“And she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins.”
This angelic proclamation to Joseph is possibly one of the most culturally incorrect statements within the Gospel birth narratives. In this one sentence, the angel sent from God delivers to Joseph a message that runs contrary to most popular Christmas messages you are likely to hear on TV, radio, and from many pulpits. It also runs contrary to the worldly understanding of the message of Christmas, and what the birth of Christ means for the world.
She Will Bear a Son
The angel informed Joseph that his betrothed was to become supernaturally pregnant. In verse 23, Matthew says that this startling revelation is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 7:14). It has never ceased to amaze me how some try to wiggle around the idea that this was, indeed, a real virgin birth. Yes, the Greek term parthenos can be used to refer to a young maiden. However, in the context of the passage, the Lord was encouraging Ahaz to ask for a sign, something remarkable that would indicate to him God’s hand at work. “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep,” God says to Ahaz; but Ahaz does not want to be presumptuous, so the Lord offers the sign in 7:14. If all the Lord meant was “a young maiden will become pregnant and bear a son,” that hardly seems a remarkable sign. Many young maidens became pregnant. Where is the “deep sign” demonstrating an act of God?
Furthermore, this child was to be a son (huios), not a divine principle: a real, tangible, human being. But not just a mere human being. This was to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” Was he just supposed to be a symbol of God’s presence among His people, like the ancient Tabernacle? Not according to the gospel accounts. The angel spoke of a real child; Mary carried true flesh and blood in her womb for nine months. But this flesh and blood was more than merely a man. He was born “of a virgin” by supernatural intervention. This child was was God with us–literally. The baby that lay in the manger was fully man and fully God: God incarnate.
He Shall Save His People from Their Sins
Now the angel tells Joseph the purpose of God becoming incarnate. The child’s name was to be Jesus, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua meaning “God saves.” Who is God going to save? According to the angel, “His people.” For those interested in textual variants, there is a variant at this point. The Curetonian Syriac text actually reads ton kosmon here, making the angel say that Jesus will save “the world.” There are two things to note about this. First, this is the only text that says this; all other manuscripts, including the Byzantine manuscripts read ton laon autou, “His people.” Second, this maverick reading in the Curetonian Syriac more than likely came about due to scribal error since the Syriac for “people” (`ama), is very similar to the Syriac word for “world” (`alma). (If you want to see this for yourself, take a look at this blog entry in Evangelical Textual Criticism. I am indebted to this entry by P. J. Williams for this information.) Christ did not come into the world to save every man. If He did, then you can be assured that everyone, from the most pious saint to the worst reprobate will be in Heaven when they die. Whatever God plans to do comes to pass (Psalm 33:11), so if God planned to save every person in the world, He surely would. Yet, we know He hasn’t (John 6:44; Acts 13:48).
So, God is coming into the world as a man to save a particular group of people that He will call His own. But what is God going to save them from? Sickness? Famine? Disease? Oppression and poverty? Every year, we are told by the secular media that the point of Christmas is peace, and that the birth of Jesus symbolizes God’s love, so we need to share that love and peace in order to end all the evils to which we are subjected every day. That’s what Christmas is all about, we are told. But that is not what the angel says. The angel says that Jesus Christ came into the world with one objective in mind: to save His people from their sins. If Christ came to do anything other than this, then there is no hope for us. The evil in the world is not caused by wrong thinking, mismanagement, poverty, abuse by authority, or bad upbringing. Evil exists in the hearts of men because man is at enmity with God. Until sin is dealt with, man can never be at peace with God. And men cannot hope to have true, lasting peace with one another without first having peace with God. World peace does not begin at the UN; it begins with proclamation of the Gospel: “You shall call his name Jesus; for He will save His people from their sins.”
God has made provision for the sins of men. Peace on earth is now possible, because Christ has come to reconcile God and man. God’s perfect justice that demands payment for sin has been satisfied in Christ on behalf of His people.
This is the message of Matthew 1:21, and the true message of Christmas. As our world becomes increasingly secular, and the images of Christmas–and even the word “Christmas”–become replaced with warm feelings and empty platitudes, it becomes more important for us not to forget this. May the Lord be pleased to ignite our hearts with love and gratitude to Him for His awesome grace!