Thursday, December 06, 2007

Early Christmas Cards: Isa 7:14; 9:6

Audio available here.

Here we are on the second day of December, and we have already received several Christmas cards. I think we received our first one sometime before Thanksgiving. It seems like every year they arrive earlier and earlier. But I don’t mind that. There is something strangely refreshing about reading a Christmas message in mid-November, six or seven weeks before the day arrives. Those early greetings reminds us that the time is drawing near, and helps us to begin to focus our thoughts on the significance of Christ’s coming. Just as we get these early messages of Christ’s birth weeks before Christmas, so it was that hundreds of years prior to the first advent of Christ, God was sending His own early announcements of the Savior’s birth.

Beginning in the book of Genesis, and in nearly every Old Testament book thereafter, God was disclosing to His people His redemptive plan to send forth Messiah to save them. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” The greatest Old Testament lesson ever taught took place on the road to Emmaus, where we read in Luke 24:27, “Then beginning with Moses, and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” As He commissioned His disciples in Luke 24:44-45, we read, ‘“These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” And those Scriptures were the Old Testament Scriptures. In fact, the threefold description there, “The Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms” is a very precise way of referring to the Hebrew Bible in its entirety. If you go to buy a Hebrew Old Testament today, it is called the “Tanak,” from an acrostic of the Hebrew words, Torah (meaning Law), Nebiim (meaning Prophets), and Kethubim (meaning Writings, of which the Psalms are the largest portion).

The New Testament writers understood that Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Paul said in Romans 1:2 that the gospel of God was promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son.

Alfred Edersheim, in his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, cites 456 verses in the Old Testament which were understood by Jewish Rabbis to have Messianic implications. Edersheim had been converted to Christ from a Jewish background, raised and educated in rabbinic schools where he was carefully taught to understand the Torah and Talmud. So his insights into the Messianic prophecies should not be discounted too quickly. Four hundred and fifty six specific Old Testament prophecies that point to the Messiah, he says. Keep in mind that conservative estimates are that the last of the Old Testament writings was completed around 450 years prior to the birth of Christ. Today we are looking at two Messianic prophecies from the book of Isaiah, which was written about 700 years before Christ.

Some have said that it is merely coincidence that the wordings of these prophecies can be applied to the life of Jesus and that these passages don’t establish anything about His identity. They say that some of those prophecies are so vague that they could be applied to any great heroic figure of history. Well, Peter Stoner, in his book Science Speaks, goes to great lengths to demonstrate the unlikely probability that these prophecies are fulfilled by coincidence in Christ. Taking just eight Messianic Prophecies, Stoner concludes that the likelihood of one person fulfilling all eight prophecies to the letter would be 1 in 1017. That is 1 in 100 quadrillion. Stoner said that this likelihood is similar to the likelihood of covering the state of Texas with silver dollars two feet deep and asking a blind man to find one particular coin. Enlarging the consideration from just 8 prophecies to 48 of them, the odds increase drastically to 1 in 10157. That is 1 in 1 with 157 zeros on the end. A googol is 1 with 100 zeros on the end. So, we are talking 57 more digits than a googol. In other words, once we reach odds of this magnitude, we are talking about practical impossibilities. The odds of one person fulfilling all of these prophecies by accident are unthinkable. The fact of the matter is that these prophecies point to one unique individual, whose identity is certain and whose incarnation is celebrated this season of the year. We are speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Son of God, and God the Son.

I am calling these two prophecies in Isaiah God’s Early Christmas Cards. As we look at them, we see a promise concerning Christ’s miraculous birth, Christ’s many names, and Christ’s magnificent kingdom. Keep in mind that we are talking about specific statements about the coming of Christ that were recorded by Isaiah the prophet 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

I. His Miraculous Birth (7:14)

We cannot just lift this singular verse from its surrounding context. The Assyrian Empire was on the rise. You recall that Israel is a divided kingdom at this point in its history, with the Northern Kingdom of ten tribes called Israel and the Southern Kingdom of two tribes called Judah. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, joined forces with Syria to stand against Assyrian invasion. Knowing that they were still going to be unable to withstand attack, they invited the Southern Kingdom, Judah, to join forces with them. Ahaz, the King of Judah, refused the invitation. This prompted Israel and Syria to conspire to overthrow Ahaz and take the throne of Judah away from the descendants of David. So this is not just a threat against Ahaz. This is a threat against the covenant God established with David to keep one of his descendants on the throne.

Now Ahaz, king of Judah, had fallen into idolatry and has good reason to fear that his kingdom’s future is uncertain. Not only might he fall to the Assyrians or to the Israel-Syria alliance, but the one true God has been known to dethrone idolatrous kings in the past. In this passage God gives a message to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah. The message concerns the Israel-Syria plot against Ahaz and God tells him in verse 7: “It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass.” But even though their plot against him is doomed to fail, the key to Ahaz’s survival as king is found in verse 9: “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.”

