Suppose that you had just visited Niagara Falls. You marveled at the massive power of all that water gushing over the falls. So you decided to see what the river looked like about a mile upstream. As you’re there, you see a guy in a rowboat, floating downstream toward the falls, oblivious to any danger. You yell at him, but he seems to be deaf. You jump up and down, waving your arms. He finally sees you and waves back, a smile on his face.
If there was a speedboat moored nearby, you could jump in and race out to where he was and throw him a lifeline. But he may not even take it, because obviously, he is not aware that he is in any danger. He’s just cruising down the river, and to take your lifeline would interrupt his leisurely cruise.
The guy in the rowboat represents many in our culture today. Many of them are in church on a given Sunday. They’re cruising down the river of life, fairly contented with how things are going. But they’re oblivious to the fact that God’s terrible judgment lies just ahead. Or, if they think about it, they surmise that it only applies to people who aren’t in a good boat like they’re in. They’re in the rowboat of their own good deeds, and they figure that it will carry them through what they think may be a few ripples of the judgment. But they have no idea of the terrible wrath of God upon sinners, and they don’t see themselves as sinners. So any warnings you shout to them, or any efforts to throw them the lifeline of salvation, are ignored. They don’t see their desperate need of salvation, and so they don’t respond with gratitude and relief to the tender mercy of God in sending the Savior.
Zacharias could easily have been the man in the rowboat. He was a faithful Jewish man who performed his duty as a priest. He and his wife kept the Lord’s commandments and ordinances (Luke 1:6). He wasn’t a godless man, like the pagan Romans who occupied the Jewish homeland. He wasn’t a religious hypocrite, like the profane Herod who reigned over the land. Zacharias easily could have thought of himself as a man who was secure in the rowboat of his own good works, with nothing to fear from God’s judgment.
But, thankfully, Zacharias did not see himself that way. He knew that the falls were rapidly approaching, and he saw himself as helplessly drifting toward them with increasing speed. And so, when God revealed to him that he would have a son who would be the forerunner of the Savior, Zacharias broke forth in this beautiful psalm of praise to God for His great mercy in sending the Savior who had been promised to the fathers centuries before.
You’ll recall that although he was a godly man, Zacharias had doubted the word of the angel that he and his wife would have a son. To discipline him, the Lord had caused Zacharias to be deaf and dumb for at least nine months. But the promised son had been born, and at his circumcision, family and friends gathered, assuming that they would name the boy Zacharias, or at least after another relative. But when Zacharias wrote on the tablet in obedience to God’s command, “His name is John,” his tongue was loosed and he broke forth in this torrent of praise to God for His great salvation.
Salvation is the theme of Zacharias’ prophecy: He mentions “redemption” (1:68); “salvation” (1:69, 71, 77); and, “being delivered” (1:74). The main message of these profound verses, is …
The tender mercy of our God moves Him to provide salvation for those who are in desperate straits.
I want to develop five themes related to salvation:
Zacharias states that God has “accomplished redemption for His people” (1:68). Whereas nine months earlier Zacharias had doubted the word of God, now he believes so strongly that he speaks of a future event as if God has already done it. The word “redemption” implies that those being redeemed are in bondage. Slaves need redemption, not free people. God’s salvation comes to those who know that they are enslaved by sin.
This is further underscored twice by stating that God is saving His people from the hand of their enemies who hate them (1:71, 74). While this salvation obviously has a national political aspect to it, which will be fulfilled when Christ comes the second time to deliver Israel from her enemies and establish His millennial kingdom, it also has a personal spiritual reference (1:77, “forgiveness of sins”). As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against the powerful spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:10-12). Satan and his forces are behind both the political enemies of God’s people and their spiritual bondage before they are saved. As Paul also states, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). But the point is, those who need God’s deliverance are in desperate straits—in bondage to sin, oppressed by Satan—and they know it.
Their desperate condition is further described as “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (1:79). The picture is of travelers who have lost their way in the wilderness and are overtaken by night. They grope for the path, but it eludes them. Finally, in despair, they can do nothing but sit down in the darkness, where death from wild beasts lurks in the shadows, and hope for the morning light. They can’t sleep because they are too cold and too afraid. Every time a wolf howls in the darkness, they shudder.
It’s a graphic picture of those who sit in the darkness and shadow of death that comes from sin. They are lost in the darkness, not knowing which way to go. They are afraid of death that lurks in the shadows. They are in a desperate situation.
The common element with each of these metaphors is that those in these desperate straits know that they need God’s deliverance. They know that they’re in bondage and that their enemies are too strong for them. They know that they’re lost in darkness and the shadow of death. If morning doesn’t dawn soon, they will die. They also know that the deliverance they need is far beyond their own ability to accomplish. If God doesn’t break into their situation, they’re doomed. Even Zacharias, who is described as a righteous and blameless man (1:6), knew that he desperately needed God’s salvation.
