Paul and Empire – Romans 13:1-7

In an earlier post, I argued Paul commands obedience to the government. I pointed out the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment.  Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!

The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I could have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc. The issue that they are raising is important as well: America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy. There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).

Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.

trump-neroFor me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility.  I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?

I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life. These members of the new creation will then transform society.  Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.  All shared food and fellowship equally.  That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.

An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55.  In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor. I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor. Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.

I think the church does a good job on some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, much more could be done. I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem. There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.

What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements?  What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?

Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.

Book Review: Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 680 pp. Hb; $60.   Link to Eerdmans

Eckhard Schnabel contributed a commentary on Acts in the Zondervan Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2011), Mark in the Tyndale Series (IVP Academic, 2017) and Romans in the Historical Theological Interpretation series (in German; Wuppertal: SCM & R. Brockhaus). With David W. Chapman, Schnabel published The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (WUNT/2 344; Tubingen: Mohr Mohr Siebeck, 2015; Hendrickson, 2019 forthcoming). Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days is similar to his Early Christian Mission (2 vol., IVP Academic 2004) in that Schnabel collects detailed notes on the people and places mentioned in the four Passion narratives. Essentially, Schnabel is interested in identifying who did what, where they did it and when it happened.

In the introduction to the book Schnabel argues this simple outline is an essential approach to help readers understand texts like the Passion Narratives. He rejects form criticism and more recent historical Jesus methods which employ the criteria of authenticity. Further, he wants to avoid the postmodern view that all history is subjective. He observes the fact very few practicing historians are impressed by philosophical objections to the possibility of truth in history (p. 4).

More positively, he reads the Gospels as similar to the Greek bios. The Gospels are expressions of faith, but they also provide examples from Jesus’s life and teaching which preserve the memory of Jesus. Here Schnabel builds on the work of Richard Bauckham and others who have focused on the significance of eyewitnesses for the transmission and preservation of the words and deeds of Jesus. To a large extent, many of the persons surveyed in chapter two of this book were eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus’s last week, and the earliest traditions concerning the authorship of the Gospels claimed Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Schnabel believes this method of reading the “canonical Gospels as historical biographies of the life of Jesus that are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and treating them as good historical sources is neither gullible nor uncritical” (p. 7).

Remarkably, Schnabel uses data from all four Gospels. For some this might not be a surprise, but in New Testament studies John’s Gospel is often dismissed as lacking historical details. For Schnabel, John’s chronological details are important (“six days before the Passover” in John 12:1, for example, p. 153). He includes John’s unique contributions to the Passion Narrative such as Jesus washing the disciple’s feet (John 13) and the farewell discourse (John 15:1-17:26).

Since he includes data from all four Gospels, the book can be read as a “harmony of the gospels.” An unfortunate result of this method is the flattening of the four gospels into one story so that the individual theological emphases of the writers are lost. But since this is a historical study of the last week of Jesus’s life not a biblical theology of any one of the Gospel writers, this observation is does not detract from the value of Schnabel’s work.

The first three chapters of the book can be read like a Bible Dictionary since they identify the people and places associated with Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. The first chapter briefly identifies seventy-two people one encounters when reading the four versions of the passion stories in the Gospels. Some are named individuals like Annas, Caiaphas, Barabbas or Simon of Cyrene. Others sections treat groups of people, Pharisees, Sadducees, or experts in the Law. A few are rather generic, such as the gentiles, pilgrims, crowds, or the blind and lame. Schnabel includes brief units on the “rich people” in contrast to the widow who donates two coins (Mark 12:41). There are even brief paragraphs on obscure persons like the man with the water jar (Mark 14:13) or the soldier with the sponge (Mark 15:36).

Chapter two describes seventeen places, including larger areas such as the city Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives. Schnabel usually includes some discussion of the modern identification of locations such as Gethsemane, Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. There are units on the residences of Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod and the location of the Sanhedrin building. These are important for reconstructing the trials of Jesus and his movements after his arrest. Throughout this section Schnabel uses detailed historical data to describe the locations mentioned in the Passion narrative.

In his brief third chapter Schnabel lays out his timeline for the events of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. He dates the crucifixion to A.D. 30 (Nisan 14, April 7-8) rather that A.D. 33 (Nisan April 3). He then offers a short description of what happened on each day, concluding with Sunday, Nisan 16 (April 9-10). He includes suggested hours of the day as well.

