Sermon Notes: Joy to the World
The doctrine of the virgin birth does not so much show us Mary’s absence of a relationship to a man—although it does do that. This doctrine centrally points to her Son’s relationship to God. Jesus was born the normal way, but He was not conceived the normal way. This tells us something of His identity as the holy Son of the Most High God.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).
Summary of the Text
The text before us has a double meaning. King Ahaz, despite his resistance to it, was being given a word of reassurance by the prophet Isaiah. He was worried about an alliance between the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah tries to reassure him, and tells him that he can ask for any sign he pleases (vv. 10-11). Ahaz refuses to do so in a display of faux humility (v. 12), and so Isaiah gives him a unilateral, unasked-for sign.
The rising power of Assyria was a real problem. In 738, the king Tiglath-pileser started to move against Syria and Israel. Judah wanted to stay out of it, and so Syria and Israel tried to depose Ahaz in order to force Judah to join their coalition. That is what Ahaz was worried about. The sign being given to Ahaz was not the sign of a remarkable conception, but rather the sign of a remarkable fall of the nations he was so worried about, within a very short time frame. A woman would conceive, but before her child had grown to the age of ethical discretion, knowing to refuse evil and choose the good, the kings that Ahaz was so worried about would both be gone. Before that child got to the age of being able to eat solid food, this northern challenge to Ahaz would be removed. The woman is unnamed, but she was clearly known to both Isaiah and Ahaz—it could have been one of their respective wives, or some other woman known to them.
Young Woman or Virgin
The word used here for young woman is almah, which can mean young woman or virgin. The word does not require virginity, but it does allow for it. Now this creates a very interesting translation and hermeneutical issue for us. The Hebrew word is more general, and it refers to two women—one a virgin and the other not. The Greek word that is used to cite this passage in Matt. 1:23 is parthenos and this is a word that has only one meaning, virgin. It also means that as far as Matthew is concerned, the sign of the first woman, the one given as reassurance to Ahaz, has dropped out of the picture. Parthenos does not refer to her, but it does refer to Mary.
Matthew is saying that Isaiah was talking about Mary. The language of fulfillment here is very strong. Mary has turned up pregnant, and Joseph knows that he was not the father. He is contemplating divorce (Matt. 1:20), but an angel reassures him. Mary is pregnant, but still a virgin, and all of this was done in order to fulfill what Isaiah had said. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled,accomplished, completed, filled, finished in the conception of Jesus, which is quite a different thing than the conception of Jesus being projected onto a verse in the Old Testament that looks like it might be talking about something in the ball park. Additional support for this approach, rejecting the idea that Matthew’s reading is simply special pleading, is the fact that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, rendered this as parthenos also. Before the Christian doctrine of a virgin birth resulted in God-with-us, there was a Jewish doctrine of a virgin birth resulting in God- with-us.
It might be easy to assume that God was just performing random marvels so that everybody would know that Jesus was remarkable. Well, the point was to reinforce and demonstrate His remarkable identity, but it wasn’t just a random act of power.
“And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
This is what Mary is told about how she will conceive. The Holy Ghost will come upon her. The power of the Most High will overshadow or cover her, with the result that the holy one born of her would be called Son of God. Jesus was born this way so that He could be a human being who was truly holy.
A Sinless Christ
We know from Scripture that Christ was sinless. He not only withstood the devil in the temptation in the wilderness, but He also remained sinless throughout the course of His entire life.
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). “Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” (John 8:46).
A virgin birth was necessary to produce a genuine human being who was at the same time not entailed in Adam’s sin. This apparently means that our covenantal participation in Adam’s rebellion is passed down through the human father. Men are the problem, as has been suspected from time to time. Not through any human ancestors who happened to be male, because Jesus had a grandfather on Mary’s side. Covenantal responsibility for sin is passed on through the human father.
This is the problem that Roman Catholics are trying (unnecessarily) to solve with their doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine refers to Mary’s conception, not the conception of Jesus, and is trying to keep Jesus from being tainted with Mary’s sin. So their doctrine says that a miracle was performed so that Mary was born without original sin, thus making her a fit vessel to bear Jesus. But that is not how sin is passed down. We are not sinners because we were borne by a sinful mother. We are sinners because we were begotten by a sinful father.
A Savior Without Blemish
We have been saved because we have a Savior. But we need more than someone willing to be a Savior—we need someone qualified to be a Savior. That qualification has to be absolute purity. We are redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19).
Sometimes familiar words run down well-worn grooves. The words from our text have graced countless Christmas cards, but at the same time it is important for us to realize that this doesn’t make them any less true. But, as the truth of Scripture, it is given in such a way that whenever we come back to it in faith, regardless of how familiar it might be to us, we can always find fresh glory.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: And the government shall be upon his shoulder: And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, Upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, To order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice From henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Is. 9:6–7).
