Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Card from Isaiah (Matthew 1:22-25)


On Christmas Eve, 1939, C. S. Lewis penned a letter to his brother which begins, “I have been thinking much this week on the absurdity of Christmas customs in an infidel society, specially the Christmas card. Waiving the great absurdity of celebrating the nativity at all if you don’t believe in the incarnation, what in heaven’s name is the idea of everyone sending every one else pictures of stage-coaches, fairies, foxes, dogs, butterflies, kittens, flowers, etc?”[1] A few weeks ago, my wife was shopping and a woman approached her and showed her two Christmas cards, and asked, “I’m sending these to my business clients, and I was wondering, which one of them do you think is less offensive?” So, that is where we are now? Donia’s advice was for her to send the one that expressed her genuine thoughts, and if she was worried about offending others, maybe she shouldn’t send them at all. After all, a “Merry Christmas” card might offend an unbeliever, but a “Seasons Greetings” card might offend a believer. Maybe this woman was overthinking it, or maybe she was just keeping up with customs. And some go about it very early. You barely get the Thanksgiving turkey thawed out before the Christmas cards start rolling in. Well, I suppose there is nothing wrong with an early Christmas greeting. After all, the Bible announces messages of Christ’s birth even centuries before He came.

In our text in Matthew’s Gospel today, we read that all this – all of the events surrounding the coming of Christ into the world – took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. And the prophecy that is quoted here is from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah the prophet lived and ministered over 700 years before the birth of Christ. Talk about beating the Christmas rush! But here in this ancient prophecy is a clear, distinct message that announces and celebrates the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world. According to Matthew, you simply cannot understand what took place two thousand years ago in Bethlehem at the first Christmas without understanding that it had been foretold by the prophet centuries in advance. The verses we have read today are inseparably connected to those which come before it, which we have examined throughout this Advent season. Beginning with the genealogy in verses 1-17, and continuing through Joseph’s dilemma in verses 18-21, there is an unmistakable emphasis on one particular aspect of Jesus’ birth. He was born of a virgin.

We see it in verse 16, which says of Joseph that he was “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew has carefully constructed this sentence to make it clear that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. In verse 18, it is specified that Mary was found to be with child when Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and “before they came together,” that is, before they had consummated their marriage. This pregnancy was the result of the divine activity of “the Holy Spirit.” Again in verse 20, the message that the Lord sends to Joseph by way of His angel is that “the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Here in verse 23, Matthew ties Jesus to the prophecy of the virgin who will conceive in Isaiah 7:14. In verse 24, he states that Joseph preserved Mary’s virginity is maintained even after they finalized their marriage, until Jesus was born, presumably so that there would be no question about the nature of His birth. Over and over again, Matthew makes it clear (as Luke does as well in his Gospel) that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.

As Machen says, “It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. … The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.”[2] Of course, it would seem to us Evangelical Christians who hold to a high view of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and authority, that the answer to that question should be obvious. Yet sadly over the course of the last hundred years or so, we have seen many notable Christians defect from orthodox belief in biblical Christianity, and not surprisingly one of the first doctrines to be jettisoned is that of the virgin birth of Christ. For example, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was one of the most popular and influential pastors in America in the early 20th Century, boldly proclaimed from his pulpit, “I want to assure you that I do not believe in the virgin birth of Christ, and I hope that none of you do.”[3] In the middle of the 20th Century, William Barclay, one of the best-selling biblical commentators of all time, wrote of the virgin birth, “This is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and our Church (the Church of Scotland) does not compel us to accept it in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.”[4] Coming closer in space and time, near the end of the 20th Century, Barnes Tatum, a self-proclaimed Methodist and the emeritus professor of religion and philosophy at Greensboro College (a Methodist college), said that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth “represent theological fiction.”[5] Meanwhile a more encouraging survey released just this week from the Pew Forum revealed that 73% of Americans do believe in the virgin-birth, including 96% of Evangelical Protestants.[6]

Coming back to our text, we want to explore today this account of the virgin birth of Christ, and specifically the ancient prophecy that it fulfilled. I’m calling it Isaiah’s Christmas Card. Here we see the source of the Christmas message, the specifics of it, and the subject of it.

