In the days of Zacharias the priest, things seemed bleak. Generations before, the prophet Isaiah had foretold the arrival of a virgin-born Son who would be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). Later, Isaiah describes the birth of this glorious Messianic King.
“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
Seven centuries later, no such child had arrived. Nor had this glorious reign of peace. Worse still, it had been over four hundred years since there had been any prophetic revelation from God. No new books of Scripture, no updates or clarifications, no hope. War, captivity, and the despotic rule of foreign occupiers had been among the only reliable constants of this time.
Since Isaiah’s prophecy of an everlasting Davidic King, Israel had been ruled by no less than seven pagan empires. As Zacharias, the aged, childless priest, donned his vestments that day, Jerusalem had already been under the iron fist of Rome for six decades.
A few miles away Bethlehem, the city of David, sat in the shadow of the ominous Herodium complex. The Herodium was Herod’s vast and elaborately-decorated hilltop fortress. It stood as a massive and abiding monument both to Herod’s staggering building endeavors as well as his paranoid power fixation. Herod’s suspicion and cruelty were legendary. He had members of his own family murdered. It was remarked that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” Not exactly a Messianic King, ruling with “judgment and justice.”
Against this backdrop of cruelty, oppression, and divine silence, Zacharias made his way to the temple to offer the incense. He had been selected by lot to perform this once-in-a-lifetime priestly service. Luke reports that he and his wife, Elizabeth, “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years” (Luke 1:6-7). He seemed to be the perfect picture of the broader situation: A sad, forgotten man, representing a sad, forgotten nation to the God who had given them a book full of unfulfilled Messianic promises.
Yet Zacharias would have an encounter that day which would reveal that God had not forgotten anyone. For, as he performed his duties, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11-17)
Not only had Isaiah prophesied the birth of a Messianic King, but he had described a forerunner, one to pave the way for the Messiah’s ministry. This prophet would be, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). The prophet Malachi had offered a similar glimpse:
“Behold, I send My messenger,
And he will prepare the way before Me.
And the Lord, whom you seek,
Will suddenly come to His temple,
Even the Messenger of the covenant,
In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,”
Says the Lord of hosts.”
Now, here stood old Zacharias, husband to a barren wife, being told by an angel that they would be the parents of this long-awaited prophet. It was a lot to take in. So “Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time” (Luke 1:18-20).
Six months later, the angel Gabriel would appear to a young virgin in a little country town called Nazareth. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).
Setting aside our cultural heritage for a moment, it’s difficult to imagine a more obscure group of people. An old barren couple and a young unmarried woman from a tiny, unknown town. Why do we know their names? Why should they be remembered any more than the thousands of others like them who have lived and died and been forgotten by history?
There is only one answer: God did exactly as He promised. Nine months later, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. In obedience to the angelic announcement, they called him John. We know him as John the Baptist. After the birth of his son, the Lord restored Zacharias’ ability to speak and empowered to him to prophesy about his son’s future:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And that is precisely what happened. John grew to be a fearless preacher of repentance. Multitudes flocked to the Judean wilderness to hear his calls to turn from sin in preparation for the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. He baptized thousands. And in his public presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ, John’s ministry reached its climax. In answer to a question about his own ministry, John had explained that he had come to prepare the way for One “who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” From the moment of Jesus’ public arrival, John happily receded from public view, declaring, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And of course Jesus, the “Lamb of God”, was none other than Mary’s manger-born boy. Hard as it was for His childhood neighbors to believe, Jesus was no ordinary man. This was Immanuel. God with us. Here was a Man who could heal diseases, create food for thousands, and calm the raging sea—with a word. Centuries before, Job had declared that God alone “spreads out the heavens, And treads on the waves of the sea”. Yet here was a Man who had total command over all creation. Here was One who claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:28), the I AM who existed before Abraham was ever born (Jn. 8:58).
Why had He come? Jesus said, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:19). How would He secure this salvation? Again we turn to our Lord’s own words: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Decades later, John the apostle put it beautifully: “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I John 4:9-10)
A propitiation is a payment that satisfies the necessary demands. In His sacrifice, Jesus bore the death penalty for your sins and mine. This is what it means for Him to be the “Lamb of God”. This, too, was prophesied by Isaiah:
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.”
That is why Jesus came; to die in our place. The cross was not an aberration, it was the point. He came—to use the words of Zacharias—“to give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins”. And in so doing, He broke into our world like the rising sun, giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Who is this salvation for?
Was it a local answer to a local situation? No. At the close of His public ministry Jesus proclaimed, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). Famously, Jesus summarized the reason for His coming: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
The apostle John explains that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Strikingly, the global scope of Jesus’ blood-bought salvation was also foretold by the prophet Isaiah. God the Father, envisioning the coming Messiah’s ministry declares, “I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
Jesus made some prophecies of His own. One was that Jerusalem would be conquered and the temple torn down, brick-by-brick (Mt. 24:1-2). That was fulfilled with astonishing accuracy when the Roman destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Jesus also declared, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). And here I sit, a Christian pastor of a church in Southern California, some 7500 miles from Jerusalem. Jesus has been building His church.
I say that to say this. The mercy of God that breaks into darkness with light and hope is not merely an ancient phenomenon. The story of Christmas isn’t over. Many of us know the nativity part of the story. Jesus, the Lord of Glory, became a man to be our Savior. But the salvation He won in His death and resurrection is still on offer to all who will trust Him. Jesus is still forming a people for Himself, comprised of every tongue and tribe and nation. And He wants you to be among them.
Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, God has not forgotten you.
He wants to forgive you, redeem you from your sin, give you new life and make you His child, so He can lavish you with His kindness for all eternity. John Chapter eleven records Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the grave. But before Jesus called Lazarus out, He said the following to his grieving sister:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Do you believe this?
That’s the question. If all of this seems a bit too much, consider this. Here in this essay, I’ve cited a half dozen detailed Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of these are known beyond doubt to have been written centuries before the events they record. Yet the connections are undeniable. And these are a tiny sampling of all the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. How can this be?
Consider Jesus’ own prophecies. You may be tempted to kick this all down the road for another day. That would be a mistake. Jesus not only promised to build His church, but He promised that a day is coming when all the tribes of the earth “will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)
The apostle Peter foresaw a time when unbelievers would scoff at the prospect of the Lord’s return. He reminds us that God is not bound by our impatience. But then he says this: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God has not forgotten you. He’s calling to you now.
“Seek the Lord while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.”