Pastor Scott Andrews | August 20, 2023
I shared this about a year ago, but over the past several decades, one of the challenges in the US church has been the issue of worship. Style, preferences, elements, instruments. You may know them as worship wars. Such wars are internal church fights about what worship looks and sounds like – primarily, which songs should be sung, which instruments should be used in worship services. Hymns or choruses, traditional or contemporary? Do we have a minister of music or a worship band? Again, which instruments – piano and organ? Or can you add an occasional guitar? Acoustic or electric? Bass guitar – now you’re pushing it. And what about drums? Clearly an instrument of the devil. Now, you may think this past, it’s not. I’m sure there are many good and faithful churches around us who would consider our worship ungodly.
Historically, with the onset of modern music – especially rock-n-roll or pop genres, the question has been, should those instruments, those rhythms, that style be sung in church? I remember hearing once, “If it moves your foot before it moves your heart, it’s not spiritual.” So, in college, Tana and I listened to those worship songs privately lest we unnecessarily offend. Because in our circles, Amy Grant, Petra, Second Chapter of Acts, and Keith Green were strictly off limits.
And the truth is, we all have our preferences, which is fine – hymns, choruses, a combination of both – which has led some churches with multiple services to change the style of worship – contemporary at 9:00, traditional at 11:00 – because everyone knows the early church met at 11:00. By the way, we’ve not done that because we don’t want to divide the church stylistically as if we are consumers – I’ll attend the service I like. Francis Chan tells the story of a person leaving a service, saying, I didn’t really enjoy the worship today, to which Chan responded, “That’s okay, we weren’t worshiping you anyway.” Which begs an interesting question – given Psalm 150 and the variety of worship instruments, does God care whether we use drums or guitars, or are the words and the attitudes of our hearts more important?
And then, of course, is the realization that worship is not just music, but all the elements of a worship service. And yes, we are also to live lives of worship. Everything we do is worship, if done for the glory of Christ. But there is something to be said about our corporate gatherings and what we do in these worship services. What should we do? What is permissible, what is not?
The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” And so, for example, some would say dancing and drama, not prescribed in Scripture, should not be seen in worship services. I’ll not wade into that discussion.
Understand at Alliance, while we believe style is a matter of preference (and we do intentionally try to hit the middle of the road), what the songs say is, to us, of greater importance. We actually don’t care when the song was written – last century or last week, as long as it communicates faithful biblical truth – even doctrine. Further, you may have noticed, for example, we don’t sing 7-11 songs – 7 words sung 11 times, trying to evoke an emotional response. While songs do engage the emotions, we don’t just want to just have an emotional experience. We want to sing truth in worship of our God and to one another. If our kids are singing something they heard in church today, we want it to be true, meaningful, biblical, even deep.
Ok, so why do I share some of our worship philosophy this morning? Because, we arrive today at the Benedictus, the second worship song in these nativity narratives in Luke 1 and 2. Some of you have been gone on vacation and students are just returning, so allow me to do a brief review. Students, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is, we finished Revelation while you were gone. The bad news is, we probably won’t finish Luke before you graduate.
We started the gospel of Luke just a few weeks ago. We found Luke was a Gentile doctor, and between Luke and Acts, he wrote a third of the NT. Interesting, a Gentile wrote more than any other author, even Paul. Well, he states his purpose in the prologue, the first four verses of the book. He was writing to Theophilus, who appears to be a believer, also a Gentile, maybe a Roman official, but who was perhaps struggling in his faith. So Luke writes a carefully investigated, orderly account of the life of Jesus and the early church. It’s interesting to note that Luke’s story covers about 70 years and includes things found in no other gospel. About 40 percent of Luke is not found in the two other synoptic gospels – Matthew and Mark.
Now listen carefully, he tells why he wrote this careful, orderly account: so that Theophilus, and we, can know with certainty the things we have been taught. This is so important. In a world of doubt and question, when many are deserting the faith – they call it deconstruction, we call is apostasy – in a world of rising opposition through intellectual objection and even persecution where our faith is called objectionable and narrow-minded, even bigoted – is what we believe true? Luke writes to confirm our faith – believe it, it is faithful, true, and reliable.
Luke then immediately launched into two birth narratives – giving us more information than previously known, the result of his investigation. The two birth narratives are concerning John the Baptist and Jesus. But he carefully and intentionally interweaves the stories. Now, Luke is a brilliant author with a clearly stated purpose. And having just stated the purpose, why would he start with these birth stories? Don’t miss this – to prove that God is fulfilling prophesied OT promises since the beginning of creation. To show there is a coherent continuity between the Old and New Testaments; that there is a divine plan being carried out as God faithfully fulfills His promises. Meaning, there is no reason to doubt what you have learned and believed. The evidence is overwhelming. Our society is choosing to ignore, even deny the evidence. But, to do so takes a lot of work, with eternal consequences.
