Do not Pray for the Dead; But Prepare for Death

Thoughts for this day of remembering the dead

Should we pray for the dead?

“Please pray for the repose of his soul.”  This is a very common request that one reads in scores of obituaries that are published every day.  Accompanying that request may be a scheduled mass, or novena, for the deceased.  Behind this is the practice of praying for the dead.  This, of course, is rooted in the belief that, through prayers for the dead, there can be change in the course of the soul of the dead loved one.  If this is a valid hope, nothing can be more loving than to spend time praying for the departed.

Is there a basis for this hope in the Word of God?  The Roman Catholic Church, chief proponent of this practice, admits that this practice is linked with its notion of purgatory.  In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia entry in “Prayers for the Dead,” it asserts: “Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of purgatory and the more general doctrine of the communion of the saints, which is an article of the Apostle’s Creed.”  The practice of praying for the dead, by this assertion, stands or falls on the validity of the doctrine of purgatory. 

This is not the place to refute this belief in a purgatory.  Suffice it to say that this is what drove the Reformation of the 16th century which led to the division of Catholics and Protestants.  Catholic clerics used this doctrine to swindle the superstitious population of precious money on promise that the souls of their loved ones will spring from purgatory once the money rings on the coffer.

The Catholic doctrine of and practice of prayer for the dead is built on the sinking sand of lack of assurance.  This is contrary to the assurance of the gospel and salvation that saving faith brings about.  Lack of assurance is the fruit of salvation by human merit and works.  Whereas assurance grows out of the certainty of the saving work of Christ received by faith.  “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 NKJ).  Salvation is not contingent on human works, but guaranteed by what Christ has accomplished.

The Bible teaches that death is the final closure of moral opportunity.  The time to be saved is now.  If salvation is not received now, there is no post-mortem salvation opportunity.  “It is appointed to men to die once, and after this, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Prepare for a good death

The Puritans make a different emphasis that believers should be doing.  That is to prepare to die in a way that is glorifying to God.  This is, unfortunately, a well-nigh absent note.  It may be generally because we do not want to discuss such an unpleasant subject as death – even among Christians.  There is so much more amusement in life, that some are loathed to think of abandoning this in death.  This is unrealistic.

No matter how silent we may be about dying, and studiously avoid its mention, we will still die.  It is still the one appointment with providence that we cannot avoid.  For the Puritans, the way to prepare for death is not only that one is assured of his salvation.  It is, in the language of Paul, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20 NKJ).

Richard Baxter wrote the classic Dying Thoughts at a time that he was sick, and thought that he was dying.  The Lord spared him then, but he bequeathed to the Church an immortal plea for believers not only to be sure of heaven.  It is imperative that when we are close to death, we have a life and testimony that will point the living to the Lord we have served faithfully in our lives. 

Will the Lord be magnified in our dying?

June-Pride Open Letter

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.

My Dear Friend of the LGBTQ+ Community:

This is June Pride – the month of celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.  Let me assure you that I do not write this out of contempt, much less, with any condemnation.  I would not have earned any right to address any individual about sin, unless I am ready to confess with Paul, “I am the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). 

Let me not waste your time addressing masculinity and femininity in physical behavior or social habit.  That boys should be playing toy guns, while girls cuddle their dolls – these are social constructs that do not define male or female.  For good measure, I also will not raise the important issue of gender intervention in children through puberty blockers and the like.  It is significant, and especially heinous where, as in many American states, this is mandated without parental authority, let alone, knowledge.  The significant number of those de-transitioning (getting back to their original sex after undergoing ‘gender-change’) cannot be ignored.  I will just suggest for your reference the book, Irreversible Damage, by Abigail Shrier.

Let me be to the point on the advice given one with gender dysphoria to just “be true to oneself,” or something similar: “find your authentic self.”  Behind this language is the rejection of the body as defining of one’s gender.  It may be admitted that the body reveals one’s birth-sex; but it is militantly denied that it is equivalent to gender.  The latter is to be decided by the self.  The body may be male, but the mind may decide that the “authentic self” is female.  And vice-versa, a female body may be reversed by the mind’s decision than one is male.  And the world is expected to accept – on threat of all mechanisms of canceling at the disposal of today’s culture influencers.

