RPM, Volume 17, Number 37, September 6 to September 12, 2015

Covenant Fulfillment

Luke 1:67-70

By D. Marion Clark


John the Baptist's father was a priest. His name was Zechariah. Being a priest was similar to being in the National Guard. As in Zechariah's case, he lived in his hometown making a living such as farming. Then, once a year, he would pull temple duty in Jerusalem for a couple; perhaps also he may be called to serve during special feasts. The duties of a priest varied, such as assisting in the daily sacrifices people would bring, taking care of the temple facilities, examining people for signs of leprosy, and so on. The prize duty was to offer incense in the Holy Place of the Temple. This task was chosen by lot, and one could only hope that once in his lifetime his name would be drawn. Zechariah got his turn. As he was performing his duty, the angel Gabriel appeared before him and gave him the good news that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son. Because he and his wife were old, Zechariah asked how he could be certain that Gabriel was right. This irked Gabriel — he was, after all, an angel who stood in the presence of God — and he took away Zechariah's ability to speak. Zechariah remained mute for over nine months until the day his son was born.

For the Advent season, we are going to consider what he had to say; for he gives us insight into the meaning of Christmas. The titles of the sermons give away the theme of the messages: Covenant Fullfillment, Covenant Mercy, Covenant Service, and Covenant Salvation. As we will see, Zechariah's expectations of the Messiah to come — and those of all the Jews — were founded upon their understanding of the covenant that God made with his people. As you learn about this covenant perspective, I hope you will find your understanding of Christmas more fully enriched.


Blessed be the Lord God of Israel
, for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

Our two verses are replete with expressions and images of the unique covenant between God and Israel. Let's go through them.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. In the very name by which Zechariah speaks of God, he shows that he is thinking of the covenant. God is the God of Israel. He is not limited to Israel; he is the God over all the earth; nevertheless, he has established a special relationship with Israel.

Before giving Moses the Ten Commandments, God gave him this instruction:

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel (Exodus 19:3-6).

The name "Lord God" also has significance. I mentioned last week that the word Lord often appears in the OT in capital letters as LORD. When it does, we know the Hebrew name Yahweh is the word being translated. Yahweh is the name God gave himself when Moses asked him who should he tell the Hebrews in Egypt sent him to deliver them. The answer was Yahweh, which means I Am Who I Am. It is Yahweh who gives the instruction to Moses about the covenant. You will not find that name used in the NT. Why? One reason is that the NT is written in Greek, not Hebrew. Just as in English, we translate Yahweh as Lord, so the common language of that day used its form of Lord — kyrios. That is the Greek word used here. Another reason is that the Jews avoided using the term, not out of neglect, but out of respect for the name. They avoided pronouncing the Name for fear of taking it in vain and thus breaking the commandment. Thus, though Yahweh does not appear in the NT, it is understood that most of the time this is the name indicated. Certainly, Zechariah is thinking of Yahweh, the personal name of the God of Israel.

For he has visited and redeemed his people.

When Moses went back to Egypt with his brother Aaron and told the Hebrews that God had sent them to deliver the people, their response is recorded this way:

Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped (Exodus 4:29-31).

Zechariah has witnessed a sign of his own in the birth of his son, and now he rejoices that the Lord has visited his people again and seen their affliction. The deliverance from Egypt, which Israel always looked back to as the greatest and defining act of God's deliverance, came about through a redemption, i.e. a payment. To redeem means to make payment. In the exodus, it was the Egyptians who made the payment — the lives of their firstborn. The Hebrews substituted the lives of their firstborn through sacrificing the Passover lambs. Thus the angel of death passed over them. This means of redemption is significant to God. He commanded afterwards that every firstborn son must be redeemed — i.e. an animal sacrificed for him. When the son should ask his father the meaning of the sacrifice, he was to reply:

"By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem." 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt (Exodus 13:14-16).

Has raised up a horn of salvation for us. "Horn" is a symbol of strength.

The LORD 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, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies (Psalm 18:2-3).

To say that God has raised up a horn of salvation is to say that he has raised someone mighty in power. The Jews looked to the Messiah to be this horn of salvation. From where was this deliverer to come?

In the house of his servant David. Why from David? Psalm 89 gives us insight into the Jewish expectation.

I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips
. 35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
37 Like the moon it shall be established forever,
a faithful witness in the skies (89:34-37).

The Lord made a covenant with David (cf. 1 Samuel 7) to establish his line on the throne always. The Messiah to come, thus, was expected to come from David's line. This hope is expressed in Isaiah's prophesy:

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore (9:6-7).

Do you get the picture? We modern Gentiles have to work at this a bit. Zechariah, a Jewish priest, is contemplating the coming of the Messiah. His words, his images, and his theology express the Jewish covenant mindset. And critical to that mindset was that God would fulfill his promise of sending the Messiah. Thus, Zechariah says, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.

Zechariah himself is prophesying as verse 67 indicates. But he is not making up anything new. He is declaring that his son, John, is the sign that the old prophesies are about to be fulfilled. He is Morpheus holding on to the prophesies of the oracles, thrilled that the time of their fulfillment has arrived. His son will prepare the way for the One.


