An embryonic evangel.
Even in the womb, Christ was changing the world.
The Song of Zacharias, or “The Benedictus,” as it’s sometimes called, comes on the heels of some rather strange happenings in first century Israel. Zacharias and his wife, Elisabeth, were both “stricken in years,” having lived a full life of faith and devotion in the service of Jehovah (Luke 1:5–7). Their life was made all the more difficult given the fact that Elisabeth was barren. Grueling living conditions must’ve seemed nigh unbearable without the blessed hope of raising a family. I wonder how many times Elisabeth went to the temple to pray for a son, much like her forbear Hannah had done? (1 Sam. 1:9–28). Too many times to count. Yet, for however burdensome such a lot must’ve seemed, Zacharias’s resolve remained undeterred, as we’re introduced to him “executing the priest’s office before God” (Luke 1:8).
On what surely appeared like any other day, Zacharias’s priestly duties were interrupted by an angel who suddenly appeared “standing on the right side of the altar of incense” (Luke 1:11). Terrified, Zacharias fell to the ground, while heaven’s messenger began to inform him that he and his wife would, indeed, bring a son into the world (Luke 1:13–17). But this wouldn’t be like other Israelite youngsters; he would be the harbinger of the Messiah, possessed with the “spirit and power of Elijah,” whose mandate was to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Such an assignment would make anyone speechless, I imagine. But Zacharias speaks up: “Whereby shall I know this?” asks the puzzled priest, “for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). To be honest, I empathize with the question. It appears to be a logical inquiry to make. Both he and his wife were well beyond their child-rearing years, let alone the days of virility. How was this going to happen?
The angel, however, doesn’t take kindly to Zacharias’s cross-examination. He sees this questioning as a refusal to believe in the glad tidings he was commissioned by Jehovah himself to proffer (Luke 1:19). And, that being the case, he rendered Zacharias speechless — actually speechless, “until the day that these things shall be performed” (Luke 1:20). For Elisabeth’s entire pregnancy, he was unable to extend any words of comfort. He was a priest without a voice. All in all, this pronouncement of the birth of John is one which rattles with Old Testament fulfillment (Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1; 4:5–6). Of course, Zacharias and Elisabeth are very capable stand-ins for Abraham and Sarah, who, likewise, were given the promise of a son despite their seniority (Gen. 16:1; 17:17; 21:1–3). It marks, though, a seminal moment in history — the first glimmer of light that was about to dawn on the world.
Nonetheless, Zacharias returns home after his time in the temple was over, and what do you know? Elisabeth is with child! (Luke 1:23–25). I can only imagine the surprise and bewilderment and elation that filled that household at the news of Elisabeth’s conception. Eventually, she gives birth to a son, with friends and family surrounding the couple, rejoicing over this new life (Luke 1:57–58). But, like any good family, they make some rather bold assumptions about this boy’s fate, specifically, his name. They go around calling him “Zacharias Jr,” which wasn’t entirely out-of-bounds (Luke 1:59). Family names were sacred commodities in those days. The honor of passing on your name was akin to passing on your very essence, which was, perhaps, the best legacy anyone could leave behind. It was a pretty safe bet, then, to think Zacharias Jr was a suitable namesake for the newborn babe in Elisabeth’s arms.
But Zacharias and Elisabeth, ever the yuppies, throw caution to the wind and reject social convention, insisting that the boy’s name would be “John” (Luke 1:60–63). Every visitor gave each other knowing, awkward glances, with one chap brash enough to say what everyone else was likely thinking: “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.” No one in all of Zacharias’s or Elisabeth’s ancestry had ever gone by the “John.” Which made this more than just abnormal. This was an outrage. “And they marvelled all,” St. Luke records (Luke 1:63), which was probably putting it lightly. Notwithstanding how socially unacceptable this was, Zacharias and Elisabeth were making a statement: they were following what they had come to believe was the Word of Jehovah for them.
By opposing what was common practice, they were, likewise, demonstrating an overriding belief in God’s truth. It didn’t, perhaps, make total sense to them. But, even still, they were putting their trust in the God whom they had served all those long years. And wouldn’t you know it? Zacharias’s voice comes back! “And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God” (Luke 1:64). This, surely, rattled the guests. The voiceless priest is speaking once again. But he’s not just talking, he’s prophesying. “Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (Luke 1:67–68). His voice is filled with the words of Jehovah himself. And we ought to pause and consider this moment for what it is: God is speaking again! After over 400 years of silence, the voice of God resounds, filling the air with hope. “The Benedictus,” then, was no impulsive song that was born out of Zacharias’s spontaneity. Rather, this was an inspired anthem from God himself, meant to signal all that was about to be fulfilled in those days. Indeed, this song reveals what lies in the heart and mind of Yahweh, showing us what he’s all about.