Chapter four traces the events of Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem from the anointing at Bethany to his resurrection appearances to the disciples. This is by far the longest chapter of the book, covering twenty-four topics in 223 pages. Since the topics are arranged chronologically, this chapter can be read sequentially as a commentary on the events of the Passion Week. Since the burden of the book is historical research rather than exegesis, there is little textual work in this chapter other than identifying Greek words. Schnabel sets important events like the Temple action into an Old Testament context. He states the symbolic action on the Temple Mount “was not anti-temple or anti-sacrifice. It was an action intended to announce the beginning of the messianic era” (p. 164).

He often refers to Second Temple literature in order to illustrate the events. When discussing the trial of Jesus he compares the accusations against Jesus as a mesit and maddiakah (a “seducer”) by comparing Deut 13:5-11 and the Temple Scroll (11Q Temple LIV, 8-LV, 10). When discussing the possibility the messiah was described as “Son of God” Schnabel cites 1Q28, 4Q174, and 4Q246 at length (p. 257-58). He interacts with Greco-Roman literature when necessary, such as Seneca’s description of crucifixion (Ep. 101.14, p. 315).

The final chapter of the book is a short theological essay on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Schnabel concludes that Jesus exercised messianic, royal authority in his final week, a fact recognized by Pilate when he ordered “King of the Jews” to be written as the charge against Jesus (p. 377).  With respect to the theological meaning of Jesus’s death, Schnabel begins by reflecting on the suffering of God on the cross and concludes the deal was a sacrificial death “for sinners,” a substitutionary death which turned away the wrath of God (Romans 3:24-25; 5:1-2; 8:1). Using the sermons in the book of Acts, Schnabel argues in the earliest Christian preaching the resurrection did not supersede Jesus’s crucifixion (p. 390). Finally, Schnabel reflects on Jesus’s mission and the mission of his followers. Similar to his Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP Academic, 2008), Schnabel points to Luke’s commission of the disciples to go out from Jerusalem as witnesses “to the end of the world” (Acts 1:8). Similarly, Matthew concludes his gospel with a command to go, “making disciples” (Matt 28:18-20).

In addition, Schnabel includes thirteen excurses on details of the Passion Week which do not fit his people places and events scheme. For example, he has short notes on the Cursing of the Fig Tree and Peter’s Denials of Jesus. Some discuss historical details, such as Historicity of Annas’s Interrogation of Jesus or the Hour of Jesus’ crucifixion. Several of these sections concern the Greco-Roman context of the Passion Narrative, such as Crimes against the Emperor, The Passover Pardon and Roman Legal Precedent, Carrying the Crossbeam in Greco-Roman Sources, and Jesus’ Shout in Greco-Roman Perspective. He has a brief note on the ending of Mark, although it explains the shorter ending rather than a discussion of how the longer ending developed nor is there anything on the textual history of the longer ending.

The book includes occasional photographs, diagrams, and tables. Schnabel provides extensive endnotes (179 pages). For example, in chapter one there are 652 endnotes for only 90 pages. Although I prefer footnotes, endnotes make this book easy to consult on some detail of the Passion Narrative, further details are found in the notes. The book also includes a detailed bibliography (49 pages) and indices of authors, subjects, Scripture and other ancient writings references (51 pages). This means the body of the book is only 399 pages.

Conclusion. Schnabel’s Jesus in Jerusalem is a major contribution to the study of the final chapters of the four Gospels. The detail provide is staggering, yet the layout of the book is uncomplicated and comfortable for the non-expert.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus in Galilee

Our day focused on sites in Galilee associated with Jesus and his ministry. We stopped at Yardenet yesterday. Yardenet is the pilgrim baptism site on the Jordan River. It is set up for large groups to participate in a baptism in the Jordan River, although this is not the site Jesus was likely baptized. He was probably baptized near the Dead Sea since those were John the Baptist was baptizing in the Gospels. Nevertheless this is an interesting location because it preserves A portion of the Jordan River for Christian pilgrims. We didn’t perform baptisms today, but I did read from the Gospel of Matthew and talked briefly about Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’s ministry.

