During the Christmas period, I heard this verse from Matthew’s Gospel being read during the Carol services I attended.
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[a]
which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23, NLT
This is Matthew quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who is thought to have lived in Israel’s Southern Kingdom of Judah 700 years prior to Matthew. The original passage from Isaiah says this:
All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin[a] will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt[b] and honey. For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted. Isaiah 7:14-16, NLT
I wonder why Matthew took Isaiah’s ancient words…and understood them as pointing towards Jesus? Can we know for sure that this passage looks forward to the birth of Jesus as Matthew’s gospel affirms that it does?
Well – the historical setting of Isaiah’s original passage is an interesting one. Around 730 BC the Assyrian empire was expanding and threatening Israel. King Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom Judah faced the might of the Assyrian Army – and he didn’t know what to do.
The prophet Isaiah came to King Ahaz and prophesied that the Assyrian King, and eventually the conquered Northern Kingdom’s King, would not defeat him. Isaiah invited King Ahaz to ask God for a sign confirming this – but Ahaz refused.
In response – Isaiah declared that God himself would give King Ahaz a sign. A child would be born during Ahaz’s lifetime. A child that would still be living when the scary Kings of Assyria and Israel would finally be defeated.
So Isaiah is talking about a virgin conceiving a child. But in his day, that wasn’t the Mary we hear about in the Nativity. She wouldn’t be born for another 700 years. And the child that was conceived in Isaiah’s day wasn’t Jesus. Isaiah was originally referring to different people altogether. So the question is – why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s prophecy and say that it pointed toward the birth of Jesus?
Well here’s the thing that the New Testament writers discovered. Jesus Christ is the key to understanding God’s work in the past…and his plans to rescue the human race in the future. To understand the meaning of the Old, you need to view it thru the lenses of the New.
Actually we see this happening throughout the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, the first Christian preachers spoke about Israel’s history and how it reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. They quoted the Old Testament prophets and they pointed to Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of their words.
For David himself never ascended into heaven, yet he said ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit in the place of honour at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.”’ “So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” Acts 2:34-36, NLT
Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s work.
“For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” 2 Corinthians 1:20, NLT
So why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s prophecy to old King Ahaz when talking about the birth of Jesus? Yes – there was an immediate purpose behind Isaiah’s words that related to the onslaught of the Assyrian army. But God also held a bigger purpose back when Isaiah originally spoke those words to King Ahaz. The ultimate purpose of these words didn’t just benefit King Ahaz – but the whole human race. Over time, God was putting the pieces together that would finally lead to the birth of Jesus.
Here’s one final thought. Both Isaiah and Matthew make a point of naming that child as “God with us.” Now, fast forward now to the end of Matthew’s gospel. Do you know what the final words of Jesus are to his followers?
“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20, NLT
I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS. Jesus literally is – God with us. From start to finish.
As we all face a new year – how great would it be to have God in our corner? How great to start this year knowing that we have God’s resources and his encouragement each day. How can we know that God’s got our back in 2015? Thru Jesus – who wants to be God with you and me in 2015 and beyond!