Zechariah, Righteousness, Salvation

As part of my reading plan for Advent this year, I read the story of Zechariah—the father John the Baptists—found in Luke 1. This story is so fascinating on so many levels. He’s a priest who receives an angelic visitor. He and his wife are old, she is barren, and yet God grants them the gift of a son, much like Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. Zechariah, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesies about the coming Messiah and John. This prophecy is known as the beautiful poem called The Benedictus at the end of Luke 1.

Reading through this story, Luke’s use of evangelical jargon was very jarring. That is to say, he doesn’t use the terms in the standard evangelical way, as one might expect. Rather he goes in a different direction. When certain terms appear, systematic theology tells us that those terms always means the same thing every time they appear. In this post I will look at righteous(ness) and salvation.

Take righteous and righteousness. In evangelical circles today, these are understood to refer to behavior and attitudes that a person has. If they are “right” in the eyes of God, then the person is “righteous.” The right behaviors, actions, and attitudes are a person’s “righteousness.” If they are wrong actions and behaviors they are “unrighteousness” and the person is said to be unrighteous. And anytime any text in the Scriptures uses these terms they are to be understood this way.

Take salvation also. When evangelicals read the word salvation in Scripture, they have trained themselves to understand it in the following narrative. A person is a sinner (a synonym for “unrighteous”) and rightly under God’s wrath for their sin. Jesus died on the cross to take that divine wrath against said person. At the same time, Jesus lived rightly before God. He was righteous in God’s court. He not only takes said person’s unrighteousness and suffers divine wrath against it, but also gives his own righteousness to this person so that they are called righteous by God. Whenever evangelicals see the word “salvation” they are trained to think of it in this way.

But read Luke 1:5-6 (NIV2011) for a second and ask if this is how we can understand these terms when applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke writes, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Are Zechariah and Elizabeth righteous in the way that evangelicals want to read righteous? What do we do with Paul’s assertion in Romans 3:10-11 that there is no one righteous?

And read also Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:68-69 (NIV2011), “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” The divine substitute is being raised up in the house of David. The one who bears our sin and God’s wrath against it, as well as our perfect righteousness before God, is near. That’s the way the evangelical reading would see this.

Is that true of Zechariah and Elizabeth if they are already righteous as Luke says in 1:6? Do they need salvation in the evangelical understanding? The answer to both of these questions must be, “no.”

But there is a way to understand Zechariah and Elizabeth to be both righteous and in need of salvation. The righteousness that they have in Luke 1 may not be perfect sinlessness, but faithfulness to the Torah. This would also include all of the decrees and commands in the Torah, the Law, to offer up sacrifices for sin. When sin occurs they are to offer up certain sacrifices to atone for that sin and purify themselves. When living rightly according to Torah, it doesn’t mean moral perfection but rather participating in the rituals that restore the holiness of the people.

This couple can be both sinners and righteous because they do the things that God requires to atone for the sins they commit.

Look further at the salvation that Zechariah says will come in his poem,

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68-75 NIV2011)

The salvation described here isn’t what evangelicals have trained themselves to think it is. It is God “coming” to his people Israel. It’s a return of his presence to his people. It is God taking possession of his people from another master in “redeeming” them. It’s rescue from enemies and those who hate Israel. It’s God being faithful to his covenant with Israel and the oath made to Abraham. It’s enabling Israel to serve God again in holiness and righteousness.

It sounds a lot like the Exodus story from the Old Testament when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and established them as his chosen people and nation in Canaan, the Promised Land. Zechariah believes the Messiah is going to do this again for his Israel, and his son John is going to pave the way for the Messiah.

Thus salvation is more than the mere dealing with a person’s moral imperfections. It’s about God fulfilling is promises to Israel to restore them as his people and nation. The birth of the Messiah was good news because he is the very royal figure who was to be the agent of God’s coming to and redemption of Israel. And this redeemed Israel has been constituted as Jesus’ church.

This Advent, we celebrate the birth of this Messiah and the work he launched. We lament that it is incomplete. He reigns over Israel and through Israel but yet sin is still present in the world. We still wage war against evils in all their manifestations. We anticipate and yearn for Jesus to complete what he started and is doing in the church, his nation of Israel redeemed.

It is my prayer that my fellow evangelicals can join with me in celebrating what Zechariah celebrated as “salvation.” I pray that we can celebrate Jesus’ birth beyond the Christmas season, as Luke and Matthew did in writing their Gospels. I pray we can lament the incompleteness of Jesus’ work together. And I pray that we can anticipate its completion at Jesus’ second Advent by living as part of this redeemed Israel now.


~ by hankimler on December 18, 2013.

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