“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” – Blaise Pascal. "There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily" – George Washington letter to Edmund Randolph — 1795. We live in a “post-truth” world. According to the dictionary, “post-truth” means, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Simply put, we now live in a culture that seems to value experience and emotion more than truth. Truth will never go away no matter how hard one might wish. Going beyond the MSM idealogical opinion/bias and their low information tabloid reality show news with a distractional superficial focus on entertainment, sensationalism, emotionalism and activist reporting – this blogs goal is to, in some small way, put a plug in the broken dam of truth and save as many as possible from the consequences—temporal and eternal. "The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it." – George Orwell “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ― Soren Kierkegaard
Who is this God? This God is the one who became human as we became human. He is completely human. Therefore, nothing human is foreign to him. The human being that I am, Jesus Christ was also. About this human being Jesus Christ we say: this one is God. This does not mean that we already knew beforehand who God is. Nor does it mean that the statement “this human being is God” adds anything to being human. God and human being are not thought of as belonging together through a concept of nature. The statement “this human being is God” is meant entirely differently. The divinity of this human being is not something additional to the human nature of Jesus Christ. The statement “this human being is God” is the vertical from above, the statement that applies to Jesus Christ the human being, which neither adds anything nor takes anything away, but qualifies the whole human being as God.… Faith is ignited from Jesus Christ the human being.… If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we do not speak of his omnipotence and omniscience, but of his cradle and his cross. There is no “divine being” as omnipotence, as omnipresence.
And now Christmas is coming and you won’t be there. We shall be apart, yes, but very close together. My thoughts will come to you and accompany you. We shall sing “Friede auf Erden” [Peace on Earth] and pray together, but we shall sing “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe!” [Glory be to God on high] even louder. That is what I pray for you and for all of us, that the Savior may throw open the gates of heaven for us at darkest night on Christmas Eve, so that we can be joyful in spite of everything.
Maria von Wedemeyer to Bonhoeffer,
December 10, 1943
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
O God, our Father, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, we bless you and praise you and glorify you, that you have fulfilled your ancient promises:
that He is come, the Seed of the woman, who has bruised the head of the serpent;
that He is come, in whom all the families of the earth are blessed;
that He is come whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Give us your joy this day; may we hold thankful conversation with each other, and eat our meat in gladness and singleness of heart. May we rejoice with our neighbors in your house, and send our praises up to your throne.
We Never Tire of Seeing God’s Glory and Majesty in the Incarnation
Psalm 8:1–4; John 1:14; 1 Corinthians 1:18–25
They who see human wonders a few times at last cease to be astonished. The noblest pile that architect ever raised at last fails to impress the onlooker. But not so this marvelous temple of incarnate Deity; the more we look at it, the more we are astonished. The more we become accustomed to it, the more we have a sense of its surpassing splendor of love and grace. There is more of God’s glory and majesty to be seen in the manger and the cross than in the sparkling stars above, the rolling deep below, the towering mountain, the teeming valleys, the abodes of life, or the abyss of death.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
We Possess God if We are United with Christ
Matthew 1:23; 10:40; Romans 6:3–5; Galatians 2:20;
Whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man, we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.
John Calvin (1509–1564)
We Would Have a Much Worse Time Were It Not for Christmas
Luke 2:10–11, 30–32
I do not know whether an animal killed at Christmas has had a better or a worse time than it would have had if there had been no Christmas or no Christmas dinners. But I do know that the fighting and suffering brotherhood to which I belong and owe everything, mankind, would have a much worse time if there were no such thing as Christmas or Christmas dinners.
G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
We Would Not Have Known That Christ Was Present
Isaiah 53:2; John 1:5; 20:29
We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say that had we had the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer that, so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had even told us who He was, we should not have believed Him.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
What Happened to Those Who Lived Before Christ’s Birth
Matthew 13:17; John 1:14; 3:16; 8:56; Hebrews 11:13–16
From the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived. For as we believe in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as having come in the flesh, so the men of the former ages believed in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as destined to come in the flesh.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
What the Stable, the Manger, and the Swaddling Clothes Declare
Psalm 49:12; Daniel 5:21; Luke 10:30
The stable declares that He is preparing to cure the man that fell among robbers; His manger tells us that He will minister food to him that was compared to beasts, and made like them. His tears and His swaddling clothes cry out that He will wash and cleanse man’s wounds. Christ did not need any of these things for Himself. All were for His elect.
Whatever Christ did, if you belong to those who are in Him, He did for you. So that Christ circumcised or Christ crucified, Christ dead or Christ living, Christ buried or Christ risen, you are a partaker of all that He did and all that He is, for you are reckoned as one with Him. See then, the joy and comfort of the incarnation of Christ. Does Jesus, as man, take manhood up to heaven? He has taken me up there. Father Adam fell, and I fell for I was in him. The Lord Jesus Christ rises, and I rise if I am in Him.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Where Can It Be Well without Christ?
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:25; Luke 1:34
He comes from the heart of God the Father to the womb of a virgin mother; He comes from the highest heaven to this low earth, that we whose conversation is now on earth may have Him for our most desirable companion. For where can it be well with us without Him, and where ill if He be present?
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
Who Better to Take Away Sin Than He Who Knew No Sin?
Matthew 7:3–5; John 1:29; 9:6
Behold here an Infant without stain! Behold the Lamb without spot, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! Who could better take them away than He who knew no sin? He, indeed, can cleanse me, who has never Himself been defiled. His touch can remove the clay from my eyes, for His hand is free from the lightest dust. He can take the mote from out my eye who has no beam in His own; or, rather, He who has no smallest grain of dust in His own eye can take the beam from mine.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
Why Should Jesus Not Live in Our Rocky Hearts?
Isaiah 7:14–15; Luke 2:7; John 1:14; Ephesians 3:17
If Jesus Christ was born in a manger in a rock, why should He not come and live in our rocky hearts? If He was born in a stable, why should not the stable of our souls be made into a habitation for Him? If He was born in poverty, may not the poor in spirit expect that He will be their Friend? If He thus endured degradation at the first, will he count it any dishonor to come to the very poorest and humblest of His creatures, and tabernacle in the souls of his children? Oh, no! We can gather a lesson of comfort from his humble parentage, and we can rejoice that not a queen, or an empress, but that a humble woman became the mother of the Lord of glory.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Why the Mediator Is Man as Well as God
1 Corinthians 15:21; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 2:14
Because the divine nature is altogether impassible, and not at all subject to grief, sorrow, or sufferings, it was therefore necessary that the Mediator between God and man should be man as well as God; for, by this ineffable union, the one nature suffers and the other supports, the one conflicts and the other conquers; and, for the payment of our debt, the one brings the ore, the other stamps it and makes it valuable. And by this means, likewise, satisfaction is made unto justice in the same nature that sinned; for, as man offended, so man also is punished. The same which made the forfeiture makes the redemption.
Ezekiel Hopkins (1634–1690)
Will Christ’s Birth Do You Any Good?
Isaiah 9:6; 1 Timothy 1:15
What does Christmas mean? Is it not the time of year when men are reminded of Christ the Savior’s birth? Are you not told to remember how Jesus came into the world to save sinners? All this is true. There is no denying it. The birth of Christ the Savior—the manhood of Christ the Savior—the salvation provided by Christ the Savior—all these are mighty facts. But after all will they profit you anything? Will they do you any good? In one word—shall you be saved?
R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)
With the Birth of Christ, the Time of Fear Is Over
Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14
Angels came to proclaim the good news of the advent of the incarnate God, and the very first note of their song was a foretaste of the sweet result of His coming to all those who shall receive Him. The angel said, “Fear not,” as though the times of fear were over, and the days of hope and joy had arrived. “Fear not.” These words were not meant for those trembling shepherds only, but were intended for you and for me, indeed all nations to whom the glad tidings shall come. “Fear not.” Let God no longer be the object of your slavish dread! Stand not at a distance from Him anymore. The Word is made flesh. God has descended to tabernacle among men, that there may be no hedge of fire, no yawning gulf between God and man.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Working Out Salvation by Means of Our Savior
Isaiah 9:6; Philippians 2:12
To us, then, He is born, to us He is given, because by us He is so greatly needed. And since He is born of our race and given to us, let us accomplish that for which He was born and given. Let us make use of Our Own for our profit; let us work out our salvation by means of our Savior.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying “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.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (1:18–25)
Biblical history records some amazing and spectacular births. The birth of Isaac to a previously barren woman nearly one hundred years old, who was laughing at the thought of having a child, was a miraculous event. The womb of Manoah’s barren wife was opened and she gave birth to Samson, who was to turn a lion inside out, kill a thousand men, and pull down a pagan temple. The birth of Samuel, the prophet and anointer of kings, to the barren Hannah, whose womb the Lord had shut, revealed divine providential power. Elizabeth was barren, but through the power of God she gave birth to John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said there had yet been no one greater “among those born of women” (Matt. 11:11). But the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus surpasses all of those.
Fantasy and mythology have counterfeited the virgin birth of Jesus Christ with a proliferation of false accounts intended to minimize His utterly unique birth.
For example, the Romans believed that Zeus impregnated Semele without contact and that she conceived Dionysus, lord of the earth. The Babylonians believed that Tammuz (see Ezek. 8:14) was conceived in the priestess Semiramis by a sunbeam. In an ancient Sumerian/Accadian story inscribed on a wall, Tukulti II (890–884 b.c.) told how the gods created him in the womb of his mother. It was even claimed that the goddess of procreation superintended the conception of King Sennacherib (705–681 b.c). At the conception of Buddha, his mother supposedly saw a great white elephant enter her belly. Hinduism has claimed that the divine Vishnu, after reincarnations as a fish, tortoise, boar, and lion, descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son Krishna. There is even a legend that Alexander the Great was virgin born by the power of Zeus through a snake that impregnated his mother, Olympias. Satan has set up many more such myths to counterfeit the birth of Christ in order to make it seem either common or legendary.
Modern science even speaks of parthenogenesis, which comes from a Greek term meaning “virgin born.” In the world of honey bees, unfertilized eggs develop into drones, or males. Artificial parthenogenesis has been successful with unfertilized eggs of silkworms. The eggs of sea urchins and marine worms have begun to develop when placed in various salt solutions. In 1939 and 1940, rabbits were produced (all female) through chemical and temperature influences on ova. Nothing like that has ever come close to accounting for human beings; all such parthenogenesis is impossible within the human race. Science, like mythology, has no explanation for the virgin birth of Christ. He was neither merely the son of a previously barren woman nor a freak of nature. By the clear testimony of Scripture, He was conceived by God and born of a virgin.
Nevertheless, religious polls taken over the past several generations reveal the impact of liberal theology in a marked and continuing decline in the percentage of professed Christians who believe in the virgin birth, and therefore in the deity, of Jesus Christ. One wonders why they want to be identified with a person who, if their judgment of Him were correct, had to have been either deceived or deceptive—since all four gospels explicitly teach that Jesus considered Himself to be more than a man. It is clear from the rest of the New Testament as well as from historical records that Jesus, His disciples, and all of the early church held Him to be none other than the divine Son of God. Even His enemies knew He claimed such identity (John 5:18–47).
A popular religious personality said in an interview a few years ago that he could not in print or in public deny the virgin birth of Christ, but that neither could he preach it or teach it. “When I have something I can’t comprehend,” he explained, “I just don’t deal with it.” But to ignore the virgin birth is to ignore Christ’s deity. And to ignore His deity is tantamount to denying it. Real incarnation demands a real virgin birth.
But such unbelief should not surprise us. Unbelief has been man’s greatest problem since the Fall and has always been man’s majority view. But “What then?” Paul asks. “If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Rom. 3:3–4). Every faithful prophet, preacher, or teacher at some time has asked with Isaiah and Paul, “Lord, who has believed our report?” (Rom. 10:16; cf. Isa. 53:1). But popular opinion, even within the church, has not always been a reliable source of truth. When men pick and choose which parts of God’s Word to believe and follow, they set themselves above His Word and therefore above Him (cf. Ps. 138:2).
Matthew’s purpose in writing his gospel account was partly apologetic—not in the sense of making an apology for the gospel but in the more traditional sense of explaining and defending it against its many attacks and misrepresentations. Jesus’ humanity was often maligned and His deity often denied. Possibly during His earthly ministry, and certainly after His death and resurrection, it is likely Jesus was slandered by the accusation that He was the illegitimate son of Mary by some unknown man, perhaps a Roman soldier garrisoned in Galilee. It was Jesus’ claim of deity, however, that most incensed the Jewish leaders and brought them to demand His death. “For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
It is surely no accident, therefore, that the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, at the outset of the New Testament, is devoted to establishing both the regal humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus’ being both human and divine, there is no gospel. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity. The whole superstructure of Christian theology is built on it. The essence and the power of the gospel is that God became man and that, by being both wholly God and wholly man, He was able to reconcile men to God. Jesus’ virgin birth, His substitutionary atoning death, resurrection, ascension, and return are all integral aspects of His deity. They stand or fall together. If any of those teachings—all clearly taught in the New Testament—is rejected, the entire gospel is rejected. None makes sense, or could have any significance or power, apart from the others. If those things were not true, even Jesus’ moral teachings would be suspect, because if He misrepresented who He was by preposterously claiming equality with God, how could anything else He said be trusted? Or if the gospel writers misrepresented who He was, why should we trust their word about anything else He said or did?
Jesus once asked the Pharisees a question about Himself that men have been asking in every generation since then: “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” (Matt. 22:42). That is the question Matthew answers in the first chapter of this gospel. Jesus is the human Son of man and the divine Son of God.
As we have seen, the first seventeen verses give Jesus’ human lineage—his royal descent from Abraham through David and through Joseph, His legal human father. The Jewish leaders of New Testament times acknowledged that the Messiah would be of the royal line of David; but, for the most part, they agreed on little more than that concerning Him.
History informs us that even the conservative Pharisees did not generally believe that the Messiah would be divine. Had Jesus not claimed to be more than the son of David, He may have begun to convince some of the Jewish leaders of His messiahship. Once He claimed to be God, however, they rejected Him immediately. Many people still today are willing to recognize Him as a great teacher, a model of high moral character, and even a prophet from God. Were He no more than those things, however, He could not have conquered sin or death or Satan. In short, He could not have saved the world. He would also have been guilty of grossly misrepresenting Himself.
It is interesting that certain condescending interpreters of the New Testament acknowledge that Matthew and other writers sincerely believed and taught that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that He had no human father. But, they claim, those men were uneducated and captive to the usual superstitions and myths of their times. They simply picked up on the many virgin birth legends that were common in the ancient world and adapted them to the gospel story.
It is true that pagan religions of that day, such as those of Semiramis and Tammuz, had myths of various kinds involving miraculous conceptions. But the immoral and repulsive character of those stories cannot be compared to the gospel accounts. Such stories are Satan’s vile counterfeits of God’s pure truth. Because the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is crucial to the gospel, it is a truth that false, satanic systems of religion will deny, counterfeit, or misrepresent.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ divine conception is straightforward and simple. It is given as history, but as history that could only be known by God’s revelation and accomplished by divine miracle. It is essential to the incarnation.
After establishing Jesus’ human lineage from David, Matthew proceeds to show His divine “lineage.” That is the purpose of verses 18–25, which reveal five distinct truths about the virgin birth of Christ. We see the virgin birth conceived, confronted, clarified, connected, and consummated.
The Virgin Birth
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary hadbeen betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (1:18)
Though it does not by itself prove divine authorship, the very fact that the account of Jesus’ divine conception is given in but one verse strongly suggests that the story was not man-made. It is simply not characteristic of human nature to try to describe something so absolutely momentous and marvelous in such a brief space. Our inclination would be to expand, elaborate, and try to give every detail possible. Matthew continues to give additional information related to the virgin birth, but the fact of it is given in one sentence—the first sentence of verse 18 being merely introduction. Seventeen verses are given to listing Jesus’ human genealogy, but only part of one verse to His divine genealogy. In His divinity He “descended” from God by a miraculous and never-repeated act of the Holy Spirit; yet the Holy Spirit does nothing more than authoritatively state the fact. A human fabrication would call for much more convincing material.
Birth is from the same Greek root as “genealogy” in verse 1, indicating that Matthew is here giving a parallel account of Jesus’ ancestry—this time from His Father’s side.
We have little information about Mary. It is likely that she was a native of Nazareth and that she came from a relatively poor family. From Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 we learn she had a sister named Salome, the mother of James and John (who therefore were Jesus’ cousins). From Luke 3 we receive her Davidic lineage. If, as many believe, the Eli (or Heli) of Luke 3:23 was Joseph’s father-in-law (Matthew gives Joseph’s father as Jacob, 1:16), then Eli was Mary’s father. We know that Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias, was Mary’s “relative” (Luke 1:36), probably her cousin. Those are the only relatives, besides her husband and children, of whom the New Testament speaks.
Mary was a godly woman who was sensitive and submissive to the Lord’s will. After the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would be the mother of “the Son of God,” Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:26–38). Mary was also believing. She wondered how she could conceive: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). But she never questioned the angel was sent from God or that what he said was true. Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” testified of Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45). Mary’s humble reverence, thankfulness, and love for God is seen in her magnificent Magnificat, as Luke 1:46–55 is often called. It begins, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.… For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name” (vv. 47, 49).
We know even less of Joseph than of Mary. His father’s name was Jacob (Matt. 1:16) and he was a craftsman, a construction worker (tektōn), probably a carpenter (Matt. 13:55). Most importantly, he was a “righteous man” (1:19), an Old Testament saint.
It is possible that both Joseph and Mary were quite young when they were betrothed. Girls were often betrothed as young as twelve or thirteen, and boys when they were several years older than that.
By Jewish custom, a betrothal signified more than an engagement in the modern sense. A Hebrew marriage involved two stages, the kiddushin (betrothal) and the huppah (marriage ceremony). The marriage was almost always arranged by the families of the bride and groom, often without consulting them. A contract was made and was sealed by payment of the mohar, the dowry or bride price, which was paid by the groom or his family to the bride’s father. The mohar served to compensate the father for wedding expenses and to provide a type of insurance for the bride in the event the groom became dissatisfied and divorced her. The contract was considered binding as soon as it was made, and the man and woman were considered legally married, even though the marriage ceremony (huppah) and consummation often did not occur until as much as a year later. The betrothal period served as a time of probation and testing of fidelity. During that period the bride and groom usually had little, if any, social contact with each other.
Joseph and Mary had experienced no sexual contact with each other, as the phrase before they came together indicates. Sexual purity is highly regarded in Scripture, in both testaments. God places great value on sexual abstinence outside of marriage and sexual fidelity within marriage. Mary’s virginity was an important evidence of her godliness. Her reason for questioning Gabriel’s announcement of her conception was the fact that she knew she was a virgin (Luke 1:34). This testimony protects from accusation that Jesus was born of some other man.
But Mary’s virginity protected a great deal more than her own moral character, reputation, and the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth. It protected the nature of the divine Son of God. The child is never called the son of Joseph; Joseph is never called Jesus’ father, and Joseph is not mentioned in Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46–55). Had Jesus been conceived by the act of a man, whether Joseph or anyone else, He could not have been divine and could not have been the Savior. His own claims about Himself would have been lies, and His resurrection and ascension would have been hoaxes. And mankind would forever remain lost and damned.
Obviously Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit is a great mystery. Even had He wanted to do so, how could God have explained to us, in terms we could comprehend, how such a blending of the divine and human could have been accomplished? We could no more fathom such a thing than we can fathom God’s creating the universe from nothing, His being one God in three Persons, or His giving an entirely new spiritual nature to those who trust in His Son. Understanding of such things will have to await heaven, when we see our Lord “face to face” and “know fully just as [we] have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). We accept it by faith.
The virgin birth should not have surprised those Jews who knew and believed the Old Testament. Because of a misinterpretation of the phrase “A woman shall encompass a man” in Jeremiah 31:22, many rabbis believed the Messiah would have an unusual birth. They said, “Messiah is to have no earthly father,” and “the birth of Messiah shall be like the dew of the Lord, as drops upon the grass without the action of man.” But even that poor interpretation of an obscure text (an interpretation also held by some of the church Fathers) assumed a unique birth for the Messiah.
Not only had Isaiah indicated such a birth (7:14), but even in Genesis we get a glimpse of it. God spoke to the serpent of the enmity that would henceforth exist between “your seed and her [Eve’s] seed” (Gen. 3:15). In a technical sense the seed belongs to the man, and Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit is the only instance in human history that a woman had a seed within her that did not come from a man. The promise to Abraham concerned “his seed,” a common way of referring to offspring. This unique reference to “her seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Jesus Christ. The two seeds of Genesis 3:15 can be seen in a simple sense as collective; that is, they may refer to all those who are part of Satan’s progeny and to all those who a part of Eve’s. That view sees the war between the two as raging for all time, with the people of righteousness eventually gaining victory over the people of evil. But “seed” also can be singular, in that it refers to one great, final, glorious product of a woman, who will be the Lord Himself—born without male seed. In that sense the prediction is messianic. It may be that the prophecy looks to both the collective and the individual meanings.
Paul is very clear when he tells us that “When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). There is no human father in that verse. Jesus had to have one human parent or He could not have been human, and thereby a partaker of our flesh. But He also had to have divine parentage or He could not have made a sinless and perfect sacrifice on our behalf.
The Virgin Birth Confronted
And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (1:19–20)
As already mentioned, although Joseph and Mary were only betrothed at this time (v. 18), he was considered her husband and she was considered his wife. For the very reason that he was a righteous man, Joseph had a double problem, at least in his own mind. First, because of his righteous moral standards, he knew that he should not go through with the marriage because of Mary’s pregnancy. He knew that he was not the father and assumed, quite naturally, that Mary had had relations with another man. But second, because of his righteous love and kindness, he could not bear the thought of shaming her publicly (a common practice of his day in regard to such an offense), much less of demanding her death, as provided by the law (Deut. 22:23–24). There is no evidence that Joseph felt anger, resentment, or bitterness. He had been shamed (if what he assumed had been true), but his concern was not for his own shame but for Mary’s. He was not wanting to disgrace her by public exposure of her supposed sin. Because he loved her so deeply he determined simply to put her away secretly.
Apoluō means literally to put … away, as translated here, but was the common term used for divorce. Joseph’s plan was to divorce her secretly, though before long everyone would have guessed it when the marriage never materialized. But for a while, at least, she would be protected, and she would live.
While he considered this, however, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and allayed his fears. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid [stop being afraid] to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” This verse emphasizes the supernatural character of the whole event. To reinforce the encouraging words, as well as to verify Jesus’ royal lineage, the angel addressed Joseph as son of David. Even though He was not the real son of Joseph, Jesus was his legal son. His Father, in actuality, was God, who conceived Him by the Holy Spirit. But His royal right in the Davidic line came by Joseph.
The phrase that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit is profound. In those words is the ultimate testimony to the virgin birth. It is the testimony of the holy angel from the Lord God Himself.
One critic has waved his fist at God and called Him an unholy liar with these words: “There was nothing peculiar about the birth of Jesus. He was not God incarnate and no virgin mother bore him. The church in its ancient zeal fathered a myth and became bound to it as a dogma.” But the testimony of Scripture stands.
The Virgin Birth Clarified
“And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (1:21)
As if to reinforce the truth of Jesus’ divine conception, the angel tells Joseph that she will bear a Son. Joseph would act as Jesus’ earthly father, but he would only be a foster father. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus through Mary’s line accurately says He was “supposedly the son of Joseph” (3:23, emphasis added).
Joseph was told to name the Son … Jesus, just as Zacharias was told to name his son John (Luke 1:13). We are not told the purpose or significance of John’s name, but that of Jesus was made clear even before His birth. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew Joshua, Jeshua, or Jehoshua, the basic meaning of which is “Jehovah (Yahweh) will save.” All other men who had those names testified by their names to the Lord’s salvation. But this One who would be born to Mary not only would testify of God’s salvation, but would Himself be that salvation. By His own work He would save His people from their sins.
The Virgin Birth Connected
Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “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.” (1:22–23)
At this point Matthew explains that Jesus’ virgin birth was predicted by God in the Old Testament. The Lord clearly identifies the birth of Christ as a fulfillment of prophecy. All this refers to the facts about the divine birth of Jesus Christ. And the great miracle of His birth was the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. That phrase gives a simple, straightforward definition of biblical inspiration as the Word of the Lord coming through human instruments. God does the saying; the human instrument is only a means to bring the divine Word to men. Based on these words of the Lord given through Matthew, the Old Testament text of Isaiah must be interpreted as predicting the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
Matthew repeatedly uses the phrase might be fulfilled (2:15, 17, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54; etc.) to indicate ways in which Jesus, and events related to His earthly ministry, were fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. The basic truths and happenings of the New Testament were culminations, completions, or fulfillments of revelation God had already made—though often the revelation had been in veiled and partial form.
The scene in Isaiah 7 is the reign of King Ahaz in Judah. Though son of the great Uzziah, he was a wicked king. He filled Jerusalem with idols, reinstated the worship of Molech, and burned his own son as a sacrifice to that god. Rezin, king of Syria (Aram), and Pekah, king of Israel (also called Samaria at that time), decided to remove Ahaz and replace him with a king who would do their bidding. In the face of such a threat to the people of Israel and to the royal line of David, Ahaz, instead of turning to God for help, sought the help of Tiglath-pileser, the evil king of the Assyrians. He even plundered and sent to Tiglath-pileser the gold and silver from the Temple.
Isaiah came to Ahaz and reported that God would deliver the people from the two enemy kings. When Ahaz refused to listen, Isaiah responded with the remarkable messianic prophecy of 7:14.
How did a prediction of the virgin birth of Messiah fit that ancient scene? Isaiah was telling the wicked king that no one would destroy the people of God or the royal line of David. When the prophet said, “The Lord shall give you a sign,” he used a plural you, indicating that Isaiah was also speaking to the entire nation, telling them that God would not allow Rezin and Pekah, or anyone else, to destroy them and the line of David (cf. Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:13). Even though the people came into the hands of Tiglath-pileser, who destroyed the northern kingdom and overran Judah on four occasions, God preserved them just as He promised.
Isaiah also refers to another child who would be born; and before that child (Maher-shalal-hash-baz) would be old enough to “eat curds and honey” or “know enough to refuse evil and choose good,” the lands of Rezin and Pekah would be forsaken (7:15–16). Sure enough, before the child born to Isaiah’s wife was three years old those two kings were dead. Just as that ancient prophecy of a child came to pass, so did the prophecy of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Both were signs that God would not ultimately forsake His people. The greatest sign was that Immanuel, which translated means, “God with us,” would come.
In Isaiah 7:14, the verse here quoted by Matthew, the prophet used the Hebrew word ’almâ. Old Testament usage of ’almâ favors the translation “virgin.” The word first appears in Genesis 24:43, in connection with Rebekah, the future bride of Isaac. The King James Version reads, “Behold I stand by the well of water; and it shall come to pass, that when the virgin cometh forth to draw water.” In verse 16 of the same chapter Rebekah is described as a “damsel” (na’ărâ) and a “virgin” (betûlâ). It should be concluded that ’almâ is never used to refer to a married woman. The word occurs five other times in Scripture (Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8), and in each case contains the idea of a virgin. Until recent times, it was always translated as such by both Jewish and Christian scholars.
The most famous medieval Jewish interpreter, Rashi (1040–1105), who was an opponent of Christianity, made the following comment: “ ‘Behold the ’almâ shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel’ means that our Creator shall be with us. And this is the sign: The one who will conceive is a girl (na’ărâ) who never in her life has had intercourse with any man. Upon this one shall the Holy Spirit have power.” It should be noted that in modern Hebrew the word virgin is either ’almâ or betûlâ. Why did not Isaiah use betûlâ? Because it is sometimes used in the Old Testament of a married woman who is not a virgin (Deut. 22:19; Joel 1:8).
’Almâ can mean “virgin,” and that is how the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translated the word in Isaiah 7:14 (by the Greek parthenos, “virgin”)—several hundred years before the birth of Christ. The “sign” of which Isaiah spoke was given specifically to King Ahaz, who feared that the royal line of Judah might be destroyed by Syria and Israel. The prophet assured the king that God would protect that line. The birth of a son and the death of the kings would be the signs guaranteeing His protection and preservation. And in the future there would be a greater birth, the virgin birth of God incarnate, to assure the covenant with God’s people.
Matthew did not give the term ’almâ a Christian “twist,” but used it with the same meaning with which all Jews of that time used it. In any case, his teaching of the virgin birth does not hinge on that word. It is made incontestably clear by the preceding statements that Jesus’ conception was “by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 18, 20).
The name of the Son born to a virgin would be Immanuel, which translated means, “God with us.” That name was used more as a title or description than as a proper name. In His incarnation Jesus was, in the most literal sense, God with us.
The fact that a virgin shall be with child is marvelous—a pregnant virgin! Equally marvelous is that she shall call His name Immanuel.
The Old Testament repeatedly promises that God is present with His people, to secure their destiny in His covenant. The Tabernacle and Temple were intended to be symbols of that divine presence. The term for tabernacle is mishkān, which comes from shākan, meaning to dwell, rest, or abide. From that root the term shekinah. has also come, referring to the presence of God’s glory. The child born was to be the Shekinah, the true Tabernacle of God (cf. John 1:14). Isaiah was the instrument through which the Word of the Lord announced that God would dwell among men in visible flesh and blood incarnation—more intimate and personal than the Tabernacle or Temple in which Israel had worshiped.
The Virgin Birth Consummated
And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (1:24–25)
That Joseph arose from his sleep indicates that the revelatory dream had come to him while he slept (cf. v. 20). Such unique, direct communication from God was used on other occasions to reveal Scripture (see Gen. 20:3; 31:10–11; Num. 12:6; 1 Kings 3:5; Job 33:14–16). It should be noted that all six New Testament occurrences of onar (“to dream”) are in Matthew and concern the Lord Jesus Christ (see 1:20; 2:12–13, 19, 22; 27:19).
We know nothing of Joseph’s reaction, except that he immediately obeyed, doing as the angel of the Lord commanded him. We can imagine how great his feelings of amazement, relief, and gratitude must have been. Not only would he be able to take his beloved Mary as his wife with honor and righteousness, but he would be given care of God’s own Son while He was growing up.
That fact alone would indicate the depth of Joseph’s godliness. It is inconceivable that God would entrust His Son into a family where the father was not totally committed and faithful to Him.
We know nothing else of Joseph’s life except his taking the infant Jesus to the Temple for dedication (Luke 2:22–33), his taking Mary and Jesus into Egypt to protect Him from Herod’s bloody edict and the return (Matt. 2:13–23), and his taking his family to the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:42–52). We have no idea when Joseph died, but it could have been well before Jesus began His public ministry. Obviously it was before Jesus’ crucifixion, because from the cross Jesus gave his mother into the care of John (John 19:26).
Apparently the marriage ceremony, when Joseph took her as his wife, was held soon after the angel’s announcement. But he kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son. Matthew makes it clear that she remained a virgin until she gave birth, implying that normal marital relations began after that time. The fact that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are spoken of numerous times in the gospels (Matt. 12:46; 13:55–56; Mark 6:3; etc.) prove that Mary did not remain a virgin perpetually, as some claim.
As a final act of obedience to God’s instruction through the angel, Joseph called His name Jesus, indicating that He was to be the Savior (cf. v. 21).
The supernatural birth of Jesus is the only way to account for the life that He lived. A skeptic who denied the virgin birth once asked a Christian, “If I told you that child over there was born without a human father, would you believe me?” The believer replied, “Yes, if he lived as Jesus lived.” The greatest outward evidence of Jesus’ supernatural birth and deity is His life.
Matthew’s Witness to the Virgin Birth
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Each year on Christmas Eve our church holds a candlelight and carol service, and at the end of this service, after we have read all the Christmas lessons and sung most of the great Christmas carols, we stand in the candle-lit sanctuary and sing “Silent Night” together.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child …
In this way we profess belief in the virgin birth of Jesus as an important part of the Christmas story. And so do millions of others. Unfortunately, many do not believe it, and others who do, do not know why it is important.
In the early decades of this century, the virgin birth was a focal point for liberalism’s many denials of Christian truth. Those who believed the Bible recognized that the virgin birth is indeed biblical and rose to the doctrine’s defense, answering the liberal objections. They did such a good a job that eventually most liberals refused even to grapple with the arguments made on behalf of this truth. They just continued in their unbelief, as some people do, in spite of the fact that the Word of God clearly teaches the virgin birth and that the objections to it have been answered.
The Virgin Birth in Matthew
Much of this debate centered around the Old Testament text that Matthew cites as a prophecy of the virgin birth: Isaiah 7:14. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23). It has been argued that Isaiah’s word for the young woman, bethulah, does not necessarily mean “virgin,” though it usually does. It can mean merely a young woman of marriageable age. But whatever Isaiah meant in his own context is a secondary matter here, since it is beyond doubt that Matthew at least meant to teach that Jesus was conceived by God apart from any human father. He makes this clear in Matthew 1:18, which reads, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
The account then goes on to explain that Joseph was disturbed by Mary’s pregnancy, as any man in his position would be. Being a righteous (that is, an upright) man, he did not think it proper to go through with the marriage and decided to break his engagement to Mary in a private manner. But while he was pondering this, an angel appeared to him to explain that Mary had not been unfaithful to him but that the child she was carrying had been conceived by God. The angel said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (vv. 20–21).
Joseph did as the angel had commanded, and the account concludes, “But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (vv. 24–25).
Two Parallel Accounts
One thing we notice, as soon as we begin to compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, is that they are both quite Jewish in character. Luke was a Greek who wrote in a polished Greek style. A good example is the long opening sentences (one sentence in the kjv) with which he began his Gospel (vv. 1–4). But as soon as we get past the prologue we find ourselves in one of the most Semitic sections of the New Testament (Luke 1:5–2:52). J. Gresham Machen said of Luke’s prologue, “It would be difficult to imagine a more skillfully formed, and more typically Greek sentence than this.” But he added, “This typically Greek sentence is followed by what is probably the most markedly Semitic section in the whole New Testament.”
This is so unlike Luke’s other writing that we can only explain it by assuming that Luke got this material from an Aramaic or non-Greek source. He says in verse 3 that he had “carefully investigated everything [about the life of Jesus] from the beginning.” So Luke must have talked with those who had been eyewitnesses of these events. In respect to Jesus’ birth, Luke must have gotten his details from Mary, who would have been the original, best, and, at this late date, probably the only eyewitness of the nativity events left. Moreover, Luke must have received his material in some sort of written form, which may itself also go back to Mary.
When we turn from Luke to Matthew, we find that Matthew’s account no less than Luke’s is Jewish in character, evidenced, for example, in the matter of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal and the problem it presented for Joseph. In Jewish culture at that time, a betrothal carried such a weight of personal commitment that something almost like a formal divorce was needed to dissolve the engagement. This circumstance did not prevail in the Greek or Roman cultures of the time.
As we read on, we discover that five times in the opening two chapters Matthew explains what was happening by a reference to the Old Testament. He employs a standard formula for Old Testament citations, saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet …” (Matt. 1:22; see 2:5, 15, 17, 23). Then he quotes the text that prophesied the event he recorded. I have already referred to Matthew 1:23, where he cites Isaiah 7:14 as proof of the virgin birth. He does the same thing in chapter 2, where he cites Micah 5:2 regarding Christ’s birth in Bethlehem; Hosea 11:1, which speaks of God calling his “son” out of Egypt; Jeremiah 31:15, which deals with the people’s weeping for the slain infants of Bethlehem; and an uncertain text prophesying that Jesus would “be called a Nazarene.”
