Remember that, in Luke 1:6–7, Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
They were too old to have a baby. They had dealt with infertility all their lives. And they were blameless before God: he held nothing against them. They were blameless. They were barren. And they were old. And in God’s way of reckoning, they were the perfect couple to give birth to John the Baptist. Because John the Baptist will be great. Very great. But not as great as Jesus. And that’s the point.
Great and Infinitely Greater
Luke 1:15 says, “He will be great before the Lord.” But Jesus will be the Lord. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). John would be a great man. Jesus said in Matthew 11:11, “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.” If you are a Christian, you are greater than John the Baptist.
He was part of the old order — the waiting, longing, hoping old order — wondering, When will Messiah come? John walked right up to the edge of the new order, the kingdom that Jesus was bringing, and he saw it and prepared the way for it. He pointed to it. But you are in it. He saw a whole new way of salvation opening before him in Jesus. And you are in that salvation. It is a greater thing to be a nobody in union with Jesus than to be the greatest prophet that ever lived.
So John is born from a barren womb of an old woman, through the seed of an old man. And Jesus is born from the virgin womb of a young woman, through the seed of God. What we see unfolding before us in the first chapter of Luke is the greatness of John the Baptist, in order to make plain the super-greatness of Jesus, who so far exceeds John as to make him nothing by comparison. He is not worthy to tie Jesus’s shoes, he said (Matthew 3:11). “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). That’s what we are supposed to see: John, born of barrenness and age, is very great. Jesus, born of a young virgin, is infinitely greater.
Name of Grace
The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah in Luke 1:13 and tells him that he and Elizabeth are going to have a son. And he says to Zechariah, “You shall call his name John.” The name is Iōannēs in Greek, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew Yochanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious.” Indeed he is. As we are about to see, even toward Zechariah.
Zechariah responds to Gabriel in Luke 1:18 — a response he will very much regret — “How shall I know this?” Not like Mary’s question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). She wants help to understand. Zechariah wants more evidence that what Gabriel said is true. Gabriel responds, “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” (Luke 1:19–20).
And that time comes in our text: Luke 1:57–80. “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son” (verse 57). The relatives and neighbors gather round at his circumcision and are about to call him little Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No; he shall be called John” (verse 60). So they turn to Zechariah, who is not only dumb but deaf, as they make signs to him (verse 62), and he writes on a tablet, “His name is John” (verse 63). In other words, this baby’s identity and destiny will not be defined by human parentage, but by divine purpose — a gracious purpose. The angel said, “Call him John.” God is gracious.
And the moment that Zechariah obeyed the divine purpose for his son, “immediately,” it says in verse 64, “his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke.” Verse 67 calls this speaking a prophecy and says it is owing to his being filled with the Holy Spirit: “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.” And now we get to listen to the overflow of the Holy Spirit in verses 67–79.
Powerful to Save
There are two parts to Zechariah’s prophecy: verses 68–75 and verses 76–79. In verses 68–75, he describes the redemption accomplished by this “horn of salvation” in the house of David.
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. (verses 68–69)
Luke wants us to know that this “horn of salvation” in the house of David is Jesus, because back in verses 32–33 the angel said to Mary about her son, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
So, this “horn of salvation” in the house of David is Jesus. The word “horn” is not the kind of horn you blow, like a trumpet. It’s the kind of horn that makes a wild ox so dangerous. It is a symbol of power. And especially God’s power. Listen to Psalm 18:2:
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
So, according to verses 68–69, God is about to work a great redemption for his people through a horn of salvation — a powerful, triumphant salvation, namely, Jesus Christ. Then, from verses 70–75 that redemption is described.
Then the second part of the prophecy starts in verses 76–77. Zechariah says, “And you, child, [now he’s referring not to Jesus but to his son, John the Baptist] 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.” And the rest of verses 77–79 describe that salvation.
“John, born of barrenness and age, is very great. Jesus, born of a young virgin, is infinitely greater.”
So, what we have in the two halves of Zechariah’s prophecy are two descriptions of salvation, first described as what Jesus, the horn of salvation, will accomplish, and second as what John the Baptist is preparing for. It’s the same salvation, the same redemption, in both cases — what John prepares for and what Jesus accomplishes. And in this way, Luke shows us again the greatness of John, “prophet of the Most High” (verse 76), but the far superior greatness of Jesus, the very power of the Most High, the horn of salvation (verse 69). The one pointing to salvation. The other accomplishing salvation.
Ten Great Realities of Salvation
I think what is helpful to do for our own encouragement and faith and holiness, is to gather up the realities of salvation in the first half and the realities of salvation in the second half, and put them all together to get a composite picture of what Christ came to do, what Christmas points to.
When Zechariah says in verse 68, “The Lord God of Israel . . . has visited and redeemed his people,” it is true that he is referring to the salvation of the Jewish people. That’s what he has in mind. And I think we could show that these realities of salvation are yet to be fulfilled for the Jewish people in our own day. But that they will be fulfilled when the hardness is removed from their hearts, and the veil is lifted, and they turn to their Messiah Jesus (as many of them have) and are grafted into the body of Christ.