NO to Self-Suppression

First of all, let me stress that I am with you in rejecting the option of suppressing self.  This finds its worst form in asceticism – depriving the self of legitimate pleasures and enjoyment, because it will only defile the already native sinfulness of the body.  I do not believe this is a Christian option.  It is the Gnostic heresy that despised the nobility of the physical as part of God’s creation.  The Word of God holds a dignified view of the body.  It teaches, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4-5 ESV).

Unrestrained Self-Expression?

That said, I want to admonish your choice which is at the other end of the spectrum.  You opt for unrestrained expression.  You are made to believe that it is your way to happiness.  This is the kind of self, described by theologian-philosopher, Carl Trueman, “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same. The modern self also assumes that society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior.” [ Strange New World: p. 19; Crossway (2022) ]

The problem with this option is its failure to see that there is in self a dimension that is broken.  The Scriptures call this sinfulness, or theology uses the word “depravity.”  To depend on what the heart dictates is to encounter the reality of what a prophet of old declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9).  No, my friend, no matter how plausible and even singable, the advice “Listen to your heart” is a dead-end street to disappointment and self-inflicted misery.

From Self-Expression to Best Version

My plea, from the compassion of Christ, is be true to your creation.  If you sense a militant contradiction of your feeling, listen to those who have gone through the same struggle but have overcome: once-transgender, but now straight, not by sheer resolve, but by the grace of God.  Sam Allberry writes of his thoughts in Is God Anti-Gay? “Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me.”  Christopher Yuan writes his testimony in Out of a Far Country: “I had always thought that the opposite of homosexuality was heterosexuality.  But actually the opposite of homosexuality is holiness.” 

Nancy Pearcey in Love Thy Body has a very pertinent observation: “The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — not even its own body.  By contrast, Christianity assigns the human body a much richer dignity and value.  Humans do not need freedom from the body to discover their true, authentic self.  Rather we can celebrate our embodied existence as a good gift from God.  Instead of escaping from the body, the goal is to live in harmony with it.”

I know the foregoing to be true.  While I have never been myself a transgender, I know the lies I tell myself to justify my own lusts and impurities.  They never lead to a good end.

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.  This is made possible through Christ who made the new creation of one new humanity (Ephesians 2:15).  You will then express in awe of God’s old creation, “O Lord how manifold are your works!  In wisdom, You have made them all” (Psalm 104:24).  Then, you will accept the beauty of God’s creation of man in His image: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In pleading for Christ,

NAE

The Intermediate State of the Dead in Christ

The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).

A recent death in our Church generated much lament.  The brother was so young, and so actively useful in our ministries.  What is more, he had no known precondition.  This event drove me to refresh the subject of the intermediate state of the righteous.  It is compelling to think of an answer to the condition of one who dies in Christ, but before the consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.

Other subjects attach to this issue which are beyond the purview of  this article.  One may logically ask about the constitution of man – as body and soul (spirit).  Or one’s view of heaven, and its counterpart of hell, may be evaluated.  But they can only be assumed at this point, subordinate to the main question, What happens to the believer at death before Jesus’ return in triumph?

No Soul-Sleep

A view held mostly by fringe cults is that the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep, awaiting the end at Christ’s coming or the Judgment Day.  This notion sounds plausible because there are, in both Old Testament and New Testament, references to dying as ‘sleeping.’  It only takes a step to make the conclusion that the reference is to the soul.

Its main error is the rush to conclusion that it can refer to nothing else but the soul.  But some key references to ‘sleep’ as descriptive of death should lead to a different deduction.  The connection is made in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  Here, those that are described as “fallen asleep” are explicitly “bodies of the saints.”  This is a difficult passage that does not now demand detailed exposition.  Suffice it to conclude that the figure of sleep for death is clearly that of the body.  Another reference is the death of Stephen with this conclusion: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV).  It only needs pointing out that Stephen expected welcome by Jesus to his spirit as he was dying.  And when he died, it was described as, “he fell asleep.”  Clearly, the spirit of Stephen was received by Jesus, but his body fell asleep.

The simple reason for this figure of sleep as reference to the body is the counterpart of the resurrection as being raised (as in being awakened) from death (sleep).  This is Paul’s corrective to the misconstruction of the Thessalonians who thought that the dead in Christ had missed out on the blessing of the Second Coming.  On the contrary, they will even precede those who are alive: “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV).

This error was so obvious that the young John Calvin wrote his first book in 1534 to refute soul-sleep.  Its title was Psychopannychia (Literally, “All-night-vigil of the soul”).  So obvious was the error that Calvin in his youth could easily demolish this notion.

No Death Wish

On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that such is the happy state of the soul of the righteous dead that their death should rather be celebrated than mourned.  This attitude is only a small step away to justifying death-wish.  But this is also wrong.

Death is not a good thing.  The biblical position is to regard death as the consequence of sin (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23).  Adam, had he obeyed the test in the garden, was made to live in a confirmed eternal life.  But his sin has brought death – not only to him, but to all his posterity.  Therefore, death is considered an enemy – the last to be subdued at the end which is through the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:26).

The believer’s death is still rightly to be mourned.  So the brethren, as they buried Stephen, “made great lamentation” (Acts 8:2).  One reason for this is that earthly fellowship with the dead is totally cut-off.  We may look forward to a reunion, and we do not mourn as those without hope (1Thes 4:13).  But we still rightly mourn.

That Paul asserts, “To die is gain” (Phl 1:21) is regularly misconstrued as a positive view of death for the believer.  But Paul does not say that death is gain.  But rather because of Christ, the event of dying (an evil in itself) can result for the believer something that can be counted as gain.  Note, however, that this is tempered by Paul’s assertion of desire (even preference) to live on and bear fruit of service (1:19, 24).

To look at death as itself desirable is inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about death.  Dying is not the blessed hope of the believer.  The Second Coming of Christ is (Titus 2;14).  There is still a rightful fear of death itself, but redemption should have delivered the believer from the bondage of this fear (Heb 2:14, 15; 2Cor 5:1ff).

“Far Better”

Paul does describe the state after-death of the believer as “far better” (Phl 1:23).  There is one reason that he consistently thrusts to prominence.  At the believer’s death, just like any dead person, his body begins to decay; but his soul/spirit is in the presence of Christ’s company.  His summary of the believer is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phl 1:23).  In another place, “absent from the body, but present with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8).  There can be no more explicit description of the believer’s condition beyond death.  The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).  Other passages corroborate this.  To cite just one more, Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

It is right to describe the after-life of the righteous as “far better.”  It is so in comparison to this earthly life.  But in the redemptive plan of God, it is not yet the best.  Thus the souls in the intermediate state still express their longing for the day of consummation (Rev 6:10).  The best is yet to come.  And that is the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection.  This is now the Final State where the saints’ inheritance is not just heaven, but heaven and earth (2Pet 3:13).

Grieving and Solace

The foregoing thoughts will mean the mixture of grieving and solace when a beloved believer dies.  There will be pain from the poignant void left behind; but there will be anticipation for the reunion yet to come.  For as long as we have not crossed that dividing river of death, such will be the lot of brethren left behind on earth.  But make no mistake.  It is not the living to say goodnight to the dead in Christ.  It is those who have departed to be with Christ who must say goodnight to us who remain in this dark world of sin and death.

Feng Shui or Providence for 2022?

The ‘forces and influences’ of life have malevolent forces of demonic powers behind them.  It is beyond foolish to imagine that any human can manipulate them by putting the door and the stairs on the right place!  Or make wood the lucky element!  No, we have a much-better and more assuring confidence than that.  It is to know that in this year 2022, the God on the throne who is the Sovereign now rules His people through the kingly reign of Jesus Christ.

In this transition to the new year 2022, many will seek guidance from the Chinese Zodiac that identifies this year as the Year of the Tiger.  To be exact, the Yang-Water Tiger, which begins on February 1.  This is avidly followed by those who practice Feng Shui.  For them, it is the art that enables them to tap good energy to ensure the good life for the year.