So, we’ve been looking at these two, interwoven birth narratives. They started with the angel Gabriel appearing to a priest named Zacharias. Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were old and barren, childless. But Gabriel told him they would have a son; they were to name him John; and he would be the promised forerunner of the Messiah. This is what every faithful Jew looked for. That promise came 400 years before in the last book of the OT called Malachi. You see, God is about to fulfill the promises which will result in the salvation of His people.
Well, Zacharias didn’t believe Gabriel, so he was made mute and deaf until all was fulfilled. And it would be fulfilled, regardless of this priest’s doubt. Elizabeth got pregnant and held herself in seclusion until the baby was born. The story then switched to a virgin named Mary in Nazareth. Gabriel appeared to her and told her she too would have a son. Both births were miraculous – John to a barren couple now past childbearing years; Jesus to a teenage virgin, without a man. Mary’s Son would be named Jesus; He would be the Son of the Most High; and God would give Him the throne of His father David; He would reign over the nation of Israel; and His kingdom would have no end.
Now, Mary also questioned Gabriel’s promise – but hers was not a question of unbelief, it was simply a question of biology. So Gabriel told Mary of her relative’s pregnancy. Mary hightailed it to see Eizabeth, and sure enough, she was six months pregnant. But the amazing thing was, as soon as she got to Elizabeth’s house and greeted her, the baby – John – in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, then knew who the baby in Mary’s womb was.
Which caused Mary to break out in a song – it’s the first of four worship songs in the birth narratives. Which brings me back to my introduction – these are songs unlike many sung churches today – too much about God, and way too theologically rich. Hers is called the Magnificat – so named because it’s the first word in the Latin translation of the Bible. My soul does magnify (Magnificat) the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. It was an amazing song, praising God for taking notice of a nothing teenage girl in the nothing town of Nazareth.
You see, throughout the book of Luke, we will see what is called the great reversal – where God humbles the proud, and exalts the humble. We’ll come back to that again and again as we see Jesus switches the price tags of life. All that we think valuable and pursue, He dismisses – and all we think abased and worthless are of highest value and to be sought. We see it in the way God chose a virgin to bear the Son of God; how that birth was announced to lowly shepherds, how Joseph and Mary gave only the most meager of animals as sacrifice at the birth of their Son; and how God chooses the most unlikely recipients for His grace throughout this book.
Well, anyway, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and returned home – right before or right after the birth of John. Last week, then, we looked at John’s birth, and how, to the amazement of friends and relatives, both Elizabeth and mute, deaf Zacharias confirmed his name was John. At which point – given that all was now fulfilled as Gabriel said, and given that Zacharias had demonstrated faith in contrast to his previous unbelief, Zacharias’ tongue was loosed, and verse 64 tells us he spoke in praise to God. As a result, all this spread throughout the hill country of Judea. And they were asking, “What then will this child turn out to be?” Which finally brings us to our text today.
You see, Zacharias’ tongue was loosed, and he spoke in praise to God. What did he say? Well, he answered the question, what will this child turn out to be. His song is the second of the four worship songs of these birth narratives found in Luke 1 and 2. The first was Mary’s Magnificat, the second is Zacharias’ Benedictus, the third is the angels’ Gloria, and the fourth is the Nunc Dimittis – the song of Simeon.
So as we get ready to read Zacharias’ song, it brings us back again to my introduction. You see, his song is full of rich theology. Biblical truth. It’s not a cute little worship ditty. In fact, one author suggests there are 33 OT references in this song. In other words, the births of John and Jesus are in fulfillment of God’s promises in the OT. There is continuity here, and God can be trusted to keep His promises.
I say all that for this reason: Mary’s song was not simple – Mary had a little lamb, his fleece was white as snow. So also, Zacharias’ song is quite deep, communicating much biblical truth. It talks about three OT covenants that God makes with His people which are about to be fulfilled in the births of John and Jesus. It’s an incredible song – but it’s deep. Perhaps ours should be as well. So put on your thinking caps as we read the text – Luke 1:67-80.
We notice right away that Zacharias, like his son John in his mother’s womb, like his wife Elizabeth when Mary appeared – he also was filled with the Holy Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit is simply to come under His control. In fact, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit – which means, moment by moment, day by day, we surrender to the control of the Spirit. Now, that doesn’t mean that what we say – as Elizabeth and Zacharias said – or what we do like when John leapt in his mother’s womb – is Spirit inspired. But it can be Spirit controlled. It’s what we should long for – to be under the control of the sovereign hand of God. Isn’t that what we want – let me say is this way – how do things go when you’re in control?
