THE BEAUTIFUL BENEDICTUS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
One morning the 5-year-old son of a doctor overheard his father tell his mother "I don't know when I will be home. I have been called out on a maternity case." A few minutes after his father left the doorbell rang, and the little lad went to the door. "Is the doctor in," inquired the caller. "No sir," replied the boy. "Have you any idea when he will be back?" the man asked. "I don't know sir," the boy answered, "He went out on an eternity case."
At first the boys mistake is only funny, and you see a bewildered caller convinced its hardly worth waiting for a man on an eternity case. As you give the matter some thought, however, it has profound implication. Maternity and eternity are not ill matched words infinitely separated in significance. The story of Christmas and pre-Christmas events link these terms together intimately. Dr. Luke is not sharing these birth stories and songs because of his interest in maternity only, but because of his interest in eternity. The birth of Jesus and His forerunner John the Baptist are eternity cases because the God of eternity has a direct involvement in these births. By means of them He will open the gates of eternity to all people. Never were maternity and eternity most closely linked.
The birth of John the Baptist was the birth of one who would herald the coming dawn of a new day, which would be made bright by the Son of Righteousness who, said Malachi, would rise with healing in his wings. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He predicted that a messenger would go before the Messiah to prepare his way. Now after 400 years of silence this prophecy is being fulfilled in the birth of John the Baptist. Some of the relatives following the rut of family tradition are upset with Elizabeth over her insistence that the child's name be John. They thought it only right to honor his father by naming his Zacharias. So they go to Zacharias assured that he would back them up and put his wife in her place. To their shock he writes, "His name is John, which means the grace of God, or the Lord is gracious." This was the name the angel gave him, and in this act of obedience he is released from his 9 months of being imprisoned in silence, and he breaks forth in a joyful song of salvation.
He has been silent but not blind. He saw the shining faces of Mary and Elizabeth as they sang the praises of God. He saw the implication of what was happening, and he knew the dawn of a new day of salvation was about to break, and he uses his first words to greet it with a song. The poet wrote,
There's a light upon the mountain, and the day is at the spring
When our eyes shall see the beauty and the glory of the King.
Weary was our heart with waiting, and the night-watch seemed so long,
But his triumph-day is breaking, and we hale it with a song.
This was Dr. Henry Burton's description of how saints will greet the second coming of Christ. Zacharias has the same mood as he greets the first coming. Nothing but song can begin to express the emotions of men who are aware of the nearness of the Savior. Zacharias is glorious happy over his son, and of the role he will play in preparing the way, but he devotes only 2 verses to that. He is aware that this is more than a maternity case. It is an eternity case, and that is why the theme of his song is salvation, and all else is secondary. This song is called the Benedictus from the first word in the Latin version, which is blessed in the English. Like Mary's Magnificat, it has been a part of Christian worship for centuries. St. Augustine back in the fourth century expressed how he loved it and sang it daily.
"O blessed hymn of joy and praise! Divinely inspired by the Holy Ghost,
and divinely pronounced by the venerable priest, and daily sung in the church of God; Oh, may the words be often in my mouth, and the sweetness of them always in my heart." In more recent times in the Church of England the Benedictus was revived after years of neglect. In the Diary Of A Church Goer, Lord Courtney describes the impression made on him by hearing the Benedictus sung in church: "The choir to-day sang divinely the Benedictus....In my boyhood we rarely heard the Benedictus. It was in the prayer book, doubtless, but practically never said or sung. Now days it is reaccepted in use....nor is this surprising, for the Benedictus surely expressed the essence of all religion...." Salvation is the essence, and that is what the Benedictus is all about. It is so packed with the theology of salvation that we can't begin to look at all of its implications. Everything in the song relates to salvation. Consider first-
I. THE AUTHOR OF SALVATION.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. God punished Zacharias for his unbelief, and for 9 months he had to live in silence, and for 3 months watch Mary and Elizabeth sing and rejoice while he sat mute. But he was not angry with God because of this discipline. He could not wait to join in singing God's praise. The words of Wordsworth describe the prayer of his heart.