One such Feng Shui expert advices:

Tiger mainly contains Yang-Wood, which is a tall tree. It also contains Yang-Fire and Yang-Earth. Yang-Fire is related to the sun and Yin-Earth is related to the mountain. Tiger is a tall tree on the mountain under the sun. Tiger is a symbol of power, prestigiousness, and loneliness. Tiger cannot get along with many animals. The Water of 2022 helps the tree of the Tiger grow taller and stronger. That means 2022 brings strong Wood energy to people. You will have good fortune if the Wood is your Lucky Element.1

The reality is that the mystery of Feng Shui is of the essence of its practice.  It keeps its advocates continue to be bound by a supersitition that they cannot understand.  The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics explains:

Chinese dictionaries give no definition of what is to be understood by Feng-Shui. No native treatises expound it upon scientific lines. Feng is ‘wind,’ shui is ‘water.’ Wind is what cannot be seen, and water what cannot be grasped. ‘Wind and water’ is the term, therefore, for the occult powers which are always bearing down upon human life. Professors of Feng-Shui prefer that it should remain a mystery, and those who pay them for their services accept the position, declaring that it is not to be expected that common people should understand the unfathomable.2

Many self-proclaimed experts are paid handsome amounts to give their advice: how to design the house; arrangement of furniture; coloring of walls; etc.  This is all rooted in the futile belief that one could manipulate the unseen forces and influences of life.

How different is the Christian concept of the providence of God.  By providence, we point to the wise God as in control of events directing them to the fulfillment of His plan for humanity, especially for His people.  Christian theology sees the works of God in three major categories of Creation, Providence, and Redemption.  What we see of human and natural existence is the product of God’s purposeful fiat.  But He did not leave it to function like clock-work by itself.  He Himself is intimately involved in both natural events and human history – preserving and governing for His ends.  But because humanity is fallen in sin, God has set in motion His grace to redeem sinners.  This is the basic explanation of the ‘forces and influences’ of life.  Providence is  rightly placed in the middle of God’s creative design and His redemptive purpose.

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 gives the classic summary of the biblical teaching of divine providence:

Q. 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?

A. The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

Q. 28. What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?

A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.

Nothing is too small for the providential involvement of God.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10:29).

The ‘forces and influences’ of life have malevolent forces of demonic powers behind them.  It is beyond foolish to imagine that any human can manipulate them by putting the door and the stairs on the right place!  Or make wood the lucky element!  No, we have a much-better and more assuring confidence than that.  It is to know that in this year 2022, the God on the throne who is the Sovereign now rules His people through the kingly reign of Jesus Christ.

With that confidence, it is not Christian to wish “Good luck!”  But I wish all, “A God-centered, and Christ-ruled New Year 2022.”

1 https://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/2022/default.htm

2 Dukes, E. J. (1908–1926). FENG-SHUI. In J. Hastings, J. A. Selbie, & L. H. Gray (Eds.), Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 5, p. 833). T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Nunc Dimittis: A Year-End Reflection

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom. No one will reach the whole of humanity. But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ. This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ. Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection. Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him. That is when we are doing our mission. That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace!  (Luke 2:29).  These were the first words uttered by Simeon upon seeing the child Jesus.  Recognizing the child as the Messiah that Simeon was promised to see before he was to die, Simeon breaks forth into a hymn.  It is the third of three hymns that Luke uses in his Nativity narrative.  We have seen Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) and Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68ff).  The shortest and the least-known of the hymns is this one by Simeon, known in the first words of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as Nunc Dimittis (‘Now, dismiss me’).  There are good thoughts here for a year-end reflection.

This is the only place where the character of Simeon is mentioned.  He is introduced as righteous and devout.  He received a revelation that he will see the Messiah (every pious Jew’s hope), before his life ends.  He must have waited for the day with eagerness.  Until one day in the Temple, amidst the daily ceremonies of dedication and circumcision of children, his eyes see Joseph and Mary and the child they have brought for dedication.  Instantly, Simeon recognizes Him to be the long-promised Messiah.  He carries the child in his arms and sings his hymn.  This is the first in the inspired record of a verbal reaction to the Messiah in-person.  Simeon’s song intones with a sense of mission accomplished.  And he has a sense of peace as he addresses the Lord: you may now dismiss your servant in peace!