I. The Source of the Christmas Message is God Himself (v22)

When it comes to the story of the virgin birth that we find in the Bible, we really have only two options of how it came to be recorded. Either it is a true story, or else someone made it up. There is no shortage of people who believe that the account is completely fabricated. But here, we have to ask ourselves, who made it up, and why? Did Matthew make it up? Supposing that he did, why would he? We have to admit, it does not make the story more believable, does it? And Matthew, who was a Jewish person, would be taking a great risk to make up a story about the infinitely holy God of the Hebrews becoming a man, and becoming one through such means. He would surely be branded as an arch-heretic for even suggesting such a thing. But, supposing he took this risk and made up the story for some reason, then the next thing we must suppose is that Luke happened upon his account, took it as plausible, and borrowed from it for his own story. Again, we have to ask, why would Luke do this? He was a medical doctor, and surely if anyone knew that virgins can’t bear children, he did! And we also have to wonder why Luke chose to tell the story from a completely different vantage point and including so many different details than Matthew did.

Well, perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe Luke made it up, and then Matthew borrowed from him. Luke was a Gentile, and perhaps he wished to create a backstory for Jesus that would align Him with the great heroes of pagan mythology who experienced supernatural births. But, as we noted last week, there are really no such parallel accounts in the pagan mythologies. Those stories have nothing in common with this one, and just a simple review of them would illustrate how vastly different the birth of Jesus came about when compared to those myths. But supposing he did this anyway, we would have to wonder why Matthew, the Jew, would copy such a story, and if he did, why he would have changed so many of the details? It seems that we must look elsewhere for a source. And thankfully, Matthew tells us the source of the Christmas story.

He says that all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord. Where did the story of a virgin born Savior come from? It came from the Lord! These are God’s words which were spoken. But, in His usual manner of dealing with the human race, God did not announce this message audibly from the heavens. As He so regularly does, He used a human agent to deliver the message—in this case, the prophet Isaiah. It was spoken by the Lord, through the prophet. The prophet was, if you will, God’s mouthpiece to deliver this message.

We need to understand a little bit about the original setting of Isaiah’s prophecy here. You recall that the Lord had promised to David that He would have a descendant who would reign forever and ever. Well, when we come to Isaiah 7, the descendant of David who was reigning over the southern kingdom of Judah at that time was a wicked king named Ahaz. Ahaz was in a bit of a jam. The superpower of Assyria was threatening to sweep across the region and conquer every nation in its path. So, Pekah, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, had entered into an alliance with Rezin, king of Aram (or Syria) to defend themselves against Assyria. They were putting pressure on Ahaz to join them, but Ahaz had refused. This did not set well with the alliance, so they turned on him and threatened to overtake Judah and install their own king, the son of Tabeel, as a puppet king in his place. But Ahaz had other plans. He had already secretly tried to gain favor with the Assyrians to protect himself against Rezin and Pekah. Now this plan meant almost certain disaster for Ahaz and all in Judah, because the Assyrians would surely just turn around and conquer Judah for itself. So, it is into this situation that the Lord sends word to Ahaz through Isaiah. The Lord longed to be the protector and defender of His people, not for them to trust Assyria to do it. So the prophet comes to the king and says that the Lord is willing to make him an offer he can’t refuse. He gives the king something of a “blank check” and says, “You name it, any sign you want, to prove that the Lord will protect and defend you and preserve the nation and the throne of David, according to His promise.” But Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, probably because deep in his heart, he was an unbeliever and had already planned to carry out the alliance with Assyria. So, the Lord speaks through the prophet and says, “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign.” And the word “you” here is plural – we’d translate it “all y’all”: “The Lord Himself will give all y’all a sign.” And the sign is that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son, and He would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The miraculous birth of this child would prove to Judah that the Lord had not forsaken His people or His promise to David. The Child would be the embodiment of the message that the Lord wanted Ahaz and all of Judah to believe by faith, that God truly was with them. But because Ahaz had already turned his back on the Lord, he would not live to see the fulfillment of that promise. He would see the Assyrians conquer the alliance of Rezin and Pekah, but he would not see Judah spared. In time, the Assyrians were overcome by the Babylonians, and the Babylonians would come in and take all of Judah captive into exile. But the Lord’s promise remained in tact. One day, the child would be born who would take the throne of David and reign forever. Centuries came and went, Judah went into captivity and came back, but continued to be dominated by one world power after another. Even at the turn of the first century, the Romans had the nation under its thumb. Many undoubtedly forgot about, and even gave up on the promise of Immanuel. But all of that was about to change.

