Christ came ‘to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God by which the Dayspring from on high has visited us – to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. To guide our feet into the ways of peace’ (Luke 1:76-79).
There are times in our lives when we pause and think seriously about life and its meaning. Some great event or some terrible act of violence – or natural disaster – causes us to stop and, for a while, consider.
But there was one event in world history that surpasses all others – the birth of a child, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. After his birth nothing was ever the same again. We call this event ‘The Incarnation’, of which Charles Wesley said in one of his hymns, ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’.
What did he mean? He meant that the Lord Jesus Christ was both divine and human, the Son of God who had appeared in human flesh. He is incomparable.
God’s tender mercy
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Christ and declare the purpose of this great event. What was that purpose? ‘To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins’, say our verses. There follows a vivid portrayal of the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ – the plan of salvation.
God himself is the source of this plan, for it is ‘through the tender mercy of our God [that] the Dayspring from on high has visited us’. God displays his tender mercy by devising, before the beginning of the world, a plan to redeem fallen mankind. This is well described in a Welsh hymn*:
Far before time, beyond creation’s dawn,
Before the sun, the moon, the stars were born,
Salvation’s way for sinners lost, undone,
Was counselled forth by God, the Three in One.
Blanket of darkness
Why was this plan necessary? It was needed ‘to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the ways of peace’.
Light and darkness are opposites. We associate ‘darkness’ with all that is dishonest and wrong. Lift any sizable stone in your garden. Underneath you will find scores of insects scurrying into the earth to escape the light – because they are creatures of the dark.
Moral darkness cloaks many evil activities among men. But there is another darkness of far greater significance – the darkness that blankets a soul, so that it cannot understand spiritual truth.
The apostle Paul says, ‘the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). A divine visitation is necessary in the human soul before we can know God.
The dawn breaks
Those who are in spiritual darkness are said to sit ‘in the shadow of death’. What death is this? To begin with, there is a physical death, when our travelling days are done. There is also a death described in the Bible as the ‘second death’, suffered by those who die without an experience of salvation through Jesus Christ -separating men eternally from the presence of God and casting a terrible shadow over their lives.
But there is a third kind of death – spiritual deadness – that blinds the soul to the reality of God, even as we go about our lives. Nothing but the grace of God can remove this darkness.
The good news is that the dawn has broken! The ‘Dayspring from on high’ – Jesus Christ – has visited us. The mercy of God approaches our soul. As the gospel is proclaimed, God’s Spirit takes the things concerning Jesus Christ and reveals them to us.
The light that dawns upon the soul is enlightenment about the things of God. It shows us our woeful condition – that we are sitting in darkness. It also reveals the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
A face revealed
When I was a child my mother gave me a postcard showing some mountains. It was very special, she said, because on one of the mountains was the image of a woman’s face.
I studied the postcard carefully but could see nothing. I tried very hard but to no avail. I kept the card in a drawer and looked at it occasionally, hoping to see the mysterious face, but again I failed to see anything.
I eventually lost all interest. However, one day I picked the card up and there she was, as plain as plain could be! I was astonished at my discovery. Once I had seen the outline of a face, it was impossible not to see it, which ever way I held the postcard.
It seems strange that one day I saw nothing on the mountainside and the next day I saw the face so clearly. It baffled me but I was satisfied.
Similarly we can read this paper, or even the Bible, yet never ‘see’ the Saviour. But for some of us, one day, ‘the Dayspring from on high’ dawns and we see him, and turn to him in faith and joy. After that it is impossible not to see him, for we know him for ever.
The Lord gives sight
It is the Holy Spirit who reveals the Saviour and leads us to him, bringing us peace with God. We begin to understand that ‘the remission of sins’ and ‘the way of peace’ are found only in our Lord Jesus Christ.
At last we understand his great mission, this great act of mercy. The law of God condemns us all, because we cannot keep it. But the Saviour takes our place. During his life he fulfilled all the requirements of the law on our behalf – and in dying on the cross he paid in full the penalty for our sins, past present and future.
How can these benefits be mine? How can I become a child of God and have a place in heaven? It is the Lord himself who gives us the ability to repent of our sin and turn to Christ.
He imparts to us the faith that leads us to Christ and appropriates these benefits: ‘by grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8).
Waking from our spiritual darkness we experience conversion. Our sins are forgiven, we are clothed in the sinless life of Christ, and we are accepted in the sight of God. We are now children of light.
Are you sitting in darkness or walking in light?