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.

1/20-1/27 Study Notes

Chapter 11

11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

The Bethany mentioned here is not the one across the Jordan. Carson gives us the background:

This Bethany, lying on the east side of the Mount of Olives less than two miles from Jerusalem along the road to Jericho, has not been mentioned in the Fourth Gospel before, and must be distinguished from the Bethany of 1:28 and that alluded to in 10:40-42. That is why John characterizes it as the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

John’s editorial note in verse two that “it was Mary who anointed the Lord” helps us understand that John is assuming his readers would have heard of this story from the synoptic gospels. It could also be a literary/stylistic devise he is employing to prime the reader for more to come (namely in chapter 12).

11:3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Boice makes a good point that the sisters don’t directly make an appeal to the Lord here for help, though that is almost certainly what their goal was..

I do not think that it is fair to say on this basis that no request was implied. Clearly there was the implication that they would like Jesus to come to their aid, and there was certainly the suggestion that he might help them by healing Lazarus. If this is not implied, there was no point even in sending Christ the message. But at the same time, we cannot miss feeling that when they phrased the report as the did – “Lord, the one you love is sick” – they indicated by the form of it that they were seeking his will rather than theirs in the matter.

I suppose it is also necessary to address the fact that some say that by the way Mary and Martha address Lazarus as the one “loved” by Christ, that Lazarus is perhaps the author of this gospel and not John – there are other times, of course, when the author refers to himself as the “beloved” of the Lord. But this argument unravels in several ways, not the least of which is that the word “love” here is phileo whereas the word the gospel writer uses to describe the Lord’s affection for him is agape.

Lastly, I think what is instructive about this verse is that the Lord spent His days on earth loving others. This was so apparent that it practically dominates the opening sections of this chapter. Christ called us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), and to love our neighbor/others (Mark 12:31). He was not a hypocrite in His teaching, He lived out this love – it was this love that motivated His every action and controlled His every move. It was out of love that He was sent to earth in the first place (Eph. 1:5 indicates His will for our adoption as sons).

11:4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

The Meaning of “Glorified”

What does it mean that God would be “glorified” through it? We see that Jesus is saying that the reason why Lazarus has been sick (at this point he has not died) is so that “the Son of God may be glorified.”

Usually we think of giving God glory by praising Him. But here Jesus is almost certainly referring to the revealing of His person/deity and not specifically seeking praise. To put it another way, He is not going to do the miracle so that He can receive praises from men, but rather to show men that He is praiseworthy. It is to provide further revelation of His character and being as the true Son of God.

D.A. Carson comments:

…the raising of Lazarus provides an opportunity for God, in revealing his glory, to glorify his Son, for it is the Father’s express purpose that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father…The Father and the Son are mutually committed to the other’s glory.

Is that not fantastic?! MacArthur also finds this to be the central theme of the text in front of us:

The most important theme in the universe is the glory of God. It is the underlying reason for all God’s works, from the creation of the world, to the redemption of fallen sinners, to the judgment of unbelievers, to the manifestation of His greatness for all eternity in heaven…Everything God created gives Him flory – except fallen angels and fallen men. And even they, in a negative sense, bring Him glory, since He displays His holiness by judging them.

It is this revealing of God’s character through created things, through His plan, and through His Son that we are to focus on here. Specifically, of course, on the revealing of the glory of the Son, which MacArthur says, “blazes in this passage against a dark backdrop of rejection and hatred on the part of the Jewish leaders.”

The great signs (of which this is the 7th and final in John’s gospel) of this book point to the character of Jesus Christ and His true identity as the Son of God. They also provide us with a solid reason for faith in His word and in our future with Him. Likewise, the miracle that we’re about to read of bolstered the faith of the disciples and those who were near Christ. The primary reason for the miracle (to bring glory to God and Christ Jesus) leads to the secondary reason, the bolstering of our faith.

How Lazarus Points Forward to the Pleasure of God in Christ

Certainly one of the most difficult things for us humans to deal with is the truth that God, in His eternal purposes, has allowed, yea even willed, for terrible calamity to befall those whom He loves. Spurgeon once preached a message on this passage in John and said this:

The love of Jesus does not separate us from the common necessities and infirmities of human life. Men of God are still men. The covenant of grace is not a charter of exemption from consumption, or rheumatism, or asthma.

