Three of Zechariah's prophetic messages are dated (1:1; 1:7; 7:1), so we know that Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai. Both prophets spoke to the Jews in Jerusalem who had recently returned from exile in Babylon, and both of them encouraged the people to rebuild the temple in spite of discouragements and opposition (Ezra 5:1, 2). The main point of Zechariah is probably best expressed in 8:13–15,
And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong. For thus says the Lord of hosts: "As I purposed to do evil to you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not."
The main point is: Fear not, for I purpose to do you good, says the Lord. The whole book is made up of visions and prophecies of how God is going to save Israel and make her a blessing to others. And these promises are intended to fill the Jews with hope in God and make them fearless and strong.
How Can Gentiles Benefit from Promises to Israel?
One of the problems for Gentile Christians like us is how a book full of promises to Jerusalem and Judah can be a help to us today. Let me try to sketch very briefly the principles that guide my interpretation of prophecies like this. First, I think these prophecies are aimed primarily at the ethnic people of Israel. They were the audience; and when they heard Zechariah refer to "the house of Judah and the house of Israel," they would naturally understand the Jewish people, not the church of Christian Gentiles. These prophecies are aimed at the ethnic people Israel.
Second, I think there is a glorious future for Israel even yet, when she repents. It is too simple to say that since the time of Christ the church has replaced Israel as God's chosen people, even though that is true, in a sense. The reason it is too simple is that in Romans 11 Paul teaches that God is not finished with ethnic Israel. In verse 1 he says, "Has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin." Paul insists that God has not finished with the Jews, first of all, because he is a Jew (of the tribe of Benjamin!).
Paul does admit that the Jews are temporarily rejected through their unbelief, but this is for the benefit of us Gentiles; and when the full number of Gentiles is complete, the remaining Jews, too, will repent and be saved. Romans 11:12, 15, "Now if their (Jews) trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! . . . If their (Jews) rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" Here Israel is distinct from converted Gentiles and is promised a glorious future. So a few verses later, in verses 25, 26, Paul says, "A hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and so all Israel will be saved." In the context of Romans 11:12, 15, it is unwarranted to interpret "all Israel" here to mean anything other than corporate, ethnic Israel. So one of my guiding principles in reading Old Testament prophecy about Israel is that there is a glorious future ahead, when Israel will repent, turn to Christ, and be saved.
Third, by faith in Christ Gentile believers become full partners in the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament. The two key texts to support this principle are Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise," and Ephesians 2:19 and 3:6, "So then you (Gentiles) are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . . (You are) fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." So by faith in Christ we Gentile believers are no longer "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel" but are full partners in the "covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12).
Fourth, (these first three principles imply that) the prophecies of the Old Testament made to Israel are not less than literal (as though ethnic Israel were not intended), but more than literal, because they embrace not only the ethnic Israel but also the Gentile children of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:11), who will not be second-class citizens in the final kingdom.
Fifth, and finally, many of the benefits promised to the people of Israel are fulfilled in stages. This is especially true since the expected coming of the Messiah has occurred in stages. Christ came the first time (as Hebrews 9:26 says) "to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." And he will "appear a second time not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." For the most part, Old Testament prophecy does not distinguish these two comings. Therefore, very often some aspects of Old Testament promises are fulfilled already in Christ, but the final consummation awaits the last day.
So these are my guiding principles as I seek to apply Zechariah to our lives today: 1) it is aimed primarily at ethnic Israel; 2) there is yet a glorious future for ethnic Israel when she repents; 3) by faith in Christ we Gentile believers become full fellow-heirs of the promises made to Israel; 4) therefore, the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel are not less than literal but more than literal: they embrace not only ethnic Israel but also us Gentile believers; 5) many of the benefits promised to the people of Israel are fulfilled in stages, especially since the promised Messiah himself comes in two stages (Christmas and the second coming).
The practical implication of all this is that whenever you read a "Fear not!" in the Old Testament, you can take it for yourself as a fellow heir if you are a Christian. The reasons given in the Old Testament why you need not fear will almost always relate to Israel first, but then indirectly also to you as a spiritual Jew (Romans 2:29) and a child of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
The Most Important Promise in Zechariah
We began by suggesting that the main point of Zechariah's prophecy is, "Fear not, for God purposes to do you good." A very profitable way to read this book is to mark every verse where God says he is going to do something good for Jerusalem. I marked well over 50 verses. But since we can't look at all these, let's focus in on the most important of all: 13:1. I call it most important because all the other benefits promised to Israel (and to us) depend on this one.
"On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness." Zechariah promises the people that at some future time a fountain would be opened which would take away their sin and guilt. I say this is the foundation for all the other blessings promised because the only way sinners can hope to inherit the riches of God is if their sins are forgiven. The fountain of cleansing is the first checkpoint on the road to heaven.
To understand this Advent promise in the context of Zechariah, I want to try to answer three questions about it: first, why did a fountain still have to be opened? Second, how does this fountain bring about forgiveness? Third, for whom does this fountain provide cleansing?
Why Open Another Fount?
