gospel justification Reformation

You can’t throw this baby out with the bathwater…(Matt 1:20&21)

This part of the birth story teaches us that this birth is no ordinary birth. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. What was he to do? Mary had been unfaithful—she had gotten pregnant by another man—or so he thought. While he had every right to divorce an unfaithful wife/fiancé, Joseph refused to trash her all over Facebook or seek revenge. Joseph decided to divorce her quietly, and for this decision, he was considered a just man. He was unwilling to put her to public shame (v.19). 

Now, why are we told this about Joseph? Probably, to demonstrate his integrity. If he didn’t lose his head in this situation (which many of us would have), then maybe we should take heed to the dream he has—that it is no furphy. So in v.20 we are told that as Joseph considered these things the angel of the Lord appeared to him. It’s what this angel said to him that screams to us that this child: firstly, was no ordinary child (v.20), and secondly, had no ordinary work (v.21).

Jesus was no ordinary child (v.20). 

‘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.’’ 

(Matthew 1:20 ESV) 

‘Joseph’ the angel is saying, ‘she hasn’t been unfaithful, take her as your wife because there is a bigger picture here you don’t understand—this child comes from no man but God.’ God had intervened and had placed a baby in Mary’s womb. This baby is of divine origin—implanted by Spirit of God—and as such, Joseph could not be the father of this child. Rather, this child would be God incarnate—God in the flesh.

Many ‘important’ babies have been born into our world, I can think of a couple. Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther (and their wives no less) but none of them had the same birth as Jesus. All of them had a human mother and a father—none of them were said to be ‘from the Holy Spirit’—divine.

The prophet Isaiah, writing 700 years before this event had written about a virgin who would conceive and bear a son named—Immanuel (Isaiah 7). In v.23 we are told that this name literally means ‘God with us’. This ancient promise—that God would be with His people—was given to the rebellious king of Judah who was facing the onslaught of both Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel—they had teamed up against Judah. But God, in His mercy, promised the king that He would be their protection—that He would be with them; and He gave to the king a sign. A sign was something that visualised and reminded them of the promise. The sign, in this case, would be that a virgin would conceive and before the child gets very old, both the enemy kings will be defeated—the child’s name was to be ‘Immanuel’.

So this is the great back story as to why it is significant that Jesus would also be called ‘Immanuel’. In Joseph and Mary’s time the people of God were facing a similar situation. The Romans had conquered Judea—but where was God? Would He intervene? What of his promise to be with his people? Mathew the author of this gospel wants us to make this connection that the greater and truer Immanuel has come—as predicted.

When God created Adam and Eve, God was with them—he literally walked with them in the Garden. But because of their sin and rebellion, they were cast out of His presence and no longer enjoyed being with God. But God did not ultimately discard the human race, rather, He was able to be with them—albeit with safety measures of a covering so that his holiness did not obliterate us in his presence. He met with the people of God by means of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem until such time as human sinfulness would be finally dealt with. Thus, it is no coincidence that when the gospel of John records the coming of Jesus, John writes that the Word, that is Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us. That word ‘dwelt’ is translated from the Greek word to pitch a tent, or to tabernacle! Thus, in Christ, God was with us—camped among us if you will—but no longer under the cover of goat skin (Tabernacle) nor bricks (Temple), but under the cover of human flesh. These coverings, along with the sacrificial system, temporarily protected the sinful people of God—until the ultimate covering for sinners could be provided: the blood of the Son of God. This leads us into the second point.

Jesus had no ordinary work (v.21). 

The angel continues, 

‘…She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 

(Matthew 1:21 ESV) 

Names are important to us. Traditionally, they were defined by what our families did (e.g., ‘Smith’), or we might get ‘nick-names’ as a result of something silly we have done. Names have also been given based on what our parents wanted us to do or be like (e.g., I once met a guy in Africa who was called Doctor because his parents wanted him to be a doctor!! But he became a pastor instead, so Rev. Doctor was his name.) Names once carried more meaning than they do today, they were given to define who we are or what we would do. With this in mind, V.21 tells us that Jesus was to be called Jesus for a reason. We have already heard that he fulfilled ‘Immanuel’ by who He was, now he would be named for what he would do. He will be called Jesus because as this name suggests (i.e. to save) he will save his people: God with us, to save us. 

But how was Jesus going to save us, and from what? The people of Israel were well versed in the sacrificial system. Spotless lambs (clean and healthy) were sacrificed on behalf of people and the nation—to atone for, or cover their sin. While Joseph and Mary did not know it yet, this baby was born to die on behalf of His people like the lamb was slaughtered. His cousin John (the Baptist) called him: ‘the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ 

The apostle Paul speaks of what was accomplished by Jesus’ death in Col. 1: 15-23

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Colossians 1:15-23

His person and work was to be extra-ordinary.

