RPM, Volume 17, Number 40, September 27 to October 3, 2015

Covenant Salvation

Luke 1:76-79

By D. Marion Clark


Parents, do you remember when your children were born wondering what they would become when they grew up? Perhaps you had, and still have, dreams for them. A favorite proverb in America is that any child born in our country has the potential of becoming the President of the United States. Perhaps one of our babies will become famous — a movie star or singer; maybe an astronaut or inventor; maybe even a quarterback for the Gators! Who knows the heights?

Zechariah had not merely dreams, but guarantees about his son John. He would become the prophet foretold in the scriptures who would prepare the way for the Messiah. No less than the angel Gabriel told him of this, as recorded in Luke 1:14-17:

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

I mentioned prophecy. Note the last sentence:

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

Now listen to this OT passage:

Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers."

This prophecy is found in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6.

Did you make the connection? A new Elijah is to come and prepare the way for the Lord by turning the hearts of fathers and children to love and justice.

John is to be that new Elijah. Jesus would say as much in their adult years:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John:
"What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.' 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Matthew 11:7-15).

Let's turn to our text to see further what Zechariah has to say about both John and Jesus. The first two verses speak of John's work:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,

John is to be a prophet. When we think of prophet, we tend to think of a fortune teller. The primary feature of biblical prophets was not so much telling the future, as it was delivering a message from God. Their messages often did include foretelling future events, but even then their focus was to lead the people to repentance and commitment to God. In a very real sense, they were the forerunners of Christian preachers; they proclaimed the word of the Lord. John was such a preacher. His pulpit was the Jordan River and other places in the desert. He turned out to be such a powerful preacher, people would travel into desert region to hear him preach.

But even among the prophets John is to stand out, for it will be his task to prepare the way for the Messiah: you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. As we have already seen, Zechariah is merely quoting from earlier prophets. How then is John to prepare the way for the Lord? By getting the people to prepare their hearts to receive him.

Zechariah speaks of "knowledge of salvation" and "forgiveness of sins." Here is what he is probably thinking of, certainly what was the common understanding. The Jews looked for the Messiah to come to save them from what? We've already spoken of this: from their enemies. They understood that the reason they had been conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and now the Romans is because of their own sin. They knew the covenant conditions. God would take care of them as long as they did their part of obeying his law. For the Messiah to come, therefore, they must do their part of repentance and turning to God in obedience. The Pharisees understood this. Their mission was to turn the hearts of the Jewish people back to God's Law. How could they expect God's favor without demonstrating their earnestness? So John's preparation work was to prepare hearts.

Let's listen to him years later in his mission. Luke tells us, he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3). Here is a sampling of his preaching:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (3:7-9).

That doesn't seem like winsome preaching. But he did get results. The people asked him what they should do. He responded:

Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise." 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13 And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages" (3:11-14).

In other words, change your ways. Follow the laws of God to be compassionate and just.

Integral to John's ministry was baptism, an unusual activity for a prophet. His baptisms went in hand with his preaching of repentance. By getting baptized, the people were making a public statement about the changes they were making, much in the same way that people go down the aisle at a revival meeting or get baptized at "the river."

John also told about Jesus.

I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17).

John is a dramatic speaker, isn't he? And he is a fierce one. For a man whose message is to proclaim salvation, he does seem to be overly harsh and even threatening. There is a reason. The coming of the Messiah was to be a day of salvation and judgment. Those, whose hearts are prepared would be saved, those whose hearts are not will be the chaff thrown into the fire. Now that is a sobering message! Yes, there is to be forgiveness of sins but only for those who prepared their hearts by repentance. If enough repent, then the nation will be delivered from her enemies, though the unrepentant can expect judgment.

So John is to become a prophet preparing the people to receive the Messiah. Zechariah has words for him as well.

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Now that is eloquent language. Salvation and the forgiveness of sins shall come because of God's tender mercy for his people. Out of that mercy will come the Sunrise who gives light to those dwelling darkness and to lead them out into the way of peace.

What beautiful language. Of course, it is plagiarized! He took it from the most eloquent prophet of them all — Isaiah.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined (Isaiah 9:1-2).

Isaiah then goes on a few verses down to explain that this light is the child that is born to us. Later in chapter 55 he pens these great words:

10 "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 "For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace (55:10-12).

John — Jesus' disciple, not the Baptist — says that the Word did come and was the Light that broke into the darkness. He says,

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light (John 1:6-8).

