A Virgin With Child
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Isaiah chapter 7. Over the next four weeks, on each of the Lord's Days in December, and on one of the Wednesday evenings, Derek and I are going to be working through these texts of the various recitatives and choruses of Handel's Messiah, exploring this testimony to the person and work of Jesus Christ from these important Bible passages. And we start very appropriately today with Isaiah 7:14 and this proclamation of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
Now as many of you no doubt know, for at least 200 years now the virgin birth has been under the assault of the skeptics and the critics. One of our early presidents of the United States, who was himself enamored of the morality of Christianity but who didn't like the miracles of Christianity, Thomas Jefferson, once said that there would “come a day when the virgin birth of Jesus Christ would be classed in that same group of myths as the conception of Minerva in the mind of Jupiter.” And so for Jefferson and many skeptical minds, the virgin birth is just yet another one of those fairytale stories that people had dreamed up. And unfortunately some very serious liberal scholars of the New Testament have taken exactly that kind of attack. They want to be Christian; they want to be thought of as Christian in their approach to life; and yet they want to deny a central doctrine like the virgin birth of Christ. And they would argue, “Look, this teaching about the virgin birth is simply like one of the various divine man myths that were floating in Greek culture about the time of the beginnings of early Christianity, and no doubt the early Christians borrowed some of those ideas that were current in Greek thought, and they simply adapted them for their own purposes to express the uniqueness of the way God had visited us in Jesus Christ.”
Now in response to that, I want to say that the only way that you could possibly think that is to totally miss the context in which Matthew gives you the quote about Jesus being born of a virgin and to totally miss the historical rootage of that particular truth. And so all I'd like to do today is take you right back to Isaiah 7 where you can see where this prophecy was first uttered, it's context, and then the central way in which it summarized the hope of Israel; so that you will appreciate when these words were revisited in Matthew chapter 1 and the ears of Jewish people in the 1st century expectant for the coming of the divine Messiah. It would have made perfect sense for them, far from being some sort of alien idea imported into Christianity from Greek roots. In fact, the virgin birth has profoundly Jewish roots and explains a very important truth about Jesus in His person and work. So let me ask you to turn with me to Isaiah 7:14. And before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing on it. Let's pray.
Our Heavenly Father, Your word is truth and we acknowledge that this word which is truth is a word which You have meant for Your people, that we might understand You, that we might understand Your will and Your ways Your purposes and Your salvation. We ask by Your Holy Spirit that we would indeed understand and embrace Your truth this day, give You all the praise, and live in faithfulness to it. By Your grace we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
Think of it, friends. This part of the Christmas story, which is celebrated in virtually every Christmas carol that we sing and hear sung, that was celebrated in the air sung by the alto this morning, this story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ has its beginning with a military invasion. Now that's the context of Isaiah 7: there's been a military invasion by the Northern Kingdom and a northern ally into Judah the Southern Kingdom. And it's in this context, the context of a military invasion, that the promise and the prophecy, “Behold a virgin will conceive,” is given. Remember that the next time you hear the contralto sing, “Behold a virgin shall conceive,” and the next time you hear the chorus of the Messiah sing, “O thou that tell us good tidings to Zion.” What I want to do this morning is I want to root this prophecy and promise in the context of Isaiah 7 and then show its flowering in Matthew chapter 1 verses 18 through 25.
I. Isaiah's message is faith in God: He's saying trust in God and in His promises and not in man and his devices.
Let's begin with Isaiah 7. Keep your Bibles open and look especially at verse 1. Isaiah's message to Israel and to Ahaz is to trust in God, to continue to believe that salvation is of God, that God will preserve His people, that God will not fail in His promise to David, that there would be one of His own heirs on the throne in Jerusalem forever. And Isaiah wants Jerusalem and Judah to do this in spite of enormous external pressures.
