76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.’
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:76-80)
Zechariah devotes so much of his song to the coming Christ before turning to his own newly-born son. Imagine the special scene: Zechariah speaking these wonderful and prophetic words over his baby boy, based on what had been related to him by Gabriel (vv.15-17). John’s role is important, but he is subordinate to Christ; he will be a “prophet”, the mouthpiece of “the Most High” (v.76). He will go before the Lord, although Christ has always been before him (cf. John 1:30). More details about John’s preparatory role emerge: he gives “knowledge of salvation… through forgiveness of sins” (v.77) – precisely what his baptising with water achieves.
Zechariah must have been proud yet humbled to have been John’s father, but he chooses to talk more about God’s character. Here the depths of God’s mercy are conveyed: the Greek splanchna literally means “bowels” or “entrails”. God’s love is visceral; but it is also natural – sent from heaven like the dawn of a new day (v.78). Zechariah echoes the prophet Isaiah’s language of shining in the darkness (9:1, 42:7). v.79 talks about “those who are seated in darkness and in the shadow of death”. This has at least two applications. Firstly, the darkness and separation from God that comes from being caught in sin. Yet, in his mercy, he shines his light in, inviting us into relationship with him. Secondly, it is comforting for those of us who sometimes feel like we are seated in the darkness of depression. This darkness can be real and sometimes we are even led through a “dark night of the soul”; but ultimately, his light shines through. We won’t be sat there forever. The end destination for our feet and souls, if we trust in God, is peace. Paul famously wrote that: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Something to remember every day.
Such are the words spoken at John’s birth: some directly about him, but many more about Jesus and God. John naturally grows up but enters his own time of waiting and preparation (v.80).