I was reading the Gospel of Luke the other day. Specifically, I was reflecting on the prophetic utterance of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, which can be found in Chapter 1. It was, I found, rather revealing. Zechariah spends the first few verse extolling the love and faithfulness of God in raising up a servant from the house of David to rescue his people, Israel (1:67-70). This is seen as the fulfilment of prophecy given long ago, when it was said that a royal figure – a Messiah, no less – would come from the line of David to redeem his people. Of course, at this point, the aged priest was likely referring to Jesus, whose herald and forerunner was John, Zechariah’s son. Zechariah knew that God had at last come to redeem his people, as he said he would. At the time, Israel was occupied by the Romans. They lived in their own land, to be sure, but they were far from free. Oppressed, they longed for freedom. In the advent of Jesus the Messiah, God had initiated the climax of his redemptive plan. Words such as “redeemed” (v.68), “salvation” (v.69) and “rescue” (v.74) populate Zechariah’s prophetic words, which clearly reflect the belief that Yahweh was at long last fulfilling his covenant by coming to Israel’s aid – as he had when he brought them out of Egypt, or when the exilic community returned during the time of the Nehemiah. This in itself is an important point, for the present act of salvation was to be seen through the lens of those earlier, redemptive acts. They served as paradigms, both for the longings of the people, and for the activity of the God whom they served.
Most interesting, however, is what Zechariah says in verses 74-75. After spending those earlier verses speaking of Yahweh’s mercy in salvation, he goes on to link that salvation with service before him. Indeed, it seems that Zechariah recognized that God was going to save his people in order that they might serve him freely. As it was, they couldn’t; their activity was regulated (and sometimes hindered) by their Roman overlords. But we should take note – God was not coming simply so his people could enjoy the joys of freedom from oppression (though that was, and is, undoubtedly true). As Zechariah’s words in 1:74-75 suggest, God was rescuing Israel so that they might devote themselves to him – not Rome. The same idea is present within the book of Exodus. We often remember the great and mighty acts associated with the exodus itself – up to, and including, Israel’s migration through the waters of the Sea of Reeds, as Yahweh liberated his firstborn son from Egyptian bondage. Less remembered is one of the chief reasons for their rescue: that they might worship Yahweh, and be the righteous and holy people he had elected them to be. Zechariah, in his prayer, understood this truth.
The point should resonate with us. We are Christians, not simply because we have been saved by Christ, but because we have yielded our lives to him in the process. We have been transferred, like the ancient Israelites, from one “kingdom” to another. The moment of salvation is not an end in itself; rather, it forms the crucible of a life that is progressively drawn – sometimes violently – from the tyrannical regime of sin. Individually, this ought to be seen as an exhortation to true, even costly, discipleship. We are not merely liberated; we are instead rescued out of one domain – that of sin and death – and placed into another. That redemption brings with it a new set of allegiances. Paul, for example, hinted at this fact when he spoke of Christians being “set free from sin [in order that they might] become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Elsewhere, he speaks of believers being “…rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son…” (Colossians 1:13). The Apostle was quite clear in his exhortations and proclamations: believers do not exist in a libertarian paradise, but in the realm of divine righteousness. Again, salvation does not exist as an end in itself. In fact, to merely think of salvation in terms of rescue from sin, bondage, judgment, and so on, is to toy with a desiccated concept.
Zechariah saw clearly what many Christians fail to see today: that redemption and obedience, salvation and kingdom, are intimately intertwined; that those who are in Christ are saved, not so that they can live as they please, but as he commands; and that God is in the business of saving, not atomistic individuals, but a community of redeemed people who dwell under his just and sovereign rule. Zechariah’s exclamation that the Lord was coming so that his people might serve him fearlessly grates against much contemporary religion which goes by the name “Christian”. It challenges the anthropocentric (and egocentric) notion that salvation is primarily about us, rather than God’s grace in enabling humans to escape the darkening effects of sin to live as he has called them to live. It subverts so much within modern, Western Christianity, which struggles with the idea that salvation could mean anything more than the putting-back-together of poor, broken individuals. This is gloriously true, and we ought to labour to make it a reality. But that process of renewal entails the sometimes-difficult road of obedience within the kingdom of the Son, Jesus Christ. We not only cry out for rescue, for relief and for rest. We are also called to yield our lives before the true king, even when the voice of sin beckons us, and the allure of Egypt clouds our thinking. Even those theologies that have helped us to again see the incisive political implications of the Gospel (and here, I am thinking of liberation theology in particular) only tell half the story. For all their venerable emphasis on the political-public dimensions of Christianity, they appear to relegate the importance of transference into God’s kingdom. Deliverance, yes – from individual sin, from political oppression, from structural injustice, from spiritual bondage. However, that act of deliverance doesn’t end with mere rescue; nor is it a “mere” political or social programme. Rather, it climaxes with the complete reformation of the entire person within the dominion of God, something which is being worked out in the present in believers devoted to him and willed on by his Spirit.
Have we forgotten that we are saved into a new mode of being, a new way of living, which can jar – sometimes horribly – with what we may have previously cherished? Do we not realize that the Gospel does not merely overthrow corrupt political regimes, but the foundational regime of sin? Are we too comfortable to admit that Christ beckons use to obey him as Lord, and not merely trust him as Saviour? Whether we live for Christ or not, we serve something. Better that we serve him to whom we owe proper worship. As we do so, we embody and proclaim the reign of the true king, who has entered into the chaotic existence of his creatures to enable them to “serve him without fear”.
The author makes no claims to adhere perfectly to the call of God’s Kingdom. He is a humble pilgrim, walking this earth, wrestling with his sin, and attempting to follow Christ with Spirit-filled obedience.