Who is Jesus? How do we respond to him? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 7:18-35 on November 11, 2018.
Have you ever seen a commercial on television and realized that you had a problem that you never knew you had? A lot of products are designed to solve a particular problem that we have. When you watch commercials, they usually illustrate that problem, and then they give us great news: there’s a product that can fix your problem. Sometimes the problems aren’t really big. Do you remember those Ronco products that were sold on TV? Ron Popeil hawked all kinds of products on TV. You may remember the rotisserie machine that could cook two chickens at once. He also sold the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Until you saw this product, you may not have realized how difficult it is to scramble eggs with a whisk. But with the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, you simply place a whole egg on the device, a needle sticks inside the egg, and the electronic device scrambles the egg’s yolk and white inside the shell. No more whisks needed!
Remember the Clapper? Before you saw that product advertised on TV, you probably didn’t think about how much time you spent turning lights off and on. But now, with the Clapper, you just clap to do the job. Just think what you can do with all of that time saved!
On a more serious note, sometimes we don’t realize we have a health problem. Perhaps we’re feeling fine, but we happen to have our annual physical and the blood tests reveal that our cholesterol or our blood pressure is too high. Perhaps something else is going on with our blood sugar levels or our white blood cell count. There may be some proteins in our blood that could be markers of a tumor. We didn’t think we had a problem, but now the doctor says we do.
The point is that in order to make changes, in order to find a solution, we first have to know we have a problem. In order to be healed, we need to know what disease we have. We first have to be confronted with the truth in order to be made well.
That can be true of all kinds of things in life. If we want to get better, we have to be confronted with the truth. I used to be a professor of music. Most of the time, I taught voice lessons. Most of the students accepted the fact that it was my job to get them to sing better. But I remember there was one student who seemed to be upset that I didn’t simply let him sing and then say to him how great of a singer he was. I wanted him to improve, so I challenged him. His voice was very soft, and to be an effective singer, you have to be able to project your voice. You need a certain level of volume in order to have a rich, resonant, pleasing voice. So, I corrected him and taught him some new techniques. I usually had good student evaluation, but he gave me a negative one. (Evaluations were anonymous, but I could identify his evaluation by the comments he made.)
In order to change, to improve, to be made well, we need to know what our problem is. And we need to be confronted with the truth. This is never easy. And, to quote that line Jack Nicholson delivers in “A Few Good Men,” there are many people who “can’t handle the truth.”
That’s certainly true when it comes to Jesus. In order to know that we need Jesus, we first need to know that we have a problem that only he can solve. That means that we will need to hear some hard truths. Some people will respond rightly to those hard truths. Others “can’t handle the truth,” and they will be dismissive.
We see this today in today’s passage, Luke 3:1–20. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we were told the story of how a special child was born to two elderly parents who were previously unable to have children. This special child was named John. His father, Zechariah, was told that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16–17).
When John was born, Zechariah said this to him,
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76–79).
John’s job would be to go prepare the way for the Lord Jesus, who was his relative and was born a few months after John. John’s role was to prepare the people for the coming of their King and Savior. He would let them know that the salvation of God has come.
Now, we jump ahead three decades later. Jesus hasn’t begun his ministry yet, but John was ministering in the wilderness near the Jordan River. Let’s first read verses 1–6:
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Once again, Luke gives us some historical context. He tells us that this is the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (42 BC–37 AD). Tiberius was the emperor of Rome, who followed Augustus, his stepfather. He started to reign alongside Augustus in AD 12 and then he became the sole emperor in AD 14. Depending on how the years were counted, this could be as early as AD 26 and as late as AD 29. I think it’s possible that it’s now AD 28, particularly if Jesus died in AD 30. But some think he died in AD 33, and then the year 29 might make sense. At any rate, this is during Tiberius’s reign.
It’s also when Pontius Pilate was the governor, or prefect, of Judea. He held that position from AD 26 to 36. He was an administrative officer of the Roman Empire whose job it was to collect taxes and keep the peace.
Three other political leaders are mentioned: Herod Antipas (ruled 4 BC–AD 39), his half-brother, Philip (ruled 4 BC–AD 34), and Lysanias (dates unknown). This Herod is not Herod the Great, but his son. He was the one who ruled over Galilee, the region where Jesus ministered. He was also famous for divorcing his wife and marrying the wife of his half-brother, Herod Philip (not be confused with Herod the Tetrarch). John the Baptist spoke out against that marriage and that led to his death. Philip and Lysanias are not as important, but they were both “tetrarchs,” which means they were each a ruler of a fourth of Herod the Great’s kingdom.
In addition to the political rulers, there are the religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest of the time (he held that position from AD 18–36). His father-in-law, Annas, had been high priest earlier (AD 6–15). Though he was no longer officially the high priest, it’s clear that he still had a lot of power (John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6).
I think Luke tells us who these powerful men were in order to tell us when this event occurred. But he also tells us about these men because he contrasts John the Baptist with them. These men had political and religious power. In fact, four of them (Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, and Caiaphas) will play a role in Jesus’ death. Yet John the Baptist didn’t have any earthly power. But what John had was more important: The word of God. John is presented as a prophet. He delivers a message from God in the wilderness along the Jordan River. He is not in the palaces of Rome, Jerusalem, or Caesarea Philippi. He’s not in the temple in Jerusalem. But his job is more important than Caesar’s or the high priest’s. His job was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Nothing could get in the way of what God was about to do. Not the lowest valley, the highest mountain, the most crooked of roads, or the roughest patch of terrain. No, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
To prepare people for the coming of the Lord, John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism is the act of being immersed in water. In this case, it was the Jordan River. Repentance is a turning to God, a turning away from sin, a changing of mind and heart and behavior. What John was saying was that it was necessary to be washed from the uncleanness of sin and to turn to God in faith and to turn way from sin and idols.
The idea of needing to be washed is found in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 1:16–17, God says to Israel,
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
The idea of being washed in the Jordan River also reminds me of a story from the Old Testament. A Gentile, named Naaman, was the commander of the Syrian army. He also happened to be a leper. He was told that the prophet Elisha could heal him. When he came to Elisha, Elisha told him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Naaman was doubtful at first, but he did as he was told, and he was healed of his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1–14).
The idea is that the Israelites were unclean. They needed to be clean in order to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. Like everyone else, they had sinned against God. In order to be right with God, they needed to repent and be forgiven. Our great problem, our great disease is the separation that exists between God and people. That separation is responsible for all that is wrong with the world. Because of that separation, we have inner turmoil. We don’t feel at ease, we don’t feel peace, we don’t truly feel home. We can get depressed and lonely. Because of that separation, we fight. We covet and steal. We quarrel. Nations go to war. Because of that separation, God put a curse on the earth. There are earthquakes and floods, hurricanes and famines. And because of this separation, we get diseases like leprosy and leukemia, and we die. We’re separated from God because we don’t live according to our design. God made us to know him, love him, and worship him. But we don’t pursue God, we don’t love him as we should, and we don’t worship him. We tend to make ourselves or other created things the objects of our worship, even if we don’t call it “worship” or think of it as worship. This disease of sin affects all flesh, and it affected Israel just as much as it affected Gentiles.
Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3–5, identifying John as the voice in the wilderness. Another passage in Isaiah talks about preparing the way. Those who are lowly and contrite will be healed, but those who continue in their wickedness will not experience healing or peace. This is what Isaiah 57:14–21 says:
14 And it shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16 For I will not contend forever,
nor will I always be angry;
for the spirit would grow faint before me,
and the breath of life that I made.
17 Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
I struck him; I hid my face and was angry,
but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.
18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
19 creating the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord,
“and I will heal him.
20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
21 There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
John’s message was the same. Healing would come to those who sought it. But there are those, the wicked, who will never seek God, and they will not experience peace.
Let’s continue in this passage to learn more about John’s message. Let’s read verses 7–9:
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John calls the crowds a “brood of vipers!” In Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that he directed that statement to two sects of Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 3:7). “Brood of vipers” more or less means, “sons of the serpent,” or, “sons of the devil.” The imagery goes back to Genesis 3, when Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempts and Adam and Eve. John asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He probably implies that they can’t slither out of God’s righteous judgment. The only way for them to avoid God’s wrath is to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” In other words, if their lives show that they have turned to God, then they can avoid his wrath. But they shouldn’t think they will be spared God’s judgment just because they’re Jews. They can’t take pride in their heritage and say that they are sons of Abraham. The true sons of Abraham are people of faith (Gal. 3:7, 9), people who are united to Jesus (Gal. 3:29) by faith. If all the Jews lacked faith and didn’t repent of their sins, then God could take stones and make them sons of Abraham. People of faith produce good fruit and will be spared, and people who lack faith bear bad fruit and will be judged.
This is similar to what happens in the Gospel of John when Jesus confronts Jewish religious leaders. He says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). They say that they are Abraham’s sons and have never been slaves. How can they be made free? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. . . . I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:34, 37). When they insist that they are Abraham’s children, Jesus says that if they were Abraham’s children, they would be doing the works of Abraham. I think he means they would be acting out of faith, and if they truly loved God the Father, they would love God the Son, Jesus. But they don’t understand Jesus, because they cannot bear to hear what he says (John 8:39–43). Then Jesus brings out the big guns and says, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
In other words, Jesus calls the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers.” They weren’t sons of Abraham and sons of God. No, they were sons of the devil. This shows us that God’s people are not of one ethnicity. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile. People aren’t right with God because they have some position or power. They’re not right with God because they happened to go through the religious motions. No, they are right with God if they have been transformed, if God has changed them. As the apostle Paul says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). You can’t boast in following all the religious rules, or flouting all the religious rules. What matters is being transformed by God, born of the Holy Spirit.
I think it’s no accident that John is in the wilderness and at the Jordan River. Remember that when God redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them into the wilderness. And to enter into the Promised Land of Canaan, they had to cross the Jordan River. Though they entered into that land, they did not find rest for their souls (Heb. 3:1–4:10). Because the Israelites were generally unfaithful to God, God punished them and drove them out of that land. But when the reentered it, they still hadn’t fixed their problem of sin. The answer wasn’t entering into that land. The answer was a transformation. And that’s why John is here, in the wilderness, at the Jordan River. He’s saying, “If you want to enter the true Promised Land, the true paradise with God, you have to go through the Jordan. You have to be washed of your sin. You have to change. You must turn from you sin and turn back to God. You must trust him and you must live like it.”
Some people who heard John’s message were convicted. They realized that they had a problem and they wanted to know what they could do to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Let’s read verses 10–14:
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
When people ask John, “What should we do?” John gives them a pretty simple answer: start living rightly. The implication is they haven’t been living this way. They’re supposed to share their clothing. If you see someone who lacks the basic necessities of life, share with that person. Stop taking things that aren’t yours. Tax collectors in that time and place were known for taking more than they should. Apparently, soldiers did the same thing. John tells the crowd to live rightly, to be generous and honest.
Now, this doesn’t mean that this makes a person right with God. We have to remember that John’s message was not the full gospel. He was preparing people for Jesus. What he was doing was highlighting their sin and their need for salvation. He was telling them to start to pay attention to their dealings with other people, to be aware of their own unrighteousness and to start thinking more about righteousness.
Jesus will say that God freely forgives those who turn to him in faith. But Jesus will also stress the importance of sacrificial giving. Later in the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see examples of people giving generously. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a story of a man who gives generously to someone in need. We’ll also see a story of a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who repents (Luke 19:1–10). And we’ll meet an honorable solider, a centurion (Luke 7:1–10). In this passage, Luke is introducing some important themes that will be developed later.
John the Baptist’s preaching pointed forward to the one who can make sinful people righteous. Let’s read verses 15–17:
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John’s preaching was so powerful that some people wondered if he was the Christ, or Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer that the Old Testament promised would come. He clearly says no. He says that while his baptism was with water, there was one who is mightier than he. This one, Jesus, will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Water in and of itself does nothing to change a person. Baptism in water is just a sign. But the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the triune God. After Jesus dies, is resurrected from the grave, and ascends into heaven, he will pour out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately transforms people. Fire can also change. Fire can destroy, but fire can also purify. For some, fire will mean judgment. Those who reject Jesus are the trees who produce bad fruit, and they will be thrown into the fire. But those who trust in Jesus will be purified. God uses the fire of trials to purify his people (Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2–3). He uses challenges in our lives to burn off the things that hinder our growth, to show us what is important and enduring and what won’t last. We should focus on the things that matter most, the things that are eternal.
Jesus is like a farmer who separates the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is the husk, which isn’t used for food and so is discarded. A farmer would use a winnowing fork to toss the grain in the air. The lighter chaff would be carried off in the wind and the heavier wheat would fall back to the threshing floor. The chaff would later be burned, while the wheat is stored in the barn. This is just a picture of judgment day. When Jesus returns, when the end of history as we know it comes, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. John preached this, but so did Jesus and his apostles. The idea that our lives will be evaluated means that our lives have meaning. If there is no evaluation, there simply is no meaning. But the fact that we will be judged should cause us to think more carefully about our lives. If all our actions, our words, and even our thoughts are used as evidence in the cosmic trial that is judgment day, could we stand in the right before God? Would we be found guilty or innocent? John is pressing the need that people have for salvation. He is preparing people for the only Savior.
At the end of this passage, Luke gives us a summary statement of John’s preaching. But Luke also tells us that John’s preaching got him into trouble. Let’s read verses 18–20:
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
John preached “good news” to people. His message relates to the good news that the prophet Isaiah promised would come. Isaiah promised that God would come and gather his people (Isa. 40:9–11). He promised that God would bring peace (Isa. 52:7; the peace comes from the “Suffering Servant” of Isa. 52:13–53:12). God’s anointed one would bring good news to the spiritually poor, the ones enslaved to sin (Isa. 61:1). Isaiah promises forgiveness, restoration, and even a recreation of the world (Isa. 65:17).
