In my last post (which you can read here), we looked at Mary’s messianic prediction found in her now famous Magnificat. In today’s blog entry, we’ll be reflecting on the descriptions of the coming Messiah provided by Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Simeon. Our goal is to glean from these snapshots what each of these men expected the long-awaited messiah to be like. For brevity’s sake, this will only be a cursory assessment, though I’ll provide the occasional footnote to assist those of you wanting to study these passages more thoroughly.
Zechariah’s Messiah—The National Liberator:
In the Gospel of Luke, immediately after Mary sings her Magnificat, we read about the birth of Zechariah and Elisabeth’s son. Eight days later, when the couple announced that their son would be named John, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and his ability to speak was miraculously restored. For the first time in nine months, Zechariah spoke. Luke informs us that Zechariah became filled with the Holy Spirit and uttered the following prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant —
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 perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which 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 the days of our life.
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,
Through the tender mercies of our God,
By which the day shall dawn upon us from on high
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”[i]
Zechariah shares many of Mary’s expectations about the coming messiah. For starters, they both appear to anticipate a revolutionary messiah. A primary aspect of the messiah’s mission—in their eyes—is to liberate Israel from foreign occupation. Mary spoke of the messiah toppling rulers from their thrones. Here, Zechariah speaks of the messiah fulfilling the covenantal oath God made with Abraham (Lk. 1:73). He then immediately describes that oath as God’s promise to “deliver [us] from the hand of our enemies” (Lk. 1:74a). The “us” to whom Zechariah refers is clearly defined as those people whose father is Abraham…namely, the Jews.
In fact, just as we saw in Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah makes no mention of the messiah doing anything for Gentiles (non-Jews). Apparently, Zechariah foresees God’s promised messiah as the savior of the Jews, not the world. He is coming as the bearer of God’s tender mercy that is to be poured out on Israel. In other words, the Anointed One is coming to help Israel and perhaps also those allied with Israel (though there is no mention of this). In Zechariah’s mind, to aid Israel is to oppose Israel’s enemies. In the words of author and pastor John Piper, “Zechariah, no doubt, is hoping that the Israel of his day will be delivered from her oppressive Roman overlords and that the Messiah, the king of David, will reign over a liberated Israel.”[ii]
In short, the kind of messiah envisioned by Zechariah is that of a national liberator. The Anointed One is coming so that the Jews can “be saved from [their] enemies, and from the hand of all who hate [them]”[iii] so that they can finally “serve God without fear”.[iv] This is the messianic mission anticipated by Zechariah.
One last point needs to be made. Zechariah’s words are dense with allusions to the Old Testament (see footnote #1 for specifics on this).[v] It is important for us to recognize these allusions because, in the words of Andrew Perriman, they “bring into view a background narrative that must be allowed to guide and delimit our reading of the prophecy.”[vi] As we piece together the memories these allusions conjure up from Israel’s history, it enables us to formulate a deeper understanding of Zechariah’s messianic expectations.
One example will suffice. Early on in his prophecy, Zechariah describes the messiah as “the horn of salvation” who will “redeem [us] from our enemies.”[vii] Now, I’m not sure what sorts of images you envision as you think of Jesus as “the horn of salvation”. But thanks to this phrases usage in the Old Testament, I do know what Zechariah envisioned when he used this phrase. To quote John Piper again, “The kind of horn meant here is not a musical instrument but the deadly weapon of the wild ox.”[viii] In Psalm 92:9-10 we read, “For surely your enemies, Lord, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered. You have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox.” Psalm 132:17 speaks of this horn of salvation clothing Israel’s enemies with shame and producing fear in them. There are other Old Testament uses of this phrase “horn of salvation”, but they simply reinforce what we can already glean from the two passages I’ve quoted. Namely, when Zechariah refers to the promised messiah as “the horn of salvation”, he envisions the messiah as a powerful, deadly weapon who will literally destroy Israel’s enemies.
Simeon’s Messiah—Savior of the World Who Will Be Resisted By Many
Our third snapshot comes from Simeon as he cradled the newborn Jesus at the temple. His messianic description is short, so let’s quote it in full:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”[ix]
Immediately following this, Mary is said to be marveling at the words Simeon spoke about Jesus. Luke’s inclusion of Mary’s reaction further supports my claim that she did not fully comprehend the kind of Messiah Jesus would be. Then, while Mary is still grappling with the implications of his words, Simeon adds one last prediction. “Behold,” he says to Mary, “this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”[x]
According to Simeon, God’s Anointed One will be a controversial figure. Simeon states that many in Israel will speak against all that He signifies. Simeon goes on to say that all will not be rosy for Mary; her heart will be crushed as she witnesses many in Israel resisting the messiah’s agenda. Yes, the messiah that Simeon anticipates is One who will cause “the fall and rising of many in Israel” – a surprising statement for those expecting the Messiah to bring political liberation for Israel.
Of the four snapshots, Simeon is the only one to state that the coming Messiah would extend salvation to all peoples, not just to Israel. Simeon does not limit the scope of the messiah’s saving work. All people will see God’s salvation through this messiah. In other words, this messiah will be the savior of the world.
John the Baptist’s Messiah—The Bringer Of Change:
Mary and Zechariah spoke their messianic predictions before Jesus was ever born. Simeon gave his while Jesus was still quite young. However, by the time we get to John the Baptist’s snapshot in Luke 3:4-6, Jesus is an adult and about to begin His public ministry. John’s messianic description is given as he carries out his ministry of paving the way for the Messiah by calling people to repent and be baptized. Drawing from the words of the prophet Isaiah, John proclaims:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
Make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
Every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
The rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[xi]
In many ways, John’s use of poetic imagery makes it impossible to ascertain specific details about what he expected the promised messiah to be like. For the most part, we can only guess at what John meant when he spoke of full valleys, flat mountains, straight curves, and level bumps. Personally, I resonate with Donald Kraybill’s interpretation of this imagery:
“Social life has vertical dimensions. Society is not flat; it has a rugged topography. In social geography there are mountains, valleys, ruts, and plains. Some people stand on high social peaks while others mourn in the valleys.”[xii]
I suspect Kraybill’s interpretation is what John the Baptist had in mind as he uttered forth this messianic prediction. But there is one thing we can say for sure about John’s understanding of the coming messiah’s mission: God’s Anointed One will bring change. To quote Kraybill again, we are to expect “radical shake-ups” as “old ways are shattered beyond recognition.”[xiii] The messiah will flip things upside-down.
John’s last line about all people seeing God’s salvation could simply mean all people will one-day witness God saving Israel from foreign occupation, just as the world noticed when God used ten plagues to deliver Israel from Egypt. In other words, “see[ing] God’s salvation” is not necessarily the same thing as being a recipient of God’s salvation. However, I believe we can safely conclude that John did envision the messiah bringing salvation to all people. Elsewhere John declares, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[xiv] Evidently, John expects the messiah to offer forgiveness of sins to Jew and Gentile alike. And evidently, John anticipates the messiah to be more than just a national liberator.
As one continues to read through Luke’s gospel account, we learn that John the Baptist begins to second-guess whether Jesus truly is God’s promised messiah. Apparently, events were not unfolding the way John had expected. For starters, John the Baptist gets thrown in jail. Was this really what was supposed to happen to the messiah’s second-hand man? Stuck in jail, John begins to question Jesus’ validity as God’s chosen Messiah. And so we read in Luke 7, “John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”[xv]
Yes, even John the Baptist, the greatest of all the prophets, was surprised by the kind of messiah Jesus turned out to be. Jesus knew John was not alone. Thus, to kick off His years of public ministry, Jesus decided to set the record straight and dispel the many misconceptions about His messianic character and agenda. We’ll take a look at this in our next post. And in doing so, we’ll finally reach the point where we can make sense of these different sets of teaching on violence and treatment of enemies contained in the Old and New Testaments!
[i] Luke 1:68-79, New International Version (NIV).
[iii] Luke 1:71
[iv] Luke 1:74b
[v] Zechariah’s prophecy quotes or alludes to numerous Old Testament passages. For example: Lk. 1:68 = Ps. 105:4; Lk. 1:69-71 = Ps. 18:2-3; Lk. 1:71 = Ps. 106:10; Lk. 1:72 = Mic. 7:20; Lk. 1:72 = Ps. 106:45; Lk. 1:76 = Mal. 3:1; Lk. 1:77 = Ps. 98:2; Lk. 1:78-79 = Is. 60:1-2.
[vi] Perriman, Andrew. The Benedictus of Zechariah, http://www.andrewperriman.com/node/1228
[vii] Luke 1:69, 71.
[ix] Luke 2:29-32.
[x] Luke 2:34b-35.
[xi] Luke 3:4-6.
[xii] Kraybill, Donald. The Upside-Down Kingdom, p. 20.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 15.
[xiv] John 1:29.
[xv] Luke 7:19.