The Light Was Dawning

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. Luke 1:67-80 ESV

Zechariah, no longer hampered by his temporary bout of deafness and muteness, reacts to the miraculous birth of his son by composing a song of praise to God. But this is far more than a song of gratitude for God’s gracious act of replacing Elizabeth’s barrenness with fruitfulness. Whether he realized it or not, Zechariah was revealing Spirit-inspired truths regarding the coming Messiah.

Filled with and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah was given special insight into the plan of redemption God was about to unveil to His chosen people. With the Spirit’s assistance, Zechariah was able to clearly see God’s hand behind all that was happening, and he pronounces a blessing on God for His covenant faithfulness.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people…” – Luke 1:68 ESV

The Messiah had not yet been born but Zechariah knew that His arrival was imminent. God’s promise to raise up “a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69 ESV) was as good as done. The days of darkness that surrounded the people of Israel were about to be permeated by the light of God in the form of the Messiah, the promised and long-awaited descendant of King David.

As a priest, Zechariah would have been intimately familiar with all the prophetic passages regarding the coming of the servant of God. And with the Spirit’s assistance, he was able to see that God was preparing to fulfill each of those prophecies in his own lifetime. For more than 400 years, the people of Israel had endured a deafening silence, as God had chosen to cut off all communication with His people. He had sent no more prophets. There had been no divine calls to repentance. And while a remnant of the people had returned from exile in the land of Babylon, rebuilt the temple, refurbished the walls of Jerusalem, and repopulated the city, the land was marked by a lingering spiritual darkness.

Ever since the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the nation of Israel had been without a king and had suffered a series of degrading occupations by foreign military powers. Even as Zechariah composed his song of praise, the land of Judah was filled with Roman legionnaires, and the people of Israel were having to endure the oppressive and humiliating presence of the Roman emperor’s powerful representatives. With no army to defend them and no king to lead them, the Israelites were powerless to do anything about their demoralizing situation.

But Zechariah knew that God had promised to one day save His people. The prophets had declared “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71 ESV), and now it was all about to happen. God had sworn an oath to Abraham “that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:74-75 NLT). For Zechariah, this was all like a dream come true. The days of waiting were over. The long delay was about to end. The Messiah was finally coming, and He would bring deliverance and redemption for the people of God.

And Zechariah was blown away that his newborn son would play a role in this divine redemptive plan for the nation. He even addresses his infant son, disclosing the vital part God had preordained for him.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” – Luke 1:76 ESV

Once again, Zechariah has the words of the prophets in mind. It is likely that he was thinking of the prophecy of Malachi, written some four centuries earlier.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

You can sense Zechariah’s excitement as he considers the prospects that lie ahead. He probably considered the words of the prophet Isaiah, and inherently knew that the time for rejoicing had come.

“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem and tell her
that her time of warfare is over,
that her punishment is completed.
For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins.”
A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord;
build a level road through the rift valley for our God.” – Isaiah 40:1-3 NLT

Like any father, Zechariah was proud and pleased that his son had been hand-picked by God for this essential assignment. And, as a priest, he was blown away by God’s loving and gracious decision to redeem His people. Despite centuries of rebellion and rejection by His people, God was still willing to keep His covenant commitments. Motivated by His tender mercy, God was still offering them salvation and forgiveness of sins. He was sending His Son as the ultimate means of redemption and restoration. And Zechariah’s son would prepare the way for this darkness-shattering, life-transforming Servant of God.

And Zechariah wraps up his song with a poetic description of the Light of the world.

“…the dawn will break upon 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.” – Luke 1:78-79 NLT

And the apostle John would use similar words to open his gospel account.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

And the apostle would go on to describe and differentiate the unique role that Zechariah’s son would play.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John  1:6-8 ESV

When Zechariah’s son had grown to full manhood, he would begin his earthly, yet heavenly sanctioned ministry. He would declare the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. He would let the people know that heaven had invaded earth in the form of the life-giving light of God.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… – John 1:9-12 ESV

Zechariah was excited about the birth of his son, but he was even more energized about the fact that his son would be used by God to fulfill His long-standing covenant promises. The words of the prophets were about to come true, in Zechariah’s lifetime and, in part, through Zechariah’s seed.

The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious….

In earlier times he humiliated
the land of Zebulun,
and the land of Naphtali;
but now he brings honor
to the way of the sea,
the region beyond the Jordan,
and Galilee of the nations.
The people walking in darkness
see a bright light;
light shines
on those who live in a land of deep darkness. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Fullness of Time

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. Luke 1:57-66 ESV

When Mary made her trip to visit Elizabeth in Judah, her cousin would have been in the sixth month of her pregnancy (Luke 1:36). Luke tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, then returned home (Luke 1:56). It would appear that Mary returned home to Nazareth before Elizabeth gave birth.

But not long after Mary’s departure, Elizabeth’s due date arrived and she bore a son just as the angel Gabriel had told Zechariah (Luke 1:12). For the entire nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah had suffered from temporary muteness because he had failed to believe the message of the angel.

“…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.” – Luke 1:20 ESV

It appears that Zechariah’s ailment included an inability to hear as well. When his neighbors attempt to question him about the child’s name, they are forced to use hand signals, which would indicate that he was deaf as well as dumb. The Greek word Luke used to refer to Zechariah’s muteness is kōphos, and it can also be used to refer to deafness. So, for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah was forced to live in silence, unable to speak or hear anything. And this condition would have made his vocation as a priest virtually impossible to fulfill. He lived in a state of silent isolation, waiting for the fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophecy. And no one could have been more anxious or excited about Elizabeth’s due date than Zechariah. He was looking forward to seeing the fulfillment of all his prayers, but he must have also had high hopes that the birth would bring about the restoration of his speech and hearing.

Throughout this chapter, Luke puts a great deal of emphasis on time. Gabriel told Zechariah that his words would “be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). Luke records that Zechariah left the temple and returned home “when his time of service was ended” (Luke 1:23). Then we are given time markers focused on the stages of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

for five months she kept herself hidden – Luke 1:24 ESV

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth – Luke 1:26 ESV

“…behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month…” – Luke 1:36 ESV

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. – Luke 1:56 ESV

Then Luke begins this section with the statement, “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son” (Luke 1:57 ESV). Everything was happening according to God’s divine timeline. While Elizabeth’s pregnancy was normal, in that it lasted the usual nine months, it was supernatural and sovereignly ordained. Luke does not want his readers to forget that she was advanced in years and had suffered from barrenness. The birth of this baby was anything but normal, and the timing of all these events was meant to remind the reader that these were extraordinary and divinely sanctioned days in the history of Israel. A formerly barren woman was giving birth to a son. A young virgin girl was three months pregnant and carrying within her the Son of God. And it was all happening according to God’s preordained and perfectly timed plan.