This year we went round the lake counter-clockwise.We did this on the advice of our Israeli guide who thought it would be better to visit Mount Arbel later in the afternoon so the sun to the west and the viewing of the Sea of Galilee is better. This means the day began by driving from Ma’agan to Kursi, the traditional site of  the exorcism recorded in Mark 5. There is a small Byzantine church on the site which has only partially been restored. We talked through the story, look at the cliffs and wondering how the pigs made the leap into the sea. The simple solution is the pigs were far closer to the Sea than the impressive cliffs, or this traditional site is not correct.

Kursi, Mark 5 , Demons

We arrived at the Mount of Beatitudes about ten AM, and it was packed full of pilgrims. We managed to weave our way through several larger groups and find a nice mostly shaded spot to read from Matthew 5 and talk a bit about the Beatitudes. (See this post, What are the Beatitudes?) The group was able to visit the octagonal chapel then had a few minutes to pray and read the Bible privately.

We drove from there to the Church of the Primacy of Peter. For whatever reason, I have never visited this site before. This is a traditional location of Peter’s restoration in John 21. There is a beautiful garden (although most of it is fenced off from tourists) and several place for Catholics to celebrate Mass. We walked around to the back of the church and found a quiet spot to read the story of Jesus’s third resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel. (For more details on this story, see this post.) Although the passage has many intriguing details (153 fish and the different words for love), my focus today was on Jesus’s final words to Peter: “You follow me.”

Since Capernaum is not closed at noon, we visited the location of Peter’s house about noon. This was to our advantage since most of the larger groups were clearing out for lunch. For most the highlight here is Peter’s house, although it is difficult to see much of the house due to the large church built over the top. There is also a beautiful synagogue, although it dates to the fifth or six century, long after the time of Jesus. For me, the highlight of a visit to Capernaum is walking out in the beach near the Sea and reading the Bible. In this case I read Mark 2 since the healing of the paralytic takes place at Peter’s house

After lunch (Aroma Coffee, avocado sandwich and ice coffee) we stopped at Migdal. Although this village was the home of Mary Magdalene, the place is rarely mentioned in the Bible. However, a first-century Synagogue was recently excavated along with an unusual carved stone found near the center of the synagogue. Some scholars have suggested the stone was carved to look like the Second Temple, although this is not particularly conclusive. What is important is this is a first century synagogue not far from Capernaum. Although there is no evidence Jesus taught in this particular synagogue, the gospels portray him is teaching in many of the synagogues in Galilee. So it gave us an opportunity to discuss what teaching at the synagogue might have been like. There are a number of other excavated buildings adjacent to the synagogue including what appeared to be two or three mikvoth.

Migdal Synagogue Stone

Finally, we drove through Tiberius to Mount Arbel. This is not so much a biblical site, but a hike up to the top of Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee. Usually I do this site early in the day, but as I said the guide suggest the end of the day for better viewing. My concern is that it would be blazing hot by the time we made the half-mile hike from the visitor’s center to the top of the hill. Turns out we were both right, the details are clearer in the afternoon sun, but it was also extremely hot and there is no shade sine the carob tree at the top of the hill was struck by lightning (it is recovering, but is a few years away from provide shade). From the top of the cliffs we can see the west and north quarters of the sea, essentially where all of the Jesus sites are located.

Mount Arbel

When we finally turned back into the Ma’agan parking lot we had traveled around the whole of the Sea of Galilee. My students were very tired out by this time and were looking forward to the pool (or a nap) before dinner.

Tomorrow we enter Jordan and visit Jerash on our way to Petra.

Acts 4:12 – No Other Name

When he is giving testimony in Acts 4, Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not. If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God. The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God. If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem: Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!

The problem for the High Priest is obvious.  If Peter healed the man “in the name of Jesus” that means that Jesus was, at the very least, an innocent man and God is now doing miracles “in the name of Jesus.”  If Jesus was innocent, then the High Priest is guilty of killing an innocent man. If he was Messiah and actually raised to the right hand of God, then the messianic age has begun and the High Priest finds himself  “on the outside.”

The last line of Peter’s defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ. There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life. If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.

Jesus TattooThere is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism. The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation. If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.

Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple. Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!