But there are differences between these chapters and the corresponding chapters in Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, the Jewish chapters are clearly out of place. They are a Semitic island in a Greek literary sea. In Matthew’s Gospel, they are not at all out of place, for the Gospel from beginning to end is Jewish, as I began to point out in the last chapter.
And there is this important difference too. When we study the specific content of Luke’s chapters dealing with Jesus’ birth, we find that the entire content and atmosphere are pre-Christian, which fits an early origin, such as a document going back to Mary. Everything that is spoken is in terms of God’s fulfillment of his promises to Israel. There is not even a suggestion that the reason Jesus came to earth was that he might die for sin. On the other hand, when we turn to Matthew’s Gospel, though it is clearly Jewish, it is also obviously post-Christian. That is, it was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus when the gospel of his atoning death was being proclaimed throughout the world. For example, it is said that the child’s name would be “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). This reflects a later, gospel understanding. Similarly, in chapter 2, the significance of the Magi is that they were Gentiles and that Jesus was their king too.
True or False Accounts?
What is the relationship between these two accounts? When I consider parallel accounts (such as these or others in the Bible), I think of the way Reuben A. Torrey handled parallel accounts when he spoke of the resurrection. He pointed out that parallel accounts must have been produced by one of three methods: (1) They were invented in collusion, the people getting together to write their accounts, or (2) they were invented separately, that is, independently of each other, or (3) they were not invented at all but are factual records of observed events.
Into which of these categories do Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of the virgin birth fit?
1. The accounts were invented in collusion. On the surface this is a possibility. The writers could have gotten together in Jerusalem when Luke was there with Paul on Paul’s last journey to the city. Luke could have said, “You know, Matthew, I’m writing a Gospel about Jesus, and I want to tell something about his birth. I wonder if you could help me with a few of the details.” Matthew might have answered, “That’s very interesting, Luke, because I’m doing the same thing. But I have to tell you that there’s not much firsthand information about it anymore. We are going to have to make most of it up.” So they would have put their heads together and begun to work out the details of their story.
Or there is another way it could have happened. We could suppose that Matthew had already written his Gospel and had passed from the scene. Perhaps he had died. But then Luke came to Jerusalem and, while researching the life of Jesus, came upon Matthew’s papers and made use of them for his narrative. Or again, both authors might have made use of an entirely separate account of the birth of Jesus that had somehow been floating around the city.
Do these possibilities explain what we actually have in these two Gospels? If Matthew and Luke made up these accounts, would there be the kind of noticeable, apparent discrepancies we find? Luke talks about an angel appearing to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus. Matthew has an angelic announcement too, but Matthew’s angel does not appear to Mary; he appears to Joseph. This is not a discrepancy. It might be expected that God explained what was happening to both Mary and Joseph. But this is not the kind of thing that would have been allowed to stand if these men had been creating their stories together. Luke would have said, “Matthew, that’s a good story you’ve got about an angel appearing to Joseph, but in my account I have him appearing to Mary. We can’t have both. We’ve got to decide who it’s going to be.” They would have picked one version only. Or if they had kept both, they would have included both versions in both narratives.
Here is another apparent contradiction. Luke tells about shepherds coming to worship the infant Christ. Matthew tells about wise men. I can imagine Matthew saying to Luke, “That is a very poignant and touching story you have there, but you have missed the point I am making. I want to present Jesus as Israel’s king, and for that reason I need to show that even Gentile kings bowed before him.” Luke might answer, “That’s a good point, but we haven’t seen many kings converted yet. Most Christians are simple people. Wouldn’t it be better if we talked about humble shepherds and forgot about the kings?”
There are other examples. Luke says that Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because of the decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. But Matthew begins with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1). Matthew does not mention Nazareth until the end of chapter 2. Again, Luke indicates that after Jesus’ birth the family returned to Nazareth from Bethlehem. But Matthew has an account of Herod’s murder of the innocents and of the family’s flight to Egypt, so that it was from Egypt rather than from Bethlehem that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus actually returned to Nazareth.
It is clear from these differences that the accounts of Matthew and Luke were not made up in collusion, for if they were, these seeming discrepancies would have been eliminated.
2. The accounts were made up separately. What about the second possibility, that Matthew and Luke invented their stories separately? Suppose Matthew was sitting in his little office in Jerusalem, and Luke was sitting in his little office somewhere else. They did not even know the other writer was working on a Gospel. They just decided on their own to make up stories about Jesus’ birth. If that were the case, we could understand the existence of differences, but we could not explain the strong, underlying agreements, for there is no mistaking the fact that we are dealing with the same basic story in each Gospel. The central characters are the same, and the central event, the miraculous conception of Jesus by means of God’s Holy Spirit, is identical.
When we put the accounts together, we have a long but consistent history. First, Zechariah was informed concerning the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–25). The annunciation to Zechariah was followed by the annunciation to Mary, an account parallel to the first (Luke 1:26–38). Understandably, Mary then went to visit Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, Mary’s relative (Luke 1:36), stayed with her for three months, and then returned to Nazareth (Luke 1:39–56). Luke’s first chapter ends with the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–80).
Matthew picks up the story at this point. He says nothing of what has gone before, but what Luke has told is necessary to understand what happens. Matthew tells of the discovery of Mary’s condition, of Joseph’s puzzled indecision, and then the explanation of what was happening to Joseph by the angel (Matt. 1:18–25).
Luke continues by telling of the journey to Bethlehem, which explains how the couple got there (Luke 2:1–5). Matthew and Luke both record the birth, though Luke, who is writing from Mary’s perspective, reports it at greater length (Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:6–7). Then Luke continues, telling of the visit of the shepherds to the manger (Luke 2:8–20), the circumcision of Jesus eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21), and the presentation of the child at the temple on the fortieth day, including several incidents linked to that presentation (Luke 2:22–40).
At last, Matthew records the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1–12), the flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:13–18), and finally the return to Nazareth, which is also told by Luke, though he does not relate the other instances (Matt. 2:19–23; Luke 2:39). It is impossible that there could have been this much harmony between the two accounts if they had been made up by Matthew and Luke working separately.
3. The accounts were not made up at all; they are factual. Where does that leave us? If we eliminate the possibility that the stories of the birth of Jesus were made up in collusion and the possibility that they were made up separately, the only other possibility is that they were not made up at all but rather are two, separate, accurate records of the events connected with Jesus’ birth as their authors knew them. All we must add is that, although these events are fully historical, they are also supernatural, for this is the supreme moment in human history when the supernatural broke into the normal flow of historical events by the grace of our good God.
Call Him “Jesus”
Yet, how simply the story is told! “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The explanation of the meaning of Jesus’ name is from the Old Testament, though Matthew does not draw attention to the fact. It is from Psalm 130, a psalm in which Israel is encouraged to “put your hope in the Lord” (v. 7). Why? Because, says the psalmist, “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (v. 8). Even in the psalmist’s day it was clear that these words pointed forward to a redeemer and an act of redemption yet to come. But in Matthew, as we begin the New Testament, we learn that the time of that redemption has come and that the one who is to perform the work is none other than God himself in the person of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
What a name this is! Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Jeshua or Joshua, and it means quite literally “Jehovah is salvation.” This is the message that was conveyed to Joseph primarily, for he was told that the one who had been conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit was a divine Messiah, the one who had been promised from the very beginning of Israel’s history, and even before that, and that the work of this divine person would be a work of salvation, since “he will save his people from their sins.” The prophesy from Isaiah reinforces this, for in addition to predicting that the Lord’s conception would be supernatural (“the virgin will be with child”), the text also declares that he will be God incarnate, since his name will be Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Isa. 7:14).
This is what captured the sanctified imagination of Charles Wesley when he composed the second stanza of his great Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Wesley must have had this passage in mind when he moved from the thought of Jesus’ heavenly preexistence to his incarnation, ending with the powerful name Immanuel.
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell.
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.”
Here is a point where, although we are still at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we need to look forward to the end. For at the very end, in the very last sentence, the promise of this text returns again. Jesus has been crucified and raised from the dead. He has appeared to his disciples to commission them for the work he still has for them to do. They are to go into all the world and there make disciples of all nations. He tells them how this is to be done. They are to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and they are to teach obedience to everything he has commanded. Then he concludes, “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Immanuel! God with us! And to the very end of this age!
At the beginning of the Gospel we find that Jesus is “God with us” by a supernatural conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. But here at the end he is still with us, and will be with us always.
What a wonderful list of names we have for Jesus! The Bible is full of them. He is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, the Ancient of Days. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is the Anointed One, the Messiah. He is our Prophet, Priest, and King. He is our Savior, the Only Wise God. He is our Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is the Lord, the Almighty. He is the Door of the sheep, the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He is the Lamb Slain from before the foundation of the world. He is the Logos, the Light, the Light of the World, the Light of Life, the Tree of Life, the Word of Life, the Bread that came down from heaven, the Spring which, if a person drink of it, he will never thirst again. He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is our Rock, our Bridegroom, our Beloved, and our Redeemer. He is the Head over all things, which is his body, the church.
But above all, he is “God with us,” Immanuel, and he came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins.
Joseph, Son of David, Accepts Jesus as His Son (1:18–25)
18 The Messiah’s origin14 was like this. His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be pregnant through16 the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, because he was a righteous man and yet did not want to expose her to scandal, came to the conclusion that he should break the engagement18 privately. 20 But when he had decided on this, suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to accept Mary as your wife; for the child she has conceived is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because it is he who will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this happened to fulfill what had been declared by the Lord through the prophet, who said,
23 “Look, the virgin will become pregnant and will give birth to a son, and they will give him the name Immanuel”—which is translated23 “God with us.”
24 When Joseph got up from sleep, he did just as the angel of the Lord had directed him: he accepted his wife, 25 and he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son; and he gave him the name Jesus.
The “book of origin” has left us with an unresolved problem. Joseph has been shown to be the “son of David,” the heir to the royal dynasty of Judah, but in v. 16 Matthew has abandoned his regular formula to indicate that Jesus, the son of Joseph’s wife Mary, was not in fact Joseph’s son (and Matthew carefully avoids ever referring to Joseph as Jesus’ “father”). What then is the relevance of this dynastic list to the story of Jesus, son of Mary? These verses will explain, therefore, how Jesus came to be formally adopted and named by Joseph, despite his own natural inclinations, and thus to become officially “son of David;” the angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” in v. 20 will highlight the issue.
Joseph’s decision is directed by God, through an angelic revelation in a dream. Specific emphasis is placed both in the angel’s message and in the subsequent narrative on Joseph’s role in naming Jesus, which was the responsibility of the legal father and which ensured the official status of the son and heir (cf. Isa 43:1: “I have called you by name; you are mine”). So not only is the name Jesus in itself theologically significant, but also the fact that it is given to him under divine direction, and by whom it is given. It is through this act of Joseph that Jesus also becomes “son of David.”
Joseph is persuaded to take this bold step by the assurance that Mary’s pregnancy is not the result of infidelity but is of divine origin. The tradition of Jesus’ virgin conception, already hinted at in the formulation of v. 16, is thus central to these verses, and is underlined by Matthew’s statement that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until after Jesus’ birth. Here is the most impressive agreement between the opening chapters of Matthew and those of Luke, despite their almost complete independence in terms of narrative content (on which see above). What Luke achieves by his story of the angelic annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26–38) Matthew conveys by the angelic announcement to Joseph. Mary’s incredulity in Luke 1:34 is matched here by Joseph’s initial natural assumption as to the source of the pregnancy, and each needs explicit angelic explanation to overcome it. Both evangelists specifically attribute the pregnancy to the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 21), and both explicitly refer to Mary as “virgin” (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:23 with 1:25).
It is this aspect of the story which prompts Matthew’s first formula-quotation. The passage of Scripture which undergirds this first of the five narrative cameos in 1:18–2:23 is Isa 7:14, with its explicit mention (in Greek) of a virgin becoming pregnant and giving birth. While Matthew presents the quotation as his own editorial comment rather than as part of the angel’s message to Joseph, he expects his readers to incorporate this scriptural authentication for Mary’s unique experience into their understanding of why Joseph changed his mind. The Isaiah quotation underlines the assurance that this is from God.
But Matthew has noticed that Isaiah’s words also include the naming of the child, which is just what Joseph is now being called on to do. Unlike most of Matthew’s formula-quotations, this one sticks closely to the LXX text, but it diverges at one significant point. Whereas the Hebrew probably says “she” (the mother) will give the child his name, and the LXX probably28 says “you” (singular, referring to Ahaz to whom the prophecy is addressed) will do so, Matthew has a generalizing “they,” which leaves the way open for Jesus to be given his name not by Mary but by Joseph. The name given in Isaiah is not of course the name Jesus, but far from being embarrassed by the problem of two different names, Matthew draws the name Immanuel also into his presentation of the theological significance of the coming of the Messiah by adding a literal translation of it as “God with us.” Probably Matthew expected his readers to reflect that the “salvation” which is the explicit meaning of the name Jesus in v. 21 was to be accomplished by the coming of God among his people, but he has not made any such linking of the meanings of the two names explicit.
The phrase “God with us” which thus marks the beginning of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus will have its arresting counterpart at the end of the gospel when Jesus himself declares “I am with you always” with reference not to a continuing life on earth but a spiritual presence (28:20). Cf. also the remarkable words of 18:20, “Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them.” At this point it would be possible to read Immanuel only in its probable OT sense as a statement of God’s concern for his people, “God is with us,” but the name as applied to one who has just been declared to owe his origin to the direct work of the Holy Spirit was probably in Matthew’s mind a more direct statement of the presence of God in Jesus himself, so that Jesus’ declaration in 28:20 is only drawing out what has already been true from the time of his birth, that God is present in the person of Jesus. Matthew’s overt interpretation of “Immanuel” thus takes him close to an explicit doctrine of incarnation such as is expressed in John 1:14.
Thus, while these verses do not use the title “Son of God”, Matthew could hardly have recorded both the supernatural conception of Jesus and the scriptural title “God with us” without reflecting on the fact that the Messiah is much more than only a “son of David,” as will later be made explicit in 22:41–45. When we are invited to reflect on God’s calling his “son” out of Egypt in 2:15, and still more when Jesus is explicitly declared to be God’s Son in 3:17, the ground will have been well prepared.
18 The order of the opening words, which is less natural in Greek than in my translation, draws attention again to the title “Messiah” by putting it first. Verse 1 has promised to reveal the “origin” of the Messiah, and the repetition of that word here (see p. 46, n. 14) shows that that promise is still being fulfilled.33 The list of names now requires to be supplemented by a narrative account in order to explain how the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah can be recognized despite the unusual and potentially self-defeating way the “book of origin” ended in v. 16.
The difference between our modern concept of “engagement” and that of first-century Jews is indicated by the description of Joseph already in v. 19 as Mary’s husband and by the use of the normal word for divorce to describe the ending of the engagement. Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave the woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage (m. Ketub. 4:2); sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement (m. Ketub. 5:2; Ned. 10:5) the woman (then aged normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s home and go to live with the husband in a public ceremony (such as is described in 25:1–12), which is here referred to as “coming together” and will be recorded in v. 24.
The role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception (which will be explained in v. 20; as yet Joseph knows nothing of it) reflects the OT concept of the Spirit of God active in the original creation (Gen 1:2; Ps 33:6) and in the giving of life (Ps 104:30; Isa 32:15; Ezek 37:1–14); cf. the possibility considered above that v. 1 is intended to suggest a new creation. The Spirit is also thought of in the OT as having an eschatological role in connection with the coming of the Messiah (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1 etc.), and this theme will be taken up in 3:16–17, but the mention here links the Spirit not just with Jesus’ adult ministry but with his whole earthly life. The delicate way in which both Matthew and Luke express the process of Jesus’ conception contrasts sharply with Greek and Roman stories of gods (often having assumed the form of a male human or even animal) having intercourse with human women, resulting in the birth of demigod heroes like Heracles.
19 That Joseph was “righteous” is sometimes thought to explain his avoidance of a public scandal because he was “merciful” or “considerate,” but the more basic sense of the word is of one who is careful to keep the law. The law as then understood required the termination of the engagement in the case of “adultery;”38 in OT times the penalty for adultery was stoning. Deut 22:13–21 deals specifically with the case of a woman found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage, and 22:23–24 with that of consenting “adultery” on the part of an engaged woman. But by the first century (when Roman rule had abolished Jewish death penalties)40 divorce was the normal course. John 8:5–7, if historical, would then be describing a deliberately extreme response. As a law-abiding man Joseph would be expected to repudiate his errant fiancée publicly in a trial for adultery; for the force of deigmatizō cf. Col 2:15 where Jesus “makes a public example” of the principalities and powers, and for the public humiliation of an adulteress see m. Soṭah 1:4–6. If “righteous” is understood in that sense, therefore, it stands in contrast with rather than as an explanation of his desire to spare her; hence my inclusion of “yet” in the translation above. The resultant dilemma suggests to him the course, still legally correct but also more compassionate, of a “private” annulment of the contract, avoiding a public accusation of adultery and the resultant trial; the Mishnah allows for the divorce of a suspected adulteress before just two witnesses (m. Soṭah 1:1; for the necessity of witnesses to a divorce cf. e.g. m. Giṭ. 9:4, 8), though it is hard to see how this could long be kept secret from a society aware of the original engagement.42
20–21 My translations “came to the conclusion” (v. 19) and “when he had decided on this” reflect Matthew’s aorist tenses, which suggest that before the divine intervention Joseph’s mind was made up. Four times in these chapters we are told of divine communications to Joseph in dreams (cf. 2:13, 19, 22), in all but the last case with an angel as the messenger. It is fanciful to explain this by Matthew’s memory of the famous dreams of another Joseph in Gen 37:5–11, 19–20: the OT Joseph did not receive divine directions (or see angels) in his dreams and Matthew makes no attempt to connect the two Josephs; moreover he attributes comparable dreams also to the magi (2:12) and to Pilate’s wife (27:19). Divine guidance both by dreams and by the appearance of angels are of course a regular feature of OT spirituality, and would need no explanation. The point of their concentration in these chapters is to emphasize the initiative of God in guiding Joseph’s actions through this crucial period.45
The angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” reminds us what is at stake in the decision Joseph has just reached: the loss of Jesus’ royal pedigree if he is not officially recognized as Joseph’s son. So, despite his previous decision, he is called to take two decisive actions, first to accept Mary as his wife rather than repudiating her and secondly to give her son a name, which will confirm his legal recognition of Jesus as his own son and hence as also a “son of David.”
The second part of the angel’s message (v. 21) corresponds quite closely to the wording of the quotation from Isa 7:14 which will follow in v. 23, though of course with Jesus’ actual name rather than the symbolic name Immanuel. The interpretations given to the two names (“he will save his people from their sins” and “God with us”) invite the reader to reflect on the nature of the Messiah’s mission. On the name Jesus see above on v. 1. The Hebrew Yehôšuaʿ is normally taken to mean “Yahweh is salvation,” so that the interpretation in terms of saving from sin derives from the popular Hebrew understanding of the name; the similarity to the Hebrew verb yôšîaʿ (“he will save”) may have helped with Matthew’s formulation of the meaning of the name in a future verb, “he will save.” But whereas the OT name spoke of God as the savior, Mary’s son is himself to be the agent of salvation; here is scope for profound christological reflection on the part of any of Matthew’s readers who can see behind the common Greek name to its Hebrew origin. “His people” in relation to the mission of a “son of David” must in the first place denote Israel,47 but even if at this stage Matthew’s readers have not yet recognized the universalistic implications of the title “son of Abraham” and of the non-Israelite women in the genealogy they will not have to read far into the book before they become aware that the scope of salvation is being spread more widely. Indeed, one of the key issues which will dominate the final confrontation in Jerusalem, and will be brought to its climax in 28:18–20, will be who are to constitute the continuing people of God and the role of Jesus in bringing into being what he will significantly describe in 16:18 as “my ecclesia.”
This universal scope of the Messiah’s mission is not as yet on the surface, but there is a clear break from popular Jewish expectation in the statement that the salvation Jesus will achieve will be “from their sins.” Several OT eschatological passages speak of the need for sins to be atoned for and forgiven, e.g. Isa 53:4–12; Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:25–31. But while the spiritual condition of God’s people was still the concern of at least some contemporary messianic expectation (notably the Pharisaic hope expressed in Pss. Sol. 17:21–46, though there it is intertwined with political restoration), there seems little doubt that the dominant concern in first-century Jewish hope was with their political subjection, with the restoration of the kingdom of David as the messianic goal. The angel’s words thus signal at the start that any political euphoria which may have been evoked by the Davidic and royal theme of the “book of origin” is wide of the mark of what Jesus’ actual mission is to be. His ministry will begin in the context of a call to repentance from sin (3:2, 6; 4:17), and while the focus of that ministry will be on teaching, healing and exorcism, he will also assert his “authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). His mission will culminate in his death “as a ransom for many,” (20:28) “for the forgiveness of sins.” (26:28) This son of David will not conform to the priorities of popular messianic expectation.
22 Matthew now introduces the first of his “formula-quotations” (see above, pp. 11–14), which typically take the form of editorial comment on the incident being narrated. Formally, this quotation interrupts the narrative, but its role is in fact central to the pericope, which has been framed so as to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecy (note that phrases from Isa 7:14 are echoed in the narrative of vv. 18, 21, 25). The introductory formula in these quotations varies, the common factor (except in 2:5 and 23, see comments there) being the phrase “to fulfill (or “then was fulfilled”) what had been declared through the prophet [sometimes named], who said.” There are two expansions of the basic formula here. “What had been declared” is here (and in 2:15) explained by adding “by the Lord.” The verb-form translated “declared”54 has a solemn, formulaic ring, and is used in the NT only by Matthew: in addition to its repetition ten times in this formula his other three uses of it are all to introduce a biblical quotation or allusion (3:3; 22:31; 24:15); “by the Lord” therefore makes explicit what the verb-form already implies, the authoritative declaration of God in Scripture. The other expansion is the opening phrase “All this happened” (cf. 21:4, “This happened;” in 26:56 the same wording as here introduces a general statement of scriptural fulfillment rather than a specific quotation), and again the language is slightly artificial in that Matthew uses the perfect of ginomai rather than the aorist which he normally uses in narrative. The effect of this addition is to ensure that the reader looks for the fulfillment of Isa 7:14 not only in the virgin conception of Jesus but in the whole complex of events which “have come to pass,” including conception, birth, and especially the naming of the child.
23 A reader familiar with modern study of Isaiah will notice two problems about Matthew’s first formula-quotation. In the first place, while the LXX, which Matthew follows (except for one word) unambiguously refers to “the virgin,” English versions of Isaiah generally translate the Hebrew as “the young woman.” The definite article suggests that a particular woman is in view, but the context does not identify her; interpreters have suggested Ahaz’s wife (note that the prophecy is addressed to the “house of David,” v. 13) or Isaiah’s (in view of the similar symbolic use made of the birth of Isaiah’s son in 8:1–4). But if this is what he meant it is remarkable that Isaiah did not use the normal Hebrew word for a “woman” or “wife,” ʾiššâ, which would be expected of a childbirth within marriage. The word that is actually used is ʿalmâ, which occurs very rarely in the OT. While it is clear from some of those OT contexts that the ʿalmâ is sexually mature, the word is not used elsewhere of a married woman; the person referred to as ʿalmâ in Gen 24:43 has been specifically described as a virgin in v. 16. Isaiah’s choice of this unusual word in connection with childbirth therefore draws attention; it does not explicitly mean “virgin” (the Hebrew for which is betûlâ), but it suggests something other than a normal childbirth within marriage. It was presumably on this basis that LXX translated it by parthenos (“virgin”). Matthew is following the LXX, but the Hebrew underlying it is sufficiently unusual to suggest that it was not an arbitrary translation.
The second problem is that Isaiah’s prophecy, uttered to Ahaz in about the year 735 b.c., is not about an event in the distant future. Its point is to specify the time of the imminent devastation of both Judah’s enemies and Judah herself through the Assyrian invasion: it will be before the son called Immanuel, soon to be born, has grown up (Isa 7:15–17). This raises an issue which we will note several times in Matthew’s use of OT prophecy, that whereas we prefer to think of a single specific fulfillment of a prophet’s prediction, Matthew’s typological interest leads him rather to find patterns which will recur repeatedly throughout God’s dealings with his people. In this case, he has good warrant for taking the prophecy concerning Immanuel as having a relevance beyond its undoubted immediate aim, for the name Immanuel will occur again in Isa 8:8 as that of the one to whom the land of Judah belongs, and its meaning will be developed in 8:10, “for God is with us.” Moreover, the prophecy in 7:14 of the birth to the “house of David” (Isa 7:13) of a child with so extraordinary an honorific title prepares us for the even more remarkable description in 9:6–7 of a child who is to be born “for us,” and whose multiple and still more extravagant title marks him out not only as the Messiah of the line of David but also as “Mighty God, Everlasting Father.” The theme will be taken up again in 11:1–5 with the prophecy of the spiritually-endowed “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” These last two passages would have been recognized then, as they still are today, as messianic prophecies, and it seems likely that Isaiah’s thought has moved progressively from the virgin’s child, “God with us,” to whom the land of Judah belongs, to these fuller expressions of the Davidic hope. If then Isa 7:14 is taken as the opening of what will be the developing theme of a wonder-child throughout Isaiah 7–11, it can with good reason be suggested that it points beyond the immediate political crisis of the eighth century b.c., not only in Matthew’s typological scheme but also in Isaiah’s intention.
To focus on these issues raised by modern scholarship is, however, to be distracted from the purpose of Matthew in including this quotation. There are three elements in this Isaiah text which would have attracted Matthew’s attention, two with regard to his immediate narrative context (a child born to a virgin mother, and the naming of the child) and one in relation to his underlying christology, the title “God with us.” His one deviation from the LXX is in the plural subject of the verb, “they will call.” In his immediate narrative context it will be Joseph who will give the child his name (which neither the Hebrew “she will call” nor the LXX “you will call” would have allowed), but that name will be Jesus, not Immanuel. Matthew’s plural may therefore be looking ahead to what “people” (especially those whom he will “save from their sins,” v. 21) will eventually learn to say about Jesus, that in him God is with us. We have no indication that Matthew’s plural verb came from any source other than his own creative interpretation of the text.67 For the theological significance of the title Immanuel see introductory comments above.
24–25 Matthew’s editorial comment in vv. 22–23 has interrupted the flow of the narrative which now resumes from the end of v. 21. Joseph’s obedient response to the angel’s words is indicated by the repetition of the same words to describe the first and third of his actions, accepting his wife and giving his son the name Jesus. But between these two actions, which together completed the legal “adoption” of Jesus as Joseph’s son, Matthew mentions a third which was not explicit in the angel’s instructions: “he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth.” For Joseph to “accept” his wife required the public completion of the marriage by taking Mary to his own house (the “coming together” of v. 18), which would normally have been the point at which sexual relations began. Matthew does not explain Joseph’s abstinence, but it is not hard to understand it in the light of the assurance that Mary was pregnant “through the Holy Spirit.” If Matthew has an apologetic reason for inserting this statement, it is presumably to take away any doubt as to the supernatural origin of Mary’s child. There is nothing in his text to suggest that he subscribed to the later idea of Mary’s “perpetual virginity,” and indeed the “until” most naturally indicates that after Jesus was born normal marital relations began (as indeed the straight-forward sense of Jesus having “brothers and sisters” requires, 13:55–56; cf. Luke 2:7, “her first-born son”).
The pericope concludes triumphantly with the naming of Jesus. Verse 21 has explained the theological significance of the name, and the whole chapter so far has set up the problem of legal parentage to which this is the essential answer. Jesus of Nazareth is now securely adopted as “son of David.”
The Origin of Jesus
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:18)
In our home we tell the story of each child’s birth once a year, on her birthday. One telling begins, “It was a stormy night, late in the fall, when the last leaves were clinging to the trees.” We then proceed to tales of sleepless nights, intimidating nurses, tender moments, and ardent prayers. After the birth story, we share anecdotes from the first months of life, stories that hint at the character of the life we celebrate: “At six months, you were already crawling all over the house and you have moved nonstop ever since.” Just so, Matthew features the story of Jesus’ birth, but more, for his birth is merely the beginning. Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ life so that it foreshadows much of the rest of his life.
The text begins, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” but close reading shows that we are not yet considering the birth itself. It is more the story of the virgin conception of Jesus, as the eternal Son of God becomes a man. God’s Spirit forms the human baby in the womb of a virgin. His angel tells Joseph and Mary all they need to know to care for this child who was, months later, born into their family.
Matthew’s account describes more than a birth. In fact, the Greek word translated “birth” in 1:18 is not the ordinary word for birth at all. To translate literally, Matthew says, “The origin of Jesus Christ was like this.” Matthew wrote his account so all may know the origin and conception of this virgin-born child named Jesus.
The story is told from the perspective of Joseph and that makes sense. Through Joseph, his adopting father, Jesus receives credentials for his mission. Through Joseph, he is counted the Son of David. This fulfills the promise made long ago that Israel would have a David-like king, to rule the people with justice (2 Sam. 7:11–16). The Lord promised this to Jeremiah: “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” (Jer. 23:5–6).
The Israelites endured many an evil king while awaiting this Davidic deliverer. Sadly, they could have endured a thousand generations of disappointment unless something changed. But there were hints that God was orchestrating events, leading them to a climax. By the time of Mary and Joseph, the line of David had shown its sinfulness, its fecklessness. Indeed, in its calling to rule Israel, it was exhausted and all but invisible.
For this reason, Matthew reveals that Jesus is from the line of David, but not from the flesh of David. The promises to David’s line showed that Israel needed a mighty deliverer, a great and fearless king, a warrior to battle foes, and a man who loved God and his people more than life itself. Yet the history of Israel had been a sad tale of failed king following failed king. Human flesh could not deliver God’s people. They needed something different. This lesson is universal: No king or prophet can deliver us, for flesh and blood, by itself, cannot save. No politician or physician, no teacher or preacher, no father or mother, can deliver mankind.
Matthew says God has been orchestrating the needed deliverance. Since the Lord often uses names to reveal his purposes, he gives baby Jesus more than one name; no single name could describe all that he is. The baby is called both Jesus and Immanuel. Jesus means “God saves”; the name is given “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Immanuel means “God with us.” The name Immanuel, says Matthew, fulfills a prophecy.
The birth of Jesus “took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (1:22–23, citing Isa. 7). This is a surprise. The people had been looking for a son of David, but not for Immanuel. Perhaps no one genuinely heard the prophecy; nonetheless, one was given (the fact that we are deaf does not mean God fails to speak). The birth of Jesus, God’s Immanuel, fulfills several prophecies, some clear, others veiled.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit
Mary and Joseph are betrothed, not married, when the account of Jesus’ birth begins: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Mary and Joseph did not live in the same home. They were, Matthew says, sexually chaste; they had not yet “come together.” They were betrothed and pure, yet pregnant.
In Israel, betrothal was much weightier than engagement in Western societies today. It was so binding that Matthew already calls Joseph “her husband” (1:19). The couple did not sleep together during their betrothal, yet Mary’s body was swelling. Her body declared that she was pregnant. What a crushing blow to Joseph! He had never been with Mary but, so it seemed, someone else had. His bride-to-be was pregnant but was not carrying his child. He was a righteous man and wanted a righteous wife. If Mary had been unfaithful to him before they even married, what kind of woman was she? What kind of marriage could they have? In every moral, emotional, and legal way, he was right to plan to end the betrothal. Since betrothal was so binding, its termination amounted to a divorce. However miserable the thought, Joseph had to consider divorce: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (1:19).
This determination indicates that Joseph was just and upright and wanted no part of a corrupt marriage. As a just man, he had every right to cancel the marriage. Joseph had never been with Mary, but she was pregnant. Given these (apparent) facts, it was sensible to put her aside. But Joseph was merciful too. He could have exposed Mary, as an unwed mother, to public disgrace and to severe penalties. A quiet divorce, however, would preserve some of her dignity. She would bear the consequences of her action, but would not suffer the most public humiliation. So Joseph settled upon a quiet divorce.
The Lord let Joseph struggle to solve his problem for a season before he revealed a better plan. He often works this way. He lets us make plans, then reveals a better way. When this happens, we must change our plans, as Joseph did. We must test our plans and purposes against God’s will, as revealed in Scripture and in the counsel of the wise. Sometimes, circumstances unfold in ways that suggest what God’s will may be. Even plans that look sound must be open to revision.
God wanted Joseph to proceed with the marriage and sent an angelic messenger to tell him why. Here we must purge our popular images of angels. In the Bible, angels are not cute and do not specialize in romance. They are as likely to say something frightening as to say something comforting. Their appearance in our realm is a rare, weighty, and awesome event.
Angels are God’s mighty messengers. There is a cluster of angel appearances near the birth of Jesus because it is such a weighty event. Here God’s angel intervenes for the sake of Joseph (and for our sake) so he will know what this virgin conception means: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ ” (1:20). Every phrase counts.
The address “Joseph, son of David” links the virgin conception to the Davidic genealogy. The Holy Spirit is the author of this life, yet Joseph has a role to play.
“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” addresses his sad resolution to divorce the woman he loves. The angel assures Joseph that things are not as they seem. Because the child was conceived not by a man but by the Holy Spirit, Joseph can marry his beloved. She is as pure and godly as he had hoped. Into his new marriage, Joseph must adopt this child as his son. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God, but Joseph must adopt him into the line of David. From that line, the deliverer of Israel had to come. Therefore Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of David. Because of the adoption, Jesus will grow up in a normal home, with both father and mother to love and nurture him.
“What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The church traditionally speaks of the virgin birth, but the Gospels stress the miraculous conception, the virgin conception, of Christ. The miracle lay in the manner of Jesus’ conception. So far as we know, the process of birth itself was normal.
The Child’s Name and Mission
God tells Joseph the child is a boy and that his name must be Jesus: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). As we have seen, Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The Lord saves and delivers his people in many ways: he gives food to the hungry, he heals the sick, he comforts the brokenhearted. Many hoped the Messiah would save Israel from their Roman oppressors.
But the angel declares God’s agenda. Jesus will not save his people from physical enemies; he “will save his people from their sins.” Sin is the root of all other calamities. Yes, calamity comes from many sources: accidents, forgetfulness, disease. But the root cause of disorder is sin, and the greatest disorder is to be at odds with God. Jesus will save his people from that.
This birth of Jesus begins the unfolding of God’s salvation; it also fulfills Scripture. The precise words are instructive: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22). That is, the prophet, Isaiah in this case, spoke as God moved him (2 Peter 1:21). These are God’s very words, spoken by a prophet, to prepare the way for God’s salvation.
The birth of Jesus shows that God is with us. In important ways, God is always with us. We can never flee from his presence. He is in the heavens and the depths, on land and at sea (Ps. 139:7–9). We can ignore God, we can deny God, we can curse God. But he never disappears. His reign extends over all creation, even, in a way, over hell itself. God is omnipresent. Nevertheless, Matthew says that with Jesus’ birth, God entered human history in a new way. He is with us, in power, for blessing.
Three times in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that Jesus is God with us: in the beginning, at its midpoint, and at the end. It is a crucial moment each time. In the beginning, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to save his people from their sins (1:21).
