RPM, RPM Volume 17, Number 39, September 20 to September 26, 2015

Covenant Service

Luke 1:73-75

By D. Marion Clark


We have been using Zechariah to give us insight into how Christ's birth can be viewed through a Jewish perspective. We are doing this, not simply because it is interesting to consider how different types of people bring new perspective to Jesus. We do it, because it is in a distinctly Jewish context that the first Christmas occurred. Jews today regard Christmas as a Gentile Christian event, and with all the Gentile cultural traditions that have been added over the centuries, it has lost much of its Jewish character. The result is that we miss out on some of the nuances that would enrich our appreciation for Christ's birth.

We looked first at Covenant Fulfillment, how Christ's birth fulfilled ancient prophecy and the promise God had made to his people to send the Messiah. God is a covenant keeper, and what makes Christmas more exciting is to discover that through Christ, the covenant would be extended to include peoples of all nations and races. Furthermore, God is a promise keeper, and, if he kept his promise the first time to send the Messiah, he will keep his promise to send our Lord one more time. Every Christmas should include a stirring of the hope of Christ's return, just as every Passover was intended to stir the hope of the Messiah's first coming.

We looked next at Covenant Mercy. God is a merciful God who does not give up on his covenant people. Again, what makes Christmas exhilarating is that it extends God's mercy to peoples and nations outside the first covenant. We Gentiles are like poor children peeking through the window of a mansion, watching the family children open their gifts on Christmas morning. Suddenly we find the father standing behind us. But instead of him running us off, he ushers us into the house and presents us with wonderful gifts as well. The mercy of God opens the door for us.

This morning, we consider Covenant Service. So far, Zechariah has presented marvelous news to his neighbors and relatives who have gathered for his son's circumcision and naming ceremony. Their merciful God is fulfilling his promise to send a deliverer to save them from their enemies. What he says next in our text is intended to be equally good news.


God's promise and mercy are to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our

God's people are to be delivered from their enemies so that they can serve him without fear. They will not need to fear their enemies. They may be free in order to devote themselves to God's service. Their service involves their whole being. That is why holiness and righteousness are added. Many people serve without a right spirit. A salesperson, for example, may appear to be friendly and have your interest in heart, and yet he is merely acting. After you leave, he may complain about you and boast taking advantage of you. Most people today separate service from character. A common comment is, "I am free to do what I want on my own time." That statement is usually made when their behavior is brought up as poorly reflecting the business or institution they represent.

Serving God, for a Jew, was not a matter of putting in one's time. He did not separate his religious duty from the rest of his life. He did not have the attitude that he could make an occasional sacrifice at the temple, attend synagogue services regularly, give some alms to the poor, and then the rest of his time was his to do as his pleased. All of his life was under the authority of God, whom he was to serve at all times.

He also understood that heart service mattered. Do you remember the time Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, and he replied, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30)? He did not give an original answer, but quoted a commandment already accepted by most rabbis. It was taken from Deuteronomy 6:5. This is the book, based on three speeches that Moses gave to the Israelites before they crossed into the Promised Land. A few verses down, Moses says, It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve.

All of this is to say that the reason God chose Israel to be his nation; the reason he delivered them from bondage to Egypt and led them into a land of their own was not merely a matter of feeling sorry for people reduced to slavery; freedom was not the ultimate purpose of the exodus. Freedom to serve the Lord was the Lord's purpose.

If our Declaration of Independence had been written for Israel, its famous line would read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and unencumbered service to their Creator." Understand that, as far as the Jews were concerned, the last phrase would not be considered having a different meaning than the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness." Freedom to serve their Lord is freedom to pursue happiness.

I want to take time again to read some passages to help you get into the Jewish mindset.

The first passage puts into perspective their understanding for their special place in service to God. Before God gives to Moses the Ten Commandments, he tells Moses to pass on this message to them. It explains why they are being given, not only the Ten Commandments, but all the other laws peculiar to their nation:

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 (Exodus 19:4-6).

Israel was to be a kingdom whose citizens were all priests, i.e. servants of God. As such, they together were to be a holy nation. Unsanctified service to God is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. One cannot serve God without living a holy life; nor can one serve him who does not live a just life doing what is right for one's neighbor. Again, this was to be the work of every citizen. Israel was not to be a kingdom that contained a lot of priests, a nation who had many godly people. The whole nation was to be characterized as being a people who served the Lord.

Let's go back to Deuteronomy and Moses' final instructions to the Israelites in the wilderness. Listen to what he has to say to them:

12 "And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day…20 You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven (Deuteronomy 10:12-22).

What does Yahweh require of his people? To serve him. They are not merely to acknowledge that he is God; he wants more than warm feelings towards him or a respectful attitude. He wants their lives devoted to his service. He has a claim on them. He "set his heart in love" on their fathers, to whom he promised steadfast love for their offspring. He has proven his steadfast love by delivering them from slavery, and by making them into a large nation. The commandments he is about to give them through Moses is a covenant — similar to a contract — by which he sets the terms for the service they are to render him as their Lord.

But though this service to God is very much a duty they owe him, it really is a great privilege that is to be their joy. As Moses said, "He is your praise." We've talked about this before when considering Psalm 100 and the line, "Serve the Lord with gladness." To worship the Lord is to serve him, and to serve him is to worship him. And just as worship is an act of joy and thanksgiving, so is service. Going back to our text, Zechariah rejoices that the Jews will be free to serve God properly. They long to serve him as he has commanded. Even Rome understood this. The government gave the Jews more freedom than most other nations precisely because their Law mattered so much to them. Rome might lay heavy tax burdens on the Jews, and they might complain. But to meddle with their religion such as taking the Roman emblem of an eagle onto temple grounds invited revolt.


Let's move to Jesus and the church. What is the place of service for Christians? Consider that Satan's first attack against Jesus involved the issue of service. One of the temptations in the wilderness was to lure Jesus away from serving God:

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, "'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve' " (Matthew 4:8-10).

Note the connection Jesus makes with worship and service. Note further the place given to service. Satan offers Jesus kingdoms if he would worship him. Jesus does not reply that he has his own kingdom; nor does he simply refuse allegiance to Satan as though he owes it to no one. He takes it for granted that someone must be served, and, of course, that someone must be God.

We see this assumption elsewhere: "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). We will serve a master. The alternative of serving no one is not a valid stance. The man who says, I am my own master, is under an illusion.

The apostle Paul had the same mindset. In writing to the Roman believers about using one's freedom for righteous living, he says, But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:17-18).

Now that we see the high value that service to God is given, I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first one is to exhort you to consciously serve the Lord. Be attentive to this. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but, if we are honest with ourselves, we are likely to find that we do not think about it often. Yes, we try to live right out of duty to God, but do we consciously do the activities we do out of the purpose of serving God?

How well do you serve the Lord in his church, whom he died for, who serves as her head, and prepares to be his bride? Considering how important the church is to him, what part are you playing in serving her?

How well do you serve the Lord through service to your brothers and sisters? At his last meal with his disciples, Jesus went around the table and washed the feet of his disciples. He then told them, If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you (John 13:14-15). How well are you serving those who sit in this sanctuary with you every Sunday?

How well do you serve your neighbor — the one living next to you, or who works with you or is a fellow student; or the one who bags your groceries or babysits your kids; or the one who attends practice with you or plays with you? Do you pray to God about how you may serve your neighbor? Do you look for opportunity? We often excuse ourselves from service by saying we don't know what to do. Our problem is not that we don't know what to do, but that we don't give service serious attention. As Jesus said, even giving a cup of water is good service to render (cf. Matthew 10:42).

And then, consider the wonder of Christmas, for it tells the story of how the King of Glory lowered himself to become our servant.

though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Jesus himself said, For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

Do you see how the wonder of Christmas grows as we look at it through Jewish eyes? It fulfills the covenant promise that the Messiah would come after long years of waiting. It displays the mercy of God to remain faithful not only to a people who often failed him, but even to a people who had no claim on him — us. And then the wonder grows as we find the great King Messiah fulfilling his covenant promise by becoming the Suffering Servant on our behalf, beginning with his lowly birth. As John Donne wrote, "Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high, that would have need to be pitied by thee?"

Who is like our God who glorifies himself by serving his creatures, who redeems his rebellious children, who gives hope to those who possess no claim for such hope? Who is like the Son of God who proudly bears the title of Servant? This is the wonder of Christmas.

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