I think this is what bothers me about popular Christianity and the rather flippant use of the “Name of Jesus.”  We have turned praying in the “name of Jesus” into code words for “I am done praying now, look up.”  People claim all sorts of goofy things in the “name of Jesus” without giving much thought at all to what that means.  It does not help to write “Jesus” out in Hebrew and tattoo it on your ankle.  This sort of thing diminishes what the name meant when Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved.”

Jesus is not a magic word we use to invoke divine power, it represents the power of God for salvation.

Why Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

At this time of year we sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and “laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.” Almost every word of that phrase has been exploded into a plot point for Christmas pageants. We imagine Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arriving in Bethlehem just as she is about to give birth, only to be told that every hotel room in the city is full. A kindly innkeeper (dressed in your uncle’s bathrobe and sandals) allows the couple to give birth in his barn.

BethlehemBut Bethlehem was no sprawling metropolis. It is doubtful there was an inn, and if there was it was the only inn in the tiny village. The image of Mary going into labor in the lobby of the local Comfort Inn is pure fantasy. The village was still quite small and unimportant in 6 B.C. But there are other reasons why it was important for Jesus to be born in the “little town of Bethlehem.”

First, the Messiah was to be the son of David, the first King of Israel. David was from the village of Bethlehem, a son of Jesse. Jesse was a wealthy land owner in Bethlehem, a “sheep rancher” rather than a Bedouin with a few herd animals. He is described as a town elder, and therefore a more politically powerful man than a “lowly shepherd.”

Bethlehem is only 5 and a half miles from Jerusalem, and 3 miles from Gibeah. While the town was likely small, it was well within the range of Saul’s capital; elders from Bethlehem would have been well aware of court politics.  That Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem may explain David’s interest in taking the city after he becomes king. When he is anointed the city is controlled by the Jebusites, prompting some scholars to wonder if David was a Jebusite himself!

 

The image of David when he begins his career is of a boy-shepherd who was at the same time a warrior capable of defeating great enemies because the Lord is with him, and he is committed to the Lord.

Second, the Messiah was to be in the line of David (2 Sam 7:12; Psalm 2, 110). The Davidic covenant describes the son of David, Solomon, in terms which cannot be fully applied to Solomon. He will reign forever!

Psalm 2 is a text which was originally used at the enthronement of a king, but the Psalm cannot describe any single human; that the nations will be ruled by a son of David who sits on the throne with the Lord himself goes well beyond an enthronement text. Likewise, Psalm 110 describes the victory of the son of David in battle in cosmic terms which go well beyond the hopes of any given king of Israel.

The messiah is therefore thought to be the ultimate fulfillment of the “son of David” prophecies. God would send someone to solve the problems of Israel who ultimately fulfilled the role of David in that he liberate the nation from their oppressors and prepared the way for true worship in the Temple. What was not expected is that this person would be quite literally God’s son!

The birth in Bethlehem therefore meets the expectation that the messiah would be from the line of David as well as from the town of Bethlehem.

The First Witnesses to the Birth of the Savior – Luke 2:8-20

Linus reading the Christmas Story in the original Charlie Brown Christmas Special is one of my favorite Christmas memories. There is something about hearing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the King James Version and hearing phrases like “and they were sore afraid.” But why do the angels appear to shepherds? Why announce the savior’s birth to them first, and not kings or priests?

Shepherds are sometimes considered “the common folk,” and perhaps representative of the most sinful of people. It is true that Luke especially highlights the poor and shows how Jesus had a special ministry to the downtrodden. But the evidence that shepherds were sinners is late (fifth century AD), and the New Testament always presents shepherds in a good light (church leaders are shepherds, as are Moses and David in the Hebrew Bible).

Perhaps this is the first (of many) examples of the ministry of the Messiah to the lowly, as predicted in another song in Luke. Mary’s son in Luke 1:46-55 predicted the messiah would “humble the proud and exalt the humble” (1:52). That the announcement of the messiah’s birth was made first to a group of shepherds is a remarkable indication that the lowly are “being raised up.”

Since these are shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem, it is quite likely that there is a subtle reference to David, a shepherd who became king of Israel. The original leader of the nation, Moses, also spent forty years as a shepherd before shepherding Israel in the wilderness.

