Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[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.”

[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.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[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.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “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.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 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

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[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.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[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.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [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.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

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Study Notes June 16: The Triumphal Entry

12:12-13 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. [13] So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

How the Crowd Reacted

First, the crowd here seems to have been part of the large group that came from all over Israel to the annual feast, and not specifically those who were Jerusalem dwellers. As Morris points out, many of these folks probably knew Jesus from His ministry in Galilee, and so there was likely a familiarity with Him. Which leads us secondly to the fact that there is an intentionality of the crowd that is significant. John says that they “went out to meet him.”  It isn’t as though He was gathering a crowd around Him.

But what was their mindset? Morris says, “When on this occasion he (Jesus) did not reject their acclamation their enthusiasm knew no bounds.”

The ESV Study Notes have some solid insight as well:

Most of the crowd probably understood the title King of Israel in a political and military sense, still hoping that Jesus would use his amazing powers to resist Roman rule and lead the nation to independence. Like Caiaphas (John 11:49–52), however, they spoke better than they knew, as his disciples later understood (12:16).

What has always been interesting to me is this waving of Palm Tree branches. From what I read (Morris also mentions), Palm branches are symbolic of victory. Morris comments, “In John’s mention of them (palms) here we must detect a reference to the triumph of Christ.”

D.A. Carson gives an in-depth background on the use of the palm trees, as does John MacArthur. Carson says this:

From about two centuries earlier, palm branches had already become a national (not to say nationalist) symbol. When Simon the Maccabee drove the Syrian forces out of the Jerusalem citadel he was feted with music and the waving of palm branches which had also been prominent at the rededication of the temple. In short, waving palm branches was no longer restrictively associated with Tabernacles (the Feast of the Tabernacles).

MacArthur also mentions Simon the Maccabee and his victory and says, “Perhaps many in the crowd had that incident in their mind as they waved their palm branches. Maybe, they hoped, Jesus would prove to be the great messianic King and military conqueror who would liberate them from the yoke of Roman (rule) and establish the promises to Abraham and David (Gen. 12:-1-3; 2 Sam. 7:1-16).

What the Crowd Said…

First, the crowd began to shout “Hosanna!” which is literally translated “give salvation now” and as D.A. Carson notes, “had come to be a term of acclamation or praise. Every Jew knew of its occurrence in Psalm 118:25, for Psalm 118 is part of the Hallel (Pss. 113-118), sund each morning by the temple choir during the Feast of Tabernacles but also associated at this period with the Feast of Dedication and with the Passover…The connection was so strong that many Jews referred to their lulabs (used in the Feast of the Tabernacles) as hosannas.”

Secondly, they said “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” – this is also from Psalm 118 (verse 26) and should be understood as a messianic title. They clearly see Jesus as their messiah, although as we have mentioned before, their version of what the messiah would be and what the messiah actually ended up being are completely different things altogether.

Lastly, Morris notes that the part “even the King of Israel” was not an expression that is from prophecy, but is rather the crowd’s addition. It also brings us to mind how Nathanael called Jesus the King of Israel in 1:49. This just further goes to show the fact that while the crowd saw Jesus as a political power and savior; in their ignorance they spoke truer words than they knew. For Jesus indeed was the King of Israel and of the whole of creation!

How Jesus Reacted…And What He Said

Luke records for us what Jesus said after reaching Jerusalem, and far from the “giddy” (MacArthur) crowd’s reaction to His coming to town, Jesus was heartbroken over the shallowness of the people.  He knew the nature of their interest in Him.  Listen to what He says:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, [42] saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

This is a powerful, and painful, passage.  We see that Jesus was really the only one who understood the gravity of the moment.  He was the only one who really knew what was about to happen. Knowing what He did, how could He not have grieved over a people who were so faithless, and so blind.  The same holds true today. People lap up the teaching of prosperity gospel preaching because that’s what they think they need to hear. They want all that “positive reinforcement”! All the meanwhile they’re missing the gospel. They’re missing the atonement and the fact that they NEED an Atonement. While the people here in Jerusalem desired a savior from their political oppression, what they needed was the same thing we need, a Savior from the oppression of our own sinfulness!

Christ didn’t come to set us free from political bondage, but rather to free us from the bondage of sin that has enslaved the entire human race (see Paul’s discourse in Romans 6).

The Moment Had Come!

