My goal this morning is to help us see how Zechariah’s prophecy draws upon imagery from the Old Testament, promising fulfillment through God’s coming to his people through John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We will then see how Jesus fulfilled these prophecies during his earthly ministry and what this means for us today, in light of Jesus’s promised Second Coming. For we celebrate Jesus’s first advent because we know he is coming again—the advent that we long for, as the Israelites of old, anticipated his first advent.
We’re going to look at a lot of Scripture passages this morning because Zechariah’s prophecy is rich with allusions to the Old Testament which are fulfilled throughout the New Testament. I’m not going to list all of my references this morning, but they are in the sermon text you’ll be able to find online.
Zechariah’s prophecy was calling all Israel to remember the promises of God. Through all the Bible God had been making and fulfilling promises. God’s faithful found hope and purpose in these promises—they clung to them in the face of slavery, famine, persecution, betrayal, and exile. What are you holding onto? What gives you hope and purpose? I pray that you will be encouraged this morning to turn to God who is faithful, whose word is sure, whose promises never fail.
The Horn of Salvation in the House of David
As we dig into Zechariah’s prophecy, we need to begin by recognizing that it is grounded in the language of the Old Testament. God made promises that Zechariah saw were being fulfilled. From the time the Jews returned to the land of Israel, out of the Babylonian captivity, several hundred years passed with no prophetic voice—no word from the LORD. But suddenly, while a priest was burning incense in the temple, “an angel of the LORD standing on the right side of the altar of incense” appeared to him.
The altar of incense was located in “the Holy Place, an inner room of the Temple, just on the other side of the “Holy of Holies.” The name of this priest was Zechariah. He was alone, “troubled,” and “fear fell upon him.” This was the first word from the LORD since the prophet Malachi, a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile, centuries earlier.
In Luke 1:13, the angel spoke to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijiah, 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.”
But Zechariah responded with a question of doubt, asking “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel rebuked Zechariah, announcing, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
Elizabeth did conceive. In her sixth month of pregnancy, Gabriel visited another—this time, a young woman named Mary. Mary was an unmarried virgin, betrothed to a man named Joseph. Gabriel told her she would conceive and bear a son. Mary responded, not in doubt as Zechariah, but in humility and willingness. Mary went to live with her cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah for three months. I encourage you to read the account of their encounter in Luke chapter 1.
After Mary left, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. After his circumcision on the eight day, he was named John—a name that both Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted upon, against the tradition of the time which would have led to his being named after his father. Zechariah, still mute, and unable to speak, wrote on a tablet “His name is John.” Immediately his tongue was loosed and his mouth opened. He could speak for the first time in more than nine months. Fear came upon their neighbors, and they wondered what kind of child John would be. They recognized that “the hand of the Lord was with him.”
It is here we come to our text this morning. “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.”
“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.”
Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, was moved to worship. He begins, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” I pray that we are all moved to worship our Lord together this morning, blessing his name for his gracious message of peace.
Zechariah blesses the Lord for two specific reasons which he names: the Lord “has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David…” When Zechariah says “the Lord has visited and redeemed his people” he is using a phrase with which Israel was familiar. This word “visited” is used throughout the Bible. “The Lord visited [barren] Sarah,” and she “conceived and bore Abraham a son.” Genesis 21:1-2 The LORD visited barren Hannah as well, and as promised, she conceived and bore a son, Samuel the prophet. 1 Samuel 2:21 Joseph prophesied that God would visit Israel and bring them up out of Egypt and into the promised Land. Genesis 50:25 The Hebrew slaves in Egypt recognized that when God had spoken to Moses in the wilderness of Midian, and performed signs in their sight, that the LORD had visited them and had “seen their affliction.” Exodus 4:31
When Zechariah says that the Lord “has visited and redeemed his people” he understands and is explaining that God has intervened to save his covenant people. He is performing a new act of redemption—similar to the exodus from Egypt. This is a momentous occasion for the people of Israel, who have waited for centuries for a word from the Lord.
Notice, too, that Zechariah speaks in the past-tense. He speaks as though it is already accomplished. Did you notice that? At this point, John was a baby, and Jesus was still in the womb of Mary. Yet Zechariah speaks about God’s visitation and redemption as though they were already accomplished. This is remarkable. When God makes a promise, he will fulfill it. When God begins something, he finishes it. In this case, Zechariah has seen God begin to fulfill his promises, and he was so sure they would be completed, that he spoke about them as though they were already done.