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.
The God of Israel, whom he had served for many years as a priest, was the author of salvation. The God of creation and revelation, who was the God of the Old Testament, was the one who was breaking into history to redeem man and to give light to those that sat in darkness. The value of this pre-Christmas song in the Gospel of Luke is that it knits the Old Testament and the New Testament together in an unbreakable bond. God's plan of salvation is consistent and continuous. There is perfect continuity as we move from the old to the new. The author of our salvation is the God of Israel. The horn of salvation He raised up, meaning Jesus, was of the house of David, and was promised to the fathers, and foretold by the prophets since the world began. All passed history has been moving toward the events that Zacharias knew were to soon take place. Christmas was a climatic fulfillment of the hope of the Old Testament, and the dramatic beginning of a whole new program in God's plan of salvation. There is not break, however, for the Lord God of Israel is the author of salvation in both the Old and the New Testament. Consider secondly-
II. THE ACTS OF SALVATION.
This is the main emphasis of this song of praise. The acts of God on behalf of man is what thrills Zacharias. G. Campbell Morgan said, "This song is not in adoration of the God who acts, but in celebration of the acts of God." In other words, it is a song about salvation, and not about the Savior. It acknowledges the Savior, but it emphasizes what the Savior has done to save. He has visited and redeemed His people. He uses past tense as if God had already acted, which, of course, He has, for Mary stands before him with the Messiah in her womb. The incarnation is already an historical fact. Nothing has happened yet outside the small circle of those intimately involved, but Zacharias uses the prophetic past tense, which means that it is so sure that it is as good as done. God has come to visit and redeem His people, and to set them free from the clutches of the earthly that they might be a heavenly people reigning with Him in a kingdom not of this world.
Morgan points out that the word visit in the Greek is the word from which we get Episcopal, which means to govern or to have oversight. Jesus came not just to look man's situation over, but to take the reigns of authority, and to rule and guide and oversee. When God steps into the chariot of history, it is not just to ride, but to take the reigns and guide. Zacharias in describing the acts of God seems to imply that they will be physical, and that He will destroy the Romans and set them free from political oppression. This was the hope of many who longed for the Messiah. However, Zacharias goes on to make it clear that the salvation he sings of is spiritual. His son is to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah by giving them the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sin. The goal is to serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness, and to be guided into the way of peace.
The language is a mixture of the Old and New Testament concept of salvation. Salvation in the Old was thought of in terms of being delivered from the enemy forces that sought to destroy you. It was physical and collective. In the New Testament the stress is on the enemy of sin and the individual being rescued from the forces of sin through the forgiveness of God. Here we see God being praised for His acts of salvation on both levels. It is good for us to keep in mind that there are different levels of salvation, and though they are not all of equal importance, they are all equally real and valid. There is physical, mental and spiritual salvation, and Zacharias refers to each of them in his song. The study of them puts us into a third category-
III. THE AIMS OF SALVATION.
God's actions on behalf of men for their salvation on each of the three levels have distinctive aims. When Zacharias speaks of being saved from the hand of enemies and those who hate, he is referring to physical salvation, the aim of which is obvious, and that is to preserve life and health. When he speaks of freedom to serve God without fear, he is speaking of mental salvation, and the aim is to have mentally alert servants and worshipers. When he speaks of forgiveness of sin, he is dealing with salvation on the spiritual level, and the aim is eternal life and the sanctification of the present life. We tend to think of salvation only on this 3rd and highest level because this is the emphasis of the New Testament. Before Christ the emphasis was on the other levels, and so in this song of transition we see them all.
The aim of salvation on any level is deliverance of some form of evil. If one is not at the mercy of some evil, there is no need for a Savior. In the Old Testament Lot was saved from Sodom and Israel was saved from famine, and from many enemies. This physical salvation may be less important in terms of eternity, but when you are faced with physical destruction by a physical enemy it becomes a desperate need. Mary Queen of Scots on the night before her execution wrote this poem prayer:
O Lord God almighty! My hope is in Thee!
