The Lord's Day Morning
January 18, 2009
“The Covenant of Grace with Abraham, Fulfilled”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Dr. Derek Thomas: Let every creature in heaven and earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them say, “To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might, forever and ever.” Let us worship God.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, our God, Lord Jesus Christ: we worship You. We worship You in all the glory and majesty of who You are and who You have revealed and disclosed Yourself to be. We mingle our praises at the outset of our worship with the voices of angels and archangels, and cherubim and seraphim, and the church triumphant on the other side.
We thank You for the gospel. We thank You for the sweet assurance that in Christ alone there is forgiveness of all of our sins. We thank You, O Lord, for justification. We thank You for adoption into the household and family of God. We thank You for the certainty that we shall be with You for all eternity. We thank You this morning that we enter into an aspect of that even as we worship You this morning, mingling our voices with the church on the other side.
We are pilgrims passing through this world. Come down, O Lord, and mingle among us, walk among us, by Your Spirit. Minister to us. May Your word come home to us this morning–the word sung, and the word preached, and the word prayed, and the word made visible in the sacrament of baptism. We thank You, O gracious God, that You called us into fellowship with Yourself. Now bless us, we pray. We ask it all in Jesus' name. Amen.
Dr. Duncan: …with me to Luke, chapter one. We’ll begin in verse 67 today as we begin to make our way through the Gospel of Luke. Last Lord's Day, as we were looking at the response to this remarkable scene at the circumcision of John, we ended with the question that was being asked by all those who were gathered and living around, and those who were in the hill country of Judea. The question that they were asking about John, this boy who had been born into the family of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who we will one day know as John the Baptist, and they ask of him in verse 66, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’ And in large measure that question is going to be answered in the song, the prophecy, the prayer of praise of Zechariah in verses 68-79. In fact, let me walk you through that passage so that you see something of what Zechariah does.
In verses 68-71, he explains how the birth of John the Baptist, his son, relates to the larger purposes of God's redemption. Then in verses 72-75, he shows how the birth of John (and even more importantly, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom John would point) fulfills God's promises made to Abraham in the covenant of grace. And then in verses 76-79, he gets around to specifically answering the questions that had been asked by those gathered at the circumcision and by those in the hill country of Judea, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’ He says this child will turn out to be a prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way of the Lord, and even describes what will be the heart, the core, of John's message in his life and ministry. And so he gives those answers in this song.
Now we said that in the first two chapters of Luke there are five songs, and this is one of those songs. We've seen Elizabeth and Mary's songs, and now we come to Zechariah's song when his mouth is opened and his heart pours forth blessing and praise to God. This is the content of the blessing which he pours forth.
Now of course, in the context of what Luke is doing in Luke 1 and 2, everything is leading up to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything's pointing to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, but along the way, even as Luke's central focus is to focus us on Jesus Christ — who He is, what He's come to do — he also teaches us much about living the Christian life, and so we’ll learn both of those things as we study this passage together today.
Now let's pray before we read God's word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the Scriptures. Thank You that You have given them to us to equip us for every good work. Thank You that You have made them profitable for reproof and correction, and for instruction in righteousness. Thank You that in them You reveal the way of salvation which is through faith in Jesus Christ. Thank You, O Lord, that Your Scripture is not a dead word, but living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and that it pierces into the very deepest parts of our souls. We ask then that by Your Holy Spirit You would open our eyes to see what the word really is and what it says; that you would open our ears to hear and to accept it; and that You would open our hearts to believe and obey it. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word, beginning in Luke 1:67:
“And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
‘Blessed be 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 from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember His holy covenant,
the oath that 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 our days.
And you, child, will be called the
prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to
prepare His ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to His people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
“And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
We have asked the question both of Mary's response and song and Elizabeth's response and song…we have asked ourselves the question, were we in their shoes, what would we say had such an announcement been made to us…had God done such a thing for us? And we ask that same question of ourselves pertaining to Zechariah. Were we in Zechariah's shoes, what would we say had the announcement been given to us that our child, our son, had been chosen in the providence of God to be the Elijah that would go before the Messiah, to be the one who would prepare His people for the coming of the long awaited one? What would we say? How would we publicly respond to that blessing?