The apostle Paul emphasized the impeccable timing behind God’s plan.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman… – Galalians 4:4 ESV

Time had reached its fulness or completeness. Each element of the plan was happening at just the right time and at the prescribed moment that God had preordained. There was no chance involved. It was all part of the perfect will of God Almighty.

Elizabeth gave birth to a son – just as Gabriel had said she would. And the new parents were surrounded by friends and neighbors who came to celebrate this joyous occasion with them. Even they recognized the hand of God behind Elizabeth’s pregnancy and delivery, and rejoiced that “the Lord had shown great mercy to her” (Luke 1:58 ESV). But they were completely ignorant of God’s plans for this newly born infant. They had no way of knowing that he would “be great before the Lord” and “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15), or that he would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16 ESV). To them, he was just another healthy baby boy who would be a welcome addition to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. This faithful priest now had a son and an heir. 

And because this baby would likely be the only child born to this aging couple, the friends of Zechariah and Elizabeth fully expected them to name the boy after his father. But eight days after giving birth to her son, Elizabeth surprised her friends by informing them that his name would be John. She and Zechariah chose to reveal this news on the day scheduled for their son’s circumcision. This God-ordained rite was meant as a sign that their newborn son was dedicated or set apart to God. It was a sign of the covenant that God had made between Himself and the offspring of Abraham.

“As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations…” – Genesis 17:9-12 ESV

Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that their son had been graciously given to them by God and that he had a divine mission to accomplish. They were merely stewards, charged with the task of keeping God’s vessel pure and prepared for his future role: “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:170 ESV). Gabriel had warned them to keep their son away from wine and strong drink. He would be filled with the Spirit of God and set apart as an instrument to accomplish God’s divine plan. And this godly couple was determined to follow the words of the angel of God. When Zechariah was questioned about their strange choice of name, he used a writing tablet to affirm his wife’s answer, scrawling the words: “His name is John” (Luke 1:63 ESV).

At that exact moment in time, God restored Zechariah’s ability to speak and hear. By obeying the word of the angel and naming his son, John, Zechariah proved his faith and was healed of his infirmity. And the first thing he did was bless God. We are not told what Zechariah said, but it seems likely that he reiterated some of what Gabriel had said regarding John’s future role. Luke indicates that “fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1:65 ESV).

In blessing God, Zechariah must have divulged some of what the angel Gabriel had said. This news obviously made an impact on those who were in the range of Zechariah’s voice. And the fact had not escaped them that Zechariah’s voice had been miraculously and instantaneously restored. There was something supernatural going on in their midst. But they had no way of knowing that God had just invaded time and space, sending his servant, John, so that he might one day begin his ministry of announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and calling the people of Israel to repentance. Three decades would pass before the baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth launched his divinely ordained ministry. In the meantime, another baby would be born to a young virgin girl named Mary. Months, years, and decades would pass. But God was at work. He was methodically and painstakingly preparing the way for the long-awaited Messiah. And in the fullness of time, His plan of redemption would begin.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Song of the Savior

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. Luke 1:46-56 ESV

After hearing Elizabeth’s Spirit-inspired pronouncement of blessing, Mary could no longer contain her emotions. She broke into song, composing what has come to be known as the “Magnificat.” That title is derived from the Latin translation of the first line of her song: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The word magnifies is magnificat in Latin, and can also be translated as “glorifies” or “exalts.”

In this rather short song or psalm of praise to God, Mary attempts to articulate her extreme gratefulness to God for having chosen her for the unfathomable and unprecedented task of bearing the coming Messiah. She was blown away by the magnitude of this weighty responsibility and recognized that she had done nothing to deserve it. The God of the universe had graciously chosen to extend to her the honor of giving birth to His own Son. And her heart was filled with praise and gratitude.

But notice the words Mary uses to describe Yahweh. First, she refers to Him as Lord (kyrios), which can also be translated as “master.” It was a title that conveyed an awareness of sovereignty or power and expressed an attitude of respect and reverence. Mary viewed God as her Lord and Master, and herself as His humble servant.

But she also described Yahweh as “God my Savior.” He was theos, the transcendent God of the universe, but also her personal sōtēr or Savior. In essence, Mary is stating that Yahweh is the “God of my salvation.” This was a common Old Testament designation for God and one with which Mary would have been quite familiar.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me. – Micah 7:7 ESV

I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation. – Habakkuk 3:18 ESV

She goes on to describe Yahweh as “mighty” (dynatos) and “holy” (hagios). She believed her God to be all-powerful and completely capable of doing what He had promised to do – even orchestrating her pregnancy through the power of the Holy Spirit. And while this miraculous turn of events might raise eyebrows and cause some to question her moral integrity, she knew that her God was holy and pure in all His ways. Not only that, He was a God of “mercy” (eleos), one who shows kindness or goodwill towards the miserable and the afflicted. He was the God of the downtrodden and the lowly, who had a track record of coming to the aid of the disenfranchised while scattering “those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51 NLT).

Mary inherently knew that God was working in ways that were contrary to the normal ways of men. Rather than choosing the wealthy, wise, influential, and powerful, God had turned His attention to the humble, lowly, and inconsequential. And the apostle Paul would later articulate the rather controversial and contradictory ways of God when he wrote to the believers in Corinth.

This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1Corinthians 1:24-29 NLT

From a purely human perspective, none of this made sense, but to Mary, it was a clear indication that Yahweh was at work. He was doing what He always did, overturning the status quo and championing the cause of the less fortunate.

“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:52-53 NLT

Mary seemed to understand that her story was that of the Israelite people. There had been a time when they were an obscure and unimportant nation, small in number, and devoid of power. Yet God had shown them mercy and grace. And it was Moses who reminded them that their status as God’s chosen people had been undeserved and unearned.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you… – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

Mary may have been young, but she was wise beyond her years. She fully grasped the significance of what was going on and expressed an understanding of the bigger picture at play.