O Jesus beloved, now liberate me!
In durance the drearest, in bonds the serverest-
My desire is to Thee!
In sign and crying, on bended knees lying,
I adore-I implore Thou woulds't liberate me!
This is not a prayer for the salvation of her soul, but it is for physical salvation, and who can doubt that it is a valid prayer? Zacharias longs for salvation on the physical level. He wants to be free from enemies and oppression. This kind of salvation will not get anyone into heaven, but it makes life on earth so much more pleasant. Jesus gave a large portion of His minister to bringing physical salvation to people. He delivered them from disease, hunger and death. Salvation on the mental level was also an important part of His ministry. He delivered people from ignorance, fear and anxiety by means of the truth. Millions of volumes have been written about mental salvation, for it has been the heart cry from many, as it was from the poet who wrote-
Out of my unreality,
My false seeming,
My fond dreaming,
Good Lord deliver me,
And knit my heart to Thee!
Out of my instability,
Lord, bid me come to Thee,
Thee Hav'n where I would be.
Into Thy deep tranquility,
Thy still being,
Thy clear seeing,
Lord, bring my soul at last,
This tyranny o'erpast.
Here is a cry for deliverance, not for the body, but for the mind and soul, and not from sin, but from the evils that make life aimless and frustrating. This is a legitimate level of salvation, and a level that Christians should long to attain. The point is, however, these first two levels of salvation can be experienced by all people. Jesus is not the exclusive Savior on these levels. A gun can save a man from physical destruction, and from his enemy. Medicine can save his life from disease. Food can save him from starvation. Psychiatry and rest, and various kinds of therapy can save from the evils of mental breakdown. There are many saviors on the first two stories of the three-story building of salvation.
In the last part of this song the emphasis is on spiritual salvation, which is deliverance from sin and being led out of bondage to darkness into the light of peace with God. On this level Jesus is the exclusive Savior and hope of man. In verse 77 he says that forgiveness of sin was the essence of the salvation the Messiah was to bring. This is the essence of what is new about the New Testament. God in Christ finished the three-story building of salvation, and He made the 3rd level adequate to accommodate all.
The beautiful benedictus ends on the high note of spiritual salvation, the aim of which is to redeem man from sin, darkness and death. Zacharias saw that the dawn of a new day of salvation was about to break. The light, which lights every man was coming into the world. Before the dawn the birds sing and usher in the day with song. Here, in the modest home of an obscure priest, the dawn of a new day of salvation is ushered in by the songs of Mary and Zacharias. The bright and morning star is on the horizon.
Look and see, the orient morning
Breaks along the heathen sky;
Lo! The expected day is dawning,
Glorious dayspring from on high!
The beauty of the benedictus lies in its eloquent description of the salvation of the Messiah. In verse 78 the tender mercy of God is behind the beautiful dawning of the new day. God did not flood the world with the light of His glory in a single sudden flash, for that would destroy man as certainly as the flood of His wrath. In tenderness He gently comes like the dawn in the form of a child. The aim, says Zacharias in verse 79, is to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Man is lost and in darkness, and he lives in the fear of death. This song celebrates the giving of the Savior who saves the whole man-body, mind and spirit. If Zacharias could sing so joyously at the dawn of this new day, how much more ought we to sing who live in the noon day sun?
Now, death is life! And grief is turned to joy!
Since glory shown on that auspicious morn,
When God incarnate came, not to destroy,
But man to save and manhood's state adorn.
We need not sit in sin's dark prison, the Son of Righteousness has risen.
The light He brought can give release, and guide us in the way of peace.
This is the aim of salvation for which the author of salvation performs the acts of salvation. Focus your mind on the theme of salvation, and open your heart to God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, and Christmas will always be a season of song. It is the glory of the story of salvation that makes this song of Zacharias a beautiful benedictus.