When righteous Simeon met baby Jesus in the temple in Luke 2, he too, spoke in this same way. He responds to meeting baby Jesus by blessing God, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Notice Simeon’s peace came only meeting Jesus.
When Zechariah says that the LORD has “redeemed his people” he is using the language of Isaiah 43, where God says to Israel, “he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God created all men, but all men have fallen into sin and are therefore far from God. In Adam all were covenanted to death and must be ransomed from death and back to God—to life. But this is a costly transaction. A price must be paid. Redemption requires a Redeemer, a Savior.
Zechariah continues his prophecy in verse 69. The Lord “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” This image of a “horn of salvation” is used in several places in the Old Testament. The horn is an image of strength and power.
Horns are used to represent the power of kings in books like Daniel and Revelation. In Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel, she ends her song singing that God “will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” 1 Samuel 2:10 When anointing a king in the Old Testament, oil was poured out from a horn. 1 Samuel 16:13, 1 Kings 1:39
David sings of God as his rock, his shield, and the horn of his salvation. 2 Samuel 22:3 And in Psalm 132:17, God proclaims that in Zion, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. His enemies will I clothe with shame, but on him his crown will shine.” Zechariah’s prophecy ties together the horn imagery of strength, salvation, anointing, and the line of David. Zechariah continues, acknowledging the horn has come “in the house of his servant David.”
As Zechariah states in verse 70, the “prophets of old” had indeed been prophesying about this “horn of salvation” for a long time. Two weeks ago, Pastor Dave preached an entire sermon on how “Moses and all the Prophets” speak of Christ.
In verse 71 Zechariah states that Israel would “be saved from [their] enemies. And from the hand of all who hate [them].” This, I think, was one of the main ways that those of Jesus’s day misunderstood who Jesus was, and what he had come to do. Continuing to read through the gospels, we see how the Jews had anticipated an earthly king that would deliver Israel out from the rule of the Romans and re-establish a new earthly kingdom. But as Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:36
So if these enemies were not Roman, and were not of this world, who were they? We get a hint of this in Psalm 106:10, which Zechariah paraphrases. Psalm 106:6-11 reads:
Both we and our fathers have sinned;
We have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Did you hear the words of Zechariah there? “…he saved them from the hand of the foe and redeemed them from the power of the enemy?” Not only that, but the Psalmist makes special note that the fathers had sinned, “committed iniquity”, “done wickedness.” When they were in Egypt, they did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.”
The true enemy was themselves! For their sinful, prideful hearts put them in opposition to God. They had done great evil and stood guilty before the Lord. Psalm 106 helps us see that the slavery and death found in Egypt were symbolic of the greater threat for Israel—namely their own sin. They had been enslaved to sin and death was the consequence of it.
Zechariah is prophesying of a new exodus—a new deliverance from slavery and death, and from the sin that rules their own hearts. God has set his redeemed free, extending mercy to his beloved. All this is the realization of “the mercy promised to” the Israelites of old.” God, as always, was remembering his holy covenant and acting to fulfill “the oath that he swore to… Abraham.” God had promised to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
Zechariah again emphasizes the deliverance “from the hand of our enemies” that we “might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The prophet Zephaniah made a similar prophecy during the time of the Kings. Zephaniah 3:15-20 states:
“The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the LORD.”
Again, the enemies of Israel are not kings and nations, but fear, evil, reproach, oppression, and shame. In short, these are the consequences of Adam’s fall—separation from God. Israel was to serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him” but sin had prevented them from doing so. No one was holy or righteous, and consequently unable to serve God without fear. But God was about to “bring [them] in, … gather [them] together, … restore [their] fortunes.” God was going to be “in [their] midst”—that is Immanuel, “God with us.”
John the Forerunner of Jesus
Now Zechariah turns to the mission of his own son, John. What was John’s purpose? He says, John “will be called the prophet of the Most High.” John was to be the prophet spoken of in Malachi 3, God’s messenger, preparing the way before him, when “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… the messenger of the covenant.”