John did his job. He prepared the way for the Messiah, the Word of God made flesh, the Light that broke into the darkness that sin had brought on to the world. And Jesus did his job. He did shine on the world; he turned the cross into a beacon of light, and, like the sun rising in the dawn, he rose from the grave to become the Light of Life. He made peace between God and man, peace between enemies, even peace within troubled hearts. That is the Christmas story.


Looking back, I wonder if even John understood fully Jesus' mission? Once, he even sent disciples to ask Jesus if he truly was the Messiah? This is after he had proclaimed Jesus to be the one. Being thrown in jail perhaps had something to do with his doubt. Perhaps he was wondering when the deliverance from enemies was going to happen.

Whatever the case, I think if he were here now he would say to us not to make the same mistake that the people of his time did, which was to misunderstand what they were to be saved from.

If we thought like they did, here is how we would understand the gospel: I have troubles in my life. I've messed up and I have gotten myself into a deep pit. I need help to get out. I will turn to Jesus. I know first that I need to change my ways. I will promise to be a better person, and I will give God the glory from now on. I know God is merciful and he won't turn me away. After all, that is why Jesus came.

That kind of thinking misses the gospel completely, although it is the way most people think. It is the old covenant way of thinking. I do my part, then God will do his part. The new covenant way of salvation goes like this: My enemy is me; my troubles are my sins; the pit that I have dug is the pit of my condemnation. As to changing my ways, I know that it is hopeless to do so. I can promise God nothing. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It is by that attitude alone that we prepare the way of the Lord into our hearts. As long as you have in mind another goal besides your own salvation, even that salvation is lost to you. If your real hope from repentance is getting on your feet financially, or getting your family restored, or some other improvement in your circumstance, then the hope of salvation is still beyond your grasp. It is not wrong to want these other things and very often they will occur. But they occur because you finally get in order what matters, and because the Spirit does not bring salvation without causing change in you. And how you behave is usually the chief cause of your troubles.

Keep before you that what will matter for eternity is your standing before God now. However good or bad life may seem now on earth, it will end; your life afterwards lasts forever. Keep before you that the relationship that really does last for eternity is the one you have with God. How is that relationship now? And don't fool yourself about it. Jesus said that he came to heal the sick, to save the lost. He did not mean that there were some who did not need the salvation he brought. He was talking to the good moral people when he said it, and he meant for them to understand that everyone suffers mortal illness and need his healing touch; everyone wanders in the dark and need his guiding light. To think that you only need a little help only shows how far your spiritual illness has progressed. But also to think that your real problem is to get out of bad circumstances also shows the advance condition of your sickness.

Whether we have lived relatively good moral lives or we have to admit our failures, we need to understand that Jesus Christ came into this world to save lost sinners, including each of us. Let me close with the story of two men who came to see me within a week's time in my previous church. Tom came, broken over his failure to be faithful to his wife. He had a single incident of sexual unfaithfulness and he was distraught over his action and the affect it would have on his marriage. I presented the gospel to him and even led him in prayer to receive Christ as his Savior. Frank came trying to take advantage of an evangelistic outreach we were having by offering his acting services. I presented the gospel to him. Not then, but a couple of weeks later, he prayed to receive Christ. I don't know what happened to Tom. I think things worked out in his marriage, but he did not stay in touch. Frank's life turned around; he continued to struggle to make a living, but his faith in Christ grew only stronger. You see, Tom got what he really wanted — a restored marriage. Frank discovered what he had really been wanting — a restored relationship with his God. There are no guarantees, but most likely Tom could have had it all. What he has now, I don't know.

No one knows the future circumstances of their lives. We can all fall, and we can all rise in the fortunes of life. Jesus came to give us one guarantee that cannot be lost whatever the circumstance. He came to give us the one gift we can do nothing to earn. That gift and guarantee is our salvation. Funny how it is at once easy and hard to receive. It is easy to receive, because receiving is all that we must do. It is hard because receiving is the only thing we must do. We cannot bargain for it, nor can we exploit it to get something else. It is given on God's own terms.

If you have received it, then what better time than Christmas to ponder its great value and give thanks. If you have yet to receive it, what better time than now, during the season in which we celebrate the birth of our Savior, to call upon the name of Jesus Christ and receive his gift of eternal life. By God's mercy is extended to you the forgiveness of your sins, the salvation of Jesus Christ.

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