Matthew’s Gospel 1:18-25 would make a very short and simple Nativity play. No shepherds, no animals, no “wise men” until the next chapter, no glorious angelic host. Just one angel, Mary, Joseph and a baby boy.
Compared to the depictions of the Christmas story we often see, or even the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, this might seem like the “low-key” or “stripped back” version of Christmas. But at the beginning of his Gospel, in these 8 verses, the apostle Matthew recounts for us one of the most momentous events in human history – with only one or two other events ever being comparable to it.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matt 1:18-25, ESV).
While the virgin birth is an astonishing event of great importance to our faith and of great controversy in the modern world, it appears to me to be just one component in what is an amazing culmination of the themes of the Bible in the opening of Matthew’s gospel.
The two names associated with the child-born-of-the-virgin are mini-sermons in themselves, announcing the good news to humanity and revealing where all of human history and the biblical story have been leading up to that point. They also point forward and show us where everything in God’s plan is heading. Understanding these names is crucial for knowing who this child was, is and will be and for understanding what God is up to in our world.
An angel of the Lord charges Joseph with the incredible responsibility of naming the Saviour of the world in v. 21. “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
It’s one of the most famous names in world history and the Bible says it will only grow more renowned in the future. But why this name?
The answer is given in the verse. Because he will save His people from their sins. “Jesus” (from the Hebrew Yeshua) means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my/our salvation.”
This is the name that, as far as I can see, joins the Old and New Testaments perfectly and displays one of the grand themes of Christianity. “Jesus” tells us that Yahweh, Creator of the universe and the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is coming in human flesh to save His people from their sins.
The Old Testament teaches that Yahweh alone is Saviour (Isaiah 43:11). Jesus doesn’t come along and replace Yahweh as Rescuer of Israel and humanity. Jesus is Saviour precisely because He is Yahweh in human flesh. And so even though the Greek and English versions of the New Testament do not use the divine name but translate it as LORD (probably to reflect Jewish custom), every time Christians call upon, praise or pray in the name of Jesus – they are proclaiming the eternal truth that Yahweh alone is our salvation. Thus, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,”(Acts 4:12) because the eternal God was born into the world as a baby that first Christmas.
Grand theme: God glorified as a merciful, powerful & righteous Saviour
Have you ever wondered why God created the world? Or about why He allowed evil to occur, or spirits, men and women to rebel against Him? These are deep theological and philosophical questions and the most brilliant human or perhaps even angelic minds would fail to grasp the fullness of God’s reasons for His ancient plans, designs and decrees.
But there is something I’ve come to believe in relation to the story and emphasis of Scripture that goes part ways to explaining these questions (though I stress, only part!). It seems to me that although God reveals Himself as many things in Scripture, human history, divine miracles and His Son Jesus (eg; Creator, King, Judge), He seems to have a particular desire to be known by certain people in a special way: as Saviour, Deliverer and Redeemer.
While I think this is seen throughout the Scriptures (especially in the Exodus/Passover narrative, but repeatedly in varying degrees from Genesis through to the prophetic and post-exile literature in the later Old Testament), it is perhaps most clearly displayed in the New Testament’s picture of the return of Jesus. We are told that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11), but only some will rejoice in His coming as they witness the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).
In a similar vein, while God’s justice and wrath against sin is repeatedly emphasised throughout Scripture and is inescapable despite the current disdain for such a truth, He seems to be intent on being glorified specially for His mercy (without compromising His justness). While passages like Romans 9-11 generate significant debate on issues like predestination and the fate of ethnic Jews in God’s plan, there appears to be a clear thrust in verses like Romans 9:22-24 and 11:30-32 towards the idea that God is ordering human history mysteriously in a way that will best display His mercy to undeserving sinners (which I think goes part ways to explain why the humans He created were permitted to rebel against Him). Romans 15:9 seems to confirm this: the purpose of global mission is so that people from all nations in this fallen world come to glorify God for His mercy.
And so when we retell the story of the child born in Bethlehem, given the wondrous name of Jesus, we are proclaiming something God wants proclaimed from now into eternity. Yahweh, the glorious Saviour, is saving His people from their sins in/through/as Jesus Christ. And when we share the good news of Christmas with our neighbours, we are inviting the peoples of the world to join in glorifying God for His mercy.
Next time – Immanuel.
 Alkelda “Mini – Nativity Nov12” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
 Alkelda “Nativity Angel1Sept10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.