And so Christ came to set us free. That was His mission. When He began His ministry He quoted several prophecies that bore witness to this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, [19] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

Furthermore, this entry into Jerusalem marked the fulfillment of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Listen to what MacArthur says about this:

The exact day that the Lord chose to enter Jerusalem fulfilled one of the most remarkable prophecies of the Old Testament, Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9:24-26). Through Daniel, the Lord predicted that the time from Artaxerxes’ decree ordering the rebuilding of the temple (in 445 B.C.) until the coming of the Messiah would be “seven week and sixty two weeks”, that it, 69 weeks total. The literal translation is “seven sevens and sixty-two sevens”, seven being a common designation for a week. In the context of the passage, the idea is 69 weeks of years, or 69 times 7 years, which comes to a total of 483 Jewish years (which consisted of 360 days each, as was common in the ancient world). Several different systems of reckoning have endeavored to determine the chronology of the 483 years after Artaxerxes’ decree, putting the date at either A.D. 30, 32, or 33, depending on the actual decree date and the complex calculations through those years…it is best to understand the triumphal entry as taking place on 9 Nisan, A.D. 30. But even the other dates offered by these authors leave one thing remaining undeniably clear: whatever may be the precise chronology, Jesus Christ is the only possible fulfillment of Daniel’s prophetic timetable.

Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum agree with Dr. MacArthur (although not on the dating):

Thus, the seventieth sabbatical is from A.C. 2-34 following Zuckerman or A.E. 28-35 following Ben Zion Wacholder. Halfway through this time, i.e., A.D. 31, the Messiah is cut off, but not for himself. Astonishingly he dies, but his death is vicarious. The phrase commonly rendered “and he will have nothing,” is better translated “but not for himself”…The point in the vision is that the coming king dies vicariously for his people.

And so as was predicted long ago, Christ came to set the captives free and lead a new exodus (a third one counting the Mosaic and Babylonian ones), only this one would be the beginning of a mass exodus spiritually from the bondage of sin and death that will one day culminate in the glorious day of the Lord.  Listen to Isaiah who mentions this:

In that day from the river Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt the LORD will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel. [13] And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27:12-13 ESV)

12:14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, [15] “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

The quotation here is from Zechariah 9:9 which says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Delivery From Oppression

“Fear not” is how John chose to interpret “rejoice greatly” (it could also be taken from Is. 40:9 according to the ESV Study Notes), and it is a poignant expression because when I think of the situation that the Jews were in at the time, they were being oppressed and under the rule of yet another foreign nation (this time the Romans). They longed for the day when a great king would deliver them – not from another nation, but from within their own people. They knew that the Scriptures spoke of such a Messiah, and they new that when that great leader came they could have no reason for fear of oppression any longer.

The people were right to expect a great leader who would deliver them from bondage, but this would not be a physical exodus but a spiritual one. Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18) and deliver His people (the elect) from bondage and usher in kingdom (Matthew 10:7; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 9:2, 60; Acts 28:31 etc.) that would not be of this world (John 18:36).

A Humble King

We also see the mode of Jesus’ transportation – a donkey. And as R.C. Sproul says in his description of the triumphal entry, these donkeys are not the traditional American donkeys we picture in our minds – they are much smaller.  In fact to our western eyes the sight of a grown man on one of these small animals might make us chuckle, but this is the creature that Jesus chose to ride into town on just days before He would die a gruesome death for His people.

As Leon Morris puts it, “But he rode intro Jerusalem on a donkey to symbolize a conception of messiahship very different from that of the crowds. They hailed him as the messianic King. He came as the Prince of Peace.”

So why a donkey? I think the picture of a grown man riding on such a lowly beast is the exact opposite of the picture that the Jews were hoping for. They wanted a powerful political warrior king who would ride into Jerusalem and kick the Romans out. But Christ came to be a servant, a meek man and humble king. This picture embodies His humanity – He is the Son of Man as well as the Son of God. We humans like to picture ourselves as more than we really are, but Jesus Christ shows us what we are, we are small and weak creatures in comparison to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  This is the picture He paints, that in His humanity He identifies with us – but He doesn’t puff Himself up as we do, instead He shows what true humanity is like, what it was meant to be like in the beginning with Adam (Romans 5:12-21). He is the last Adam, the perfect obedient Son who will deliver His people from their sins.

He is also the Greater Son of David who is fulfilling the Davidic Kingship role. He is going to not only deliver the Jews and be their King, but He is going to be a King for all His chosen people from all corners of the world (Matthew 28:19).

12:16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.

