Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people! (Luke 1:46, 47). These were the first words of Zechariah – introducing his song that is known as the Benedictus. It comes from the first word of Latin as translated in Jerome’s Vulgate: Benedictus, which means Blessed!
This is the first word of Zechariah after enduring nine months of being mute as chastisement imposed by the angel. This was because of Zechariah’ unbelief. It is interesting to compare Mary’s response to the announcement of her conception, though a virgin: How will this be since I am a virgin? (Luke 1:34). Zechariah’s may be slightly different, but it spelled his unbelief: How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. (1:18). Mary asked out of obliviousness, without questioning that it can happen. Zechariah’s question was marked by unbelief. Thus the chastisement of silence, until things shall come to pass.
When finally, Zechariah’s child was named John, as directed by the angel, his voice returned. And his first word is one of praise and benediction – his Benedictus. The Benedictus has two parts; the first recognizes both the great act of God in redeeming His people; and the second anticipates the role of John (the Baptist) in this redemptive act of the birth of the Messiah.
It has a continuing relevance today. We are on this side of the fulfilled mission of the Messiah who was born at the time of Zechariah. Also, the Church perpetuates what John the Baptist was chosen as the first witness of the Messianic coming.
The Coming of Salvation in the Son
Zechariah uses a word of divine action that, while common in the Old Testament, occurs here only in the New Testament (except for an OT quotation in Hebrews). That word is visited. It describes salvation as an event that has arrived in the birth of the Son of God in Incarnate mode. It is, therefore, correct to think of salvation as an event that has come in Christ.
It is usual for us to think of salvation as a conscious experience. We talk of being saved, or of possessing salvation. There is nothing wrong with this language of experience. But we must remember that the experience is only made possible by the arrival, or the event, realized in Christ. We are thinking of experience. Biblical thinking is more of a timeline. In that timeline that stretched back to eternity, the turning point is the fulfillment of God’s plan – and it happened in the coming of the Son of God. With that event, the experience is now made possible for all who are in union with Christ.
This raises an important theological question – and for many, a problem issue. Were not the OT saints saved? Were not believers who died before Jesus was ever born, and fulfil the saving mission of death and resurrection, also saved as much as we are who are on this side of Jesus’ saving fulfilment? The answer is, Yes, they were saved – and saved by grace through faith. But it is shallow to say that their salvation is no different from those who have received salvation by union with Christ in Whom salvation has come. Those who think there is no difference may intend to safeguard the consistency of salvation, but they end up denigrating the accomplishment of the Cross.
The salvation of the OT saints – and everyone prior to the coming of salvation in Christ – was certain, but promissory. It existed as promise. But because it was divine promise, there was certainty to it. But they did not have the fullness of it in personal possession. It may be compared to a post-dated check. Even though there may be enough fund in the bank, the holder of the check cannot encash it until the date indicated on the check.
So OT saints had assurance of all the promises of salvation. But only when Jesus Christ accomplished salvation in death and resurrection did those blessing retroactively come into possession of believers before Christ. This is the significance of Hebrews 7:22 in calling Christ the guarantor of a better covenant. In the older translation, it is surety: a collateral or co-maker in today’s commercial language. He owned and paid the debt when it matured.
That makes those of us who are on this side of the coming of Christ as much more blessed. We now have salvation blessings in possession. We still have the promise part as their consummation is yet to happen at the Second Coming. But this should put a Benedictus in our own hearts and lips in praise to our God for the unmatched blessing that is ours. All because the Son of God has come to visit – to stay and act in salvation of His people. Marvel at the truth that you are on this side of salvation fulfilled!
The Witness to Salvation of the Church
The benediction of Zechariah to his son, John, should not be overstretched to include everything as applicable now. There were unique features of John the Baptist. He was the fulfillment of the voice who will prepare the way of the Lord (Isa 40:3), the Elijah who will come (Mal 4:5; Mat 11;14). He also was a prophet, an office that is foundational to the Church. But the function of John the Baptist as Witness to the coming of salvation in Jesus perpetuates in the Church. Luke indicated this by being the author of the sequel to his Gospel, which is the Book of Acts. There we see the function of the Church – bearing witness to Christ. The Church is no longer preparing for the First Coming of the Messiah; but is now fulfilling the Great Commission to prepare for the Second Coming – the end of the world.
The Church is the witnessing agent to the salvation fulfilled in Christ, and now offered to sinners. But do you wonder why it is a voice? Why not a drama, or a comedy? Because the essence of the Church’s commission is a message. The world needs to hear this message of salvation. In world where there is a Babel of voices, a cacophony of noises, the Church’s voice may sound faint. But just like Elijah on Mount Horeb, the still, small voice is what we need to overcome the challenging noises of the world.
Towards the end of the Benedictus, the metaphor changes from voice to light: of sunrise shining. This is because the voice is to give knowledge of salvation. That alone is the light that shines in the darkness of a sinful world. Of the many OT allusions, Mal 4:2 calls our attention: For you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
This is the effect of witness to salvation. In the language of Paul, the God who said ‘Let there be light’ shone in our hearts… (2Cor 4:6). This is the significance of John the Baptist in the story. This reminds us also that the Child in the manger will not have meaning of itself, unless understood in the light of the salvation He came to fulfill. We only understand it aright when we see it as a movement from the manger to the Cross.
It is not wrong to rejoice in the event of Nativity – that God incarnate was found to be a Baby born. But there is so much more meaning when we have a Benedictus to define our joy because of what later will become the witness of John the Baptist: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).