But not everyone thought John’s preaching was good news. Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife in order to marry the wife of his half-brother, didn’t like John’s preaching, and he locked him up. John had told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matt. 14:4). And so John was imprisoned and later he was killed (see Matt. 14:1–12). John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who told people to stop worshiping idols, false gods, and to turn back to the true God. He spoke truth to power. In Elijah’s day, the power was King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had to run for his life. John also spoke truth to power, but for this he was killed.
Hundreds of millions of people and perhaps billions of people have heard about John the Baptist. How many of us know much about Tiberius or Philip the Tetrarch? We only know Pontius Pilate because he was involved in the crucifixion. These men are mere footnotes in the Bible. But John is a hero. That is because John the Baptist had real power. God’s hand was upon him, and he had the power of God’s word. Though his actions cost him his life, he knew that he could never lose eternal life in the true Promised Land of a renewed and restored creation. His glory far exceeds that of the emperor.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, I want to focus on just a few points.
One, true power is found in God’s word. God’s word has the power to transform lives. When the Holy Spirit applies his word to the hearts of sinful people, those people turn to God. They are changed. The word of God has changed the world more than any emperor has. People often put so much hope in politics. They pour so much of their time, money, and emotions into political parties. But politics does not have the power of God. It’s important, but it’s less important than God’s word.
John the Baptist’s preaching challenged not only political powers, but also religious powers. His preaching—and Jesus’ preaching—challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. They challenged the high priests. Some people put their hope in their priests, or in religious institutions. Formalized religion is not necessarily bad, but if it is opposed to the word of God, it is. When churches do things that aren’t biblical, they need to be reformed. If they don’t change according to God’s word, they, too, will be thrown into the fire, which will consume all their unbiblical traditions.
Two, God’s word tells us that our problem is our rebellion against God. Our main problem is not a lack of education or money. Our main problem isn’t political. Our main problem isn’t even racism or sexism. Our main problem is that we do not live for God the way that we should. And God has every right to condemn us. John’s preaching highlighted that fact.
Three, John’s job was also to point to the solution to our problem. Our problem is so great that we cannot fix it ourselves. We cannot atone for our own sin. That is why God sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus is the only perfectly righteous person who has ever lived. He has always loved God the Father the way that God should be loved. He has always obeyed God the Father the way that God should be obeyed. He loves people the way that people should be loved. And though he never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and executed on an instrument of torture, the cross. Yet this was God’s plan. On the cross, Jesus experienced God’s righteous, holy wrath. God hates sin, and Jesus was regarded as sin. He was crushed, because sin deserves to be destroyed. He experienced hell on earth, because sinners deserve to experience condemnation. And the great news is that anyone who turns to Jesus in faith and repents of their sins can be forgiven of all their sin. Jesus has already paid the penalty that our crimes against God deserve.
Four, that brings us to what a right response to Jesus looks like. We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he did. But faith isn’t just head knowledge. Faith leads to action. Repentance is the changing of one’s whole life. If a right response is a coin, faith is on one side, and repentance is on the other. You can’t separate the two. Jesus and his apostles called people to put their faith in Jesus, but they also called them to repentance (Luke 5:32; 13:1–5; 15; 17:1–4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). If you haven’t yet turned to Jesus, you can turn to him now. It’s not too late. You can put your trust in him. You can start living a different way. I would love to talk to you more about that. But keep in mind that following Jesus is a real change. It’s one we need to make in order to be right with God and avoid judgment.
Five, repentance isn’t just what we do when we first come to Jesus. The whole Christian life is a continual repentance, a continual reformation according to the word of God. I talked a lot about Martin Luther last fall. In his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which was a protest against the Catholic Church’s abuse of the sale of indulgences, he began with this thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to repentance.” Many of us have put our faith in Jesus. How many of us are repenting even now?
Finally, I want to close with this thought: John the Baptist said that God could raise up stones to be Abraham’s children. And God has done that. In the apostle Peter’s first letter, he says that Jesus is “a living stone,” the “cornerstone” upon which the church is built (1 Pet. 2:4, 7). And Christians are “like living stones” who are “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). We were once spiritually dead, but we have been made alive, adopted as God’s children, and incorporated into God’s temple, the church. Peter says,
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).
Praise God that he can raise up stones to be alive, to be his own possession, to walk in his light, and to receive his mercy. And let us continually turn from sin to God, living lives that are pleasing to him.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- It was typical for Old Testament prophets to be identified by the names of their fathers, the kings who reigned when they prophesied, and the fact that the “word of the Lord” came to them: Jer. 1:1–2; 11:18–20; 13:3; Isa. 38:4; Hos. 1:1. ↑
- Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 115. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon based on Luke 3:1-20. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by telling people that they needed to repent, or turn from the old ways and to God. He announced that we have a problem and that the solution, the one mightier than he, would come.
Christmas can be an exciting time. It’s a time of celebration and joy. But it can also be a time of depression for many. Depression can be caused by many things. Perhaps it’s due to loneliness, or the sadness in remembering a loved one who has died. But perhaps that depression comes from broken promises.
So many people break promises. How many times have politicians broken their promises? Too many times to count, I’m sure. Do you know how you can tell a politician is making false promises? His lips are moving. Think of all the marriage vows you’ve ever heard recited. How many people have kept their promise to live as a lawfully wedded couple “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”? Think of all the times that parents or siblings or friends have broken promises, both small and large. Think of how many times we have broken our promises to others.
There are other broken promises, too. So much in life promises joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness. Advertisers make us feel like if only we get the newest gadget or some other product, then we’ll feel complete. Sometimes we come into the holiday season hoping to get a certain feeling. That happens with milestones in life, too. We think, “If only I get that job, I’ll feel accomplished,” or, “If only I could retire, then I’d be happy.” Those goals and dreams promise so much, but when they arrive we’re often disappointed. It’s as if we believed those things promised us something great, but then we find out it’s all a lie.
But there is someone who always keeps his promises, and that is God. God never lies. But God’s promises aren’t always fulfilled the way that we expect them to be. When God makes a promise, we often start to imagine how he’ll fulfill that promise, and our imagination is often wrong. Though God doesn’t always give us what we want, he always keeps his promises and he always gives us what we need.
We’ll see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll see how God kept his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth to give them a son in their old age. And we’ll see how their son, John, will prepare the way for the salvation that God promised in the Old Testament.
Before we look at today’s passage, I just want to remind us of what we’ve seen so far. Luke begins his Gospel by explaining that it is an historical account of what God has done. Luke used eyewitness testimony to write his history.
He begins his history with the story of a priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were old and unable to have children. Yet God promised Zechariah that they would have a son named John. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). John’s role, as we’ll find out, was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their anointed king, the Messiah.
Zechariah found this hard to believe, so he questioned what the angel said. In response, Gabriel said, “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 1:20). And from that time, Zechariah could not talk.
Last week, we found out that the angel Gabriel made an even more amazing promise to Mary. Though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. That child would be called Jesus. He would be the son, or heir, of King David, but he would also be “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Mary believed this message and later she praised God with a hymn known as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55).