The source of the Christmas message is God Himself, delivered through the prophet Isaiah. Peter says (2 Peter 1:11) that prophecy does not originate in the human will, but “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Isaiah was doing just that. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he had announced God’s message of the virgin born Savior who was coming to set His people free from the oppression, not of foreign powers, but from the oppression of sin that separated mankind from God. As the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This was the Christmas message, announced centuries in advance by God Himself through His prophet Isaiah.

II. The Specifics of the Christmas Message are well detailed (v23a)

If you scan the headlines of the tabloids in the supermarket aisles, you will probably see things in the coming weeks about some psychic or fortune teller’s predictions about things to come in 2015 or things that were fulfilled in 2014. You are undoubtedly familiar with the name of Nostradamus. It has been said that this 16th Century occultist predicted everything from the Great Fire of London, to the rise of Napolean and Adolf Hitler, to the September 11 attacks, and the election of Barack Obama (by name) as the final president America would ever have. It would be pretty impressive if he actually predicted those things, but did he really? Most of the time when we hear that Nostradamus predicted something, it is either entirely fabricated, or else Nostradamus’s words have been stretched to absurdity to fit the circumstances. Nostradamus wrote in vague, almost nonsensical language that would be impossible to understand or interpret.

This is markedly different from biblical prophecy. Granted some biblical prophecy is very difficult to understand or interpret, but given the proper historical and theological backgrounds, we find that biblical prophecy is usually very detailed and specific. The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is a great example of that.

Notice that the event which the Lord foretold through Isaiah was said to be a sign. Matthew doesn’t include that part, but in Isaiah, it says “the Lord Himself will give you a sign,” and then follows the portion that Matthew includes here. So, we have a sign. A sign is something out of the ordinary that is taking place to arrest our attention and reveal or affirm a revelation about who God is and what He is doing. And what is the sign? The prophet says, “Behold,” which means, “Look! See!” What are we looking for? “A virgin will be with child and bear a son.”

Now, there are a lot of folks who say that Christians have distorted Isaiah’s message here, and that the Hebrew word we translate as virgin really means a young woman of a marriageable age. They point out that there is another Hebrew word which specifically means virgin, and if the Lord had intended to speak of a virgin, He would have used that word. Well, in fact there is another word that specifically means virgin, and this word in Isaiah could possibly refer to a young woman of a marriageable age. However, in every occurrence of this word in the Old Testament where the meaning is clear, it seems to only be used to refer to a virgin. Machen observes that there is no place where the word is clearly used of a woman who was not a virgin, and “one may well doubt, in view of the usage, whether it was a natural word to use of anyone who was not in point of fact a virgin.”[7] Moreover, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek 200 years before the birth of Christ, the greatest Hebrew scholars in the world chose a Greek word for this passage which exclusively means virgin, and that is the same word that Matthew uses here. So, in speaking of the virgin, we are not dealing with a Christian interpolation, but rather with what seems to be the intended understanding of the original message.

