I imagine the tears really came once he could finally get the words out.
How many times had he and his wife sat and cried together in silence? How many times had they had the same aching conversations? How many times had they talked about names? How many times had they held someone else’s newborn? How many times had they thought she might be pregnant? How many times had they asked for a child?
And here he was, buried in their arms. The dream they had stopped dreaming. The son they thought they’d never meet.
Like many first-time fathers (myself included), the man couldn’t find the words. In this case, however, he literally couldn’t speak. When Zechariah finally met his son, he could only ask for something to write on. He didn’t get to taste the boy’s name on his lips for eight whole days. I vividly remember meeting our firstborn. I can’t imagine feeling all I felt those days in silence. It might have killed me to try.
So why had God held Zechariah’s tongue? When the angel Gabriel came to tell Zechariah what God was about to do, the old man couldn’t bring himself to believe it. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). The angel didn’t take kindly to his lack of faith.
I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time. (Luke 1:19–20)
Zechariah held his long-awaited son in silence because he had sinned against the God who had opened his wife’s womb. He — a priest — had dismissed what God had plainly said. And so, God gave him nine quiet, painful months in front of the mirror. Every time he tried to speak, he was reminded of how he had failed. His speechlessness said what no one else could hear: “I have sinned.”
And then, as easily as he had shut Zechariah’s mouth, God opened it again.
Taste of Forgiveness
If a man has been silent for nearly a year, when he finally does speak, everyone leans in to listen. So, when his prodigal tongue returned, what did Zechariah say? This is where the tears must have flowed.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David. (Luke 1:68–69)
And then, a few verses later, he says directly to his son,
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God. (Luke 1:76–78)
Had God’s mercy ever felt more tender, more real to Zechariah than when, holding his answered prayer, he could finally form words again? God forgives, son. God really forgives. He forgives sinners like me. He really is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Go and tell them forgiveness is possible, because God has come.
Could it be any more fitting that the boy was named John — “graced by God”? And so Zechariah was. And so we are.
Who Can Forgive Sins?
Not long after, John’s long-awaited cousin was born. An even more miraculous child. Forgiveness incarnate.
As Jesus began his ministry, he drove a stake in the ground that he had come to declare and achieve forgiveness. As he was teaching and healing one day, a crowd gathered — a crowd so thick that a group of men couldn’t get close enough with their paralyzed friend. Determined, the men opened a hole in the roof and lowered their friend to where Jesus was. Of all the things Jesus could have said, notice how he responded: “When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).
The scribes and Pharisees who heard him were furious: “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). They asked the right question, but drew the wrong conclusion. Jesus corrected them, and in an unforgettable way.
“Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the man who was paralyzed — “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (Luke 5:22–24)
And the paralyzed man did what he had not done in who knows how long: “Immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God” (Luke 5:25). His words were beautiful, but he didn’t need to say a thing. His legs said it all. This man healed my failing body. Far more than that, he forgave my wayward soul. He forgives. God really forgives.
Forgive Us Our Sins
This forgiveness wasn’t held out to a few especially defiant sinners. This was the deep and daily need of every human soul. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus’s response was strikingly brief, simple, and to the point. “When you pray,” Jesus told them, say this:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2)
Notice, Jesus prayed a lot, but he never had to pray that part of the prayer. No, he simply knew what everyone else needed most every day. Like him, they needed food for the day and protection from temptation; unlike him, they needed forgiveness for when they fell short. And fall we would, again and again (1 John 1:8). We were, each one of us, brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5). And while that old man died when we believed, we still have to face him every day.
Jesus never sinned, but he knew just how seductive sin could be (Hebrews 4:15). He knew how much sin would cost him. He came to cancel sin, and so he taught us to plead for forgiveness.
Forgiveness in Flesh and Blood
Until Good Friday, forgiveness had been a promise — real, but unseen. As the nails went in and the beams rose high, however, forgiveness broke into sight, painted in red for all to see. They seized him without warrant, tried him without justice, and beat him without mercy. And yet, even as they showered him with hostility, he prayed for them. And what did he pray? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
And then, from the weakness and humiliation of the cross, with barely enough oxygen to breathe, he spoke that forgiveness into another longing soul. One of the criminals beside him said, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. . . . Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:41–42). Forgive me my sins. And with one of his very last breaths, Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Has the possibility of forgiveness ever been clearer? Has the wonder of forgiveness ever been more blinding? From the just nails of torture to the just reward of paradise in just one sentence — forgiveness.
And in the next moments, he finishes paying for that unthinkable pardon. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Dying didn’t give him the authority to forgive — he had that before the world began. No, dying justified what had been happening since the garden (Romans 3:25). God had always been forgiving people through faith; now he had the blood to prove it.
Through This Man
After Jesus rose from the grave, he appeared to his disciples and ate with them. As they talked, he gave them a tour through Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms to show them how every part pointed to him. And then he summed up the lesson, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47). Forgiveness promised. Forgiveness purchased. And now, forgiveness preached far and wide throughout the world.
And that’s exactly what the church did. When wind and fire came down from heaven at Pentecost, what did the apostle Peter say? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). Remember, Peter had tasted the riches of God’s mercy firsthand — “I do not know him. . . . I do not know him. . . . I do not know him.” And when, later, God sent him to the centurion to finally and fully welcome the nations into the church, what did he say then? “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). And when Paul boldly stood in the synagogue in Antioch, telling Jews to repent and turn to Christ, what did he say? “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). The whole city gathered the next week to hear more. Could this forgiveness be true?
In a world entrenched in sin and shame, the church became a lighthouse of forgiveness. Thousands traded the burden of guilt for the joy of rest. Countless millions have joined them since. Like Zechariah, they’ve been confronted with the horror of their sins against God. They’ve tasted its bitter consequences. And they’ve found forgiveness — lying in a manger, laboring in Nazareth, lifted on a cross, leaving the grave, and now Lord over all.
When he was born, forgiveness. When he died, forgiveness. When he rose, forgiveness. When he ascended into heaven, forgiveness. And in his wide and wondrous wake, forgiveness. Do you still wonder, this Christmas, if you could be forgiven?