In the middle, we hear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to purify his church. Jesus promises, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (18:20). We often use this verse to find assurance that God hears when we gather for prayer, and rightly so. But in its original context, Jesus had a specific prayer in mind. In the agony of church discipline, when a Christian persists in sin and will not repent, when the leaders deal with such rebellion, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to preserve the purity of the church.
At the end of Matthew, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to expand the church. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus directed his disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations. It is a vast task, therefore Jesus declares, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:19–20). Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, to empower the church to make disciples.
What a comfort to know that Jesus is God with us. I once traveled to Austria and Hungary on a mission trip. In Hungary, the main languages are Hungarian, Russian, and German. I understand no Hungarian, virtually no Russian, and a smattering of German, so it was a great comfort to hear my hosts promise that they would be “with me” at all times. Indeed, they were with me all the time—except when they were not with me. They were with me all the time, except when their car got caught in traffic so that there was no one to meet me when I arrived in the Budapest airport—where not one person spoke English. When I spoke at the planned conference, my host was with me all the time, except when I was in the care of my translator. Then I was with the translator all the time—except when he was late or had other business and handed me off to someone else. That “someone else” typically assumed that as an educated person, I could speak German, and so addressed me in that tongue. Otherwise, there was always an English speaker with me—except in the morning and at night and at some meals (!).
But in Christ, God is always with us. What a comfort when a child gets on a plane or travels to a camp or starts first grade or goes to college or moves to England. When we can no longer be with them, God is with them. What a comfort when we are lonely, sick, guilt-ridden, or afraid. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.
Ahaz and Immanuel
The story of Jesus’ conception invites us to imagine a young woman, holy and yielded to God, astonished to hear that God incarnate has entered her womb. The eternal God will grow in her womb, will be her baby. We may also imagine a young man, holy and yielded, startled to find that his betrothed wife is pregnant, not by him. He will adopt this child, the Son of God.
It is the story of a young man and a young woman, but much more it is the account of God’s action. God entered human history, declaring that he is the God with whom we have to do. Immanuel is more than a title: it is a declaration that God has entered our realm and that we must reckon with him.
There are right and wrong ways to do this. This is so important that the Lord took pains to prepare his people to recognize the weight of it. To prepare us for Immanuel, he predicted it and sent a prototype of it. The prototype of the Immanuel principle came long ago, during the reign of an evil king of Judah named Ahaz.
Early in the reign of Ahaz, two neighboring kings, Pekah king of the northern tribes of Israel and Rezin king of Aram (or Syria), invaded his land, marching toward Jerusalem, the capital city. If they succeeded, they would install a puppet king and divide his country (the southern half of Israel) among themselves. Ahaz and the people shook with fear (Isa. 7:1–2).
Ahaz was not a believer, yet God sent Isaiah the prophet to offer him a gracious blessing. Isaiah said, “Do not be afraid.” The evil plan, the invasion, would fail (7:4, 7). Since Isaiah knew Ahaz might be skeptical, he added two thoughts. First, he warned: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9b). Second, he offered a promise: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign” and he will grant it so you can be sure he will grant you this deliverance (7:11).
Unfortunately, Ahaz wanted no part of Isaiah or his sign. He did not believe the Lord would deliver him. Instead, he had his own plan of escape. To defeat two small powers—the northern tribes of Israel and Aram—Ahaz planned to appeal to the greatest power of his day, the king of Assyria. Ahaz, however, was unwilling to admit his plan to Isaiah, so he used a pious ploy, couched in religious jargon, to cover his rebellion. He said, “I will not ask [for a sign]; I will not put the Lord to the test” (Isa. 7:12).
Now it is true that we should not test the Lord. We should not demand that he perform signs or wonders for us. We should not tell God, “Do this and do that for me and then I will believe in you” (cf. Gen. 28:20–22; Ex. 17:1–7). But God had already resolved to give Ahaz a sign, as a gift. He knew Ahaz did not believe in him, so he offered a sign as a token of his strong love. Ahaz was saying, in essence, “I want no dealings with God—no gifts, no signs. I will care for my own destiny.”
Isaiah replied that whether Ahaz wanted a sign or not, he would receive one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). Before this child knew right from wrong, the two kings attacking Ahaz would be destroyed (7:16). But after that, Isaiah said, God “will bring the king of Assyria” (7:17).
Ahaz intended to hire Assyria to fight for him, to make an alliance. He invited Assyria’s army to come and fight the invaders and then, most likely, to receive the booty from the defeated armies and a gift from Ahaz. We can imagine, therefore, that when Isaiah said Assyria would come, it pleased Ahaz, initially at least. Yet, Isaiah continued, Assyria would come and would deliver Ahaz, but in its own way. Assyria would come like a plague of flies, like bees swarming over the land, like a raging river sweeping over the land (7:18–19; 8:4, 7–8).
God had offered Ahaz a gentle deliverance, but Ahaz wanted a mighty warrior. Now, God says, Ahaz would find one. The mighty army of Assyria would come and sweep away the invaders. But the army of Assyria would be hard to control, like a flood, bursting the banks of a river. That army
will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
O Immanuel! (Isa. 8:7–8)
When we hear “Immanuel” again, it seems like a poor fit for the context. At first we cannot grasp its meaning. Clearly, this use of “Immanuel” has no direct connection with the birth of a child then or with the birth of Jesus later on. Yet in context the sense is clear: God is with Ahaz, whether he likes it or not. Ahaz has rejected God’s deliverance. He said, “I want no dealings with God. I want to work with the king of Assyria.” In essence, the Lord replied, “Go ahead and work with the king of Assyria. Afterward he will work you over. Once his army comes your way, it will sweep over your land and do as they please. After that happens, you will know that I am Immanuel and you still must deal with me.” That is, if Ahaz refuses the gift of God because he does not want Immanuel, because he does not want God’s presence, then he must know that God is still Immanuel. God offered to be with Ahaz to bless, but if Ahaz repudiates that, then God is still present—to curse. He will let Ahaz taste the folly of inviting the Assyrian army into his land.
In the Old Testament, the principle of Immanuel teaches that if we reject God’s gracious deliverance and work something out for ourselves, we may succeed in the short run. Ahaz had deliverance for a day, when Assyria drove out the small invaders. But then Assyria stayed on, making Ahaz his vassal. Like floodwaters rising neck high, Assyria came within an inch of killing Ahaz.
So it goes to this day. When we work out our own deliverance, it often seems effective for a while. But then trouble comes swirling, up to the neck. Some find deliverance by drowning their sorrows with alcohol or drugs. It works for a while, then comes swirling up to the neck. People seek deliverance in money and career, in bodily health and strength, in education and skills, in families, in networks of well-connected people. They all work to a degree, for a season, but none can match the eternal, gracious deliverance God offers.
The original Immanuel prophecy meant that God offers to be present to bless. But if we refuse his blessing, he is still present, to judge. The original Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah bears a radical message: God is always present, always with us, either to bless or to curse.
Later on, Isaiah makes this point another way. If Israel trusts in God, “he will be a sanctuary.” If not, “he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Isa. 8:14). Yet Israel’s lack of faith will not permanently thwart God’s plan. Deliverance will come through Immanuel, God with us. We must trust this Immanuel:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
… upholding it
with justice and righteousness … forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (9:6–7)
Joseph, Mary, and Immanuel
According to Matthew, the blessed side of the Immanuel prophecy has now come. God has fulfilled it in the birth of Jesus. The promise of military deliverance for Ahaz prefigured something far greater. While the first Immanuel deliverance was powerful, it chiefly served to prepare for the second. In the first Immanuel, God offered to be with Ahaz in a sign. Now Jesus will be God with us in person. As before, it is God’s design to bless through Immanuel. Still, God has acted and, as we learned from Ahaz, Immanuel is here whether anyone likes it or not.
Some people respond to the birth of Jesus with indifference, much as Ahaz was indifferent to Isaiah’s promise of Immanuel. They think it is a nice tradition and an amusing tale that some people happen to believe. They may even be happy for friends or neighbors who are comforted to think that there is a supernatural power watching over them.
Such thinking completely misses the point of Isaiah and Matthew. Immanuel is not a religious option for those who choose to embrace it. Immanuel is the truth, whether we choose to embrace it or not!
Some people like to pretend uncomfortable events never really happened: Stalin’s murder of Ukrainian peasants, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the slave trade all somehow prompt groups that deny that such events actually happened. Others choose to block such tragedies from their minds. Nonetheless the tragedies did happen.
Immanuel happened too. Matthew declares that God is with us. If we believe, he is with us to bless and to save. If not, God is still with us, to call us to repentance. If you reject that, God is still with you, as judge. God’s deliverance is the only one that works in the end. Most people can work their plan for a while. But there comes a time when dark waters swirl up to every neck, when disaster or death looms. At that time we will want to be able to call upon Immanuel. He is our abiding hope.
Joseph and the Birth of Jesus, Our Immanuel
When the angel had finished speaking, Joseph awoke, believed, and “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” That is, he “took Mary home as his wife” (Matt. 1:24). His submission to God was as powerful and complete as that of Mary, who also offered herself as the servant of the Lord. Joseph refused to be led by shame or anger. He laid aside the plausible plan of divorce and took Mary as his wife.
To make the supernatural conception of Jesus perfectly clear, Matthew says Joseph “had no union with [Mary] until she gave birth to a son.” Literally, Joseph “did not know her until she had given birth to a son.” Then Joseph took her newborn baby and “gave him the name Jesus” just as the angel had said (1:25).
What a tender picture of living faith! Mary and Joseph listened to God. They silenced their emotions of fear and shame and obeyed the Lord. Why? Because they understood that God is with his people to save. Because they were willing to listen to their Lord, whatever people might think or say. They show us how to listen and how to obey the voice of God rather than our impulses.
This portion of Matthew offers a picture of faith, but more than that it is an account of the acts of the triune God. The Father’s plan of redemption has come to the beginning of its climactic phase. The Spirit’s prophecy to Ahaz and through Ahaz set up the Immanuel principle that now comes to fulfillment. The Spirit also fashioned life in the womb of Mary and moved the hearts of Mary and Joseph to accept their role in the divine drama. Finally, the eternal Son has entered the world of humanity.
May the Spirit work in us to receive what God began to accomplish in the birth of Jesus. May we also submit our plans and our emotions to him, as Joseph did. May we give our hearts and minds to him as Mary and Joseph did. May we know that God is with us, to bless us, in every season of life. In every distress, let us turn to God for comfort. In joy and in blessing, let us not ascribe it to good fortune or hard work, but to Immanuel, who is present to bless. God is with us in the person of Jesus. May we have the faith, trust, love, and obedience to receive the blessings of Immanuel.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 11–22). Chicago: Moody Press.
Wonderful Counselor” (Isa. 9:6) is the name of this child. In him the wonder of all wonders has taken place; the birth of the Savior-child has gone forth from God’s eternal counsel. In the form of a human child, God gave us his Son; God became human, the Word became flesh (John 1:14). That is the wonder of the love of God for us, and it is the unfathomably wise Counselor who wins us this love and saves us. But because this child of God is his own Wonderful Counselor, he himself is also the source of all wonder and all counsel. To those who recognize in Jesus the wonder of the Son of God, every one of his words and deeds becomes a wonder; they find in him the last, most profound, most helpful counsel for all needs and questions. Yes, before the child can open his lips, he is full of wonder and full of counsel. Go to the child in the manger. Believe him to be the Son of God, and you will find in him wonder upon wonder, counsel upon counsel.
In winter it seems that the season of Spring will never come, and in both Advent and Lent it’s the waiting that’s hard, the in-between of divine promise and its fulfillment.… Most of us find ourselves dangling in this hiatus, which in the interval may seem a waste of time.… But “the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” With such motivation, we can wait as we sense that God is indeed with us, and at work within us, as he was with Mary as the Child within her grew.
Poet Luci Shaw, in God with Us
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
To Be Redeemed, We Must have the Redeemer’s Nature
Romans 5:12–18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Hebrews 2:16
In order to be redeemed, we must all have that nature which He the Redeemer took. Had our natures been different, He would have redeemed one and not another. Such a common nature we have, as being one and all children of one man, Adam; and thus the history of our fall is connected with the history of our recovery.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Today Night Is Turned into Day
Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16; Luke 2:8–14
Today the angels rejoice, the archangels exult, and all the just are in devotion and spiritual joy. Today night is turned into day and great brightness, for to the righteous of heart a light is risen up in darkness: the merciful and compassionate Lord.
Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)
Today the World’s Maker Is Born
Luke 2:8–15; John 1:14
Today the maker of the world was born of a virgin’s womb, and He, who made all natures, became son of her whom He created. Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and that which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels’ voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul; and today the form of the gospel message was prearranged by the leaders of the Lord’s flocks, so that we too may say with the army of the heavenly host: “Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace to men of good will.”
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
Truth Came into the Womb
John 14:6; 18:37–38
Sin had spread its wings, and covered all things, so that none could discern, of himself or from above, the truth. Truth came down into the womb, came forth and rolled away error.
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)
Understanding Spiritual Things by the Flesh
John 1:14; Romans 8:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14
Since man, on account of the flesh, could understand nothing but what was of the flesh, behold, the Word was made flesh that man might be able even by the flesh to hear and understand the things of the Spirit.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
Very God Was Born in Very Man
Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:35; Philippians 2:6–7
While the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible.… Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was His, whole in what was ours.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
We Cannot Be Saved without Humility
We can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
We Are Now Reminded of God’s Gifts
Luke 2:10; John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:23; Revelation 19:13
Let us at this season approach Him with awe and love, in whom resides all perfection, and from whom we are allowed to gain it. Let us come to the sanctifier to be sanctified. Let us come to Him to learn our duty, and to receive grace to do it. At other seasons of the year we are reminded of watching, toiling, struggling, and suffering; but at this season we are reminded simply of God’s gifts towards us sinners.… Christ comes at other times with garments dyed in blood. But now He comes to us in all serenity and peace, and He bids us rejoice in Him, and to love one another.
Emmanuel became man to make the church and every Christian to be one with Him. Christ’s nature is out of danger of all that is hurtful. The sun shall not shine, the wind shall not blow, to the church’s hurt. For the church’s head rules over all things, and has all things in subjection. Angels in heaven, men on earth, devils in hell, all bow to Christ. And shall anything befall them that He loves, unless for their greater good?… God is on our side, and on what grounds? God-man has procured Him to be our friend, He has satisfied God, and therefore if we believe, we are one with Christ, and so one with God.
Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)
We Become His Body by Being Reborn
John 1:13; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:18; 2:19
As the Lord Jesus became our flesh by being born, so we also became His body by being reborn.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
We Can No Longer Think God Is Indifferent
Isaiah 64:1; Luke 1:68; Hebrews 7:25; James 4:8
We can no more think that God sits on high, indifferent to the wants and woes of men, for God has visited us and come down to the lowliness of our estate. No longer need we bemoan that we can never participate in the moral glory and purity of God, for if God in glory can come down to His sinful creature, it is certainly less difficult to bear that creature, blood-washed and purified, up that starry way, that the redeemed one may sit down forever on his throne. Let us dream no longer in somber sadness that we cannot draw near to God so that He will really hear our prayer and pity our necessities, seeing that Jesus has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, born a babe as we are born, living a man as we must live, bearing the same infirmities and sorrows, and bowing His head to the same death.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
We Could Not See God Until He Was Manifested to Us
Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 4:9
The brightness of the sun might put out our eyes if we gazed upon it, and we must needs look through dim glass, and then the sun is manifested to us. So the excessive glory of the infinite Godhead cannot be borne by our mind’s eye till it comes into communication and union with the nature of man, and then God is manifest to us.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
We Enter the Kingdom in Feebleness
Matthew 18:4; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Romans 6:8; Colossians 3:3
We need to die with Christ—that is the way to get delivered from the old man and self, the way to receive the heavenly life as a little child, and so to enter the Kingdom. The feebleness of Bethlehem and the manger, of Calvary and the grave, was Christ’s way to enter the Kingdom—for us there is no other way.
Andrew Murray (1828–1917)
We May Call God Our Father Because Christ Became Our Brother
Luke 1:35; John 20:17; Romans 8:29
We may venture more freely to call God our Father, because His only Son, in order that we might have a Father in common with Him, chose to be our brother.
Matthew 26:36–39; Mark 14:32–36; John 3:16; Romans 8:34
We remember your love, O Jesus, as it was manifested to us in your holy life, from the manger of Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemane!
We track you from the cradle to the grave, for every word and every deed of yours was love.
Especially, O Jesus, we remember your love to us upon the cross!
We gaze upon you with your hands and your feet nailed to the accursed tree.
We remember your love that you manifested through your poor, bleeding hands, and feet, and side.
We remember this love of yours until it invigorates and cheers us:
the love that you have exercised since your death,
the love of your resurrection,
the love that prompts you continually to intercede before your Father’s throne,
that burning lamp of love that will never let you hold your peace until your chosen ones are all safely housed, and Zion is glorified, and the spiritual Jerusalem is settled on her everlasting foundations.
9:6–7 Twice earlier in this section of Isaiah, the birth of children has been described as having prophetic significance (7:14; 8:1–4). For a third time, the reader learns of a future birth. Some commentators believe the text means that this future royal child will be a purely human descendant of David who will be proclaimed king and lead God’s people to a new level of freedom and prosperity. Both Hezekiah and Josiah have been identified as this child. However, the titles given to this child and the description of his kingdom far surpass anything applicable to Hezekiah or Josiah. The only feasible interpretation of this passage is messianic. This child will be given names that signify his character. He will be a sage characterized by extraordinary wisdom (Wonderful Counselor). He will have life that is never ending (Eternal Father). He will bring peace (Prince of Peace). But the most extraordinary thing of all that confirms he is simply not to be identified with a Hezekiah or a Josiah is his title, Mighty God (cp. 8:21). In the NT, Jesus is identified as the Davidic descendant who fulfilled this great promise (Mt 1:1, 22–23).
9:6 child … son. The good news is the birth of Jesus Christ. The four royal names express His divine and human qualities, giving assurance that He is indeed “Immanuel” (7:14).
born … given. The verbs are consistent with His humanity and deity respectively.
Mighty God. As a warrior, God protects His people (10:21; Deut. 10:17; Jer. 32:18).
Everlasting Father. The Father and King cares for His subjects (40:9–11; 65:17–25; Matt. 18:12–14; 23:9–12; Rom. 8:15–17).
Prince of Peace. His government brings peace (2:4; 11:6–9; Ps. 72:7; Zech. 9:10; Luke 2:14).
9:7 throne of David. He is a descendant of David (11:1 note), who will establish the kingdom of God in “justice and with righteousness” (1:21 note).
zeal. God guarantees that this will be fulfilled (37:32; 42:13; Zech. 1:14).
9:6to us. A gift of divine grace to sinners. a child … a son. This is the invincible figure striding across the world stage, taking gracious command, according to vv. 4–5 (cf. Ps. 2:7–9; Luke 1:32). Isaiah presents the events as if it were the time of the child’s arrival, with an expectation of what he will achieve (Isa. 9:7). Wonderful Counselor. A “counselor” is one who is able to make wise plans (cf. 11:2). He is a ruler whose wisdom is beyond merely human capabilities, unlike intelligent but foolish Ahaz (cf. 28:29). Mighty God. A title of the Lord himself (10:20–21; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 9:32; Jer. 32:18). Everlasting Father. A “father” here is a benevolent protector (cf. Isa. 22:21; Job 29:16), which is the task of the ideal king and is also the way God himself cares for his people (cf. Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Ps. 103:13). (That is, this is not using the Trinitarian title “Father” for the Messiah; rather, it is portraying him as a king.) Prince of Peace. He is the ruler whose reign will bring about peace because the nations will rely on his just decisions in their disputes (cf. Isa. 2:4; 11:6–9; 42:4; 49:7; 52:15). This kind of king contrasts with even the best of the Davidic line that Judah has experienced so far, because these titles show that this king will be divine. Thus this cannot refer to, say, Hezekiah (whose father Ahaz was king at the time), who for all his piety was nevertheless flawed (cf. 39:5–8) and only human.
9:6 The Messiah is both human (from the line of David) and divine (see John 1:14; Col. 2:9).
9:7 God called Abraham to be the channel of blessing to the whole world (Gen. 12:1–3), and this was the purpose of Israel’s life in their land (Ex. 19:5–6). Isaiah focuses the messianic hope on an heir of David who would extend his rule from Israel to include all the Gentiles, and thus finally to bring to them the blessing of knowing the true God (Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:8–16). Of the increase … no end. The empire of grace will forever expand, and every moment will be better than the last. the throne of David. Cf. Luke 1:32. with justice and with righteousness. Unlike apostate Ahaz (cf. Jer. 33:15–16). zeal. The final victory is a miracle, accomplished with a passionate intensity of which only the Lordof hosts is capable (cf. Isa. 42:13; 59:15–19; 63:15).
9:7 The Messiah establishes his rule in justice (Rom. 3:26; Eph. 1:20–22) and peace (John 16:33).
9:6 child … son. These terms elaborate further on Immanuel, the child to be born to the virgin (7:14). The virgin’s child will also be the royal Son of David, with rights to the Davidic throne (9:7; cf. Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31–33; 2:7, 11). government. In fulfillment of this verse and Ps 2:9, the Son will rule the nations of the world (Rev 2:27; 19:15). Wonderful Counselor. In contrast to Ahaz, this King will implement supernatural wisdom in discharging His office (cf. 2Sa 16:23; 1Ki 3:28). Mighty God. As a powerful warrior, the Messiah will accomplish the military exploits mentioned in 9:3–5 (cf. 10:21; Dt 10:17; Ne 9:32). Eternal Father. The Messiah will be a Father to His people eternally. As Davidic King, He will compassionately care for and discipline them (40:11; 63:16; 64:8; Pss 68:5, 6; 103:13; Pr 3:12). Prince of Peace. The government of Immanuel will procure and perpetuate peace among the nations of the world (2:4; 11:6–9; Mic 4:3).
9:7 throne of David. The virgin’s Son will be the rightful heir to David’s throne and will inherit the promises of the Davidic Covenant (2Sa 7:12–16; cf. Ps 89:1–37; Mt 1:1).
9:6 The First Advent is described in verse 6a: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” The first clause speaks of His humanity, the second of His deity. The next part of the verse points forward to the Second Advent:
the government will be upon His shoulder—He will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The rest of the verse describes His personal glories:
His name will be called Wonderful—this name is a noun, not an adjective, and speaks of His Person and work.
Counselor—His wisdom in government.
Mighty God—the omnipotent, supreme Ruler.
Everlasting Father—or better, the Father (or “Source”) of eternity. Eternal Himself, He confers eternal life on those who believe in Him. Vine comments: “There is a twofold revelation in this: (1) He inhabits and possesses eternity (57:15); (2) He is loving, tender, compassionate, an all wise Instructor, Trainer, and Provider.”
Prince of Peace (Sar-Shālôm)—the One who will at last bring peace to this troubled world.
9:7 His government will be far-flung, peaceful, and endless. Sitting upon the throne of David, He will rule with judgment and justice. How will all this be brought about? The Lord’s jealous care for His people will perform this.
9:6–7. Here Isaiah recorded five things about the coming Messiah.
1. He was to be born a Child. The implication, given in parallel style, is that this Child, a Son, was to be born into the nation of Israel (to us) as one of the covenant people.
2. He will rule over God’s people (cf. Micah 5:2) and the world (Zech. 14:9). The government will be on His shoulders figuratively refers to the kingly robe to be worn by the Messiah. As King, He will be responsible to govern the nation. In Isaiah’s day Judah’s leaders were incompetent in governing the people. But the Messiah will govern properly.
3. He will have four descriptive names that will reveal His character. He will be the nation’s Wonderful (this could be trans. “exceptional” or “distinguished”) Counselor, and the people will gladly listen to Him as the authoritative One. In the kingdom many people will be anxious to hear the Messiah teach God’s ways (2:3). He is also the Mighty God (cf. 10:21). Some have suggested that this simply means “a godlike person” or hero. But Isaiah meant more than that, for he had already spoken of the Messiah doing what no other person had been able to do (e.g., 9:2–5). Isaiah understood that the Messiah was to be God in some sense of the term.
This Deliverer will also be called the Everlasting Father. Many people are puzzled by this title because the Messiah, God’s Son, is distinguished in the Trinity from God the Father. How can the Son be the Father? Several things must be noted in this regard. First, the Messiah, being the second Person of the Trinity, is in His essence, God. Therefore He has all the attributes of God including eternality. Since God is One (even though He exists in three Persons), the Messiah is God. Second, the title “Everlasting Father” is an idiom used to describe the Messiah’s relationship to time, not His relationship to the other Members of the Trinity. He is said to be everlasting, just as God (the Father) is called “the Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:9). The Messiah will be a “fatherly” Ruler. Third, perhaps Isaiah had in mind the promise to David (2 Sam. 7:16) about the “foreverness” of the kingdom which God promised would come through David’s line. The Messiah, a Descendant of David, will fulfill this promise for which the nation had been waiting.
The Messiah is also called the Prince of Peace, the One who will bring in and maintain the time of millennial peace when the nation will be properly related to the Lord. Together, these four titles give a beautiful picture of the coming Messiah’s character (Isa. 9:6 includes the first of Isaiah’s 25 references to peace.)
4. The Messiah, seated on David’s throne (Luke 1:32–33), will have an eternal rule of peace and justice. His rule will have no end; it will go on forever (cf. Dan. 7:14, 27; Micah 4:7; Luke 1:33; Rev. 11:15). Following the kingdom on earth, He will rule for eternity. He will maintain righteousness (cf. Jer. 23:5), as His rule will conform to God’s holy character and demands.
5. This will all be accomplished by the zeal of the Lord Almighty. The coming of the millennial kingdom depends on God, not Israel. The Messiah will rule because God promised it and will zealously see that the kingdom comes. Without His sovereign intervention there would be no kingdom for Israel.
Apparently Isaiah assumed that the messianic Child, Jesus Christ, would establish His reign in one Advent, that when the Child grew up He would rule in triumph. Like the other prophets, Isaiah was not aware of the great time gap between Messiah’s two Advents (cf. 1 Peter 1:10–12; and see comments on Isa. 61:1–2).
9:6–7. The joys described in vv. 1–5 are grounded in the birth of a child within the Davidic line. The child’s birth will bring deliverance, and the titles bestowed upon him are impressive. The first given is that of Wonderful Counselor. The word Wonderful (extraordinary to the point of being miraculous) is not meant in the colloquial usage of contemporary society. Rather it refers to the supernatural work of God. A good example is its usage in Jdg 13:15–21, wherein the angel of the Lord does a “wonderful” thing (v. 18) and ascends to heaven in the flame of Manoah’s sacrifice (v. 20).
The title of Counselor does not carry the same sense as the modern English word, which is often associated with a therapist or social worker. Instead, the word means “one who advises, who serves as a consultant to help and lead others.” The title here must be construed as denoting this child’s capacity to guide the people of the nation, particularly with reference to military endeavors. Though the child’s guidance of the nation would not be limited to warfare, it does suggest that his skill in making decisions for the nation exhibits a divine or miraculous character that would not be possible through simply human devices (Smith, Isaiah 1–39, 240). The word “wonderful” stands in epexegetical construct to “counselor,” and could be translated “a wonder of a counselor” or “a wonder-counselor.”
The second title, Mighty God, is repeated in Is 10:21 and applied to God Himself. Although the Hebrew word for Mighty can refer to a valiant warrior, this close usage to 10:21 seems to indicate a reference to deity. The word means “valiant military hero” or “champion.” Similar phrases are also used in Dt 10:17 and Jr 32:18 with reference to God. Oswalt notes, “This king will have God’s true might about him,” being so powerful so as to be able to absorb all evil and defeat it (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, 247).
The child is also called Eternal Father. Filial relationships, such as father and son, were emphasized in the ancient Near East. The king was generally the son in such relationships and the deity the father (John H. Walton, et al., IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000], 518). Kings, however, also claimed to be the “father” of those they ruled (Oswalt, Isaiah 1–39, 247). The notion of a human king as father of his people is not foreign to the OT. Note, for instance, 1Sm 24:12 in which David calls Saul his father. But this one is not merely the royal father of His people. The adjective Eternal speaks to the idea of one who is forever or eternal. He is the “Father of eternity,” indicating that He is the author or creator of time. The child born here is not to be confused with the Father in the triune Godhead. Rather, the Son of God is the creator of time, the author of eternity.
The final title given to the child is Prince of Peace. This child will have a reign characterized by peace. There will be no more war under this king. Instead, the child will usher in an era of rest from conflict that is noted in 2Sm 7:10–11.
Some have suggested that these titles are merely a theophoric name, a name that embeds God’s name in a human name. Hence, “Isaiah” (“The Lord saves”) is theophoric, but does not indicate that Isaiah is deity. If this is so here, then the child is not necessarily deity, but rather a royal human figure with a long name, similar to Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“Swift is the booty, fast is the prey,” Is 8:1), containing names of deity. They translate this as “A wonderful counselor is the Mighty God, the eternal Father is the Prince of Peace.”
This explanation is unlikely for three reasons. (1) The name in 8:3 is dependent on 8:1 and is not parallel syntactically to 9:6. All the words in 9:6 are substantives that do not have subjects and predicates. (2) Titles such as this one frequently reflect the nature of the person (cf. 2Sm 12:24–25; Is 1:26; Hs 1:10). (3) Frequently, the verb “call” with a name indicates the nature of the one named, either by a play on words (cf. Gn 5:29) or direct meaning (cf. Is 1:26). Hence, this usage in v. 6 indicates that the names are related to the nature of the child born. Robert Reymond is correct in stating that there is no reason, “except dogmatic prejudice,” to prohibit the conclusion that Isaiah meant nothing other than unabridged deity here (Robert L. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The OT Witness [Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications. 1990], 51).
The child will fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant (cf. 2Sm 7:12–16), and establish the messianic kingdom through justice and righteousness. This kingdom will not be the outworking of a king with human wisdom and power. The child will rule with the wisdom, power, and peace of God. The final statement in v. 7 notes that the Lord will accomplish all that has been described. Isaiah again underscores that trust in the Lord is the key to receiving the promised blessing.
6 The final reason for the joy is the greatest of all. Isaiah tells of the birth of a special child who will come from the Davidic line. The language used here and in the following verse is based on the covenant made with David (cf. 2 Samuel 7). The child born will be destined for rule, as the government will rest on his shoulders. His names are to be indicative of the character he has and the work he will do. It is best to take it that there are four names given, as in Hebrew they have a common grammatical form. These names are, ‘wonderful counsellor’, ‘mighty God’, ‘everlasting father’ and ‘prince of peace’.
The first word, ‘wonderful,’ is most significant, as in Hebrew it comes from a root that is almost exclusively used of the things that only God can do. Immediately Hebrew readers saw the word or auditors heard the word pele’, it would alert them to the fact that something is being described that is beyond human capability. Therefore when it is linked with ‘counsellor’ the meaning is that the child will be a divine counsellor, who will instruct with the wisdom that comes only from God.
The second phrase, ‘mighty God’, confirms the implication of the first phrase, and especially when one compares the use of this phrase in 10:21 (‘a remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God’), the impression is clearly given that deity is being ascribed to the child. Though he will be ‘born of the seed of David according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:3), yet he will be God himself ‘who is over all, the eternally blessed God’ (Rom. 9:5).
He will also be ‘father of eternity’. The reference to ‘father’ should not be taken to mean that the messianic king will be the first person of the Trinity in his human appearance. Rather the emphasis is on the character he bears, and the manner in which he cares for his children with fatherlike compassion and tenderness. For all eternity he will deal with his children as a loving father.
Finally, the Messiah will be ‘prince of peace’. The Hebrew word ‘peace’ (shâlôm) means much more than our English word, which points to the absence of warfare and strife. The Hebrew word designates prosperity as well as tranquillity. Many of the other prophets in the Old Testament speak about the messianic period as a period of peace.
Taken together the terms speak of the child as one who will instruct with wisdom which is divine, who will act in power as the mighty God, who will love and care for his children eternally, and whose coming will bring lasting peace and blessing.
7 The messianic child is someone far different from other children, even those born into David’s family. The child called ‘Immanuel’ (7:14) is going to ‘sit on the throne of David and over his kingdom … from that time forward, even forever’. His kingdom will be an everlasting one, and the government he exercises and the peace he brings will know no end. The Hebrew word for ‘government’ (misrâh) comes from the word ‘prince’ (sâr), and the indication is that it will be a Davidic prince who will be the messianic ruler. The final clause in the verse shows how all this will come about. It will come only because the zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish it (cf. Zech. 8:2). No human agency can achieve this result. It will depend solely on the power of a sovereign God. He brings about the peace and then the child will rule over the peaceful kingdom.
6. For unto us a child is born. Isaiah now argues from the design, to show why this deliverance ought to be preferred to the rest of God’s benefits, namely, because not only will God bring back the people from captivity, but he will place Christ on his royal throne, that under him supreme and everlasting happiness may be enjoyed. Thus he affirms that the kindness of God will not be temporary, for it includes the whole of that intermediate period during which the Church was preserved till the coming of Christ. Nor is it wonderful if the Prophet makes a sudden transition from the return of the ancient people to the full restoration of the Church, which took place many centuries afterwards; for in our observations on chapter 7:14, we have remarked, that there being no other way that God is reconciled to us than through the Mediator, all the promises are founded on him; and that on this account it is customary with the Prophets, whenever they wish to encourage the hearts of believers by good hope, to bring this forward as a pledge or earnest. To this must be added, that the return from the captivity in Babylon was the commencement of the renovation of the Church, which was completed when Christ appeared; and consequently there is no absurdity in an uninterrupted succession. Justly, therefore, does Isaiah teach that they ought not to confine their attention to the present benefit, but should consider the end, and refer everything to it. “This is your highest happiness, that you have been rescued from death, not only that you may live in the land of Canaan, but that you may arrive at the kingdom of God.”
Hence we learn that we ought not to swallow up the benefits which we receive from God, so as instantly to forget them, but should raise our minds to Christ, otherwise the advantage will be small, and the joy will be transitory; because they will not lead us to taste the sweetness of a Father’s love, unless we keep in remembrance the free election of God, which is ratified in Christ. In short, the Prophet does not wish that this people should be wholly occupied with the joy occasioned by the outward and short-lived freedom which they had obtained, but that they should look at the end, that is, at the preservation of the Church, till Christ, the only Redeemer, should appear; for he ought to be the ground and perfection of all our joy.
A child is born. The Jews impudently torture this passage, for they interpret it as relating to Hezekiah, though he had been born before this prediction was uttered. But he speaks of it as something new and unexpected; and it is even a promise, intended to arouse believers to the expectation of a future event; and therefore there can be no hesitation in concluding that he describes a child that was afterwards to be born.
He is called the Son of God. Although in the Hebrew language the word son, I admit, has a wide acceptation, yet that is when something is added to it. Every man is the son of his father: those who are a hundred years old are called (Is. 65:20) the sons of a hundred years; wicked men are called the sons of wickedness; those who are blessed are called the sons of blessing; and Isaiah called a fruitful hill the son of fatness. (Is. 5:1.) But son, without any addition, can mean none else than the Son of God; and it is now ascribed to Christ, by way of eminence, (κατʼ ἐξοχὴν,) in order to inform us, that by this striking mark he is distinguished from the rest of mankind. Nor can it be doubted that Isaiah referred to that well-known prediction, which was in the mouth of every person, I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son, (2 Sam. 7:14,) as it is afterwards repeated, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. (Ps. 2:7.) Had it not been commonly and generally known that the Messiah would be the Son of God, it would have been foolish and unmeaning for Isaiah simply to call him the Son. Accordingly, this title is derived from the former prediction, from which the Apostle reasons, that the excellence of Christ exalts him above all the angels. (Heb. 1:5.)
