zacharias he says: “And you, child, you will be called the prophet of the Highest, the prophet of the supreme God, and your task will be to go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way.”
It is also part of the prophecy of Isaiah that in the future, before the Messiah would come, this forerunner, anointed by God to restore the voice of prophecy, would appear and cry to the people, “Prepare the path of the Lord, make straight His roads—be ready when He comes.” Under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Zacharias prophesies that his son will fulfill that Old Testament prophecy. John will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Together with the Messiah, he will undertake the task to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of sins and the tender mercy of our God.
The Knowledge of Salvation
So, what is the mission? The mission is to inform people. It is to give them knowledge. We sometimes think that the purpose of Jesus’ coming was to do miracles, to heal the sick and so on—and He certainly did that. Or we think His purpose was to buy our salvation through His atonement, and that’s certainly true. Jesus’ earthly ministry, however, just like John’s, began with preaching, with proclamation, with the announcement of the gospel.
Early on, the gospel wasn’t called the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was called the gospel of the kingdom of God. Jesus called His hearers to learn, to gain knowledge. He didn’t set up a university and give courses in systematic theology. It was a particular kind of knowledge that our Lord and His predecessor were commissioned to give: it was the knowledge of salvation.
Suppose a prophet walked into your church on a Sunday morning, picked you out of the congregation, and said to you: “Tell me what you know about salvation. What is it? What’s it all about? Is this just some kind of religious concept that drips from our lips in our pious language? What is the content of salvation?” How would you answer that question? How confident are you at this very moment that you understand what salvation is and, more importantly, whether you possess it?
In its rudimentary meaning, the biblical idea of salvation indicates the idea of being rescued from some impending disaster, spared from some catastrophe, saved from defeat in battle, or from a life-threatening disease. Those were only proximate meanings of salvation, meanings of salvation in the lower sense of the word. The ultimate biblical meaning of salvation, however, was to experience rescue, not from disease, not from poverty, not from military defeat—but from God.
Salvation From What?
Several years ago, I spoke at a bookseller’s convention. There were six or seven thousand booksellers and publishers in a convention site, and they asked me to give the plenary address. So, I gave a message titled, “Saved from What?” I explained to the people there what salvation meant. I thought I was running the risk of insulting their intelligence, as these people were engaged in Christian publishing. If anybody in the world should have a knowledge of salvation, these people should have had it. I believed was carrying coals to Newcastle telling these people about salvation. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a response in all my life like I had that day after I told those people that we are saved from God.
Ten years later, I still have people from that convention coming up to me and saying, “I never thought about that before.” How can you not think about it? Well, the culture in which we live— and even the church of our day—tell us that God saves everybody. There’s nothing to fear. Who needs to be saved from God? We need to be saved from illnesses, we need to be saved from our enemies, we need to be saved from everything in the world except God. What is there to fear from God?
I’ll tell you what there is to fear from God: His unmitigated wrath. There’s no worse catastrophe that could ever befall you than to fall into the hands of the living God while you’re still in your sin.
This knowledge of salvation is being announced of reconciliation between God and mankind. What is the absolute necessary condition for reconciliation? What must happen before any reconciliation can ever take place? Before reconciliation can take place, there first must be estrangement. People who aren’t estranged don’t ever need to be reconciled. They would be at ease in Zion.
We have calluses on our souls, and we think we’re not estranged from God: “I don’t have anything against Him. Why do I need to be reconciled?” I’ll tell you why: in your natural state, you’ve declared war on Him. Your natural human proclivity, the natural tendency of your soul, is enmity against God. You consider Him your personal enemy.
Whenever we declaw God and describe Him as a “higher being” or some cosmic force, there’s nothing to fear. But there is something to fear when we talk about the God of the Bible who is personal and holds every one of us accountable for our lives, and who tells us that we will experience everlasting damnation if we never repent and come to Christ.
Even in our culture today, it’s okay if we speak vaguely about God in general terms. Let a football player announce to the public that he’s a disciple of Jesus Christ, however, and watch the hostility explode. You can talk about God, but when you get to Jesus, you’re down to the ultimate issue. If you are not in Christ, you’re not reconciled. You’re still at war. If you don’t believe that war is real, read the newspaper. You don’t have to read any further than the sports page.
The Unspeakable Joy of Salvation
Zacharias’ song goes on to give us more of the content of the knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the remission of their sins. For cancer patients, there’s usually no better news than when the doctor tells them, “Your disease is in remission.” That means it’s gone away. It doesn’t always stay away. We know the crushing disappointment people experience when it comes back. But with the remission of sins, beloved, it never comes back. When God forgives sinners, He forgives them forever.
I knew no theology the night I became a Christian. I listened to a friend talk to me about Jesus as if He were real, as if my friend had a personal relationship with Him. I’d never heard anything like that in my life, but as I listened, I knew. I got my first knowledge of salvation, and then I went to my college dormitory room, walked in the room, turned out the light, got on my knees before the bed, and the only thing I could say was, “God, forgive me of my sins.”