What then, does this lesson on Jewish expectations have for us? For one, it ought to enrich our excitement about Christ's first coming. "Christ" is the Greek/English rendering of "Messiah." The Jews yearned for a messiah to come not merely because they were going through tough times and hoped that someone would be their hero. Their yearning was fueled by promises that such a deliverer would indeed come.

The movies of The Matrix and the movies and books of The Lord of the Rings capture the imagination of many, one reason being that they posit the idea of prophesy coming to fulfillment. Oracles have been told; it appears that they are coming to pass. Are they true, and is this the true time? As much as it seems that the signs are being fulfilled, so the dire circumstances grow worse. We grow suspenseful; when will the prophecies be realized?

That was the mood of the Jews; and if we grasp it, then we can all the more appreciate the suspense that Christ's birth brought. A great story began with the creation of Adam and Eve. They were the model of great things to come, of the human race living in the presence and blessing of God, reflecting fully his image as he intended. The Fall occurs; the image is broken and mankind falls away from their Creator. But even at the Fall, a promise is given. From the seed of Eve would come the One who would crush the head of the serpent. Ages go by; a great flood almost destroys life on earth. Yet God reserves a remnant and promises not to bring such destruction again. He gives the rainbow as a sign of his covenant with man. Times passes on. God calls a man, Abram, to dwell in a particular land. He makes a covenant with Abram to bless his descendants, but also makes the promise that somehow all nations would be blessed through Abram. What does that mean? Abraham's descendants end up in captivity in Egypt. God sends a deliverer, Moses, who promises the people, now known as the Israel, that a prophet like him will follow. Again, time goes on. Israel is now a nation with a king, David. God makes a covenant with him and promises that his line will remain on the throne forever. But the nation splits in two. David's line remains with the nation Judah. Israel, the northern kingdom, eventually collapses, then Judah. But during their years, prophets would give their warnings of judgment, but also of deliverance, some of which seemed perplexing and too incredulous. Israel would become a great nation to which other nations would pay homage. Everlasting peace would come that included the animal kingdom. The Messiah would come. He would be a king and a priest. He would bear titles reserved only for God. He would restore the throne to the house of David. Indeed, he would be a greater David ruling over an everlasting, peaceful empire. Clues to him appear. He would originate from Bethlehem, though make his appearance in Galilee. He would be born of a virgin. Another prophet Elijah would appear to prepare his coming.

And now, in some village in Judah, an obscure priest looks at his eight day old son, and pronounces him as that prophet. The prophecies are coming true; the prophecies have come true. Christmas is the proclamation that the prophecies of Scripture were true.

Consider how their fulfillment is greater than most of the Jews expected. The nations have been blessed through Abraham, not in some indirect manner, but through the wondrous mystery that peoples of all nations would know the Messiah as belonging to them. These covenants and promises made in the OT are our covenant promises. We are like spectators who a great drama of another nation or world unfold, only to find ourselves swept up into the story. The prophesies include us; amazingly they are fulfilled for us.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10-12).

We tend to miss how amazing this concept is. Christmas, the coming of the Messiah, supposedly should have been only good news for the Jews. The hardest preconception for the apostles to get rid of was the idea that the good news was also for Gentiles. But we are included. In Christ, we are the covenant people, the inheritors of the covenant promises. They are not restricted to one nation, but extended to people of all nations.

This is one of the two elements that give the prophecies their surprise ending. What is the other element? That the story has a sequel. The Messiah, for all that he did when he first came, has still to complete his work. The prophesies have yet to be completely fulfilled. The Messiah is to return one more time; then creation itself will be restored, and all who believe and follow the Messiah since his first coming will themselves be restored to the image of God as they were meant to be.

We followers of Christ — both Jew and Gentile — also anticipate the fulfillment of prophecy. Every Christmas should stir in us yearnings for the Christ's next coming. Did you know that the season of Advent was created for just such a purpose? Just as the Jews yearned for a savior to free them from bondage, so we should yearn for our Savior to return and free us from the troubles of this world. We should long for consummation of God's Kingdom, the time in which all that is promised for a new heaven and earth, where peace reigns, sin and death cease to exist, and God dwells among us.

We should yearn for another Christmas where instead of God the Son comes to dwell in our world, he recreates it; where, instead of his taking on our likeness, we take on his. It will mark, not the birth of the Messiah, but the rebirth of the world and of ourselves.

Christmas should be a time to renew that longing. As time passes, we too easily fall into the sleep of the world which dulls this longing. Indeed, we often live no differently than if the prophesies were mere dreams. We live as though this world is all that exists. We may be a bit more moral; we profess faith in God, but if truth be told, we find it hard to believe that this world will ever be different than what it is now.

Brothers and sisters, God kept his promise the first time, and he will keep it again. He made a covenant with his people, and he did not fail to keep it. Now that he has made an even greater covenant, all the more we can trust him to keep that one. If he would send his Son to die for rebels; surely he will send him again to gather his children. If he would keep his promise to die on a cross; surely he will keep his promise to reign on a throne.

This Christmas, when you celebrate in your homes by recounting the birth of Christ, include the promises that he will return. Instill in your children a yearning to see prophecy fulfilled. You don't need to read Left Behind; you can simply read the promises of the Word. Simply read the promises of Christ himself.

"Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going" (John 14:1-4).
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