Now, though in the person of a child Christ might have a mean appearance, still the designation of Son points out his high rank. Yet I do not deny that he might have been called the Son of David, but it is more natural to apply it to him as God. The titles which follow are still less applicable to Hezekiah. I shall soon give an ample refutation of the sophistry by which the Jews attempt to evade this passage. Let them slander as they may, the matter is sufficient plain to all who will calmly and soberly examine it.
A Son hath been given to us. There is weight in what he now adds, that this Son was given to the people, in order to inform the Jews that their salvation and that of the whole Church is contained in the person of Christ. And this giving is one of the chief articles of our faith; for it would have been of little avail to us, that Christ was born, if he had not likewise been our own. What this child will be, and what is his rank, he declares in the following statements.
And the government hath been laid upon his shoulder. To suppose, as some do, that this is an allusion to the cross of Christ is manifestly childish. Christ carried the cross on his shoulders, (John 19:17,) and by the cross he gained a splendid triumph over the prince of this world. (John 14:30.) But as the government is here said to have been laid on his shoulders in the same sense in which we shall see that the key of the house of David was laid on the shoulders of Eliakim, (Is. 22:22,) we need not go far to seek ingenious expositions. Yet I agree with those who think that there is an indirect contrast between the government which the Redeemer bore on his shoulders and the staff of the shoulder which was just now mentioned; for it agrees well, and is not liable to any objections. He therefore shows that the Messiah will be different from indolent kings, who leave off business and cares, and live at their ease; for he will be able to bear the burden. Thus he asserts the superiority and grandeur of his government, because by his own power Christ will obtain homage to himself, and he will discharge his office, not only with the tips of his fingers, but with his full strength.
And his name shall be called. Though יקרא, (yĭkrā,) he shall call, be an active verb, I have not hesitated to translate it in a passive sense; for the meaning is the same as if he had made use of the plural number, they shall call. We have a French idiom that resembles it, on appellera, literally, one shall call, that is, he shall be called. The Jews apply it to God, and read it continously, he shall call his name Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. But it is very evident that this proceeds from a desire, or rather from a licentious eagerness, to obscure the glory of Christ; for if they had not laboured with excessive keenness to rob him of his Godhead, the passage would run on very smoothly as interpreted by our divines. Besides, what necessity was there for ascribing to God those attributes, if the Prophet meant nothing more than that God gave a name to Messiah? For the attributes which are usually ascribed to God are either perpetual or accommodated to the case in hand, neither of which suppositions can here be admitted. Again, it would have been an interruption of the regular order to insert the name of God in the midst of various titles, but it ought to have run thus, the mighty God, Wonderful, Counsellor, shall call. Now, I do not see how the name יועצ (yōgnētz) can be applied absolutely to God, for it belongs to counsellors who attend kings or other persons. If any obstinate wrangler shall contend for the notion of the Rabbins, he will show nothing but his own impudence. Let us follow the plain and natural meaning.
Wonderful. It ought to be observed that those titles are not foreign to the subject, but are adapted to the case in hand, for the Prophet describes what Christ will show himself to be towards believers. He does not speak of Christ’s mysterious essence, but applauds his excellencies, which we perceive and experience by faith. This ought to be the more carefully considered, because the greater part of men are satisfied with his mere name, and do not observe his power and energy, though that ought to be chiefly regarded.
By the first title he arouses the minds of the godly to earnest attention, that they may expect from Christ something more excellent than what we see in the ordinary course of God’s works, as if he had said, that in Christ are hidden the invaluable treasures of wonderful things. (Col. 2:3.) And, indeed, the redemption which he has brought surpasses even the creation of the world. It amounts to this, that the grace of God, which will be exhibited in Christ, exceeds all miracles.
Counsellor. The reason of this second title is, that the Redeemer will come endowed with absolute wisdom. Now, let us remember what I have just noticed, that the Prophet does not here reason about the hidden essence of Christ, but about the power which he displays towards us. It is not, therefore, because he knows all his Father’s secrets that the Prophet calls him Counsellor, but rather because, proceeding from the bosom of the Father, (John 1:18,) he is in every respect the highest and most perfect teacher. In like manner we are not permitted to get wisdom but from his Gospel, and this contributes also to the praise of the Gospel, for it contains the perfect wisdom of God, as Paul frequently shows. (1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Eph. 1:17; Col. 1:9.) All that is necessary for salvation is opened up by Christ in such a manner, and explained with such familiarity, that he addresses the disciples no longer as servants but as friends. (John 15:14, 15.)
The mighty God. אל (El) is one of the names of God, though derived from strength, so that it is sometimes added as an attribute. But here it is evidently a proper name, because Isaiah is not satisfied with it, and in addition to it employs the adjective גבור, (gibbōr,) which means strong. And indeed if Christ had not been God, it would have been unlawful to glory in him; for it is written, Cursed be he that trusteth in man. (Jer. 17:5.) We must, therefore, meet with the majesty of God in him, so that there truly dwells in him that which cannot without sacrilege be attributed to a creature.
He is, therefore, called the mighty God, for the same reason that he was formerly called Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14.) For if we find in Christ nothing but the flesh and nature of man, our glorying will be foolish and vain, and our hope will rest on an uncertain and insecure foundation; but if he shows himself to be to us God and the mighty God, we may now rely on him with safety. With good reason does he call him strong or mighty, because our contest is with the devil, death, and sin, (Eph. 6:12,) enemies too powerful and strong, by whom we would be immediately vanquished, if the strength of Christ had not rendered us invincible. Thus we learn from this title that there is in Christ abundance of protection for defending our salvation, so that we desire nothing beyond him; for he is God, who is pleased to show himself strong on our behalf. This application may be regarded as the key to this and similar passages, leading us to distinguish between Christ’s mysterious essence and the power by which he hath revealed himself to us.
The father of the age. The Greek translator has added μέλλοντος, future; and, in my opinion, the translation is correct, for it denotes eternity, unless it be thought better to view it as denoting “perpetual duration,” or “an endless succession of ages,” lest any one should improperly limit it to the heavenly life, which is still hidden from us. (Col. 3:3) True, the Prophet includes it, and even declares that Christ will come, in order to bestow immortality on his people; but as believers, even in this world, pass from death to life, (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14,) this world is embraced by the eternal condition of the Church.
The name Father is put for Author, because Christ preserves the existence of his Church through all ages, and bestows immortality on the body and on the individual members. Hence we conclude how transitory our condition is, apart from him; for, granting that we were to live for a very long period after the ordinary manner of men, what after all will be the value of our long life? We ought, therefore, to elevate our minds to that blessed and everlasting life, which as yet we see not, but which we possess by hope and faith. (Rom. 8:25)
The Prince of Peace. This is the last title, and the Prophet declares by it that the coming of Christ will be the cause of full and perfect happiness, or, at least, of calm and blessed safety. In the Hebrew language peace often signifies prosperity, for of all blessings not one is better or more desirable than peace. The general meaning is, that all who submit to the dominion of Christ will lead a quiet and blessed life in obedience to him. Hence it follows that life, without this King, is restless and miserable.
But we must also take into consideration the nature of this peace. It is the same with that of the kingdom, for it resides chiefly in the consciences; otherwise we must be engaged in incessant conflicts and liable to daily attacks. Not only, therefore, does he promise outward peace, but that peace by which we return to a state of favour with God, who were formerly at enmity with him. Justified by faith, says Paul, we have peace with God. (Rom. 5:1) Now, when Christ shall have brought composure to our minds, the same spiritual peace will hold the highest place in our hearts, (Philip. 4:7; Col. 3:15,) so that we will patiently endure every kind of adversity, and from the same fountain will likewise flow outward prosperity, which is nothing else than the effect of the blessing of God.
Now, to apply this for our own instruction, whenever any distrust arises, and all means of escape are taken away from us, whenever, in short, it appears to us that everything is in a ruinous condition, let us recall to our remembrance that Christ is called Wonderful, because he has inconceivable methods of assisting us, and because his power is far beyond what we are able to conceive. When we need counsel, let us remember that he is the Counsellor. When we need strength, let us remember that he is Mighty and Strong. When new terrors spring up suddenly every instant, and when many deaths threaten us from various quarters, let us rely on that eternity of which he is with good reason called the Father, and by the same comfort let us learn to soothe all temporal distresses. When we are inwardly tossed by various tempests, and when Satan attempts to disturb our consciences, let us remember that Christ is The Prince of Peace, and that it is easy for him quickly to allay all our uneasy feelings. Thus will these titles confirm us more and more in the faith of Christ, and fortify us against Satan and against hell itself.
7. To the increase of the government there will be no end. He begins to explain and confirm what he had formerly said, that Christ is The Prince of Peace, by saying that his government is extended to every age, and is perpetual; that there will be no end to the government or to peace. This was also repeated by Daniel, who predicts that his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. (Dan. 7:27) Gabriel also alluded to it when he carried the message to the virgin; and he gave the true exposition of this passage, for it cannot be understood to refer to any other than to Christ. He shall reign, says he, over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:33) We see that the mightiest governments of this world, as if they had been built on a slippery foundation, (Ps. 73:18,) are unexpectedly overturned and suddenly fall. How fickle and changeable all the kingdoms under heaven are, we learn from history and from daily examples. This government alone is unchangeable and eternal.
Now, this continuance, of which Isaiah now speaks, consists of two parts. It belongs both to time and to quality. Though the kingdom of Christ is in such a condition that it appears as if it were about to perish at every moment, yet God not only protects and defends it, but also extends its boundaries far and wide, and then preserves and carries it forward in uninterrupted progression to eternity. We ought firmly to believe this, that the frequency of those shocks by which the Church is shaken may not weaken our faith, when we learn that, amidst the mad outcry and violent attacks of enemies, the kingdom of Christ stands firm through the invincible power of God, so that, though the whole world should oppose and resist, it will remain through all ages. We must not judge of its stability from the present appearances of things, but from the promise, which assures us of its continuance and of its constant increase.
And to the peace. To the government he adds the eternity of the peace, for the one cannot be separated from the other. It is impossible that Christ should be King without also keeping his people in calm and blessed peace, and enriching them with every blessing. But as they are daily exposed to innumerable vexations, endure fierce attacks, and are tossed and perplexed by fears and anxieties, they ought to cultivate that peace of Christ, which holds the highest place in their hearts, (Phil. 4:7; Col. 3:15,) that they may remain unhurt, and may even retain their composure amidst the destruction of the whole world.
In the word לסרבה, (lĕmarbēh,) contrary to the usual manner of writing, there is the close form of ם (mem). Some think that it denotes the slavery by which the Jewish people should be oppressed till the coming of Christ. Others think that that nation, on account of its treachery, was excluded by this mark from having any share in this kingdom. I do not find fault with these views. Indeed, we can hardly assert that the Prophet wrote it in this manner; but yet, since this is the form in which it has come into our hands, and since the Rabbins were so close observers of the minutest portion of a letter, we cannot avoid thinking that this was not rashly done. And if we admit that the Prophet intentionally wrote it in this manner, I think that it conveyed this useful instruction, that believers should not imagine that the splendour of Christ’s kingdom would consist in outward pomp, or cherish vain hopes of worldly triumphs, but should only expect, amidst various calamities, an unseen extension of the kingdom, because it had been promised.
Upon the throne of David. A promise having been made to David that the Redeemer would spring from his seed, (2 Sam. 7:12, 13,) and his kingdom having been nothing else than an imago or faint shadow of that more perfect and truly blessed state which God had determined to establish by the hand of his Son, the Prophets, in order to remind the people of that remarkable miracle, usually call Christ the Son of David. (Jer. 23:5, and 33:15) Though the name of such a holy and upright king was justly beloved and revered, yet believers esteemed more highly the promised restoration to full salvation, and even among the most ignorant persons that prediction was universally remembered, and its truth and authenticity were considered to be clear and undoubted. I shall collect but a few of the passages in which the Prophets promise to an afflicted people restoration in the person of David or of his Son. (Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; Hos. 3:5) Sometimes they foretell that David, who was already dead, would be king. In like manner Isaiah, in this passage, intimates that he brings forward nothing that is new, but only reminds them of that which God had formerly promised about the perpetuity of the kingdom. Indirectly also he insinuates what Amoz more plainly states, that Christ will again raise up the throne which for some time had been fallen. (Amos 9:11)
To order it, and to establish it with judgment and with righteousness. He describes the quality of the kingdom, but by a comparison drawn from earthly governments; for he says that Christ will be a King, to order and establish his kingdom with judgment and with righteousness. These are the means by which earthly governments prosper and take deep roots; but those which are only administered by fear and violence cannot be lasting. Since, therefore, justice is the best guardian of kingdoms and governments, and since the happiness of the whole of the people depends on it, by this clause Isaiah shows that the kingdom of Christ will be the model of the best kind of government.
Judgment and righteousness do not here relate to outward affairs of state. We must observe the analogy between the kingdom of Christ and its qualities; for, being spiritual, it is established by the power of the Holy Spirit. In a word, all these things must be viewed as referring to the inner man, that is, when we are regenerated by God to true righteousness. Outward righteousness indeed follows afterwards, but it must be preceded by that renovation of the mind and heart. We are not Christ’s, therefore, unless we follow what is good and just, and bear on our hearts the impress of that righteousness which hath been sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Henceforth even for ever. This must be understood, I think, to refer to the perpetuity of righteousness and doctrine rather than of the kingdom, lest we should imagine that his laws resemble the statutes of kings and princes, which are in force for three days, or for a short period, and are continually renewed, and soon become old again, but that we may know that their obligation is everlasting; for they have been established, as Zecharias says, that we may serve him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. (Luke 1:74, 75) As Christ’s kingdom is everlasting, because he dieth no more, (Rom. 6:9,) so it follows that righteousness and judgment will be everlasting, for they cannot be changed by any length of time.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. By zeal I understand that ardent desire which God will display in preserving his Church, by removing all difficulties and obstructions which might otherwise have hindered its redemption. When we engage in any difficult undertaking, our earnestness, and the warmth of our feelings, overcome the difficulties which present themselves to baffle or retard our attempts. In like manner Isaiah shows that God is inflamed with an uncommon and extraordinary desire to promote the salvation of the Church, so that if believers cannot measure by their own capacity what he has just now promised, still they ought not to cease to entertain confident hope, for the manner of it is wonderful and inconceivable. In short, he intimates that God will come with no light or slow arm to redeem his Church, for he will be all on flame with amazing love of believers, and anxiety about their salvation.
6–7 The introductory conjunction “for” is important here. All these wonderful events must have an adequate cause. The word “child” is in a position of emphasis. The first person plural “us” suggests a link with 7:14 (see mg. there), and the reader is probably meant to see the connection, for as far as the reader is concerned, Isaiah is acting as a teacher. Just as his theme of the Branch of the Lord (see comment on 4:2) becomes more and more explicitly messianic, so it is with the motif of the child. If the child of 7:14–16 (see extended comment there) typifies the ultimate divine Christ, the child of these verses is that Christ.
It is true that monarchs of the Near East often received exaggerated adulation from their subjects, especially at their enthronement and at subsequent kingdom renewal ceremonies. This is not Mesopotamia, however, but Judah, and Hebrew prophecy was founded on truth, not on flattery. The OT prophets did not hesitate to speak stern words of judgment to their political overlords (cf., e.g., 1 Sa 12:7–12; 1 Ki 21:20–24). To speak to monarchs words that could not be taken at their face value was hardly consistent with their calling.
The passage does not necessarily imply that the child is to be a boy-king. In fact, Isaiah may not have regarded that as a blessing (cf. 3:4, 12). The context says much about children, so the child is spoken of in terms of his birth. The tenderness of the child also suggests a comparison with the defeat of Midian’s army by Gideon’s small band of men (Jdg 6–7), a comparison reinforced by the dual reference to the shoulder (cf. v. 4).
It seems likely that the prophet intends us to understand that the child has four names, not five (cf. v. 6, text and mg.). The first two suggest divine wisdom and power (cf. 11:2; 1 Co 1:24), for the word translated “wonderful” has overtones of deity and the phrase “Mighty God” must be given its “plain meaning” (Widyapranawa, in loc.) because of its unambiguous application to Israel’s Lord in 10:21. Incidentally, as Murray Harris (Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker 1992], 257, n. 7) points out, this could affect our understanding of 7:14, making “God with us” the most likely translation of Immanuel: “If Isaiah 7:1–9:7 is considered a closely integrated unit containing the prophetic message to Judah … Isaiah 7:14 could be interpreted in the light of 9:6.”
The last two names set forth the ends this child accomplishes by the exercise of these attributes—his fatherly care of his people and the bringing of peace with all of its attendant blessings. In context this quartet of names comes to its climax with “Prince of Peace,” as a glance at vv. 4–5 makes clear. Its implications are spelled out in v. 7.
P. D. Wegner, 140–215, deals at some length with the interpretation of the names within the context of his study of the passage as a whole, and he concludes that the names describe Yahweh rather than the child and that they are designed, like Isaiah’s own name (“Yahweh is salvation”) to point beyond the child to God. But the possession of four (or five) names of this type by one child is unique in the Old Testament. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is only a partial parallel, for none of the four elements of the name is a designation of God. These names, therefore, suggest the uniqueness of the person who bears them.
It is important to note that although the first three names can certainly designate God himself, this is hardly true of the last of them. In fact, as Wegner notes, the noun translated “prince” is always used of human leaders (1 Sa 2:8; 1 Ki 1:19; Jer 26:11). If this name applies to the king, then surely the other three also must, so that the four names taken together point to one who is both fully divine and truly human. The New Testament surely tells us who he is!
The word “increase” combined with the phrase “his [i.e., David’s] kingdom” suggest that the prophecy has in view much more than a particularly great king of Judah (cf. 1 Sa 7:12–16). David’s kingdom went well beyond this; its boundary extended far beyond the traditional “Dan to Beersheba” limits of Canaan proper (1 Sa 8). The language of this verse—with its picture of peace with righteousness—is reminiscent of a pre-Davidic ruler of Jerusalem: Melchizedek (Ge 14:18; cf. Heb 7:2). The harmonious linking of peace and righteousness occurs again, with more detailed exposition, in Isaiah 11:1–9.
Since the beginning of ch. 7, the prophet has made amazing disclosures in the name of the Lord. These come to a great climax here. The reader is likely to echo the wondering awe of the mother of this child and cry out, “How will this be?” (Lk 1:34). The prophet anticipated such a question in the closing sentence of this oracle. In fact, both the advent of the Messiah and the blessing of his people, the remnant of Israel, are guaranteed by “the zeal of the Lord Almighty” (cf. 37:32).
 Longman, T., III. (2017). Isaiah. In E. A. Blum & T. Wax (Eds.), CSB Study Bible: Notes (p. 1056). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6) is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself. Nothing greater can be said: God became a child. In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God. Wait a minute! Don’t speak; stop thinking! Stand still before this statement! God became a child! Here he is, poor like us, miserable and helpless like us, a person of flesh and blood like us, our brother. And yet he is God; he is might. Where is the divinity, where is the might of the child? In the divine love in which he became like us. His poverty in the manger is his might. In the might of love he overcomes the chasm between God and humankind, he overcomes sin and death, he forgives sin and awakens from the dead. Kneel down before this miserable manger, before this child of poor people, and repeat in faith the stammering words of the prophet: “Mighty God!” And he will be your God and your might.
But now it is true that in three days, Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.
Sermon to a German-speaking church in Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Monarchs are shut up in their palaces, and the palaces are surrounded with soldiers. It is not easy to have audiences with princes. Those who would speak to them must expect to have their patience tried; they will often be sent away and told to come again—that this is not the hour of audience. Jesus Christ does not do so. He remains in that cave, and He is there as little child, attracting all who come to seek Him. And the cave is open without guards and without doors, so that all may go in when they please to seek Him and speak to Him; and even to embrace this infant King, if they love Him and desire Him.
Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)
The King Blotted Out Our Bills
Luke 2:1–7; Colossians 2:14
At the birth of the Son the king was enrolling all men for the tribute money, that they might be debtors to Him. The King came forth to us who blotted out our bills, and wrote another bill in His own name that He might be our debtor.
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)
The King Dwells with Beggars
Isaiah 57:15; Philippians 2:7
How can God stoop lower than to come and dwell with a poor humble soul, which is more than if he had said such a one should dwell with him? For a beggar to live at court is not so much as the king to dwell with him in his cottage.
William Gurnall (1617–1679)
The King of Kings Declares Himself Our Friend
Luke 2:14; John 1:14; 1 Timothy 6:15
A peace on earth He brings,
Which never more shall end:
The Lord of hosts, the King of kings,
Declares Himself our friend:
Assumes our flesh and blood,
That we His Spirit may gain;
The everlasting Son of God,
The mortal son of man.
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
The Law Could Not Save, but Jesus Can
Matthew 1:21; Romans 7:9–10; 8:3
The Law—any law—could not save man from sin. But God has done what the law could not do. He has sent one into the world whose express object, as testified by the very name given Him, is to save His people from their sins.
Henry Alford (1810–1871)
The Law Fulfilled in Jesus
Matthew 5:17; John 14:9; 1 Corinthians 1:20–25
What wisdom is manifested in the plan of redemption of which the incarnate God is the center! What love is there revealed! What power is that which brought the Divine One down from glory to the manger; only omnipotence could have worked so great a marvel! What faithfulness to ancient promises! What truthfulness in keeping covenant! What grace, and yet what justice! For it was in the person of that newborn child that the law must be fulfilled, and in His precious body must vengeance find recompense for injuries done to divine righteousness. All the attributes of God were in that little child most marvelously displayed and veiled.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Life Came Down to Be Slain
Matthew 1:1–23; Luke 1:26–38; 2:1–20; John 1:1–18; 6:32–51; 19:28
The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that He might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
“The Lord Is Come; Come and Adore”
Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 2:11; 7:7–8; Luke 2:15–20; 11:9–10
The Lord is come; come and adore. Seek Jesus, and you shall find Him; knock at the door, and it shall be opened to you; enter the house and you shall see.
Our King is arrived; Christ is born to us. Come, let us adore and fall down before Him, for He it is who made us.
Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)
The Majesty Came Down, Not Angels
Luke 2:7; Hebrews 1:5–14; 2:5, 14–18
It was not seraphim He sent us, nor yet did cherubim come down among us. There did not come watchers or ministers, but the firstborn to whom they minister. Who can suffice to give thanks that the majesty which is beyond measure is laid in the lowly manger!
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)
The Object of Jesus’ Coming Was to Die
Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Acts 2:23; Hebrews 9:26
The great object of our Lord’s coming here was not to live, but to die. He appeared, not so much to subdue sin by His teaching, or to manifest goodness, or to perfect an example for us to imitate, but “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Power of the Incarnation
John 3:16; Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:7; 1 John 4:9
The Only Begotten Word of God has saved us, putting on likeness to us in order that having suffered in the flesh and risen from the dead He might set forth our nature superior to death and decay. And that which has been achieved is beyond the reach of our estate. Hence stronger than men is that which seems to have been wrought in infirmity as ours and as it were in suffering, and it affords proof of God-befitting power.
Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 375–444)
The Redeemer Would Have Come for You Alone
Matthew 26:28; 1 Timothy 1:15
If there had been no others in the world beside yourself, the Redeemer would have come for the sake of you alone, and would have given His blood and His life for you.
Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)
The Redeemer’s Appearance the Source of All Joy
Matthew 2:10; Luke 1:44; 2:10
The appearance of the Redeemer is the source of all other joy in the Christian world; and for this reason there is nothing else that can deserve to be so celebrated.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)
The Shepherds Spoke of What They Had Seen
Though the shepherds told what they heard from heaven, remember that they spoke of what they had seen below. They had, by observation, made those truths most surely their own which had first been spoken to them by revelation. No man can speak of the things of God with any success until the doctrine which he finds in the book he finds also in his heart.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Son Became Incarnate to Gather All Things into One in Him
John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Colossians 1:15–20; Hebrews 9:12; 1 John 4:9
God would have His eternal, His only-begotten Son to be incarnate, to take our nature on him—to be made man. What is His design in this incomprehensible work of His wisdom, love, and power? Indeed, in the first place, it was for the redemption of the church, by the sacrifice of Himself, and other acts of His mediation. But there is that which is more general and comprehensive, and wherein all the concerns of the glory of God do center. And this was that He might gather all things into one in Him—that the whole creation, especially that which was to be eternally blessed, should have a new head given unto it, for its sustenance, preservation, order, honor, and safety.
John Owen (1616–1683)
The Son Did Not Take Sin When He Took Our Nature
John 1:14; Hebrews 2:14
Sin is not ourselves: is not our nature, but is something fatal and hostile to our nature. The Son of God took on Himself our nature; became very man. He therefore took on Himself our flesh; for this tabernacle of flesh and blood is necessary to the nature of man, and none is full and very man, but those who bear it about with them. But sin is not man. Sin is not necessary to our nature. Sin is destructive of our nature. Sin is the very negative of our nature. And for this reason, and by a reason also inherent in Himself, on account of His absolute and perfect holiness and purity, the Son of God did not, when He took our nature, take sin with it: did not, when He entered into our flesh, enter into sinful flesh. His flesh was our very flesh; it had the same attributes, the same necessities, the same pains, the same liability to death, even as had Adam before his sin; but sin it had not.
Henry Alford (1810–1871)
The Son Is Only Inferior in His Human Nature
John 5:19; 10:30; Philippians 2:5–11
The mystery of power united to weakness, in respect of the same human nature, allows the Son to be called inferior to the Father: but the Godhead, which is One in the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, excludes all notion of inequality. For the eternity of the Trinity has nothing temporal, nothing dissimilar in nature. Its will is one; its substance identical; its power equal, and yet there are not three Gods, but one God.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
The Son of God Becomes the Son of Man
Matthew 1:25; Luke 3:23; 1 Corinthians 1:23
He that was without mother becomes without father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). He who is not carnal is incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389)
The Son of God Made Himself Little to Make Us Great
Philippians 2:5–11; 4:6; Hebrews 4:16
The Son of God has made Himself little, in order to make us great. He has given himself to us, in order that we may give ourselves to Him. He is come to show us His love, in order that we may respond to it by giving Him ours. Let us, therefore, receive Him with affection. Let us love Him, and have recourse to Him in all our necessities.
Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)
The Son of God Wants to Be Known as a Redeemer
Matthew 2:2; Luke 2:11, 21–24; Hebrews 10:19–22
The Son of God came down from heaven to be not only the Savior, but the King, the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Priest, the Judge of fallen man. Had He chosen any one of these titles, He would only have chosen that which was His own. But He passed by them all. He selects a name which speaks of mercy, grace, help, and deliverance for a lost world. It is as a deliverer and Redeemer that He desires principally to be known.
R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)
The Son of Man Gives Us Power to Become Sons of God
John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10
Any believer in whatever part of the world that is reborn in Christ, quits the old paths of his original nature and passes into a new man by being reborn. And no longer is he reckoned of his earthly father’s stock but among the seed of the Savior, who became the Son of Man in order that we might have the power to be the sons of God. For unless He came down to us in this humiliation, no one would reach His presence by any merits of his own.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
The Wise Men Got Lost, but the Shepherds Did Not
Matthew 2:1–12; Luke 2:16
Take notice of the visitors who came around his cradle. The shepherds came first of all. We never find that they lost their way. No, God guides the shepherds, and He did direct the wise men too, but they lost their way. It often happens that while shepherds find Christ, wise men miss Him.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
“The Word Becomes Incarnate”
Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14
The Word becomes Incarnate,
And yet remains on high:
And cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.
And we with them triumphant
Repeat the hymn again:
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”
Anatolius of Constantinople (d. 458)
They Found the Lamb of God While Keeping Sheep
Exodus 12:21–23; Judges 6:37; Luke 2:8–20; John 1:29
While they were keeping their sheep they found the Lamb of God, whose fleece bright and clean was made wet with the dew of heaven when it was dry upon all the earth beside, and whose blood when sprinkled on the doorposts drove off the destroyer of Egypt and took away the sins of the world.
Jerome (ca. 347–420)
Those of Good Will May Receive This Infant
The angel who heralds the birth of our little Master announces in his song, and sings as he announces, that he proclaims joy, peace, happiness for men of good will; in order that no one may be ignorant that to receive this infant it is enough to be of good will, although one may not up to this have been of good deed. For He came to bless good wills, and little by little He will make them fruitful and of good effect, provided that they let Him govern them.
Francis de Sales (1567–1622)
Three Reasons for Joy
Since Jesus is born, let everyone rejoice whom the consciousness of sin has condemned as deserving of eternal punishment. For the compassion of Jesus exceeds all crimes, however great their number and enormity.
Since Christ is born, let him rejoice who wages war with the vices inherent in our nature. No disorder of the soul, however inveterate, can withstand the unction which Christ brings.
Since the Son of God is born, let him rejoice who desires great things, for a great rewarder comes.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
Three Results of the Word Become Flesh
John 1:14; 6:39–40, 44, 54; Hebrews 2:18; 1 John 2:6
Did the Word become flesh? Then He is One who can be touched with the feeling of His people’s infirmities, because He has suffered Himself, being tempted. He is almighty because He is God, and yet He can feel with us, because He is man.
Did the Word become flesh? Then He can supply us with a perfect pattern and example for our daily life. Had he walked among us as an angel or a spirit, we could never have copied Him. But having dwelt among us as a man, we know that the true standard of holiness is to “walk even as He walked.” He is a perfect pattern, because He is God. But He is also a pattern exactly suited to our wants, because He is man.
Finally, did the Word become flesh? Then let us see in our mortal bodies a real, true dignity, and not defile them by sin. Vile and weak as our body may seem, it is a body which the Eternal Son of God was not ashamed to take upon Himself, and to take up to heaven. That simple fact is a pledge that He will raise our bodies at the last day, and glorify them together with His own.
In this lesson we look to the new year ahead and consider the tremendous changes we might experience through a fresh commitment to the Word of God.
As we begin to think about the new year ahead, we are reminded again of what the Bible really does for us as God’s people. The Bible has a unique ministry in all of our lives, and there would be no better plan for the next 365 days than to make a fresh commitment to read, study, and apply the Word of God.
What the Bible Is for You
a. It Is a Sword
b. It Is a Mirror
c. It Is a Hammer
d. It Is Water
e. It Is Seed
f. It Is Silver
g. It Is Fire
h. It Is a Lamp
i. It Is Bread
j. It Is Honey
k. It Is Milk
l. It Is Gold
2. What the Bible Will Do for You
Produce Spiritual Growth
Prevent You from Sinning
Protect You from Satan
Protect You from Discouragement
Promote Success in Whatever You Do
Prepare You for Powerful Praying
Point the Way to Salvation
What the Bible Is for You
In order to convey to us what the Bible does in a believer’s life, the writers of the Word of God, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used a number of beautiful metaphors.
The Word of God Is a Sword
The Word of God is called a sword because of its piercing ability, operating with equal effectiveness upon Sinners, Saints, and Satan!
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
The Word of God Is a Mirror
The Word is called a mirror because it reflects the mind of God and the true condition of man:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does (James 1:23–25).
The Word of God Is a Hammer
How many of us have been “hammered” by the Word of God? It drives home and breaks up the stony hearts that we have. The Scriptures say: “Is not My word like … a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word of God is referred to as a hammer because of its ability both to tear down and to build up!
The Word of God Is Water
The Word of God is called water because of its cleansing, quenching, and refreshing qualities—“That He might sanctify and cleanse [the church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
The Word of God Is Seed
The Word of God is called seed because, once properly planted, it brings forth life, growth, and fruit: “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
The Word of God Is Silver
The Word is like silver because of its desirability, its preciousness, its beauty, and its value: “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).
The Word of God Is Fire
The Word of God is called fire because of its judging, purifying, and consuming abilities: “But His word was in my heart like a burning fire …” (Jeremiah 20:9).
The Word of God Is a Lamp
The Word is called a lamp because it shows us where we are now, it guides us to the next step, and it keeps us from falling: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
The Word of God Is Bread
The Word is like bread that gives everlasting satisfaction to all who are hungry: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
The Word of God Is Honey
The Word of God is like honey bringing the sweet comfort of God’s love to all who taste: “More to be desired are they than gold … sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).
The Word of God Is Milk
The Word is like milk, nourishing the soul to spiritual growth: “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
The Word of God Is Gold
The Word of God is like gold because of its desirability, beauty, and value: “Therefore I love Your commandments more than gold, yes, than fine gold!” (Psalm 119:127).
Those are just a few of the pictures of the Bible in the Scripture. There are many more. But all of those metaphors are to help us understand the value and the preciousness and the importance of God’s wonderful word in our lives.
What the Bible Will Do for You
Today, however, we have lost much of that. We have taken the Bible out of the public life of American culture, and look what has happened to us. Look where we are today because God’s Word has been removed from the fabric of our society.
But far more disastrous than that, the Word of God has seemed to drop out of the lives of many of the people who claim to be God’s people. Therefore at this time of year it would be good for us to examine a number of reasons why we should read the Word of God.
If we begin to understand how this Book can change our lives, it will continue to change our lives even today. Even this week. The Word of God is a powerful tool, a change agent in the life of anyone who will take it seriously. So I would like to offer my top eight reasons why we should read the Word of God.
It Will Produce Spiritual Growth
Every year at this time, I take a little inventory and ask myself, “Have I grown in the Lord this year? Has there been growth in my life?”
There is absolutely no human way we will ever grow in our faith apart from a personal, disciplined reading and studying of the Word of God. There is no other means of growth. Consider what the Word of God says:
“As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Look at that verse and see how the Word of God helps you grow. First, the Word of God is profitable for doctrine—it shows you the right way to go.
And then it is profitable for reproof—to convict you when you get off that path.
And then it is profitable for correction—to show you how to get back on the path you left.
And then it is profitable for instruction in righteousness—to show you, in a positive way, how to stay on that path in the future.
That’s how we grow. That’s a great reason to read the Word of God.
It Will Provide Cleansing for Your Life
How many of us know that we live in a toxic environment? Not just physically toxic, but spiritually toxic. Everywhere we go somebody is trying to put something into our hearts, something into our lives, that’s going to begin to erode our spiritual walk with the Lord. How do we cleanse our lives from that? How do we keep our lives from being overwhelmed by the toxicity of the world in which we live?
“That He [Christ] might sanctify and cleanse it [the Church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
Jesus, speaking to His disciples, says, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
The Word of God cleanses our hearts! If we bring the Word of God in, it pushes out the toxicity that we have gathered through the world, cleansing our hearts and making us clean.
Listen to what David said in Psalm 119:9: “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.”
In John 17:17, the Lord Jesus prayed that this would be true in our lives in His high-priestly prayer: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”
It Will Prevent You from Sinning
If you get into the Word of God, you won’t sin nearly as much as if you don’t. The Word of God will prevent you from sinning. That’s what David meant again when he said, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).
The more you are in the Word of God, the more sensitive you become to those things which can lead you astray. It is awfully difficult to spend an hour or two in the Word of God in the morning, and then walk away from that and begin to violate principles that you know are a part of God’s truth. The Word of God empowers you to do the right thing, so you don’t end up violating what you know to be true.