Today, we’ll see that Elizabeth gives birth to the promised child, John. When that happens, and when Zechariah responds in faith, he is able to speak and he, too, praises God.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 1:57–66:
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Elizabeth gives birth to the child that God had promised to her and Zechariah. As you might expect, this birth was received with great joy. (Joy is one of the major themes at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.) John’s parents had him circumcised on the eighth day, as Jewish law required (Gen. 17:10–12; 21:4; Lev. 12:3). Circumcision was a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. It taught them that they were consecrated to God, special, to be holy. It also taught them that the Messiah would come from their people. (I don’t want to be graphic, but there was a reason this sign was etched onto a procreative organ). And it taught them that they needed to have their old selves “cut off” or removed in order to be God’s people. Even in the Old Testament, there are times when circumcision refers metaphorically to a change of heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; cf. Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3).
The child wasn’t officially named yet, and the people who witnessed his circumcision wanted to call him “Zechariah,” since sons were often named after their fathers. But Elizabeth says, “No; he shall be called John.” The people don’t understand, because no one in the family had that name. So, they ask Zechariah. Apparently, he wasn’t just mute, but he was also deaf, because they had to make hand signals to communicate to him. Zechariah agrees with what Elizabeth said and what the angel Gabriel had told him. The child’s name is “John.” This may not seem like a big deal. But it represents Zechariah’s faith in the message he heard months earlier. We know that because when he affirms that the baby’s name is “John,” he is able to speak once again. The name “John” means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Zechariah knows and believes this message, and when he responds in faith to God, he is able to praise God.
The fact that Zechariah and Elizabeth name their child an unexpected name, and that when they do, Zechariah can once again speak, causes the people to fear God and wonder what this child was going to do. Luke tells us that they “laid [these things] up in their hearts.” He will later say this about Mary (2:19, 51). The only way that Luke could know what these people were thinking is if he talked to them, or to those who knew them. This shows that Luke had written his account based on eyewitness testimony.
This story is a bit unusual, but it’s very significant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were previously unable to have children. She was barren. Her barrenness reflected the spiritual state of Israel. They were barren, lacking spiritual life. Between the Old and New Testaments, it seems that prophecy had stopped. In the Old Testament, the prophets said, “Thus says the Lord . . .” But for centuries, it seemed as though God was silent. The Jews were waiting for a word from God. They were waiting for God to come and rescue them from their enemies. The birth of this child, John, is a sign that this period of barrenness and silence has come to an end.
It’s no accident that Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh has remembered.” God remembered his promises made hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, and now he was making good on those promises.
We see this clearly in Zechariah’s words of praise. Like Mary’s “Magnificat,” this is written in Luke in the form of a hymn. We’re told that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said these words. We’re also told that Zechariah prophesied these words. This is a message from God, delivered for the sake of the people who wondered what God was doing by giving Zechariah and Elizabeth a son.
So, let’s read the whole passage, and then I’ll go back and dissect it a bit. Here are verses 67–80:
67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
68 “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 from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
Not only are Zechariah’s words prompted by the Holy Spirit. Not only are they words of prophecy, telling the people what God was doing by giving the world these special babies, John and Jesus. But Zechariah’s words also represent the Jewish hope for their Messiah. This is important, because without this understanding, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of Christmas. You can’t appreciate the birth of Jesus without having some idea of context. Fortunately, Zechariah’s words give us that context, and they show that God keeps his promises.
Let’s look more carefully at his words. In verse 68, John begins this hymn with a blessing. In the Bible, God is often blessed for great things he has done for his people (Ps. 72:18–19). Zechariah’s words echo King David’s in 1 Kings 1:48. When David was about to die, he knew he would be succeeded by his son, Solomon, and he said these words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day.” Zechariah now blesses God for a greater Davidic King.
Zechariah blessed God because “he has visited and redeemed his people.” Notice that these words are in the past tense. Zechariah is so certain that God will do this work that he says it’s a done deal. It’s as if it’s already been accomplished. The language of “visitation” often refers to God delivering his people. It’s used in the book of Exodus when God “visited the people of Israel” (Exod. 4:31). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed them. That is, he freed them from slavery. God was now doing something similar.
In verse 69, Zechariah says that God “raised up a horn of salvation” for Israel. Horns were a symbol of strength. Think of animals that have horns and attack with them, like bulls, buffalo, or oxen. Their horns are their strength. In one of King David’s psalms, he calls God his “horn of salvation (Ps. 18:2). God is raising up a figure in the house of David who will have the strength to save his people.
The mention of the house of David is important because God had promised David that he would have an offspring, a “son,” who would inherit his kingdom and who would reign forever. God made this promise to David about a thousand years before Jesus was born. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13). This promise came to David through the prophet Nathan, who was one of many prophets who delivered God’s promises to his people. That’s what Zechariah acknowledges in verse 70. God spoke a consistent message through these prophets. That’s why we’re told that he spoke by the one mouth of his holy prophets. God had revealed these promises through different prophets across the centuries. One of the reasons I trust that the Bible is God’s word is that it tells a unified story. It gives us one message of God and his salvation of his people. This was written by dozens of people over the span of centuries. Yet all of them bear witness to the same truth.
In verse 71, Zechariah says that God’s promise was to save his people “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the Old Testament, the promises of David’s offspring, the anointed forever-king, the Messiah, often talk of salvation for God’s people and judgment for those who oppose God. In last week’s Advent reading, we were told of a special child, a son, who would be born. The government would rest upon his shoulders and he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7). This morning, we heard that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, which brought them joy (Isa. 9:2–3). Sandwiched between those two passages are these verses:
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire (Isa. 9:4–5).
The Messiah would put an end to oppression. That was good news, because Israel often had enemies who oppressed them. Pharaoh enslaved them and was so threatened by them that he wanted to kill their male children. In later years, they had been in exile in Babylon, then under Persian rule, and under Greek rule. When Jesus was born, they were under Roman occupation. Israel waited for the Messiah to deliver them from all their enemies. And often, these enemies seemed to be foreign nations. God had delivered the Israelites in the exodus, about fourteen hundred years earlier. The Jews were waiting for God to deliver his people once again.
The expectation was that this would be done through a Davidic king. We don’t have time to look at this passage this morning, but if you read Isaiah 11, you can get that idea. We also see a promise of a righteous king in Jeremiah 23:5–6:
5 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
They were waiting for a righteous king would bring about justice and security. They needed a king to save them and to crush their enemies.
But this hymn of Zechariah shows that Israel’s own enemy was its own sin. In verse 72, he mentions “the mercy promised to our fathers.” In verses 76–78, he says that John’s job would be to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sin, because of the tender mercy of our God.” Mercy can mean kindness or compassion. It also has the sense of sparing someone something they deserve. God promised to be merciful to Israel. He promised to remember his covenant. When the Israelites were in Egypt, God remembered his covenant with Abraham (Exod. 2:24). Of course, it’s not that God forgot that covenant. God knows everything. But that language means he acted based on the covenant he made with Abraham.