We see here that God’s purpose was to use the suffering and death of Lazarus to reveal the glory of His Son. And likewise He can use sickness and death in our lives to both refine us (Ps. 119:71), and glorify Himself. His character is certainly made known in many ways through suffering – just think of all the times that men and women who have endured sickness have testified to the great and glorious character of Jesus Christ.

Certainly the most glaring example of suffering and death being used for God’s pleasure is the example of Jesus Christ’s own passion and death. The story of Lazarus was not included for no reason at all in this gospel. Rather it is put here to point us to Christ, and how Christ ultimately triumphed over the grave. We’ll talk more about that parallel in the coming texts, but for now I want to see how God was going to be glorified in the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and how He was glorified and even “took pleasure” in the death of His Son (Is. 53:10). In that Isaiah passage we read:

But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. (NASB)

It is so difficult to understand how God can possibly have taken pleasure in the “crush(ing)” of His one and only Son. We can see how possibly the Father could be glorified at the end game, but to actually be “pleased” to crush Him…that takes on a whole new difficulty for us. It’s applicable to what we’re looking at here, because I believe it will show us something of the character of God, and if we can see some of this we can perhaps see some of what it is that He is working in our lives through the difficulties and storms.

John Piper explains this passage in the following ways:

One part of the answer is stressed at the end of verse 10, namely, that God’s pleasure is what the Son accomplished in dying…God’s pleasure is not so much in the suffering of the Son, considered in and of itself, but in the great success of what the Son would accomplish in his suffering.

Piper continues…

The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for the sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering f that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: the glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value!

…the Father knew that the measure of his Son’s suffering was the depth of his Son’s love for the Father’s glory. And in that love the Father took deepest pleasure.

Scripture backs up what Piper is saying. Just a few weeks ago we read from John 10:17 the following:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.”

Piper closes his thoughts on the matter this way:

When Jesus died, he glorified the Father’s name and saved his Father’s people. And since the Father has overflowing pleasure in the honor of his name, and since he delights with unbounded joy in the election of a sinful people for himself, how then shall he not delight in the bruising of his Son by which these two magnificent divine joys are reconciled and made one!

The reason I bring this up is because it shows the deeper purposes of God in Christ for you. He took pleasure in bruising His Son, and takes pleasure in allowing you to face difficult trials for both His glory and for your refinement and sanctifications sake. He does not glory in your pain, but sees past that and rejoices in the glory to be revealed to you – His glory.

11:5-7 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

The reason this verse (verse 5) is here is because John wanted to ensure that we understood that Christ’s reasoning in verse four in no way interfered with how we understand verse six.  In other words, it was the love of Christ that compelled him to stay away for another two days, and it was the love of Christ for His Father that motivated His obedience to wait another two days. Also, it was the love of the Father for us that He allowed Lazarus to get sick because through this He would reveal more of His Son’s glory to His creatures.  God reveals Himself to us out of love for us and a desire for us to be ushered into a love relationship with the Trinity as adopted sons and daughters of God.

Specifically, we see in the word “so” at the beginning of verse six, that Christ’s motivation for staying is born out of verse five’s “love” for the Bethany family. This is a bit mind bending, but I think it correlates well with the idea we find in other parts of Scripture that God’s ways are not our ways, and that He does many things that at the time we may not understand.  This could even be discipline or difficulties.

As I was thinking on this passage this week, one of the great passages about love reminded me of Christ’s character here.  Take note of 1 Cor. 13: 3-7:

Love is patient and kind;

Note the patience of Christ.  He does not rush off to see the family of Lazarus, does not run to comfort them, does not run to perform the miracle. He waits patiently for God’s plan. In His speech to the disciples He is patient and kind.  He abides their foolishness and lack of understanding. He deals with their lack of faith and misunderstanding and selfishness.

love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant [5] or rude.

Perhaps this is obvious, but Christ never boasted in Himself but allowed His truthful teaching, His actions and the testimony of others to glorify Him. Instead of being rude, He is sometimes short and to the point.  But this is not rude.  He is never seen interrupting others, but rather He is always putting others first.