“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:54-55 NLT

By showing mercy to Mary, God was extending mercy to His chosen people. He had promised to send them the Messiah and now He was about to fulfill that promise. Mary was blown away by the fact that she had been chosen as the conduit through which the “seed” of God’s promise would come. When God had made His covenant promise to Abraham, assuring him that his future offspring would become a blessing to the nations, He had been referring to the coming Messiah. And the apostle Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

Jesus, the Christ or Messiah, would make His unlikely entry into the world through the womb of a young virgin girl. He would humble Himself by taking on human flesh, leaving His rightful place at His Father’s side, and subjecting Himself to the restrictive and far-from-regal confines of a human body.

…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 ESV

And it would all begin with His divinely orchestrated and perfectly timed birth.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. – Galatians 4:4-5 ESV

There was much about her future son’s life that Mary did not understand. It’s unlikely that she had any concept of the suffering and death that would mark His life. She knew He would be the Messiah, and she hoped that He would bring salvation to His people. Her hopeful expectation was that He would be the next King of Israel, and she would be right. But there was much that had to happen before that day came. He would have to suffer and die. His crucifixion would have to come before His glorification. And His ascension and return to His Father’s side would have to precede the consummation of His Kingdom and His coronation as King of kings and Lord of lords. But while there was much Mary did not understand, she knew that her God was sovereign over all and fully faithful. So, she gladly sang His praises.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The King Has Come

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Luke 1:39-45 ESV

Before we look at Mary’s impromptu trip to visit Elizabeth, it’s essential that we notice an important point of contrast that Luke has established. He began his gospel account with a brief but significant mention of Herod’s kingship over Judea (Luke 1:5). But when Gabriel delivered his message to Mary that she had been chosen to bear and give birth to the Son of God, he had told her what the child’s name and mission would be.

“…you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33 ESV

Her son was going to be the Messiah of Israel of whom the prophets had spoken and for whom the people of Israel had long been waiting. And when He arrived, He would become the true and rightful King of Israel.

The message Gabriel delivered to Mary seems to have been based on the words of Isaiah the prophet.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV

Mary would have recognized the connection between Gabriel’s words and the prophetic pronouncement of Isaiah. Part of the reason for Mary’s willing acceptance of the angel’s bizarre news was that she was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and what they promised about the coming Messiah. Isaiah had also prophesied regarding the Messiah’s miraculous birth to a virgin.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

The Messiah’s very name would signify His divine mission and identity. In Hebrew, Immanuel means “God with us.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would become pregnant with the Son of God and, with His birth, God would come to dwell with men. It would be just as John the apostle described it in the beginning of his gospel account.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

But Jesus would enter the world as King. Though His mother would be an obscure and seemingly unimportant Jewish girl, and His birthplace would be the insignificant town of Bethlehem, Jesus would arrive on the scene as the rightful heir to the throne of David. And the prophet Isaiah had predicted that fact as well.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins. – Isaiah 11:1-5 ESV

While Mary had been shocked by the news she received from Gabriel, she was also overjoyed because she understood the significance of all that he had told her. She had been selected to give birth to Immanuel, the Son of God. God had graciously chosen her to be the means by which the long-awaited Messiah made His entrance into the world. Israel was finally going to have a real King, not some puppet potentate who served the Romans and wasn’t even a descendant of David.

And this exciting reality drove Mary to make the arduous journey to the hill country of Judah to see her cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel had informed Mary about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy.

“…your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” – Luke 1:36 ESV

Mary sensed that God’s sovereign hand was behind all that was going on, but she still had to wrestle with the fact that she was about to be an unmarried pregnant woman in a culture that would consider that condition a crime and not cause for celebration. At this point, she had to be thinking about how Joseph would react when he heard the news that she was pregnant. Would he believe her story? Or would he break off their betrothal in a fit of rage? All of these conflicting questions had to have coursed through Mary’s young mind as she made her way to Judah.

But Mary’s unsettled heart would soon find comfort in the words of Elizabeth. As soon as Mary walked into Elizabeth’s home and stated her name, another miracle of confirmation took place.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me?” – Luke 1:41-43 NLT

Anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth was given divine insight into her cousin’s unique role as the mother of the Messiah. There is no way that Elizabeth could have known this information. It was clearly the inspiration of the Spirit that provided her with the awareness of Mary’s pregnancy and the unique identity of the baby in her womb.

Elizabeth, under the influence of the Spirit of God, was uttering prophetic words concerning her younger cousin. She was being provided with divine insight into Mary’s situation that could only have come from the empowering presence of God’s Spirit. And she pronounced a blessing on Mary for her willingness to believe the words of Gabriel.

“…blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” – Luke 1:45 NLT

This was a word from God, spoken through Elizabeth. The Almighty was using Elizabeth as His vessel to communicate His pleasure with Mary’s faith. Despite the sudden and shocking nature of the news she had received, Mary had believed. Her very presence at Elizabeth’s home was proof. She had gone there to share the news with her relative, but before she even had a chance to say a word, God used Elizabeth and the baby in her womb to confirm the message and commend Mary’s faith. The baby leaped, Elizabeth blessed, and Mary was encouraged.

At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb responded in joy. John, as yet unborn, had been commissioned by God to be the one to herald the coming of the Messiah. Even in his prenatal state, John took his God-given assignment seriously, rejoicing in the arrival of the King. His divinely inspired celebration in the womb served as further proof to Mary that everything Gabriel had said was true.

And Mary’s response to it all took the form of a divinely inspired song – a psalm of thanksgiving and praise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unlikely Vessel

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.’ 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 ESV

The birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah, while obviously divinely ordained and miraculous in nature, was meant to be a precursor to the more important and paradigm-shifting birth that was to follow. John’s entire life and ministry would be that of a herald or preparer of the way.

“…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 1:17 ESV

In the same way, Luke records John’s birth as if it was merely a sign of greater things to come. While there are obvious similarities between the two birth accounts, Luke wants his readers to understand that there were glaring and significant differences as well. Years later, after beginning his ministry announcing the arrival of the Messiah and the Kingdom of Heaven, John would elaborate on the differences between him and Jesus.

“You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of Him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom stands and listens for him, and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must increase; I must decrease.

The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all.” – John 3:28-31 BSB

Once again, the angel Gabriel is sent to earth by God with a message. This time, he appears to a young virgin girl named Mary. Unlike Zechariah, Mary bears no title or job responsibility that would give her an air of importance or worth. She lived in Nazareth, a relatively obscure town located in the region of Galilee. With the mention of her place of residence, Luke has moved the narrative outside the walls of the capital city of Jerusalem where Zechariah received his message from Gabriel. In doing so, he has shifted the reader’s attention from the sacred environs of the temple to the less-than-holy confines of Nazareth. The reputation of this backwater town was far from stellar. Years later, when Philip told Nathanael “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph,” (John 1:45 ESV), Nathanael sarcastically responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV).