In the case of Isaiah chapter 7, there has been an invasion from the Northern Kingdom, which is variously called in Isaiah…it will be called sometimes of course “Israel.” In other times it will be referred to as “Ephraim.” In other times it will be referred to as “Jacob.” But Isaiah constantly speaks of the Northern Kingdom in its aggressive posture against the Southern Kingdom. You remember that since the time just after Solomon's reign, the northern and the southern kingdoms of Israel had been split into two independent kingdoms. I often remind people that the Southern Kingdom was the righteous kingdom. But that's another story for another day. But whereas the heir of David ruled in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom, there were several different dynasties that ruled in the Northern Kingdom. And, of course, Israel and Judah were not usually on very happy terms with one another.
There were occasional alliances made but when those alliances were made, the prophets in Judah reminded the kings in Judah that God had told them not to make alliances, not only with the Northern Kingdom because they had gone after the Baals, but with the other nations around them because they worshipped these false gods. And making those kinds of alliances did two things: it rendered the people of God vulnerable to idolatry and false belief, and it also rendered the people of God liable to trust in themselves and in their military alliances instead of in God.
And so Isaiah chapter 7, verse 1 opens with just this kind of challenge. “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Aram and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.” Now Isaiah doesn't tell you, but the reason they did this was because the Assyrians were the great power in the world and Assyrians had their eye on Palestine. And so Aram and Israel decided that they would get together and with Judah form a Pan-Palestinian defense pact. The three nations would get together and agree to support one another in a fight against Assyria as Assyria invaded the region. And so Pekah the king of Israel and Rezin the king of Aram made this defense pact and offered to enter into it with Ahaz. And Ahaz said “No.” And so since Ahaz said “No” they said, ‘Well, we’ll just invade Judah. And we’ll conquer it, and we’ll set up our own king over it, and then we’ll have a tri-lateral defense pact for the defense of Palestine against Assyria.’ But the plan fails. They invaded; they were successful in some ways, but they were unable to capture Jerusalem. And it's in that context that the whole story of Isaiah 7 unfolds.
In verse 2, the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, find out that once again the Northern Kingdom and Aram are going to invade. It is reported to the house of David saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, and his heart and the hearts of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.” And so the children of Judah are worried about yet another invasion from the Northern Kingdom and its Northern ally, and they are fearful of what may happen. And it's in precisely that context that God sends His word by the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz. The Lord says, ‘Isaiah, take your boy and go see the king. He's at the pool, the aqueduct near the upper pool.’ And so we read in verse three, “The Lord says to Isaiah, ‘Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller's field.’”
Now, why in the world was Ahaz at this upper pool? Well, this upper pool provided the water for Jerusalem and he was attempting, apparently, to prepare it for the siege which he was expecting. No doubt the northern neighbors would come and lay siege to Jerusalem; Jerusalem needed a water supply if that was going to happen and so he was preparing for war. And out comes the preacher, the prophet, to interrupt him and give him a message from the Lord, but tagging along with Isaiah is his boy. And his boys name is “The Remnant Will Return,” Shear-jashub. And so his very name indicates that Isaiah is convinced because of what the Lord has revealed to him: that there will be destruction in the Southern Kingdom but that God will preserve a remnant. That would have been an interesting name for Ahaz to be thinking about as he was introduced to him there by the upper pool.
At any rate, in verse 4, Isaiah delivers his message from God to Ahaz, “Take care, be calm, have no fear, do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands, on account of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah.” Now this is actually a very humorous passage because Isaiah has already named the two kings, Rezin of Aram and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel. But here he says it this way, ‘Don't be afraid of the anger of Rezin and of–oh, what's his name?–you know, the son of Remaliah.’ It's as if he can't even remember the guy's name. ‘We gotta watch out for ole’ what's his name. He's a real terror.’ He's making fun of this king, this would-be king, this king who descends from Remaliah as opposed to David. Over and over in this passage Isaiah reminds Ahaz, ‘Whose son are you? You’re David's son! Whose son are they? The son of Remaliah? Who is he?’ It's like saying, ‘Well, those quarterbacks are descended from Joe Blow and John Doe. Who are you descended from? Archie Manning? Who are they?’ The point is, ‘Ahaz, you have a promise in your family, given from God, that God will preserve his people and God will keep His man on the throne. Trust God to be faithful to His promise. Who do you come from? You come from David who was given this glorious covenant promise from God. Who are these? I've never heard of Rezin. I've never heard of the son of Remaliah. What great pedigree do they have?’ And so throughout this passage, Isaiah presses Ahaz to believe the promise of God given in His word to David.
And yet Ahaz refuses to do so. Why? Because he's scared of the threat of the Northern Kingdom and their ally. And so what is Ahaz contemplating doing? He is contemplating entering into an alliance with Assyria over against the Northern Kingdom and its ally. And Isaiah says this, if you look at verses 4 through 6, “Because Aram, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, have planned evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrorize it and make for ourselves a breach in its wall and set up the Son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,’ thus says the Lord God, ‘It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass.’” In other words, this plan is not going to work. Isaiah is reminding Ahaz that his real threat is not the Northern Kingdom and it's not its neighbor.
The real threat, humanly speaking, is Assyria far more than them; but the real threat, of course, is that he won't trust God and he will try and trust in his own military alliances or his own political skills. He’ll trust in his own works instead of by faith trusting in the promise of God: the promise of God to preserve His people, the promise of God to preserve a remnant, the promise of God to keep David's son on the throne of Judah. And so Isaiah says, ‘It's not going to come to pass, Ahaz. These two neighbors, near neighbors, are not going to overthrow you.’ But he does go on and say this, look at the end of verse 9, “If you will not believe, Ahaz, you surely will not last.” In other words, ‘Ahaz, if you don't believe the word of the Lord, that He will be faithful to keep His man on the throne without entering into un-godly alliances, then you’re not going to last.’
And sure enough, my friends, Ahaz was the last free king of Judah. The rest of the kings of Judah were puppet monarchs set up by invading and occupying nations, beginning with Assyria going all the way to Rome. For almost half a millennium, though there would be leaders in Jerusalem and though there would be a strong Jewish presence there, yet Israel would be occupied by foreign ungodly rulers. The leadership of Israel, the leadership of Judah would be taken away from David's line, and it begins with Ahaz because Ahaz would not believe.
Now God in His graciousness, in His mercy, is willing to give Ahaz a sign in order to buttress his weak faith. You see, Ahaz can't believe that God will preserve His people against these external threats and so God graciously says, and you can see it in verses 10 and 11, He says, ‘Isaiah, go to Ahaz and offer him as wondrous and miraculous a sign as he wants. Tell him it can be as deep as sheol or as high as heaven. I will give him that sign.’
And Ahaz gives a very interesting response. Look at verse 12, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Now that could sound spiritual, that could sound pious. It could sound like Ahaz had been reading James 1 and is saying, ‘Um, oh, I wouldn't dare tempt the Lord. I wouldn't dare put the Lord to he test.’ But don't read Ahaz that way. He's not being spiritual; he's not being pious–he's being obstinate. He's doesn't want to hear Isaiah's message because he wants to go through with his political alliance with Assyria. He doesn't want to do what God has said. He doesn't want to believe God's word, and so he doesn't care whether God gives him a sign about the proof of His word. And so you know what God does? God says, ‘Ahaz, I'm going to give a sign anyway. And the sign for you is going to be a sign of judgment, but the same sign that's a sign of judgment for you is going to be sign of enduring hope for my people. And it's going to be important that they have that hope because they’re going to have wait 500 years for its fulfillment because of your wickedness Ahaz.’ And so he says, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Immanuel.” In verses 15 and 16, Isaiah makes it clear that within three years the threat of the Northern Kingdom and its ally Aram will have evaporated. But in verse 17 he also makes it clear that within a short amount of time Assyria will have invaded and destroyed Ahaz and Judah because Ahaz refused to believe God.
You see, this is all about trusting God's word. The whole of Isaiah 7 is about trusting God's word. But there, right smack-dab in the middle of it is this glorious prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear a son and he would be called Immanuel. What does that mean? Well, it means simply this: God is saying, “Ahaz, let Me tell you that I will fulfill My promise to David from 2nd Samuel 7, to set his son on the throne in Jerusalem, even if I have to raise up a descendent of David who is conceived by a virgin to put him on the throne. I will raise up the son of David and he will reign on the throne of his fathers.”
Now, my friends, can you imagine this passage being read? Can you imagine Matthew preaching for the first time? Maybe it's somewhere within ten or so years after the death and resurrection and ascension of Christ, and maybe Matthew is somewhere in the precincts of Jerusalem and in his home there is huddled a group of 20 or 25 Jewish people. Some of them are Christians; some of them are Jewish people who are open to hearing about the Christian gospel; and Matthew begins to speak to them.
II. Matthew teaches that the Virgin birth reveals the divinity and saviorhood of Jesus Christ.
Turn with me to Matthew chapter 1. And can you imagine how they would respond? Here they are in Jerusalem. The Romans are occupying them as the Babylonians and the Assyrians had previously. There is no son of David on the throne in Jerusalem and Matthew says, ‘I want to tell you about a little baby who was born in Bethlehem just a little over 35 years ago.’ And he begins to tell them this in verse 18.
Matthew 1:18-23: “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. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a son; and you will call His name Jesus, for it is he who will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall cal his name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”
Can you imagine the reaction of that huddled group of Jewish and Jewish-Christian people as Matthew says, ‘Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that promise that God gave through Isaiah to Ahaz and to all the people of Judah, that God would raise up a Son, that He would be conceived by a virgin, and that He would again sit on the throne of His father David; but not only that–His name would be Immanuel.’ And then Matthew adds by saying, ‘And by the way, that translated, friends, is God with us.’ In other words this Jesus who is the Messiah, who is the Son of David…and notice that Matthew points out that Joseph himself is a descendant of David even as Mary is through her genealogy. But Matthew is at pains to point out that this is not only the Messiah who was predicted in Isaiah 7:14; this is the Messiah that was predicted in Isaiah 9:6. Now, we’ll study that passage tonight. But that Messiah is One who was called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God.” Wonderful is the closest word in Hebrew to the word miracle. This counselor is miraculous and He's mighty God. He's God the warrior. He is God in the flesh. He is God with us. And so this is Matthew's way of saying that the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ who is God in the flesh.
Now, my friends, this is no borrowing from Greek mythology. You see, this hope for the virgin birth is rooted in over 600 years of explicit prophet, Jewish testimony. The Jewish people gathered there that day to hear Matthew say it for the first time. Just as generation after generations of us have joy when we heard Matthew read to us the first time, they would have been blown away at how God had fulfilled something that he had been saying would come true for more than 600 years. This is no mythology. This is no fairy tale. This is no wishful thinking. This is hard core prophetic fulfillment rooted in the history of Israel: God bringing to pass His promises.
III. The application to us.
Now what's the message for us? Well, the message for us, just like the message for Ahaz, is to trust in God in His promises. What does Matthew say that this Son is brought in the world to do? He's brought into the world to forgive His peoples’ sins. And so instead of me, through my own machinations, attempting to get right with God; instead of me through my own good-works and through my own alliances attempting to deal with my sin, instead I trust God, I trust Christ, I put my hope in this One who is God with us, who is “the Son of God,” Luke says in Luke 1:35, the parallel passage. He's the Son of God! I put my hope in Him as He is offered in the gospel. I turn my back on my good works. I turn my back on my merit. I turn my back on my deserving. It's not about my deserving. It's about the fact that he is the Son of God in the flesh come to forgive my sins, and I trust Him. And when I trust Him, I find that in trusting this One–the Son of David, the Messiah, God in the flesh–that all the promises of Abraham come to me. That's exactly Matthew's message. ‘Put your trust in this little babe, the One born of a virgin, and God will save you. But just as Isaiah said to Ahaz, if you will not trust Him, you will be destroyed.’ May God grant us the grace to trust. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, grant us the grace of faith; grant that we would believe, that we would believe in Jesus Christ: the incarnate Son of God, the son of David, the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, the One born of the virgin, the One born to sit on His father David's throne, not just for a long while, but forever. Grant that we would believe in Him to the saving of our souls. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Amen.
Singing… Joy to the world…