Zacharias’s song draws on a myriad of Old Testament images and allusions in order to paint a picture of all that the long-hoped-for Messiah would accomplish. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” he begins, “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” (Luke 1:68–69). Throughout this psalm, Zacharias sings notes of triumph and accomplishment. And all the evidence he had that such things were true were a trio of proclamations from an angel (Luke 1:17), his wife (Luke 1:41–42), and his wife’s cousin (Luke 1:46–55). Zacharias’s “evidence,” then, wasn’t very provable to outsiders. These strange things surely appeared improbable and even a little nonsensical to surrounding skeptics. But, nevertheless, it was all in keeping with God’s redemptive promises and purposes. Such is why, as Zacharias sings, he bears witness to the fulfillment of all the prophecies of times nearly forgotten.
The Messiah, of course, had long been the focus of Israelite religion. Reaching back eons, to the fringes of Eden, the people of God were imbued with a sense of hope and confidence and meaning through the illumination of One who would come, the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; Exod. 33:1). Prophets had long foretold of this One who would come on behalf of God himself and for the sake of God’s people (Luke 1:70). Every temple homily and every synagogue sermon had as its focus the exaltation of the Messiah, the Son of Man and Ancient of Days who would come with kingdom in tow (Dan. 7:13–14). He would come and “ransom captive Israel,” bringing salvation to God’s people, releasing them from tyranny (Luke 1:71). He would consummate those ancient covenantal promises made to father Abraham and King David (Luke 1:72–75; cf. Gen. 12:1–3; 2 Sam. 7:12–13). All of Jehovah’s blessings would be realized in this One who would come.
All of Zacharias’s hope was tethered to this Messiah who would come to dwell among his people (Luke 1:68, 78). And not just dwell with them but deliver them. “Through the tender mercy of our God,” he declares, “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” (Luke 1:78–79). Like the first rays of the sun that warm the earth after a long, cold winter’s night, so this pronouncement of the Messiah’s coming warmed and filled Zacharias with the hope of heaven’s light. The “Sun of Righteousness” was here (Mal. 4:2). The “morning star” was now peering over sin’s horizon (2 Pet. 1:19), casting “light to them that sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79). This, of course, is a direct reference to the oracle of Isaiah, who prophesied that a heaven-sent Rescuer would come imbued with heaven’s brilliance, ready to share the light of God’s glory and grace. And the spread of that light would be equivalent to the redemption and rescue of souls out of darkness into righteousness (Isa. 9:2; 60:2–3). What’s more, this light would not be subjective, flinging its rays on only those of a certain rank, class, or nationality. No, this light was for any and all who sat “in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
Perhaps Zacharias didn’t realize the full extent of what that meant. But, regardless, his song communicates the infinite compassion of God which shuts no one out (John 6:37). And it was all due to the “tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78). The sending of a Messiah, a Redeemer and Savior, is, you see, the ultimate expression of the heart of God. “Tender mercy” is term that’s indicative of a mercy that springs from the bowels of God — from the uttermost recesses of who God is. Which is to say, the deeper you go into the heart of God, the more mercy you will find. “Divine mercy,” writes Dane Ortlund, “is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick.”1 Like a distant star which appears as pinhole in the cloudless midnight sky, the Messiah’s birth was an event which made the cosmos tremble with hope. God’s people were about to be visited by Mercy himself. All of Israel’s (and the world’s, Rom. 8:22) collective longings for restoration and deliverance were about to be realized.
Now can you sense how momentous this moment is? It’s been four centuries of spiritual silence, with the coming of the Messiah no closer than before. Millennia have come and gone with seemingly no sign of any promise being fulfilled. No sign of the Messiah’s arrival. Age after age saw faithful voices worship the Lord, putting the trust in his Word, staking the lives to his truth. And age after age saw nothing to show for it. But now all was being fulfilled! And to think that the priest Zacharias recognizes this fulfillment at the mere announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Indeed, let the point sink in: Zacharias’s his hope — his entire being — was pinned on an unborn baby. Jesus was but an embryo while this aged priest sang his praises. He worshiped the Lord for the accomplishment of his and his people’s salvation, all while the Savior was still developing head, shoulders, knees, and toes in his mother’s womb. Zacharias sings as though all those promises are already as good as done. And they were. Even in utero, Christ was changing the world.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 148.