And what is the evidence we are under the Spirit’s control? The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When the acts of the sinful nature are no longer controlling our lives – but rather the Spirit and His control, evidenced by these attributes called fruit most which don’t possess.
Further we read, being filled with the Spirit, Zacharias prophesied. Meaning, what he had to say was God’s word to His people. Now, prophecy could be either foretelling something to come or forthtelling, that is speaking God’s truth, or both. In this case, what he says has to do with the coming of the Messiah and the forerunner to the Messiah. Again, as we’ve seen, God is bringing about the salvation He promised for centuries – even millennia. In fulfillment of promise, God is sending the Messiah, His own Son. Now, there are a number of ways to outline this song, but we’ll do it like this:
- The Prophecy of Jesus (67-75), in which we will see:
- The Fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (67-71)
- The Fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (72-75)
- The Prophecies of John as the Forerunner and Jesus as the Sunrise (76-79) – some suggest this refers to the fulfillment of the New Covenant.
- The Early Life of John (80)
Again, you can see there is much theological depth here. You should know some of this is political, some of it spiritual. Meaning, some of it does apply directly to the nation Israel as these covenants were made with them, but some of it by extension applies to us. So, let’s start with the prophecy about Jesus in the first half of the song.
Zacharias starts with a blessing or praise of the Lord God of Israel – which signifies the somewhat national nature of the song. These words, blessed be the Lord God, are seen throughout the OT – and we see right away this worship song is God-centered. By the way, don’t forget, Zacharias has been mute for nine months under the chastening hand of God – and he seems to understand and learn from that. Because the first words out of his mouth are praise. Perhaps discipline, suffering, should bring praise rather than complaint.
Now, Zacharias is a Jewish priest, and Israel had been under the control of the Greeks, then the Seleucids who were the descendants of the Grecian empire, then the Romans – for centuries. These had been oppressive regimes. They longed for the fulfillment of the covenants God had made with their ancestors – namely, David and Abraham – when they would be delivered.
Now, what is a covenant? A covenant is simply an agreement between two parties. In this case, between God and His people. There are a number of OT covenants – for example, the Noahic Covenant when God promised He would never destroy the earth by water again. And by the way, the sign of that covenant is a rainbow. Every time we see a rainbow – not the flag, but the one God put in the sky – while there is a scientific explanation for the rainbow, we remember God created science, and the rainbow is a reminder of His promise.
Now, sometimes a covenant is bilateral where the two parties agree to covenant responsibilities – you do this, and I’ll do that. But sometimes they are unilateral – that is, God binds Himself to a promise by nature of who He is. And since He is altogether trustworthy, and the covenant stipulations depend only on Him, He will do what He says. So, in this song, we see two covenants to which Zacharias turns – suggesting the birth of Jesus is ultimately the fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants. Don’t miss that – God is keeping His promises.
Notice verse 68, blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for (because) He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people. Again, Zacharias has just blessed the Lord God of Israel, so us and His people are likely referring to Israel. God, through the Messiah, will visit Israel. That word visit usually speaks of God visiting through either salvation or judgment. In this case, it is the former as He has accomplished redemption for His people. You may know redemption is a word that speaks of being purchased out of a slave market. You can spiritualize that, to speak of God buying His people out of the slave market of sin – but Zacharias addresses that later. The idea seems to be that God will visit His people and buy them out of oppression – remember, they were under the oppressive rule of Rome. He had done that before. We remember the great event of the OT is the Exodus – when God delivered His people from bondage – they were looking for Him to do same thing. Hence, Zacharias’ language here. But God was actually sending His Son, the Messiah, to do much more.
You see, how will God do it? Verse 69, God has raised through the Messiah a horn of salvation. Now notice, these are all past tense verbs, because they are so certain since God promised that Zacharias speaks of them as already happened, because they will happen. Now, the horn was a symbol of strength. (Bison in Yellowstone) This horn of salvation, then, is a powerful horn of deliverance, notice to be raised in the house of David His servant. That kind of comes out of nowhere, unless you’re an Israelite. They remembered well the promise God made to David in II Samuel 7. They longed for its fulfillment. David had just told the prophet Nathan that he wanted to build a house for God – the Temple. But God told Nathan to say this to David:
8 “Now therefore, thus you shall say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people Israel.
9 “I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth.
10 “I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly,
11 even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. The Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you.
12 “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Now some of that refers to David’s son Solomon who built the Temple. But clearly, some of it refers to a future descendant of David whose throne and kingdom God would establish forever. The Jews rightly saw this as Messianic and were eagerly waiting its fulfillment. When they would be delivered from all their enemies and live at peace – He will do that eventually. And so, Zacharias prophesies, here it comes, in the birth of Jesus.
Verse 70, just as God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old. A couple things about that. First, notice mouth is singular, yet prophets is plural. The idea is, God is the singular speaker – and He spoke through His prophets. It speaks of the consistency and unity of what they said, because it all came from one source. And further, God spoke from of old – He has been saying these things throughout time. God is fulfilling what He said He would do. In other words, what God is doing is not new – it’s old – it’s the plan of the ages.
And He promised in verse 71, salvation or deliverance from their enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. Clearly this is speaking of deliverance for Israel, and this is obviously yet to be fully realized. But it will be realized in the eschaton – in eternity future. But the promise will only be for those Israelites who know God through His Messiah – and further, for all those – Jews and Gentiles – who know God through the His Son. Yes, there is rising opposition – but deliverance from our enemies – that is, those who hate us – will ultimately come.
Which brings us to the next covenant – the Abrahamic Covenant in verses 72-75. Through the Messiah, God will show mercy toward our fathers. Mercy is a theme that runs through these worship songs. Mercy is God giving us what we don’t deserve, namely, deliverance or salvation from our enemies – the greatest of which is sin. Our sins, they are many, His mercy is more.
Zacharias goes on to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father. Let me briefly summarize. The Abrahamic Covenant was promised to Abraham in Genesis 12 when He called Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a land God would show him, namely Canaan. He promised Abraham that He would make him a great nation, that God will bless him and make his name great, that those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will be cursed, and finally – don’t miss it – all the nations or the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. I believe the rest of the Bible is ultimately a fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant – and even the New Covenant is the way that all families of the earth would be blessed through Abe’s descendant named Jesus.
Well, in Genesis 15, God restated and ratified the covenant – demonstrating that it was a unilateral covenant – that God alone would meet the stipulations of the covenant. In chapter 17, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and gave him the sign of the covenant – circumcision, which we saw last week. In Genesis 22, after Abraham was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God confirmed the covenant with an oath.
For centuries, actually millennia, the descendants of Abraham – Israelites – were awaiting the fulfillment of that covenant. And now, with the birth of Jesus, its fulfillment would come when all the families of the earth would be blessed through Him. And Zacharias sings of it. So do we – every time we sing of the gospel, we sing of God’s grace to us through His Son.
Now notice, Zacharias says, by the fulfillment of these covenants, having been rescued from our enemies, God grants that we might serve Him without fear. Meaning, the ultimate purpose of rescue, of our salvation, is so that we might serve God. We’ve exchanged masters. We’ve been redeemed out of the slave market of sin to serve a better Master. The word serve speaks of worship. It’s the same word used in Romans 12, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Do you see? We have been saved to live lives of worshipful service to God, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
We must move quickly to verses 76ff. Zacharias now turns his attention to his newborn son John, whom he may have been holding in his arms. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High. Remember, Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High, John would be the prophet of the Most High. God was clearly at work through the births of these two sons.
He says to his infant son John, just as Isaiah 40 and Malachi 4 had prophesied, just as Gabriel had said, Zacharias says, “you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways.” You are the forerunner of God’s Messiah. But notice verse 77, “to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” This is no longer speaking just of national deliverance or rescue of Israel from its oppressors – this is God’s salvation of His people by the forgiveness of their sins. This was only possible because of the work of Christ, bringing the New Covenant, as promised in Jeremiah 31.
In verses 78-79, Zacharias turns his attention back to Jesus, because of the tender mercy of God. Stop right there. Tender mercy speaks of God’s compassionate mercy. The word tender or compassionate is the word splanchna in the Greek – one of my favorite words. It speaks of the bowels – it’s the word from which we get our word spleen. When we speak of deep compassion or even love – we can feel it in the pit of our stomach. That’s what this means – God’s mercy comes from His deep compassion He feels for His people in the pit of His stomach. It is a deep, passionate, compassionate mercy.
Because of that mercy, the Sunrise from on high will visit us. God will visit us through His Son, the Sunrise from on high, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. This is a direct reference to Malachi 4, where God promised the Messiah and the forerunner to the Messiah with these words, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” The idea being spiritual healing will rise with the sun of righteousness, bringing unparalleled joy like the skipping of calves.
It’s also a reference to Isaiah 9 – that Christmas passage which talks about the birth and reign of the coming Messiah. I don’t have time to read it all, but verses 1-2 say:
1 But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.
2 The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.
The Isaiah passage goes on to talk about this child to be born being called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. That time, the fulfillment had come with the birth of Jesus, which we will read about next week. The last verse of the chapter simply tells us John grew up, became strong in spirit, and lived in the deserts until the time came for him to announce the coming of the Christ.
It’s an incredible song – one which takes deep concentration and study. But it’s worth it, because it speaks of the fulfillment of what God promised through time – focusing on the fulfillments of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants. Through which we have been most blessed. After darkness has come light – salvation has come through the glimmer of dawn after the blackest night.