By Chris Erickson with Ronald Kirk
Christmas time lies under a cloud this year. We live in darker days than the winter solstice can account for. Many events and dispositions of the times give Christians great cause for concern. With unease, we note the unfavorable recent election results, the possibility of real persecution looming, the world’s increasing reduction of Christianity to Medieval superstition, the increasing nationalization of business and socialism, and a prospect for universal, totalitarian civil government.
Men naturally and variously respond to such evil societal changes. Human nature desires comfort and security. It is easy to hate those who would destroy you. Some may merely seek to bear the trouble, hardening themselves to the discomfort and otherwise lying low. Spoiled Americans are prone toward complaining. Some may let fear overcome them.
Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, must have felt similar apprehension to our own, and even greater. The Roman Empire, plagued by slavish rebellion and poor character, increasingly responded with oppression and brutality. We anticipate such trouble, but as a people we have not yet experienced anything comparable. The self-serving and corrupt Jewish leadership offered little comfort, but rather exhibited self-righteousness and condescension toward those they should have served. In this light, Zacharias’ exulting prophecy in Luke 1:68 through 80 at the birth of his son takes on a more pregnant meaning. Listen to his words:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He has visited and redeemed his people, 69 And has raised up a Horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world began: 71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant; 73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham, 74 That He would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life. 76 And thou, child (John the Baptist), shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for you shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways; 77 To give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the Dayspring from on high has visited us, 79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. 80 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.”
The blessing of the Advent of Christ is clear. However, we have largely lost the full import of that blessing. Is ours a merely spiritual salvation from the world that Satan owns, or is it also a temporal, national peace? Clearly, God reserves the complete fulfillment of the promise of peace on the earth for the Resurrection state. However, the Scriptures from beginning to end speak of some degree of national peace brought about first through the salvation of individual citizens. Then civil peace increasingly comes in the power of Christ through His disciples, as they influence their neighbors unto the virtues of self-restrained godliness. New converts exponentially influence their neighbors in turn until a general community of godliness exerts its salt and light.
Note that the prophecy of Zacharias is written in a rhetorical or literary structure known as a chiasm (for the Greek letter chi (x)). The chiastic structure is a reverse or inverted symmetry between different but related thoughts. Chiastic structure is also known as ring or concentric structures. The double helix comes to mind. Chiastic structure is a common development device in Scripture. For example, the Book of Leviticus is a chiasm. In the beginning, God defines His Law. Toward the end, He identifies the chastening Israel could expect for defying His Law. These meet in the middle chapters describing the holiness of God in His Tabernacle. Thus, a complex of ideas appear as a single thought development.
The chiastic structure of Zacharias’ prophecy proceeds in this manner:
A. Zacharias is filled with the Spirit (v. 67)
B. God “visits” or notices and attends to Israel (v. 68)
C. Salvation comes to Israel (v. 69)
D. God spoke by the OT prophets (v. 70)
E. God grants salvation from enemies (v. 71)
F. God fulfills His promise to the patriarchs (v. 72)
G. Central focus: God remembers His holy covenant, performing (poieo) and fulfilling His promises (v. 72b)
F. God fulfills His promise to the Abraham (v. 73)
E. God grants salvation from our enemies to serve Him (v. 74)
D. John the Baptist is the “prophet of the Most High” (v. 76)
C. Salvation comes to Israel (v. 77)
B. God the Son “visits” or notices and attends to Israel (v. 78)
A. John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit (v. 80)
First, Zacharias speaks of individual salvation. This salvation results in a people able to live in peace. God redeems His people from the wrath of God due to sin. Christ saves the soul (v. 68). Rom. 3:24 says we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. He gives light to those in darkness, symbolizing the light of the Gospel shining into sinful hearts (vv. 78, 79; cf. John 8:12). This light is hidden from the unbeliever but is revealed to Christ’s own (2 Cor. 4:4-6).