It does not insist on its own way;

We might say that Christ was the one person who deserved to insist on His own way, and yet He submitted Himself to the will of the Father.

it is not irritable or resentful;

Christ was omniscient, and yet the human side of Him never was bitter for what He knew in explicit detail would one day be His demise.  He looked around Himself and was constantly surrounded by incompetence, sin, rejections, and idiotic behavior.  He could have said to Himself ‘I am really dying for this?’ but He did not. Such was the natre of His patience and longsuffering.

[6] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

Christ was never happy when something horrible happened, but often used difficulties to share the good news of the Kingdom (Luke 13:1-5).

[7] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

Not only did Christ trust in the will of His Father and in the plan they had formulated from before the creation of the world, but He also looked forward in hope (Heb. 12) so that He was able to endure the torment of the cross.

In these ways and many more, Christ is the suffering servant; He is the very heart of love. That is why John can say that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), because He saw it embodied first hand.

Jesus obeyed the sovereign timing of the Father rather than His emotions.  We know that He was fully human and we know He was emotional (had emotional ties to Martha and Marry and Lazarus) about this situation. But He never allowed His humanity to prevent Him from making absolutely perfect and righteous decisions.  We know His motivation, as discussed earlier, for this was love. He knew the Father’s will; He sought the Father’s mind on all things through prayer.

In our own lives this means that we need to emulate Christ.  We need to ask for His help to change our desires.

How many times have you been prevented from getting something, doing something, going somewhere because of situations or circumstances beyond your control?  I’m sure you can look back at times in your life when you wanted so badly to fly here or go there or do this or that but you couldn’t and perhaps as you look back on it now, it was for the better.  Presently, Kate and I would really like to sell our house.  We’d love to move closer to church and to my work. But there are many reasons beyond our understanding that prevent that right now. I do not think that anything is a coincidence or that anything is out of the control and plan of God Almighty.  Therefore I must patiently wait for His plan to unfold even amidst trial. He waited to come to them out of love, remember.

Lastly, and I touched on this a moment ago, in revealing the nature and character of the Son in this moment we also see His sovereignty. The Father has a sovereign plan, and the Son knows that all things are in the hand of the Father – this is illustrated all the more in verse 9.

11:8-10 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

We should recall that the tension between the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem and Christ was at a boiling point at this time. The Jews were so angry and threatened by Christ’s ministry that they were seeking to kill Him.

So when Christ says, “let us go to Judea again” we can perhaps understand the nature of the disciples concern…they knew full well that going back to the Judean area meant extreme danger.

Carson comments on the disciples’ response “they are frankly aghast.” But Christ’s response is to remind them that as long as the Father still have work for Him to do, as long as there is life in Him, He will continue to boldly (and obediently) carry out His mission here on earth.  The specific meaning, therefore, of, “are there not twelve hours in the day” is to remind them that the fullness of the days work (His ministry) had not yet faded.  “These verses metaphorically insist that Jesus is safe as long as he performs his Father’s will. The daylight period of his ministry may be far advanced, but it is wrong to quit before the twelve hours have been filled up” Carson comments.

This certainly reminds of 9:4 where Christ says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  And 9:5 actually ties nicely in with verse 10 here, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Christ once again uses the situation to remind them of a spiritual truth that He is the light of the world. All goodness, all illumination as far as truth is concerned comes from Him. He is the source of truth and understanding of that truth is also a supernatural gift from God.

Lastly, I am personally reminded of the nature of light and how it sort of symbolizes purity and cleanliness – a sort of antitheses to darkness and sickness. When we live one day with Christ forever after this world has been remade and renewed, there will be no sickness and no darkness. In fact there will be no sun because the Son will be our only necessary light.  Apart from the Son there will be only darkness.  These comments foreshadow a truth that is so brilliant and so wonderful that we could linger all day upon their glories.

11:11-15 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

It wasn’t a terribly common thing in second temple culture to use the euphemism “fall asleep” for death, but if we scan the entirety of Scripture we see it is actually a very common phrase/word overall – especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles (examples: 1 Kings 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24, 10:35)

The Patience of the Son

Interesting how Christ had to explain to the disciples, at this sensitive moment, what He meant by His words. I can just see Him now patiently repeating Himself so as to make them understand His meaning, and I wonder how many other times He had to do this same thing. These are the kinds of things that make lesser men frustrated to the point of boiling over with anger. Not Jesus. He is as patient and longsuffering as ever.  What an amazing display of forbearance.