A covenant is like a binding pact between two parties. But it’s not just a legal document. It’s more personal than that. It combines the law with personal obligation and relationship. It contains promises. It expects certain behavior in return. God promised Abraham he would bless him and his offspring, and he would bless the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1–3). But Abraham had to obey God by circumcising himself and his son, and all subsequent Israelite men had to be circumcised (Gen. 17:1–14). God made great promises to Abraham, but he expected obedience in return.
Later, after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai. He gave them his law and he said that if they kept it, they would be his “treasured possession,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). But the Israelites were never perfectly obedient, or even close. They continued to rebel against God, and they often worshiped other, false gods.
Years later, God made a covenant with David, promising him a King who would reign forever, as we saw earlier (2 Sam. 7). But in order for there to be a forever kingdom of people ruled by this forever king, there had to be a way for Israel’s sin to be removed. The mercy that the Israelites needed wasn’t mercy from foreign enemies. They needed deliverance from their sins. They needed forgiveness. They needed God to remove their sins.
God promised that. He promised a new covenant. Under the terms of this treaty, God would write his law on his people’s hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit. He would give all his people direct knowledge of himself, so they wouldn’t have to have priests mediate that knowledge. Instead, all of God’s people would be priests. He would forgive his people of their sins. And, most importantly, they would be his people, and he would be their God. (See Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:35–27.)
This is what the Israelites needed. It’s what all of humanity needs. We all need to be rescued. We all need to be saved from our enemies. But our true enemies are not political enemies, or foreign nations. That’s what people think about today. We think our enemies are “those people” on the other side of the political aisle. We think of enemies as people of different religions, or people from different countries. We may think our enemies are problems like health problems and a lack of money. But the real enemy is our sin. In a way, we are our own enemies. The Bible also says there are spiritual forces that are our enemies, too. Satan is an enemy, but so are our desires. The power of sin, which corrupts God’s creation, is what causes all those other enemies, such as wars, poverty, disease, and even death. So, what we really need is a Savior who can rescue us from sin.
Fortunately, God promises to save his people from sin. He promises forgiveness. But the only way a just God, who is a perfect judge, can take away the consequences of sin is if someone else would pay for these sins. Zechariah looked forward to a political rescue, and perhaps a spiritual rescue. But he didn’t realize that this Son of David, the one his boy John would point to, would have to die in order to achieve that salvation. That’s what Jesus would do. He would live the perfect life that no human being besides him has lived, yet he would die to take on the sins of everyone who turns to him in faith. All the covenants of the Bible are connected, and all of them are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus died to take the penalty of the old covenant, the one that focused on the law, and his death inaugurated the new covenant, the one marked by the activity of the Holy Spirit. On the night before he died, he took the cup of wine that was drunk in the Passover meal and he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Everyone who trusts that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus has done what the Bible says he has done receives the benefits of that new covenant. We can be forgiven for all the wrong things we have done.
Zechariah probably didn’t know this or couldn’t have imagined it, though in a famous passage in Isaiah 53, there is a servant of Israel who suffers for the sins of the people. But Zechariah knew, as he says in verse 78 and 79, that “the sunrise [of God] shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He knew that he and everyone else was in darkness, living under the long, looming shadow that death casts. It seems that death swallows up everything and that the world is a dark place. Nothing within the world can stop death. Nothing in the world lives up to the promises the world makes to us. We hear a lot about “peace” at Christmas, yet we often don’t feel peaceful. We see beautiful lights at Christmas, but those electric lights don’t penetrate the depths of our soul. They don’t remove our sadness or loneliness. They certainly don’t remove our sin. Neither do the gifts we give, or the food and drink we consume.
We need a light from outside, a light from outside this world, outside this universe. And Jesus is that light. He is the Lord, who is God, but he also became man. In perhaps the greatest miracle, Jesus was and is the God-man, uniting the two parties of God and humanity that had been separated by sin. He saves those who turn to him in faith. As another prophet, Malachi said, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2). Jesus is God’s light, the light of the world (John 8:12), who shines on our darkness, revealing our sin, but also bringing life and healing to those who will confess their sin and their need for a Savior.
Zechariah is a model of faith. At first, he doubted God’s message and he was made deaf and dumb for a while. But he eventually came around and trusted God and acted on that faith. And then he was able to speak and praise God. Notice that Zechariah says, in verses 74 and 75, that God delivered his people “from the hand of our enemies,” so that this people “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all [their] days.” Why does God save a people? Why does God save anyone from sin, from death, from condemnation? He does it so that they would serve him. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7; 12:31). And God rescues people from slavery to sin so that they would serve him. Jesus is not some “insurance policy” we use once we die to get into heaven. He’s not a golden ticket or a lottery ticket. He’s certainly not a genie. Jesus is not just a Savior, he is also a King. And those who trust him will serve him.
Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think of two ways that it applies to our lives. One, salvation and faith lead to service. We see this in Zechariah’s life. He trusted God and then praised God. His son, John, would serve God by calling Israelites to turn from their sin and to the Messiah, to receive forgiveness. Salvation should lead to changed hearts, hearts that love and praise God, hearts that are thankful, and hearts that are ready to serve. That was true for the Old Testament Israelites and it’s true for us.
It seems that Zechariah thought salvation was for the Israelites, and his hymn focuses on God’s promises to his Israelite forefathers. But Gentiles are included in the new covenant. In the Old Testament, male Israelites had to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant community. In the new covenant community, you have to have your heart “circumcised” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You have to be born again, and this is a gift of God. If you trust in God, you have received that gift. The apostle Paul said of Christians, “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). If you worship God by the power of the Holy Spirit and glory in Jesus, you are part of God’s people. If you put no confidence in your “flesh”—your strength and abilities—then it shows you are trusting only in Jesus to make you right with God.
If you have been reconciled to God through Jesus, are you living for Jesus? Do you serve Jesus by serving his church? Do you serve Jesus by obeying him in your whole life?
The second thing I want us to see is that God’s salvation is not always what we imagined it might be. Many Israelites seemed to think that when the Messiah came, he would bring about a political deliverance. He would destroy the enemies of God and God’s people and establish a visible, political kingdom. They didn’t realize that he would come in two stages. They didn’t realize that first the Messiah would come and live a life of righteousness and then die an atoning death for his people. They didn’t realize that he would rise from the grave, ascend into heaven, and come back in the future to put an end to all enemies and establish a new creation. But that’s what God did and will do through Jesus. Jesus came once to save us from sins. But he will come again in the future to judge. And, for those of us living in the in-between times, life is not always easy.
Some people may wonder think things like, “If Jesus is real, then why is there still evil in the world?” Or they may ask you, “If your Jesus is real, why is your life not better?” Of course, most people won’t say that to you, but they may think it.
Salvation is not the promise of a “good life” now. Yes, Jesus rescues us from the condemnation that comes with sin. But after we put our trust in Jesus, we still wrestle with our sin. We still must be on guard against the powers of darkness. We will still die. God never promises an easy life. In fact, he promises a hard life. Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them and that they would face tribulation (John 15:18–25; 16:33). But Jesus said he overcomes the world (John 16:33) and he promises his followers the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In other words, God gives us his presence, he gives us himself. And though life is sometimes hard, he gives us comforts and joys along the way. And the final promise is eternal life in a perfect world with him and all his people. In that new creation, there will be no more enemies, not even the enemy of death.