Furthermore, Matthew actually translates the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 better than most of our English versions do, for he includes the definite article, “the virgin,” where most of our English translations exclude the article in Isaiah, and render it “a virgin.” In fact, in the Hebrew, the definite article is present. We are talking about a very specific person: the virgin. Which virgin are we talking about? We are talking about the pregnant one! Search the annals of history, and you will find only one: Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is the sign – a pregnant virgin will give birth to a son. You see, if the word only means “a young woman of a marriageable age,” there is nothing noteworthy of that. It happens every day, all over the world. That would not capture our attention and interest. But, a pregnant virgin? That gets our attention! That’s a sign to behold!

So, Matthew tells us here that all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. The Christmas message, foretold in the ancient Christmas card from Isaiah 7:14, comes to us from God and with specific detail.

III. The Subject of the Christmas Message is Immanuel (v23b)
Signs exist to catch our attention, and then to direct our attention to a greater truth. A stop sign is painted bright red and has reflective material on it so that it is hard to miss. But the point is not to stop and gaze on the beauty of the sign. The point is to see the sign, and understand that there is a reality to which the sign points. If you do not stop here at this sign, you could get a traffic violation, points on your license, an increase in your insurance rates, or worse, you could seriously injure or kill someone, including yourself! The point is not the sign itself, but the specific law and a general safety concern that the sign symbolizes.

So, the Lord announced through Isaiah that there would be a sign given to prove to His people that He was faithful, that He was with them, and that He had not abandoned His promises. The sign is a pregnant virgin. She is what catches our attention, but then we are directed to a greater reality beyond the sign. The point is really not about the virgin, but about the child she will bring into the world. She will bear a son, and His name will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The message of Christmas, in Isaiah’s day, in the first Century, and today, is about this child who was born, who is God in the flesh. He is God with us.

But what about this name, “Immanuel”? Did not the angel command Joseph to call the child “Jesus”? And did he not provide the reason? Since “Jesus” means “The Lord saves,” this was to be His name because He had come to save His people from sins. So, why does the prophecy not say “Jesus”, but “Immanuel”? So far as we know, no one ever called Jesus by this name, but if we were to ask the question, “Who is Jesus?”, the name “Immanuel” would be a fitting answer. Who is Jesus? He is God with us. That is as good an answer as anyone could give in three words. The eternal God had come to dwell among us as a man, to be with us, and to rescue us from our sins by His life, His death, and His resurrection.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with the arrival of Immanuel, God with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. It ends with this same Jesus promising His people that He will be with us always even to the end of the age. Having reconciled His people to Himself by saving them from their sins, He promises to never leave us nor forsake us. For all eternity, He will be God with us, Immanuel.

Isaiah sent his Christmas card early – 700 years early. But in it, he proclaimed the wonder of Christmas. God Himself was speaking through the prophet to announce that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son, and that Son would be God in human flesh, Immanuel, our Lord Jesus. That is what Christmas is all about. As we go about this week exchanging greetings with others, let us be sure to point them to this Jesus, who is God with us, as the one who can save them from their sins. Isaiah’s message was Matthew’s message, and it is our message, because ultimately it God’s message, announced to the world at Christmas time and every other day of the year. Because of God’s love for us, He has come to be with us, and He has done all that was necessary to save us from our sins. The greatest Christmas gift ever given is Jesus, the gift of Immanuel, God with us. If you have never personally received that gift, I pray that you would find in this Christmas card from Isaiah an invitation to meet the Lord Jesus today and experience the wonder of God with us.



[1] Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (Vol. 2; New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 307.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Bros., 1930), 382.
[3] Quoted in J. Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1971), 16.
[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Vol. 1, Rev. Ed.; Daily Study Bible Series; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 20.
[5] Mark A. Kellner, “Virgin Birth Under Dispute.” Christianity Today (November 14, 1994). Accessed online, December 17, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1994/november14/4td092.html.
[6] http://www.pewforum.org/2014/12/15/most-say-religious-holiday-displays-should-be-allowed-on-public-property/. Accessed December 17, 2014.
[7] Machen, 288. 

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