CV2The Old Testament ends with Israel back in the promised land, but hardly under promising circumstances. The temple was rebuilt, but it did not possess the glory of the house built by Solomon (see Ezra 3:10-13; Haggai 2:1-3). The walls of Jerusalem were rebult, the city of David was not the seat of power it once was. Instead, foreign overlords in places like Persia and Rome controlled the affairs of the nation. And no devout Israelite could imagine that the great promises of Isaiah or Ezekiel had been fulfilled in the returns led by Joshua, Zerubabbel or Nehemiah. Where was God? When would He return and liberate His people?
By the time of the first century, however, the people believed that God was about to act. Based in part on Daniel’s vision of the seventy weeks (Daniel 9:24-27), many Jews in the first century possessed a heightened sense of messianic expectation. This is reflected in the questions posed to John the Baptist by the emissaries sent from Jerusalem in John 1:19-23.
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
No, John says, I am not the Christ, Elijah (see Malachi 4:5) or the Prophet (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18). But I am the one preparing the way for the long-anticipated coming of the Lord to save His people, just as Isaiah promised in Isaiah 40:3.
This is how the fourth gospel sets the stage for the appearance of Christ. In very similar fashion, Mark’s gospel also cites the promise of Isaiah 40:3 in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist, moving directly into the story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:1-11). Matthew’s gospel also draws on this same text from Isaiah 40, and prior to that, Matthew highlights the identity of Jesus as the king who would deliver His people from exile by arranging His genealogy in three groups of 14 (the sum of the numerical value of David’s Hebrew name), and by framing the genealogy on the birth of David in 1:6 and the deportation to Babylon in 1:11.
But it is especially in the opening of the Gospel of Luke that the theme of Christus Victor, the conquering Messiah, is most clearly expressed. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah to tell him that he and Elizabeth would have son, he said that this son would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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” (Luke 1:16-17).
Later, when Gabriel informed Mary that God had chosen her to bear the one who would reign on the throne of David, she magnified the Lord for acting to deliver His people:
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever (Luke 1:54-55).
And when the aged priest’s tongue was loosed, Zechariah prophesied this:
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 (Luke 1:68-79).
Incidentally, when you compare the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the traditional “Christmas carols” popular in our culture, two things stand out. First, based on the lyrics of many carols you would never even know Jesus is Jewish, much less that He was Israel’s king! Second, you would certainly never get the impression that Jesus came to deliver His people from their enemies, despite the explicit language of these passages.
But two people who did understand these truths about Jesus were Simeon and Anna. Both were aged and devout believers, and each was blessed to see the baby Jesus in the temple. Simeon, we are told, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Holding the holy child in his arms, Simeon blessed God and prayed, “Lord, now you are letting your servantdepart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Likewise, Anna rejoiced at the birth of Jesus and spoke of Him “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
So all four gospels, and especially Luke, portray the coming of Jesus in unmistakable terms. He is the Lord’s Messiah, the one who has come to defeat Israel’s enemies and redeem the nation from its exile. But who is Israel’s true enemy? And how can that enemy be destroyed? Only if we answer that question correctly can we begin to understand the victory Christ came to win.
(Next time: “Binding the Strong Man”)