Well, we saw last week that when Zechariah's mouth was finally opened that the first thing that came out of his mouth was praise to God. He blessed God with his tongue. For nine long months he had been silent, he had been mute, he had been dumb, he had been unable to speak. And finally his tongue is loosed, and what does he do? He praises God. Well, Luke tells you what the content of that praise was, and it's pretty extraordinary. One of the things that strikes me is that had I been told that my son was going to be the greatest man that had ever been born of women, save the Messiah, and had I been told that my son was going to be the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, I would have gone on a book tour! There would have been TV interviews, and I would have been telling them how I did it all, and it would have all been about him and me. And one of the things that strikes you as you read this story is that just like we saw Elizabeth's humility reflect itself in John, so also we see the humility of Zechariah reflect itself in John. The first thing that Zechariah wants to talk about is the Lord's salvation. The second thing that he wants to talk about in this song is about how what God is doing is fulfilling a 2,000 year old promise. Then and only then does he get to the third thing that he wants to talk about, and that is what the role of his son is going to be. And when he describes the role of his son, it's all about pointing to Jesus. Just as Elizabeth had pointed to the Savior in her response to Mary, so Zechariah describes his son's ministry as pointing to the Savior. So let's walk through the three glorious parts of The Benedictus, of the song of blessing sung by Zechariah, and see what we can learn about our God and about our Savior, and about our salvation, and about the way that we are to walk in daily life.
I. Praise to God for fulfilling His promise to redeem His people.
The first thing I want you to see is this. Zechariah makes it very clear that John the Baptist's, his son's, life and work and ministry and message is going to be set in the context of the unfolding plan of redemption which the Lord himself is accomplishing.
The first thing that comes out of his mouth (look at verses 68-71) is this: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” It's all about God. See the God-centeredness of this song:
“Blessed be 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.”
In other words, Zechariah is saying to all of those people who were saying, ‘What is this child going to turn out to be? What…? Surely this child has a special role in life. Surely this boy is a very, very unique boy, and he's going to do great things.’ The first thing that Zechariah wants them to know is that it is God who is doing great things. It's God who has visited His people. It's God who is accomplishing their redemption. It's all about God. Yes, his son will be a faithful servant of the Lord. Yes, his son will be used mightily by the Lord to turn the fathers’ hearts back to their children, and to cause the people of God to repent and have their hearts prepared for the coming of the Messiah. But the first thing that Zechariah wants all of us to see is that John is just a part of, he's a piece of, a larger thing that's going on; and that larger thing that is going on is that God is preparing to visit His people in the person of His own Son, the Messiah, and He's going to accomplish redemption for His people. In other words, Zechariah wants some perspective put on John's uniqueness. Yes, he's unique. Yes, he's called of the Lord. Yes, he's going to be a prophet of the Lord. But he's only a part of something bigger.
Now it strikes me that there's something for us to learn in the Christian life from that. I understand that John's unique and that the role that he has in redemptive history is unique. Jesus didn't say that never had a greater been born of women about but one person — about John. I understand that he's unique. But it seems to me that there's something, there's a point of contact between you and me by which we can learn from what Zechariah does in this prophecy. He says that we have to understand John in the context of something bigger: God's redeeming work, God's plan of salvation. Isn't that true for all of us, that we need to understand our persons, our lives, our work, our ministry, our mission in life, the reason that we're on the planet earth…we need to understand that in light of something bigger than just ourselves, bigger than just our talents and bigger than just our desires in the things that we want to accomplish in life? There is something much bigger than that, and it is God's purposes. And even as he begins this song with a God-centeredness that points us away from John and to God, and to what God is doing, so also that's the very context in which all of us must live, realizing that our lives are about something bigger than just ourselves, and bigger than just our families. Our lives are about the kingdom of God displayed in all the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we are to bear witness to Him in all that we say and do. That's why Jesus can say that if you’re not ready to leave your father and mother and your sister and brother and to follow Me, you’re not worthy of Me, because Jesus is bigger than those things. Even as He wants us to care deeply about our families and to love them as He has loved us, so also He wants us to value His kingdom and His person more than anything else. There's a God-centeredness about Zechariah's song here that teaches us the kind of God-centered lives that we're to live.
