Luke: The Covenant of Grace with Abraham, Fulfilled

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on January 18, 2009

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The Lord’s Day

January 18, 2009

Luke 1:67-80

“The Covenant of Grace with Abraham, Fulfilled”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Dr. Derek Thomas: Let every creature in heaven and
earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them say, “To Him
who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and
might, forever and ever.” Let us worship God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God of
Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, our God, Lord Jesus Christ: we worship You. We
worship You in all the glory and majesty of who You are and who You have
revealed and disclosed Yourself to be. We mingle our praises at the outset of
our worship with the voices of angels and archangels, and cherubim and seraphim,
and the church triumphant on the other side.

We thank You for the gospel.
We thank You for the sweet assurance that in Christ alone there is forgiveness
of all of our sins. We thank You, O Lord, for justification. We thank You for
adoption into the household and family of God. We thank You for the certainty
that we shall be with You for all eternity. We thank You this morning that we
enter into an aspect of that even as we worship You this morning, mingling our
voices with the church on the other side.

We are pilgrims passing
through this world. Come down, O Lord, and mingle among us, walk among us, by
Your Spirit. Minister to us. May Your word come home to us this morning–the word
sung, and the word preached, and the word prayed, and the word made visible in
the sacrament of baptism. We thank You, O gracious God, that You called us into
fellowship with Yourself. Now bless us, we pray. We ask it all in Jesus’ name.

Dr. Duncan: …with me to Luke, chapter one. We’ll
begin in verse 67 today as we begin to make our way through the Gospel of Luke.
Last Lord’s Day, as we were looking at the response to this remarkable scene at
the circumcision of John, we ended with the question that was being asked by all
those who were gathered and living around, and those who were in the hill
country of Judea. The question that they were asking about John, this boy who
had been born into the family of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who we will one day
know as John the Baptist, and they ask of him in verse 66, ‘What then will this
child turn out to be?’ And in large measure that question is going to be
answered in the song, the prophecy, the prayer of praise of Zechariah in verses
68-79. In fact, let me walk you through that passage so that you see
something of what Zechariah does.

In verses 68-71, he explains how the birth of John
the Baptist, his son, relates to the larger purposes of God’s redemption. Then
in verses 72-75, he shows how the birth of John (and even more importantly, the
birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom John would point) fulfills God’s
promises made to Abraham in the covenant of grace. And then in verses 76-79, he
gets around to specifically answering the questions that had been asked by those
gathered at the circumcision and by those in the hill country of Judea, ‘What
then will this child turn out to be?’ He says this child will turn out to be a
prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way of the Lord, and even
describes what will be the heart, the core, of John’s message in his life and
ministry. And so he gives those answers in this song.

Now we said that in the first two chapters of Luke
there are five songs, and this is one of those songs. We’ve seen Elizabeth and
Mary’s songs, and now we come to Zechariah’s song when his mouth is opened and
his heart pours forth blessing and praise to God. This is the content of the
blessing which he pours forth.

Now of course, in the context of what Luke is doing
in Luke 1 and 2, everything is leading up to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Everything’s pointing to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, but along the way,
even as Luke’s central focus is to focus us on Jesus Christ — who He is, what
He’s come to do — he also teaches us much about living the Christian life, and
so we’ll learn both of those things as we study this passage together today.

Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for the Scriptures.
Thank You that You have given them to us to equip us for every good work. Thank
You that You have made them profitable for reproof and correction, and for
instruction in righteousness. Thank You that in them You reveal the way of
salvation which is through faith in Jesus Christ. Thank You, O Lord, that Your
Scripture is not a dead word, but living and active and sharper than any
two-edged sword, and that it pierces into the very deepest parts of our souls.
We ask then that by Your Holy Spirit You would open our eyes to see what the
word really is and what it says; that you would open our ears to hear and to
accept it; and that You would open our hearts to believe and obey it. We pray
this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God’s word, beginning in Luke 1:67:

“And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for He has visited and redeemed His people

and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of His servant David,

as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,

that we should be saved from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us;

to show the mercy promised to our fathers

and to remember His holy covenant,

the oath that He swore to our father

Abraham, to grant us that we,

being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

might serve Him without fear,

in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the

prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to

prepare His ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to His people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness

and in
the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

“And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness
until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

We have asked the question both of Mary’s response
and song and Elizabeth’s response and song…we have asked ourselves the question,
were we in their shoes, what would we say had such an announcement been made to
us…had God done such a thing for us? And we ask that same question of ourselves
pertaining to Zechariah.
Were we in Zechariah’s shoes, what would we say had
the announcement been given to us that our child, our son, had been chosen in
the providence of God to be the Elijah that would go before the Messiah, to be
the one who would prepare His people for the coming of the long awaited one?
What would we say? How would we publicly respond to that blessing?