Thus, it was a bit of a mission creep to believe that Jesus would save His people from the Romans. No, His mission, and name, was to save His people from their sin—for that was the greatest existential threat that they faced. The consequences of a sinful heart are far worse than being conquered by the Romans. Yet, this is not too dissimilar from our situation today. Neither climate change, nor COVID, nor Communist China are our greatest existential threats—but the fact that ‘…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.’ (Hebrews 9:27 ESV) In other words, it is the question of how a sinner like me and you can stand before a just and Holy God. The curious reality is that at once—God Himself is our greatest existential threat, while at the same time He is our greatest existential saviour. In Christ, God has come to save us—from Himself, for Himself! 

The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and provided what God demanded: righteousness and redemption, something sinners like us cannot do for ourselves (even as hard as we try). The cross of Christ would be God’s final blow to our sin—the greatest check mate move the world has known, more strategic than D-Day and more powerful than the atomic bomb. Death was used to defeat death! The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, once wrote that in Christ, God: ‘killed death by death, punishment by punishment, sufferings by suffering, disgrace by disgrace…’ Or, to make it clearer God ‘killed [our] death by [Christ’s] death, [our] punishment by [Christ’s] punishment, [our] sufferings by [Christ’s] suffering, [our] disgrace by [Christ’s] disgrace…’ This truly was no ordinary child, tasked with no ordinary work—even the Roman soldier having crucified Jesus realised—at that moment—that Jesus truly was the Son of God—God in the flesh.

So what? You might say, look Padre, that’s a nice story how does it make any difference? Recognising that this child was no ordinary child with no ordinary work actually changes lives. About 1200 kms north of here—near the River Kwai, Earnst Gordon in his book The War to end all wars was a witness to how this Jesus changes lives—in the military and as a prisoner of war:  

One incident concerned an Aussie private who had been caught outside the [Prison] fence while trying to obtain medicine from the Thais for his sick friends. He was summarily tried and sentenced to death. On the morning set for his execution he marched cheerfully between his guards to the parade-ground. The Japanese were out in full force to observe the scene. The Aussie was permitted to have his commanding officer and a chaplain in attendance as witnesses. The party came to a halt. The CO and the chaplain were waved to one side, and the Aussie was left standing alone. Calmly, he surveyed his executioners. He knelt down and drew a small copy of the New Testament from a pocket of his ragged shorts. Unhurriedly, his lips moving but no sound coming from them, he read a passage to himself. What that passage was, no one will ever know. I cannot help wondering, however, if it were not those words addressed by Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room: Let not your heart be troubled; Ye believe in God, believe also in me. . . . Peace I leave unto you, My peace I give unto you: Not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled; Neither let it be afraid. He finished reading, returned his New Testament to his pocket, looked up, and saw the distressed face of his chaplain. He smiled, waved to him, and called out, ‘Cheer up, Padre, it isn’t as bad as all that. I’ll be all right.’ He nodded to his executioner as a sign that he was ready. He knelt down, and bent his head forward to expose his neck. The Samurai sword flashed in the sunlight. The examples set by such men shone like beacons.’

This Aussie soldier laid his life down for his mates because His saviour had done so for him. When one finds peace and forgiveness with God—through Christ, once can know peace and forgiveness in the midst of war. This child was no ordinary child. When you know who this baby is and what he did you cannot throw Him out with the bathwater. Lots of horrible things have been done in the name of Christ, many stupid and bizarre things taught too, but you need to look to this child for yourself, to go back to the source. By faith alone in Jesus, our sins are forgiven, we are freed from selfishness, we are declared righteous.  All because our creator God stepped toward his enemies (us) in love. He lived for us, died for us, was raised for us, and will come back for us. This is the true message of Christmas—it’s no wonder the angels rejoiced as they spread the good news of who Jesus was and what he would do: God with us, to save. 

P.S. If you think you have cooperated with God even in some small way for your salvation, you are still as lost as a whale in the desert.

P.P.S. If we are saved, it is because God did all the saving even though we did all the sinning.

P.P.P.S. We have a cross on the top of the Christmas tree at home to remind us of what Jesus came to do. Christmas without Easter is like a car without wheels. Christmas and Easter without the Reformation (i.e. the Protestant Gospel of Justification by faith alone) is like a car without wheels or an engine…We must regain a Christmas theology of the cross if we are to celebrate a genuine Christmas…

Gloria in excelsis Deo – Soli Deo Gloria!

By Nathan L Runham

A Presbyterian minister, husband, father, and perpetual student of the Bible and its theology.

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