The words of Zechariah’s prophecy “were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:65b-66). Because of what has already been presented, in terms of Israel’s expectations of God’s imminent working on their behalf, according to the example that was embodied in their Passover remembrances, we can now more easily understand the discussions concerning John and the question concerning what it was that he might become or do. The expectant manner in which the words of Zechariah were received, existed because of the people’s knowledge and understanding of God’s covenant, alongside the way that they thought about themselves.
The people had also heard Zechariah say, in regards to his son, that he would be a prophet that would “give knowledge of salvation” (1:77a) to the Lord’s people. This salvation was connected to “the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77b). Here, we must think about the foundational message of John the Baptist. That message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). It was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4b). He said to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’.” (Luke 3:8a) The repentance for forgiveness and the need to bear fruit was connected to the kingdom of heaven.
For nearly two hundred years, some of the people of Israel had been attempting to establish the kingdom of the people of God (the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven) by force of arms and violent revolution. Their task, however, according to the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Rather than doing this, they had separated themselves from the Gentiles, insulating themselves and isolating themselves from foreign peoples, becoming more firmly entrenched in their nationalistic desires and goals. Now, in light of their being ruled by Gentiles for hundreds of years, some repeatedly sought out opportunities to violently throw off the yoke of Gentile rule, ushering in the kingdom by such means. Obviously, they could not do this and be a blessing at the same time.
Where Abraham had succeeded, Israel had unfortunately failed. By Abraham’s life, which largely appears to be one of outward blessing of the people with which he came into contact, the Creator God was glorified; and Abraham, through the great wealth that stood as part of the evidence of his being blessed by his God, was a blessing to many. Due to his being located and positioned, by God, in the land bridge and trade route that connects Europe, Africa, and Asia, he was able to be a blessing to people throughout the world. Undoubtedly, when peoples from around the world interacted with Abraham, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his day, they would learn about Abraham’s God and the covenant into which that God had brought His servant Abraham. By God’s communication of the message of His faithfulness, through Abraham, many people would most certainly have been blessed.
It is in this light that we can consider John’s admonishment to the people to not say things like “We have Abraham as our father,” in connection with their need to repent and seek forgiveness of their sins. They were not following in the faithful footsteps of Abraham. Indeed, Abraham’s example stood against them. They were not faithfully upholding the conditions of the covenant, and most certainly not being a blessing to foreign peoples, especially since they sought to conquer and drive out the very ones that were in their midst. For this, they needed to seek repentance, and to bear fruits in keeping with that repentance, such as being a shining light, to the Gentiles, of God’s covenant faithfulness to His people. This repentance for forgiveness of their unfaithfulness to the covenant (failure to bear the divine image/sin), and the bearing of fruit in accordance with the repentance, would better enable them to recognize God’s coming action to establish His kingdom through Jesus. This kingdom, most assuredly, would not be established by the taking up of arms.
Israel had been failing in their task, but as Zechariah would go on to say, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high” (1:78), God was going to give His covenant people another chance to succeed. God was going to give them the opportunity, through the kingdom that He was going to be establishing through His Christ, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:79a). This responsibility, being a light, had always been and will always be the task at hand for the people of God’s covenant. Rather than bringing the kingdom of His covenant people to pass through violence, Zechariah says that the Lord, through His redeeming and saving King, was going to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79b). Yes, God was going to show His people, then and forever, that His kingdom was going to be established through the proclamation and corresponding activity of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, though ironically, the peaceful proclamation of the Gospel is what would bring a sword against those who speak it forth. Such was and is the method of God’s visitation.