Well, we saw last week that when Zechariah’s mouth
was finally opened that the first thing that came out of his mouth was praise to
God. He blessed God with his tongue. For nine long months he had been silent, he
had been mute, he had been dumb, he had been unable to speak. And finally his
tongue is loosed, and what does he do? He praises God. Well, Luke tells you what
the content of that praise was, and it’s pretty extraordinary. One of the things
that strikes me is that had I been told that my son was going to be the greatest
man that had ever been born of women, save the Messiah, and had I been told that
my son was going to be the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, I would have
gone on a book tour! There would have been TV interviews, and I would have been
telling them how I did it all, and it would have all been about him and me. And
one of the things that strikes you as you read this story is that just like we
saw Elizabeth’s humility reflect itself in John, so also we see the humility of
Zechariah reflect itself in John. The first thing that Zechariah wants to talk
about is the Lord’s salvation. The second thing that he wants to talk about in
this song is about how what God is doing is fulfilling a 2,000 year old promise.
Then and only then does he get to the third thing that he wants to talk about,
and that is what the role of his son is going to be. And when he describes the
role of his son, it’s all about pointing to Jesus. Just as Elizabeth had pointed
to the Savior in her response to Mary, so Zechariah describes his son’s ministry
as pointing to the Savior. So let’s walk through the three glorious parts of
The Benedictus
, of the song of blessing sung by Zechariah, and see what we
can learn about our God and about our Savior, and about our salvation, and about
the way that we are to walk in daily life.

I. Praise to God for fulfilling
His promise to redeem His people.

The first thing I want you to see is this.
Zechariah makes it very clear that John the Baptist’s, his son’s, life and work
and ministry and message is going to be set in the context of the unfolding plan
of redemption which the Lord himself is accomplishing.

The first thing that comes out of his mouth
(look at verses 68-71) is this: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” It’s all
about God. See the God-centeredness of this song:

“Blessed be the Lord God of

For He has visited and redeemed
His people

And has raised up a horn of
salvation for us

In the house of His servant

In other words, Zechariah is saying to all of those people
who were saying, ‘What is this child going to turn out to be? What…? Surely this
child has a special role in life. Surely this boy is a very, very unique boy,
and he’s going to do great things.’ The first thing that Zechariah wants them to
know is that it is God who is doing great things. It’s God who has
visited His people. It’s God who is accomplishing their redemption. It’s all
about God. Yes, his son will be a faithful servant of the Lord. Yes, his son
will be used mightily by the Lord to turn the fathers’ hearts back to their
children, and to cause the people of God to repent and have their hearts
prepared for the coming of the Messiah. But the first thing that Zechariah wants
all of us to see is that John is just a part of, he’s a piece of, a larger thing
that’s going on; and that larger thing that is going on is that God is preparing
to visit His people in the person of His own Son, the Messiah, and He’s going to
accomplish redemption for His people. In other words, Zechariah wants some
perspective put on John’s uniqueness. Yes, he’s unique. Yes, he’s called of the
Lord. Yes, he’s going to be a prophet of the Lord. But he’s only a part of
something bigger.

Now it strikes me that there’s something for us to
learn in the Christian life from that.
I understand that John’s unique and
that the role that he has in redemptive history is unique. Jesus didn’t say that
never had a greater been born of women about but one person — about John. I
understand that he’s unique. But it seems to me that there’s something, there’s
a point of contact between you and me by which we can learn from what Zechariah
does in this prophecy. He says that we have to understand John in the context of
something bigger: God’s redeeming work, God’s plan of salvation. Isn’t that
true for all of us, that we need to understand our persons, our lives, our work,
our ministry, our mission in life, the reason that we’re on the planet earth…we
need to understand that in light of something bigger than just ourselves, bigger
than just our talents and bigger than just our desires in the things that we
want to accomplish in life? There is something much bigger than that, and it is
God’s purposes. And even as he begins this song with a God-centeredness that
points us away from John and to God, and to what God is doing, so also that’s
the very context in which all of us must live, realizing that our lives are
about something bigger than just ourselves, and bigger than just our families.
Our lives are about the kingdom of God displayed in all the glory of the gospel
of Jesus Christ, and we are to bear witness to Him in all that we say and do.
That’s why Jesus can say that if you’re not ready to leave your father and
mother and your sister and brother and to follow Me, you’re not worthy of Me,
because Jesus is bigger than those things. Even as He wants us to care deeply
about our families and to love them as He has loved us, so also He wants us to
value His kingdom and His person more than anything else. There’s a
God-centeredness about Zechariah’s song here that teaches us the kind of
God-centered lives that we’re to live.