But it was in this unimpressive place and to an unassuming young girl that God sent His angelic messenger with unexpected news.

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” – Luke 1:28 ESV

Luke records that Mary’s response to seeing an angel was markedly different than that of Zechariah. He had been troubled and filled with fear at the sight of Gabriel but Mary seems to have been more disturbed by the content of the message than the heavenly status of its deliverer.

…she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. – Luke 1:29 NLT

Mary was a nobody. It’s likely that she was no more than a teenager at the time. And besides her name and the fact that she was a virgin, all Luke tells us about her is that she was “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:27 ESV). There is nothing about Mary that should have set her apart as special in any way. And that seems to be the point. When Gabriel announced her “favored” status, he was not declaring that she had somehow earned her way into God’s good graces.

The Greek word is κεχαριτωμένη, and it means “to grace” or “to indue with special honor.” It is only used one other time in the New Testament. In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul refers to the grace or unmerited favor that God had poured out on them.

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. – Ephesians 1:4-6 ESV

They had done nothing to earn their adoption as sons and daughters of Jesus Christ. It had all been a gift from God. And he would elaborate on the undeserved nature of that gift in the very next chapter.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

Mary had done nothing to merit her visitation from Gabriel, and her designation as God’s “favored one” was unearned as well. God had chosen her. He had set her apart to be the earthly vessel that would carry the priceless treasure of His Son. It was her relative obscurity and apparent inadequacy that set her apart. And Mary seemed to recognize the incongruity of Gabriel’s words with her own understanding of her value. She was troubled by what she heard and couldn’t reconcile the confusing nature of the angel’s message. But the apostle Paul provides us with a statement that helps to explain what was going on as Gabriel declared God’s message to Mary.

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-289 NLT

Mary was an unlikely vessel to contain the glory of God. But then, so are we.

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NLT

This young girl was going to be used by God to bring light into the world. She would bear and give birth to the Son of God. For nine months, she would carry the hope of the world in her womb, and eventually, she would deliver God’s priceless gift of grace into the waiting arms of a rebellious and sin-stained world.

Gabriel assured Mary that she had “found favor with God!” (Luke 1:30 NLT). Once again, this does not mean that Mary had earned favor, but that God had graciously chosen to act on her behalf. He was gracing her with His favor. And then Gabriel explains to her how the favor of God would manifest itself.

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” – Luke 1:31-33 NLT

If Mary had been troubled before, she had to have been reeling at this point. This was mind-boggling, earth-shattering information that must have left her head spinning and her heart racing. And her confusion is evidenced by her reaction: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 ESV). She and Joseph were still in the betrothal stage of their relationship and were not yet officially married. It sounded like Gabriel was getting the cart before the horse. She and Joseph still needed to complete their betrothal, go through the marriage ceremony, and then consummate their relationship.

That’s when Gabriel drops the next bombshell.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. – Luke 1:35 NLT

This was all uncharted waters for this young Jewish girl. She had no way of understanding what Gabriel meant. There was no precedent to which she could turn to understand this kind of supernatural explanation. It is doubtful that she fully comprehended the nature of Gabriel’s words. But rather than ask more questions, she simply responded: “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 NLT). There may have been a tone of confused compliance behind Mary’s statement. She had no idea what was about to happen but because it was the will of God, Mary was ready to humbly submit.  

It all had to have sounded improbable and impossible to Mary. But Gabriel had assured her that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 NLT). And he gave Elizabeth’s pregnancy as evidence of God’s involvement in all that was going on. The creator of the universe was working behind the scenes to bring about the greatest event in human history, and He was using broken, barren, insignificant, and undeserving individuals to make it happen.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Barrenness to Bounty

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.” – Luke 1:18-25 ESV

Having recovered from the initial shock of his divine encounter with the angelic visitor, Zechariah gathered his wits about him and assessed the content of the message. He immediately saw a problem and shared his concern with the angel.

“How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” – Luke 1:18 NLT

He desperately wanted to believe the news that his barren wife would have a son, but he needed proof. After all, the odds were stacked against them. Even if God could arrange for Elizabeth to get pregnant, there was another pressing problem: She was well beyond child-bearing age. So, as wonderful as this news sounded, Zechariah was having a difficult time accepting it as true.

You would have thought the appearance of an angel would have been more than enough for Zechariah. As a priest of God, he would have known about Israel’s history and the other divine encounters his forefathers had experienced, including Abraham the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. As we saw yesterday, there are glaring similarities between the story of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both couples were advanced in years and the two women were suffering from an inability to bear children. Yet, centuries earlier, God had appeared to Abraham in a vision and declared His intention to bless this elderly couple and make of them a great nation.

“Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” – Genesis 15:1 NLT

But Abraham, like Zechariah, had found the good news to be a bit too good to be true.

“O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:2-3 NLT

Abraham saw a glaring flaw in God’s plan and couldn’t help but share it. Yet God was nonplused, responding to Abraham’s doubt with further assurances of His intentions to make of Abraham a great nation.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” – Genesis 15:4-5 NLT

What happens next is significant and often overlooked. We are told that Abraham believed God and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Abraham is recognized for his faith and declared to be righteous accordingly. Yet, moments later, after God reiterates His promise to give Abraham the entire land of Canaan as his possession, Abraham responds in doubt.

But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT

Within minutes, Abraham went from believing God to having serious concerns about God’s ability to pull off what He was promising. So, he asked the Lord for a sign and received one. It may be that Zechariah had this story in mind when he said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” Abraham had asked for and received a sign, so why shouldn’t he? But what Zechariah got was a stern answer from the angel.

“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. – Luke 1:19 NLT

This was not just any angel, but the well-known and revered Gabriel. Zechariah would have recognized the name because the prophet, Daniel, had recorded about his two encounters with the very same angel.

As I, Daniel, was trying to understand the meaning of this vision, someone who looked like a man stood in front of me. And I heard a human voice calling out from the Ulai River, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of his vision.”

As Gabriel approached the place where I was standing, I became so terrified that I fell with my face to the ground. – Daniel 8:16-17 NLT

Daniel would have a second and equally memorable visit from Gabriel.

