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“Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; as He spake by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant: the oath which He sware to our father Abraham, that He would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life. And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways: to give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel” —Luke 1:57-80.
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First of all, our attention is directed to the fulfilment of the promise regarding the birth of John the Baptist. Nine full months before, the angel Gabriel had appeared to Zacharias when he was ministering in the temple in Jerusalem, and notified him that he and his aged wife Elisabeth were to be the parents of a child who was to prepare the way for the promised Messiah. It seemed almost unbelievable, and Zacharias asked the question, “How can these things be?” The angel said, “You will be dumb until they are performed.” Zacharias left the temple that day unable to speak, and during all these waiting months he had been dumb until God fulfilled the promise. Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered. She brought forth a son. Her neighbors, her cousins and others, heard how the Lord had showed great mercy toward her, and they came together to rejoice with her. God, in a wonderful way, had visited this family. Now a name was to be chosen for the new-born babe. Some of you parents remember how you thumbed through the list of names in the back of the dictionary trying to find one that would be outstanding! With others, it was already settled for you. You had long ago declared the little one must bear the name of grandma or grandpa, or some other relative. But often children are born and live for months before they get a name that is thought suitable. In this case, they came together to give the name to the child. He was presented for circumcision and given the name that they thought he would bear, that of his own father, Zacharias. But the mother said, “He shall be called John.” It happened that there was no John in that family. They said to her, “There is none of thy kindred called by that name.” But the angel had told Zacharias before the child was born that he was to be called John. John means “the grace of the Lord,” and his birth was a definite evidence of the grace of the Lord to his family. They turned to the father and they made signs to him, asking him how they should call the child. He, unable to speak, called for a tablet, and wrote upon it, “His name is John.” Notice that—not, “He shall be called John,” but “His name is John.” He had been named already! He was named by the angel long before, and Zacharias simply kept that in mind. They were amazed. They could not understand it. The moment that Zacharias thus ratified the word of the angel his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spake and glorified God. Unbelief had closed his lips; faith opened them. Unbelief made him dumb; faith enabled him to speak and to praise God. And we are told that fear came on all that dwelt round about. People felt there was something strange, something mysterious about all this. Undoubtedly, this was a child who was to have some very remarkable destiny. All these sayings were noised abroad, throughout all the hill-country of Judaea, and they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, and they asked, “What manner of child shall this be?” They could see that the hand of the Lord was upon him, thus far, in connection with the fulfilment of the promise in the birth of the child and the name that he was to bear.
Now the rest of our passage has to do with the prophecy of Zacharias. Many years had gone by since God had spoken through the prophets. But now, in a special way He opened the lips of Zacharias, the father of this remarkable child, and enabled him to speak prophetically. Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost. To prophesy is not only to be able to foretell coming events, but to give the mind of God in relation to the present or future. We see both here. Zacharias did see things to come, and he realized something of the remarkable place this child of his was to have. Then, he also spoke of the spiritual benefits to result from his ministry. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” he exclaims, “for He has visited and redeemed His people.” It is remarkable how faith enables one to speak of the things which are not, as thought they are. Zacharias said, “God has visited and redeemed His people.” They were not yet redeemed; that is, not actually, but he could speak in faith. He was certain that since the promise had been fulfilled in regard to the birth of this child that the promise of redemption for Israel, through the coming Saviour, was just as certain of fulfilment.
What is redemption? It is deliverance from bondage. It is to buy back that which has been forfeited. Not only Israel, but the nations of the Gentiles were in bondage to sin and they needed to be redeemed. They had forfeited all title to blessing, and they needed to be redeemed, and our blessed Lord Jesus, was coming to redeem them. He said, “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Do you know the redeeming power of the Lord Jesus Christ? He redeems not only from the judgment due to sin, but He also redeems from the power of sin itself. He sets free from sin’s bondage those who put their trust in Him. Zacharias looked on in faith to the time when all this would be true for Israel and the nations. “He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.” God had promised long before that the Messiah was to come through David’s line, and Mary was a daughter of the house of David. Through her the child was to be born who was to bring salvation, and Zacharias could speak of this as though it were already accomplished, because his unbelief was gone and he had absolute confidence in the word of God. All this, he says, is, “As He spake by the mouth of the holy prophets, which have been since the ages began.” The word “world” here is not simply the cosmos—the ordered world—but the ages of time. From the very beginning God had been speaking of this coming One. From the Garden of Eden right on, He had been telling of the coming Saviour, and now He was soon to appear. His forerunner had already arrived. God had given His word and He sealed His word with an oath; and so He was about to perform the mercy promised to the fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, “the oath which He sware to our father Abraham.” We are told in Genesis that when God made the covenant with Abraham, He said, “In thy Seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed,” and He confirmed it with an oath, and because He could sware by no greater He sware by Himself. He is the only one who has a right thus to sware. This was in connection with the Old Testament, and now the precious blood of Christ has sealed the New Covenant. We know that the Almighty will never go back on His covenant; so our Lord Jesus Christ came as the promised Seed of Abraham, and through Him already blessing untold has gone out to Jew and Gentile, but the promises are by no means fulfilled in their entirety. When they are, all Israel, as a nation, shall be saved, and shall turn to the Lord for redemption; and all the Gentiles shall own His authority, and righteousness will cover the earth as the waters cover the great deep. Then the entire universe shall be subjected to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was to this that Zacharias looked on—“that He would grant unto us, that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, all the days of our life.” As far as Zacharias was concerned, he expected the fulfilment of all this. Yet nineteen hundred years have gone by, and we see the people of Israel today suffering more from their enemies than perhaps they have ever suffered down throughout the centuries. One might have a tendency to feel that God’s Word has failed; that its prophetic declarations have not been fulfilled, and that there is something wrong. There is nothing wrong with the Word of God. The wrong is here. God sent the Saviour. He came unto His own and they received Him not. Jew and Gentile are both guilty and united in rejecting the Saviour that God had promised. The Lord Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to send peace upon earth. I tell you nay, but rather a sword.” He predicted, “Nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom,” and there will be warfare and destruction through the world until the day of His return. When He comes back the second time, then these prophecies are going to be fulfilled. They might have been fulfilled before if men had received him. But they would not open their hearts to Him. Now He does speak peace to all those that trust Him; and in the midst of a war-torn world those who have received him in faith know the meaning of the words, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.” There is no peace for the world because it has rejected Christ. But there is lasting for those who trust Him, even in the midst of the most dreadful circumstances. What He promises in regard to Israel will some day be fulfilled, “That He would grant unto us that we, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.” Neither Jew nor Gentile can expect God’s deliverance unless there is a real heart-turning to Him. That is the trouble with the world today. Men would like God to intervene for them. They would like Him to come in and show mercy, but they are not willing to honor Him by bowing before Him in repentance and seeking to live for His glory. When God shall deliver Israel, it will not only mean that they will be set free from their enemies and be restored to their own land, but that they may serve Him without fear and walk before Him in holiness and righteousness all the days of their lives. Oh, that there might be a great turning to God today! Oh, that throughout this nation and the other nations of the world there might be a recognition of the sinfulness of our departure from God, that we might return to Him, confessing our failure, owning our guilt, and trusting the Saviour He has provided, and then seeking to walk before Him in holiness and righteousness. Then we might expect God to come in and give marvelous deliverance. There will be no lasting peace for the world unless the nations bow in repentance before God and get right with Him; and so far as we understand the prophetic Word, that will never be until our Lord Jesus, the rejected Prince of Peace, returns again in person to this scene.
And now, in the last part of his prophecy, Zacharias turns to the little unconscious babe lying there, either in his crib or in his mother’s arms, and he says, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest.” What a privilege this was to be! The Lord Jesus said afterward of those that were born of women there was not a greater than John the Baptist. And so Zacharias recognized that he was to have the high honor of being the prophet of the Highest. “Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way.” He was really quoting here from the Old Testament. There we read that John was to go before the face of Jehovah to prepare the way. He went before the face of Jesus to prepare the way. The Jesus of the New Testament is the incarnate Jehovah of the Old Testament. John was to go before the face of Jehovah to prepare His way, to give knowledge of salvation unto His own people. It seems to me we sometimes underrate the work of John the Baptist. We think of him simply as the one who came to prepare the way of the Lord, and we forget that he also presented a message of grace, a definite proclamation of the gospel. It was he who said, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” Could you get a clearer gospel message than that anywhere? That is the gospel of the grace of God in all its simplicity. It was given to John to point the Saviour out, not merely as the King of Israel, not merely as the One who was to fulfil the promises and reign in righteousness over all the world, but as the One who was to provide salvation for sinful men. It is only through Him salvation comes “to give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins.” When John baptized it was for remission of sins. His baptism was the recognition on the part of the people that they were sinners and deserved to die. As they went down into the waters of baptism they were saying as it were, “We ought to die for our sins.” But John told of One who was coming to pay the penalty for those sins, and the people believed the message, and so rejoiced in the knowledge of forgiveness. “To give knowledge of salvation unto His people for the remission of their sins through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.” How beautiful the language Zacharias uses! He speaks of the grace of God thus being manifested to sinful men like the rising of the morning sun after the darkness of the night, “to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” That was the condition of the world all about him when Zacharias spoke these words; and that is the condition of a large part of the world today, and that is why we are entrusted to send the gospel out to the very ends of the earth, that men and women everywhere may hear it—that it may give light to those in darkness, in the very shadow of death. We read, in regard to those that turn away from God, who live for self and sin, “The way of peace have they not known;” but John the Baptist was to go before the face of the Lord to proclaim the testimony God had given, in order to guide the feet of the people into the way of peace. The servant of God who points men and women to Christ is showing them the way to peace, for, “Being justified by faith we have peace with God.”
Our minds are naturally curious and there are a great many things of which we have no record in the Gospels concerning which we would like information. We would like to know something of the training of this child. We would like to be permitted to look behind the scenes and see something of the home-life of John the Baptist as a little child and as a youth growing up. We would like to know what led him, eventually, into the wilderness, and how God spoke to him. But the Lord has not been pleased to gratify our curiosity in regard to these things. He tells us all that is important for us to know, and the rest He leaves. We shall find them out by-and-by when we get home to heaven.
But the story of John the Baptist’s early life—the whole story—is given in one verse (ver. 80): “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing-unto Israel.” Only a little less than four lines in my Bible, but they cover, perhaps, some twenty-five or twenty-eight years of life, and they picture for us very graphically a child growing up before the Lord devoted to Him, strong in spirit, spurning the evil, choosing the good; and then, when the divine call came, going apart from the rest of the world, alone out there in the desert where he might commune with God, where he could better hear His voice and be instructed by Him, in order that when the appointed time came he might appear before the people of Israel as the messenger of Jehovah, who had come to prepare the way of the Lord.