II. The Messiah’s coming is the
fulfillment of prophecy given to Abraham.

But there’s a second thing as well that I want you to
see, and you see it in verses 72-75. The second thing that Zechariah wants us to
understand is this. Before we get to knowing what this boy is going to do and
what God is going to accomplish through him, Zechariah wants you to understand
that God is filling a two-millennia-old promise before the very eyes of those
who have seen the circumcision of John the Baptist, and who will eventually see
the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and His life and ministry, and that
two-millennia-old promise is God’s promise to Abraham.

Look at the words of verses 72-75. As Zechariah
explains God’s plan of redemption, he says, ‘What is God doing? He’s saving us
from our enemies (verse 71) “…to show (verse 72) the mercy promised to our
fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father

Do you see what Zechariah is saying? He’s saying that
in the complex of events surrounding the coming of the Messiah into the world
(which will of course culminate in the Messiah’s death and burial and
resurrection and ascension) we are seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise to

Now turn in your Bibles to Genesis 12. And you will
remember that in Genesis 12:2, God promised to Abraham that He would bless him,
that He would curse those who curse him, and that He would make him a blessing
to all the families of the earth. (Genesis 12:2.) And then He reiterated this
promise in Genesis 15:1, didn’t He? Turn forward a couple of pages to Genesis
15:1. “Do not fear, Abram,” He said. “I am your shield and your reward will be
very great.” And He reiterated in Genesis 15 His promise to make Abram a
multitude of nations and to be a God to him and to his seed after him, and to
give him a land of his own.

And then turn forward two more chapters to Genesis
17, and He reassured Abram of this promise, changing his name to emphasize
it–from Abram to Abraham–and telling him that he would make a covenant with him
and his descendents after him, and that He would be his God, and Abram and his
descendents would be His people, and that He would fulfill His promises to him.

Well, turn forward to Luke 1. Luke, in recording this
song of Zechariah, is telling you in Luke 1:72, 73 that the coming of Jesus the
Messiah into this world (and of course the coming of John, pointing to that
coming of Jesus as Messiah into this world)…that the coming of Jesus as Messiah
in this world was in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: that Jesus
fulfilled the covenant of grace that God had made with Abraham.

Now here’s a good Sunday afternoon exercise. Go home
this afternoon and look through your New Testament and see how often the writers
of the New Testament relate the person and work of Jesus Christ and the gospel
to the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham. It happens a
bunch of times, but Luke is the Gospel writer who gets to that theme perhaps the
earliest of any of them, at least in this kind of explicitness and detail. He
points to this promise which in the time that it was made was almost 2,000 years
old. Now it’s almost 4,000 years old. It was sometime around the twentieth
century before Christ, in the first part of the end of the third millennium and
at the very beginning of the second millennium that God made this promise to
Abraham. And here we are 4,000 years later, and we ourselves…the fact that this
is a predominantly Gentile congregation, we ourselves are living proof that the
promise of Abraham has come not only to the Jewish people who believe in Jesus
Christ, but even to Gentiles like us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We
are recipients of the promises that God has made to Abraham, and Luke is telling
you through the mouth of Zechariah that Jesus the Messiah in His person and in
His work has brought about the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to

In other words, Zechariah wants everyone to
understand that there is something big going on here. As glorious as is the
unique role that his son will play, God is about His work of redemption, and
He’s fulfilling a promise that is twenty centuries old by bringing first the
forerunner of the Messiah and then the Messiah himself into this world.

III. The prophecy concerning
John — his ministry.

Third, if you look at verses 76 and following,
Zechariah gets around to answering specifically the question, ‘What is this
child going to be? What role does God have for him?’
And here’s how
Zechariah answers it: He “…will be called the prophet of the Most High; and [he]
will go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”

Now, Zechariah was already an old man when John was
born, and I don’t know how long he lived. It is entirely possible that Zechariah
did not have the opportunity to sit his son down and train him in these things
by the time his son had reached adulthood. It’s entirely possible that John lost
his father and his mother at very early years. I don’t know; nobody does. But I
do know this. When I read Luke 1:76-79, I am amazed at how the prophecy of
Zechariah given when his son was eight days old charts for us precisely the
content of his life and preaching ministry. Look at what he says: “He will be
called the prophet of the Most High, [who] will go before the Lord to prepare
His ways….” So he will have the responsibility of preparing Israel for the
coming of the Lord…His coming in judgment and His coming in grace. And that
means that John is going to have the responsibility of calling Israel to
repentance, because Israel had strayed from her Lord and God. And John is going
to have the responsibility of warning Israel against God’s just judgment as he
prepares the way of the Lord.