II. The Messiah's coming is the fulfillment of prophecy given to Abraham.
But there's a second thing as well that I want you to see, and you see it in verses 72-75. The second thing that Zechariah wants us to understand is this. Before we get to knowing what this boy is going to do and what God is going to accomplish through him, Zechariah wants you to understand that God is filling a two-millennia-old promise before the very eyes of those who have seen the circumcision of John the Baptist, and who will eventually see the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and His life and ministry, and that two-millennia-old promise is God's promise to Abraham.
Look at the words of verses 72-75. As Zechariah explains God's plan of redemption, he says, ‘What is God doing? He's saving us from our enemies (verse 71) “…to show (verse 72) the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham….”
Do you see what Zechariah is saying? He's saying that in the complex of events surrounding the coming of the Messiah into the world (which will of course culminate in the Messiah's death and burial and resurrection and ascension) we are seeing the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.
Now turn in your Bibles to Genesis 12. And you will remember that in Genesis 12:2, God promised to Abraham that He would bless him, that He would curse those who curse him, and that He would make him a blessing to all the families of the earth. (Genesis 12:2.) And then He reiterated this promise in Genesis 15:1, didn't He? Turn forward a couple of pages to Genesis 15:1. “Do not fear, Abram,” He said. “I am your shield and your reward will be very great.” And He reiterated in Genesis 15 His promise to make Abram a multitude of nations and to be a God to him and to his seed after him, and to give him a land of his own.
And then turn forward two more chapters to Genesis 17, and He reassured Abram of this promise, changing his name to emphasize it–from Abram to Abraham–and telling him that he would make a covenant with him and his descendents after him, and that He would be his God, and Abram and his descendents would be His people, and that He would fulfill His promises to him.
Well, turn forward to Luke 1. Luke, in recording this song of Zechariah, is telling you in Luke 1:72, 73 that the coming of Jesus the Messiah into this world (and of course the coming of John, pointing to that coming of Jesus as Messiah into this world)…that the coming of Jesus as Messiah in this world was in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham: that Jesus fulfilled the covenant of grace that God had made with Abraham.
Now here's a good Sunday afternoon exercise. Go home this afternoon and look through your New Testament and see how often the writers of the New Testament relate the person and work of Jesus Christ and the gospel to the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham. It happens a bunch of times, but Luke is the Gospel writer who gets to that theme perhaps the earliest of any of them, at least in this kind of explicitness and detail. He points to this promise which in the time that it was made was almost 2,000 years old. Now it's almost 4,000 years old. It was sometime around the twentieth century before Christ, in the first part of the end of the third millennium and at the very beginning of the second millennium that God made this promise to Abraham. And here we are 4,000 years later, and we ourselves…the fact that this is a predominantly Gentile congregation, we ourselves are living proof that the promise of Abraham has come not only to the Jewish people who believe in Jesus Christ, but even to Gentiles like us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are recipients of the promises that God has made to Abraham, and Luke is telling you through the mouth of Zechariah that Jesus the Messiah in His person and in His work has brought about the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham.
In other words, Zechariah wants everyone to understand that there is something big going on here. As glorious as is the unique role that his son will play, God is about His work of redemption, and He's fulfilling a promise that is twenty centuries old by bringing first the forerunner of the Messiah and then the Messiah himself into this world.
III. The prophecy concerning John — his ministry.
Third, if you look at verses 76 and following, Zechariah gets around to answering specifically the question, ‘What is this child going to be? What role does God have for him?’ And here's how Zechariah answers it: He “…will be called the prophet of the Most High; and [he] will go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”
Now, Zechariah was already an old man when John was born, and I don't know how long he lived. It is entirely possible that Zechariah did not have the opportunity to sit his son down and train him in these things by the time his son had reached adulthood. It's entirely possible that John lost his father and his mother at very early years. I don't know; nobody does. But I do know this. When I read Luke 1:76-79, I am amazed at how the prophecy of Zechariah given when his son was eight days old charts for us precisely the content of his life and preaching ministry. Look at what he says: “He will be called the prophet of the Most High, [who] will go before the Lord to prepare His ways….” So he will have the responsibility of preparing Israel for the coming of the Lord…His coming in judgment and His coming in grace. And that means that John is going to have the responsibility of calling Israel to repentance, because Israel had strayed from her Lord and God. And John is going to have the responsibility of warning Israel against God's just judgment as he prepares the way of the Lord.