The angel appears with the glory of the Lord and announces the “good news” of the birth of a savior. In the Roman world one would expect the “good news” to concern the birth of a son to the emperor or an announcement concerning a great victory over an enemy. But this announcement does not concern the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but rather the birth of the real king who will defeat the real enemy of all people, sin and death itself.

The song of the angelic host draws on themes from the Hebrew Bible. The “heavenly host” is an angelic army, or at the very least an uncountable number of angels around the throne of God (1 Kings 22:18). That God should be glorified is not a surprise, nor is the fact that he is glorified in heaven (in the “highest” is euphemistic for heaven.” That God brings peace is also common in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 29:11 and 86:8-10, for example.

Those that are receiving this good news are described as those on whom God’s favor rests. “reflects a semitechnical Semitic expression referring to God’s people and having overtones of election and of God’s active initiative in extending his favor” (Nolland, Matthew, 109).  This phrase too is drawn from key texts in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 106:4 for example.

But there is also a subtle reference to the Roman Empire here as well. The “Bringer of Peace” in the Roman word was Augustus, the first emperor. It was Augustus who established pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Although this was propaganda (Roman was always at war along the borders), for most people living at the time Jesus was born, the Empire was at peace and secure. This peace was guaranteed by the armies of Rome. Augustus was often called savior on official coinage and the Roman calendar was arranged to mark his birthday. People sang hymns of praise and worship to the spirit of Augustus and the power of his kingdom, Rome.

It is therefore ironic that the angel announced the birth of the real savior of the world who will bring real peace to the world to the young shepherds in near a tiny village in an unremarkable backwater of the Roman Empire. Anyone who puts their faith in Rome and Roman power will be humbled by the sudden appearance of the real King, Jesus.

This is an important message for Christians every year, but perhaps this year it is even more urgent. There is no peace and safety to be found in the government of any empire, whether that is Rome or America. Not human leader can really guarantee prosperity for all. If the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus teaches us anything it should be the very biblical story that God’s kingdom will overcome the kingdom of man, so to rely on the empire of man is foolish indeed!

God Will Visit His People – Luke 1:68

christmas, zechariah, elizabethZechariah is the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and too old to have any children, yet Zechariah is told by an angel of the Lord that his wife will have a child, and that child will be a prophet in the power of Elijah, and that he will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah questions this prophecy, since it seems impossible to him. He is told by the angel Gabriel that because he doubted the word of God, he will not speak until the day that the child is born. On the day the child was to be named, Zechariah was again able to speak, and we are told that the Holy Spirit filled him, and he prophesied these words.

It is important to note that these are the words of the Holy Spirit spoken through Zechariah to the people that were gathered in the temple for John’s circumcision. They would have all been familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah. In this ten verse section there are at least 16 allusions to the Old Testament, making it clear that John’s birth, and more importantly, the birth of Jesus three months away, would be the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel.

These words are spoken for John and about John, but John the Baptist was merely the precursor to Jesus, and all he did pointed forward to Jesus. Even in this solemn prayer of dedication at his circumcision, John is pointing the way to the Messiah. This section is centered upon the actions of God. With the birth of John, and later of Jesus, God “has come to his people.”

The word Zechariah uses for “has come” is literally “visited” (ἐπισκέπτομαι). The word has the connotation of an inspection or examination.  Zechariah is saying that God is about to come to inspect his people.  In the Old Testament, when God “visited” his people, it could be to bring them some sort of blessing, or it could be to bring the judgment.  In Exodus 3:16 God has “observed” the suffering of his people (ESV, same word appears in the LXX), and in this case he is about to rescue his people from their slavery.

Zechariah’s words are therefore a prophetic warning that in the near future God would visit his people, and that “visitation” might not be a time of great blessing and favor.  God may be visiting in judgment!  There is an element of foreshadowing in Zechariah’s words:  at the end of Jesus’ ministry he weeps over Jerusalem because they did not recognize that “this day” was the time of God’s “visitation” (ἐπισκοπή, a noun from the same root as 1:68).  Sadly, the people did not heed the warning and were unprepared for God’s inspection.

This is what happened with the birth of Jesus:  God has literally come to man.  By becoming flesh Jesus was able to offer to his people ultimate forgiveness of sin. We do not usually associate the Christmas story with a time of God’s judgment, but it is significant that this first prophecy of Jesus’ ministry in Luke describes Jesus as the coming judge.