Monthly Archives: January 2018

Matthew 4:12-25 – Jesus Begins His Ministry Ushering in The Kingdom

The narrative continues with Jesus learning that John as been imprisoned. Wow! Realize that because we’re so familiar with the story, Herod, the dancing girl, beheading, we don’t go “Wow!” when we most certainly should. As we read through the gospels there are apologetic points aplenty to be made. If you were making up a story of the founding of a new religion, and the coming of a predicted great Messiah, why would one of the key characters even before the story really gets started be hauled off to prison? We know this often happens to prophets in Israel, but wasn’t this supposed to be different? Apparently not. To me, John going to prison reads real; it wouldn’t have been made up if it hadn’t actually happened.

Jesus now leaves the town he grew up in, Nazareth, to his new home on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum. Matthew says almost in passing, “he went and lived” there. It’s strange for me to imagine Jesus living in a town like every other resident, having a little house with a yard where he eats and sleeps and just lives. He greets his neighbors, helps the little old lady cross the street. Just a normal, sort of, guy. But he doesn’t stay home much. Matthew says this move is a fulfillment of Scripture. He does this throughout his gospel because he’s writing to Jews, and nothing says genuine like fulfilling what the sacred writings said centuries before. Some of these fulfillments Jesus could have arranged knowing what he was supposed to do, but others were out of his hands as we’ll see.

Now Jesus starts carrying on the message John no longer can:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And he starts building his team. He starts with with two pairs of brothers who will prove to be instrumental in his ministry, and the Church he intends to build after he’s accomplished his mission. The first are fishermen Peter and Andrew. He tells them what their new occupation is going to be:

19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Human beings are the ones they will now “catch.” And their response on the face of it is strange: Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” He does the same with James and John, sons of Zebedee. They too were fishermen, and they were in a boat with their father. When Jesus calls them, their response is even a bit more strange: Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” That’s it? See ya pops! It’s been nice. This is a good point to explain the purpose of the gospels, why they were written, and the nature of ancient biography and history.

C.S. Lewis made the phrase, “chronological snobbery” famous. Since the Enlightenment, scholars and intellectuals began to see anything in the past, especially the distant past, as outmoded, inferior, regressive, etc., and the people who inhabited that world benighted. These people lived in a world of superstition without the light of science and reason. The attitude over the years that eventually trickled down to the culture was, “We know better,” wink, wink. So, for example, since we “know” that miracles can’t happen, this whole Jesus story is made up superstition. Another example having to do with our text is the belief that ancient authors, especially those of the gospels, didn’t care about accuracy and true history. They were creating a narrative to make a point, and accuracy wasn’t important. In fact, that is a perfect example of chronological snobbery, judging something as inferior simply because it’s old.

But as knowledge of the ancient world has grown, our understanding of ancient biography and history has grown as well. An author, like Matthew, had a limited space in which to convey his message. If he didn’t think a specific detail was important to that message, he wouldn’t have included it. So it appears that the brothers took up and followed Jesus out of blue, but this was not the first encounter these men had with Jesus as we know from the other gospels (John 1:35-42 and Luke 5:3). In our day with endless distractions, it’s hard to imagine the kind of ruckus Jesus would have made where he lived, and in the cities and towns he visited. Plus after 400 years of silence, the people’s hope that this was in fact the Messiah must have been off the charts. So these first disciples of Jesus knew full well who he was.

We learn at the end of this chapter that Jesus was becoming hugely popular and why:

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria . . . 25 And great crowds followed him . . . 

Nothing in Israel had ever been seen like this before. He was healing every disease and affliction. Imagine a day before medicine and doctors and hospitals what this might have been like. And we know from this passage that “the gospel of the kingdom” has something to do with pushing back against the affects of the fall. This healing, then, is a sort of type and shadow of what’s to come ultimately from Jesus ministry.

 

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Matthew 4:1-11 – Jesus Tested: Satan Defeated by God’s Word

What a contrast between the last verse of chapter 3 and the first of chapter 4. And it’s a contrast that seems strange to us because we tend to assume that God’s blessing leads to ease, not struggle, challenge, or suffering. But in God’s economy as I’ve read up to this point in redemptive history, the struggle is most definitely part of the blessing. The reason can be found in a common sense concept that a pagan, Aristotle, made famous: telos. We often forget that this history, which includes us at this very moment in time, has a purpose toward which God in his infinite knowledge, wisdom, and power is directing all things for our ultimate good and his ultimate glory. This gives our lives profound (understatement!) meaning beyond the moment and beyond the circumstances. People look everywhere and anywhere but their Creator for meaning and significance in their lives, and we have it just by getting out of bed in the morning.

God has just declared Jesus his Son, whom he loves, and in whom he is pleased. Immediately after this:

 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

This is clearly part of the plan because Jesus is led by God’s own Spirit to endure this testing (the word tempt in Greek can either mean that or test). And it’s not just any old testing Jesus will endure, but testing from the Prince of Darkness himself. What’s worse for Jesus, we’re told he’s tested after he’s been fasting for the biblically symbolic 40 days and 40 nights. Matthew tells us that after all this fasting, as if we wouldn’t know, Jesus “was hungry.” But the simplicity of the statement belies its importance: Jesus was a human being, just like you and me. And Satan, “The tempter,” tries to use his humanity against him. He tests him an also biblically symbolic three times.

(1.) “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Satan is immensely talented at lying, and one of the ways he does this is by using just enough distortion of the truth to completely obliterate truth. Go back and look how he did that to Eve in the Garden, and he’s trying to do that to Jesus here. No wonder he’s called “crafty.” Satan well knows that Jesus, the Creator of all things, can change the stones into literally anything he might want. But stones are not bread, and God’s power isn’t magic. His power is always informed by telos, which is why miracles are used sparsely throughout Scripture; God doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. As if he were at our beck and call. No, Jesus’ reply tells us that the true nature of existence isn’t stones or bread:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Yes, man must live on bread, but bread of itself is worthless because our entire existence is sustained by God himself, and his “every word.” By that word alone (and those words) are how we endure the testing that is the crucible of existence.

(2.) Next Satan takes him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, some 200 feet high (notice that Satan had the power to do this).

Now Satan himself quotes Scripture. If Jesus will just throw himself down off the temple, doesn’t Scripture (Psalm 91) say he won’t be harmed? Again Jesus goes back to God’s word to reply:

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Jesus again going back to Scripture (where else is there to go?), quotes Moses in Deut. 6:16, which is a reference to Exodus 7:17. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus will never doubt that the Lord is with him. In other words he, as can we, trusts the Lord in any and every situation.

(3.) Finally, Satan takes him to a high mountain to show him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Satan implies that he has the power to give all of it to Jesus, which is no doubt a lie too. God has allowed him some power in this fallen world, as Paul tells us, but he’s a mere lackey in the cosmic scheme of things. As Jesus says later in his ministry, Satan is the father of lies, and when he lies he speaks his native language. The sliver of truth in Satan’s temptation is that the kingdoms of the world did not yet belong to Jesus because he hadn’t completed his mission to “save his people from their sins.” And of course Jesus goes right back to Scripture to reply:

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

This says it all. To live life as it was truly meant to be lived, we worship our God and serve him alone. And Paul tells us why: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Why would we ever look to any other person or thing for our fulfillment, significance, affirmation, or purpose? Don’t!

The Devil realizes he can’t win against the truth, so leaves and angels come to attend to Jesus. Remember this salient point: Jesus went through all this for you and me. And he was only getting started.

Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus’ Baptism Points to Ours in Him and Covenant Confirmation

Now we get to the crux of the story with the words, “Then Jesus . . . ” I love how simple and understated this is. The whole of human history is about to change. The Roman empire, the greatest the world has ever know, is about to be turned upside down, and the cause is introduced with, “Then Jesus . . ” And how is this all to start? With this unknown carpenter from Galilee coming to be baptized by John. Once John realizes who is standing in front of him, he is nonplussed (this not well known word is perfect for this situation: “(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.”)

First he says Jesus should baptize him! But Jesus says no, John, you need to baptize me “to fulfill all righteousness.” Nobody is quite sure exactly what this means, but since Jesus is without sin he isn’t doing it to repent. Possibly he’s identifying with “his people” the angel said he came to save when he was named. Paul says were were buried with Jesus “through baptism into death.” So as he identified with us in his baptism, so we identify with his death in ours. I like this as a plausible explanation, but there doesn’t have to be just one.

I also think it can mean what I, as a paedobaptist, believe baptism means. For the first 1700 to 1800 years or so of church history Christians baptized their children. That began to change with the first Great Awakening in the 1740s, and gained momentum with the Second in the early 1800s. As revivalism spread throughout the 19th century, believers baptism, as it’s called, became the default position Evangelical Christians. Simply put, baptism in this concept is reserved for those who profess faith in Christ as a testimony to that profession. As such, baptism’s focus is on the believer and their faith.

By contrast, as a paedobaptist I believe that baptism is an affirmation of God’s covenant promise to his people. Baptism is a God-centered sacrament, not a me-centered sacrament. What this means is that God’s decision to save me is more important, and comes prior to, my decision to be saved. In other words, God’s decision causes mine, not the other way round. And because of what Peter says in the very first sermon in Christian history (Acts 2), to me it’s a no-brainer that Christians should baptize their children:

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

There are many verses in the Old Testament that say or imply this, but one Peter could have had in mind is Deut. 29:29. In the words of Moses:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Here is why we baptize our children: They are not strangers to the covenant! But that is what those who embrace baptism only for believers in effect do, treat their kids as if the covenant promises of God are not for them. This is simply unbiblical. Fortunately, those well-meaning Christians who “dedicate” their children don’t treat them as strangers to the covenant because they in fact treat them as if they were Christians. But they can’t get around the fact that their position on baptism means their kids are little heathens until they make a profession of faith in Jesus when they get older.

So what does this have to do with Jesus being baptized by John? Well, I don’t think Jesus was being baptized because he had made a profession of faith in himself! Rather, it makes more sense that he was affirming his Father’s covenant promise made to him in eternity past to give him a people to save, just as we affirm that in baptizing our children God’s covenant promise is as much for them as it is for us!

Then once Jesus is baptized the Triune God makes his first blatant appearance in Biblical history, one that makes it very difficult to deny that God is in fact three persons in one being (ὁμοούσιος). After Jesus is baptized, Matthew says he, Jesus, saw the “Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” It doesn’t say (nor does it in Mark and Luke’s version) that anyone else saw this, which is strange because you’d think if others saw it, it would have been big news. Maybe it was just for Jesus’ benefit. He’d laid aside his Godhead, and lived his human life for this moment, the beginning of his purpose on earth to complete the mission the Father had given him. Now he gets the confirmation he was likely looking for:

 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, this scene makes no sense whatsoever, God as Father, Son and Spirit. The Triune nature of God becomes more apparent as we read through the gospels, and then as the rest of the New Testament is filled in, but it took 300 years before the Church finally came to terms with God being one and three. The Nicene Creed is the classic formulation of this doctrine that is embraced by all true Christians.

 

Matthew 3:7-12 – John’s Baptism Points to a Much Greater Baptism by the Holy Spirit

As indicated in my last post, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not real happy with John or his message, given they were the ones who mediated the religion to the people. Who was this wild man out in the wilderness thinking he could baptize people on his own. And John doesn’t make it any easier for them to like him with his scathing rebuke in the next few verses. Even if some were genuinely curious, John’s words wouldn’t exactly endear them to him either. What is John’s problem with the religious professionals of the day:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

The coming wrath? I think John might be mixing up Jesus’ comings. The next to the last verse of the Old Testament describes the “great and dreadful” day of the Lord to some, and in addition to the people seeing John as an Elijah figure, or Elijah himself, John probably did too. This prophet’s message before that day will be one of judgment. We know John, and every other one of Jesus’ followers we’re not expecting the Messiah who actually came, Jesus of Nazareth. Remember what John says from Herod’s prison:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” The Messiah was supposed to be a conquering king who would bring judgment and wrath. They couldn’t conceive of a Messiah (think Isaiah 52 and 53 and the suffering servant) who himself would endure judgment and wrath for them! That was to be what this coming was about, a la Jesus name, The Lord Saves.

One of the problems the Jewish religious professional had in John’s eyes, and for Jesus as well, is that they thought just because they were descendants of Abraham, they were in. The kingdom of heaven which John declares is coming will not be equated with physical Israel. Something very different is happening, and it has to do with the human heart and repentance. As we saw in the last post, repentance doesn’t usher in the kingdom, but is a reflection of it having come. In other words, obedience to the law will no longer be the way God’s people try to justify themselves to their God because that, as we know, is impossible.

Then John tells us that this kingdom of heaven to come will be ushered in by someone greater than himself, much greater. And whereas John baptizes with water, this one to come:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Most agree that the baptism of the Holy Spirit started at Pentecost, and is what all Christians experience at their new birth. Since I believe in infant baptism, I don’t necessarily believe there has to be a conversion experience when this happens. But the when and how are not important compared to every believer in Jesus Christ being baptized in the Holy Spirit, washed cleaned of their sin, and whose heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh.

This idea of being baptized by the Holy Spirit has been so filled with the baggage of Pentecostalism that it’s hard to see it apart from some kind emotional experience. It’s as if the Holy Spirit were an impersonal force that gets our hormones raging when he comes into our physical bodies. The real Holy Spirit baptism, by contrast, is the third person of the Trinity applying the work of Christ into our being so that we are no long enemies of the holy and living God! Way, way better than any temporary emotional experience. Remember, to the Jew at this time Baptism was a ritual cleansing so the person could participate in the religious life of the community, which was the whole of the sacrificial system to be a people holy and set apart to Yahweh, Israel’s God. Emotion was besides the point. This Holy Spirit baptism Jesus will initiate (“he will baptize you”) is a new relationship with the Father that his life and death will make possible. Jesus says as much in John 16:7:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

As for the baptism by fire, what’s likely in John’s mind is the fire of judgment. That will be for the second coming of Jesus, not this one.

 

 

Matthew 3:1-6 – John Comes Baptizing to Prepare the Way for King Jesus

Over 25 years pass from the last verse of chapter two to the introduction of John the Baptist in chapter three, and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It starts with a bang! Remember, nothing in the Bible is set in an historical vacuum. Every page is rich with historical backdrop and setting, and in order to understand what’s going on, we must know the history. The entire Old Testament, and especially it’s ending, is what has brought us to this moment of John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. His message is simple, but easily misunderstood:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

This repentance John speaks of has redemptive-historical significance. God had been silent for 400 years. No prophet had come along in four centuries(!). Think about what America was like in January, 1618. Jamestown of England’s Virginia company was just starting to grow as a settlement, and it would be more than two years before the Pilgrims landed in New England aboard the Mayflower. Four hundred years is a long time! No doubt there had been other religious zealots over the centuries who had come along trying to force God’s kingdom to come (those known as Zealots In Jesus time were among them), but as I’ve mentioned, God is never in a hurry, and he will fulfill his covenant promises in his own good, and perfect, time. Such was the time for John the Baptist.

Because this also is such a familiar old story (as is Jesus birth in the previous chapter), it is easy to lose it’s explosive significance in that specific time in Israel’s history. In Galatians 4, Paul uses a wonderful phrase that captures God’s providential ordering of history to make this all happen:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law . . .

Historian Paul Maier wrote a wonderful book called In the Fullness of Time, where he shows how the historical circumstances of Jesus’ ministry were perfect for his message to thrive. The spread of the Greek language meant people from “every tribe and language” could understand it, and the Roman Empire’s roads and law meant that it could reach well beyond Palestine. God ordains all things to his redemptive-historical end, and now he is introducing Jesus.

He does this through Jesus’ cousin John, who has become known at “The Baptist.” The concept of baptism was well known at the time, coming from Israel’s history as a ritual cleansing. John is using it, however, in a completely different way, and as we see in the chapter the Sadducees and Pharisees don’t kike it one bit. There is a lot of speculation among the commentators as to what it exactly means because we’re never told. Matthew just says that John is preaching a baptism of repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Whatever this is, it is a radical break from Israel’s history of the worship of God. The people’s relationship to God was primarily mediated through the temple, and the administration of access to God by religious professionals and the sacrificial system. Then here comes John claiming that any old Jew can come to him, repent, feel remorse, turn from their sin, etc., and they based on that can have access to “the kingdom of heaven”? I don’t think so! But John was pointing to the one to come who would open access to the holy of holies to people from every tribe, and language, and nation.

Then Matthew tells us that John’s mission is a fulfillment of Isiah 40:3:

‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.'”

In ancient times, a king’s way was smoothed out by advance scouts so the road would be smoothed, and nothing hinder his journey. And John is telling us that repentance is a requirement of this coming kingdom, a turning away from sin (v.6, confession). Of course, being Reformed in my theological perspective, I don’t see this repentance as a requirement for the kingdom to come, but rather a reflection of it’s having already come! God is telling us through Matthew through John that this kingdom that is coming will be identified with repentance, for when you see true, genuine repentance you are seeing this kingdom coming. This last Old Testament prophet (clothes of camel’s hair, leather belt, and food of locusts and honey) will soon be introducing to the world the one who is coming to fulfill the Old while bringing in the New.

The Old Testament, we’ll remember, ended with the promised coming of the Prophet Elijah before “that great and dreadful day of the Lord.” There is no doubt Matthew is identifying John with Elijah, and John was such a big hit precisely because all the people were hoping this was true. But as we know, it was not precisely in the way they wanted. Luke tells us that John isn’t Elijah, but one who comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Something amazing is about to happen in history, and we get a front row seat!

 

Matthew 2 – God’s Unusual Providence After our Savior’s Birth

It is difficult to read such a familiar chapter as Matthew 2 with fresh eyes. This is one of the, if not the most well-worn passages of Scripture, and probably by far, this and the first part of Luke 2. Nonetheless, we can marvel at the oblique providence of God in the story that will bring the history of redemption to its appointed end. I use the word oblique in the sense of being indirect, or not obvious. We tend to think of God’s dealing with his people in the Bible as radically different than him dealing with us today, but if we look closely the Lord rarely did things ostentatiously, as we might hope he would. It would make believing in and trusting him so much easier. This lends credibility to the text because if was all made up human beings would make this so much easier.

In this chapter we see numerous examples. Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, and Magi or wise men come from the east having followed a star to find him. We’re told they are looking for “the one who has been born king of the Jews,” but not how they know this. This is kind of a funky way to let the people of Jerusalem know their Messiah is coming. Why would they even believe these heathens? For some reason they did because Matthew says when King Herod heard this, he was disturbed “and all Jerusalem with him.” This has to be hyperbole on Matthew’s part because it’s hard to believe that everyone in the city knew what was going on in the king’s palace. It’s more likely that the leadership of the city, those “chief priests and teachers of the law” that Herod calls together are the ones who are disturbed. It could be that their power is on the line, and they don’t like that one bit.

We learn that the Old Testament prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? One obvious reason is that it is the “City of David” where he was born, and Jesus is going to be the fulfillment of the Davidic Kingdom. David was also anointed by Samuel to be king in Bethlehem. Another reason is that the town’s name in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and Jesus will declare during his ministry that he is “the bread of life.” God doesn’t do coincidence, so we can count on this one. And finally Bethlehem is a small, insignificant town in Israel. God didn’t choose Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, or Rome, the capital of the greatest empire in the ancient world. No, God always chooses the lowly and small things, to bring to nothing the things that are. This is all so obviously un-obvious. My contention is always that if human beings made up the story, any story, they would not cloak it in clues.

So Herod tells the Magi to go off and find this baby so he may worship him too. Right. More on that in a second. When the Magi, following the star, find the child and his mother Mary at “the house” (it was a place attached to a house where the animals were kept), they worshiped him. You have to wonder what that scene was like. Was Jesus glowing or something? Or did he look like a regular baby? Maybe it didn’t matter because the whole experience of the Magi brought them to this place all because of this baby. This “king of the Jews” for some reason to them was worthy of worship. And they bring him gifts, as we know, of gold, incense, and myrrh, standard gifts to honor a king or deity, in this case both!

One last comment about Herod, one of the more dastardly figures in human history. He would, and did, kill even family members to maintain his power. So when the Magi leave and they don’t come back and tell him where the baby is, he orders all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two and under to be killed. Skeptics claim this must be made up because it isn’t recorded in any of the other gospels, or in any other historical account of this time period. First, this is perfectly in keeping with the vicious character of Herod. One could easily imagine him doing something like this. Second, Bethlehem was a dinky little village in the middle of nowhere. How many boys two and under could there have been? Twenty? Thirty? Who knows, but it wasn’t some earth shaking event pagan historians would have cared about. And the other gospel writers chose to focus on other events in Jesus life, but it’s a non sequitur to then say this didn’t happen.

The chapter ends with Joseph having another dream to escape this madman, and he takes his family to Egypt, as others in Israel did in their history. Then in yet another dream he’s told to go back home, and then one more dream to tell them to settle in Nazareth, another fulfillment of prophecy. That’s a lot of dreams! These must have been some kind of dreams for Joseph to trust every one of them. And couldn’t a real angel appear physically to Joseph? That would have been so much more obvious, but as I said above, God rarely does obvious. But everything he does by his sovereign power accomplishes what he intends. And our current and eternal salvation, and that of the world he created, is its ultimate end.

Matthew 1:18-25 – Jesus Conception and Birth: God with Us!

Now that Matthew has established the Messianic credibility of Jesus as the son of David and the son of Abraham for his Jewish readers, we get to the account of the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Right from the get go we learn that Jesus is the bastard child of a single woman. She wasn’t married! How could she be pregnant unless . . . Of course we know his father was God, but imagine a little town like Nazareth where everybody knew everybody’s business. Mary could protest that she was a virgin, but nobody, including Joseph, believed her. Virgins do not get pregnant. Was Joseph the father? Who knew! He obviously would have denied it. But if he wasn’t, then who? What a messy way to start this whole Messiah thing! But God seems to do most everything against expectation, and he never makes it easy. This is a great apologetics point. If human beings made all this up, don’t you think it would read more like a story humans would expect? Would they make God’s doings so strange and inscrutable to us? Probably not.

Matthew says “Mary was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” He seems very clear as he ends this chapter that that the baby who results is God himself. The Creator of the universe decided to become one of us, like us in every way but without sin; the last Adam as Paul calls him. On the one hand this is so mind-blowing because we see the infinite become finite in a zygote, embryo, fetus, and then a newborn going through his teenage mother’s birth canal, a fully formed baby like any other. The immortal God becoming a human susceptible to all the little humiliations of being mortal.

On the other hand, doesn’t this tell us something of the glory of what it means to be human? We tend to think of humanity in only one state: fallen. But man was not so created. He was created glorious, in his Creator’s very image. In Scripture it is said of man that he was made a little lower than the angels, and Jesus was born to fulfill in humanity what Adam never could. The risen Jesus, the mortal who became immortal is our human destiny.

Back to the story. Joseph was going to divorce Mary quietly because he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” Mary could have even been stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage, but Joseph would have none of that. Although in a small village you have to believe that people knew something wasn’t quite right, but we can only speculate if the neighbors questioned that the Joseph was Jesus’ father. But Joseph’s plans were changed dramatically in a dream, when the angel of the Lord appeared to him. He confirms to Joseph that the baby is indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit, then the angel says this:

21 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.”

The footnote tell us this about his name: “Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord saves.” We do not save ourselves! We can’t! This is a difficult verse for Arminians and Semi-Pelagians. They argue that Jesus came to make salvation possible for all people, and only actual for those who decide to accept the offer of salvation. But the angel clearly states he only came to save “his people.” I know God is just and can do no wrong, so I have no problem with Jesus coming to earth to save a specific group of people that were deemed “his” from before the creation of the world. This is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ prayer in John 17:

 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.

In grammar, “have given” is what is called the past perfect tense. This means that an action was completed (finished or “perfected”) at some point in the past before something else happened. “His people” are these people the father gave the son to save. There is nothing potential about it. He came to save! It isn’t a “give it the old college try” salvation. It was, this shall be done! And how great is that! We never have to wonder about the forgiveness of our sins or our eternal destiny. Our belief in Jesus, our trust in him, is confirmation that we are his!

Then Matthew tells us this birth is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, that the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son whose name will be “God with us” (Immanuel). We know from the rest of the New Testament, and the Old in its light, that this means God in the second person of the Trinity became a man. That is how he could be “God with us.” We are told throughout the Old Testament that God himself will be our salvation. Look through all the references to the word salvation in the Old Testament, and the birth of Jesus, God with us, will make total sense.