“Direct my steps by Your word, and let no iniquity have dominion over me” (Psalm 119:133).
“The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide” (Psalm 37:31).
The more you get into the Word of God and study it, the more it will help you to stay away from things that will ultimately destroy you.
It Will Protect You from Satan
The Word of God is the greatest protection you have. Of course, someone might say, “I don’t believe in Satan.”
That, however, doesn’t make any difference. He is real anyway. Satan is alive and well, and we are in a daily warfare against the enemy of our souls. Satan goes around as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He wants to take you and drown any influence you have. He wants to ruin you for anything you ever want to do for the Lord.
So how do you protect yourself against Satan? Let’s look at the Lord Jesus Christ, who was taken to the desert and was tempted. How did the Lord meet the temptation?
In Matthew 4:4–10, Jesus fought the enemy with the Word of God. If you know God’s Word and you are in the Word of God, you put Satan at a disadvantage because you have the power of God’s Word working in your life.
It Will Protect You from Discouragement
There were two disciples on one occasion who left Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. They were depressed and discouraged because they thought it was “all over.” Christ had died, and they did not know that He was resurrected. They were walking toward Emmaus talking about their hopelessness and they were sad and depressed and discouraged about the situation they saw. Then all of a sudden Jesus came alongside and began to talk with them. And after Jesus had encouraged them, they said, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
When you get to the point where you’re discouraged and don’t know what to do, go to the Friend that sticks closer than a brother, and listen to His Word. If you will discipline yourself to do that, you will discover like these disciples that your heart will begin to burn within you. God’s Word will come in, dissipate those discouraging thoughts, take away the things that would drive you down, and begin to lift you up. God’s Word has the power to protect you from discouragement.
It Will Promote Success in Whatever You Do
Being in the Word of God gives you the opportunity to be more successful than you would ever be otherwise.
In fact, Psalm 1:1–3 tells us:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.
Whenever you are in the Word of God, you are in a position to be successful in what you do. And if we use the Word of God’s definition of success, we can really see how that works. The Word of God promises us that when we make it the substance of our life, it will help us to succeed in what we do.
It Will Prepare You for Powerful Praying
Consider John 15:7: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.”
How does that work? It helps you to know what to ask for. When you read the Word of God, you get a sense of God’s will, and when you ask in God’s will, He gives it to you. So it will prepare you for how you are to pray.
It Will Point the Way to Salvation
That’s what this Book is all about. Paul wrote to young Timothy, “… as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14–15).
How does a person become a Christian? Through this Book. The plan of salvation is in this Book. Christ died for you and for your sin, and He paid the penalty that you should have paid, and He died on the cross for you. That message is in this Book.
Are you in the Word? If not, start now reading the Word of God. Find some time in the morning to spend a few moments with God and his Word.
Now, if you are not a Christian, you won’t have the motivation to do that. Further, you won’t understand a word of it when you read it. If you aren’t a Christian, you don’t have the ability to comprehend the Word of God as He meant it to be understood. The first step in understanding the Word of God is knowing the God of the Word. And you can’t know Him unless you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
You can do that through a simple prayer. Say, “Lord God, I come to You on this first Sunday of the New Year to give my heart to You. I ask You to forgive my sin and cleanse my life, and I accept Your free gift of eternal life which You died to provide for me.”
Christ will come into your life if you will let Him, if you will ask Him. As we begin to think about the New Year ahead, we are reminded again of what the Bible really does for us as God’s people. The Bible has a unique ministry in all of our lives. And the Bible will come alive for you.
If the Bible is everything mentioned in this lesson, why do you think Christians tend to neglect it? Name as many reasons as you can think of.
What do the following passages indicate about the connection between God and His Word, or between knowing God and knowing His Word:
John 1:1–2, 14
1 John 5:7
Read Mark 12:30, then read Psalm 119:97; 119:113; 119:163. Why is the Psalmist not guilty of idolatry (for loving the Word)?
What is the means of spiritual growth and maturity, according to:
1 Peter 2:2
What do you think Paul is admonishing Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:15? Is this something only for select Christians, or for all Christians?
Turn to Psalm 119 and, taking no more than five minutes for each, find:
As many different names for the Word of God as you can.
As many benefits of the Word of God as you can.
Briefly write out, for your eyes only, your personal desires and goals for the coming year, in relation to God’s Word and your commitment to it. Tape it inside your Bible where you can find it easily, and read it at least once per week for the coming year.
Did You Know?
Until publication of the King James Bible in the early 1500s, it was unusual for anyone to possess the Scriptures in the common language. Even then, initial publication was one Bible per official (state-approved) church, kept either under lock and key, or permanently attached to an immovable pulpit. It would be another 200 years or so before individually printed Bibles would begin making their way into the hands and homes of “everyday” Christians—and then largely for the rich alone.
Of course, with the colonization of America, Bibles began making their way to the New World, but only sparsely until printing houses were established and Bibles became an affordable commodity.
That means that the availability of personal Bibles is, in the grand scheme of church history, a fairly recent phenomenon. Even more recent is the phenomenon of multiple personal Bibles—which sit on shelves, collecting dust, and remaining largely unread and unstudied.
It’s hard to believe that only 500 years or so in the past, Christians died for proposing the right to personal study of the Scriptures; and today Christians are effectively dead for a lack of it.
The true christian should never take the story of Christ’s birth for granted. Even when reread from the human perspective, the narrative of Christ’s entrance into this world ought to remain for-ever fresh, fascinating, and awe-inspiring. There’s the amazing appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce that she would bear God’s Son. There’s the intriguing interaction between Mary and Elizabeth (with a Spirit-inspired response from the unborn John the Baptist) as Mary sought confirmation of Gabriel’s news. Then there is the unprecedented account of the angels’ nighttime appearance to the shepherds right after Jesus was born. And finally, there are the varied and profound human responses to the significance of Christ’s birth, from the divinely directed mission of the wise men to Simeon’s Spirit-filled pronouncement at the temple.
All those events, as uplifting as we’ve found them in our study of the Incarnation, come only from the human perspective. But there is another absolutely essential viewpoint of Christ’s birth that we must not omit—God’s perspective. And you find that perspective in the New Testament Epistles. When the inspired writers of those letters look back to the birth of Jesus Christ, all they discuss is the person of Christ, which is very fitting because in the Gospel narratives there is no in-depth description or explanation of the Child Himself. There is not even a description of His physical appearance that would distinguish Him as divine rather than human. But the Epistles continually look back at the birth and life of Christ from God’s perspective. They go beyond the human perspective of a baby in the manger to the divine perspective of His person and work.
For instance, Romans 1 asserts that Jesus was both the Son of David and the Son of God. Galatians 4:4 says that in the fullness of time God brought forth His Son, born of a woman and subject to the Law. Ephesians 3 introduces the concept of the mystery of Christ, that God has now revealed the truth of His Son in human flesh to the Jews and the Gentiles (cf. 1 Tim. 3). Philippians 2 teaches us that Christ during His Incarnation laid aside the form of deity and took on the form of humanity to die on the cross. Colossians 2 makes the sweeping and profound statement that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ. But there is one other crowning passage among those that provides divine insight into the person of Jesus Christ—Hebrews 1. I believe that it is particularly important to understand this passage if we would have a complete grasp of the significance of Christ’s birth.
A Brief Introduction to Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews, written about a.d. 67–69 by an unidentified author, was obviously written to Jews, mostly true believers in Jesus. Its purpose was to show them that Jesus Christ is in fact the fulfillment of all the Old Testament Messianic promises and that He is superior to all the pictures, types, representations, and shadows that preceded Him. The Epistle was written to assure believing Jews that their faith was rightly placed and to encourage unbelieving Jews that embracing Jesus was the right commitment to make. Many in the community were intellectually convinced Jesus was the Messiah and God, but they had not yet personally believed and publicly confessed Him as Lord. They didn’t want to be alienated like their believing friends had been. Some had been put out of the synagogue, some had been ostracized by their families, and others had lost their jobs.
In view of those fears and uncertainties, the writer of Hebrews wanted to encourage the Jews that in the long run they were not losing anything by embracing Jesus and confessing Him as Lord. The things they might have to give up in this life were worth it compared to what they would gain in full atonement for their sins and complete access to the very presence of God forever. So the writer affirms that the Babe born in Bethlehem is the Messiah and that He is indeed the Lord of a New Covenant, which is far superior to the Old Covenant of Moses.
Hebrews 1:1–3 launches right into the purpose of the Epistle: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
Here again in a few short verses is an insightful, divine description of who the baby born in Bethlehem really is. It is probably the most concise and comprehensive New Testament summary statement of the superiority of Christ. And the writer includes three key features in composing his classic statement: the preparation for Christ, the presentation of Christ, and the preeminence of Christ.
The Preparation for Christ
Hebrews 1:1 refers to the Old Testament as it focuses on the preparation for Christ: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets.” The Old Testament was simply God speaking to the Jewish people (“the fathers”) through the prophets in many different ways and at a number of different times.
The prophets were men who spoke for God, and they did so “at various times,” which actually means “portions” (nasb) or “segments.” In other words, God’s Spirit spoke through the Old Testament writers in thirty-nine different books. And these books come to us in various literary forms: Much of the literature is narrative prose and history, much is prophecy, some is poetry, and a little appears as the Law.
Furthermore, God’s servants received His words “in various ways,” or by different methods. Sometimes He spoke to them directly in audible words. At other times He spoke to them indirectly and prompted their minds with the thoughts He wanted conveyed. Then there were other methods by which God communicated His truth—parables, types, symbols, ceremonies, and even stone tablets (the Ten Commandments). But all of it was inspired, inerrant, and truly what God wanted written, the way He wanted it written.
The Old Testament is basically progressive revelation; it moves from a lesser degree of completeness to a fuller degree of completeness. It begins with what the apostle Paul later called the basic elements (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20), the early rules and regulations under the Law. Then it spells things out in greater detail through types and ceremonies. Finally, the prophetic books develop a more complete understanding of God’s redemptive program (1 Pet. 1:10–12).
The writer of Hebrews and other New Testament writers recognized that all those features of the Old Testament affirmed its divine character. When Paul wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), he was referring to the Old Testament. And when Peter said, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation … but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20–21), he too was talking about the Old Testament.
And by affirming its features and character, the writer of Hebrews shows that the Old Testament is the preparation for Christ, because he also knew that its theme was Jesus Christ. From Genesis 3:15 (the first allusion to Christ and the gospel) to Malachi 4:1–3 (a reference to Christ’s returning in judgment against the ungodly), the Lord Jesus is the subject all the way through the Old Testament. He’s the One pictured in the sacrifices and ceremonies detailed in the five books of Moses. He’s the great Prophet and King who’s promised time and again (Num. 24:17; Deut. 18:15, 18; Ps. 2:6; 24:7–10; 45:6; 89:27; Isa. 9:7; 32:1; 42:1–2; 52:7; 61:1; Jer. 23:5; Dan. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9).
However, the Old Testament preparation for Christ is incomplete and fragmentary. Not one of its books or writers presents the entire picture of the Savior. We get only a partial view here and a partial insight there—and the inspired writers present those over a fifteen-hundred-year period. As the apostle Peter says, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10–11). The prophets couldn’t sort everything out; they wondered exactly whom they were writing about and precisely when everything would occur.
The Old Testament’s progressive revelation prepared its readers for the coming of Christ. But no one saw a complete picture of the Messiah until He actually came in the New Testament.
The Presentation of Christ
The writer of Hebrews affirms that Christ is the full revelation of God when he says that God “has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (1:2). When Jesus came, God presented the entire picture. Christ revealed God fully by being fully God. “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).
We can see in Christ everything we need to know about God. That includes the full array of God’s attributes—such characteristics as omniscience, miracle-working power, the ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, compassion for sinners, and the desire for justice and holiness.
And all of that was evident “in these last days,” a familiar phrase the Jews would have understood as meaning the Messianic age. Thus, in the time of Messiah, God ceased speaking in fragments and instead presented His complete revelation in the person of His Son. That, of course, established Jesus as superior to previous revelation. The incomplete Old Testament issued from the prophets, who were sinful men. In contrast, the complete and final New Testament came forth in the person of the sinless Son of God. Jesus Christ, as the full expression of His Father, could say, “‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father’” (John 14:9).
The Preeminence of Christ
Once the writer of Hebrews presents Jesus as God’s Son, he immediately gives us a sevenfold summary of the preeminence of Jesus Christ: “whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:2–3). That is the grand summation and definitive listing of the characteristics that really identify the Child who entered the world at Bethlehem. Anyone who truly confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior affirms the truth of each of those elements. That’s why it’s important to take a brief look at each one.
Christ is the Heir of All Things
The first aspect of Jesus Christ’s preeminence concerns His inheritance: “whom He has appointed heir of all things.” That is an unqualified statement asserting that God has planned for Jesus ultimately to inherit absolutely everything. It adheres to Jewish inheritance laws that said the firstborn child received the wealth of the family’s estate.
Because Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, He is logically the firstborn Son as well. Therefore, Christ is the heir of all that God has. The psalmist predicted this very reality, “I [God] will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Everything in the created order, whether the material or spiritual world—everything God has ever created—belongs to Jesus Christ.
It’s amazing to think that a Galilean carpenter, crucified on a cross outside Jerusalem, is actually the heir to the universe. Admittedly, when Jesus was on earth He owned little or nothing. One thing He did own was His cloak, and the Roman soldiers gambled for ownership of that while He was on the cross. He was even buried in a borrowed grave. But some day, all that exists will belong to Christ, and everyone—people, angels, and all powers in the universe—will bow before Him. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).
It’s also incredible to realize that believers will be joint heirs with Christ: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). If you know Christ, you are a part of His bride, the church, and He, the Bridegroom, allows you to share His inheritance. And someday you will see Him return as King of kings and Lord of lords to make final claim of His inheritance and exercise sovereign, everlasting rule over all that exists. Therefore, once you say Jesus is Lord, you also say He is the heir of all things.
Christ is the Agent of Creation
The second preeminence of Christ listed in Hebrews 1 is His power in creation: “through whom also He made the worlds” (v. 2). That statement is perfectly consistent with John 1:3, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3). Jesus created everything, both the material and nonmaterial parts of the universe. And His creatorship is a characteristic of our Lord—second only to His sinlessness—that really sets Him apart from us.
The Greek word rendered “worlds” in Hebrews 1:2 does not mean the material world but “the ages,” as it is usually translated elsewhere. Christ created not only the physical earth, but also time, space, energy, and every variety of matter. He effortlessly created the entire universe and finished it as something good. For that reason the creation, which was marred by humanity’s sin, longs to be restored to what it was originally (Rom. 8:22)—and one day Christ will create a new and perfect heaven and earth.
Christ Possesses the Brightness of God’s Glory
The writer of Hebrews further establishes the preeminence of Christ by citing that He is “the brightness of His [God’s] glory.” “Brightness,” which may also be translated “radiance” (nasb) and literally means “to send forth light,” indicates that Jesus is the manifestation of God to us. Just as the sun’s rays illuminate and warm the earth, Christ is God’s glorious light that shines into the hearts of people. And as the sun cannot be separated from its brightness, so God cannot be separated from the glory of Christ. Yet the brightness of the sun is not the sun, and in the same sense, neither is the brightness of Christ God. That does not mean that Christ is not fully and absolutely God. It simply means the Son of God is a distinct person within the Godhead.
Jesus Christ is the radiance of who God is, and He affirmed that fact during His earthly ministry: “‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life’” (John 8:12). Christ can transmit that light into our lives so that we can radiate the glory of God to others. God sent His glorious light, in the person of Jesus Christ, into a morally dark world to call sinners to Himself. No one would ever be able to see or enjoy God’s true radiance if it weren’t for His Son and those who know Him.
It is truly a blessing to know that Jesus Christ can come into your life and give you the spiritual light to see and believe God. Jesus’ brightness points you to salvation, which in turn results in purpose, peace, joy, and genuine fellowship for all eternity.
Christ is the Essence of God
Hebrews 1:3 goes on to declare a fourth element of the preeminence of Christ, namely, “the express image of His person.” Jesus possesses the essential nature or being of God the Father. That is, He has all the attributes that are indispensable to who and what God is, such as immutability (unchangeableness), omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. He is the exact stamp or replication of God. In the words of the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “very God of very God.”
The apostle Paul teaches us basically the same truth in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God.” Here, unlike Hebrews 1:3, the Greek word translated “image” is eikon, from which we get the English term icon, meaning a precise copy or reproduction. But both verses communicate the same truth. Christ possesses the essential nature of God and manifests the communicable attributes of God. In His being, Jesus is what God is, and in His person He displays that essence to everyone who sees Him.
Whenever people talk about the baby in the manger, they are talking about none other than God.
Christ Has Ultimate Authority
Fifth in the list of Christ’s preeminent qualities is that He has always been “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). As we have already seen, He is the Creator of the entire universe, material and nonmaterial. But Christ’s authority does not stop there. He upholds and sustains all that He has created.
Christ follows the principle of cohesion; He makes the universe a cosmos instead of chaos. He infallibly ensures that the universe runs as an ordered, reliable unit instead of as an erratic, unpredictable muddle. That’s because our Lord has devised and implemented the myriad natural laws, both complex and straightforward, that are all perfectly reliable, consistent, and precisely suited to their particular purposes. Time and again they wonderfully demonstrate the mind and power of Jesus Christ working through the universe.
No scientist, mathematician, astronomer, or nuclear physicist could do anything or discover anything apart from the sustaining power and authority of Christ. The whole universe hangs on His powerful arm, His infinite wisdom, and His ability to control every element and orchestrate the movements of every molecule, atom, and subatomic particle.
For example, if the size of the earth’s orbit around the sun increased or decreased even the slightest amount, we would soon fatally freeze or fry. If the earth’s angle of tilt went beyond its present range even slightly, that would drastically disrupt the familiar four-season cycle and threaten to end life on the planet. Similarly, if the moon’s orbit around the earth diminished, the ocean tides would greatly increase and cause unimaginable havoc. And if our atmosphere thinned just a little, many of the thousands of meteors that now enter it and harmlessly incinerate before striking the ground would crash to the surface with potentially catastrophic results.
Jesus Christ prevents such disasters by perfectly maintaining the universe’s intricate balance. The most astronomical distances and largest objects are not beyond His control. The most delicate and microscopic processes do not escape His attention. He is the preeminent power and authority who nevertheless came to earth in human form, assuming a servant’s role.
Christ Removes Our Sins
The sixth aspect of Christ’s preeminence deals directly with our salvation. Hebrews 1:3 expresses it this way, “He had by Himself purged our sins.” Jesus, by His atoning death, brought about the purging or cleansing of our sins. That is what we needed most, and only the Lord Jesus could meet the need.
The Old Testament priests offered animal sacrifices over and over, but none of those could ultimately remove the people’s sins. Those repeated sacrifices instead merely pointed to the desperate need for a once-for-all sacrifice that could finally take away sins. And God provided such a sacrifice in the person of Jesus. As the writer of Hebrews later wrote, “So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28); “for by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (10:14).
In keeping with the Old Testament Law that the sacrificial lamb had to be spotless, the final New Covenant sacrifice had to be a perfect, sinless substitute. To pay the price of sin for others, he had to be perfect or he would have had to pay the price for his own sin. And since no one in the world is without sin, the substitute had to be someone from outside the world. Yet he still needed to be a man to die in the place of men and women.
Of course, the only person who could meet those requirements was Jesus Christ. He was the sinless man who could be the perfect substitute for sinners. By offering Himself to die on the cross, He took the full wrath of God for sinners like you and me. That wrath, which was originally directed toward us, was then satisfied. Thus God can forgive you because Christ paid the penalty for your sin.
So one of the preeminent glories of Christ is that, as the God-Man, He came to die for sinners. And He died on the cross to accomplish redemption. Immediately prior to His death, Jesus uttered these profound words, “‘It is finished!’” (John 19:30); once and for all He paid the price for sins for everyone who would ever believe in Him.
Christ is Exalted in Heaven
The author concludes his marvelous outline of the preeminence of Christ by affirming His exaltation: “[He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).
Christ’s ministry on earth ended forty days after His resurrection when He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9–11). And when He returned there, God seated Him at His right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), which always symbolized the side of power, authority, prominence, and preeminence (Rom. 8:34; 1 Pet. 3:22). Paul says that at that point God gave Him a name above all names—“Lord,” which is the New Testament synonym for Old Testament descriptions of God as sovereign ruler (Phil. 2:9–11).
When Jesus went into heaven, He did what no Old Testament priest ever did—He sat down. They never sat down while ministering because their work was never done. But Christ’s work was done; He had accomplished the work of redemption on the Cross, and therefore it was appropriate for Him to sit down. He remains on the right hand of the throne of God as the believer’s great High Priest and Intercessor (Heb. 7:25; 9:24).
Jesus Christ is Superior to the Angels
The writer of Hebrews hardly needed to tell his Jewish readers any more concerning the magnificent preeminence of Christ. But just to underscore the truth of Jesus’ supremacy, the writer sets forth another persuasive point—this one more expansive than the others—beginning in 1:4–5, “Having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?”
At Bethlehem the night of Jesus’ birth, the heavenly host that appeared above the shepherds’ field might have been more impressive than a humble Child wrapped in cloths and lying in a feed trough. Such a baby was not recognizable as God, but He was God nonetheless and therefore superior to any array of angels. And that’s what the writer sought to convince the Jews of as he contrasted Christ to the angels.
Jewish Beliefs Concerning Angels
The Jews in biblical times greatly esteemed angels. Every devout Jew knew about the angels’ important role in God’s unfolding purpose among humanity. The Jews believed angels surrounded God’s throne and worshiped Him (Isaiah 6). They also believed angels were messengers who did God’s work and occasionally came to earth to mediate between God and mankind, as occurred with Abraham and Lot (Gen. 18:1–19:29) and Daniel (Dan. 8:15–27).
But most important, the Jews believed angels were the divinely sent agents who delivered the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law. They knew the Law was a holy and righteous reflection of God’s will, and they tried to live by it (which meant, unfortunately, that many of them saw the Law as their means of salvation).
So the Jews had great reverence for angels. In fact, they had so much respect that they revered no one but God more.
With that in mind, the writer of Hebrews argues that Jesus has a much better and more excellent name than the angels. “For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?” (1:5). The answer to that rhetorical question is quite obviously, “None.” So if Jesus had that kind of advantage over all the angels, the Jews had to infer His superiority; and they knew that if anyone is superior to the angels, he has to be God.
How is Christ Superior to the Angels?
Because serious-minded Jews had such great reverence and respect for the position of angels and the place of the Old Testament, the writer worked extra diligently to nail down his argument concerning Christ’s superiority. It was essential for his Jewish readers to see that Messiah is better than the bearers and mediators of the Old Testament. The author establishes that point by concluding chapter 1 with an effective use of seven Old Testament passages.
If he had tried to prove his case from Christian writings, his audience could easily have said, “We don’t accept those documents as coming from God; therefore, we reject your argument.” So he wisely and skillfully demonstrated directly from key Old Testament verses five ways that Christ is superior to the angels.
First of all, Jesus is superior by virtue of His name. We’ve already had a glimpse of this truth in 1:4, “Having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” Jesus has a better name because He has inherited it from God the Father. He can make a legitimate claim to that better name because of His essential nature, as verse 5 says, “For to which of the angels did He ever say: “‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?” Generally, angels and people are sons of God simply because God created them. But He never told a single one of the angels that he was a son who proceeded from Him. He reserved that designation for Christ alone.
By saying, “You are My Son,” God revealed that Jesus shared the same essence as the Father. And the Jews would understand that to mean that Jesus possessed precisely the same characteristics as God the Father.
In spite of the Jews’ unbelief and doubts—in the Book of Hebrews and prior—Jesus was and is the Son of God. God gave Him the name “Son,” which expresses Christ’s eternal generation from the Father. There never was a moment in all of eternity when the Son did not exist. In a way we can’t fully grasp, the Father-Son relationship expresses a shared divine nature and an equal inheritance to all that exists in the universe. Angels are merely called messengers of God, but Jesus is called the Son of God: “And again: ‘I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son’” (Heb. 1:5).
Second, Jesus is superior to the angels because of His rank: “But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him’” (Heb. 1:6).
The Greek word for “firstborn” is not a word of chronology or birth sequence; it’s a word of preeminence. More clearly rendered, it would read “the preeminent one, the prominent one, the highest one.” Because there is only one Son of God, it was not necessary for the writer to distinguish the firstborn Son from the second or third Son.
“Firstborn” also does not mean Jesus is the preeminent member of the Trinity or that He is the highest ranking in some procession of deities from God’s throne. Rather, it means He is the supreme One over all creation (Col. 1:15). The writer of Hebrews supports this truth by quoting the Greek Old Testament translation of Deuteronomy 32:43, which itself relates to Psalm 89:6. That’s where the psalmist says the angels must recognize God’s lordship. The angels are created beings, and Christ as Creator is superior to them. And so they are commanded, as a primary function of their position, to worship and serve Him, the superior One (Ps. 89:27; 97:7).
Jesus is also superior to the angels because of His essential nature. The author of Hebrews, again drawing from the Old Testament (first Psalm 104:4; then Psalm 45:6–7; then Isaiah 61:1, 3), compares Christ’s nature to the angels’: “And of the angels He says: ‘Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.’ But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:7–9).
The angels are created spirit beings, described metaphorically in these verses as a collective flame of fire. But in contrast, Christ the Son is eternal God. That is the basic distinction—the angels are created; Christ is eternal.
The writer indicates the difference first by mentioning God the Son’s eternal throne and then describing how He rules. Righteousness, depicted as “a scepter of righteousness,” is the chief characteristic of His reign. That means the Lord Jesus loves righteousness and hates lawlessness, which are simply two primary aspects of the same divine holiness.
But as created beings, not all the angels chose to love righteousness and hate lawlessness. Initially angels were not impeccable, which means they had the capacity to sin and did so when a third of them followed Lucifer’s rebellion against God. God expelled them and Lucifer (now Satan) from heaven, and today they are demons serving the dark purposes of the devil’s kingdom.
However, the eternal Son of God has forever loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. It was impossible for Him to fall into sin. And that’s the fundamental difference in His nature that sets Him far above even the holy angels and believing humanity. The conclusion of Hebrews 1:9 wonderfully portrays Christ’s superior nature: “therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”
The writer continues to quote the Old Testament as he proclaims a fourth way Jesus is equal with God and exalted above the angels. Christ possesses eternality—He was and is God forever—a truth verified by reference to Psalm 102:25–27, “‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will fold them up, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and your years will not fail’” (Hebrews 1:10–12).
The writer of Hebrews views Jesus as present at the creation because He was the Creator (John 1:3). Therefore His eternality stretches not only into the infinite past, but also into the infinite future. But that is not true concerning the universe. Someday Christ will “uncreate” an aging creation. He will fold up the heavens and the earth and replace them with something new. However, the Son of God never changes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Finally, Christ is God and superior to the angels by virtue of His destiny. The writer again turns to the Psalms (110:1) and asks his Jewish audience, “But to which of the angels has He ever said: ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool’?” (Hebrews 1:13). God never promised any of the angels that kind of ultimate, eternal sovereignty. But it is the destiny of Jesus Christ to rule over all, especially over those who know Him. The apostle John later wrote, “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come’” (Rev. 19:6–7).
Hebrews 1:14 makes this final distinction between Christ and the angels completely clear: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” Unlike Jesus, the angels aren’t sovereign rulers; they’re ministering servants, subject to His commands.
We don’t see them, but God dispatches His angels for the protection and care of believers on earth (Matt. 18:10). And beyond that, the future tense (“will inherit”) looks ahead to the full inheritance of our salvation and what the angels will continue to do for us. In the glories of heaven the Son will reign over us and we will worship Him as our King (Rom. 8:16–17; Eph. 1:11; Col. 1:12; 3:24). But amazingly, the angels will continue to serve us. Thus God created the angels to serve Christ’s church in both time and eternity. And that underscores once again the angels’ subordination to the Son of God.
When you read and study Hebrews 1, the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ’s preeminence and superiority shines forth from every verse. You can’t miss it, whether it’s in His inheritance of all things, His agency in creation, His essential nature as God, His atoning death for sinners, or the various ways in which He is superior to the angels. The entire chapter effectively proclaims the Messiah’s true identity and rightful position.
I believe an analysis of Hebrews 1:1–14 is a fitting capstone to a book on the birth of Christ. It ensures that when you consider the baby in the Bethlehem shelter, you don’t merely see an adorable child who grew up to be a good teacher and compassionate healer. The passage points you beyond that and to an accurate understanding of the person and work of Christ. The writer, through careful, Spirit-inspired argumentation, declares irrefutably that the Child born to Mary was indeed God in the manger. He truly was the Son of God, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit yet born naturally to a woman in Israel. And without doubt He was the Lord and Savior who lived a perfect life and died as a perfect sacrifice so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life.
What kings and leaders of nations, philosophers and artists, founders of religions and teachers of morals have tried in vain to do—that now happens through a newborn child. Putting to shame the most powerful human efforts and accomplishments, a child is placed here at the midpoint of world history—a child born of human beings, a son given by God (Isa. 9:6). That is the mystery of the redemption of the world; everything past and everything future is encompassed here. The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us, this son is given to us, that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine—on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands.…
How shall we deal with such a child? Have our hands, soiled with daily toil, become too hard and too proud to fold in prayer at the sight of this child? Has our head become too full of serious thoughts … that we cannot bow our head in humility at the wonder of this child? Can we not forget all our stress and struggles, our sense of importance, and for once worship the child, as did the shepherds and the wise men from the East, bowing before the divine child in the manger like children?
“The Government upon the Shoulders of the Child,” Christmas 1940
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
The birth of Jesus is the grandest light of history, the sun in the heavens of all time. It is the polestar of human destiny, the hinge of chronology, the meeting place of the waters of the past and the future.
He it was who created the worlds; He it was who interposed of old time in the affairs of the world, and showed Himself to be a living and observant God, whether men thought of Him or not. Yet this great God condescended to come down on earth from His heavenly throne, and to be born into His own world; showing Himself as the Son of God in a new and second sense, in a created nature, as well as in His eternal substance.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
The Image of the Father Came to Renew Our Image
Genesis 1:26–27; Colossians 1:15
What then was God to do? Or what was to be done save the renewing of that which was in God’s image, so that by it men might once more be able to know Him? But how could this have come to pass save by the presence of the very image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?
For by men’s means it was impossible, since they are but made after an image; nor by angels either, for not even they are God’s images. For this reason the Word of God came in His own person, that, as He was the image of the Father, He might be able to create afresh the man after the image.
But, again, it could not else have taken place had not death and corruption been done away. For this reason He took, in natural fitness, a mortal body, that while death might in it be once for all done away, humans made after His image might once more be renewed. None other then was sufficient for this need, save the image of the Father.
As, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains, he whose likeness it is needs to come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood—for, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it—in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in His likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins.
Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 295–373)
The Incarnation Exalts Human Nature
Psalm 8:5; 2:7, 9
In the light of Bethlehem’s candle we see man not as he often is, but as he may be, as we trust he yet will be. God became man that man might become as God; that he might be a little higher than the angels, instead of a little lower than the brutes. Thus, in the light of this truth, we escape from the snare of the devil, which would lead us to despise human nature.
Frederic Farrar (1831–1903)
The Incarnation Is Better Than Creation
Luke 2:7, 14
Though creation may be a majestic organ of praise, it cannot reach the compass of the golden canticle—incarnation! There is more melody in Jesus in the manger than in the whole sublime oratorio of the creation. There is more grandeur in the song that heralds the birth of the babe of Bethlehem than there is in worlds on worlds rolling in silent grandeur around the throne of the Most High.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Incarnation Is the Greatest Miracle
Ephesians 1:22; Philippians 2:6–7; Colossians 1:18; 2 Peter 1:4
It was the greatest miracle of all God’s works that ever He revealed to the sons of men, to take the human nature into union with the divine—that Christ, who was God, should condescend to be made man. And the next is that He will take His church into union with Himself, and will magnify His love, in such a wonderful advancement of poor sinners, that without His grace they could not well believe it.
Richard Baxter (1615–1691)
The Incarnation Is the Heart of the Gospel
Luke 1:77–79; Philippians 2:6–7; Hebrews 7:27
If, for the first time, you had heard of the visit of the incarnate God to this world, you would be struck with a wonder which would last throughout all eternity, that God Himself should really condescend to such a deed as this. This is the heart of the gospel, the incomparable fact of the incarnation of the Son of God, His dwelling upon the earth, and His presentation of Himself as a sacrifice unto God.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Incarnation Lays the Foundation for God’s Blessing
Romans 8:6–8; Ephesians 2:13–18
There was not only a distance between us and God by reason of impurity, but a difference by reason of enmity. God is a God of glorious majesty, and we are poor creatures; God is a God of pure and immaculate holiness, and we are sinful creatures, lapsed and fallen under the guilt of sin, and deserving of punishment. There was our great trouble and grievance, and nothing comfortable could we expect from him. But when God is willing to come among us, and take our nature, and die for a sinful world, there is a foundation laid for His being with us, to help us, and bless us upon all occasions.
Thomas Manton (1620–1677)
The Incorruptible Lays Hold of the Nature Subject to Corruption
1 Corinthians 15:50; 2 Corinthians 5:21
It behooved that the incorruptible should lay hold of the nature subject to corruption, that He might free it from corruption; it behooved that He who knew no sin should be made of the same form with those who were under sin, that He might make sin to cease. For as where is light, there surely darkness will have no work, so where incorruption is present, is all necessity that corruption flee, and that, since He who did not know sin has made His own that which was under sin, sin should come to nothing.
If God Has Not Forgotten Us, Why Have We Forgotten Him?
In this lesson we hypothesize what the world would be like if there had been no first Christmas.
It is hard to comprehend a world without Christ. That is because most of us have grown up in a Christian environment. But perhaps one of the best ways we could comprehend it is to look for just a moment to a period of time after Christ had gone to the cross, then to the grave, then out of the grave in resurrection. And Paul, trying to explain the importance of that to those who would read his letter to the Corinthians, posed a similar question in 1 Corinthians 15. He said in effect, “Let me tell you what life would be like if Christ had not come, if He had not died, if He had not been resurrected from the grave.”
A World Without Christ?
A Life Without Christ?
Christmas Without Christ?
A World Without Christ?
In 1 Corinthians 15:14 Paul tells us that if Christ had not come, our preaching would be useless.
In that same verse, he says that if Christ had not come, our faith would be empty.
In verse 15 he said that if Christ had not come, those of us who are Christians would be false witnesses. We would be telling lies because we would be saying something was true when indeed it was not.
In 15:17 he said that if Christ had not come, our faith would be futile, worthless.
He said if Christ had not come we would all still be in our sins. We would be unforgiven.
In verse 18 of that text, he said if Christ had not come, we would never see our dead loved ones again, for those who have died have perished. And then in verse 19 he summarizes it by saying if Christ had not come, we would be the most miserable of all people.
Sometimes the only way we can appreciate what we have as Christians is to realize that everything that’s good, and everything that’s wholesome, and everything that’s positive, and everything that’s clean, and everything that’s true, has its roots in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came as the gift of God the Father to be our Savior. It is a wonderful thought to remember that God has not forgotten us.