Summary of the Text
The condition of Israel is set out at the last part of chapter 8, and it is the same condition that the world was in—great darkness (Is. 8:22). Behold trouble and darkness, and dim anguish. But light is coming—this will not be like an earlier affliction (Is. 9:1). In Galilee of the nations, the people who were in that darkness have seen a great light (Is. 9:2). Galilee had two sections, upper and lower Galilee. Upper Galilee is called Galilee of the Gentiles because it was the borderland, and had many Gentiles living there. This was close to Tyre and Sidon, and was the area where Solomon had given 20 cities to the Phoenician king Hiram. Coming back to the text, God has given them great joy (Is. 9:3); He has broken the yoke of oppression that was on them (Is. 9:4). All military gear shall be rolled up and burned in a fire (Is. 9:5).
And so we come to our two verses. The child had been first promised two chapters earlier, when the prophet told us that Immanuel, God with us, would be born of a virgin (Is. 7:14). Now we learn more about Him. A child is born, a son is given. The first thing mentioned about Him is that the government will be on His shoulder. He will have a series of glorious names—Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6). The increase of His government will have no end, and it will be the government of the throne of David. It will be established and well-ordered forever and ever. All of this will be done by the zeal of the Lord Himself (Is. 9:7).
The darkness spoken of by the prophet is a spiritual darkness, a moral blindness. The darkness was so profound that men in the grip of it could not see this text.
When Nicodemus challenged their right to condemn Christ without a hearing, they called him a dummy. “They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (John 7:52). Nicodemus was being so stupid —no prophet comes from Galilee. Then how was it that the people walking there had seen a great light (Is. 9:1-2)?
He was Immanuel, God with us, but never forget that Almighty God was content to be twenty inches long. He was content to suckle at a virgin’s breast. The mighty God is born here, in a stable, as a little child. He humbled Himself and took the form of a servant (Phil. 2:5-8), formed in the likeness of men. He condescends to become one of us.
Because He humbled Himself in this way, God has given Him the name that is above every name. Not only so, but He has given Him all these names. He shall be called Wonderful. Wonders accompanied Him wherever He went, and He Himself was the central wonder. He was astonishing(Matt. 7:28). He gives glorious counsel; He is the great counselor. Among other things, He counselsus to gain true wealth, to put on clean raiment, and to anoint our eyes with salve (Rev. 3:18). He is the Wisdom of God; He is the true Understanding (Prov. 8:14). Listen then to His counsel. He is the mighty God; this is not the Immanuel-like presence of some tiny god. This term (El) is also applied to the Messiah in Psalm 45:6. He is the everlasting Father. As He told Philip, those who had seen Him had seen the Father.
Moreover, as the Church is His bride, and our mother (Gal. 4:26), He is our Father as we are considered as individual sons and daughters. But in the collective and corporate sense, He is our husband and brother (Eph. 5:32; Heb. 2:11).
And finally, He is the Prince of all peace, and so it is that peace will come to our sorry world. Isaiah has already spoken of this (Is. 2:4).
His government here is described in two ways. One, it is His burden. He carries it. The government is upon His shoulder. He takes responsibility for it. A similar image is found later in Isaiah, also describing the rule of the Lord. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with his arm, And carry them in his bosom, And shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is. 40:11). So the Lord does not rule by “sitting on,” but rather He rules by carrying. What does the Lord do with His “strong hand” (Is. 40:10)? His arm rules for Him, and yet, that strong arm is our salvation. That strong arm picks us up.
The governments of men, apart from Christ, however proud their talk, are nothing but maimed lambs. Christ comes down to us, climbs over the crags to retrieve us, picks us up, and takes the government on His shoulder. He carries us home. Secularism is what we call it when that bleeding lamb kicks.
And secondly, it is a government that will never cease growing. It will grow forever and ever, and a Son of David will reign forever and ever. It cannot be reversed. It cannot be undone. It cannot be rewound. The battle cannot be fought over again, with the Lord losing this time. Christ cannot be tempted again. He cannot be flogged again. He cannot be nailed to the tree again. He cannot be buried again. He cannot be raised from the dead again because His resurrection was once for all, and was the inauguration of His kingdom which cannot stop growing.
This thing will be done, and will be everlastingly done, because it will be done by the zeal of the Lord of hosts. How is that not enough for us?
“And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, Which shall stand for an ensign of the people; To it shall the Gentiles seek: And his rest shall be glorious” (Is. 11:10).