The reason why that promise hasn’t come true yet is because when Jesus returns to destroy all of God’s enemies, he will remove all evil from the world. He will judge everyone who has rejected him and he will cast them out of the world and into hell. God removes evil by removing evil from people who trust him or by removing evil people who reject him. But when Jesus comes to make all things new, to remove all the bad of the world, it will be too late to turn to him for salvation. So, why hasn’t Jesus come again? Because God has given us time to turn to Jesus. A life of following Jesus is not what we might always imagine. It might not be what we want. But it is most certainly what we need. Turn to him and serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all your days.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This hymn is known as the “Benedictus.” Like the “Magnificat,” that word comes from the Latin translation of the first Greek word. In this case, the word is “blessed.” (The Greek word is related to a verb from which we get our word “eulogy.” A eulogy is literally a series of “good words” said about the dead.) ↑
- Clearly, Isaiah 11 refers to the Messiah. He is “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father (verse 1). He is anointed by the Holy Spirit (verse 2). And He will rule with righteousness (verses 3–5). He will usher in an age of peace (6–10). And he will bring about a second exodus (verses 11–16). ↑
- The Jewish expectation at the time that Jesus was born was that a Davidic king would rescue Israel by defeating its enemies. See the non-biblical text, Psalms of Solomon 17:23–27, which was written in the second or first century B.C.:23 See, O Lord, and raise up their king for them,
a son of David,
for the proper time that you see, God,
⌊to rule over Israel your servant⌋.
24 And undergird him with strength to shatter unrighteous rulers.
25–26 Cleanse Jerusalem from the nations that trample it in destruction,
to expel sinners from the inheritance in wisdom, in righteousness,
to rub out the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel,
to crush all their support with an iron rod;
27 to destroy lawless nations by the word of his mouth,
for Gentiles to flee from his face at his threat,
and to reprove sinners by the word of their heart. ↑
- See also Mic. 7:18–20 for the hope that God would act on the covenant promises to Abraham. ↑
- Read Jeremiah 33:14–26 and notice the language that connects the covenants made with Noah (a so-called “covenant with creation”), Abraham, Israel, and David. ↑
Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:57-80. John the Baptist is born, and after he is named, his father Zechariah praises God. Find out how God always keeps his promises and, in his mercy, saves his people through the one John pointed to: Jesus.
Is anyone here into history? Do you read biographies and watch documentaries? If you do, you probably want to make sure that the author or documentarian knows what he or she is talking about. You want to make sure that this person has studied the relevant data and interviewed key sources. That’s one of the reasons I like reading. I like to see what resources the author used. So, I read every footnote or endnote, just to check that author’s work. The historian who uses early, reliable sources is more trustworthy than the one who uses late, legendary sources.
If you’re a history buff, you will know that historians frame their stories of the past in certain ways. Every historian is trying to achieve something by telling a story. There is no such thing as an objective, unbiased history. Every historian chooses a subject, and he or she also chooses which facts to include and which to exclude. And every historian presents their history in different ways. Some present their stories in strict chronological order. Some of those historians may begin with a lot of background information. So, a biographer might write about a person’s life by first writing about that person’s parents. Or, an historian might begin right in the thick of an event, and then later incorporate background information. So, a documentary on D-Day might begin with Allied Forces storming the beaches of Normandy, and then later recount the events that led to that crusade. How an historian frames his or her history matters.
Today, we’re going to begin studying a book of history, the Gospel of Luke. This is a story primarily about Jesus. Like any history, this story is intended to achieve some purpose. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” This lets us know that this story isn’t just an interesting read about some trivial events. No, this is history that is meant to be good news for us, if we allow it to shape our lives.
We’re going to study the book of Luke for a few reasons. One, Christianity is quite obviously centered on Jesus Christ. We need to keep coming back to the stories about Jesus to be reminded of who he is, what he taught, and what he has accomplished for us. And we can’t just pick and choose the stories of Jesus that we like. We need to look at Gospels in their entirety. We’re a church committed to the Bible because we believe it is the written Word of God. Therefore, we often go through entire books of the Bible.
Two, we’re looking at Luke and not Matthew, Mark, and Luke because its opening chapters tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and that’s fitting as we approach Christmas.
Three, we’re looking at Luke because in 2016, I preached through the book of Acts. Acts is a sequel to Luke. Yes, I’m taking things out of order. So, think of Luke as a prequel to Acts, and we’ll be just fine.
Four, I’m preaching through Luke because it contains some hard teachings of Jesus. It would be easy to avoid these teachings. But if we did that, we would be creating a Jesus of our own desires and not looking at the Jesus of history. If we want to be Christians with integrity, we can’t do that.
So, we’re going to study Luke’s Gospel. Since we’ll spend a good amount of time in this book, I want to give us some background information. We know that this Gospel was written by a man named Luke because the earliest manuscript that we have of Luke (Ì75) says, “according to Luke.” Many early Christians also attributed this Gospel to Luke. In fact, there was no doubt that Luke wrote this book until the middle of the nineteenth century, when biblical scholars became increasingly skeptical of the Bible’s authority. Their skepticism isn’t supported by the evidence, however. I think their skepticism is simply due to their lack of faith. Some people don’t want the Bible to be historically reliable and true because they don’t want the God of the Bible to be Lord over their lives.
So, who is Luke? According to the letters of the apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ early messengers, Luke was one of his faithful coworkers (2 Tim. 4:11) and a doctor (Col. 4:14). He may have been a Gentile or a Greek Jew. He may have been from Antioch, which is in Syria, north of Palestine, where the action in Luke’s Gospel takes place. That means he didn’t witness the events of Jesus’ life. But he seems to have been a sometime traveling companion to Paul on his missionary journeys, so he knew Paul. (In Acts, there are several “we” passages that indicate that the author was among Paul’s companions. See Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–8, 13–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). As we’ll see, he claimed to have interviewed eyewitnesses, so I’m sure he met other apostles, such as Peter and possibly James.
That’s enough background. Let’s start reading. We’ll begin by reading the first four verses of Luke.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke begins by noting that others have compiled narratives about the things that God accomplished. These events were relayed to Luke and people like him by “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” There were many people who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life. There were the twelve disciples, of course. Two of them, Matthew and John, wrote Gospels, and Peter wrote two letters that are in the Bible. But others besides the disciples witnessed events like Jesus’ birth, his life, his teaching and preaching, his miracles, his death, and his life after he was resurrected from the grave. Some of these eyewitnesses were also “ministers of the word,” that is, they preached the message about Jesus, and they passed on such details to people like Luke, who we might call a second-generation Christian.
Luke says that he thought it would be good to write his own “orderly account” of these events, since he followed them closely for some time. He writes this book, and his sequel, the book of Acts, to someone named Theophilus. We don’t know who this is. He seems to be a person of some standing, perhaps a rich person who was a patron of Luke. We don’t know. But his name means “friend of God” or “lover of God,” and Luke writes to him so that he “may have certainty concerning the things [he has] been taught.” Luke wants Theophilus, and all the readers of this book, to know for certain the truth about what God has done through Jesus.