One evidence that God is about to accomplish His redemption for you is that the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes to the guilt of your sin. You formerly were blinded to your sin and need of a Savior, but now you realize that you are in bondage to sin, and you long for deliverance. You realize that you cannot deliver yourself. Like that rowboat heading for Niagara Falls, all of your good works could never deliver you in the day of God’s righteous judgment. If you see the desperate straits you’re in, it’s evidence that the Sunshine from on high is about to rise on your needy situation. There is good news for you.
If it were up to us to save ourselves, we all would be doomed. But, thankfully, it’s not up to us. Salvation is of the Lord. This comes through strongly in these verses. Note first that the Lord God “visited us” (1:68, 78). We did not go searching for Him; He came and visited us. He saw our helpless condition, took pity on us, and came down to meet our enormous need in the person of the Savior.
This prophecy is steeped in the Old Testament. The theme of God visiting His people comes from Genesis 50:24, 25. As Joseph was dying in Egypt, he predicted that God would visit his descendants and bring them from there to the land that He had promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the Septuagint, the Greek uses an emphatic Hebraism, “in visiting, God will visit you,” which means, “God will surely visit you.” Then Joseph repeats, “At the visitation with which God shall visit you, then you shall carry my bones with you.” After an interval of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, we read of God telling Moses (Exod. 3:16): “Visiting, I have visited you” (see also, Exod. 4:31).
Even so, in Zacharias’ time, Israel had not heard a word from the Lord in 400 years. The nation was now under the Roman yoke of oppression. It seemed as if God had forgotten His people. But then, after the birth of the forerunner of Messiah, and knowing the angel’s promise to Mary that she would bear the Son of God, Zacharias prophesies, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.”
If you were living in abject poverty and one day a kind billionaire visited you, you might have a ray of hope that he would take pity on you and give you some help. But God has done more than that. He not only saw our desperate condition and sent us help; He actually took our human condition on Himself! He took on human flesh, not as a mighty king, above our weaknesses, but as a baby, subject to our frailty, yet without sin. As if that were not enough, He even took our sin on Himself on the cross, bearing the penalty we deserve! It was all God’s doing because of His tender mercy (1:78), not because we deserved it. God visited us in the birth of Jesus Christ.
There are many other evidences in our text that salvation is God’s doing, not our doing. He accomplished it (1:68). “He raised up a horn of salvation for us” (1:69). The horn is a symbol of the strength of an animal, such as a bull (Ps. 132:17; 18:2). Here it points to the fact that salvation required God’s mighty power because our enemy is so strong. But God did it--He raised it up. He did it in fulfillment of many prophecies that He had given centuries before (1:70-71). Alfred Edersheim found more than 400 Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, but even apart from these specific prophecies, the whole of the Old Testament points to Christ (cited by Norval Geldenhuys, Luke [Eerdmans], pp. 93-94).
Furthermore, God sent the Savior in accordance with the oath of His covenant with Abraham (1:72-73). Two thousand years before Jesus Christ was born, God sovereignly chose Abraham, a pagan from Ur of the Chaldeans, and promised to make a great nation of him, to give his descendants the land of Canaan, and to bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3). Jesus Christ was the descendant of Abraham in whom God’s promises were fulfilled.
God also raised up John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, in accordance with prophecies made hundreds of years before. In Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1; 4:5, God predicted that He would send His messenger in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way before Him. Even though Zacharias and Elizabeth were humanly beyond their childbearing years, God sent His angel to promise that they would have this son who would fulfill these prophecies by making “ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
The point is that God did all this apart from human initiative, effort, merit, or ability. God planned it, He prophesied it, and He carried it out, in spite of Zacharias’ doubts and inability to father a son. The salvation God provided in Jesus Christ comes totally from Him. We cannot do anything to earn it or work for it. All we can do is receive it.
In addition to all of these proofs that salvation is God’s doing, not ours, there is also the theme of God’s great mercy that permeates Luke 1 (see vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78). As we saw last week, God’s mercy and His grace are somewhat synonymous, meaning His undeserved favor, but His mercy has the added connotation of His compassion on those who are in great misery. God’s mercy is an overwhelming concept, but when the Holy Spirit speaking through Zacharias adds, “the tender mercy of our God” (1:78), it sounds almost too good to be true!
We’ve just seen that His salvation is not for people who have it pretty much together. They are in bondage to sin, oppressed by Satan, sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. It would seem reasonable for God to say, “Make some efforts at self-improvement, and maybe then we can talk about salvation.” But, no, the tender mercy of our God means, as Paul puts it, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5: 6, 8).
This runs counter to the commonly held notion that we can save ourselves by our own effort or ability. It goes against the idea that we are worthy to be saved. No! Salvation is from God, apart from human merit, that no one can boast. If you think you can do something to save yourself or to provide for your own salvation, you have too high a view of yourself. Salvation is for those who know that they are in desperate straits. It is God’s doing, not ours.
Though Jesus’ name is not mentioned specifically in Zacharias’ prophecy, His person is described so that there is no mistaking it. This horn of salvation is from “the house of David” (1:69). Zacharias and Elizabeth were both descended from Aaron who was from the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5), but Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah through David (Matt. 1:2-17; Luke 3:23-38). Jesus Himself affirmed that He is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (John 8:56-58).