Now Ahaz had other plans. He had already written a letter and sent gifts to the Assyrian Emperor asking him for assistance against the overthrow plot. In other words, Ahaz has placed his confidence in a pagan king rather than in a sovereign God. So, again God speaks to him in verse 11, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God (YHWH Eloheyka); make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Think about this for a moment. This is what every person has wished for at some point. It is a blank check from God saying, “You name it, I will do it, to prove to you that I am true and trustworthy and that I will defend your cause.” But pretending to be super-spiritual, Ahaz refuses and says, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord.” Ahaz knows that if God gives him a sign, he will have to abandon his alliance with Assyria, and thus he will be vulnerable to attack by Assyria or by the Israel-Syria alliance.

So, in verse 13, Isaiah turns his attention from Ahaz to the entire line of David. He says, “Listen now, O House of David!” And then in the Hebrew language he moves from using a singular word for “you” to a plural one. It is not recognized as good grammar in English, but we Southerners have maintained this distinction better than anyone with “you” and “ya’all.” The House of David is trying the patience of God, who has sworn to keep a descendant of David on the throne forever. He wants to prove His faithfulness to that promise, but they refuse to allow Him to. So finally God says through his prophet, “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you (or ya’all) a sign.”

And this sign is significant. Literally, we might render the Hebrew, “Behold, the pregnant virgin will bear a son.” Now, that ought to immediately stand out as unusual to anyone who hears it. How can you have a pregnant virgin? Some have said, “You can’t have a pregnant virgin, so the word must not mean virgin.” They say instead that the word simply means, “young woman.” Now you are intelligent people, I think. Let me ask you, what is significant about a young woman being pregnant? Happens all the time, does it not? So how on earth could something ordinary and commonplace be understood as a divine sign to the House of David?

Now it is true that in some contexts this Hebrew word almah can simply mean a young woman of marriageable age. However, wherever this Hebrew word almah is used in the Old Testament, and context will allow us to make a determination, the word always signifies a virgin. In fact, when the Old Testament was translated in to Greek, some 200 years before Christ’s birth, the Greek word used here was parthenos, word that can only mean virgin. And that is the word the New Testament writers use as well.

So the prophecy indicates that a pregnant virgin will bear a child. Now, it is clear in the Hebrew text that a specific virgin is in mind here; there is a definite article attached here and should be properly translated the virgin. Well, I guess there haven’t been any large number of pregnant virgins running around in the history of the world, so it couldn’t point to more than one. So, just who in the world is Isaiah talking about? Who is this particular pregnant virgin?

The only thing close to a mention of such occurs way, way back in Genesis 3:15 &. Here, shortly after the fall of mankind, God promises to Adam and to Eve that redemption is coming through a Savior. This Redeemer will suffer (His heel will be bruised by Satan), but He will crush the head of Satan in the process. Now the unusual thing about this Redeemer is that He is referred to in Genesis 3:15 as the “seed of woman.” Typically a person is spoken of as being the seed of a man, and nowhere else to my knowledge do we find reference to someone being the seed of woman. Ah, but one born to a pregnant virgin would have no human father, and therefore could not be the seed of man. This pregnant virgin of whom Isaiah speaks will bring forth a son, and He is the very same Savior and Deliverer promised in Genesis 3. He is the King who will occupy the throne of David forever and ever. And she will call His name: Immanuel. Literally, “With us is God,” or “God with us.”

John, puts it this way in the prologue to his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Matthew says, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”

What a miraculous birth we celebrate at Christmastime – God has come to dwell with us, Immanuel, incarnate in the virgin born Jesus, who is the Christ, the Son of God and God the Son, the long awaited Redeemer and King of kings.

Now notice if you will …

II. His Many Names (9:6)

In our second passage of Isaiah, 9:6, we read, “A child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” The Son of God is eternally preexistent. He did not begin to exist on the first Christmas. He was born in the flesh at that time. And it was then that He was given to us, for God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” So, the child was born, but the Son was given by the Father to humanity.

This child who will be born, this Son who will be given, has many names. Among them are …

A. Wonderful Counselor

Some translations separate these two titles with a comma, but there is no such punctuation in the Hebrew text and it seems that each title is a couplet, so here it is appropriate to connect the two—Wonderful Counselor, pele yoets. In Hebrew, this word pele, which we translate as wonderful is always used of God and never of men. It can also mean marvelous, and we need to look beyond our ordinary usage of these terms to their roots which speak of the wonders and marvels, miracles, which God has wrought. It clearly indicates the supernatural. Nothing will be too difficult for the coming Messiah. His wisdom will be limitless. In Chapter 28:29, we see Isaiah speaking of the Lord of hosts, who is wonderful in counsel. The same words are there used. Isaiah 11:2 says that the Spirit of wisdom would rest on Messiah. So this name, Wonderful Counselor, speaks of the Messiah’s omnipotence – His unlimited power to work wonders, marvels, and miracles; and it speaks of His omniscience – His unlimited knowledge and wisdom, by which He informs us of His counsel.