And in the meantime, we know that God, in his mercy toward the Gentiles — that’s most of us — has granted us to be full fellow heirs of the promises made to Israel. If you are in Christ, the Messiah, by faith, you are an heir of the covenant made with Abraham, because “all the promises of God” are yes in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). So, this prophecy of Zechariah is yours in Christ.
So, what are the particular realities of this promised salvation in the first half of his prophecy (verses 68–75)? You can count them different ways, but I’ll point to six.
First, “[God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (verse 69a). That’s the first reality, the horn of salvation, Christ.
Second, “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” (verses 70–71). So, the second reality is rescue from our enemies.
Third, “to show the mercy promised to our fathers” (verse 72a). The third reality of this salvation is God’s mercy.
Fourth, “to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (verses 72b–73). The fourth reality is God’s keeping his covenant, standing by the word of his oath.
Fifth, “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear” (verse 74). The fifth reality is fearless service of God: anxiety-free, glad-hearted participation in God’s service.
Sixth, “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (verse 75). The final stage of this salvation is our own holiness and righteousness in his presence forever.
That’s the picture of salvation, or redemption, from the standpoint of what Christ, the horn of salvation, will accomplish for his people. For us.
Now let’s turn to the second half of Zechariah’s prophecy (verses 76–79) and gather up the realities of this salvation from the standpoint of John’s preparing people for it. I see five. I think only one of them overlaps with the six we saw in the first half. See if you spot it.
First, “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” (verses 76–77). So, the first reality of salvation in this half of the prophecy is the forgiveness of sins.
Second, “because of the tender mercy of our God” (verse 78a). The second reality is God’s mercy. That’s the one that overlaps with salvation in the first half (see verse 72).
Third and fourth, “whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (verses 78b–79a). There are two effects of this sunrise: light replaces darkness, and life replaces death. Those in darkness no longer sit in darkness. Those overshadowed by death will no longer be overshadowed by death. The third reality is deliverance from darkness. The fourth reality is deliverance from death.
Finally, “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (verse 79b). Peace: all conflict removed, and the full flourishing of life experienced.
Good News of Great Joy
So, in the first half of Zechariah’s prophecy, there are six aspects of this salvation that the horn of salvation accomplishes. And in the second half, there are five aspects of this same salvation that John the Baptist is preparing for. One of them is the same, the mercy of God, which leaves ten aspects of this great work of salvation that is coming to us because of Christmas — because God has visited and redeemed his people. Let’s put them together into one amazing picture of our salvation.
Here’s my attempt to see them all in their proper connection.
Everything is rooted, first and most deeply, in the mercy of God. Zechariah speaks of “the tender mercy of our God” (verse 78) — his “bowels of mercy,” meaning his deeply felt mercy. Not mechanical. Not merely judicial. But emotional. Salvation of sinners begins in the bowels of God. The emotions of God. The heart of God. God did not become this way. He is this way. It all starts here.
His mercy inclines him to keep his covenant and his oath (verses 72–73). It is true that his righteousness inclines him to keep his covenant promises. But that first covenant was all mercy. Abraham did not deserve it. And we don’t deserve to be beneficiaries of it. When God remembers his covenant, it is the fruit of mercy.
To fulfill his covenant, he raises a horn of salvation (verse 69). He sends his Son, Jesus Christ. This Jesus pays for the forgiveness of sins by shedding his own blood (Luke 24:46–47). And that forgiveness of sins (verse 77) becomes the basis for the other blessings in this salvation, because we do not deserve any of them.
This forgiveness unleashes the power of God’s Spirit to take away our blindness and bring us from darkness to light and from death to life (verse 79). Indeed, in the end, all our enemies, and all those who hate us, will come to ruin, and we will be rescued (verse 71).
Rescued from every enemy for what? Peace. “To guide our feet into the way of peace” (verse 79). “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). And fearless service in righteousness and holiness forever (verses 74–75). No worry. No anxiety. No failures. No sin. No regret, ever again. Just doing the beautiful will of God with gladness forever.
Salvation on the Tongue
When the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and gave the good news that he would have a son and should name him John, Ioannes — God is gracious — the next thing that righteous Zechariah did was sin against God. He doubted God’s word. Gabriel called it unbelief (Luke 1:20). And with holy indignation, Gabriel struck Zechariah dumb and deaf for nine months.
He was nine months cut off from hearing or speaking to another human, to deal in the silence of his heart with God. And at the end of those nine months, when he had come to his senses, and the tablet was handed to him, he repented: “His name is John” (verse 63). And the text says, “Immediately his mouth was opened” (verse 64) — and not just opened, but filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 67) to tell us two thousand years later about this great salvation:
- God’s deep, deep mercy
- A covenant of promise
- A mighty horn of salvation
- The forgiveness of sins
- Rescue from mortal enemies
- Peaceful, fearless service toward a gracious God in holiness and righteousness forever
There’s not a person in this room who has not sinned the way Zechariah did. And because of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, you can return from that path of regret, and start over with your mouth full of salvation, like Zechariah.