But then look at what else he says — verse 77: “…To give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins….” John's not just going to preach repentance, and he's not just going to preach judgment, he's also going to preach forgiveness of sins and the salvation that we have because of forgiveness of sins.
And then, finally, if you look at verses 78ff, “…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high….”
In other words, John's preaching of sin and repentance and of forgiveness is going to be rooted in an understanding of God's grace and in the gospel of grace and of salvation.
Notice those three things. There's going to be a message of repentance in preparation; there's going to be a message of forgiveness of sins; and, there's going to be a message of God's grace and tender mercy to His people. And when you look through the pages of the New Testament at their description of John's ministry, years later…more than twenty years, more than perhaps 25 years later after these words had been spoken, you find that Zechariah's prophecy is fulfilled perfectly.
Turn forward in your Bibles to Luke 3, and look at verse 4. This is how Luke describes John:
He came preaching, and fulfilled what was “written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every ravine shall be filled up, every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked will become straight, the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’’”
And notice his words of judgment against the leaders of Israel (verse 7): “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” So there is strong preaching against sin, there is a strong call to repentance, and there is a preparing of the way of the Lord, just as his father had prophesied.
But there is also a beautiful promise of the forgiveness of sins that God holds out in Jesus Christ. Look back at verse 3 of Luke 3. He came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And it's even better than that. You remember how John puts it? In the Gospel of John, when Jesus comes out into the wilderness where John is ministering, what does John say? “Behold! The Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.” So John not only preached God's impending and just judgment and the necessity of repentance, he pointed people to the forgiveness of sins that came only through Jesus Christ, and he understood that behind all of this were God's promises of mercy. Why? Well, because somewhere along the line he learned the truth which his father Zechariah unfolded for us in Luke 1:68-79.
Now I want to pause and think with you for a second about John's preaching, because John's preaching has often been characterized as hard preaching — preaching that crushed sinners, challenged sin, demanded repentance, demanded response.
I was with John MacArthur a couple of years ago, and he was talking about some of the principles that have guided his own preaching, and one of the things that he shared with us was this. He said, “It is my conviction that soft preaching makes hard hearts.” Soft preaching makes hard hearts. Now what he meant by that was preaching that refused to take seriously our sin and to address us in our sinfulness and in our need of repentance, and in our need for grace. So much of the preaching of our own time is characterized by that.
So often we hear preachers say, “I don't want to talk about sin.” And, my friends, I understand that. I don't want to talk about it either! I'd rather talk about something else, but soft preaching makes hard hearts. And John's ministry is a glorious example of how faithful preaching makes soft hearts, because faithful preaching brings us face to face with our own sin and our own need for grace and forgiveness, and the provision of that grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ alone and in the gospel as we trust in Him. And it makes soft hearts…those who know their own sin and who know God's grace to them are far more ready to forgive others who have sinned against them than those who have heard soft preaching which never addresses the hard reality of what sin can do to us and to others and to what it does to our relationship with God.
We should want faithful preaching that makes our heart soft under the gospel, because in the end the only kind of preaching that will enable us to magnify the grace of God is the kind of preaching that is willing to address the hard issues of our own hearts. It's us. We’re the problem. It's the sin in our heart that needs to be dealt with. And until you've been brought face to face with that in preaching, you’re very ready to find the speck in others’ eyes because you can't see the log in your own. And that's why John's ministry is such a blessing to us, because he refuses to let us get away without seeing the log in our own eye, so that, having it removed, we can then look to the grace of the Savior and find forgiveness of sins.
Heavenly Father, Your grace is marvelous, but we can't see that until we see our own sin. Help us then, having seen our sin, to bless God even as Zechariah did, for the marvelous grace of our loving Lord. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.