A Christmas Meditation
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”—Isaiah 9:6
It may not be out of place to wish you a joyful Christmas in the name of the Lord Jesus, and may it be a time when we all get beyond the tinsel and the outward to the reality and joy of the coming of God’s own Son. May He be very real to you all at this time. Our hearts go out especially this year to those in whose homes there is an empty chair that the Lord may comfort your heart with His presence.
Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord is told so frankly, so simply, so beautifully, and verse 1:23 underlines His birth as something which God had planned and timed perfectly, something that the people of Judah had anticipated though in a very limited sense only. Quoting from Isaiah 7:14, Matthew says: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” That was the hope of Israel.
In Isaiah 9:6 are written those tremendous words, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulders: and His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of peace.” If you refer to Matthew 1:21, you find that Old Testament hope comes to realization: “Thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins.”
The hope of the people, Emmanuel. The answer of God, Jesus. The hope of the people that somehow out of darkness God would come and deliver them from an outward tyranny, a human bondage. The answer of heaven, Jesus: “He shall save His people from their sins.” How much greater is heaven’s answer than the hope of those people at that time!
You notice the Lord was never called Emmanuel in the New Testament. He never bore that name, though actually the meaning of it was often quoted in New Testament language. For instance, in the Gospel of John which begins with such a majestic chord: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then after a parenthesis there comes this statement, “The Word was made 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.” God with us—Emmanuel.
The word “Jesus” somehow expresses so much more completely than any Old Testament name ever could the real purpose of the coming of our Saviour. Let us meditate about the hope that the people of Israel had as they anticipated His coming. All through the centuries the Jewish people had longed for someone to come and deliver them.
Matthew 1:17 is a summary of the genealogy of our Lord and—those of you who may be inclined to be critical of Scripture—don’t forget that the genealogy of Matthew and the genealogy in Luke give in one case that of Joseph and in the other case that of Mary; there are different names involved. But notice that verse 17 sums it all up: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away of Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away of Babylon to Christ are fourteen generations.”
These are crises in the history of the Jewish people, crises that pictured great times of hope but only ending in failure and frustration. Abraham through faith and obedience was going to lead the people into the land, but he failed. Then there came David who through loyalty to God was going to be the king of the people, but he too failed, even the man after God’s own heart. Then the result was Babylon with its tragic bondage and captivity, its disgrace and slavery. So you see it would seem that the expectation of the Jews had simply come to an end. There was no hope, for it all ended in slavery and corruption. The greatest human characters had failed, Abraham, David, and the result was captivity and bondage. It would seem as if God’s purposes had all been thwarted by their rebellion, sin and unbelief.
Yet somehow they couldn’t come quite to believe that all hope was lost, and at a very critical hour of history the prophet Isaiah spoke of this sign that God would give them of a virgin who would conceive and, in some mysterious way, God was going to invade this little planet Himself in the person of His Son. Yet the centuries passed by and the prophecy remained unfulfilled. The hope of the Jewish people dwindled completely. In any event, they had no faith to believe in a great deliverer except that it might be just a kind of escape from the tyranny of an empire. But their hope had all gone.
You can never limit God’s program to human ideas and human conceptions. The idea of this people was that all God had come to do was to make their lot a little bit more comfortable and save them from the consequences of their rebellion and sin. That is all they thought this Deliverer would mean, but God’s program was far greater than that. After all, what would be the use of dealing with the consequences if you do not touch the cause? That would be merely dealing with the fruit of the trouble instead of really going to the root of it. It wasn’t any use God dealing with the symptoms of the sin unless, somehow, God could strike at the very root of all the trouble. So Jesus came, and I am afraid that so many of us in thinking of His coming and of what He can do for us have often thus limited God’s program and plan for our own lives because of our limited conception of what He can do. We’ve asked Him to help us to deal with some of the symptoms of trouble in our hearts and in our experience, but we have never realized that God’s program of redemption, power and liberation is so infinitely greater than anything we could ever ask Him to do for us. Jesus Christ did not come just to deal with a few symptoms of trouble in your heart, to comfort and help you in one or two situations. No, He came to conduct a God-designed invasion that would go to the very root of the need.
I may speak to someone who is not a believer in our Lord. If I was to ask you what you think Jesus Christ could do for you, you might say, “Well, perhaps He might help me a little with my life to overcome problems, comfort me in times of trouble, and one day get me through to heaven.” Have you ever really understood that God has come to do something drastic? This God-planned invasion which took place at Bethlehem was not just to touch the symptom; it was to go right down to the thing that brings us into slavery and to strike at the root of it. I hope, therefore, that our anticipation of what Christ can do is not limited by our own feeble ideas.
As we look further we see that Old Testament hope realized in this New Testament story, and what a beautiful story it is! It is so sacred and lovely. It would never have been known to us if Joseph and Mary had not told it. If you compare the account of the birth of our Lord here in Matthew with the account given in Luke’s Gospel, you notice immediately that there is a distinction. In Luke’s Gospel, it is given to us from the standpoint of Mary with her bewilderment and problems. But in Matthew’s Gospel it is told from the standpoint of Joseph and his perplexity, his unbelief, his concern, his desire to protect this woman from scandal. His desire to do the right thing is told so simply and so beautifully and all his fears are suddenly removed when the angel of the Lord says: “Fear not: that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.”
You know, some people seem to imagine that they don’t need to believe in the virgin birth of our Lord to be a Christian, that it is not really an essential part of the Christian faith. My friend, if you reject the virgin birth of Christ, you reject the diety of Christ. It is impossible to hold to one and not the other. The One Who has come to save us from our sins, must obviously be born into a human race and be part of it. That is the amazing condescension of God. It wasn’t necessary, and God knows that is so. Justice would have been completely satisfied if the race had been wiped out; but God is love, and if that love is to be expressed, if men are to be saved, if the invasion from heaven is to strike at the root, then He must become part, not of a sinless humanity but of a sinful, degraded, corrupt humanity. He must become one of them—a fact, indeed, I think we can all understand. But if He is to become one with us in order to save us from our sin, He must be free from the taint of sin which passes into all human life that is born after the will of the flesh. Somehow Jesus must come into this human race, be part of it and yet not of it, something it has never before produced by the normal method of birth. He must not be tainted with the sin of humanity. He has come to be like us in all things except our sin. You cannot explain the sinless life of our wonderful Lord unless you accept the truth of His miraculous birth.
This story, which is so simply and frankly told in the Gospels, only confirms what Jesus said: “I am not of this world: I am from above.” And here is the answer of God to the hope of the people. What an amazing thing to think of our God, the eternal God dwelling in the frail body of a little baby, taking upon Himself the nature (as I have said) not of a sinless race, but the nature of a people who had rebelled against His rule, that he might not only save us from the consequences of rebellion but that He might break the power of it at its very source. That is the realization of the hope: “He shall save His people from their sins.”
I would interject something that you may be familiar with, though you may not have caught the significance of it. When the angels said: “Thou shalt call His name Jesus,” Joseph would not be surprised at that, for there were lots of little boys running about the streets called Jesus, a very common name at that time. Today we give our children names and often we do not stop to think much about their meaning. We choose them because they are popular or attractive, or because it is a family name. The name Jesus was not simply a popular name, because in those days names meant something. They had a tremendous significance. The Hebrew name for Jesus, as you may know, is Joshua. Now immediately my mind goes back to two Old Testament characters, the one a great commander-in-chief who led the people into tremendous battles, through the wilderness into the land, but he could not give them rest. The other Joshua was a priest living in the days of Zechariah who stood before the Lord with filthy garments, and he could not remove the stain of sin from the people or from himself as he ministered.
The Hebrew “Joshua” is really two words. There were only two men who got out of Egypt and got into Canaan. The rest perished because of unbelief. One was called Caleb, and there was this Joshua. But he was not always called Joshua. His name when he was a younger man was Hosea (meaning savior), but one day Moses changed his name and called him Joshua, and that name is really a combination of two Jewish names, Hosea and Jehovah, “Saviour God.” “Thou shalt call His name Joshua, Jesus, Saviour, God.”
The two things that the Old Testament Joshuas could not do, Jesus came to do. Joshua led them into battle, conflict and victory, but he could not lead them into rest. The Old Testament priest could not lead the people into cleansing and deliverance. There is a connection here: no rest because no cleansing. The captain was helpless to lead them into rest because they were unclean. The Old Testament priest was unable to lead them into cleansing for he had no power to do it of himself—he himself was unclean.
“Thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins.” And what does He do when He saves His people from their sins? Praise the Lord, He takes them out of bondage, through a wilderness, into battle and victory, and then into rest. “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). How does this great Jesus of ours lead us into rest? Praise the Lord, He has offered Himself for us to give us cleansing. There’s no rest in your life if it is unclean. He can cleanse you and give you rest. Oh how much greater is the realization than the Old Testament hope! I think it is so thrilling and wonderful to know that Jesus can give you those two things that you need today more than anything else in the world, cleansing and rest.
At His birth, when Joseph gave Him the name, it was only a prophecy. You go on another generation and listen to the Apostle Paul: Jesus “being in the form of God counted it not a thing to be grasped at to be counted equal with God; but emptied Himself and took upon Himself the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men.” That is Paul’s story of the incarnation, but to continue, “He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death even, the death of the cross. Wherefore God hath also highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:6–10)—and what is that name?
Joseph called Him Jesus because the angel told him to, and that was a prophecy that He would save His people from their sins. One day on the cross outside Jerusalem the prophecy became a fact. The work was finished, the blood was shed, the sacrifice was over, and there was a way through for the guiltiest and foulest of souls into the presence of God by the cleansing of His blood. It became a fact and I tell you on the day when He ascended into heaven and sat down on the right hand of God, it became a flaming evangel that swept through the world for two thousand years, because at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. I should say they will! He is the only One Who can bring men that which they desperately need, cleansing and rest. Therefore, before Him every other must recede, and before Him every knee shall bow. When He was born as a little babe in a manger, that name declared why He had to come: that was His purpose. When He rose triumphant over the grave and God gave Him that name in glory, it declared that God’s purpose had been accomplished and that the victory had been won.
Abraham and David failed. Abraham failed because of lack of faith and obedience. Jesus triumphed by faith and obedience. David failed because of lack of loyalty to the Lord. Jesus triumphed because He delighted to do the will of God. There is the Old Testament anticipation so small, there is the New Testament realization so tremendous, so glorious and so wonderful.
Listen again; Emmanuel God with us. Jesus, Saviour—God, cleansing and giving rest. As we look back over the centuries and remember that God became a baby, was born of a virgin in human life, I would ask you very earnestly, has God been born in you? What I am saying to you about cleansing and rest, is it something that wistfully your heart has answered as I have been talking to you, saying, “That is what I need, but I haven’t got it. Of course, I want Jesus because then He would make my lot a little more comfortable. It would be nice to be a Christian and to know that one day I would get to heaven, and I think it is right that I should know something about this Christmas season and what it means.” But in spite of all this, the two greatest needs in your life remain unsatisfied. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13). Jesus came to save by a miracle of birth. He will save you by another miracle of the new birth. It is not by blood—not by your natural heritage, no matter how high in the social scale any may be—nor of the will of the flesh (not by your natural desire or personal effort), nor of the will of man—not by the intervention of any other, not in a way that anybody in any church can do for you—but of God.
He came to save, He was born miraculously, and His purpose of rest and cleansing is fulfilled in your life when you are born miraculously by the same Holy Spirit who brought Jesus to be a baby through the womb of the virgin Mary. By the same Spirit He becomes incarnate in your life, and from that day on, praise the Lord, you enter into rest and into cleansing.
I hope something of the fire, the wonder, the glow of the coming of a little Babe to bring us rest and cleansing will grip your soul even today, for you see if God be with us—and He is—well then what? Sorrow, perhaps, but it will never overwhelm us. Temptation, yes, but it will never conquer if you are trusting in Him. Suffering, yes, but He will never allow you to be tested beyond that you are able. Death, certainly, unless He comes first, but there is no sting in it. Therefore, if God be for us, the word impossible is out of your vocabulary forever. There is no such thing in the will of God as impossibilities, if God be with us, our Emmanuel.
—Sermon originally preached at The Moody Church, December 20, 1959