As I was praying, Gabriel, whom I had seen in the earlier vision, came swiftly to me at the time of the evening sacrifice. He explained to me, “Daniel, I have come here to give you insight and understanding. The moment you began praying, a command was given. And now I am here to tell you what it was, for you are very precious to God. Listen carefully so that you can understand the meaning of your vision.” – Daniel 9:21-23 NLT

This was the very same angelic being who was appearing to Zechariah, having been sent from the very throne room of God with a personal message for this elderly priest and his barren wife. But because Zechariah had chosen to doubt the veracity of the message, Gabriel delivered a stern word of rebuke along with a promise to give Zechariah the sign he had requested.

“…because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” – Luke 1:20 NLT

Zechariah was immediately struck dumb. He lost his ability to speak. He had asked for a sign and received one. And it is interesting to note that, with the sign, Zechariah had the proof he needed to believe the message of Gabriel. The good news was true. But now, because of his lack of faith, he had lost the ability to share that news with anyone. On leaving the temple, he was immediately confronted by those in the courtyard who had begun to worry about his long delay. They peppered him with questions, but unable to speak, Zechariah was forced to use his hands to try and explain what had happened inside the temple. But despite Zechariah’s hampered communications capacity, the onlookers could tell that something significant had taken place.

They realized that he had seen a vision in the Holy Place. – Luke 1:22 NLT

When he had completed his priestly duties for the day, Zechariah returned home. He couldn’t wait to share the good news with his wife but would find it virtually impossible to convey the content of Gabriel’s message without the ability to speak.

Somehow, Zechariah was able to let his wife know the exciting news. At some point, he probably took a stylus and a sheet of parchment and inscribed the details of his encounter with Gabriel. And it seems likely that Elizabeth would have been just as incredulous at discovering the content of the angel’s message. But as the months passed, she soon received irrefutable proof that all Gabriel had said was true. She was pregnant. Despite her old age and barren state, she had a child forming in her womb. And she immediately recognized her condition as a gracious gift from the hand of God.

“This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.” – Luke 1:25 NLT

Her words echo those of Rachel, another barren woman who was given a child by the gracious hand of God.

She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. – Genesis 30:23 NLT

Elizabeth shared the same boundless gratitude to God that Hannah expressed when her years of barrenness ended with the birth of Samuel. She proclaimed her joy and thanks to God in the form of a son.

“My heart rejoices in the Lord!
    The Lord has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
    I rejoice because you rescued me.” – 1 Samuel

Whether these women realized it or not, they were speaking on behalf of the entire nation of Israel. Each of them had suffered through years of childlessness, bearing the shame and indignation that accompanied their inability to provide their husbands with offspring. In their culture, that was a fate worse than death. They were fruitless and powerless to do anything about it. Yet, each of them had called out to God and He had heard their cries and answered.

Elizabeth had longed for God to remove her reproach. She was tired of being the focus of everyone’s cruel gossip. She knew that other women were talking among themselves, spreading the vicious rumors that she had done something to anger God. These women would have assumed that Elizabeth was being punished for some hidden sin or moral indiscretion. Her inability to bear children must have been a curse from God Almighty. But they were wrong. Her barrenness, like that of Hannah, Sarah, and Rachel, was meant to be a sign that God could reverse the fortunes of the fruitless and hopeless. He could turn a barren womb into a place of sanctuary and nurture for the next generation of Israelites. He could use a woman’s reproach to bring about the world’s redemption. Elizabeth would have a son who would grow to be a man. And this man would herald the coming of another baby, born from the womb of a young Jewish girl named Mary.

In reality, the spiritually barren people of Israel were going to give birth to the Savior of the world. God had promised to give Abraham as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and to make his offspring a blessing to the nations. And that promise was about to be fulfilled but in a way that no one expected. The apostle Paul would later explain that all the promises that God made to Abraham were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

God was about to do something spectacular, and it would begin with the birth of a son to an elderly priest and his barren wife. The spiritual desert that Israel had become was about to burst forth with fruitfulness and abundance in the form of a prophetic messenger and his news of the coming Kingdom of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silence Is Broken

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. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 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.” – Luke 1:5-17 ESV

It’s interesting to note that, as Luke begins his record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he reminds his readers that there was a king ruling and reigning over the province of Judea, and this man’s name was Herod.

This is significant because Luke, like the authors of the other gospels, is going to establish Jesus as King of the Jews. But before Jesus even shows up on the scene, there is a contender or pretender for the throne. Herod was actually an Edomite, one of the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob. Before Jacob and Esau were born, God had given their mother a prophetic message concerning the fate of her two sons.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

After their birth, Jacob, the younger of the two, would bargain and deceive his way into stealing the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn from his older brother Esau. When the boys were older and their father Isaac was nearing death, Jacob disguised himself as his older brother and tricked the near-blind Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the oldest son.

“Let peoples serve you,
    and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
    and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” – Genesis 27:29 ESV

This life-altering event left Esau angry and frustrated. He demanded that Isaac provide him with a blessing as well. But what he heard left him embittered and far from satisfied.

“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be,
    and away from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live,
    and you shall serve your brother…” – Genesis 27:39-40 ESV

Now, centuries later, Herod, a descendant of Esau, was sitting on the throne of David in Jerusalem. But he was not from the tribe of Judah. Technically, he was not even a Jew. He was an Edomite. And he had gained his title by making alliances with the Romans. At one point, he had been appointed the governor of the northern province of Galilee. Herod’s father was a high-ranking official in the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had been ruling in Palestine until the arrival of the Romans. During a conflict between the Hasmoneans and the Romans, Herod chose to side with the Romans. As a result, the Roman Senate promised him the undeserved title of “King of the Jews,” if he could successfully conquer Judea, the largest Roman province that included all of Israel.

After helping to reign in the rebellious Judeans, Herod received his official title in 37 BC, and he would remain the unofficial king until 4 AD. So, as Luke begins his chronicle of the birth of the true King of the Jews, we discover that the position was occupied by a usurper. And we will quickly see that this two-king, one-title situation would prove to be a problem.

But after a brief, but important, reference to Herod, Luke introduces us to another character – a priest named Zechariah. According to 1 Chronicles, King David was the one who had organized the priesthood into 24 divisions.

David divided Aaron’s descendants into groups according to their various duties. Eleazar’s descendants were divided into sixteen groups and Ithamar’s into eight, for there were more family leaders among the descendants of Eleazar. – 1 Chronicles 24:2-4 ESV

Each group carried out its appointed duties in the house of the Lord according to the procedures established by their ancestor Aaron in obedience to the commands of the Lord, the God of Israel. – 1 Chronicles 24:19 ESV

Zechariah came from the division of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron. So, this couple had strong ties to the Aaronic priesthood. And Luke lets us know that this couple lived up to their priestly heritage.