John’s message would prepare the way of the Messiah by giving the “knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” This would all be done “because of the tender mercy of our God.” Zechariah says “whereby” or “through which” “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” This is another allusion, or reminder of what God had spoken to the prophet Malachi:
“…for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.” Two verses later, God promises that he will send “Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Malachi 4:1-3, 5
The people of Israel in Zechariah’s day, just prior to the birth of Jesus, were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. The prophecy from Malachi makes that clear. Apart from John the Baptist coming and preparing the way for the LORD, Jesus would have “come to the land with a decree of utter destruction” rather than with a message of mercy. Jesus would have visited Israel in punishment, rather than redemption. John would play a pivotal role in preparing the way for Jesus by calling Israel to repentance. John would “guide [their] feet into the way of peace.” As we will see as we continue, “the way of peace” is the way of righteousness. It is peace with God that comes only through faith in Jesus and the forgiveness of sin that only he offers.
This message is for us today, too. We must repent of our sin to find mercy in Christ. God is merciful to the penitent—that is, to those that have turned from their sin. But God’s wrath is against the hardened sinner, unwilling to turn from sin. Those that justify and continue in their sin will find that God, rather than offering forgiveness, will bring wrath and destruction. As the writer of Hebrews warns us, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” I plead with you, repent, confess your sin and find mercy and forgiveness in the free offer of grace that God extends to you in Jesus’s name.
The Ministries of John and Jesus
Thus far we have mostly sought to understand Zechariah’s prophecy as his contemporaries would have understood. We looked at what this particular prophecy sought to fulfill. Now, we will turn to see how it was actually fulfilled in the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.
We’ll begin in chronological order with John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. Luke tells us that John “grew and became strong in spirit.” He was “in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. Luke 3 describes that public appearance, writing, “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
His ministry quickly drew attention, bringing crowds to him. His baptism was one of “repentance.” This was not the trinitarian baptism that we practice today, for it was not done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, though it was done in a similar spirit of repentance from sin. John’s baptism was one of anticipation. God was at work, preparing a people for his Son. John’s warning was the one we read earlier from Malachi. John warned his listeners, “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.” He was warning of “utter destruction” as Malachi had prophesied, and as we read earlier. Malachi 4:5
Luke describes how the “people were in expectation.” They knew the appearance and message of John was a momentous one for Israel, as hundreds of years had passed without a word from the Lord. They “were questioning in their hearts concerning John,” even wondering if he was the Christ. But John was quick to answer them that one mightier than he was coming. The one to come would baptize not with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John’s mission and purpose was complete once “all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.” Luke 3:21 As John the Baptist is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John (3:30), “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.” John’s joy was now complete, for Jesus was on the scene. John’s ministry ended, and so did his life. For he was killed by Herod, whom John had reproved “for all the evil things that Herod had done” which had included an unlawful marriage.
Jesus did indeed increase. He immediately began preaching, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 1:17 God was visiting and redeeming his people in the most intimate of ways—he took on flesh, bringing the kingdom of God with him, ushering in the era of redemptive history. Jesus was Immanuel, “God with us.” Jesus was preparing a new exodus, like God had done through Moses centuries earlier. This exodus language gets more explicit in Luke’s account of the transfiguration. I encourage you to flip a few pages to Luke 9:28:
“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus [departure], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
If you followed along with me, you noticed that instead of reading “departure,” I read “exodus.” That is in fact the Greek word that is translated “departure.” It’s not that “departure” is an improper translation, it just doesn’t fully describe what Jesus is about to do. Jesus is about to depart, but as with the Israelite’s departure from Egypt, God was about to triumph over the enemies of his people, and take their wealth with him. This is why this departure is described as an accomplishment. Jesus was about to triumph in his death.
Jesus freed us from our slavery to sin and death—these are the greatest enemies of mankind, not Egyptians, not Romans, not any human oppressor. In John 8:34, Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In Christ, we are saved out of the slavery of sin and death. We are set free and given life. We are freed to serve God “without fear.” For God is our new master. Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
If God is your master, you can have no other. Jesus says in Luke 16:13, “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.” We must guard ourselves, and not find ourselves enslaved to anything, or anyone else. For most of us, our own sinful desires are our greatest threat. But there are many ideologies in the world that would seek to enslave us.
