"A Miraculous Birth"
Isaiah 7.14 / Matthew 1.18-23
Having concluded our study in Philippians and moving forward into the Christmas season, I thought it would be helpful for us to look at a couple of biblical texts to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of our Savior. What I will look to do is use a couple of Old Testament prophecies from Isaiah and see how they help us to understand a bit more fully the significance of a very familiar story to most of us.
Please turn in your Bibles to Isaiah 7.14. And while you're turning there, it is worth mentioning some things regarding the way that we interpret Scripture, namely this portion this morning. In the Journey class over the last several weeks, we have been discussing ways that help us to understand God's Word more effectively.
One of the things we talked about is the need to understand the different genres of the Bible and how we interpret them a bit differently. In the same way that we look at a newspaper and understand that we look at different genres, we note that Scripture also is a collection of books that are interpreted accordingly.
When we look at newspaper headlines and front page stuff, we expect to be interpreting factual observations of people and events locally and around the world. We turn to the opinon section and understand that we are not necessarily interpreting factual information, but likely a more subjective approach of things. The same is true when we turn to classified, the comics, etc. We automatically read things differently without thinking too much about it.
With Scripture, we need to remember that it is quite similar. The Bible contains narrative, poetry, letters and prophecy. We don't interpret the book of Psalms or Proverbs the same way that we would a letter from Paul. As we have seen in our study in the letter to the Philippians, it is mostly straightforward and logical writing. It is an argument that is strategically put together. These types of writings are often easier for us to apply because we are also a Christian church that heeds the same warnings and commands in order to glorify God.
But when we turn to the Psalms, we often see more expressive or artistic ways of describing God and his ways. The Proverbs are like bullet point bits of wisdom to help us meditate on what the wise person will look like. But we don't interpret these as literally. God is not a literal rock or shepherd or fortress. They describe metaphorically and creatively such attributes of God.
All of this is to merely prepare ourselves to look briefly into an Old Testament prophetic book that, too, is to be interpreted with a couple of things in mind. The prophets were mouthpieces of God that often called the nation of Israel and its kings to repentance. And often when God gave the prophets visions and messages, he didn't necessarily give them precise time frames as to when prophecies would be fulfilled.
The best way that this was illustrtated to me was gazing upon mountain ranges. (This should be an easy illustration for us, I think!) When God gave the prophets these visions and pronouncements they were to record, it was as if gazing upon different mountain ranges. What was unclear was the precise timings. The prophets could not determine how much time would elapse between such prophecies. Such is the case with familiar events in Daniel. Some of the prophecies of judgment and such took place both in Israel's near future and some are yet to be fulfilled.
And the same is true in Isaiah. Let's look at Isaiah 7.14. The first point this morning is Prophecy. The context of this passage is that Isaiah has been sent by God to King Ahaz, the king of Judah. Isaiah is to provide a sign to Ahaz. However, because of the unbelief of Ahaz, God himself will reveal the sign.
Now with prophecy, there can be both immediate and future fulfillments - like I mentioned. This prophecy in its immediate context is very difficult to discern. There is much speculation over what son is to be born in the immediate. And no conclusive determination is persuasive. This has led many to believe that this doesn't have any short term fulfillment - only the birth of the Messiah. And this will be our purpose. Our purposes are to determine how it is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, we will soon look to the Gospel of Matthew where he will actually indicate that this is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.
But before moving ahead, we should identify some important details from Isaiah's words here. First, we should note that Isaiah's prophecy was likely between the eighth and seventh century B.C. Isaiah is predicting the coming Messiah hundreds of years before the event.
And here is the sign. "The" virgin shall conceive and bear a son. Hmmm... Now this is interesting! Not you're everyday occurence. A virgin will bear a son. Check that... "the" virgin. Seven or eight hundred years out, Isaiah is pointing out "the" virgin who will bear a son! As you know, a virgin cannot bear a child. I realize that this is earth-shattering news for you. But Isaiah is prophesying a miraculous event.
The word deserves a bit of discussion. Scholars have debated whether or not this truly refers to "virgin". But there are several indications of this understanding. The Hebrew word, halmah is never employed of a married woman. Dr. Edward Young has indicated that the mother referred to here is both unmarried and good. He adds that "no other word would have been suitable for fulfilling the requirements of the sign such as the context demanded. None of the other words would have pointed to an unusual birth. Only 'almah makes clear that the mother was unmarried." And "when this fact is understood, it becomes apparent that in all history there is only one of whom this can be predicated, namely, Mary, the mother of the Lord."
And he will be called Immanuel - which means "God with us". So we can understand that Isaiah is not announcing some contemporary birth. Isaiah can see in this dim and unique vision that he looks forward hundreds of years to the birth of the One whose very presence brings God to His people!
John Calvin rightly notes that the name cannot be applied to anyone who is not God. "NO one else in the Old Testament bears this name. For these reasons, the prophecy must be interpreted only of that One to whom these conditions apply, namely, Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Virgin and the Mighty God."
Fast forward several hundred years. Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 1.18. The second point is Fulfillment. Let's read verses 18-25. Matthew begins his gospel tracing the genealogy from Abraham to Joseph. And then he launches into the birth of Jesus. He even adds the nice preface. "This is how it went down..."
Mary, the mother of Jesus was betrothed to Joseph. To be "betrothed" finds its closest parallel to our engagement. Only "betrothal" was much more firm and serious than engagement. In fact, a betrothed woman could be punished as an adulteress. The betrothal would last a year and the girl remained with her family until her bridegroom would come for her.
But this understanding of betrothal helps us understand the severity and intensity of the situation. Matthew indicates that when Mary was "betrothed" (and not yet married) AND (very important for our discussion) before they came together (also known as sexual relations), she was found to be with child... from the Holy Spirit. Got all that?
And just so we can get a better understanding of what is going on, let's turn to Deuteronomy 22. And let's look at verses 23-24. This comes within the context of laws concerning sexual immorality. Notice that verse 23 indicates that if there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones. This is referring to something consensual. And the following verses refer to a man who seizes a woman against her will. In which case, only he would endure the punishment.
The attitude was quite serious regarding such immorality. Obviously, our world does not view things in the same perspective today. In fact, adultery and immorality are often glamorized and promoted. We make up less condemning words like "affairs" and "sexual encounters".
Not so much in the day of Mary and Joseph. Now, you've got to try to get in the shoes of Joseph here. Not sure how he came upon the information at this point. But he discovered that she was indeed pregnant. And he would be quite sure that he had not slept with her! But look at the compassion of Joseph. He has been anticipating the day that he would be married to the woman that he loves. Can you imagine how his heart must have sank when he found out that she was with child? What would your thoughts have been? Who is he? I'm going to kill him! or her...
But not Joseph. According to law, he could have had her stoned to death. He could have made a public spectacle of her and his indignation by bringing her before the law court and having her condemned. Matthew says that Joseph was a "just" man. He didn't want to put her through this shame. So he would opt for a provision that would allow him to "divorce" her quietly. Despite his hurt feelings and his rights, he would not expose her to this. (As a side note, it cannot be overlooked that it is Matthew's gospel that includes Jesus' words regarding an exception clause for divorce to those who commit adultery. I believe that a strong case can be made that it is permissible to those who are "betrothed" and not necessarily married. How else can Jesus say in the same breath, "what God has joined together, let not man separate"?) I don't want to digress more than this - only to note that this fits well with the Jewish understanding of betrothal that we find ourselves in here. And so Joseph can both be a just man though he sought to divorce Mary.
But before he carries this out... while he considers these things... God intervenes. Why? Well, it has to do with a certain prophesy made hundreds of years prior... where THE virgin would be with child... God will ensure that his plans and his promises are carried out. And God intervenes. This time it is through an angel.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and calls him by name. "Joseph, son of David." "I know who you are. God has had this planned a very long time. Do not fear." In fact this has the idea of "don't hold back from taking Mary as your wife. It's all good. In fact, she has been faithful - more faithful than you know. She has been conceived by the Holy Spirit." "Pardon???"
Mary has not been unfaithful to Joseph. In fact, she has demonstrated great faith in her God. She has been willing to risk ridicule and even desertion so that she could be used of God to birth the Savior of the world!
Are you back in Joseph's shoes? Are you experiencing the emotional roller coaster that is his life right now? He's been gearing up for his life changing marriage to Mary. But then a major wrench was thrown in the works as he discovers that she is pregnant! He has likely pondered anger, revenge, despair. And yet he has reasoned in his heart that he will not seek to condemn her and disgrace her, but to divorce her quietly. Perhaps he has finally come to grips that he has to move on with his life. And then he is visited by an angel. Whew! Slow down. And then the angel tells him, "It's alright. It was the Holy Spirit who impregnated your betrothed." “She didn't cheat on me? This is God's plan? The plan from Isaiah??? I’m part of the plan to bring the Messiah?? Mary?”
Yes. Mary. Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. He will save his people from their sins?? And all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Isaiah. The text we just looked at. This is when we have greater confidence in the fulfillment of prophecy. When the Bible comes out and says, "this is what he was talking about. This is the fulfillment." Matthew is great at this. There are at least ten other times where he comes out and says, "this took place to fulfill this prophecy." Notice also that Matthew does not merely say that this is what the prophet Isaiah thinks. He indicates that this is what the Lord said, through the prophet.
And though his name would be called Jesus, he is also considered "Immanuel" - "God with us". Matthew helps us out again by spelling it out. And then Joseph was convinced, woke up, and obeyed. Jesus is "God with us." Let that sink in.
Why is this important? And what does it demonstrate? The third point is Implications. There are many implications of God coming and dwelling among his people. God did not stand off and allow us to die in judgment of our sins. He came to rescue us. Salvation cannot come by our effort. This virgin birth of Christ reminds us that salvation is the work of God.
Galations 4.4-5 says "But when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." God had this moment on the radar. Everything goes according to plan. He wasn't going to let his people go. The Son of God would leave the throne to be born of a virgin Mary at the right time.
The virgin birth made possible the uniting of full deity and full humanity in one person. This is a great mystery but Jesus Christ did not have to diminish his deity in any way. Rather, he added full humanity to full deity. We'll discuss this in a bit more detail momentarily.
The virgin birth also made possible true humanity without inherited sin. Scripture tells us that because of Adam's sin, we are all born into a sinful condition. It is inherited to us. But because it was the Holy Spirit who conceived Jesus inside Mary, he did not experience this inherited sin. I must mention something important here. This does NOT imply that sin comes through the men only. I know many of the women may think this. But you won't find any Scriptural support for such outlandish claims!
So, let's ask the question. Why did Jesus have to take on humanity in this virgin birth? To answer this question, I will borrow from Wayne Grudem who brings some of these answers out. And he finds at least six reasons.
First, we already noted that because of Adam's sin, we all inherit a sin nature. But this wasn't God's design. God had expected perfect obedience. And so where Adam had failed, mankind needed another representative. Romans 5.18-19 tells us "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous." Jesus passed the test that we failed. He exemplified perfect obedience.
Second, Jesus needed to become man to be our substitute sacrifice. We have been saying through our lighting of Advent Candles and Communion last week that Jesus did not come merely to be born in a manger, but t die on a cross. The penalty for our sin is death. And only the Son of God could pay the penalty for us. Listen to the words in Hebrews to explain this thought. Hebrews 2:16–17 (ESV) 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. “Propitiation” is the sacrifice that bears God’s wrath for sin and turns toward us in favor. Wow! We deserve his wrath. God sends his Son Jesus to be born of a virgin and die on a cross to provide salvation for those who rebelled against him.
Thirdly, Jesus had to become a man to be a mediator between God and men. Jesus is our representative to God. 1 Timothy 2.15 says that “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” So, we see that he had to become man in order to fulfill this mediator role.
Fourthly, God created man to rule over creation. He was given charge over the garden. He was given the authority to name the animals. But Adam’s sin negated this purpose. Jesus came as a man and lived in perfect obedience in order to put all things under his feet.
Fifthly, Jesus provides an example for us to emulate. 1 John 2.6 says “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Scriptures exhort us to be changed into his likeness – to be “Christ-like”. We are to be conformed to the image of his Son – Rom. 8. And there are many other passages exhorted to be like him.
And the last one that I want to touch on his Jesus’ role as a sympathetic High Priest. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18; cf. 4:15–16). Jesus was able to endure all the temptation and trials that we experience and thus able to relate to us when we turned to him for help.
So, what does this mean for us this Christmas season? What I would love for us to consider this season is that the coming of Jesus Christ is more than a really neat story, giving of gifts, parties, and time off of work. Please see the sovereign plan of God unfold. See God’s prophecies in the Old Testament of a Messiah who would come to save the world from sin. Understand the miraculous birth that made this possible. See the joy that comes to those that surround the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us!” God came down at Christmas time!
I would encourage you to retell the story of the virgin birth with any new understanding that you have. Share with enthusiasm and great joy the story that has changed the course of mankind. And allow these deep truths to impact you to the core and live your life as a response to the great love and mercy demonstrated to you because of Christmas. Let’s pray.