…they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. – Luke 1:6 ESV

But this godly couple had never been able to have children because Elizabeth was barren. Now, to make matters worse, they were both advanced in years. Sound familiar? It should. Because it is reminiscent of several other biblical couples who found themselves facing similar circumstances. When Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, was called by God, he and his wife Sarah were advanced in years and she suffered from barrenness. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was also barren. Yet God allowed her to give birth to a son.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph – Genesis 30:22-24 ESV

Hannah, the mother of the prophet, Samuel, also suffered from barrenness. In fact, the book of 1 Samuel records that God had closed up her womb (1 Samuel 1:5). Yet, when Hannah called out to the Lord, He answered her.

…in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.” – 1 Samuel 1:20 ESV

God entered into the pain and misery of each of these women, providing them with hope even after years of desperation and despondency. He moved in the midst of their barrenness and produced fruitfulness. He brought light into the darkness of their lives, graciously blessing them with the sons for whom they had so long waited.

It is not insignificant that Zechariah’s Hebrew name means “Yahweh remembers.” God was going to remember Elizabeth but, more importantly, He was going to remember His people, Israel. For 400 years, the nation of Israel had lived in a time of silence, with no prophetic messengers having been sent by God. The last words of the very last prophet had been declared four centuries earlier when Malachi closed out the book that bears his name.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

God was about to remember and fulfill that promise, and it would begin with an elderly priest and his barren wife. On the particular day of the year when Zechariah’s priestly division was scheduled to serve in the Temple, his name was “chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9 ESV). Everything about this scenario shouts the sovereignty and providential will of God. He was orchestrating every aspect of this scene.

While performing his priestly duties at the altar of incense inside the Temple, Zechariah was suddenly joined by an angel. The appearance of this unexpected visitor left Zechariah in a state of fear. But the angel assured the frightened priest that all was well. He simply had an important message to deliver.

“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. – Luke 1:13 ESV

It’s likely that Zechariah had been praying for his wife’s barren condition for some time. But the text seems to indicate that he had been taking advantage of his access to the Temple and the altar of incense to offer up a special prayer of intercession. And the angel informed him that God had heard his prayer and the answer was on its way. She would give birth to a son whose name would be John. And Zechariah must have chuckled to himself when he heard the angel exclaim, “You will have great joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14 NLT). Of course, he would. This was a prayer he had been praying for years, and now God was answering it. God was remembering him and Hannah. And when John was born, Zechariah would be beside himself with joy and gladness.

But the angel added that John’s birth would be a source of joy for a great many people.

“…and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.” – Luke 1:15 NLT

And the angel explains why this boy’s birth will have such an impact on so many.

“…he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.” – Luke 1:16-17 NLT

This birth, while a direct answer to Zechariah’s prayer, was going to be a fulfillment of God’s promise to send “Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 ESV). This would be no ordinary baby. He would be a prophet sent from God with a message regarding the coming Savior of the world. The deafening silence of the last 400 years would be broken at last. God uses this miraculous messenger to declare the pending arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. John would do so under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But to ensure that His messenger would remain pure and undefiled, God commanded Zechariah to raise his son as a Nazirite. He was to abstain from the consumption of any form of wine or strong drink. His role would be too important to risk the influence of alcohol. He would be filled with the Spirit instead. 

John was going to be the preparer of the way. His job would be to declare the coming of the chosen one of God. John would serve as a herald, with a singular task “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Orderly Account

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 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, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4 ESV

We are about to embark on a study of the longest book in the New Testament. It bears the name of the man who is believed to have been its author. Luke was either a Gentile or a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jew. In his letter to the churches in Colossae, The apostle Paul informs his readers that Luke was a physician by trade (Colossians 4:14). And while Luke was not an apostle of Jesus, he had close relationships with some of those who were, including Paul. He used his access to these men to conduct interviews and gather information so that he could compile an “an accurate account ” (Luke 1:3 NLT) of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Luke was not the first to attempt such an ambitious and daunting undertaking. He readily admits that “Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1 NLT). Of course, we know that Matthew and Mark both produced records of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and together with Luke’s account, they comprise what are known as the Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” simply means “together sight” and refers to the many similarities found in these three books. They each record the life of Jesus, including many of the same stories and following a common timeline. Each author provided his own particular writing style and had a specific audience in mind when compiling his book.

Luke makes it clear that he had penned his gospel account with one person in mind, a man named Theophilus. And this would not be the only book Luke wrote to his friend and fellow believer. The book of Acts, also written by Luke, was addressed to this same individual.

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. – Acts 1:1-3 NLT

In this passage, Luke clarifies that his purpose for writing his gospel account was to record everything that Jesus began to do and teach while He was on this earth. He begins with the incarnation of Jesus and ends with His ascension. And Luke painstakingly researches and records the many events that transpired between those two paradigm-shifting moments in human history.

Evidently, Theophilus was of Greek origin and his name meant “friend of God.” It would appear that he was a rather recent convert to Christianity and had come out of a pagan religious background. Much of what Paul records in his gospel is intended to provide his young friend with proof of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. This young Greek convert to Christianity would have had little knowledge of Jewish history or the many references to the coming Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a sense, Theophilus would have represented a highly educated and secularized Gentile audience who were lacking any understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Jewish Messiah and all that title entailed. Since coming to faith in Christ, Theophilus had been given instructions regarding Jesus’ identity and earthly ministry.  But Luke wanted to make sure that his friend’s faith was based on solid evidence and not on some fictional, fairy tale story that mirrored the myths about the Greek gods.

Jesus was not the figment of someone’s fertile imagination. And He was far more than just a man who lived a moral life and left behind a good example to follow. He was the Son of God and, ultimately, the Savior of the world. Yes, He was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but He was also the light to the nations. The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming servant of God, who would one day restore rebellious Israel to a right relationship with God. But this same servant would shed the light of God’s glory and grace to the ends of the earth.

And now the Lord speaks—
    the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant,
    who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him.
The Lord has honored me,
    and my God has given me strength.
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:5-6 NLT

If you recall, this is exactly what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do before He ascended back into heaven. Luke recorded these fateful words of Jesus in the opening chapter of the book of Acts.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

These men had listened to the words of their resurrected Lord and taken the good news to the ends of the earth. As a result, men and women like Theophilus had come to faith and begun the lifelong process of sanctification that followed their salvation. While Luke had not been a disciple of Jesus, he had taken His words to heart, following His instructions to go and make disciples of all the nations.