A Life Without Christ?
But the question, then, must be: If God has not forgotten us, then why do we seem to have forgotten Him?
Every Christmas is the coming together of a magnificent occasion and a wonderful opportunity. It is not different from that first Christmas Day recorded for us in Luke 2:1–7:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
I like to think of that night in terms of the kind of silence that is observed in the eastern U.S. when snow falls on Christmas Day, and everything is absolutely still.
On this magnificent night recorded by Luke, we are told that Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger. It was a magnificent occasion that escaped observation by almost everyone who was there.
We read in John 1 that “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” At that moment in that silent night when Mary birthed her baby, Deity invaded humanity. In that moment, when Mary birthed her baby, eternity invaded time. And no one really understood that.
Micah the prophet said it this way in his prophecy of Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
How could one be born whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting? In that moment of time when Mary birthed her baby, Royalty invaded poverty. The One who had all wealth at His disposal, who was the King of glory, who created the world that we love and live in, that same One was birthed to Mary.
What a magnificent occasion! A silent night interrupted by a tiny cry in Bethlehem. This magnificent occasion was set up from eternity past. And it wonderfully met every criterion that was laid out for it.
But, on this night of all nights, it happened in a place where no one even recognized what was going on. The God who had refused to forget us, was forgotten by those to whom He first came. The Bible tells us “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). The King of glory had come down, and He was not recognized or received.
The innkeeper should not have missed it because he was so close to it. Isn’t it interesting how we can go through life, and often be so close to the magnificent, and never let it dawn upon our conscious awareness? He was so close. The mother of our Lord was at his door. She was seeking a place to birth the Son of God, and he would not let her in because there was no room.
Christmas Without Christ?
Am I pressing the point too much when I say that today the world is filled with innkeepers who miss the meaning of Christmas?
If that is not the case, why, as we go through the shopping centers during this season, are there so many grim faces in our stores, so many exhausted, sleepy people in our churches the Sunday before Christmas? The innkeeper missed Christmas not because he was angry or because he was belligerent. He missed Christmas because of ignorant preoccupation. He got so busy with everything that was going on in his life, taking care of the inn, taking care of the census, taking care of all of the pressure, he couldn’t stop to reflect upon the moment that was at hand.
Many people today are like that. The chambers of their souls are filled with needless things, stuff that doesn’t really matter. They miss the Messiah of God. Oh, how hard it is for us to clear out the chambers of our heart and mind, and make room for the Messiah!
One of the great tragedies of our time is not that God has forgotten us, but that we have forgotten Him. On the same day that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian-born Nobel prize winner, was presented with the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, he addressed many of Britain’s leading political and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Over half a century ago,” stated Solzhenitsyn, “while I was still a child, I remember hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation of the great disasters that have befallen Russia. Men have forgotten God. That’s why it has all happened. And if I were called upon to identify the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, I would be unable to find anything more precise and more worthy than to repeat, men have forgotten God.”
In our world today, doesn’t it seem to you that men have forgotten God? And we who have been given this holiday occasion to embrace the Christ because God has not forgotten us, we must ask ourselves in our hearts, “Have I forgotten God?” That is not a question just for those who do not know God through Christ. That is a question for all of us. It is possible for us to live as practical atheists and still be Christians in the sense that we go through our lives without giving any time whatsoever to the One who came to make life meaningful for us. Let us not, at this time of the year, forget the One who has not forgotten us.
Some have heard the gospel message throughout life from a mother’s teaching, in Sunday school, or growing up in church. Periodically, you have been reminded that it was for you that this Christ came. But like the innkeeper, you are so busy with everything else you keep pushing Him away. But there is a day coming when He will knock no more. If He knocks at your heart today, you must not forget Him. That is the message of Christmas. You must not forget the One who refused to forget you. Receive Him as your Savior.
If you know Christ today, make a list of as many good things as possible that would not exist in your life if not for your relationship with Him.
Which of those events or circumstances were bad things that the Lord Jesus Christ transformed into something good?
What, then, is the connection between Christ’s resurrection from the dead and His ability to redeem our lives into something good? (See Romans 8:11, 28–31.)
In 1 Corinthians 15:12–22, what eventual circumstance is Paul connecting to Christ’s resurrection?
Why is that an essential part of every Christian’s perspective on the future?
If the resurrection of Christ is not a historical fact, where does that leave every Christian?
What has been the historical pattern of great nations that have denied or left their faith in Christ?
In our culture today, what is replacing a belief in the Jesus of the Bible?
What effect is that producing?
Do you believe it is possible for a genuine Christian to “forget God” in a practical, day-to-day sense?
Why or why not?
What would you forecast as some of the symptoms of that problem?
What would you propose as good “preventative medicine” for not forgetting God?
What would you propose as good solutions for those Christians who have?
In what way(s) might the Christmas holiday season afford an opportunity for us to “remember” Him? To encourage others to do the same?
To make Him known to those who don’t know Him?
Did You Know?
Although the story line for the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is purely fanciful and fictitious, it has for decades connected with those who feel forgotten and forsaken during the holidays, even pointing many to the God of the Bible and genuine faith in Christ.
For actor James Stewart, the barroom scene in which he cries out to God was so profoundly moving, the tears were real and the experience entirely unique. When he was asked to do another take for the benefit of facial closeups, he flatly refused, admitting that at that precise moment, he felt something of the desperation and hopelessness of those who have nowhere else to turn but the true God. The film editors worked with the one take they had, closeups were engineered by enlarging one frame at a time, and a truly vicarious moment of a desperate man’s plea to God made it to the screen.
Use the final remains of various colors of crayons. Shave each color and create stacks of shavings by color. Let each child create their design by placing the colors in the pattern they create on a piece of waxed paper. Place another piece of paper on top of the crayon shavings and gently but firmly set a hot iron on the paper. To make sure you have the work surface protected, place a large piece of foil under the entire project. I also place a piece of waxed paper over the top before I set the iron down.
After the paper has cooled, gently peel the top sheet of paper off and enjoy the beauty of an original stained glass window. You may be surprised at the artistic expression in your family.
A forgotten authority on Wesleyan hymns once commented, “There can hardly be a single paragraph of Scripture that is not somewhere reflected in the hymns of the Wesleys.” That observation was certainly accurate regarding the following two stanzas from Charles Wesley’s elegant 1744 Advent hymn:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of ev’ry nation, Joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver, Born a Child, and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Those beautiful lines summarize well the main sentiments of another impeccable testimony to the significance and validity of Christ’s birth—the aged, humble, and wise Simeon. Luke again reports on what happened and records Simeon’s prophetic words:
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (2:25–35)
The Man Simeon
Although very little is known about him except what Luke 2 records, Simeon was, as we shall see, a fascinating character. His name is certainly a common Hebrew name (it was the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel; Gen. 49:5–7) that means, “God has heard.” When Simeon’s parents named him as a baby, the Lord prompted them to give him a name that wonderfully alludes to the result of his heartfelt cry for God to send a comforter and deliverer. That cry was certainly Simeon’s lifelong hope, and at the end of his life God graciously heard and sent the Messiah.
His Spiritual Character
The first biblical description of the man Simeon involves his spiritual character: “this man was just and devout” (Luke 2:25). As we saw regarding Joseph and Mary, that simple statement is loaded with meaning—as a just man, Simeon stood righteous before God. God had declared him righteous, as only God can, when he trusted in Him rather than his good works for the forgiveness of sin. Simeon recognized his sinfulness, cast himself on the mercy of God, and the Lord declared him righteous because Christ’s death on the cross would bear away his sins.
If Simeon was a just man, it follows that he was also “devout.” That word means he was righteous. If anyone is truly justified, then scripturally he or she is necessarily also righteous, or in the process of being sanctified. Even in Simeon’s day, still under the Old Testament economy, when God declared someone like him righteous, that person’s life changed and he became a lover of God’s Law (see Psalm 119 and David’s heart attitude toward the Law of God).
Simply stated, a devout man such as Simeon is primarily concerned about the things of God. In fact, the term rendered “devout” in Luke 2 is often more literally translated “cautious,” indicating that Simeon would have been very careful how he treated God and responded to His Word. He lived a careful, cautious, responsible life, one that was exemplary and conscientious to honor God and bring glory to His name. And that’s what defined Simeon’s character as a true Jew—a believing Jew—and a genuine member of the righteous remnant of Israel.
Luke 2:25 also indicates something important about Simeon’s theology: he was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” The word rendered “Consolation” is a direct reference to the Messiah. Thus Simeon had a hope for the coming of Messiah, the King who would bring in the promised Kingdom of Israel. And the only one who could fulfill that hope was the Consoler, the Comforter, the Helper—the Messiah.
But what was the source of Simeon’s great sense of hope? Undoubtedly, a major one had to be the Book of Isaiah. The second half of the prophet’s inspired writing contains a wealth of references to the theme of the coming Messianic consolation and comfort. Isaiah 40:1–2 declares, “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.’” The righteous Jews looked for the time when Israel’s warfare would end and the Comforter (Messiah) would remove all sins.
The prophet goes on to say, “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (vv. 10–11). None other than God Himself, in the person of Christ, would come to rule and comfort His people, even as a shepherd helps his sheep and lambs.
Isaiah 49:8–10 provides further promise:
Thus says the Lord:
“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’
To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
“They shall feed along the roads,
And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.
They shall neither hunger nor thirst,
Neither heat nor sun shall strike them;
For He who has mercy on them will lead them,
Even by the springs of water He will guide them.”
God in effect reiterated the Abrahamic Covenant and promised to give Israel back her land. And along with that, the Lord pledged to minister a variety of compassionate favors. All of these prophecies foreshadowed the ministry of Christ as the Comforter of His people (Isa. 51:3; 57:18; 66:10–13).
So Simeon was a man who believed the Old Testament and took the prophet’s promises of consolation for Israel at face value. Simeon cared not only about his personal salvation, but also about the spiritual welfare of his people. His desire was very much a precursor to Paul’s decades later, when the apostle told the Roman believers:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9:1–5)
In that sense, Simeon was a passionate true believer. And he even went Paul one better. The great apostle was not a member of the true remnant for his entire adult life and ministry; after all, he once persecuted Christians prior to his conversion from legalistic, lost Judaism. But Simeon always looked in faith to the hope of Israel’s comfort and consolation, the coming of Messiah. He longed earnestly for the fulfillment of the covenant promises; and the more his nation sank into sin, apostasy, unbelief, and legalism, the more his heart ached to see the Messiah deliver his fellow Israelites from all of that iniquity.
In addition to his exemplary character qualities and his adherence to biblical theology, Simeon was a remarkable example of divine anointing for extraordinary service: “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).
First of all, Luke’s statement about Simeon applies just as if he were speaking of any Old Testament-era believer. The Spirit of God had to work in his heart to save him—to enable him to believe that God would provide a sacrifice and would forgive his sins, and that it was all by grace through faith, not works. The Holy Spirit used the picture of the Old Testament sacrificial system to point Simeon and other true Jews toward Christ’s final sacrifice. He thus brought them to justification and began the ongoing process of sanctification in their lives. In Simeon’s life we clearly see that process at work in his devout character and careful obedience to God’s Law.
That the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, therefore, was not an indicator of a brand-new phenomenon. The Spirit was always present in believers’ lives. Luke was simply saying that God had anointed Simeon for a special responsibility, much as He had done for certain Old Testament saints (e.g., Samson, Samuel, the prophets). Most often that responsibility involved speaking for God, as we’ll see when Simeon interacts with the young Jesus and His parents.
But before Simeon uttered any prophetic statements, the Spirit had to reveal certain truths to him. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26). Sometime earlier in his life God had revealed that amazing message to Simeon, which would have had some rare and unusual implications for his life.
God’s words probably created both exhilaration and tension for Simeon. Positively, they would have served as a wonderful milepost or terminus point around which he could have ordered his life. Imagine the incredible feeling of having precise insight into exactly what needed to occur before you could die. But such knowledge also undoubtedly resulted in some spiritual pressure for Simeon. The constant excitement of living in Messianic times and eagerly anticipating the appearance of Christ on any given day, week, or month must have been a powerful motivation for Simeon to examine his heart regularly. He wanted to be sure he was fully ready for the special event. We don’t know how long prior to Luke 2 that Simeon had known all those things, but the entire waiting process, however long or short, surely filled his heart with anticipation as he realized Messiah was coming in his lifetime.
Simeon at Last Meets Christ
Simeon’s sense of anticipation that he would actually see the Messiah, and his lifelong looking forward in hope to the consolation of Israel, finally culminated on a special day that coincided with Jesus’ presentation to the Lord. God providentially prompted his heart, and Simeon decided it was exactly the right time to go down to the temple: “So he came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). More precisely, the word translated “temple” means “big area” and refers to the Court of the Women, the outside courtyard that was the only temple-related place Mary could go.
God in His sovereign wisdom appointed a time and place for Simeon and Christ to meet. And the meeting occurred even though Joseph and Mary knew nothing of Simeon, and he knew nothing of them or how to identify the Child. However, the Lord overcame those barriers and brought the four people together. Perhaps Simeon approached the parents and initiated a conversation in this fashion: “The Spirit of God has led me here and has prompted me that it’s where the Messiah is. Can you give me some information?” To which Joseph and Mary may have replied, “Yes, here He is.”
Likewise, we can only imagine what Simeon felt as he took the baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms, pressed Him to his chest, and perhaps leaned his head down to kiss Him. We can only speculate concerning the magnitude of joy that must have flooded the old manheart as he realized God truly did fulfill His promises. At last, he was holding in his hands the Messiah, the Comforter and Consoler of Israel, the Savior of the world.
Simeon was filled with such great joy because he genuinely believed that Jesus was the Messiah. And he believed that because Joseph and Mary told him. They undoubtedly reported to him the amazing, miraculous ways in which Jesus’ birth had come to pass and reaffirmed to him how God had confirmed the truth of it all to their hearts. Simeon had long believed in the coming Messiah, and God was at that moment rewarding his faith by showing him specifically and unquestionably that the infant Jesus was the Christ.
Simeon’s Song of Praise
The moment Simeon realized that the baby he saw and held was indeed the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, he launched into one of the most well-known, beloved, and theologically rich songs of praise found in all of Scripture. It certainly marked the most magnificent and joyful moment in his life as he witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would live to see the Messiah. Simeon’s clear testimony, known liturgically as the Nunc Dimittis (from the opening two words, “now Lord,” of the song’s Latin translation), appears in four short verses: “‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:29–32).
Simeon’s affirmation that God was letting him depart in peace is simply a Semitic expression that he was then ready to die. He was acknowledging that everything was right for a sovereign God to let him die in peace. And why was that? Because Simeon understood that God is a saving God (1 Tim. 4:10), and that he was seeing the arrival of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus, the Messiah (Luke 1:69; Acts 4:12). His praise flowed because God’s Savior had come and, therefore, God’s salvation had come—and with that great truth a reality, it was then all right for his life to end. Simeon had lived to see what God had promised him.
But Simeon’s testimony did not end with one statement. If he had merely added his voice to that of Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph and confirmed the truth of God’s salvation for His people, it would not have advanced the testimony about Messiah any further. However, Simeon did go further and prophetically declared a truth that was shattering to conventional Israelite belief: “‘For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:30–32).
Simeon’s additional words would have been truly astonishing for most Jews of his day. They believed someone would come as their Messiah, that he would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and with that kingdom that he would rule over the infidel Gentile world. But Simeon’s bold declaration said that God brought His Messiah/Savior to earth and prepared His salvation for all peoples without distinction—it is a light of revelation to the Gentiles, as well as being the glory of Israel.
Simeon’s statement was all the more shocking because even the remnant of Israel, those who believed and studied the Old Testament, hated what the term Gentile represented—no belief in the Scripture, desecration of the true and living God, disobedience to the commandment to love God above everything else, and violation of the prohibition against worshiping images of other gods. And as Gentiles became a more distinct group within Jewish society, members of the remnant seemed to resent the Gentiles’ blasphemy and idolatry more and more.
Even the most faithful and righteous of the believing Jews could not imagine that God’s salvation would include people beyond Israel. For example, when the shepherds heard the angels proclaim, “‘For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:11; emphasis added), they assumed the “to you” meant them and other Jews. And when Mary and Joseph heard they were to name their son Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) because He would save His people from their sins, they understood “His people” to mean only Israel.
However, the numerous statements of the prophet Isaiah, uttered centuries earlier, contradicted such thinking. Isaiah 9:1–2 applies to Galilee’s honor at the time of Jesus’ ministry: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Jesus actually did go to the other side of the Jordan to preach and serve. Those who lived in dark lands (Gentiles) experienced the light of the gospel.
Isaiah 42:6–7 says, “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” The prophet recorded a conversation between the Father and the Son that indicated God would use Christ, working through the nation of Israel, to be a light to the nations. That same expression (or one very similar), with the same meaning, appears four other places in the Book of Isaiah (49:6; 51:4; 52:10; 60:1–3; 45:25; 46:13).
In view of all those prophetic statements, no one should have been shocked at Simeon’s words. He could have had any one of the Isaiah references in mind with his declaration, which demonstrates again that Simeon was a man of God and a capable spokesman to announce the significance of Christ’s birth. In this case the significance is that salvation, brought by Messiah, has been prepared by God to be sufficient for the whole world because He loves the world (Matt. 28:18–20; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:1–6;
1 Pet. 3:9).
Parents’s Response to Simeon
As we’ve seen in our study, Joseph and Mary were already full of wonder and amazement concerning the incredible facts and miraculous circumstances attending the birth of Jesus. They realized they were the earthly parents of the Son of God, the Messiah, and the Savior of His people, all of which was beyond their comprehension. Then when they heard Simeon’s statement about the Gentiles, they were astonished anew and reminded afresh that the entire episode was entirely beyond their grasp (Luke 2:33). God had, as it were, placed in Joseph and Mary’s hands a Savior for everyone who believes, Jew and Gentile.
But the euphoria of that realization ended quickly for Mary and Joseph when Simeon concluded his pronouncement with this final, shocking statement: “‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (vv. 34–35).
Jesus’ parents surely were taken aback when listening to those words, the tone of which they had not heard before. Simeon’s prediction constitutes the first negative note in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth. Until then it had been all a record of divine promises fulfilled and news of God’s salvation that brought a sense of peace, hope, joy, and praise for His glory. But then Jesus’ parents, particularly Mary, had to grapple with thoughts of Israelites falling and rising and a sword piercing Mary’s soul. They certainly were asking themselves what Simeon’s closing words really meant.
Simeon directed his sober forewarning especially to Mary rather than Joseph because he knew Joseph wouldn’t be present for the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish teachers in the temple when He was twelve, Joseph disappears from the record. (He might have died even before Jesus began His earthly ministry.) But Mary witnessed or heard about all the high moments and low points of her Son’s ministry. And Simeon foresees Mary’s experience according to three categories: separation, opposition, and affliction.
Christ Separates People
First, Simeon knew Mary would endure emotional conflict, pain, and suffering because Jesus would represent a line of demarcation in the lives of all who saw and heard Him. Some would respond positively and rise to the glories of salvation, but others would respond negatively and fall into the despair of eternal judgment.
Simeon was introducing a new concept. Mary and everyone else who heard his words confronted for the first time the new perspective that some—even many—Jews would be lost. Not all of them would rejoice at Messiah’s ministry. Again, Simeon could have drawn his thoughts directly from Isaiah: “‘He [Messiah] will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken’” (8:14–15; 28:16; John 1:11; 1 Pet. 2:6–8).
The life and ministry of Jesus Christ would perfectly verify the words of Simeon and the prophets. The whole nation of Israel turned against our Lord, and ultimately the Jewish leaders persuaded the Romans to have Him executed—only a relatively small remnant of Jews received Him and believed unto eternal life. The rest would fall irretrievably over the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense.”
Christ Stirs Opposition from People
The division Messiah’s life caused among His people included overt opposition from many. He represented the light and righteousness that the average person hated (John 3:18–20). Eventually, as the Gospels clearly attest, the unbelieving Jews would contest everything Jesus said and did. The opposition began with indifference and progressed to hatred, plotting, insults, mockery, verbal vilification, physical torture, and abuse, and it ended with crucifixion.
It is hard enough for us today to believe that many of the Jews in Jesus’ time opposed Him so sinfully and completely. But Mary, who heretofore had done nothing but rejoice over the arrival of Messiah, had to be feeling shock and sadness over Simeon’s warning. Perhaps it would have been understandable if such future opposition had referred to the Gentiles; but it was unthinkable for her to identify it with the chosen nation of Israel.
But God’s sovereign redemptive purpose was again behind Simeon’s sobering declaration. His words could have wonderfully clarified for believing Jews like Mary the prophecy of Isaiah 53:3, “He [Christ] is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”
Mary Experiences Affliction
Simeon’s prophecy then turned from addressing the nations to addressing Mary personally. He said, in effect, that before everything ended, Mary’s role as Jesus’ mother would become very difficult personally. “‘A sword will pierce through your own soul also’” (Luke 2:35).
Because Mary undoubtedly loved Jesus more than any mother ever loved a child, it was extremely hard for her when Jesus had to push her away on the human level. When at age twelve He had to be about His Father’s business in the temple (Luke 2:46–50), it was necessary, in a sense, to push Mary aside. Later, when He was doing His first miracle in Cana (John 2:1–11), Jesus didn’t call her “mother”; He called her “woman” (v. 4). And on another occasion, when Mary came to visit Him with His half brothers (Matt. 12:46–50), He said, “‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 48–50).
Jesus gently but firmly nudged Mary from merely being His mother to realizing that she needed to depend on Him as her Savior and Lord. And after Jesus was hated, ridiculed, unfairly tried, physically assaulted, and crucified, Mary was standing at the foot of the cross, watching right up to the end of His life (John 19:25). Seeing Jesus suffering on the cross certainly would have rammed a sword through her maternal heart. In addition, Mary’s heart was no doubt pierced through because she, as a believing Jew, had to witness all the unbelieving opposition to Christ pour forth from many of her fellow Israelites.
Mary was an ordinary woman who dealt with enormous strain just being the mother of the Son of God. Her life accurately fulfilled Simeon’s admonition to her as she periodically felt bewildered by Jesus’ words and actions and certainly cut to the heart with emotional pain as she saw His rejection, suffering, and death.
The Revelation Simeon’s Words Predict
Years ago I read about a man who took a friend on a tour of Paris. They went to the Louvre and looked at all the great paintings there. That night they went to a concert hall and heard a wonderful symphony. At the end of the evening, the man asked his friend, “Well, what do you think?” And the friend replied, “I wasn’t all that impressed.”
In response, the man told his friend, “If it’s any consolation to you, the museum and its art were not on trial and neither was the symphony. You were on trial. History has already determined the greatness of these works of art and of this music. All that your attitude reveals is the smallness of your own appreciation.”
Likewise, Jesus isn’t on trial, but every soul is. Simeon declared, “‘This Child … is a sign which will be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (Luke 2:34–35). When God prompted Jesus to begin His ministry, many people rallied to oppose Him. That opposition simply revealed the wickedness of people’s hearts. Specifically, it also revealed the apostasy of the Jews’ religion, with all its hypocrisy, self-righteousness, legalism, and shallowness. And that attitude is still prevalent today.
When considering the facts of Christ’s birth, many people think, You know, the baby Jesus was a sweet child. And when He grew up, peace, joy, and happiness followed Him everywhere. Jesus was really a good man, and everyone felt good about Him when He healed the sick and taught interesting parables. That’s the kind of Jesus I want to embrace.
But you must go far beyond that. To embrace Jesus by saving faith and enter His Kingdom, you must allow Him to expose your sin. That means you repent of your evil thoughts and deeds, come to Him for forgiveness, receive His justification, and begin to live a holy life. But if you hate Jesus for exposing your sin and refuse to repent, you’ll die in your sins and go to hell. So Christ’s life was and is a revelation. How people respond reveals the condition of their hearts.
The word Simeon used for “thoughts” in verse 35 connotes negative beliefs. He was indicating that Jesus would reveal the filth of sinful thoughts. Even the Son of God couldn’t have a ministry as He did and still make everyone feel good all the time. As we have seen, He created such hostility that the people killed Him. When one represents and teaches the truth of holiness, as Christ did, he exposes the evil of the human heart.
Some people today, as in Jesus’ time, will fall on their faces, repent, and believe. But many other people today, also as in Jesus’ time, will reject Him and refuse to believe.
In summary, Simeon’s testimony to Christ had far-reaching implications. Above all, it demonstrated the supreme joy of a righteous Jew whom God had allowed to meet the Messiah. The hope of Israel and the world was then realized—even though heartache and difficulty would result during the course of Jesus’ ministry. Salvation had come, and Simeon could die in peace. His task, though brief and contained in a small segment of Scripture, was of great significance. God used Simeon to give a powerful affirmation to the truth that the infant Jesus was the promised Christ.
As a child is its chief subject, so it is also the children above all who exalt and maintain the festival, and through the festival also Christianity itself. And as night is the historical cradle of Christianity, so the festival of its birth is also celebrated in the night; and the lighted tapers with which it sparkles are, as it were, the star above the inn, as well as the aureole without which the child would not be found in the darkness of the manger, or in the otherwise starless night of history.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)
“The Christ of God We Sing”
Matthew 8:20; 27:29; Mark 15:17; Luke 2:1–15; 9:58; John 19:2, 5
The Christ of God we sing,
The Babe of Bethlehem!
And on His infant head we place
The royal diadem.
The crown of thorns is His,
That child of poverty,
Who on this earth of ours can find
No place His head to lay.
The crown of heaven is His,
And angels own Him there.
The crown of earth shall yet be His,
And we that crown shall share.
Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)
The Day Rose in December
Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16
In December, when the nights are long, rose unto us the day of whom there is no bound! In winter, when all the world is gloomy, the Fair One came forth who cheered all in the world! In winter that makes the earth barren, virginity learned to bring forth.
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)
The Divine and Human Natures Were Not Confounded
We must never forget that though our Lord was God and man at the same time, the divine and human natures in Him were never confounded. One nature did not swallow up the other. The two natures remained perfect and distinct. The divinity of Christ was never for a moment laid aside, although veiled. The manhood of Christ, during His lifetime, was never for a moment unlike our own, though by union with the Godhead, greatly dignified. Though perfect God, Christ has always been perfect man from the first moment of His incarnation. He that is gone into heaven, and is sitting at the Father’s right hand to intercede for sinners, is man as well as God.
R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)
The Divine Person Himself Is Revealed
Job 38:7; John 1:14
When God manifested His power in the works of His hands, the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy; but when God manifests Himself, what music shall suffice for the grand psalm of adoring wonder? When wisdom and power are seen, these are but attributes; but in the incarnation it is the divine person which is revealed wrapped in a veil of our inferior clay.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Fitness of the Son’s Redemption
John 5:37; 12:49; Ephesians 2:16; 4:8; 1 John 4:14
Oh the admirable love and wisdom of God that shines in this, that the second person in the Trinity is set on work to procure our redemption! Though reason could never have found out such a way, yet when God has revealed it, reason, though but shallow, can see a fitness in it; because there being a necessity that the Savior of man should be man, and an impossibility that any but God should save him, and one person in the Trinity being to be incarnate, it agrees to reason that the first person in the Trinity should not be the mediator; for who should send him? He is of none, and therefore could not be sent. There must be one sent to reconcile the enmity, and another to give gifts to friends; two proceeding persons, the Son from the Father, and the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son.
Thomas Brooks (1608–1680)
The Glory of Angels Became the Consolation of Sufferers
Matthew 6:29; Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14; Philippians 2:8
He who is the delight and glory of the angels is become the salvation and the consolation of all who suffer. He who is glorious and transcendent in His own city, and beatifies its citizens by His presence, became little and humble when in exile that He might rejoice the exiles. He who in the highest heavens is the glory of the Father became, as a child on earth, “peace to men of goodwill.”
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
The Godhead Concealed Itself in a Babe
Luke 2:7, 12; Philippians 2:6–7
It is the terror of the Godhead which keeps the sinner oftentimes away from reconciliation; but see how the Godhead has graciously concealed itself in a babe, a little babe, a babe that needed to be wrapped in swaddling bands like any other newborn child. Who fears to approach Him? Who ever heard of trembling in the presence of a babe? Yet is the Godhead there.
Moses died on the mountain from which he was permitted to view from a distance the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52). When the Bible speaks of God’s promises, it’s a matter of life and death.… The language that reports this ancient history is clear. Anyone who has seen God must die; the sinner dies before the promise of God. Let’s understand what that means for us so close to Christmas. The great promise of God—a promise that is infinitely more important than the promise of the promised land—is supposed to be fulfilled at Christmas.… The Bible is full of the proclamation that the great miracle has happened as an act of God, without any human doing.… What happened? God had seen the misery of the world and had come himself in order to help. Now he was there, not as a mighty one, but in the obscurity of humanity, where there is sinfulness, weakness, wretchedness, and misery in the world. That is where God goes, and there he lets himself be found by everyone. And this proclamation moves through the world anew, year after year, and again this year also comes to us.
We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival. One comes with pure joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love.… Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work.… Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime.… And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.
Sermon to a German-speaking church in Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
I love you, O my God, who did become a little child for my sake; but I love you very little. I desire to love you very much, and you have to enable me to do it. I come, then, to kiss your feet, and I offer you my heart. I leave it in your hands; I will have it no longer. Change it, and keep it forever; do not give it back to me again. For if you do, I fear lest it should betray you afresh.
Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)
Praise and Glory to the Trinity for the Incarnation
John 1:14; Philippians 2:7
O heavenly Father, we thank you, we praise you, we glorify you for your great mercy to us sinners, in sending your blessed Son, as at this time, to take our nature upon Him.
O blessed Son of God, we praise you and glorify you, who condescended to take our manhood into your Godhead, that we might be saved by you.
O God the Holy Spirit, we praise you and glorify you, by whom in a wonderful manner the Son of God became incarnate in our nature, and dwelt among us.
Blessed Be That Child Who Gladdened Bethlehem Today!
Matthew 1:25; Luke 1:78; 2:7
Blessed be that child who gladdened Bethlehem today! Blessed be the babe who made manhood young again today! Blessed be the fruit who lowered Himself to our famished state! Blessed be the good one, who suddenly supplied our needs! Blessed is He whose tender mercies made Him condescend to visit our infirmities!
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)
Born God of God and Man of Man
John 1:1–5, 14–18; 14:6
In Christ the very Mercy has descended to sinners, the very Truth to those that are astray, the very Life to those that are dead: so that that Word, which is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, might take our humble nature into union with His Godhead, and, being born God of God, might also be born Man of man.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
Born of the Father and Born of a Mother
John 1:14–18; Galatians 4:4; 1 John 5:1
Born of the Father He made us; born of a mother He re-made us. He was born of the Father that we might be; He was born of a mother that we might not be lost.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
Bow Humbly to the Humble Jesus
Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 11:29; Philippians 2:6–7
To you this day the infant Jesus is born, to you a child is given: that with the little you may become little, with the poor poor, with the humble humble, with the patient patient, with the meek sweet and mild. Bow yourself therefore humbly to Him; submit yourself freely, that thus you may merit to exult with Him eternally, who to gather the little came down from the high dwelling places of Heaven, Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)
Bringing a Remedy and Giving Us an Example
Philippians 2:5–11; 1 John 5:20
Unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy; unless He were true man, He would not give us an example.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
By His Weakness We Know He Does Not Come to Destroy
Isaiah 42:1–3; Matthew 12:18–20; Philippians 2:6–7
Behold, He comes as an infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror. If He is terrible to any, yet not to you. He is become a little one, His virgin mother swathes His tender limbs with bands, and do you still tremble with fear? By this weakness you may know that He comes not to destroy, but to save; not to bind, but to unbind. If He shall take up the sword, it will be against your enemies, and, as the Power and the Wisdom of God, He will trample on the necks of the proud and the mighty.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
Castaways May Return Because of the Incarnation
John 1:13; 3:3–7; Romans 8:15
To you who were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, without further hope of living, by the incarnation of the Word was given the power to return from afar to your maker, to recognize your parentage, to become free after slavery, to be promoted from being an outcast to sonship: so that you who were born of corruptible flesh may be reborn by the Spirit of God, and obtain through grace what you had not by nature, and, if you acknowledge yourself the son of God by the spirit of adoption, dare to call God Father.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
Celebrating Christmas All Year
I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Celebrating Christmas with Non-Christians
Luke 2:10; Acts 2:46–47
The world for once chooses to say with us, “Christ is come.” Those who do not ordinarily come to the light do not refuse to advance some steps towards the risen day. Is this good, or is this evil? Shall we refuse to let them bear a part with us in our Christian joy? Shall we drive them back again into their worldliness? Shall we forbid them because they do not feel and do not think and do not speak as we do?… Shall we not rather say to them, “Come and rejoice with us—advance and stand in the ranks of God’s people—listen to what He has done for His Church and for the world?” Which of the two plans is the more likely to win souls for Christ and to glorify God?
This lesson emphasizes the humanity of Jesus so that we might fully appreciate what God did when His deity invaded our humanity.
The older we get, the more we understand that the real meaning of the holiday is not the giving of gifts (as exciting as that is), but the relationship we have with one another, and the privilege that the holiday provides for us to get together.
But as we enjoy the warmth and joy of our relationships with one another, if we think of it very deeply, we finally contemplate the truth that God so desired a relationship with us that He paid the incredibly supreme price to come and be one of us, so that we might know Him.
At His Birth
During His Childhood
In His Adulthood
In 1 Timothy 3:16 we read, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh.” It is almost as if Paul were overcome by the thought of it.
At His Birth
The Apostle Paul bursts out in this epistle with the astonishing words: “Without controversy.” In other words, there won’t ever be any argument about this. No one can bring an argument against this. “Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness.”
Then he describes the mystery: “God was manifested in the flesh.” The only reason we don’t say that to one another more often is because we haven’t taken the time to comprehend the incredible truth that is involved in God becoming flesh.
In my reading, I have discovered that many of the great writers whom we admire have had moments like Paul had when he wrote 1 Timothy, moments when in the ordinary course of their writing it suddenly dawned on them, it suddenly hit them, it suddenly became part of their frontal lobe thinking, this truth that God has become a man.
W. Tozer wrote, “The coming of Jesus Christ into this world represents a truth more profound than any philosophy that the world has ever known. All of the great thinkers of the world together could never have produced anything even remotely approaching the wonder and profundity disclosed in the message of these words: He came. The words are wiser than all learning, and understood in their high spiritual context, they are more eloquent than all oratory, more lyric and moving than all music. They tell us that all of mankind, sitting in darkness, has been visited by the Light of the world.”
John the Apostle, writing in the New Testament, said it this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And writing in a more formal way to the Galatians, Paul the Apostle said it in these words: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).
Isaiah the Prophet said it would be like this. In the seventh chapter of his prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), which is quoted by Matthew in the narrative of the birth of Jesus, Isaiah said that His name would be called Immanuel, which, being translated, is “God with us.” God coming down to be one of us.
As we’ve asked ourselves before, is this the way we would have done it? Would this have been your master plan to rescue lost mankind? Would you have had your Redeemer delivered to a manger and wrapped in strips of swaddling cloth? Would you have had Him born in a stable built for cattle? Would you have had His first visitors the hated shepherds of the hillside? Have you ever heard of a royal story quite like that? Paul was right—great is the mystery of godliness! God was manifested in the flesh.
