It’s already December 27th and 2019 rushes towards a close. Maybe you’re also one of the many who attended church at Christmas and heard the Scriptures read, perhaps even from Matthew’s Gospel. They’re familiar words and we can often pass over them without too much sustained thought.
In the run-up to Christmas, the season of Advent, my home church (St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta) made the choice to slow down a little and take the scenic route through Matthew’s infancy narratives. For 4 weeks we concentrated on one word, “fulfilled”. Matthew uses this one word on a number of occasions to slow the reader down and draw them in to a deeper understanding of what the arrival of Jesus is all about. He regularly stops and tells us that what we’ve just heard about has “fulfilled” something from deep in the Old Testament. So over Advent we decided to explore this theme a little more deeply. On Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and this coming Sunday we’ve preached the infancy narratives themselves. But in the lead-in to this great feast we opened up the passages that Matthew points us back to. And we’ve discovered that the Evangelist has served up even more for us. He shows us that Jesus brings with him the end of the Exile.
A Virgin Birth?
The first “fulfilment” text comes at the end of chapter 1.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).Matthew 1:18–23 NIV11
Matthew throws us back to Isaiah 7 and the terrifying days of the Assyrian invasion. Ahaz is king and we find him at the end of the aqueduct, perhaps inspecting the infrastructure in the light of an imminent siege. Isaiah comes out to meet him and urges the King to renew his confidence in the LORD to save his people, despite the apparent threat (Isa. 7:7-9). More than this, Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign, any sign, to confirm his faith but Ahaz refuses (Isa. 7:10-12). The King’s apparently pious words, “I will not put the LORD to the test” are anything but. God provides a means of grace and Ahaz will not have it.
So he gets a sign, but a sign of God’s own choosing:
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”Isaiah 7:13–17 NIV11
Of course, the great conundrum of Isaiah is that we never get to see the actual child. Not that we would want to – before he’s even a toddler the rulers of both the northern kingdom of Israel and Rezin of Syria (“the two kings you dread”) will be swept away by an Assyrian army who will carry on all the way to Jerusalem. Debate also circles around whether the woman in question is a virgin or simply a “young woman”. Maybe he is the son that Isaiah has very soon thereafter (Isa. 8:3). Or it could be that he is simply a idea, a concept; God is simply saying that the Assyrians will arrive in a few short years (and what better way to make that point than by directing us to consider a young child’s lifespan)?
Either way, there is the clear promise that God will come to his people (Immanuel = “God with us”) but he will come in fierce judgement that will end up with the people in Exile. “God with us” will lead to “away from God”.
So where is the virgin?
There is another virgin in Isaiah and she is far more easily identifiable. The true virgin of Isaiah is Jerusalem herself. Just consider the way that God repeatedly refers to the city and/or it’s people…
Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege.
See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers!Isaiah 1:8,21 NIV11
Once virginal Jerusalem is now very different. She has whored herself out to all manner of sin and vice. A little later it gets expressed in similar terms:
The LORD says, “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.Isaiah 3:16 NIV11
She is desperately in need of restoration. Again, this is expressed in terms of the return of honour:
In that day (the day of judgement) seven women will take hold of one man and say, “We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!”Isaiah 4:1 NIV11
And, of course, only God can do this.
In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem. The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.Isaiah 4:2-4 NIV11
It’s a wonderful promise. Washing away the filth. It’s a symbolic return to virginity for this disgraced city.
And the newly-made virgin will also have a child. That’s how the whole book wraps up as we get a wonderful picture of renewal and restoration:
“Before she goes into labor, she gives birth; before the pains come upon her, she delivers a son. Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.Isaiah 66:7-8 NIV11
She may be a virgin giving birth, but in the picture language of Isaiah there is also space for a father. Consider the following as we see the same language being used elsewhere:
“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD.Isaiah 54:1 NIV11
This promise of miraculous children comes rapidly after the following:
Yet it was the LORD’S will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.Isaiah 53:10 NIV11
It’s the last and most famous of the Servant Songs. It tells of the great saving work of the Servant who we know without a doubt is Jesus. In his penal substitutionary death he saves a people for himself; “his offspring”. And then as the song closes we immediately get the promise to the barren woman (Zion/Jerusalem) that she will have children.
As we turn to Matthew we begin to see that he has a far grander fulfilment in mind than that of a simple promise of a virgin conception.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).Matthew 1:22-23 NIV11
This time God will come to his people not in judgement upon their sins but to save them from their sins. It is the true end of the Exile.
The virgin birth that Matthew wants us to see is not simply that of Jesus (although he is unambiguously clear in his claim to that effect, using the greek term παρθένος so there can be no confusion).
As he cites Isaiah 7 he is urging us to recognise that the birth of Jesus is the fulfilment of the entire hope of Isaiah; the restoration of Zion’s virginal purity, the miraculous birth of a new nation saved by the penal substitutionary death of the Servant and the eternal presence of “God with us” among his people. They are overlapping concepts that combine to speak powerfully of what Jesus has come to do.
The Christmas may you know the joy of Jesus’ fulfilment of God’s promises.
image: The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (NGA)