Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been overwhelmed at the consciousness of the calling of John. He was a dear son to them, God’s “gracious gift”, to adore in his infancy and childhood. Later he seemed to be in the care of a desert community, perhaps when his aged parents had died. But as much as John was cherished by his parents they knew that primarily he was God’s man in a special way. They knew the prophecies concerning him in the Scriptures and confirmed by an angel. They were the appointed guardians of the foreordained forerunner of the Redeemer of Israel. The Lord’s possession and prior claim upon John was clearly indicated in the choice of his name. Zechariah and Elizabeth must yield the parental privilege of naming their son to the sovereign prerogative of God. His name will not be selected by or in honour of any family member. He “is John” in clear recognition of the fact that his is God’s man.
The striking thing about Elizabeth and Zechariah is, that in spite of their strong desires and God’s favourable regard to them, the Lord is uppermost in their thoughts. They are not selfishly engrossed in the arrival of their son but submissive to God’s purpose in sending him to them. They know that he has a role to fulfil in the service of someone greater and in his song of praise Zechariah keeps the coming Christ child to the fore. He extols the Saviour before he introduces John, his very precious son, and expatiates upon his assignment. Jesus is the more precious. John is his beloved auxiliary - his harbinger and herald. He is born before the Messiah but inferior in rank. Zechariah’s deepest gratitude is for the coming deliverer – the redeemer of his people.
John in his mature years endorsed the approach of his father: “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (John 1:30). “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). “I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him” (John 3:28). John knew his proper place. It was highly honourable but in service of Christ.
Zechariah’s song first touches upon the greatness of the Lord Jesus. He is a mighty victor, a royal figure in the lineage of David. He is a successful deliverer and the merciful keeper of his covenant commitments. . Finally, he will be the establisher of a rule or reign of perfect peace, absolute security, unblemished holiness, and indisputable righteousness. Both the nature and environment of the people of God will be heavenly because they will be at home in God and he will make his home in them in a wondrous mutual indwelling.
Following the recognition of the superiority and supremacy of Christ Zechariah turns to his son whom he addresses fondly as, “My child”. There is a father’s tenderness in the Benedictus that expresses the tenderness of God. The birth of John has primed Zechariah in a profound mood of sensitivity to convey the loving kindness of God bound up in his covenant concern for Israel. Salvation is more than a transaction; it is an act of immense and compassionate love for the chosen people. As Zechariah cradles his son in his arms so the Lord cradles his folk in his care. The Song of Zechariah is affectionate and anticipatory.
John is truly God’s man. He is appointed prophet of the Most High. This office was foretold by former prophets and confirmed appreciatively by Jesus himself. “I tell you, among men, there is no one greater than John” Luke 7:28), meaning that John was the greatest of all the prophets because of his proximity to Jesus and because he is the preparer of the Messiah’s way (Luke 1:76).
John’s commission was an exalted one – a crucial and vital task: “To give God’s people knowledge of salvation” (v71). No knowledge is more essential. John fulfilled the impartation of saving knowledge by 1) Preaching repentance. He was to be occupied in, “Turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just”.
He must bid the people to return to God, forsake sin, and find reinstatement in his favour and his people. Judgment was his warning and forgiveness his offer. 2) John completed the main aspect of his ministry in pointing sinners to Jesus. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This was his crowning accomplishment. John showed the way to forgiveness of sins – our greatest need. A need met and countered by magnificent grace, “The tender mercy of our God” (V78) – sweet compassion surpassing comprehension or measure.
John’s call and destiny were extraordinary. Mary brought Jesus into the world. John brought Jesus to his public.
In Mary and Zechariah we perceive the place and power of poetry in Holy Scripture – the lilt and lyricism of divinely inspired liturgy. It is so prevalent in God’s Book. Let none despise liturgy. In meditation and worship our thoughts ascend to imagery and song – the art of the sanctified heart. There is emotion in the Word that becomes feeling in our spirit. There is music in the gospel – not only information, accurate and necessary, but inspiration too. We move from words to wonder at the glorious things God has done, the blessings he has provided, and the good things in prospect. In Jesus the mercy of God shines upon us. Jesus is to us the expression of the Father’s warm smile of approval upon our souls. “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (vv78-79).