Also, the coming Savior was none other than God in human flesh. John went “before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1:76). The Lord (who is God) is Jesus. That John recognized the divinity of Jesus was obvious when he said that he was not even worthy to untie the thong of His sandals. John affirmed that Jesus had a higher rank than him because He existed before him, even though physically John was six months older than Jesus (John 1:27, 30).
Zacharias refers to this Savior as “the Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78), a reference to Malachi 4:2: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Jesus Himself claimed, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Clearly, Jesus Christ is the Savior of whom Zacharias and all Scripture prophesied. “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). God’s salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.
Thus, salvation comes to those who know they are in desperate straits. It is God’s doing, not ours. It is accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I mentioned, there will be a national deliverance of the nation Israel from her enemies when Jesus Christ returns and crushes the nations opposed to His chosen people. But, as verse 77 states, salvation is also personal. It consists in the forgiveness of our sins. The Jewish religious leaders were looking for a political Messiah who would deliver Israel from Rome. They thought that everything would be fine if such a leader would come on the scene. But John the Baptist confronted them with their personal sins and need of personal salvation: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore, bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:7, 8).
We all like to think in terms of political solutions to the problems that our society faces. If the government would just get it together, our problems would be solved and life would be peaceful. But God’s salvation goes deeper than that. It confronts the individual with his or her sin by saying, “The problem isn’t just out there with the government. The problem is in your heart. You have sinned against a holy God, and there will be no true and lasting peace until you have the peace in your heart of knowing that your sins are forgiven.”
Only God can forgive sins and He does not do it arbitrarily, but in accordance with His perfect justice and righteousness. The penalty for sins must be paid or God is not just in forgiving them. On the cross, Jesus Christ offered Himself as the ransom for sinners. Since He was man and lived perfectly in obedience to God’s law as a man, His sacrifice had merit for the human race. Since He was God in human flesh, His sacrifice had merit before the throne of God’s perfect justice. The sinner who trusts in Jesus’ death on his behalf can be assured that God is propitiated or satisfied. Why did God send His Son as the sacrifice for sinners? Because of His tender mercy! “Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me!” (Charles Wesley).
Zacharias says that we, “being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (1:74-75). Contrary to popular opinion, God does not save us primarily so that we will be happy. The Christian life is a blessedly happy life, full of joy and gladness. But that is a by-product, not the chief focus. God saves us so that we might glorify Him (make Him look good) through a life of holy service. People who think they’re saved but who live for themselves and their own happiness are deceived. True salvation always results in a life of growing holiness given over to serving the gracious God who has granted deliverance from the bondage of sin.
Years ago a Salvation Army officer, Captain Shaw, went to India as a medical missionary to a leper colony. His eyes welled with tears as he saw three lepers who were prisoners, their hands and feet bound by chains that cut into their diseased flesh. Shaw turned to the guard and said, “Please unfasten these chains.” “But it isn’t safe,” the guard replied. “These men are not just lepers; they’re dangerous criminals.”
“I’ll be responsible; they’re suffering enough,” Shaw said, as he took the keys, and tenderly removed the shackles and treated their bleeding ankles and wrists.
About two weeks later Captain Shaw had his first misgivings about freeing these criminals. He had to make an overnight trip and feared leaving his wife and child alone. His wife insisted that she wasn’t afraid; God would protect her. So the doctor left. The next morning when Mrs. Shaw went to her door, she was startled to see the three criminals lying on her steps. One explained, “We know the doctor go. We stay here all night so no harm come to you.” That was their response to the doctor’s act of love for them—to serve him freely out of gratitude. That should be our response to God’s freeing us from bondage to sin—to give our lives in holy service to Him.
Have you personally experienced the tender mercy of God by receiving the forgiveness of sins He offers in the Lord Jesus Christ? Has the Holy Spirit opened your eyes to your desperate situation outside of Christ? You sit in darkness and the shadow of death, awaiting God’s awful judgment. You can do nothing to save yourself. But God has done it all. In His tender mercy, He offers you a full pardon if you will receive Jesus Christ.
Years ago, a man named Dr. Barnardo, who ran a London orphanage, was approached by a dirty, ragged little boy who asked for admission. The doctor looked at him and said, “But my boy, I don’t know you. What do you have to recommend you?”
The boy was both needy and bright. He quickly held up before Dr. Barnardo his ragged coat and with a confident voice said, “If you please, sir, I thought these here would be all I needed to recommend me.” Dr. Barnardo caught him up in his arms and took him in, because that truly was all he needed to recommend him—his rags.
Do you need forgiveness? Then bring all your sins and apply to Jesus. Because of His tender mercy, God will pardon all who seek His forgiveness. Salvation means the forgiveness of our sins by God’s mercy. There’s no such thing as sin that is greater than the tender mercy of our God!
Copyright Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation