As we approach the Christmas season, we start to think about Jesus coming to earth as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. We remember the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. We remember the words from the Apostle John, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But things were written about this coming Christ child hundreds of years before He came. In this morning’s passage, this prophecy about the coming Christ was uttered well over seven hundred years before He was born. Matthew quotes from verse 14 in this morning’s passage to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah. Although Isaiah was not the only prophet who telegraphed to the world of the coming Jesus, some of the more memorable ones are contained in the 66 chapters of the book.
Exposition of the Text
There is much discussion among scholars about the way to interpret prophecies. Many say that a prophecy has to make sense to the people who heard it in the day it was uttered. This would mean that this Emmanuel prophecy would have had to have been fulfilled in the life of Ahaz to be legitimate. However, we would be immediately presented with a problem. If this prophecy had a local significance in the times well before Christ, how could it legitimately be a prophecy about the birth of Christ?
There is of course a fallacy in the approach of saying that a prophecy must mean something to the prophet and that it has to have fulfillment in the near future in relation to the prophet. A prophecy means what it means in the mind and purpose of God, a God to whom a thousand years is but a day. Human beings have no right to tell God what to do, and when and how He can do it. If God says something through a prophet which doesn’t happen for a thousand years or more, what is that to God?
1 Peter 1:10-12 tells us that the prophets themselves were clued in to the coming of Christ at least in part. And Jesus in John tells us that Christ was revealed to Abraham some two thousand years in advance. The Bible contains many prophecies which were fulfilled hundreds of years later, even in the Old Testament. So to say that an uttered prophecy cannot speak to a situation which would not occur within the life of the prophet is wrong.
Having said that, when we look into this particular text, we do seem that a sign was given to King Ahaz which implies that it would happen within his lifetime, and that the birth of a child named Immanuel would occur who would be a sign of Judah’s deliverance from Israel and Syria. So let us look at this text historically and see what it may have meant in the days of Ahaz.
The context of this passage was an invasion of Judah by raiders from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria. Ahaz is recorded in Chronicles as having been a wicked king unlike his father Jotham and Uzziah. The response of Isaiah to Ahaz when Ahaz refused to ask for a sign shows that this was a correct assessment. Ahaz’s disobedience was wearisome to the Lord. So when Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, God said that He would provide the sign himself. A young woman would become pregnant and have a child, apparently a woman known to Ahaz. The child would be named Immanuel which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” This was to be a sign that before the child was able to be weaned that the two oppressing kings would be gone and Judah would have deliverance. This would be a great act of grace on God’s part as Ahaz and Judah were rebellious and wicked and did not deserve the Lord’s intervention at all.
If this was all there was to this prophecy, it would have had meaning to the people of 780BC. But of what further value would it be except for students of history of how God dealt with a faraway nation with names which are hard to pronounce some 2800 years ago. The best that could be said is that the God who was willing to show grace to them might also speak words of grace to us. Wonderful! God was with Judah? What does this mean to us?
I am not denying that this prophecy had an initial fulfillment in the days of Ahaz. The prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled as a sign of a greater fulfillment in the time of Jesus. The God who rescued a wicked and petty king in a small nation on the world’s stage of that day is the same God who used this as a signpost of a much greater deliverance. It would not just be a little nation, but the child who was to be born would be the means of delivering people from all the nations of earth. It would not be a deliverance which would be no more than a temporary reprieve. Isaiah was already prophesying of Judah’s captivity. In fact, the name of his son “Shear-Jashub” (a remnant will return) was a sign of this captivity and also of a future deliverance for a remnant which was greater than this reprieve.
“The Lord shall give Himself a sign.” How true is this statement when it is applied to Jesus Christ! As Jesus is God the Son who gave Himself on the cross for the sins of the world, the birth of Jesus is proof that God is with us. This would have been true for the days of Jesus in the sense of time. While Jesus walked this earth, He was with us. But there is more to the word “with”. “With” means that God is on the side of undeserving sinners, the elected remnant who receive Him as Lord and Savior. Truly we are all as undeserving as Ahaz. What deserving on our part could demand or even ask a sign of the Lord’s favor. The Son is the sign of the Lord’s undeserved mercy to us.
As the Gospel of Matthew should be rightly understood as the Gospel of the People of God, the Church, this means that the promise is not to the nation of Israel as such, although it would include those of Israel who believe in the Messiah. It is our sign and promise that Jesus who has accomplished our redemption on the cross will come again and receive us unto Himself. In God’s time, only a couple of days have passed since Jesus walked this earth, just the day before yesterday. To us 2000 years seems like an eternity. But Peter reminds us that God is not slack concerning His promise as we count slackness. Peter reminds us of the Psalm 90 statement that a thousand years are but a day. God spoke the Immanuel prophecy to Isaiah in 780 BC. The next day he was born in a manger. Tomorrow He shall return. The God who promised so long before the time of Jesus was good to this promise. This means that God will be good to His promise to return. This is our blessed hope.
It is good that we serve a God who can plan things out in advance and make it happen. It would provide little comfort to serve a God who can only plan one or two of our years in advance. God has a plan for history. God is with us who believe on Him. This same God who has started a good work in us is able to bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.
We come to a season which is currently called the Christmas season. But on the church calendar, the proper season is Advent. Advent is the season in which we remember the promise of the Lord to return and to be sure we are prepared to meet Him when He comes. It behooves us to be as one of the wise virgins who purchased enough oil to have a burning lamp in the day He becomes. The sign of the baby Jesus in a manger is a reminder that points us to the day that Jesus will come back to Earth again, this time not as a baby, but as the rightful King of Kings and Lord of Lords.