I’ve given a bit of background information at the beginning because I want us to see the claim that Luke is making. He says he is writing a careful account of the things he has learned from eyewitnesses. We should take that claim seriously. The New Testament documents were written by eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses. They are meant to be taken as historical documents. If the author of this book says that he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote his history based on what they said, then we should take him at his word unless we have compelling reasons to believe otherwise.
That means that unless we have evidence to the contrary, we should accept the historicity of this book. We should accept that this book was written within a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when eyewitnesses were still alive. There’s a good reason to think that Luke completed Acts shortly after the year 62, which is when Paul was released from prison in Rome. He must have written his Gospel right before writing Acts. And Luke probably did much of his research while he accompanied Paul on his journeys. Paul, Luke, and others traveled to Jerusalem, where Paul was arrested. He was transferred to Caesarea Philippi, a city further north. Paul was there for two years, probably between the years 57 and 59, and during that time Luke surely was able to gather sources for this book. It seems that he used the Gospel of Mark as one source, but about 40 percent of Luke is unique and not shared with the other Gospels. This material might have come from other eyewitnesses, possibly people like Mary.
The point is that Luke claims to have written a book of history based on eyewitness testimony. From what we know of Luke and Acts, Luke was a careful historian. He places the events of these books within the broader history of the Roman Empire, and the details he recounts are accurate.
There’s a lot more that can be said about the historical trustworthiness of this book and the whole New Testament. If you want to know more, you can read that insert in the bulletin, “How We Can Know Jesus?” or listen to a sermon I gave three years ago by that same name. But I want to highlight how import it is to know that the events in this book actually happened in the past. This is not a legend or a myth or some kind of fairy tale designed to make us feel good. Many skeptics believe this Gospel was written later in time. If someone fabricated it, why would they choose Luke as the author? Luke is relatively unknown. He wasn’t an apostle. If you were going to make up a Gospel, you’d name it after Peter or Judas or Mary. That’s what we see in false Gospels written late in the second century. No, this book is earth-shattering reality. It’s good news. If it weren’t real, it wouldn’t be good news at all. Entertainment, perhaps, but not good news.
Now, how does Luke begin his story? Does he start with Jesus? Actually, he starts with some lesser-known individuals. He begins with the story of a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Let’s read verses 5–7:
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Luke tells us this story begins during the time when Herod the Great was king of Judea. He reigned from 37–4 B.C. And during the latter part of that time, there was a priest named Zechariah. There were perhaps as many as 18,000 priests in Israel at that time, so Zechariah was just one of many. His wife, Elizabeth, was related to Aaron, the first high priest. Notice that there are already a couple of Old Testament names given to us: Abijah and Aaron. There are many references and allusions to the Old Testament at the beginning of Luke. This reminds us that this is part of the continuing story we find in the whole Bible, which is a story of how God relates to people.
We’re told that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous. They obeyed God’s commands. We’re also told that they were incapable of having children, because they were old and Elizbeth was infertile.
Now, before we move on with the story, we have to see that this couple was obedient to God. The reason they didn’t have children wasn’t because they were being punished by God. Why then is anyone barren? And I don’t just mean incapable of having children. Why is life like this at times? Why are we frustrated. We do things not go the way we hoped they would go?
To understand, we have to know something of the whole story of the Bible. I only have time this morning to paint that story in the broadest strokes. But the story begins with God. He is perfect in every way, the greatest being who has ever existed. He is complete in himself. He had no need to create the universe or this planet or people, but he chose to for his own purposes. He made us to have a special relationship with him. He made us to be like him, to reflect what he’s like, to represent him, to worship, love, and obey him. But from the beginning, human beings have ignored God, turned away from him, rebelled against him, disobeyed him, and failed to love him. When that first happened, something we call “sin” entered into the world. Sin isn’t just a wrong action. It’s a power, an evil force that takes up residence within us. It distorts our desires, so we don’t love the things that are good for us and, instead, we love the things that are harmful. We are selfish and proud. We covet and are greedy. We fight.
Since God is perfect and pure, he cannot allow dwell with sin and sinful people, and he cannot allow sin to destroy his creation. As a partial punishment for sin, he cursed his creation. This does not mean that things are as bad as they could be. But things aren’t perfect. The world that was a paradise was lost. In its place, there is a world that has natural disasters, diseases, and death. And, worst of all, there is a separation between God and human beings. We don’t see God. We don’t always sense his presence.
So, the reason that things are barren is because of sin. But God is not only a holy God who judges and punishes sin. He is also a good God. Actually, the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And because God is loving and merciful and gracious, he had a plan to save people from sin and the condemnation that comes with sin. It’s a long story, but it began with an old man named Abraham and his wife, Sarah. (At first, they’re called Abram and Sarai.) They, too, were unable to have children because they were old and because Sarah was barren (Gen. 11:30). Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham was obedient to God, keeping his commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5).
God told Abraham that he would bless the whole earth through Abraham and his offspring, that his offspring would be a multitude of people, and that kings and nations would come from him (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:4–6; 17:5–6; 22:17–18). In other words, God would reverse the curse of sin through Abraham and his offspring, and that his descendants would populate the earth. When you stop and think about that, it sounds too good to be true. But if you’re Abraham, it sounds impossible. He’s an old man with an old wife who couldn’t have children when she was younger. And now he’s supposed to have children? This sounds like a bad joke. But Abraham has Isaac, and Isaac has Jacob, and Jacob has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel.
And Israel became a nation. God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He performed miracles in their presence and gave them his law. He led them into their own land, where they settled and became a kingdom. Yet the Israelites still had the power of sin in them. They often disobeyed God and they started to worship other, false gods. Because of their disobedience and idol worship, God punished them through their enemies. God led the superpowers of their day, Assyria and Babylon, to attack Israel and bring people into exile. Jerusalem, the capital city, was destroyed, as was the temple.
Later, the people came back from exile in Babylon and settled back in the land of Judah. They built a new (and less glorious) temple and rebuilt the city. But they were still slaves (Ezra 9:9; Neh. 9:36). They were under the power of foreign kingdoms (ranging from Persia to Greece to the Roman Empire) and they were slaves to the power of sin. Even during the reign of Herod the Great, they were under the power of the Roman Empire. They were waiting for a promised Messiah, an anointed King, a descendant of Abraham and King David, who would defeat their enemies and usher in a reign of peace, justice, and righteousness that would last forever (Isa. 9:6–7; 11”1–16). In other words, the people were waiting for another exodus, for deliverance from exile.
Now, before we go in with the story, I understand that some of what I’ve said may sound very foreign. It may sound like something very distant and ancient. But wouldn’t you agree that we live in a world that seems cursed? No, it’s not all bad. But we have natural disasters, diseases, wars, fighting, and death. We have the internal curses of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and confusion. Don’t we all want deliverance from something? And what is able to deliver us? Do you think it’s the government? Your family and friends? Your job? Your money? Someone else’s money? People have tried all the things of the world and they haven’t worked. We’re waiting for deliverance that only someone from outside this world can give us.