But then look at what else he says — verse 77: “…To
give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins….”
John’s not just going to preach repentance, and he’s not just going to preach
judgment, he’s also going to preach forgiveness of sins and the salvation that
we have because of forgiveness of sins.

And then, finally, if you look at verses 78ff,
“…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us
from on high….”

In other words, John’s preaching of sin and
repentance and of forgiveness is going to be rooted in an understanding of God’s
grace and in the gospel of grace and of salvation.

Notice those three things. There’s going to
be a message of repentance in preparation; there’s going to be a message of
forgiveness of sins; and, there’s going to be a message of God’s grace and
tender mercy to His people.
And when you look through the pages of the New
Testament at their description of John’s ministry, years later…more than twenty
years, more than perhaps 25 years later after these words had been spoken, you
find that Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled perfectly.

Turn forward in your Bibles to Luke 3, and look at
verse 4. This is how Luke describes John:

He came preaching, and fulfilled what was “written in the
book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the
wilderness: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every
ravine shall be filled up, every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the
crooked will become straight, the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the
salvation of God.’’”

And notice his words of judgment against the leaders of
Israel (verse 7): “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to
come?” So there is strong preaching against sin, there is a strong call to
repentance, and there is a preparing of the way of the Lord, just as his father
had prophesied.

But there is also a beautiful promise of the
forgiveness of sins that God holds out in Jesus Christ. Look back at verse 3 of
Luke 3.
He came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness
of sins. And it’s even better than that. You remember how John puts it? In the
Gospel of John, when Jesus comes out into the wilderness where John is
ministering, what does John say? “Behold! The Lamb of God who comes to take away
the sins of the world.” So John not only preached God’s impending and just
judgment and the necessity of repentance, he pointed people to the forgiveness
of sins that came only through Jesus Christ, and he understood that behind all
of this were God’s promises of mercy. Why? Well, because somewhere along the
line he learned the truth which his father Zechariah unfolded for us in Luke

Now I want to pause and think with you for a
second about John’s preaching, because John’s preaching has often been
characterized as hard preaching — preaching that crushed sinners, challenged
sin, demanded repentance, demanded response.

I was with John MacArthur a couple of years
ago, and he was talking about some of the principles that have guided his own
preaching, and one of the things that he shared with us was this. He said, “It
is my conviction that soft preaching makes hard
.” Soft preaching makes hard hearts. Now what he meant by that
was preaching that refused to take seriously our sin and to address us in our
sinfulness and in our need of repentance, and in our need for grace. So much of
the preaching of our own time is characterized by that.

So often we hear preachers say, “I don’t want to talk
about sin.” And, my friends, I understand that. I don’t want to talk about it
either! I’d rather talk about something else, but soft preaching makes hard
hearts. And John’s ministry is a glorious example
of how faithful preaching makes soft hearts,

because faithful preaching brings us face to face with our own sin and
our own need for grace and forgiveness, and the provision of that
grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ alone and in the gospel as we trust in Him
And it makes soft hearts…those who know their own sin and who know God’s grace
to them are far more ready to forgive others who have sinned against them than
those who have heard soft preaching which never addresses the hard reality of
what sin can do to us and to others and to what it does to our relationship with

We should want faithful preaching that makes our
heart soft under the gospel, because in the end the only kind of preaching that
will enable us to magnify the grace of God is the kind of preaching that is
willing to address the hard issues of our own hearts. It’s us. We’re the
problem. It’s the sin in our heart that needs to be dealt with. And until you’ve
been brought face to face with that in preaching, you’re very ready to find the
speck in others’ eyes because you can’t see the log in your own. And that’s why
John’s ministry is such a blessing to us, because he refuses to let us get away
without seeing the log in our own eye, so that, having it removed, we can then
look to the grace of the Savior and find forgiveness of sins.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, Your grace is marvelous, but we
can’t see that until we see our own sin. Help us then, having seen our sin, to
bless God even as Zechariah did, for the marvelous grace of our loving Lord. We
pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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