B. Mighty God

El Gibor is the Hebrew expression. This child who is to be born is God Himself, the Mighty God. The word Gibor suggests power and might, it is used to describe a warrior. In Isaiah 10:21, this title is used to refer to God. Now, draw back the lens a little bit. Here we have a child being born, a son being given. What is one of the first questions you ask when a baby is born? “What did you name him?” And people name kids all kinds of things. They are named after family members, they are named after biblical figures, we have known several children who had the misfortune of being named after soap opera characters. What a terrible thing to hang on a child! Perhaps worse than that, last year MSNBC reported a rise among boys who were being named after their father’s favorite television network: that’s right, these babies are being named ESPN. But, in all the craze that is modern baby-naming, no one has yet had the audacity to name their child God. In fact, in the Islamic world, where 90% of males are named Muhammad, exactly 0% of them are named Allah. In the Spanish speaking countries of the world, no one thinks twice about the name Jesus, but we don’t find anyone named Dios, the word for God. Yet, here in this prophecy we are told that a child will be born and a son will be given, and his name shall be called, among other things, “Might God.” This says something of His divine nature, that He is God come to dwell among us in power.

C. The Everlasting Father

A son can be named after his father, but a son is usually not named, “Dad.” The Hebrew word Ab means Father. So Abram is Exalted Father, Abraham is Father of a Multitude. But the Messiah is Abiad, Everlasting Father. The Son who is to be born is the Father of Eternity. How can the Son also be Father? Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” This name speaks of His eternality and preexistence. He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Here is one with no beginning and no end – the Alpha and the Omega, God the Father, one in the Trinity with God the Son.

D. Prince of Peace

He is the Sar-Shalom. The Hebrew word shalom is well known, meaning “peace.” But the concept of shalom means much more than peace as we think of it, simply the absence of strife or warfare. It means well-being, wholeness, or fullness. Jesus came in the fullness of deity, bringing mankind life in its fullness through peace with God which He secured for us by His own work of redemption. As the Prince, He serves the interests of His Father, and as Prince of Peace, He has come to us on His Father’s mission to reconcile us to the King.

Immanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The Messiah has many names. They can be summarized with just one – Jesus. He is the promised Messiah, born to the virgin, and given for the whole world to bring us into the presence of God.

Let’s look finally at …

III. His Magnificent Kingdom (9:6-7)

We read in this text that the government will rest on His shoulders. He will be a king. And verse 7 says there will be no end to the increase of His government. That is something that no mere human king can claim. His kingdom will never end. And His reign will not be one of tyranny and brutality but of peace. And there will be no end to His peace. Complete and perfect peace is something that will never be known as long as human beings occupy the thrones of the world.

He will sit on the throne of David, and will reign over David’s kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. How is this possible? The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

Seven hundred years came and went, these prophecies were read occasionally and folks wondered, “Will it ever come to pass?” But one ordinary night, as that long-ago prophesied virgin delivered a baby boy in a stable, God’s promises did come to pass. It took place in Bethlehem, just as foretold in another early Christmas card. The prophet Micah had said, "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity." (Micah 5:2).

And as this baby was born in Bethlehem, angels appeared to a group of shepherds in the field and said, “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” God’s promised Messiah, the Lord Himself, had become incarnate in the Bethlehem manger, born to the virgin.

Though we emphasize His birth at this season of the year, we cannot think of His birth without thinking of that mission for which He was born. He came to save us from the tyranny of sin which reigns in our hearts and keeps us separated from God. He lived a sinless life, and died a sacrificial death in our place to take the punishment for our sins, and He conquered death by His glorious resurrection. He did this all for you and me, that we might turn from our sins and receive God’s promise of salvation by placing our faith and trust in Christ as our Lord and Savior. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. This was not an afterthought of the divine will, but something that God had planned to do from the beginning, and something He had been foretelling for centuries through His prophets as they delivered these early Christmas cards, promises of God concerning the nativity of His Messiah.

And so as Christmas cards find their way to your mailbox, may each one remind you of the messages God gave to His people down through the ages which foretold of the coming of the Messiah, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate. And just as each card indicates the love expressed by the sender, so each message God delivered through His prophets told them of His love for them. Love that was expressed most fully when He did more than send us a message; He came to us in the person of Christ.