I love how John inserts editorial notes like this so we understand better the work of God, His character and will for our lives. John is saying here that the Holy Spirit, who came at Pentecost, illuminated the minds of the disciples and brought them into all truth and helped them understand all that had happened during the life and ministry of Jesus. The man they saw do some many amazing things had mystified them for years, they had only understood a very little. But when the Spirit came they began to understand all that had taken place – can you image all the pieces being put together for them like that! They had just lived a three-year roller coaster of learning through difficult and amazing circumstances, and not only were they beginning to recount all of that, but all of their learning of the Old Testament as well. Their minds must have been spinning! Like when you watch a mystery television show or a movie that’s billed as a thriller, its not until the end when all the pieces start coming together and you see the main characters start to get really excited (or really fearful) as “it all begins to make sense.”

Christ predicted this would happen, and we’ll look at this passage a little later in our study of John’s gospel:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15 ESV)

What This Means for the Christian Life

As Christians we have an amazing advantage to learning and growing in maturity and understanding – not only of the things of Christ and His Word, but in understanding the ways things are in this world. What I mean by that is that for thousands of years philosophers and scientists have been trying to figure out the nature of being, life, the transcendent, mankind and more. The problem is that they start from the wrong places – they’re essentially trying to “solve for x” without allowing themselves to believe “x” exists!

And so these great minds have either begun their work from an incorrect premise that there is no transcendent personal God who created all things, or they work from the premise that there is a transcendent God or Creator or Mover but He is not personal and therefore He is unknowable. In other words they have an epistemological problem.

Francis Schaeffer saw this and pointed out that Christians don’t have an epistemological problem. We believe that God is a personal transcendent Being, and that we were created in His image. We believe that because we were created in His image and because we communicate using language, that therefore we are meant to communicate with Him and get to know Him. Enter revelation. As Christians we believe that because we can communicate and because we are made in God’s image, we inherently know we are made to communicate with God. He has made us for a relationship with Himself (as Augustine says in his Confessions).

And this is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  The Holy Spirit is God’s way of showing us that He wants a deep and intimate relationship with us, and that He cares for and loves us. We normally would look to the cross for this, and indeed we should! But as I consider the third member of the Trinity, I am amazed at the level of investment that God has made in us, His creatures. He so condescends to us that He indwells us with His presence and leads us into “all truth.” And why does He do this? Because He wants us to know Him. He seeks for us to have knowledge of Him. He is truth, and therefore being led into “all truth” is being led into a more clear understanding of who He is, His character, and His desires for us and this world.

There is simply no other religion that comes close to this kind of epistemology. All other religions are simply forms of ignorance and the inventions of man’s own mind. For though we can perceive that God exists and even have a sense of His moral norms from without our souls, yet He has revealed Himself outside of ourselves, both in His Word (special revelation) and in nature (general revelation).

This truth is amazing, and it ought to cause us to worship.

12:17-19 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. [18] The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. [19] So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

I love what Leon Morris says about the irony and hyperbole of the Pharisees’ statement in verse 19, “It is ironical. They are concerned that a few Judeans were being influenced. But their words express John’s conviction that Jesus was conquering the world.”

The religious leaders were beginning to see the situation go sideways. They were obviously concerned that the Romans would not welcome the noise and start clamping down on the people – though they were not truly concerned for the people, but for their own power.  The reaction of Jesus to their concerns is captured in another gospel:

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” [40] He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40 ESV)

The reason for this is that unlike the lying hearts of the Pharisees, the creation is subject to its Creator and knows its creator. It’s an apt analogy because indirectly Christ is saying that He is Lord of all the earth! Little do most people realize the power that God has over you as well as nature. We think that we hold complete sovereignty over our lives sometimes, over our minds and our souls. But this is simply not the case. For one word from the Spirit of God spoken sweetly to your heart is enough to forever awaken your soul and implant in you a love for Jesus you never knew before. He is the Lord of all creation, and we are part of that creation.

Paul agrees in his doxological burst of praise in Romans 11:

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36 ESV)

Conclusion: Ultimate Triumph

Although the crowds didn’t truly have a good understanding as to the nature of Christ’s impending triumph, we have the privilege of looking back at that week in history and seeing the pregnancy of this moment. The most heinous of all crimes was about to be committed, and these fickle people would soon be cheering, “crucify Him” instead of “hosanna!”  Yet we today have reason (a great reason!) to be shouting “hosanna!”  We can see the triumphal entry for what it really was: a precursor to Christ’s great triumph over sin and death, not simply for Himself, but for you and for me.