For a year-end reflection, the passage is rich with meaning and implication.  We too have a mission to accomplish because of the coming of the Son of God.

A Mission Covering All Sinners

Simeon’s song brings together two groups of peoples that rarely combine with positive note – Israel and Gentiles.  And even more rarely, Simeon mentions the Gentiles first: revelation to the Gentiles… and for the glory of your people, Israel.  In Simeon’s mind, what makes this child in his arms unique is that the plan of God from eternity has come on earth, and it now covers the whole of humanity.

The coming of Christ makes the mission global.  It is now for the whole world.  Christian mission is for all humanity.

It has always been so in the plan of God.  Even in the calling of Abraham, God made clear to Abraham, In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Geb 12:3).  But over generations, the Israelites petrified this living hope into an exclusivism that translated into contempt for other nations – the Gentiles.  Now the birth of Jesus would refresh the original plan of God.  It is His intention to reach the whole of humanity through the Saviour, the Lord Jesus.  Simeon calls this baby Salvation.  That early, he establishes the basic truth that salvation is not an institution, not a set of works to accomplish.  Salvation is in the Person of the Messiah – Jesus, the Son of God.

But this salvation is now offered to all humanity.  Unfortunately, there are still groups of believers today who think that Israel (the Middle East nation) holds a special place in the plan of God that is above all other nations.  We must reject that, and refresh the original intention that Israel was the means by which God will reach out to the nations of the world.

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom.  No one will reach the whole of humanity.  But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ.  This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ.  Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection.  Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him.  That is when we are doing our mission.  That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Will our dismissal from the year 2021 be one of peace, God’s shalom, because we have done our mission for this year?

A Message Demanding a Response

In his address to Mary, Simeon prophesies: This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many.  Some commentators see fall and rising as covering the same identity – people who will come to Jesus, and will first experience the fall in conviction before the rise of conversion.  That is possible.  But it is better to see this song as extending the contrast sustained in the first two other hymns of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus. 

What it does tell us is that Jesus remains a message that divides humanity based on response to Him.  We stand against division of humanity based on racial identity or social status.  But Jesus Himself asserts that there is an inevitable division based on response to Him and the gospel message.  Peter divides humanity as honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe; etc. (1 Peter 2:7).  Simeon describes the Child as One for a sign to be opposed.  This is a word that Luke uses in Acts for contradicting the message (cf. Acts 13:45).  Jesus remains the fall (of those who will oppose the message) and the rising (those who will believe in Him as Lord and Savior) of many.  On which side are you as you conclude this year?

A Master Deciding the Discharge

This brings us back to Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.  It means ‘dismiss now.’  The original Greek has the sense of leaving the presence of another.  The immediate application is dying and being discharged from our life on earth. 

For someone like Simeon, the thought of dismissal from life is one that gives peace.  That is because of his sense of mission accomplished.  He acknowledges that the sovereign decision belongs to the Lord.  He uses a different term for Lord than the usual.  His word can be literally translated despot.  To call someone’s rule as despotic is extremely negative in current usage.  But that is not the sense in Simeon’s calling of his Lord.  It simply acknowledges that it is the Lord to sovereignly decide.

That dismissal may be from this life.  Like a soldier, it is possible to be discharged honorably or dishonorably.  We could think of some who had been dismissed rather dishonorably from this life in 2021.  One cannot think of the name Ravi Zacarias, without squirming at the mess his death had left behind.  But others had given their mission a luster of honor when their dismissal came.

But let us not think yet of the dismissal of death from this life.  Just think of the year that we are now to be dismissed from.  Would it be honorable or dishonorable?

The Lord Jesus has come at birth; and by His death and resurrection, He is now ruling.  His servants have mission to accomplish in their service.  At the end of this year, can we say with Simeon, confident in shalom, Nunc Dimittis?

The Benedictus

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.

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).