The Gospel brings peace with God because He forgives sin (v. 79). We have peace with God because He justified us (Rom. 5:1). Through this peace, He saves men from His wrath, with forgiveness of sins (vv. 69, 77). The Horn (literally hair here) is at once Christ and His authority (e.g. Deut. 33:17; Psa. 132:17). By His power, Christ saves us from our greatest enemies, sin, death, and the devil (1 Cor. 15:54-57). By His power through His salvation, He makes us able to live righteously and therefore without fear of our enemies (vv. 71, 74, cf. Heb. 2:14-15; Matt. 10:28).
Jesus commanded His disciples, “Do not fear!” more often than any other direct injunction. The man of God need not fear his life because he cannot lose his eternal destiny. While this takes a great deal of faith to live out, with the command comes the faithful and sure promise of well-being to those who abide in Christ.
Peace among Nations
Clearly Zacharias saw beyond mere personal salvation, for He has redeemed His people (v. 68). He purchased those in bondage to Satan and to worldly enemies, such as the foreign and pagan nations. God saves the people from their enemies, “from the hand of all that hate us” (v. 71). He delivers His own out of the hands of their enemies (v. 74). Salvation first frees men from the sin of the internal heart with its eternal consequences. However, such liberty of conscience requires expression—fruit bearing—by command. Christians are to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe (guard from loss or injury), that is, to do all things He has required (Matt. 28:19-20). To serve in such a manner requires external or civil liberty. To live as Christians, God delivers us from our enemies (vv. 71, 74).
The Promise of the Covenants (v. 72, 73)
God made many promises to Abraham, the father of the faith of Jesus Christ. He promised to make Abraham a great nation (Gen. 12:2). His descendents would inherit the earth (Gen. 17:8). In this vein, Hebrews 11:16 cites a better country to come. Rather than being a better geographical or political environment, the Kingdom of Christ is first an internal kingdom, growing as fruit out of the conversion of many hearts. Here is the promise of a high expression of Christianity, such that God’s people will live as Zacharias foresaw. In this new and heavenly community, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3).
To Moses and the children of Israel by faith, God promised national peace (Deut. 28). God promised that Christ would rule on David’s throne forever (2 Sam. 7:16; Jer. 23:5-6). Isaiah proclaims all the nations will serve the Lord flowing into the “Lord’s House” (Isa. 2:2-4).
Zacharias declares that Jesus is the light to the nations (vv. 78, 79). Light represents the knowledge of God and salvation (Eph. 5:8). The incarnation of Jesus is the turning point of history. He is the Sunrise or Dayspring from on high” (Anatole, cf. 1 John 2:8).
Have these promises found fulfillment?
Christ’s Impact on the Nations
The Fall made us wicked creatures, and unrestrained we would destroy ourselves and others. God instituted civil government to restrain the evil that dwells in men’s hearts (Gen. 9:5-7). In the times before Christ, civil government became rather a personal vehicle for power over others. Wicked men ruled wicked men, and tyranny resulted. Men warred against each other to amass power, centralizing it in the figures of kings, emperors or even gods. The powerful enslaved the weak to do their bidding, and those who resisted died at the hands of their oppressors. Kings were not content to rule their own nation, so they waged war against other nations to form world-wide empires.
Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome—all exemplify the tyranny of man over man. In the absence of God, the humanistic power of the state assumes the place of God. Greece’s and Rome’s attempts at liberty through forms of democracy and republican government failed to bring freedom to the common man. Greece collapsed under the rampant passions of men. Rome’s oppression was nothing more than the state pushing back upon a debauched and rebellious citizenry. Fallen men apart from the Holy Spirit did not have the capacity to restrain their wickedness, and tyranny uniformly resulted.
The world was in darkness, and “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), the light of day dawned in the Incarnation. From that time, definite changes brought about an increasing peace on earth and freedom among men. The cleansing of men’s consciences by Christ’s sacrifice for sins freed men to live in obedience without fear (Heb. 2:14-15; 9:14; 13:6). The light brought by the New Testament explicitly taught obedience from the heart, rather than reliance on external ceremony. The coming of the Holy Spirit and institution of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood transformed the hearts of men. The institution of the local church, governed congregationally without hierarchical authority, but rather with reciprocal authority, the overseers limited in authority, with ultimately each submitting to one another for the good of all (1 Cor. 16:16; Eph 5:21; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5). The radical institution of the church drew violent and mortal persecution from the tyrannical Roman Empire until the early 300s.
The persecution stopped in 313 with Constantine, which was a step toward establishing God’s peace on earth. However, sinful and satanically inspired men did not give up so easily. The Roman Empire assimilated the church, with the church facing heresies and succumbing to the same kind of unbiblical, centralized authority and tyranny of earlier times. Even among godly men, the urge to control others can be overpowering. The rise of the papacy, not 100 years after Constantine, demonstrates the point. As yet, the church was not mature enough to understand true liberty. However, the Medieval period, recovering from the fall of Rome, slowly began to see an emerging middle class, an ordinary fruit of growing godly influence. Nonetheless, as under pagan oppression, the powerful ruling elite still reserved freedom only to itself, under the guise of a godly mandate to protect the people, but rather creating slavishness among them.
When some like Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Huss refused to follow the Church’s errors and attempted to publish the Bible to God’s people in the common language, the centralized church persecuted them. The church then began to turn in on itself and kill those who stood for liberty of conscience, the authority of Scripture, and the Reformation of the Church. In these times, the Church itself had become like the Roman Empire, often persecuting God’s people. Some separated from the European church and formed an independent church in America. It was there that godly men discovered the biblical truths discovered in the Reformation and applied them to civil government and every human activity. And God blessed the effort. Citizens agreed to restrain themselves according to God’s commandments and found they could form a society that granted liberty apart from a tyrannical monarch. The early days of the United States of America is the closest human civilization has ever come to the blessings promised in Zacharias’ prayer.
For over 200 years, the Christian theology that made personal and institutional liberty possible has been eroding in our society. Moral behavior that used to flow consciously from biblical principles began to be exercised merely out of old-fashioned custom. The people eventually threw even the customs aside because no one knew why they existed. Judge Bork aptly captured the heart of this culture in his observations on the 1960s in his book Slouching toward Gomorrah.
Despite the current “dark days”, certain godly aspects of our society today persevere because we live on this side of the Incarnation under Christ’s rule from the right hand of the Father (Psalm 110). We continue to observe a remnant of the rule of law, and a common sense of right and wrong. Interestingly, television dramas typically display this sensibility where the good guys still beat the bad guys. The fact our country is so sensitive about even being perceived as infringing upon foreign nations reveals much about our character (cf. Alexander the Great and Nebuchadnezzar). Though the left increasingly polarizes American politics, the fact is that we held an election in November, rather than a coup. Unlike many parts of the world, where statist tyranny reigns, Americans continue to enjoy freedom to worship God in public on Sunday mornings and throughout the week, without fear of the authorities. With Christians increasingly irresponsible toward the maintenance of justice and free institutions, the window of our blessing may indeed be small. Nonetheless, we may assume that this situation will be temporary, for the church’s well-being is ultimately not dependent upon men, but rather upon God’s power according to His determined will.
We may differ as to the degree to which the prophetic promises of worldwide obedience and peace will be fulfilled before the Second Coming of Christ. The ultimate fulfillment will only be found in the Resurrection state. However, mankind has already seen great progress, and we may expect more in the future as the Gospel grabs hold of men’s hearts throughout the world.
Despite the dark days then, take joy in this advent season. Remember that you live on the powerful and effective side of the Incarnation, and God is working out his providence in the events of history. Do not fear what may happen in the future, because the resurrection and your place in heaven can never be taken from you. Jesus defeated all his enemies at the cross, including death. If any would be tempted to fear and to hide in a merely spiritual understanding of these things, withdrawing into a merely personal piety and a distance out-of-reach hope, remember Christ’s prayer: Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. According to Psalm 110, Christ welcomes His volunteers as He rules in the midst of His enemies, until His enemies are his footstool. Upon the sure fulfillment of Zacharias’ prayer, it is time for the victorious side to rise to our duties by faith, and then let the Lord bring the increase.
This article is from a sermon given by Chris Erickson at Grace Reformed Church, Camarillo, on Sunday, November 30, 2008.
“Chiastic Structure,” The Free Dictionary by Farlex
The history section is largely taken from Katherine Dang’s Universal History, Volume 1: Ancient History—Law Without Liberty, Adam–50 B.C., available on the Nordskog Bookshelf