During His Childhood
I would be afraid of God were it not for the fact that He has come to show me that I don’t need to be. He has come as a man, to walk among men and reveal Himself to us, one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, but truly human. And that’s what we often forget. It is a mystery, this birth of our Savior, born in Bethlehem so many years ago. Isaiah the Prophet said, Jesus grew up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground,” and, “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:2–3).
One writer has interpreted Isaiah’s words like this: “There was no splendor or appearance that we should be drawn to Him. He was just an ordinary baby.”
It’s true that if you and I had lived during the days of our Lord’s childhood, and if we had met Him on the street, we would not have nudged each other and said, “Why, there is the young Messiah!” We would not have known. It was not even known by those with whom He grew up.
Even his own brothers did not know that He was the Messiah. He was just an ordinary baby like you and like me. There was nothing that would have set Him apart from us, except the fact that if we were near Him and could have watched His life, you would have understood that He did not sin.
One thing that has captured my attention is that from the day Jesus was born until He was 12 years old, we have no record of Him speaking. Then, when Jesus was 12 years old, He lingered in Jerusalem at the temple after His parents had left to return to Nazareth. When they found Him and asked Him why this had happened, He spoke 17 words in the Jewish language to the effect that, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”
In His Adulthood
Then in the New Testament we are given the record of His baptism at the age of 30. So all through His life, from the time He was born—with the exception of that time when He was 12—until He was 30 years of age, we have no word from Messiah. No word. Jesus lived His life in those early years in total obscurity. We have no word from His lips for three decades. And then we have His magnificent ministry that was lived out in just three years.
Jesus spent His whole life as we would know it experiencing humanity, living among the common people, going to work every day in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, working alongside his brothers, learning to experience what it is like to be a human being. Not a human being with a halo, because that’s not normal human experience, but human life as our lives are.
In Luke 2, just as Luke is concluding this early period of the Lord’s life, he provides us with the only sketch of what was going on with Jesus during that time. In Luke 2:40 Luke says of Jesus in His early days, “[He] grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”
Then, in Luke 2:52 he writes, “and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” That’s it. That’s all we have.
All kinds of legends have been invented about His childhood, but they don’t come from the Scriptures. The Scriptures are incredibly silent about those years.
This tells me that it was done on purpose, so that God could get through to us that Jesus Christ grew up as one among us—with little being said, little being written, but much being experienced in His life.
There are some things we can arrive at by conjecture. Secular historians tell us that Jesus’ father died when He was a very young boy. That is pretty well accepted. If so, then Jesus no doubt would have had to take more responsibility as the older brother in the family and in the family business. It would also mean that He knew what it meant to lose a parent. He experienced that. It would also mean that He grew up in a single parent home. He knew what that is like as well.
Think for a moment just what those days must have been like. Later, when He was rejected by His brothers, that must have hurt. He knew in His heart that one day He would close the door on that home and walk out into a life that would be chronicled for the rest of history to read about. But how could He say that to James so that it would come through? In fact, in the beginning James didn’t believe any of it.
As He got out into His ministry, we know that Jesus felt the pain of being betrayed by a very close friend. Three times, one of His closest friends said that he didn’t even know Him. He probably was slandered and lied about more than any human being who ever walked on this earth. Why did that all happen? Because He came to be one of us. He came to walk among us. He came to experience what we experience. Whatever your troubles or trials, Jesus understands all of it, because He has experienced it.
The Bible tells us He was tired, He was thirsty, He wept. Two places in the New Testament say that He was troubled in spirit. Have you ever been troubled in spirit? Jesus understands what that is like. He was hungry, He was often tired, and yes, He was even tempted.
All of that is to say that the ratio of 30 years of living and three years of ministry is so that when He spoke in those three years, He would speak with authority, He would speak as one who could be trusted, and He would speak as one who had lived life as we do. So when He says, “Don’t do that,” it is not because He is trying to keep us from enjoying a good time. As the Son of God He walked in the soot and dirt and sin and filth of the world, and He saw the pain and anguish of those who violated the holy law.
Hebrews 4:14 tells us, “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
We are to come boldly to Jesus Christ not just because He is God, but we can come boldly to Him because He is a friend who understands. He has been there before. He has walked through the thing you are walking through. Whatever pain you have felt, He has felt. In fact, one of the translations of the words “to speak boldly” is “to have free utterance.” Come before the Lord with free utterance.
Do you pray like that? Sometimes when I hear Christians praying, and especially when I know how badly they are hurting, I want to put my arm around them and say, “Would you just please tell the Lord what you feel?” He will understand. He is not someone who is removed from us as if a planet in a distant galaxy. He is the Lord who came down. He is the One who became one of us and walked among us and felt every emotion we feel. If you are hurting, He has hurt as you do. Therefore, what a friend He can be to you!
When you pray, you don’t have to couch all your prayers in the “thees and thous” of the King James Bible. You can come and tell Him what is in your heart.
Do you know Him like that? Have you cultivated a relationship with Jesus Christ that helps you to have free utterance when you pray?
That’s why Christmas is so special. It brings God down, not in a defamatory way, not in a defeating way, but to be one of us so that we can relate to Him. And just as human relationships at Christmas are special, so the relationship we have with Jesus Christ is special because of who He is, how He lived, and what He did.
Why do you think it was essential that the Son of God be incarnated as a Baby in Bethlehem?
Upon what portions of the Bible do you base your thoughts?
What stereotypes of Christmas (Christmas scenes, cards, nativity scenes) might we need to rethink if we understand that Jesus was, physically, just an “ordinary baby”?
What do you think Paul meant in Philippians 2:7 when he referred to Jesus “coming in the likeness of men”?
What point is he making?
Why do you think that “likeness” is important?
What physical trials can you think of that Jesus either endured according to the biblical record, or might have endured because of when and where He lived?
What mistreatment from other people?
In Matthew 26:48–49, why do you think Judas needed to provide Jesus’ captors with an indication of which Person He was?
How does this compare with the perception that Jesus always stood out in a crowd?
What comfort do you personally find in the fact that Jesus was a “common man”?
What do the following verses tell us of the benefits of Jesus’ coming in the likeness of man?
Did You Know?
Myths of Jesus performing miraculous or magical feats during His childhood are rampant, especially in the various Eastern religions. And often, Christians do not know how to answer such claims from outside the Bible.
It is essential to remember that through God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), the Messiah was—by God’s unconditional contract—promised to Israel first (Romans 1:16), and then to the world through Israel. That is precisely why Jesus went first to the Jews, then after being rejected by the religious leaders, to the population of Israel at large, and to the Gentiles.
Because of that, it was essential that Jesus present Himself first to Israel, through the “signs” Israel required (John 2:18; 1 Corinthians 1:22). These signs were not simply magic tricks; they were local, immediate manifestations of acts that the Old Testament had already revealed only Messiah could do. And—very clearly stated in John 2:11—the very first of these was His miracle of turning purification water into “best wine” at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. That means none—exactly zero—miracles were done by Him as a child.
Donna Jeremiah’s Package Code
Four curious children can create a challenge for any mom at Christmastime, so I decided to avoid the constant struggle to hide presents and keep track of which child was shaking, smelling, or unsealing a package to determine what was inside.
I wanted to wrap the packages and put them under our tree in advance of Christmas morning, but keeping an ever-present watch over the activities around the tree was more than this mom could easily handle.
I decided to create a numbering system that would allow me to wrap the packages and affix a name tag, but instead of the name I would code each gift with a multiple digit number. I had to rotate the numbers; our children are clever and could soon figure out who had what number.
On Christmas morning we would distribute the gifts and the children would not have time to guess the contents. My system has proven effective and we still use it.
Many local television stations across the United States entitle their newscasts Eyewitness News. Obviously, the impression station managers and news directors want to convey is that their newscasts are accurate and that viewers can count on the broadcasts as bona fide sources of daily community information. Such telecasts do not always achieve their goals of accuracy and balanced reporting, but use of the term eyewitness by the producers implies a desire to attain those ideals. That’s because eyewitness, in some sense, still connotes the idea of a credible, reliable report—a trustworthy individual actually witnessed certain events and can provide a truthful account of them.
The principle of the honest eyewitness also derives from the traditions and standards of Western jurisprudence. Courts accept a story as true when two or three witnesses can corroborate and verify its major elements. But the principle goes back much further to the biblical affirmation that testimony had to be confirmed in the mouth of two or three witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; Matt. 18:16; 1 Tim. 5:19).
Luke, ever the careful historian and theologian, used the testimony of reliable witnesses to great effect in confirming the truth of his narrative of the birth of Christ. His efforts were all the more effective because he could cite the most credible witnesses any writer ever had. And he did all that so we would know beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ was the greatest and most special child ever born.
The Righteousness of Joseph and Mary
First of all, Luke removed any uncertainty about the character and honesty of his witnesses by relying on the testimony of Jesus’ parents. Because of the righteous character of Joseph and Mary’s lives, Luke knew his readers could trust their testimony.
Matthew 1:19 identifies Joseph this way: “Joseph … being a just man.” That means he was right with God—a righteous man. And that was notable because in those days Israel had quite an array of theological and political viewpoints that were out of step with God’s righteous plan. There were those influenced by the Sadducees, who were essentially the religious liberals (they denied the supernatural and a bodily resurrection from the dead). Many Jews followed the system of the religious legalists, the Pharisees, who believed in tradition, ceremonies, and good works as a means to salvation. Then there were the adherents of nationalism, who politicized Judaism and were fanatically intent on overthrowing Roman control and regaining independence for the nation of Israel. The Zealots most clearly represented that outlook. And there was even a segment of Jewish society that lived out in the desert as separatists. The Essenes, with their asceticism and contemplative piety, epitomized that sectarian element.
Those crosscurrents of unscriptural emphases had led the nation of Israel far from God. But He was still working among a small remnant of His people, reassuring them that Messiah was coming and that His plan of redemption was still intact. The Lord was faithfully carrying out His program through righteous people, those who believed His promises, repented of their sins, and cast themselves on His mercy for the forgiveness of sins. Joseph was a prime example of this righteous remnant, as was his young wife, Mary, whom Luke earlier quoted as saying, “‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior’” (1:46–47). It’s clear that Jesus’ parents knew and loved the Lord.
The Testimony of Joseph and Mary
Joseph and Mary’s devotion to follow the will of God in everything pertaining to their new son was also clear. Luke 2:21–24 features that faithful, joyful spirit of obedience:
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
The Circumcising and Naming of Jesus
The first way in which Jesus’ parents testified to His identity as Messiah and Savior was by bringing Him to be circumcised and formally named.
The Law of Moses prescribed that the parents of male babies, when the boys were eight days old, were to have their sons circumcised (Lev. 12:3). However, God first introduced the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14) to Abraham when he underwent the formal procedure as an adult and the Lord identified him as the father of the Israelite nation. From then on, as a sign of the covenant, every male child in Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day.
Although circumcision was physical and done for health reasons (by having the man’s foreskin cut away, God was protecting the Jewish wife from receiving harmful infections and bacteria from her husband), it primarily symbolized the need for spiritual cleansing. Every time Jewish parents brought a son to be circumcised, it was a reminder of original sin—they were sinners; they had borne a sinner—and their need for a cleansing at the deepest level of their souls. That’s why Scripture commands us to circumcise our hearts (Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11).
But why did Jesus, the holy and sinless Son of God (Isa. 53:9;
2 Cor. 5:21), need to be circumcised? Because that’s what God’s Law required. Whatever His Law mandated at that time in redemptive history, Jesus, through His earthly parents, wanted to comply with those commands. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).
Christ came to fulfill every aspect of the Law (Matt. 5:17), whether He did so passively as an infant at His circumcision or actively as an adult at His baptism. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him” (Matt. 3:13–15).
Jesus entered this world and lived obediently as a child, young person, and adult under the Law—an entire life of perfection—so that at the Cross the Father could credit the Son’s perfect life to sinners’ accounts. Without the death of One who lived a perfect life, there could be no substitutionary atonement. At Calvary, God treated Jesus as if He had lived your life so He could treat you as if you had lived Jesus’ life. That is a simple summary of the doctrine of justification.
According to Jewish custom, the parents named the son at the same time they had him circumcised. So on that occasion Christ’s parents formally named Him Jesus—and the choice of that name was an easy one. The angel had told both Joseph and Mary that they were to name their Son Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
Jesus is the New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua and means “Yahweh saves.” Joshua, Moses’ successor, was a great deliverer (Deut. 31:1–8; Josh. 1:1–7) who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. But the Child whom Mary and Joseph named Jesus was a far greater Deliverer than Joshua. He was God the Savior, come in human flesh to willingly and compassionately save all those who believe.
God is by nature a saving God (Ezek. 18:23, 32), and Jesus demonstrated those sympathies when He wept over the lost condition of Jerusalem: “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’” (Matt. 23:37; Matt. 11:28; Luke 15:11–32).
Christianity, as the world’s only true religion, is the only one that provides a genuine savior, and that Savior is Jesus. He affirmed that when He declared, “‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’” (Luke 19:10). And Joseph and Mary testified to that truth when they named Him at His circumcision.
Jesus Presented to God After Mary’s Purification
The second aspect of Joseph and Mary’s testimony to Jesus was twofold: Mary observed a prescribed time of purification for herself, and she and Joseph formally presented Jesus to God. “Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22–24).
As Luke tells us, Mary observed a set time for personal purification, in keeping with the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 12:2–4, the Lord commanded Moses, “‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: “If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.”’”
The seven-day uncleanness was a ceremonial uncleanness that meant the woman could not enter the tabernacle (later the temple) or touch anything holy during that time. The week was symbolically parallel to the woman’s monthly menstrual period, during which God also considered her unclean. Both types of uncleanness were regular reminders to the woman and to her family that they were still sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.
Beginning on the eighth day, the new mother of a male child had to face another period of uncleanness, the thirty-three days of her purification. As in the previous seven days, she was not to touch any consecrated item or enter the worship sanctuary. So for Mary and all other obedient Jewish women who bore sons, there was a somewhat bittersweet forty-day period. On the one hand, they experienced the great joy of having a new son, which meant the family name would continue. But on the other hand, they had to endure a mandatory disassociation from holy things as a reminder that they were sinners, that they had borne sinful sons, and therefore that as human mothers, they needed purification.
Once Mary had carefully observed and completed the forty-day period of uncleanness, she could joyfully and with a clear conscience present Jesus to the Lord. She was accompanied by Joseph, which meant the entire little family was present at the temple for the special observance of the completion of Mary’s purification.
As with the circumcision and purification, Joseph and Mary obeyed the Old Testament when they presented their Son to God: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me” (Exod. 22:29; 13:2, 12, 15; Num. 8:17). It was not mandatory for them to go to the Temple to present Jesus. But in the spirit of how Hannah brought Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam. 1:24–28), they went above and beyond the normal duty and brought God’s Son to God’s house. They knew the Child was very special and that He, of all children, belonged to the Lord already. By their action Jesus’ parents in effect said, “We are devoting this Child to You, God. He is already Yours, so do whatever You will in His life so He serves, honors, and glorifies You.”
That special presentation did not mean, however, that Joseph and Mary dedicated Jesus to the Levitical priesthood. They were of the tribe of Judah and therefore, like all non-Levite families, they needed to redeem their Son from that priestly responsibility by paying five shekels of silver (Num. 18:15–16). That would have been equivalent to many days’ wages, a difficult amount for a working-class couple like Joseph and Mary to pay. But God made sure they had the necessary coins.
That Jesus the Redeemer was ceremonially redeemed is an interesting irony, but it is nevertheless an important scriptural reality. Just as with His earlier circumcision and later baptism, Jesus did not need to go through any picture of redemption. He was the sinless Son of God; He did not need to be cleansed from sin or redeemed from condemnation. But He was circumcised, He was baptized, and He was “redeemed” as part of His presentation to God—all because He had to obey the letter of the Law to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf.
The Sacrifice for Mary’s Purification
Jesus’ ceremonial dedication to the Lord by His parents, as significant as it was, did not officially end Mary’s time of uncleanness. That end would come only by her offering a sacrifice for purification. And once again Mary, as a righteous woman, followed God’s original pattern for offering such a sacrifice:
When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean. (Lev. 12:6–8)
Notice that Mary had several options in offering her sacrifice. If she and Joseph had had the resources, they could have brought a lamb and a bird. But since they couldn’t afford to do that, they utilized the second option and brought a pair of birds (Luke 2:24). That indicates again that Mary and Joseph were not wealthy. However, the Lord enabled them, with their middle-class resources, to purchase the two birds in the temple, even at inflated prices.
After the priest made atonement for Mary by sacrificing the birds—one for a burnt offering, the other for a sin offering—she was clean. That didn’t mean the blood of the sacrifices washed her sins away; it simply meant Mary’s heart was then right with the Lord because she had confessed her sin and impurity and asked Him for forgiveness.
The sacrifice for Mary’s purification was a wonderful picture that looked ahead to her Son’s final sacrifice, which alone can actually remove people’s sin. When Christ was sacrificed on the cross, God revealed the only answer for sinful alienation from Him. Remember what happened right after Jesus’ death? The thick temple veil that separated mankind from God was ripped in two from top to bottom. That momentous event signified there was now access to God because the final atoning sacrifice was complete. Never again would repentant sinners, such as Mary, need to deal with ceremonial uncleanness.
So Joseph and Mary gave the first confirming testimony to Jesus’ birth, identity, and true purpose. They named Him Jesus because they knew He would save His people from their sins. They came to the temple (which they didn’t have to do) and offered Him to God because they understood that, in a special way, He belonged to the Lord. They had that understanding, of course, because they knew their newborn was the Christ, the Son of the Father.
Because of Joseph and Mary’s faithful testimony, we also can know that the Babe born in Bethlehem was and is the Son of God, the Redeemer of all who trust in Him.
KINGS AND THE KING The Feast of the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of Herod’s order to kill all male children after the birth of Jesus, serves as a reminder that the Christmas story is not without its moments of sorrow and tragedy.
CCI / THE ART ARCHIVE AT ART RESOURCE, NY
As it now stands, the “Christmas season” begins sometime in November. The streets are hung with lights, the stores are decorated with red and green, and you can’t turn on the radio without hearing songs about the spirit of the season and the glories of Santa Claus. The excitement builds to a climax on the morning of December 25, and then it stops abruptly. Christmas is over, the New Year begins, and people go back to their normal lives.
The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas is a bit different, and exhortations to follow its calendar rather than the secular one have become routine at this time of year. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation—singing hymns of a longing that in many ways culminates on December 25. But if we look a bit deeper into Christian history, we discover that Christmas Day itself ushers in 12 more days of celebration, ending on January 6 with the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just lending their name to a cryptic holiday song, the “real” 12 days of Christmas give us a way of reflecting on what the Incarnation means in our lives.
Christmas commemorates the most momentous event in human history—the entry of God into the world in the form of a baby. The Logos through whom the worlds were made took up his dwelling among us in a tabernacle of flesh. One of the Christmas Day prayers in the Catholic liturgy encapsulates what Christmas means for all believers: “O God, who marvelously created and yet more marvelously restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” In Christ, our human nature was united to God, and when Christ enters our hearts, he brings us into that union.
The three traditional feasts (dating back to the late fifth century) that follow Christmas Day reflect different ways in which the mystery of the Incarnation works itself out in the body of Christ. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen—a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor (as described in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”). As one of the first deacons, Stephen was the forerunner of all those who show the love of Christ through their generosity to the needy. But more than this, he was the first martyr of the New Covenant, witnessing to Christ by the ultimate gift of his own life.
FOOLS DAY What began as a celebration of subdeacons eventually became a day of excess and debauchery with echoes of various pagan rituals. By 1431, the Catholic Church officially forbade the Feast of Fools.
FEAST OF FOOLS: COURTESY OF LAURENCE SMITH
Commemorated on December 27, St. John the Evangelist is traditionally thought to be the only one of the 12 disciples who did not die a martyr. Rather, John witnessed to the Incarnation through his words, turning Greek philosophy on its head with his affirmation, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV).
On December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:16). These were not martyrs like Stephen, who died heroically in a vision of the glorified Christ. They were not inspired like John to speak the Word of life and understand the mysteries of God. They died unjustly before they had a chance to know or to will—but they died for Christ nonetheless. In them we see the long agony of those who suffer and die through human injustice, never knowing that they have been redeemed. If Christ did not come for them too, then surely Christ came in vain. In celebrating the Holy Innocents, we remember the victims of abortion, of war, of abuse. We renew our faith that the coming of Christ brings hope to the most hopeless. And, in the most radical way possible, we confess that, like the murdered children, we are saved by the sheer mercy of Christ, not by our own doing or knowing.
THE NEXT SEASON The Protestant liturgical year includes a long season of Epiphany, which begins with the arrival of the magi on January 6 and ends on Ash Wednesday.
THREE KINGS: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
AN UPSIDE-DOWN CELEBRATION
In the Middle Ages, these three feasts were each dedicated to a different part of the clergy. Stephen, fittingly, was the patron of deacons. The Feast of John the Evangelist was dedicated to the priests, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents was dedicated to young men training for the clergy and serving the altar. The subdeacons (one of the “minor orders” that developed in the early church) objected that they had no feast of their own. So it became their custom to celebrate the “Feast of Fools” around January 1, often in conjunction with the feast of Christ’s circumcision on that day (which was also one of the earliest feasts of the Virgin Mary and is today celebrated as such by Roman Catholics).
The 12 days of Christmas saw similar celebrations of the topsy-turvy and the unruly. A “Lord of Misrule” was often elected at Christmas to lead the festivities until Epiphany. A schoolboy was traditionally chosen as bishop on December 6 (the Feast of St. Nicholas) and filled all the functions of bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day. The Christmas season also sometimes saw the “Feast of the Ass,” commemorating the donkey traditionally present at the manger. On this day, people were supposed to bray like a donkey at the points in the Mass where one would normally say “Amen.”
Churches that follow the Julian church calendar celebrate Epiphany on January 19. The day commemorates Jesus’ baptism rather than the visitation of the magi.
ETHIOPIAN EPIPHANY: RONNIE JAMES / ALAMY
The Ethiopian feast of Timket (Epiphany) is marked by mass baptisms. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate by drawing sanctified water out of a cross-shaped “font” cut in the ice.
ORTHODOX EPIPHANY: PAVEL FILATOV / ALAMY
It is easy to dismiss all these customs as pagan holdovers (which many of them are), or at best as irrelevant and harmless follies. Indeed, the medieval church frowned on most of these practices, and the Reformers of the sixteenth century finished the job of suppressing them. But perhaps there’s a message here worth pondering—that in the words of the horrified pagans of Thessalonica, the message of Christ turns the whole world upside down. In the birth of Jesus, God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Nothing will ever be safe or normal again. In the words of Michael Card, we are called to “follow God’s own fool.” And yet, paradoxically, this greatest of revolutionaries was not a rebel. The one who revealed the surprising meaning of God’s Law and turned the tables on human traditions nonetheless submitted to be circumcised according to the teaching of Moses.
Finally, on Epiphany (January 6), the celebration of Christmas comes to an end. “Twelfth Night” (as all lovers of Shakespeare know) is the ultimate celebration of Christmas madness: Shakespeare’s play features one of his many “wise fools” who understand the real meaning of life better than those who think they are sane. Epiphany commemorates the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel—Christ’s manifestation to the nations, as shown in three different events: the visit of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the turning of water into wine.
In the Western tradition, the magi predominate, but in the Eastern churches, Jesus’ baptism tends to be the primary theme. In Bucharest, children leading lambs walk through the subway trains in commemoration of the Lamb of God to whom John pointed. Orthodox Christians traditionally have their homes blessed with holy water on or around this day. Nowhere is Epiphany celebrated more joyously than in Ethiopia. Pilgrims from all over the country converge on the ancient city of Aksum, where they bathe in a great reservoir whose waters have been blessed by a priest.
Epiphany is often a forgotten festival. As the true end point of the Christmas season, however, Epiphany sends us into the world to live out the Incarnation, to witness to the light of Christ in the darkness. Following Jesus, we have been baptized into his death and Resurrection. Whether we are called to martyrdom, or to prophetic witness, or simply to faithful living in the joys and sorrows of our daily lives, we live all of our days in the knowledge of our dignity, redeemed through Christ and united to God. We are part of the strange society of people whose world has been turned upside down, and we go out to witness to this topsy-turvy truth: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us: and we beheld his glory … and of his fullness have we all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:14, 16).
Jennifer: Freelance writer living in Huntington, IN; adjunct or affiliate professor of history/church history at Asbury Seminary, United Seminary, and Huntington University; and author of The Poisoned Chalice.
Edwin: Adjunct professor of history/church history at Asbury Seminary, Huntington University, and the University of St. Francis.
Simple Minds Sometimes Find Christ Where Learned Heads Miss Him
Matthew 2:1–12; Luke 2:15–20; 1 Corinthians 1:18–31
Shepherds glorified God, and so may you. Remember, there is one thing in which they had a preference over the wise men. The wise men needed a star to lead them; the shepherds did not. The wise men went wrong even with a star, and stumbled into Jerusalem; the shepherds went straight away to Bethlehem. Simple minds sometimes find a glorified Christ where learned heads, much puzzled with their lore, miss Him.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Son of Man Without Ceasing to Be Son of God
Daniel 7:13–14; Matthew 1:23; John 1:1–2, 11, 14; Philippians 2:6–8; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 4:2
He came to that which He was not; He did not lose what He was. He was made the Son of man, but did not cease to be the Son of God.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
Spend Your Time Thinking and Talking of the Love of Jesus
Galatians 4:4–5; 1 Thessalonians 1:10
What could the Lord Jesus Christ have done for you more than He has? Then do not abuse His mercy, but let your time be spent in thinking and talking of the love of Jesus, who was incarnate for us, who was born of a woman, and made under the law, to redeem us from the wrath to come.
George Whitefield (1714–1770)
Take Comfort in Emmanuel
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; John 14:2–3; 2 Peter 1:4
Let it be our comfort that God is Emmanuel. He left heaven, and took our nature to bring us there, where He is. When times of dissolution come, consider, I am now going to Him to heaven, that came down from there to bring me to that eternal mansion of rest and glory. And shall not I desire an everlasting communion with Him? God became man that he might make man like God, partaking of his divine nature, in grace here and glory hereafter. Shall not I go to Him that suffered so much for me?
When the newborn King made His appearance, the swaddling band with which He was wrapped up was the white flag of peace. That manger was the place where the treaty was signed, whereby warfare should be stopped between man’s conscience and himself, and between man’s conscience and his God.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The Author of Grace Grows in Grace
Isaiah 9:6; Luke 2:51; John 1:18; Colossians 1:15–17; Philippians 2:10
He who is everlasting in the bosom of the Father is conceived in a mother’s womb. Born from eternity of His Father without mother, He is born in time of His mother without father. He who clothed the earth with trees and verdure, who decked the sky with its lamps, who peopled the sea with fishes, lies wrapped in rags. He whom the heaven of heavens cannot hold is confined in a narrow manger, is fed with a mother’s milk. The Wisdom, whose wisdom has neither beginning nor end, who is Himself the very Wisdom of God the Father, advances from less to greater. He, whose eternity cannot be contracted even as it cannot be increased, exists by measurement of days and hours. And the primal author of grace, its preserver and its rewarder, grows in grace. He who is the object of the adoration of all created beings, and to whom every knee is bowed, is made subject to human parents.
Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109)
“The Best of All Is, God Is with Us!”
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
The best of all is, God is with us!
John Wesley (1703–1791)
The Birth of Christ Revealed to the Poor and Hardworking
Luke 2:8–20; James 2:5
It is to the shepherds, watching and keeping the night watches over their flocks, that the joy of the new light is announced. To them it is revealed that the Savior is born. Yes, to the poor, to the hardworking, not to the rich, who have their consolation here below. It is to the poor that the light of a glorious day has shone forth amid their vigils, and the night shall be light as the day—indeed, it is converted into day. “This day,” says the angel, not this night, “is born to you a Savior.” The night is truly past, the day is at hand—a day of days, the day of the salvation of our God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is God blessed above all forever more.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
“The Birthday of the Head Is the Birthday of the Body”
The birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity.
Human Beings Become Human Because God Became Human
The figure of Jesus Christ takes shape in human beings. Human beings do not take on an independent form of their own. Rather, what gives them form and maintains them in their new form is always and only the figure of Jesus Christ himself. It is therefore not an imitation, not a repetition of his form, but their own form that takes shape in human beings. Human beings are not transformed into a form that is foreign to them, not into the form of God, but into their own form, a form that belongs to them and is essential to them. Human beings become human because God became human, but human beings do not become God. They could not and cannot bring about that change in their form, but God himself changes his form into human form, so that human beings—though not becoming God—can become human.
In Christ the form of human beings before God was created anew. It was not a matter of place, of time, of climate, of race, of the individual, of society, of religion, or of taste, but rather a question of the life of humanity itself that it recognized in Christ its image and its hope. What happened to Christ happened to humanity.
The whole Christian story is strange. Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as “a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers.” He concludes, “Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”
But we have taken the idea as seriously as a child can. America is far from spiritually monolithic, but the vast backdrop of our culture is Christian, and for most of us it is the earliest faith we know. The “idea of the God-man” is not strange or scandalous, because it first swam in milk and butter on the top of our oatmeal decades ago. At that age, many things were strange, though most were more immediately palpable. A God-filled baby in a pile of straw was a pleasant image, but somewhat theoretical compared with the heart-stopping exhilaration of a visit from Santa Claus. The way a thunderstorm ripped the night sky, the hurtling power of the automobile Daddy drove so bravely, the rapture of ice cream—how could the distant Incarnation compete with those?
We grew up with the Jesus story, until we outgrew it. The last day we walked out of Sunday School may be the last day we seriously engaged this faith.
At the Corner of East and Now
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Run with the star, and bear your gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king, and to God, and to one who is dead for you. With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this festival be common to the powers in heaven and to the powers upon earth. For I am persuaded that the heavenly hosts join in our exultation and keep high festival with us today … because they love men, and they love God.
Today the lantern of the virgin, kindled by the Holy Ghost, has manifested True Light.
Today the Physician of the blind is born.
Today the Health of the infirm.
Today the Strength of those that are weak, the Healing of those that are sick.
Today the Resurrection of the dead, our Savior, comes.
Today a new Light has appeared to us in the starry night.
Today our Savior approaches, whom the prophets had foretold, that He should be born of the virgin Mary.
Today the everlasting Bread of Light is shown to us, lying in a manger, who said, “I am the true Bread that came down from heaven: if any man eat of this Bread he shall never hunger.”
Grant us, Lord, by the virtue of your nativity, to be freed from our own ills, and ever to glory in your praises.
Grant Us Warmth in the Mystery of Love
Psalm 67:4; Matthew 16:27; 1 Timothy 3:7
O God, Son of God, whose name abides forever, and who, making yourself known as only God and Lord, came, through the mystery of the Incarnation you took on yourself, to be a King, to redeem the world,
grant us such warmth in this mystery of love that we may escape the snare of the deceiver, so that, as we proclaim with loud voice the joys of your Advent, we may exult in our salvation when you, our Judge, come to judgment.
Honoring the God Who Reveals Himself to Little Ones
Matthew 18:3–4; 19:14; Mark 10:14–15; Luke 18:16–17
Almighty and everlasting God, Lord of heaven and earth, who reveals yourself to little ones,
grant us, we ask you, to honor meekly the holy mysteries of your Son, the child Jesus, and to follow him humbly in our lives, so that we may come to the eternal kingdom promised by you to little ones.
This lesson examines the practical issue of loving Christ during the holiday season—and year around— in the same way that Jesus loved the Father.
There is a way for us to fulfill the longing in our hearts for true intimacy with our Creator. It is seldom discussed, almost never mentioned at this time of the year, but here is the key: The key to loving Jesus is to understand how Jesus loved His Father.
Jesus Loved the Father by Doing What the Father Asked Him to Do
I Love Jesus by Doing What Jesus Asks Me to Do
If I Will Love Jesus as He loved His Father, Jesus Will Do for Me What the Father Did for Him
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year to love Jesus, for all around us are reminders of His birth and His loving death on our behalf. The cradle or the manger reminds us that He came. The tree is a subtle reminder of where He ended up on our behalf, hanging between heaven and earth. The darkness tells us what we were like before Christ came, and all of the lights which illuminate our hearts remind us that Jesus came as the light of the world to bring joy into each of our lives.
I have been asking myself, “If Jesus were physically here today, what would I say to Him, and how different would it be from what I said to Him in my prayer this morning?” If He were to walk in here among us, and move in and out of our homes, and we had an opportunity to express our love to Him at Christmas time, what would we say? How in the world do we, as modern believers, love Jesus at Christmastime? Do we sing Him songs? Do we go to church? Do we care for the poor? Do we give to the church which is His body? All of these are fine, and they may in some measure fulfill the urge we have within us to love Jesus at Christmas, but there is a way that we can love Jesus—not only at Christmas time but throughout the year—that is so evident that we wonder how we could have missed it. It promises to fulfill the longings we have in our hearts, so when the season is over, we don’t sit there at 7:00 o’clock on Christmas Day with the bitter aftertaste in our mouth thinking, “Is this all there is? I thought there would be more, and now it is over.”
The key to loving Jesus is to understand how Jesus loved His Father.
We can understand how Jesus loved his Father by turning to a passage of Scripture in the Book of Hebrews. Actually, this passage in the Book of Hebrews is an Old Testament passage used in the New Testament by the writer of Hebrews to make a very important point. The point is how Jesus loved his Father at the Incarnation, at Christmastime. How did he do it?
In Hebrews 10:5 we read, “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.’ Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—in the volume of the book it is written of Me, to do Your will, O God.’ ” This is obviously a quotation from Psalm 40, originally spoken by David. But it is a Messianic psalm, a prophetic psalm which speaks into the future the words of the Lord Jesus as He came into the world to be our Savior. Listen to these words from our Lord’s lips. He says, “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me, to do your will, O God.” How did Jesus love his Father?
Jesus Loved the Father by Doing What the Father Asked Him to Do
I can’t imagine what that day must have been like. It is an eternal day, and I can’t even think in terms of eternity. I have said goodbye to my children for short periods of time, some for weeks at a time, some for just days at a time, but can you imagine the Father in heaven saying goodbye to His Son for thirty-some years? He was in fellowship with the Father, but He was sent from heaven into the world to walk among us. That is what He is talking about when He says, “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written, to do your will, O God.” Jesus came in total obedience to His father. “I come to do it your way, O God,” says one of the translators.
What did that mean to Him in His earthly life? In John 4:34 Jesus continued to reiterate that He was loving His Father by doing the will of His Father: “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.’ ”
Notice, too, John 5:30: “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of the Father who sent Me.”
And in John 6:38: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
Throughout His life, Jesus was loving His Father. How? Every time He was questioned, Jesus said, “I have not come to do My own will. I have come to do the will of the Father who sent Me.”
And then, when it came to that moment of crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the fact that Jesus ultimately would pay the penalty for the sin of the whole world, He came back to this principle again: “Nevertheless, not My will, but Your will be done.” How did Jesus love the Father? He loved the Father by doing the will of the Father.
I have written in the front of my Bible a verse. It is just a part of a verse, but it summarizes the life of Jesus while He was on this earth. It is John 8:29: “I always do those things that please [the Father.]” Every minute Jesus was on the earth, everything He did, every thought He had, was conditioned out of one truth: I want to please My Father.