In that moment, I experienced unspeakable joy. My soul was flooded with the absolute assurance that every sin I had ever committed and would commit was forgiven in that moment. It was then that I experienced salvation, which was the most decisive and defining moment of my entire life.
Nobody can have their sins remitted and remain the same. That is why, when we come to worship on the Lord’s Day, we come not just to worship, but to praise and thank God for what He has done for us. I hope that every person in the pews has known the joy of their salvation and that their sins have been fully and finally forgiven—but I would guess that is nowhere near the truth. There might be many people in the pews at church each Sunday who have no knowledge of salvation, who have never known that their sins have been forgiven.
God’s Tender Mercy
This gets to the doctrine of justification by faith. The heart and soul of our justification includes, at its very core, the remission of our sins. But how does it happen? Listen to what the song says: “Through”—that is, the means, the how of forgiveness of sins—“the tender mercy of our God.” Theologically, we talk about being justified by grace through faith because of Christ, and that’s true. In Zacharias’ song, the remission of sins comes through the mercy of God.
The forgiveness of sins is not something that you merit. It’s not something that you strive to achieve. You can’t make up for your sins by works of righteousness. That is the worst myth ever perpetrated in the church. If you want to go on a fool’s errand, chase the hope of redeeming yourself by your own achievements. If any activity were doomed to failure, it would be that.
The only way you can know salvation, the only way you can have the remission of sins, is through the mercy of God. It’s not through the justice of God, it’s through the mercy of God. Notice how the mercy of God is described in this passage under the influence of the Holy Spirit. I can’t just pass over this: “Through the tender mercy of God.”
You can get stopped by a policeman on the highway and receive just a warning. Instead of giving you justice and the ticket you deserve, he says, “I’ll let you go this time,” but with a scowl. You received mercy, but it wasn’t very tender.
Years ago, I did a seminar on marriage for women, and I went through an exercise with them. I said: “Imagine the opportunity to have a mail order husband, just like you order a car, with all the exact accessories that you want from your car dealer. You get to order the husband of your dreams. Write down the most important characteristics and attributes that this man would have.” So, all these ladies wrote down all the special characteristics that they wanted from a husband.
Once they finished, we tallied them all up, and two things stood out. The two things that they wanted more than anything else in a man were a man who was strong and a man who was tender. They didn’t want a strong man who was harsh. They didn’t want a strong man who was a bully. They also didn’t want to marry a mouse. They wanted to marry a man, but they wanted in that strength, in that manhood, to find tenderness—every woman’s dream.
The husband of the church is the strong and mighty Jesus, whose mercy is tender. When God forgave me of my sins, the mercy that He poured out on my soul that night was sweet, gentle, and tender. That’s how the mercy of God functions.
The Sun of Righteousness
The text continues:
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us.
I’ve mentioned before how many multitudes of titles for Jesus the Scriptures contain. In the last sermon, we looked at the title, “The horn of salvation in the house of David.” In this same song is another title for Jesus: “The Dayspring from on high.”
In the Greek, the word for “Dayspring” is anatolē, which means the breaking of the dawn when the sun rises. The dayspring is that moment where the night retreats, the shadows fall away, and the lights come on in the morning dawn. That is what is described in this text as a title for Jesus.
Going back again to Malachi, he said that when the day of the Lord comes, when Elijah will return, the Sun—not S-O-N, but S-U-N—of Righteousness will arise with healing in His wings. That’s the Dayspring from on high, the Rising Sun who visits us. The first sermon in which we looked at this, we spent the whole sermon on the concept God’s visitation, and here it comes again. At the end of the song, we are visited by the Sun of Righteousness.
When that Sun rises, when the Dayspring appears, what happens? He gives light to those who sit in darkness. He gives light to those who are in the shadow of death, light that makes it possible for us to see where our feet are going, into the way of peace—remission of sins, the knowledge of salvation, the tender mercy of God, the Sun of Righteousness coming amid darkness and the shadow of death.
The song ends with this footnote: “So, the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts until the day of his epiphany, till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” The desert was the traditional meeting place between man and God. In the desert, where Elijah fled for refuge, was fed by the ravens, and lived in a cave, John will live on wild locusts and honey.
This child, John, grows stronger until the summons comes to him saying, “Now, prepare the way of the Lord!” What a song! There is so much there that you can’t do justice in three sermons. We have just scratched the surface. Read it again and again for your soul’s edification. Let’s pray.
Thank you, O Lord, for these words of promise, for the salvation that has come for the remission of our sins through the experience of your tender mercy. We thank you that you have not been harsh with us, that even when you convict us of our sins, there’s a certain sweetness to it that makes us able to accept it and turn from our wicked ways. Thank you for this great gospel that is ours. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.