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 NLT

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke provided Theophilus with further instructions regarding the faith, while at the same time addressing the needs of a growing number of Gentile converts who were in need of solid teaching and reliable evidence about their Lord and Savior.

Little did Luke know that this letter, penned to his young friend, would become a part of the canon of Scripture. By God’s divine providence and through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, these carefully researched and well-crafted words have been preserved so that generations of Gentile converts to Christianity might grow up in their salvation. We owe this man a debt of gratitude for his willingness to research and write this powerful biography of the most seminal characters in all of human history: The Lord Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to the Lord

1 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
    for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words
    and return to the Lord;
say to him,
    “Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
    and we will pay with bulls
    the vows of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
    we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
    to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

I will heal their apostasy;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom like the lily;
    he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
    It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
    from me comes your fruit.

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them,
    but transgressors stumble in them. – Hosea 14:1-9 ESV

Despite all the chapters dealing with Israel’s apostasy and God’s pending judgment, the book of Hosea ends on a highly positive note. In the closing chapter, Hosea makes one more impassioned plea for the rebellious people of Israel to return to the Lord. He lovingly implores them to leave their sins behind and make their way back to God. Hosea reminds them that they can only find healing and forgiveness with Yahweh. Their idols are useless and incapable of providing them with the help they need. But they will need to confess their sins and offer heart-felt sacrifices to the one true God. If they do, they will receive atonement and a restored relationship with the one who lovingly set them apart as His own chosen possession.

In an effort to encourage a positive response to his call to repentance, Hosea even provides them with the words to say.

“Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us,
    so that we may offer you our praises.
Assyria cannot save us,
    nor can our warhorses.
Never again will we say to the idols we have made,
    ‘You are our gods.’
No, in you alone
    do the orphans find mercy.” – Hosea 14:2-3 NLT

He practically wrote their confession for them, so all they had to do was speak the words.  But it would all mean nothing if their hearts were not in it. God was not interested in lip service. Pious-sounding words that were not back up by sincerity of heart were worthless to Him, and He had condemned such hypocritical behavior before.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God also gave a somewhat discouraging assessment to His prophet, Ezekiel, warning him that the people would listen to his words but with no intention of doing what he said.

“Son of man, your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it!” – Ezekiel 33:30-32 NLT

King David had understood that what God wanted from His sinful people was not ritualistic sacrifices offered in some kind of perfunctory fashion. He desired that His people offer Him their broken and repentant hearts, not empty sacrifices that were in keeping with the letter of the law but lacking in sincerity and truth.

“You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

Hosea wants the people of Israel to know that only meaningful repentance will result in restoration. He even quotes God’s promise to restore His repentant people.

“Then I will heal you of your faithlessness;
    my love will know no bounds,
    for my anger will be gone forever. – Hosea 14:4 NLT

Amazingly, God offers His people the undeserved gift of His forgiveness, mercy, and grace. He is still willing to show them compassion. He is still prepared to shower them with His blessings – despite all the centuries marked by rebellion, unfaithfulness, and disobedience to His holy law. All the way back when Solomon was still king over the unified kingdom of Israel, God had made him a promise. It was at the dedication of the newly constructed temple that Solomon had constructed in God’s honor. After Solomon’s prayer of dedication, God made a pledge that He would honor the new temple with His name and listen to the prayers that His people prayed toward this sacred site.

“…if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 BSB

That promise was still valid, because God always keeps His word.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God is a covenant-keeping God. He does not renege or go back on His promises. And in the book of psalms, we read on His covenant commitment to David.

“I will establish your descendants as kings forever;
    they will sit on your throne from now until eternity.” – Psalm 89:4 NLT

God loved David greatly and called him a man after His own heart. And He promised to give David a long-lasting, never-ending dynasty. But at the time when Hosea was writing the book that bears his name, the prospects of this promise being fulfilled looked bleak. The kingdom that David had turned over to his son Solomon had been divided in two. And the day was quickly coming when there would no longer be a king over Israel or Judah. Both nations would be defeated by foreign powers and watch as their kings were dethroned and their kingdoms destroyed. To this day, there has been no king to rule over the people of Israel. Yet God had promised David:

“I will make him my firstborn son,
    the mightiest king on earth.
I will love him and be kind to him forever;
    my covenant with him will never end.
I will preserve an heir for him;
    his throne will be as endless as the days of heaven.” – Psalm 89:27-29 NLT

But there was a caveat that came with the promise. God had also warned what would happen in the people of Israel failed to be obedient. There would be consequences.

“But if his descendants forsake my instructions
    and fail to obey my regulations,
if they do not obey my decrees
    and fail to keep my commands,
then I will punish their sin with the rod,
    and their disobedience with beating.
But I will never stop loving him
    nor fail to keep my promise to him.
No, I will not break my covenant;
    I will not take back a single word I said.” – Psalm 89:30-34 NLT

They would suffer for their sins but God would not alter one letter of His covenant commitment to David. He would never stop loving him. He would never fail to keep the promises He made to him. And the descendants of David would stand to benefit greatly from God’s faithful commitment to keep His word.

“I will be to Israel
    like a refreshing dew from heaven.
Israel will blossom like the lily;
    it will send roots deep into the soil
    like the cedars in Lebanon.” – Hosea 14:5 NLT

Using highly poetic language, God describes a remarkable change in Israel’s future circumstances.

“My people will again live under my shade.
    They will flourish like grain and blossom like grapevines.” – Hosea 14:7 NLT

Just as they are assured the inevitability of their coming destruction, they are also promised their future restoration and revitalization by the gracious hand of God.

But in the meantime, God pleads with His people to “stay away from idols!” (Hosea 14:8 NLT). He longs to be their sole source of comfort and the only one to whom they turn for help, hope, and healing.

I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you.
I am like a tree that is always green;
    all your fruit comes from me.” – Hosea 14:8 NLT

Their false gods will fail them. But not Yahweh. Lifeless idols cannot hear or answer their prayers. But God can and will – if they will only call out to Him in humility and brokenness. And Hosea wraps up his book with one final plea for the people to act wisely and respond to the Lord with discernment. They must choose.

The paths of the Lord are true and right,
    and righteous people live by walking in them.
    But in those paths sinners stumble and fall. – Hosea 14:9 NLT

This was essentially the same message that the prophet, Jeremiah, pronounced. He too recorded God’s call for His people to make the right choice and to walk the right path. But sadly, they refused to listen.