Was God the Father pleased with Him? On two occasions at least, His pleasure broke out. When Jesus was being baptized the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
And it happened in Matthew 17, on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus was being transfigured. He was being revealed. And the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Not these other two (Moses and Elijah). This one.
Jesus lived all of His life that He might please the Father. And when the report card came in, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v.17:5).
I Love Jesus By Doing What Jesus Asks Me to Do
At the beginning we said that if we could understand how Jesus loved His Father, then maybe, just maybe, we can understand how we can love Jesus.
In John 14:21 the Lord Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me, And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and manifest Myself to him.”
Notice the first part of the verse: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me.” Always doing that which is pleasing the Father. Remember—if we learn how Jesus loved the Father, we can learn how we can love Jesus.
Then notice verse 23: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.’ ” The negative of this is in verse 24: “He who does not love Me does not keep My words.” Do you want to know how not to love Jesus at Christmastime? The Scriptures say the way not to love Jesus at Christmastime is not to keep His words.
Finally, look at John 15:10: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” So let’s back up and ask ourselves that question again. How do we love Jesus at Christmastime? Well, how did Jesus love the Father? “In the volume of the Book it is written of me, ‘I come to do Your will, O God.’ ” He was obedient, according to the Book of Philippians, even to the point of death.
If I Will Love Jesus as He Loved His Father, Jesus Will Do for Me What the Father Did for Him
Here is the other part of the equation. If we will love Jesus as Jesus loved the Father, Jesus will do for us what the Father did for Him. Look at the second part of John 14:21. Verse 21 says if we will keep His commandments, we will be loved by the Father and Christ will love us and manifest Himself to us. That’s the promise He gives us. He says that if we will love the Lord Jesus by obeying His words, then in a very special way we will be loved by the Father, and we will be loved by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Lord Jesus will reveal himself to us.
Someone might say, “Am I not loved by the Father?” Yes! Are you not loved by Jesus? Yes, if you are a Christian. Does He not reveal Himself to you? Yes He does, in the Scripture. But there’s a special kind of manifest presence that comes upon the person whose only joy in life, whose only passion in life, is the passion that Jesus had. That was to do the will of God.
Notice verse 23: “And My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”
Again, look at (John 15:10): “Abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” As we look at these verses, we cannot help but see the principle: If I will love Jesus as Jesus loved the Father, then Jesus will do for me what the Father did for His Son.
That means a day is coming which is foretold in the parable of the talents, when you will be able to stand before Him, having served as a faithful servant, and He will say you are a blessed, faithful servant, and invite you to enter into the joy of your Lord.
So, at Christmastime, when we are running around, buying gifts, and trying to stay out of trouble with all of the relatives and all of the in-laws and all of the rest of everything that happens, how do we get through all of this and focus so that we can love Jesus? Here it is.
We love Jesus by doing what He asks us to do: by keeping His commandments. That’s the way to have a very merry, and Christ- centered, Christmas.
What do the following verses teach us about the Son’s obedience to the Father?
What will be the ultimate outcome of the Son’s obedience to the Father?
What do you think was the Son’s ultimate act of obedience to the Father? (See Matthew 26:39.)
What is faith in Christ called in the verses below?
2 Corinthians 9:13
2 Thessalonians 1:7–8
1 Peter 4:7
What, then, should be our understanding of the connection between love for Christ and obedience to Christ?
How is that reflected in these passages?
1 John 2:5–6
What does God’s Word say about the person who talks about loving Christ, but lives a life of perpetual disobedience (see 1 John 2:4)?
In what practical ways, then, might you display your love for Christ during the holiday season and beyond?
Did You Know?
The history of the Christian church is a continuous record of swinging between the extremes of legalism on one hand and license on the other. The argument against legalism, of course, is that good works can save no one; while the argument against license is that Christ is not unrighteous; therefore His saints should not engage in unrighteous acts.
The Bible teaches neither legalism nor license for the believer. What the Bible teaches is liberty—freedom—from bondage to belief in works that can save one’s self, and freedom from a body that cannot produce good works under the duress of the law. Jesus indeed came that He might set us free from the law, so that rather than vowing to do good (which we cannot do) in order to save ourselves (which we likewise cannot do), by faith we can be saved by Him and be set free to live our lives in submission to Him in us, Who can produce good works.
This activity needs close adult supervision.
You will need the following items:
clean, empty card- board milk cartons
ice, crushed or cubed
old broken crayons or candles
candle wax (paraffin)
old coffee cans
Remove tops from milk cartons and cut to desired height. Center a taper candle in each milk carton, making sure the wick is above the top of the carton. Place carton in a shallow foil-lined pan.
Melt wax in a coffee can that has been placed in a pan of water. Stir wax to aid in melting, and heat to a simmer.
Fill area around taper in carton with ice. The larger the ice cubes and the more ice you use, the larger the holes in the candles. Now ís the time to add bits of broken crayons or candles for extra color and texture.
The next step should be done by an adult.
Pour melted wax over ice in carton slowly. As the wax cools around the ice, it forms holes. Allow to cool completely and pour off water. To remove from carton, simply tear paper gently away from candle.
It’s hard to imagine that anything could rival in importance, interest, and excitement the events that occurred during the hours and days immediately following the birth of Christ. But even several months after the amazing stir created by the angels and shepherds to herald His arrival, people were still hearing about and responding to news of Christ’s birth. By that time, men of wealth and influence were reacting to the news coming out of Bethlehem. But was their response any more uniformly noble than that of the shepherds and common people we saw in our previous chapter? Not necessarily. Actually, as you will see, the response of some powerful people was outwardly much worse than the fleeting, indifferent curiosity the average people had to the shepherds’ witness. But as with the shepherds and Jesus’ parents, some also rendered genuine faith and worship to the newborn King.
In fact, a passage in the other detailed Gospel account of our Lord’s birth (Matt. 1:18–2:23) contains examples of three basic responses people of every locale and historical era have typically had toward Him: hostility, indifference, and worship. Matthew 2:1–12 outlines the attitudes this way in the familiar story of the wise men, or Magi:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
The Magi Seek Jesus
The story of the wise men, or Magi, is a well-known Bible narrative, yet over the centuries a certain amount of myth and tradition has clouded and romanticized it. For instance, a medieval understanding of the story claimed the men were kings, three in number and named Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Some believed they represented Noah’s three sons; therefore, paintings and drawings depicted one as an Ethiopian. One twelfth-century church leader even claimed to have discovered the Magi’s skulls.
However, the only credible facts we know about those men are the few details Matthew provided. He did not choose to tell us their precise number, names, means of transportation, or the specific areas they were from. Matthew’s original audience would have known the wise men were from the East, because people generally knew such Magi made up the priestly-political class of the Parthians—who resided east of Palestine.
The Magi date from the seventh century b.c., when they were a tribe within the Median nation of eastern Mesopotamia. They became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were more closely associated disciplines in those days) and had a sacrificial system somewhat similar to the Mosaic one. We derive the English words magic and magician from the name magi.
The Book of Daniel reports that the Magi, with their knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, were among the highest ranking, most influential officials in the Babylonian Empire. Because of Daniel’s own high position and place of respect among them (Dan. 2:24, 48), the Magi undoubtedly learned much from him about the true God and His plans for the Jews through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile, it’s likely those teachings remained strong in the region even until New Testament times.
The “wise men from the East” (Matt. 2:1) who came to see Jesus were true Magi who had learned about the Jews’ messianic expectations, likely from the prophetic writings such as Daniel’s. They were probably among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas at that time, some of whom—such as Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10:1–2; 16:14)—are mentioned in the New Testament.
Matthew tells us that when the Magi—whether three or more, he doesn’t specify—arrived in Jerusalem, they began the final stage of their search for the Christ child by asking, “‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’” (2:2). The Greek grammar of that question suggests the men went around the city posing that inquiry to whomever they met. They evidently assumed that if they as foreigners knew about the historic birth, anyone in Judea, and especially Jerusalem, would know where the special baby lived. It was no doubt shocking to the Magi when no one seemed to know what they were talking about.
We don’t know how God revealed the birth of Christ to the Magi. Matthew simply says that He gave them the sign of “His [Christ’s] star in the East.” The identity of that star has stirred perhaps more speculation over the years than has the identity of the men who saw it. Some scholars have proposed it was Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Other commentators have insisted it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the sign of the fish, the symbol for Christianity later adopted by the early church. Other conjecture regarding the star’s identity has concluded it was probably some other astronomical rarity such as a low-altitude meteor or erratic comet. Some writers have even gone so far as to suggest the phenomenon was some inner vision the Magi had of a “star of destiny” that symbolized mankind’s hopes for a savior.
Because Scripture does not explain or identify the star, we can’t be dogmatic about its character. It may simply have been the glory of the Lord—the same as the shepherds saw earlier when the angels appeared to them (Luke 2:9). The Bible often equates the manifestation of God’s glory with some form of light (Exod. 13:21; 24:17; 34:30; Matt. 17:2; Acts 9:3; 26:13; Rev. 1:16; 21:23). When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he referred to Messiah as “‘a Star [that] shall come out of Jacob’” (Num. 24:17). At the end of the New Testament, Christ called Himself “‘the Bright and Morning Star’” (Rev. 22:16).
Therefore it’s plausible to say that the extremely bright star, visible only to those for whom God intended it—such as the Magi—was most likely the glory of God. Just as the cloudy pillar of His Shekhinah glory gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Exod. 14:20), God allowed only the wise men to see His glory, depicted in the star’s brilliant light over Bethlehem.
It’s also quite likely that the Magi were not following the star their entire journey because they had to ask where Jesus was born. It was not until the Jews told them of the prophesied place of Christ’s birth that the star reappeared and guided them on to Bethlehem and the exact spot where the baby lay (Matt. 2:9).
The Magi made their long journey west to Palestine for one stated purpose: They wanted to find the newborn Savior and worship Him. “Worship” expresses the idea of falling down and kissing the feet or the hem of the garment of the one honored. That definition in itself verifies that the wise men were true seekers after God. Though they had limited spiritual light, they immediately recognized God’s voice when He spoke to them, and they responded in faith and obedience. The Magi had the type of genuine seeking hearts that God promises always to reward (Jer. 29:13).
Herod’s Anxiety Toward Christ
Herod’s response to news of Christ’s birth was the very opposite of the wise men’s: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). The king’s anxiety, in contrast to the Magi’s joy and eagerness, is understandable. He had expelled the Parthians from Palestine but was again battling Jewish zealots who wanted their country free from Roman domination. Herod was known as a man of intense jealousy and paranoia, so any mention of a potentially rival king of the Jews caused him much fear and anger.
This Herod, known as “the Great,” is the first of several New Testament Herods. Under their occupation of Judea, the Romans had appointed his father, Herod Antipater, governor of the region. Antipater then managed to get his son named prefect of Galilee. As prefect, Herod successfully quelled the rebellious Jewish guerillas that still opposed Rome, but he had to flee to Egypt when the Parthians invaded Palestine. Herod returned to Palestine a short while later with stronger backing from Rome as the newly proclaimed “king of the Jews.” That’s when he fought the Parthians for two years, defeated them, and set up his own kingdom.
Because the Magi were either Parthians or closely associated with the Parthians, Herod likely had an extra cause for concern. He no doubt viewed the impressive entourage (it probably numbered more than the traditional “three kings”), with its wealth, prestige, and powerful-looking royal demeanor, as a renewed political and military threat from the East.
The Magi’s claim to have come simply to worship the newborn King and their earnest desire to find Him obviously did not affect Herod positively. Because it was then common for Magi and other influential leaders to worship kings and emperors, Herod would have cynically thought their mission was as much political as religious.
Herod’s first response to news of the wise men’s arrival was to summon the Jewish leaders, the chief priests and scribes, and find out from them where the Messiah was to be born. Though Herod was an Idumean (Edomite), he knew Jewish beliefs and customs rather well and associated the title “King of the Jews” with the Jewish Messiah, or Christ. But his awareness of the Jews’ hope for a Messiah did not translate into saving faith in Jesus Christ. Instead, the king gave the Magi a disingenuous rationale for wanting to hear from them the precise location and true identity of the infant Jesus—“‘that I may come and worship Him also’” (Matt. 2:8).
Herod’s true purpose in wanting to find out where Jesus lived became starkly clear in how he actually responded when the Magi did not report back to him. The Magi were simply obedient to the Lord’s leading (2:12), but Herod obeyed his depraved nature and ordered his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem (v. 16). Of course, by perpetrating such a heinous act, Herod displayed his real desire of wanting to “guarantee” that no newborn king would rival his authority.
Like many hardhearted people today, Herod’s immediate response of hateful rebellion and opposition toward Christ shows he really wanted to know nothing of God’s way except how to eliminate it. Such an attitude reveals a heart of pride, self-interest, and a greed for power and prestige. Jesus Himself later warned about the consequences of that approach: “‘For whoever desires to save his life will lose it… . For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” (Matt. 16:25–26).
The Indifference of the Religious Leaders
There is a third response people have to Christ—indifference. In the story of the wise men, the Jewish religious leaders, composed primarily of the chief priests and scribes, typify such an attitude.
All Jewish priests were of the priestly tribe of Levi, but the chief priests, including the high priest, the captain of the temple, and other temple officials, were the most influential ones. They formed a priestly aristocracy in Israel and in certain ways were similar to the Magi, mainly because they wielded considerable political as well as religious power.
The scribes were primarily Pharisees and were also referred to as the lawyers. They had much prestige and respect among the Jews, who recognized them as scholars and authorities concerning scriptural and traditional Jewish Law. Except for the Sadducees, they held a conservative, literal view of Scripture, and they were very legalistic regarding the ceremonial and moral Law.
As we noted above, Herod called those leaders together to learn more specifically what Jewish Scripture taught about the birthplace of Messiah. The chief priests and scribes answered Herod’s question by quoting Micah 5:2 and referring partially to Genesis 49:10: “So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”’” (Matt. 2:5–6). That answer was consistent with the concept of a shepherd’s being a ruler and therefore fit the intent of Micah’s original prophecy. He foresaw that Christ would be the legitimate King of the Jews and also the final and perfect Ruler of Israel.
In human terms, it was to their credit that the unbelieving Jewish leaders were aware that the Old Testament clearly identified a historical figure, the Son of Man, who would be born in Bethlehem and who would come to rule Israel—the Messiah. But sadly, they refused to accept Jesus as that Messiah, not when He was born, not when He ministered among them, and not when He suffered, died, and rose from the grave.
That group of religious experts did not have a perfect idea of what Christ would be like or of what He would do, but they certainly knew enough to recognize Him when He came. Thus, they knew they should follow the Magi’s example and worship the newborn Messiah in Bethlehem. They had an intellectual knowledge of God’s promises, but the chief priests and scribes were spiritually unmoved when the wise men, prompted by the extraordinary sign of the star, signaled fulfillment of His Word.
Unquestionably, the Jewish leaders are examples of those who are essentially indifferent to God and His program. The prophet Jeremiah lamented over the attitude of such people: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). They do not believe or obey what they know of God but at best give Him only lip service. Such apathetic people almost invariably become like Herod and display their hostility toward Christ. That’s because indifference to God is simply concealed hatred and delayed rejection.
The Magi Worship Christ
The wise men, in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders, had the kind of attitude that pleases God. They responded to Jesus Christ the way He desires all people to respond—in adoration and worship. Because they had little of the written Word of God, the Magi had much less knowledge of the true God than did the chief priests and scribes. However, those Gentile leaders were remarkably responsive to God’s Spirit, and whatever knowledge of God and Christ He revealed to them they believed and followed.
The Magi went on to Bethlehem, not merely because Herod ordered them to, but because finally they were sure they would find the Christ child there. Presumably Herod told them what the religious leaders told him regarding the location of Christ’s birth. But the Lord soon gave them much more graphic assistance and confirmation that they were headed in the right direction. “Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (Matt. 2:9). (That the star hovered directly over the house where Jesus and His family then lived—an impossible action for a normal star—is another strong indicator that it was not an astronomical body, but instead represented the glory of God.)
The men from the East were ecstatic to see the extraordinary star again: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (v. 10). Matthew’s description uses extra superlatives as if to emphasize the degree of exhilaration the Magi felt. Such emotions reveal once again their uniquely strong interest in finding and worshiping the newly arrived King.
By the time the wise men were journeying to Bethlehem, Jesus and His parents had moved from the travelers’ shelter into a house, where they lived until God gave them further direction. There the men finally saw the Child they had traveled so far to find, and they immediately “fell down and worshiped Him” (v. 11). Charles Wesley captured the essence of their experience in these lines from his beautiful Christmas hymn: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
As an expression of the Magi’s grateful worship, “they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11). Gold had long been and still is the universal symbol of material wealth and value. It was also a symbol of nobility and royalty, and thus the Magi were appropriately giving Christ the King royal gifts of gold.
Frankincense was an expensive, sweet-smelling incense used for only the most special occasions. Traditionally, it was the incense of deity. In Old Testament times, the Jews stored it in a special chamber in front of the temple and sprinkled it on certain offerings to symbolize the people’s desire to please the Lord.
Myrrh was a valuable perfume that some interpreters say represented the gift for a mortal. Therefore its role among the Magi’s gifts was to underscore Christ’s humanity. The Gospels later record that people mixed myrrh with wine to make an anesthetic (Mark 15:23). Myrrh was also used with spices to prepare bodies for burial, even Jesus’ body (John 19:39).
With their mission of finding and worshiping the King of the Jews completed, God warned the Magi in a dream not to report back to Herod. So they returned to the East by a route that allowed them to completely escape the king’s notice. Because of the nature and size of the Magi’s traveling party, that feat was not easily accomplished. But the Lord guided their steps and granted them wisdom to succeed, further indicating that the wise men’s dramatic role in marking the birth of Christ was by divine design.
The Magi’s exemplary performance again reminds us that their response to Jesus’ birth was the God-honoring one, in contrast to the responses of Herod and the religious leaders. The Magi believed in God’s Son, the King of kings, when they heard about Him. Such people today might have little divine light initially, but because they realize it is His light, they respond to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6), repent, believe, obey, worship, and live.
’TIS THE SEASON WHEN EVEN THE FREE-RANGING REVIVALIST PULLS UP A CHAIR TO THE TABLE OF HISTORIC LITURGY
THE ANCIENT FUTURE Long the purview of mainline churches, Advent celebrations are increasingly common among evangelicals. Along with embracing ancient Advent traditions, evangelicals are adding their own spin on the season with efforts such as the Advent Conspiracy, a social justice initiative centered on encouraging Christians to spend less and give more.
CHRISTMAS EVE: PHOTO BY ROBYN GENUALDI; COURTESY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN MORRISTOWN, NEW JERSEY
i confess: as an adolescent, when my parents tried to impress on my two brothers and me the importance and the intricacies of Advent observance, I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. In a country that spends its cold Decembers in hot pursuit of food, presents, and parties, the historical niceties of an ancient liturgical season seemed, well … irrelevant.
13th-c. Madonna by Cimabue.
ANGELS AND PROPHETS PAINTING: THE YORCK PROJECT: 10.000 MEISTERWERKE DER MALEREI. DVD-ROM, 2002
These days, on the other side of an evangelical conversion and nearly a decade of graduate study in church history, I’ve begun to see what excited my parents about Advent. I’m even entertaining the possibility that my own young family might benefit from an informed observance of this season of waiting. (How to help my kids keep their eyes reverently lowered and their hearts in tune during such observance is, I confess, still pretty much beyond me. But that’s a discussion for another day. I’m sure my parents are chuckling as they read this!)
In fact, Advent season presents a unique opportunity to many Protestants. It’s like the once-a-year conjunction of two planets: it brings a great mass of Bible-loving, praise-and-worshiping, extemporaneously praying, born-again Protestant Christians into close contact with a big chunk of the historic church’s liturgy. Even many nonliturgical Protestants don’t think twice about joining in the season’s rituals, old as well as new. They count off Advent calendar windows, listen to lectionary sermon themes and Bible readings, and recite set prayers at the dinner table around candles in meaningful hues of purple and rose.
So, as Advent’s four bright Sundays offer us ways to meditate on Christ’s coming, let’s explore the sustaining power of liturgical observance. John Bookser Felster, editor of www.americancatholic.com, observes churchly seasons like Advent “tie our lives to Christians throughout history.” In a time of year filled with indulgence, the observance of centuries-old Christian practices can feed us in a deeper and better way.
Once upon a time, in fourth- and fifth-century Gaul and Spain, “Advent” was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany, the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus’ life as his baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the magi (see p. 16 for more on Epiphany). In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent’s 40 days examining their hearts and doing penance.
It was not until the sixth century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the “coming” that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s “advent,” or coming, did not supplant the older sense—the Second Coming. The muted, Lentlike mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus’ birthday.
The modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16, during which the focus is Christ’s Second Coming, and a period, from December 17 to 24, focusing on his birth. It starts with sobering passages and prayers about the apocalyptic return of the Lord in judgment. Then it moves to Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist’s exhortations and the angels’ announcements.
Every year these rich scriptural reminders and the traditional prayers that accompany them set my blood rushing a little faster and bring a rising excitement: Christ came with plenty of prior notice! Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now I can join too, with the cloud of witnesses stretching back to apostolic times, in the same proclamation!
And in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done every Advent since the tradition began:
15th-c. antiphonary (hymnal) for Advent through Epiphany.
MONDADORI PORTFOLIO / ELECTA / ART RESOURCE, NY
I can bow my head and prepare my heart to receive the one who is always present, but who seems distant in the busyness of the season.
I can mourn for my hardness of heart.
I can hope in his grace.
And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” he came.
Would I really be able to do this—in the midst of December’s commercial rush of lights, decorations, present-buying, and piped-in carols—without a gently insistent, weekly liturgical pattern? Maybe.
But I’m not rolling my eyes anymore.
Update: I wrote this piece several years ago, when my children were small. Now that we have a few more Christmas seasons behind us, I am even more firmly convinced of the benefits of using the liturgical calendar.—CA
Chris R. Armstrong is professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN, and managing editor of Christian History.
Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 2:25–35; 22:69; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 12:2
If the sight of Christ, while He was yet a child, had so powerful an effect on Simeon, that he approached death with cheerfulness and composure; how much more abundant materials of lasting peace are now furnished to us, who have the opportunity of beholding our salvation altogether completed in Christ?… In a word, His absence from us in body is of such a nature that we are permitted to behold Him sitting at the right hand of the Father. If such a sight does not bring peace to our minds, and make us go cheerfully to death, we are highly ungrateful to God, and hold the honor, which He has bestowed upon us, in little estimation.
John Calvin (1509–1564)
Peace on Earth
As fits the holy Christmas birth,
Be this, good friends, our carol still—
Be peace on earth, be peace on earth,
To men of gentle will.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
Peace on Earth in the Hearts of Believers
Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 10:34; Luke 2:14
Let us reflect that at the festival of the Lord’s birth, and therefore, from the beginning of His life, we greet Him as the Prince of Peace, and that this always continued to be His character in the midst of all the strife that He Himself brought, so that in this sense also His life is carried on in us. And thus, both in the midst of the internal dissension, which, alas! not unfrequently exists among the professors of His name; and in the outward conflict with the world; we also preserve the cheerful calmness, which with Him was never disturbed; and go on in the way of peace; so that, notwithstanding the sword, peace still rules on earth, for it has fixed its seat in the inmost heart of believers.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)
Proceeding from the Father, and Speeding Back
John 8:42; 16:10, 28
From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
Proceeds—as far as very hell,
Speeds back—to light ineffable.
Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339–397)
Raising an Impure Race to Purity
Matthew 8:3; Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13; Hebrews 10:22
He who is all purity came to an impure race to raise them to His purity.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Reject the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation Will Follow
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
Once reject the tradition of the Virgin Birth, and the incarnation will go with it. For a few years, indeed, men will use the old language, the word “incarnation” will be on their lips; but it will be found before long that by that term they do not mean God manifest in human flesh, but they mean a man born naturally of human parents, who most clearly manifested to men the Christian idea of a perfect human character. Such a conception as this brings no solace to human hearts.
Christ is born; glorify Him. Christ from heaven; go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth. And that I may join both in one word: let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh: rejoice with trembling and with joy—with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.
Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389)
Renouncing the Works of the Flesh
Galatians 5:16–21; 2 Peter 1:4
Having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
Salvation Was Ordained from the Beginning of the World
Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1–2; 11:10, 13–16
It was no new counsel, no tardy pity whereby God took thought for men: but from the constitution of the world He ordained one and the same cause of salvation for all. For the grace of God, by which the whole body of the saints is ever justified, was augmented, not begun, when Christ was born. And this mystery of God’s great love, with which the whole world is now filled, was so effectively presignified that those who believed that promise obtained no less than they who were the actual recipients.
Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)
Sentiment and Symbolism Inseparable from Christmas
Isaiah 7:14; Luke 2:12
If you do not like sentiment and symbolism, you do not like Christmas; go away and celebrate something else.
Anyone May Be Comforted, Except Those Who Do Not Want Comfort
Matthew 6:5; 11:8–9; 23:6; Mark 12:39; Luke 7:25–26; 11:43; 20:46
The silent infancy of Christ will not console the talkative; the tears of Christ will be no comfort to one given up to worldly enjoyments; the swaddling clothes of Christ will offer no attraction to those who are clad in soft garments; the stable and the crib will only repel the lovers of the first places in the synagogues.
God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction.… God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers.… But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.
This is about the birth of a child, not of the astonishing work of a strong man, not of the bold discovery of a wise man, not of the pious work of a saint. It really is beyond all our understanding: the birth of a child shall bring about the great change, shall bring to all mankind salvation and deliverance.
“The Government upon the Shoulders of a Child,” Christmas 1940
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In this lesson we focus on the name “Jesus” and its significance for us as believers today.
What’s in a name? Jesus is called by His name 500 times in the gospels. In the New Testament the name Jesus appears 909 times. It is obviously the most endearing and most loved name for our Savior. And, as we will find out, it is packed with meaning and significance.
Jesus Is Pronounced the Same in Almost Every Language
Jesus Is an Esteemed Name
Jesus Is an Enduring Name
Jesus Is an Exalted Name
Jesus Is an Exclusive Name
There are at least 562 names for Jesus in the Bible.
If we study how people name their children, and if we go way back, we discover that often children were named for their fathers. That’s why we have common names in the English language like Thompson, Johnson, Peterson, and Jackson. That practice was fairly common in New Testament times as well.
Sometimes people received a name based on a role that they would bear for the family. Their name reflected the hope that was wrapped up in the child.
Sometimes a name would be given just because of preference. We do that today when we use those little books with all the names of girls and boys in them.
But when an Old Testament Hebrew named his child, he did so with great thought. Hebrew children were named carefully because they bore some special message within the family. An Orthodox Jew would never glibly decide the name of his child. So as God sent His Son into the world to be clothed with humanity, He would need to give Him a meaningful name.
How would He do it? What would He call Him? He would not leave it up to the human parents to choose. It was so important that this name be right that God originated it and brought the message down to earth by means of an angel. The angel delivered the name to Mary’s husband. The record of that conversation is in Matthew 1:21. The Bible says that the angel spoke to Joseph and said to him, “And she [Mary] will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). By special instruction expressing God’s will, it came to pass in Bethlehem, that when the Child was born and someone said, “Who is He and what is His name?” the answer was clearly given: His name is Jesus.
One interesting thing you can do if you have the opportunity is to glance through a hymn book and see how hymn writers have memorialized this name so we can worship using the name of Jesus. John Newton gave us, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” Edward Perronet exalts this name with, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Bernard of Clairvaux leads us in an old hymn called, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Lydia Baxter gave us, “Take the Name of Jesus with You.” And Frederick Whitfield adds, “There is a Name I Love to Hear.”
It is a wonderful name that our Father gave to His Son, a combination of two words, put together to mean, “Jehovah Saves.” Salvation, you see, was the expressed purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world. And if a name is to call forth the primary character wrapped up in the person, then Jesus could not have been better named, for He was here for one purpose, and that was to bring salvation to lost men and women.
Let’s think for a moment about the fact that “Jesus” is an easy name.
Jesus Is Pronounced the Same in Almost Every Language
The name Jesus has only two syllables and five letters. It is pronounced the same in almost every language. I love to listen to missionary stations on short wave radio, and often, even though I don’t understand the language, I will be able to pick the name “Jesus” out of the lyrics of a foreign language. There is something symmetrical about it in almost every language. It is a name which is known around the world, yet even a child can learn it.
If you carry that name into all the languages and dialects of the world, whether Hebrew or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, you can translate it—but you can never rob it of its music. Its tones break in upon your ear when you hear it. There is no word that is sweeter to a person who is a Christian than the word “Jesus.”
God said to the angel, “We shall call Him Jesus,” and that name was registered in heaven for the Son of God.
Bernard of Clairvaux expressed our heart when he wrote these words which we still sing often today:
Jesus, the very thought of Thee.
No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
O Savior of mankind.
The Christmas name of our Lord is, first and foremost, the name Jesus. Jesus is an easy name.
Jesus Is an Esteemed Name
According to Josephus, there are eleven men in the Old Testament who have the name Joshua, the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus. No Old Testament parents had ever called their child Joshua until one day Moses was renaming some men. They were men who were going to go in and spy out the land, and in Numbers 13:16 we read these words: “These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea, the son of Nun, Joshua.” Moses gave him a new name, and that name is the same name we would call Jesus in the New Testament. It means “Jehovah Saves.”
There are many Bible scholars who believe Joshua is an Old Testament picture of Jesus. And there are some wonderful points of resemblance in this way. Joshua led the Israelites out of the wilderness into the Promised Land. Jesus, as our Savior, brings us out of the wilderness of sin into the spiritual Promised Land.
Joshua led his people to conquest over their enemies and their walled cities and their tall giants. Jesus leads us to conquest over the enemies of our soul, and helps us to fight against life’s difficult giants of temptation and trial and testing. As our Joshua, Jesus leads us to the inheritance that God has promised us.
But obviously the Jesus of the New Testament far transcends anything we can say about Joshua in the Old. In fact, in Hebrews 4:8 the writer of Hebrews says this: “For if Joshua had given them rest, then he would not afterward have spoken of another day.” In other words, if Joshua could have provided the victory which we truly need in the Old Testament sense of the word, there wouldn’t have been any need of another Joshua. But Joshua could only do that which was temporal, only that which was earth-bound, only that which is for our physical well-being. But Jesus came to do something eternal. He didn’t just come to free us from slavery and lead us out of the wilderness into a new land. He came to give us life everlasting. That’s why our Jesus is better than Joshua. It’s an esteemed name.
Jesus Is an Enduring Name
He was given that name over 2,000 years ago, yet His name today is the most well-known name in all the world. No other person has a name as well-known as the name of Jesus. This season of the year always intrigues me, because those who are absolutely in conflict with Jesus, those who don’t want anything to do with Him, who use that name as a swear word, those who defy everything we try to do in the name of evangelism, those who are enemies of Jesus—they all come to His birthday party. If you want evidence for the power of the name of Jesus, you don’t need a Bible, you don’t need a preacher. Just watch what happens during the Christmas season. Jesus has an enduring name.
Jesus Is an Exalted Name
His name is an exalted name. Ephesians 1:20–21 reads, “… which He [God] worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” How exalted is His name? It is far above every name that has been named, or that ever will be named. It is the highest name of all names in all the world for all time. It is the number one name.
Paul wrote in Philippians 2:9–11, “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul said it as well as it could be said. The name of Jesus is the most important name in all the world. It is an exalted name.
Jesus Is an Exclusive Name
Jesus’ name is different from any other name. The angel told Joseph the reason when he spoke to him and gave him that name: “And she shall bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus has an exclusive name because the purpose of that name was to stamp forever upon His personality the uniqueness of His mission. What was His mission? Jesus means “Jehovah Saves.” What was the uniqueness about Jesus? He was the one who would come into the world to be the Savior of lost mankind. That is why He was called Jesus. Exclusively, one of a kind. There never has been, nor will there ever be anyone who can do what Jesus came to do.
I love to tell that story. I love for people to understand that this unique person of all the universe was the only hope of lost mankind, for He was the only God-man. He was God reaching down for man because God could not reach up to God. And in Him is salvation.
That is why the writer of the Book of Acts says, “Nor is there salvation in any other for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12). That’s the only name. Do you want to go to heaven? You have to go through the name of Jesus. It is exclusive.
Jesus does for you what no one else can do. The Lord Jesus Christ changes a person from the inside out and makes them new.
Do you know Him? We go through all these celebrations, and parties and gift giving and decorating our homes and celebrating the Christmas season. There are certain times in the year where I just have such an incredible burden to be as simple as I can be about what it means to know God. It means to know His Son, Jesus Christ, as your Savior.
My friends, Jesus can do for you what nobody else can do. Your wife or your husband can’t do it. Your children can’t do it. Your parents can’t do it. Your teacher can’t do it. Your pastor can’t do it. But Jesus can. He came into the world, born of a virgin, the uniquely born Son of God, God walking around in a body, and His Father said, “Call Him Jesus, for He is going to save His people from their sins.”
He went to the cross, hung there between heaven and earth, and paid the penalty for your sin and mine. He fulfilled the prophecy that His Father has spoken of Him when He named Him. And today He is in heaven at the right hand of the Father making intercession for those who believe in Him.
If you have never put your trust in the name of Jesus and in the Jesus of the name, then you must do it. Without Him there is no hope, there is no future, there is no meaning in this life. He came to give you what you cannot get any place else—forgiveness for your sin and the assurance of eternal life.
What attributes of God are connected with the name of Jesus in the following passages?
2 Thessalonians 1:7
1 John 2:1
What benefits for every believer are connected with His name in the passages below?
1 Corinthians 15:57
2 Corinthians 5:18
1 Thessalonians 5:9
What kinds of responses, actions, and words did the name of Jesus stimulate during the earliest years of the church, according to the passages below?
In light of Acts 4:12, how would you respond to a statement like, “Jesus is just another name for the same God worshiped by other religions”?
In view of all you know about the name of Jesus, God’s Messiah, what kind of person do you think is being described in 2 John 1:7?
Can you think of some examples in today’s culture?
Did You Know?
The most common compound name of Jesus—“the Lord Jesus Christ”—was originally used as a very technical description of His identity, and today is an extremely accurate description of who He is.
The word for Lord in Greek meant “master” or “ruler,” which Jesus not only will ultimately be in the future, but should be in each of our lives today. The word Jesus is, of course, His human name, which constantly reminds us that He came in human flesh, and was given a name which means “YHWH saves.”
Finally, the word we so frequently use, Christ, actually was the Greek word for “Messiah,” and was used first and foremost by the Jews of that Greek-speaking day. This title alone should be a continual reminder to us that our deepest understanding of who Jesus really is will develop best as we pursue an understanding of God’s Messiah, as revealed from the earliest pages of the Old Testament all the way through the final words of Revelation.
The Legend of the Candy Cane
In the late 18th century in England, all religious symbols were banned from public display. It is said that a dedicated Christian candy maker wanted to provide a way for Christians to identify each other in spite of the restrictions. He began with a piece of white candy to signify the purity of Jesus Christ. Next, he formed the candy into the shape of a shepherd’s staff as a reminder that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Three small red stripes around the candy represented the power of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One bold red stripe through the candy represented the redeeming power of the blood that Christ shed for each of us, and for the forgiveness of our sins.