First, then, why did a fountain still have to be opened? Do you see what a promise like this must have meant to a discerning Jew? It must have meant that all the provision for cleansing in the old sacrificial system was inadequate to deal with sin. Hebrews 10:2–4 makes this very point:
If the worshipers (in the Old Testament) had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
Why were the animal sacrifices inadequate? Because the loss suffered by an animal does not compare to the injury which our sin brings upon the glory of God. The essential evil of sin is not the ruin that it brings on human life, but the scorn that it brings on the glory of God. If we could but grasp what a horrendous evil it is that human beings distrust and disobey their all-glorious Maker, we would not stumble over the justice of hell nor would we be surprised that the only one sacrifice could atone for our wickedness: namely, the sacrifice of the only Son of God. Our disobedience to an infinitely worthy God is an infinitely blameworthy disobedience, deserving of endless torment (Matthew 25:46). Therefore, no finite animal or even human sacrifice could make amends for our sin. Only an infinite humiliation out of respect to God could restore the injury with which we have assailed the glory of the Almighty through our distrust and disobedience. The fountain that had to be opened was not the neck of an animal, but the pierced side of the Son of God. Zechariah couldn't see the whole story, but God showed him at least this much: if anybody is going to be saved from sin, a new fountain must be opened.
How Does This Fount Cleanse?
Second, how does this fountain bring about cleansing? In 3:8, 9 Zechariah shows that forgiveness of sin is connected to the coming Messiah, whom he calls the Branch (cf. Jeremiah 25:3; 35:15; Isaiah 11:1). At the end of verse 8 God says, "Behold, I will bring my servant the Branch." Then at the end of verse 9: "and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day." Two things are important here: first, there is a close connection between the coming of the Branch (Messiah) and the removal of guilt; and second, guilt is removed in a single day. This fits the death of Christ perfectly. He was the Messiah prophesied by Zechariah (cf. 9:9 with Matthew 21:5), and his sacrifice does not have to be repeated—he dealt with all sin in a single act of atonement once for all (Hebrews 9:24–26).
But in order for the fountain of Christ's blood to take away sin, sinners must be penitent and call upon him for mercy. Humans are not naturally sorry for the way they bring scorn upon God by distrusting and disobeying him. In order for a spirit of sorrow for sin to come into a sinner, God has to act. The Holy Spirit must convict of sin. Zechariah 12:10, 11 prophesies that this is going to happen in Israel: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born." The only reason one mourns for an only child and weeps bitterly for a first-born is because they have died.
Therefore, Zechariah must mean that the people have pierced and killed someone and now are deeply grieved and sorry for their sin. Three things are predicted in this mysterious passage. First, the inhabitants of Jerusalem are going to pierce and kill someone tremendously important. This they did in the crucifixion of Jesus, whose hands and feet and side were pierced (opening a fountain of cleansing!). Second, God is going to convict the house of David and dwellers in Jerusalem of their sin. Third, they will be filled with sorrow for their sin and cry out to God in supplications for mercy. (Which began to be fulfilled in the Jews' response to Peter's Pentecost sermon.)
When this happens, the fountain of God's forgiveness flows freely and takes away the guilt of Jerusalem. So Zechariah can say in 14:11, "Jerusalem shall be inhabited, for there shall be no more curse; Jerusalem shall dwell in security." And in 2:5, "For I will be to her a wall of fire round about, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within her." And 2:10, "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord." And 8:8, "I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and they shall be my people, and I will be their God in faithfulness and in righteousness." All the promises made to Israel in the book of Zechariah (indeed, in the whole Bible) depend on the opened fountain of Christ's blood and the repentance of God's people. So in answer to our second question, How does the opened fountain bring about cleansing?—we've seen three things. 1) The Messiah (called the Branch) comes, and in being killed by his own people, he removes guilt in a single act of atonement. 2) God will cause Israel to be convicted of their sin. 3) Israel will weep and call upon God for forgiveness. The result of these three things will be that her curse is removed and God dwells as the glory in her midst.
Whom Does This Fount Cleanse?
Finally we ask, for whom does this opened fountain provide cleansing? Who can read Zechariah and find personal hope in it? The most obvious answer is the Jewish people. Even though they have displeased God (1 Thessalonians 2:15) by rejecting his Son, their Messiah, to this day, God still promises mercy. He will one day lift the veil off their minds (2 Corinthians 3:14), take away the hardening of their hearts (Romans 11:25), and pour out a spirit of grace and supplication upon them, and they will turn to Jesus and confess him as Lord and Christ. We may even be seeing the beginnings of that final outpouring in the contemporary messianic Jewish movement. And we should pray for all our Jewish friends and associates, and speak to them with boldness about Christ.
But the message of Zechariah is a word of hope to us Gentile Christians as well. If we understand what Christ has done for us in opening the fountain of his blood, then we will know that we are included in the promises of Zechariah.
When we hear God say in Zechariah 2:10, "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord," we can't help but also hear the words of Hebrews 12:22 addressed to us, "You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." And so we remember that in Christ we are no longer "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12). The hope and joy and glory of Zechariah is our hope and our joy and our glory, as children of Abraham and citizens of the new Jerusalem.
And God has been good enough to verify that to us even from the book of Zechariah itself. For example, right after that great promise in 2:10 he says, "And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day and shall be my people; and I will dwell in the midst of you, and you shall know the Lord of hosts has sent me to you" (see also 9:7; 8:13, 20–23; 14:16). "Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord!" That's you and me. The fountain of forgiveness has been opened for you. And if you cleanse yourself through faith in that fountain, all the subsequent promises to God's people are yours. "I have purposed in these days (says the Lord) to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not, but let your hands be strong!" (8:15, 13b).