This really puts me to shame. I like to think of myself as a patient man – except, of course, when the kids or the co-workers, or someone (anyone) else has really pressed my nerves or my buttons repeatedly. Only then do I feel like I have an “excuse” to lose my temper.  This, to my own shame, was not the example of Christ.

So that You May Believe

The main thing we should take note of in these verses is that what Christ was doing was for the purposes of bringing glory to God (as mentioned earlier), and the phrase above “so that you may believe” does not modify that purpose or even add to it, but rather it explains more specifically how He will be glorified. These are not two separate items. Believing in the Son glorifies God because it gives proper due to who the Son is, and it magnifies Him.

John wrote this entire book for this purpose (John 20:30-31), and Christ’s entire mission was centered on this fundamental goal.  I hope that anyone reading this now understands that Christianity is all about Christ. He is the center of the Bible and indeed of all human history. Life (of the abundant kind) is about believing in Him, in placing full confidence in His words and surrendering to His leadership and direction.

Christ knew that He was going away soon. He knew that soon His great passion would be upon Him. Before He endured the cross, He wanted to shore up the faith of those disciples who had for so long been following His words and His teaching. He knows that they might not fully understand His words, but He knows that His words will never pass away (Matt. 24:35).  He knew that millions and millions of Christians would read these words and meditate on His character, and bring Him glory.  Remember, He is not speaking to those who do not believe, but rather to those who love Him. But He wants them to have utmost confidence that He is who He says He is, and so that for years to come they would look back on this moment and fall on their faces with thanksgiving in their hearts.

11:16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas is called “Didymus” in the Greek, which means “twin” – Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” as well…though no one really knows who his twin was.

I think that so often we underestimate Thomas.  This is the same man who we call “Doubting Thomas”, but we see here that there is more to this man than simply cynicism (though that certainly seems to be a dominant characteristic of his nature).  He has a strong courageous streak about him, and the fact that he was willing to die for/with Christ says a lot (even though we see later that, like the other disciples, he deserts Jesus).

This also sets in sharp relief once again just how dangerous it would have been for Jesus to go back to the Jerusalem area.  This is the moment in which life and death decisions are being made.  Christ can either stay beyond the Jordan and enjoy a vibrant ministry (10:40-42), or He can fulfill the will of the Father and accomplish His ultimate destiny and mission here on Earth.  He can save Him own life, or the lives of countless millions.  Had He been but man, a mere mortal, there’s no way we’d be even discussing this right now. The choice would be obvious. No man would put themselves in harms way of this kind (almost certain death) for the lives of people who weren’t his family. Ironically, Christ did this very thing in order make those who weren’t His family part of His family by sovereign adoption.

2-26-12 Study Notes

1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

  • Note the divine imperative here.  He doesn’t ask, He tells Philip to “follow me.”  This reminds me of the efficacious work of the Spirit when He calls us to follow Christ – He lifts the blinds on the windows of our heart and causes us to see Christ for who He is.

1:44-45 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. [45] Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

  • Again we see that Philip and the other disciples are convinced (at least very nearly convinced) that they have found the Messiah.  This connoted both an understanding of the law and the prophets, and an attitude of expectation at Jesus’ arrival.
  • Nathanael is said to be the same person as Bartholomew.  Bartholomew was a surname and Nathanael was a given name.

1:46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

  • Nazareth was not a very important town, but it doesn’t seem that Nathanael’s opinion was necessarily universal.  As Morris says, “It is not a famous city, but we have no reason for thinking it was infamous. We should probably understand Nathanael’s words as the utterance of a man who could not conceive of the Messiah as coming from such an insignificant place.”

1:47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”

  • This is the first of two statements where Jesus seems to show a sort of super-human intellect.  But it is more than intellect of a “super-human” kind.  It is obviously knowledge that only the Divine Being could know.
  • The fact that Jesus used the term “Israelite” is interesting because its not the word used most in this gospel – usually the word “Jew” is used, but Jesus is using the covenant name of the nation and the one closely identified with Jacob – significant because Jacob is the character that best ties in this whole final passage.
  • When Jesus says there is no “guile” or “deceit” in Nathanael, it harkens our minds back to Jacob who was himself a deceiver.  Jesus is basically saying, ‘here is an Israelite in whom there is no Israel!’  He is praising Nathanael for being a straight-forward type of guy.

1:48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

  • This says something of the divine knowledge of Jesus during His time here on earth.  There is an ongoing argument among scholars as to how much Christ knew or could have known in his humanity.  Some ask the question: if he was fully human, how could his human mind have known what The Deity knows?  The question is worth asking, though we may never know the answer.  It is certainly obvious from the Scriptures that Jesus knew a lot – though it is my opinion from reading the Bible throughout the years that He didn’t use His full omnipotence while on earth.  For example, while on earth He said that only the Father knew the date of His second coming.  It is this kind of statement that leads me to think that He laid aside some of His divine omniscience.

1:49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

  • Note the way that Nathanael ties the two concepts of the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel” together.  I like this because it signifies both His deity and His humanity.  It also signifies His authority and kingship.
  • Keep in mind that Nathanael had just been identified as an “Israelite”, and now Nathanael is identifying Jesus as the “King of Israel” – he is submitting to His authority.
  • And by the reaction we read here, he seemed to understand right away that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies.

1:50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

  • In this verse we’re given a hint from Jesus that the best is yet to come.  This is a fitting statement for the beginning of what would end up being the most exciting and world-altering three years ever lived by a man on earth.  Jesus’ ministry here on earth was a shower of one miracle after another.  Teaching after teaching by Christ flowed forth the divine wisdom with a profundity that forever changed the course of history for humanity.

1:51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

  • This is a clear reference to Jacob’s ladder – which is amazing to see the fulfillment of this from thousands of years prior (Gen. 28:10-17).  According to Jonathan Edwards, the passage serves as an analogy to what Christ fulfilled in bringing to us in Salvation and the Covenant of Grace.
  • The sleep that Jacob takes symbolizes death (spiritual death), and the rock he lays his head upon symbolizes Christ. The ladder is God’s Salvation and the Covenant of Grace, which was ushered in with Christ.  The ladder is the only way to heaven, though men desire to make their own ladders of self-righteousness, which only lead to destruction.  The rungs of the ladder are the ordinances and promises of God – they are strong enough to keep us and hold us as we climb upwards toward heaven.  The ladder, of course, leads to heaven.  It takes us to God who is far above the earthly sin and trouble of this life.
  • As Christians it is our mission each to day to climb the ladder.  Edwards says, “don’t rest is what you’ve attained.”  He also points out that there is great happiness – ultimate happiness – awaiting us at the top of the ladder, and that every man desires to reach that happiness.  Our souls all desire to be happy in God.
  • Lastly, let’s examine this title, “Son of Man.”  As Morris reminds us, “In the gospels it is used by Jesus as His favorite self-designation, occurring in this way over 80 times.
  • The term is derived from Daniel 7:13-14.  So why did Jesus like this title?  Leon Morris gives us four reasons:
  1. “Because it was a rare term and one without nationalistic associations. It would lead to no political complications.”
  2. “Because it had overtones of divinity”
  3. “Because of its societary implications.  The Son of Man implies the redeemed people of God.”
  4. “It had undertones of humanity. He took upon Him our weakness.”
  • Morris concludes, “It was a way of eluding to, and yet veiling his Messiahship, for His concept of the Messiah differed markedly from that commonly held.”

 

How do we teach this to our children?  If you were to tell your children on the way home today that you learned about how Jesus was and is the Word of God, what would you say?

EXAMPLE:  Today we learned about how the first disciples were called.  We also learned about the name that Jesus liked to use for himself (the Son of Man).  The title ‘Son of Man’ indicates that Jesus is divine, and that He’s also human.  The Jews who were listening to Jesus teach would not have thought much about this title (for older children: it was a title disassociated with any preconceived political or society notions) so they wouldn’t have had any incorrect thoughts about who Jesus was or who He was describing Himself to be.  We also learned about how Jacob from the Old Testament saw a ladder reaching all the way to heaven.  On the ladder there were angels going up and down – almost like a stairway.  Jesus said to His disciples that they would see angels walking up and down “on” the Son of Man – on Him!  What Jesus meant by this was that He was the great ladder (or stairway) that connected heaven and earth.  Our only way to get to heaven is by Jesus and His salvation.