One of the greatest motivators out in the world is false guilt. Many attempt to burden others with guilt in order to captivate their allegiance to a cause, promising to then relieve that guilt. The many and unending crises in the world are often driven by false guilt, used to enslave us to ungodly masters. We must use Christ-like discernment to decipher truth from error, lest we find ourselves enslaved by a new master.
Jesus described his strategy to redeem and liberate all of creation in Luke 11:21, after casting out a demon from a mute man. He said:
“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
Jesus, of course, is the “stronger man” attacking Satan, the “strong man.” Jesus was looting Satan’s kingdom while on earth, but his death and resurrection was the total victory over Satan’s kingdom. Jesus took it all for himself—and is in the process of realizing his kingdom over the whole world. We, his disciples are going forth into all the world, sharing the good news about the kingship of Jesus over all the world, calling all to acknowledge the lordship of Christ.
Jesus, the long prophesied “horn of salvation” proved himself stronger than any other. He is indeed “mighty to save.” Isaiah 63:1 Psalm 75:3 says, “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.” Jesus did this by triumphing over death and despoiling the kingdom of darkness.
When Zechariah prophesies of the “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, “light” is the same word translated as “appeared” in Titus 2:11, where Paul writes:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:11-14
This “appearance” is the Son of God, in the flesh, who laid down his life to save sinners. Jesus came into history to redeem a “people for his own possession.” This is the amazing, world-altering event that we celebrate at Christmas.
The “peace” that Zechariah prophesies about is the same peace that Jesus later provides throughout the gospel of Luke. After a forgiving a sinful woman, he tells her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:50 After healing a different woman, he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” Luke 8:48 This “peace” comes to these women because of the faith that God himself had stirred in them. Having met Jesus and found forgiveness, they are at peace with God. This “peace” is the fruit of a right relationship with God. Have you met Jesus? Have you found forgiveness in him? If not, I urge you to turn to him even now. Peace comes only from a restored relationship with your Creator, through your relationship with his Son, Jesus Christ.
When telling his disciples that he will be leaving them, he tells them that God would send “the Helper, the Holy Spirit.” Jesus told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Peace is provided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to those that Christ has claimed as his own.
In the book of Acts, Peter preached “good news of peace through Jesus Christ.” Acts 10:36 The gospel is the message of peace with God the Father, coming only through Jesus the Son of God. The gospel is “the way of peace.”
One final observation, as we seek to bring specific application to our own lives. As we have been trying to show these last few weeks, Jesus was the long-promised answer to the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, and the covenant promise that God made with Abraham. The Israelites waited for Jesus for thousands of years, anticipating the salvation he would bring.
Before Jesus came, God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way. John’s purpose was to “give knowledge of salvation” and baptize those that listened to and obeyed his offer of forgiveness of sin. Maybe you can already see where I’m going with this.
Is our calling all that different from John the Baptist’s? At the end of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Luke 24:46-49
We’re more familiar with this same message in Matthew 28, where Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are like John the Baptist, for we are calling others to repentance, warning them of the “utter destruction” coming for those that reject Jesus. But, like John the Baptist, we find this calling comes with the risk of loss. John was acclaimed by the poor, the outcast, and the sinner. But he was hated and rejected by the power brokers of his day—the rich and powerful priesthood and the intelligent and influential scribes. Worse—he was hated by a ruler who ultimately took his life because of his faithfulness to the one whom he proclaimed.
The “way of peace” offers peace with God, not the world. Jesus says in John 16:30, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Remember, Jesus exhorts us, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
Jesus offers far more than we stand to lose in this world, but we all must count the costs. Are you holding loosely to the things of earth? Do you hold faithfulness to Christ as your highest allegiance? If you’re holding on to the hopes and promises of this present world, you will not be prepared to lay down your life for the King. Loosen your grip on what is passing. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Joshua 24:15 Will you serve the risen Christ and him alone?
As we prepare to go back out into the world in a few minutes, what are you going to cling to? What gives you hope and purpose? God gives us the greatest of news, the greatest purpose, and the greatest hope. Find joy and meaning in the “way of peace.” Go out and proclaim with joy the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus and the way of peace he offers to all who will humble themselves before their Creator.
As we anticipate the “personal, bodily, and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ”, we are witnesses to the world of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is ushering in his kingdom, and we are the ones entrusted as the messengers of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Let’s press on in making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them the way of peace, the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.