That’s what the Jews were waiting for. They were waiting for God to act. They wanted him to get rid of the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. But what they really needed was a Savior.
Now, let’s get back to the story of Zechariah and his wife. Let’s read verses 8–17:
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Zechariah belonged to one of twenty-four divisions of priests. Each division served at the temple for one week, twice a year. The temple was the place were God’s special presence was believed to dwell. It was where the people worshiped God, where they offered up sacrifices for sin and prayers. Sacrifices and offerings were presented twice a day at the temple. This included incense, which represented the prayers of the people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3–4). Priests were the Israelites who mediated between God and other Israelites. They were the ones who made the sacrifices and presented the offerings. Priests were chosen to enter the temple by lot, which was sort of like flipping a coin or rolling dice. And it so happened that Zechariah was chosen to burn incense inside the Holy Place of the temple. This was a great honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When Zechariah was in the temple, he saw something unusual: the angel Gabriel. Angels are servants of God and they are usually unseen. The Bible actually doesn’t make as much of angels as some people might imagine. It’s rare that they appear to someone. So, when this happens, you know something special is about to take place.
When Zechariah sees Gabriel, he is afraid. This is what happens when people see angels. They’re not cuddly little cherubs. But Gabriel tells John not to fear. Gabriel tells him that he has good news. God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. We don’t know what prayer he’s referring to, but it was probably a prayer in the past for a child. Gabriel says, against all odds, that Elizabeth will have a son who will be named John. John, or Ἰωάννης in Greek, is related to a Hebrew name that means “God is gracious.” God will graciously give this elderly couple a child. This child will bring joy and gladness not only to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also to many, because he will be “great before the Lord.” This means that he will be great in God’s eyes, but it also hints at John’s role: he will be the forerunner of his cousin, Jesus. He will announce the Lord’s coming.
John will take a special vow. He won’t drink “wine or strong drink” because he is specially consecrated to God. Drinking wine and strong drink in the Bible is not inherently wrong. But the Bible does condemn drunkenness (Prov. 20:1; 23:20–21, 29–32; Eccl. 10:17; Eph. 5:18). At any rate, John lived an ascetic lifestyle, refusing all comforts. His calling was unique. He seems to be the only one in the Bible who was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. The God of the Bible is unique, for he is one Being in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When people have a relationship with the Son, Jesus, the Holy Spirit changes them and he lives inside of them. But John was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he existed. This shows that God’s hand was upon him in a special way.
John would perform a very special task. He would turn the hearts of Israelites back to God. He would do this the way the prophet Elijah had done hundreds of years earlier, when he also called people to turn away from sin and idolatry and back to God. One of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, said that Elijah would return “to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). There, the idea seems to be that as people turn toward God, they start to be reconciled to each other. Peace with God leads to peace with others. It seems that John fulfills the role of Elijah, but in Luke it says that he will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” There’s no mention of the children turning to the fathers. Rather, the fathers, the older generation, have been disobedient and need to turn to the younger generation. This points to John’s role: he calls people to get ready for something new, when Jesus, the Messiah, comes. John tells the people to be prepared.
Let’s finish reading today’s passage to see what happens next. I’ll read verses 18–25.
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “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. 20 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.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Zechariah seems to have some doubt. He wonders how he and his wife could possibly have a child. Because of his doubt, he is made mute. It also seems that he might have been deaf, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks (Luke 1:62). This might have given John some proof that Gabriel’s news would come true. It was also a mild punishment for Zechariah’s doubt. God expects people to trust him, even if his message seems impossible. The reason is that God is trustworthy, and he has a habit of doing the impossible.
Sure enough, John goes home to his wife and Elizabeth conceives. For some reason, she hides herself for months. It’s not clear why. Perhaps she did this as a way of consecrating herself to God’s service. It’s not clear, but it parallels the way her relative, Mary, remained hidden from her hometown for the early months of her pregnancy.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we should ask ourselves what it means for us. There are two main things I want us to get out of this morning’s passage. The first is that Luke says he wrote an historical account based on eyewitness testimony. These events really happened. A number of people simply can’t believe that a story containing supernatural elements, like angels and miracles, can be true. I understand why some people might doubt. I have never seen an angel or a miracle. But other people have. At any rate, I think we should ask ourselves this question: If nothing in the natural world can fix this broken world, shouldn’t we hope for supernatural help? If God exists, shouldn’t we expect a story about God’s acts in history to contain supernatural elements? I think the Bible would be rather odd without those elements. Should we expect God, who made the universe out of nothing, to give us a story about a man praying for money and then finding spare change under the couch cushions? Much more could be said about the reality of the existence of God and things like miracles. If you have doubts, I would ask you to suspend your disbelief and continue to learn more about Jesus by coming back next week.
The other thing I want us to see is that God brings life out of nothing, hope out of despair, fullness and joy out of barrenness. He causes people to turn to one another and be reconciled. And he does this through Jesus. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, they couldn’t have children. They were literally barren. In the case of Israel, they had often been spiritually barren. The same is true of us. God doesn’t promise to give us children or wonderful relationships or health and wealth in this life. But he does bring spiritual life out of spiritual death. And, though we aren’t there yet, the end of the grand story of the universe is that God will one day recreate the world to be a paradise, where there is no more barrenness of any kind. There will be more diseases, no more natural disasters, no more fighting and wars, no more sin, and no more death. It will only be God and the people he has prepared for himself.
How does God bring fullness out of barrenness? How can he do that? He does that because Jesus, the eternal Son of God who was full of glory, became barren by becoming a man. He lived a perfect life of righteousness, always loving and obeying God the Father. And yet he died in our place when he was crucified. His death pays for all the sin of those who turn to him in faith. Jesus turns people to God, and when people truly turn to God, they are transformed. Lives are changed, relationships are healed. This doesn’t mean life is easy or that Christians are perfect. But it means that Christians have hope.
Come back to learn more about Jesus next week. For now, let’s pray.
- For a list of reasons why we can trust that Luke is the author of this Gospel, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Croswn: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258–261. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- That sermon and others can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. It can also be found at https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus. ↑
- Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man.” According to Deuteronomy 14, Israelites could consume the “tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” that they brought to Jerusalem when they worshiped there (verse 23). Or, they could bring money instead and “spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (verse 26). ↑
- Samson and Samuel, two other “miracle babies,” had similar vows (Judg. 13:4–5; 1 Sam. 1:11). ↑
- There also may be a hint that the Israelites would return to the ways of the Patriarchs, like Abraham. Isaiah 63:16 says, “Abraham does not know us,” because of their sin. When the Israelites return to God, they return to the faith of their fathers. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson begins preaching through the Gospel of Luke by showing that it is a book of history. This history begins with an old couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were unable to have children. God’s plan to restore the world began with another old couple unable to have children, Abraham and Sarah. Luke shows us that God’s plan was coming to fruition.