This is what the Lord says:
“Stop at the crossroads and look around.
    Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.
Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’
I posted watchmen over you who said,
    ‘Listen for the sound of the alarm.’
But you replied,
    ‘No! We won’t pay attention!’” – Jeremiah 6:16-17 NLT

Choose the right path. Heed the warnings of God. Display a heart of contrition. Repent and return to the Lord. And He will graciously offer you forgiveness, atonement, and the joy of a restored relationship with Himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Love of Darkness

12 The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
    his sin is kept in store.
13 The pangs of childbirth come for him,
    but he is an unwise son,
for at the right time he does not present himself
    at the opening of the womb.

14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
    I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
    O Sheol, where is your sting?
    Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

15 Though he may flourish among his brothers,
    the east wind, the wind of the Lord, shall come,
    rising from the wilderness,
and his fountain shall dry up;
    his spring shall be parched;
it shall strip his treasury
    of every precious thing.
16 Samaria shall bear her guilt,
    because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword;
    their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
    and their pregnant women ripped open. – Hosea 13:12-16 ESV

The problem was not that Israel had sinned. God had fully expected them to do so and had made ample preparations for that inevitable prospect. The entire sacrificial system was based on the knowledge that God’s people would sin and was intended to provide them with a means of receiving atonement, forgiveness, and a restored relationship with Him. But the Israelites had become guilty of unrepentant sin. They had chosen to worship other gods, in direct violation of God’s commands. And they repeatedly refused to repent of their sin of spiritual adultery. Despite the warnings of God’s prophets, the Israelites continued to forsake Yahweh and offer their sacrifices, affections, and allegiance to false gods. This left them living in a state of unrepentant sin for which their many sacrifices provided no atonement or forgiveness.

God wanted to redeem, forgive, and restore them, but their unwillingness to repent made that impossible. He had promised to forgive their sins – if they would only repent.

“…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

But God compares His stubborn people to an infant that refuses to go through childbirth. The mother goes through intense labor pains, attempting to bring her new baby into the world, but the child “resists being born” (Hosea 13:13 NLT). This fictitious scene is meant to expose the absurdity of Israel’s actions. Like a baby that chooses to remain in the comfortable and familiar environs of the womb, the Israelites had chosen to continue in their lifestyle of sin and apostasy.

The moment of birth has arrived,
    but they stay in the womb! – Hosea 13:13 NLT

God had great things in store for them – if they would only repent. He wanted to bless them with abundant life and all the benefits that would come with living in obedience to His just and holy commands. But they refused to repent. And because they refused to repent, the number of their unforgiven sins had increased exponentially, leaving them with a growing debt that could only be paid through death and destruction.

Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,
    but he who pursues evil will die.
Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord,
    but those of blameless ways are his delight. – Proverbs 11:19-20 ESV

For the wages of sin is death… – Romans 6:23 ESV

But despite God’s desire that His people repent and return to Him, He is determined to punish them for their wickedness. He cannot turn a blind eye to their sin and simply act as if they have done nothing wrong. And while He is a loving, gracious, and compassionate God, He is also just and holy, and obligated to punish the iniquities of men. So, He asks a series of rhetorical questions:

“Should I ransom them from the grave?
    Should I redeem them from death?” – Hosea 13:14 NLT

And then God answers those questions with a clear declaration of Israel’s coming destruction.

“O death, bring on your terrors!
    O grave, bring on your plagues!
    For I will not take pity on them. – Hosea 13:14 NLT

This time, they would receive no rescue from God. He would not intervene on their behalf and prevent the inevitable consequences for their sins. They would pay, and they would pay dearly. But they could have escaped the consequences of death and the grave if they would have only repented and returned to God in humble contrition. Had they only been willing to confess their sins, He would have been faithful and just to forgive them. The apostle John points out the reality of that divine response to man’s humble act of repentance.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

It is interesting to note that, centuries later, Jesus Christ would appear on the scene in Israel, preaching the same message of repentance. Matthew records how Jesus began His earthly ministry by fulfilling the prophecy found in the book of Isaiah.

“…the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:16-17 ESV

Despite Israel’s continued transgressions and ongoing refusal to repent, God would send His own Son to earth preaching a message of repentance to all those who were willing to listen and obey. But like all the other prophets before Him, Jesus would find His Israelite audience to be resistant to His message. They would be attracted by His miracles and curious about His identity, but they could not bring themselves to believe that He could forgive their sins. In his gospel account, the apostle John reveals that the Jews refused to receive Jesus and His message of repentance.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

And John goes on to reveal that Jesus was sent by God in order to offer sinful mankind a way of receiving forgiveness rather than condemnation. Jesus was the gracious gift sent by God the Father that could provide all those living under the condemnation of death with a means of atonement, forgiveness, and redemption.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:17-19 ESV

Even in Jesus’ day, things had not changed. The people of Israel still loved the darkness rather than the light. Like an infant clinging to the familiar darkness of the womb and refusing to be born into the light of day, the Israelites were stubbornly holding on to their lifestyle of sin and refusing to step into the light of God’s forgiveness.

God would punish the northern kingdom of Israel for its refusal to repent. He would send the Assyrian army to destroy the capital city of Samaria and take tens of thousands of its citizens into captivity.

The people of Samaria
    must bear the consequences of their guilt
    because they rebelled against their God.
They will be killed by an invading army,
    their little ones dashed to death against the ground,
    their pregnant women ripped open by swords.” – Hosea 13:16 NLT

These words sound so harsh and barbaric to our modern sensibilities. They paint a portrait of God that we find unattractive and antithetical to our understanding of Him as a loving, gracious, and compassionate God. But we sometimes fail to understand that He is a holy and just God who cannot tolerate sin. His righteousness requires that He deal justly and decisively with all sin. But the truly amazing thing is that God had a plan in place that would deal with the deadly impact of sin and provide sinful mankind with a gracious and totally undeserved plan of escape. And it would be made possible through the gift of His Son. The apostle Paul reminds us of the wonderful secret regarding God’s plan of redemption.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 NLT

The Israelites would be punished for their sin. They would face the inevitable consequences of death and the grave. But God was not done. He would preserve a remnant of His people, and through that remnant, He would send His Son. Jesus, the Son of God, would be born into the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham, and as a descendant of David. He would be sent by God to be the Savior of the world, offering His life as an atonement for the sins of mankind and as a means of receiving a restored relationship with a holy and just God. As the apostle Paul so aptly put it:

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

While Israel clung to the womb of sin and darkness, Jesus, the light of God’s glory, was born into the darkness of a sinful world in order to provide the gracious gift of God’s redemption and restoration.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson