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Christmas [2016]: Who is This Child? (Matthew 1:18-25)

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December 25, 2016

At some point in your life, you will have to wrestle with the question, “Is Christianity really true?” Perhaps you were raised in a Christian home and have never questioned the Christian faith, but at some point, you will. Maybe something you read raises serious questions that threaten Christianity. Or a college professor ridicules the faith as a bunch of ancient, unscientific myths. A friend tells you that he is an agnostic and gives many reasons why he doubts the Bible. The attacks leave your head spinning and you begin to wonder, “Could Christianity be just a bunch of legends?”

Or, perhaps you made a profession of faith in Christ and never have doubted your faith, but then you’re hit with difficult trials that shake your world. You pray, but God seems to be on vacation. You can’t make any sense of what is happening to you. Doubts start creeping in, slowly undermining your trust in God and His promises. The enemy tempts you with the thought, “You’re just believing a fairy tale!”

Or, maybe you’re reading the Bible and you come across verses that seem to endorse slavery. You read how God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, including women and children. Or you read one verse that seems to contradict another verse. You come to difficult doctrines, such as the eternal punishment of unbelievers or God’s predestining some, but not all, to eternal life. Difficult issues like this cause you to question the truthfulness of the Bible.

What should you do at such times? When I’m there, I come back to the most crucial question that every person needs to answer correctly. This question is far more important than the questions of what career you should pursue, where you should live, or whom you should marry. It’s the question that Jesus asked His disciples. He began with the safer question (Matt. 16:13), “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered (Matt. 16:14), “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Then Jesus asked the crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the profound answer (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer (Matt. 16:17), “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”

But, a short time later, Peter’s faith in Jesus was shaken when Jesus told the twelve that He would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders and be killed and raised up on the third day. Horrified, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing (Matt. 16:21-22)! But Jesus sharply rebuked Peter (Matt. 16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” At that point, Peter either could have walked away from following Jesus or he had to fall back on his earlier confession about who Jesus really is.

A similar thing happened on another occasion. Jesus taught some things that were repugnant to Jewish sensibilities: they must eat His flesh and drink His blood if they wanted to have eternal life. He also taught them that no one could come to Him unless it had been granted to him from the Father (John 6:44, 53-57, 65). These were hard teachings. Then we read (John 6:66-67), “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’” Again, Peter answered, coming back to the crucial question of Jesus’ identity (John 6:68-69): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” Peter was not oblivious to the difficulty of Jesus’ teachings, but he was sustained by his certainty about who Jesus is.

The four Gospels don’t leave us in the dark on this crucial question of who Jesus is. Repeatedly they show us how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, raised the dead, and calmed the stormy sea with a word. Matthew opens his Gospel by tracing the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham through David to show that Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham who would bless the nations. He is the Son of David who would rule on his throne forever. Then in the birth narrative, Matthew reveals further who this unique child is:

Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Savior of sinners, no less than God with us.

1. Jesus, born of Mary while she was still a virgin, is fully God and fully man.

Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” To understand the situation, you have to realize that the Jewish betrothal system was more than our engagement. Parents usually arranged marriages and secured them with a formal contract. After this, the couple would be referred to as husband and wife, although they did not live together or consummate the marriage until after a yearlong waiting period, during which the purity of the bride was to be demonstrated. If she was found to be with child during that period, it was obvious that she was not pure and had been unfaithful. Thus the marriage could be annulled (this paragraph relies on Louis Barbieri, Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, p. 20).

So when it was revealed that Mary was pregnant during this waiting period, Joseph, assuming that she had been unfaithful, planned to send her away quietly, not wanting to disgrace her. No doubt he was deeply wounded to think that the young woman he loved would do such a thing. But then an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, revealing that the child Mary was carrying had been conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:23): “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” This is the first of at least 40 citations in Matthew from the Old Testament which show that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew [Baker], pp. 80-82).

Right away, the reader of Matthew’s Gospel is confronted with a crisis of faith: Should I believe that Jesus was miraculously conceived in the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit without a human father, or is this just an ancient myth that grew up around an illegitimate birth? Liberal scholars, who assume that miracles are mere fables passed down from a time when people were superstitious and scientifically ignorant, are quick to point out that there were numerous “virgin birth legends” floating around the ancient world. These were not strictly parallel, in that they all were stories of a god having relations with a woman, resulting in a half-god, half-human creature, which is not the case here. But nonetheless, liberals argue that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth fits into this mythical genre.

But the Bible records not just one, but two separate accounts of the virgin birth. Luke, who claims to have investigated carefully the events recorded in his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and probably learned of the story of Jesus’ birth directly from Mary, records how an angel told her that she would conceive a son and name Him Jesus. When Mary asked how this could be since she was a virgin, the angel replied (Luke 1:35), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

So, you have a choice: Do you believe the testimony of these two writers, both of whom lived at the time and who both got their information from reliable sources? Or, do you doubt the testimony because of an a priori bias against the possibility of miracles? As far back as 1970, Christianity Today (Sept. 11) published a survey that revealed that 60 percent of Methodists, 49 percent of Presbyterians, 44 percent of Episcopalians, 34 percent of American Baptists, and 19 percent of American Lutherans, deny the virgin birth. I assume those numbers have not improved over time! Perhaps you wonder, “Is it important to believe in the virgin birth?” Yes, here’s why:

A. Believing the virgin birth is essential to affirm Jesus’ deity.

If Jesus Christ is the son of a human father and a human mother through natural biological processes, then He is not God in human flesh. He might, under those circumstances, be a man indwelt by God or a man upon whom God’s Spirit rested. But He would only have been a man. His existence would have begun at conception. He could not be the eternal God in human flesh.

But the Scriptures repeatedly affirm the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. John 1:1, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Hebrews 1:8: “But of the Son, He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom.’” Jesus Himself told the Jews (John 8:58), “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” When Thomas saw the risen Lord Jesus and cried out, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus didn’t rebuke him for blasphemy, but rather He accepted and commended such worship (John 20:28, 29). In Revelation 1:8, the Lord God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In Revelation 22:13, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Or, as Matthew (1:23) adds, this child is, “God with us.”

No natural union of a human husband and wife ever could bring God into this world. The means God used to take on human flesh was the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. To affirm the full deity of Jesus Christ you must affirm His supernatural virgin birth. If Jesus is not fully God, then He could not be our Savior. As Bishop Moule stated (preface to Robert Anderson, The Lord from Heaven), “A Saviour not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”

B. Believing the virgin birth is essential to affirm Jesus’ sinless humanity.

Just as the Scriptures teach the full deity of Jesus Christ, so they clearly teach His full humanity. He was not a hybrid God-man, half of each. He is undiminished deity and perfect humanity united in one person forever. But if Jesus was born of natural parents, then He was born a sinner like all other human beings, and He Himself would have needed a Savior. If He had sin of His own, He could not have died as the perfect substitute for others. The Scriptures clearly teach that the whole human race, from Adam onward, is born under the curse of sin (see Romans 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3). To redeem that race from sin, Christ had to be identified with us in our humanity, but be sinless Himself.

Jesus had to have at least one human parent or He would not have shared our humanity. But through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, Jesus was able to be born as fully human and yet as sinless. As we saw, the angel told Mary that because the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, “for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Mary herself was not immaculately conceived. In Luke 1:47 Mary refers to, “God my Savior.” You don’t need a Savior unless you’re a sinner. Some theologians have speculated that the sinful nature is communicated through the male, but we cannot be certain about that. The earliest prediction of a Savior (Genesis 3:15) mentions Him as the seed of the woman, not of man (see Gal. 4:4, 5). What we can say for certain is what the angel asserted: because Mary would conceive miraculously through the Holy Spirit, her offspring would be the holy Son of God. The virgin birth is necessary to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ.

This isn’t just interesting but useless theology. Because Jesus is the eternal God in human flesh, we can come to Him with all of our needs, knowing that He is able to come to our aid. We know that He knows all of our inner struggles and secrets, and yet He loves us and wants a personal relationship with us (John 21:15-19). And, because He is fully human, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. He is a merciful and compassionate high priest who invites us to bring our every need to Him (Heb. 4:14-16). So in answer to the crucial question, “Who is this child?” we must affirm, “Through the virgin birth, He is fully God and fully man.”

2. Jesus is the Savior of His people from their sins.

Christmas isn’t just a story to make us feel warm and cozy about family, friends, and peace on earth. At the heart of the Christmas story is the truth that the human race is alienated from the holy God because of our sin. Thus the angel told Joseph (Matt. 1:21), “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus means, “Yahweh saves.” Salvation is a radical word. People who can help themselves may need a little help or support now and then, but they don’t need saving. People who are basically good, but just need some moral improvement, may benefit from a few helpful hints, but they don’t need saving. But sinners, who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), at enmity with the Holy God and under His righteous wrath because of their sins (John 3:36), need saving!

The greatest news in the world is that which the angels announced to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” All the people includes the worst of sinners, as the apostle Paul spoke of his own past in persecuting the church (1 Tim. 1:15), “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” Best of all, all the people includes you!

The only way that Jesus could save us from our sins was to live the sinless life which God demands and then to offer Himself as the perfect substitute to pay the penalty that we deserved. If God forgave all sins without the penalty being paid, He would not be a just judge. He would not be holy. Through the birth, sinless life, and substitutionary death of His eternal Son Jesus, God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). As Paul explained (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Perfect righteousness, full forgiveness, and eternal life is offered as a free gift to every sinner who trusts in Jesus! As Paul exclaimed (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (See also, John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9.)

Suppose you get sick and go to the doctor. He examines you and determines that you have a serious illness. He prescribes a drug that has been proven to cure your illness. You go home and research the drug and read testimonials from people who have taken the drug and have been cured. But that knowledge, even though proven to be true, will not do you a bit of good unless you personally take the medicine.

In the same way, it’s not enough to answer correctly the crucial question, “Who is this child?” He is the One miraculously born of the virgin Mary, fully God and fully man. He was also born to save His people from their sins. Thousands of people can testify that Jesus has saved them from their sins. But knowing these truths or hearing these testimonies is not enough. You must respond by personally trusting in Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Lord. Have you done that? Take the medicine God prescribes while you can!

Jesus is God in human flesh. He came to save us from our sins. But, Matthew also wants us to know that…

3. Jesus is God with us.

As we’ve seen, Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” Jesus is none other than the living God with us! If you have trusted in Him, Jesus promised that you dwell in Him and He dwells in you (John 14:20, 23; 15:1-5; 17:20-23). Just as Matthew begins with this promise that Jesus is God with us, so he ends with Jesus’ promise (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” After commanding us to be free from the love of money, Hebrews 13:5 assures us, “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” Jesus—God in human flesh—is always with us who have trusted in Him!

One of the best books that I read this year was Ryan Lister’s The Presence of God [Crossway]. He develops this significant biblical truth (p. 24): “the presence of God is a fundamental objective in our redemption and, simultaneously, the means by which God completes this objective.” Dr. Lister shows that throughout the storyline of the Bible (p. 25), “God is working to establish a people and a place for his presence.” God was with Adam and Eve in the garden, but their fellowship with Him was broken because of their sin. But through His covenant promises culminating in Jesus’ taking on human flesh to dwell with us; and through His death, resurrection, and second coming; at the end of the Bible we read (Rev. 21:3), “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them ….’” The new heavens and new earth will be God’s dwelling with us and our dwelling with Him throughout eternity!

But the message that God dwells with us in the person of His Son, who came to offer Himself on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, is only good news if you have received the Lord Jesus as the One who bore your sin (John 1:12). Robert Reymond (The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 550) points out that since God is infinitely holy and we are all sinners deserving His wrath, we “could hardly blame God had he sent His Son as ‘God against us’ or ‘God opposed to us.’ When, however, he reveals His Son as ‘God with us,’ the messianic task, full of grace and the promise of salvation, is suggested.” If you have welcomed Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then God is not against you, but for you (Rom. 8:31)!

Conclusion

At this time every year, people wander through stores looking for the right gifts as the sound systems play Charles Wesley’s, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” with its verse, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.” But they miss that profound truth of who Jesus is while they go on shopping! Don’t miss it yourself: Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Savior of sinners, no less than God with us! Put your trust in Him and you will have an anchor for your soul whenever the storms of doubt or trials assault you.

Application Questions

  1. Can a person knowingly deny the virgin birth of Jesus or His full deity or perfect humanity and still be a born again Christian? Why/why not?
  2. Some who claim to be evangelical Christians say that the Bible has errors, but that it is infallible on matters of faith and practice. Why is this view dangerous? How would you refute it?
  3. How would you witness to a person who says, “I don’t believe in miracles; show me a miracle and I will believe”?
  4. As believers, we all know that God promises to dwell with us. But how can we experience His presence more consistently?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas