The fullness of time was almost there when what is narrated in our text took place.
The angel Gabriel had been sent with a strange and wondrous tidings, in the first place, to Zacharias as he ministered in the temple; and six months, later he had been sent to the virgin Mary in the city of Nazareth. And Mary, having received the message of the angel, and also being informed of the wondrous thing that had happened to her cousin, had gone to visit Elizabeth.
Now, at the time of our text, we may draw the conclusion that John the Baptist had already been born. It seems from the narrative that Joseph had not been informed by Mary of the tidings she had received. He seems to have been ignorant of what Mary had heard from the angel.
Mary was espoused to Joseph. They were betrothed, which meant much more than an engagement today. A betrothal in those days was legally equal to being married, so that, if one that was betrothed was found to be not worthy, and the man to whom she was betrothed wanted to put her away, he would have to go through some such procedure as is called divorce. Now God had seen to it that Mary was betrothed; and the reason is plain. It was that Jesus might be legally registered as the son of Joseph, and therefore of David. Thus He might be protected from slander.
Now Joseph observes Mary's condition; and he does not know the reason for it. Mary had not told him, the reason being, in the first place, that Mary was inclined to keep things in her heart and ponder upon them. In the second place, the subject was too delicate for Mary to discuss with one that was not yet her husband. And in the third place, was it not that the thing was too wonderful, too great, that Joseph should be convinced simply by the word of Mary? Was it not necessary for Joseph to receive a divine revelation in order to be convinced? And it was Joseph's attitude in the case of Mary that occasioned this revelation.
Notice that this sign of the virgin mother is a unique sign. It cannot be repeated; it can occur only once; and therefore it is an outstanding sign.
That sign had long before been prophesied by the prophet Isaiah. It was a dangerous time for Judah and Jerusalem; they were being threatened by a wicked alliance. That alliance was the alliance of Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the king of Israel. They threatened Judah and Jerusalem; and at the same time the king of Judah was very wicked.
Isaiah prophesied at this time. Isaiah's name means "salvation"; and his son's name limits that meaning. His son's name, Shear-jashub, means, "the remnant shall return," "the remnant shall be saved." Thus Isaiah and his son were a sign unto Israel that the remnant would be saved, and the rest would be destroyed.
Now Isaiah must go to meet king Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field; and he must tell Ahaz that he must not put his trust in an arm of flesh, he must not look to Assyria for help, but he must be quiet and trust in the Lord. But, you understand, the wicked will not put his trust in the Lord; and so Ahaz, receiving the word of God, did not hear it. He did not want to hear it. He did not want to trust in the word of Jehovah; he wanted to trust in the flesh.
It is then that King Ahaz is told to ask for a sign. You understand that the general significance of this is that God will surely save them, that it will be impossible that they should perish. God will surely save his people; and because God will surely save his people, the kings of Syria and Israel shall not prevail against them. But Ahaz does not want a sign; and so he says that he will not tempt the Lord. That was, of course, a bit of hypocrisy. He does not want a sign; but Isaiah says, "the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." It is to that prophecy that the evangelist refers in the text. It is a unique sign.
A sign is a visible representation of the invisible things of the kingdom of God, the things of the kingdom of God we cannot see. It is something taken from our world, something that takes place in the world in which we live, and which we see so as to picture to us the invisible things of God's kingdom.
In the second place, a sign is always something that attracts attention. Our attention is called to a sign either by the word of God, or by the character of the sign itself. To the former belong such signs as that of the rainbow; God calls our attention to the rainbow as a sign of his covenant. So it is with the sand on the seashore, the stars of the heavens, and the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. These things are signs because God calls our attention to them as signs. But there are also signs that attract our attention in themselves. Such a sign we have in this wonder. A wonder is always a sign. Not all signs are wonders; but something which we do not understand is. A wonder does not differ from the ordinary things of life either, except that we do not understand it. A wonder is the breaking through of God's power of grace into our world of sin and death. A wonder has to do with grace. This world is under the curse of God - hence sickness and pain and sorrow and death. Now, whenever God's redeeming grace breaks through you have a wonder; and where you have a wonder you have a sign. It is a sign of the power of God's grace breaking through. That was the case with the Red Sea; the power of God's grace operated in that sea. So it was with all the wonders of the Old Testament; and so it was with the signs of Jesus. In all these signs you have the power of God's grace, lifting up a sin-cursed world into the kingdom of God.
Now of the signs which are also a wonder, the sign here is unique. A virgin is pregnant; and this is noticed by Joseph. People have tried to show upon other grounds that Mary was not a virgin; and they have denied the virgin birth. They reason that the original word for virgin may be translated " young woman"; and that is true. But the trouble is that in this text it cannot be so translated, for Joseph informs us that they had not yet come together; and the context emphasized that Mary was a virgin. They say that Christ certainly is of the seed of David; and the genealogies which we have in Scriptures both in Matthew and in Luke are of Joseph and not of Mary. Now that statement is extremely doubtful; it is extremely doubtful that in Luke we have the genealogy of Joseph. But it makes no difference, for it was inevitable that Christ should be legally registered as the son of Joseph, and that He should be protected against slander. And Jesus was never slandered because of his birth. Nor does it mean that Mary was not of the house of David.
In the second place, the entire purpose of the gospel is to emphasize that Christ was born without the will of man. How else could this be a sign? That Jesus was born of a virgin was a sign; and Joseph observed that sign. He did not understand; and therefore the attitude of Joseph was, in the first place, a very natural one. In the second place, it was a very noble attitude. And in the third place, it was an attitude of faith.
In the first place, the attitude of Joseph was very natural. He was betrothed to Mary; and Mary had committed adultery. That was what Joseph thought, of course; what else could he think? That is why this sign needs interpreting.
In the second place, the attitude of Joseph was a noble one. We read that he was a just man, - that is, he was a just man in respect to Mary. And, being a just man, he was also a noble man. And, being noble, he did not want to put Mary to public shame. To put her away legally, he must get a letter of divorcement; and that had to be done publicly. That Joseph did not want; and therefore he decided to put her away secretly, that is, without any public procedure.
In the third place, this attitude of Joseph was an attitude of faith. The angel explains things to him in a dream. He explains to Joseph that which was almost impossible to believe; and Joseph believed.
Now this sign was of a marvelous fact; it was a sign of the fact of the incarnation.
Notice that Matthew gives an account of the birth of Christ. He begins with saying that Mary was found with child of the Holy Ghost; and the account closes with saying that they shall call his name Jesus, so that there is here an account of the birth of Christ. But what is emphasized is the manner and way in which he is born; and therefore it concentrates on the sign.
Jesus was born, negatively, without the will of man; and, positively, by the Holy Ghost. So this sign is an outward token of a most marvelous wonder, the wonder of the incarnation, that is, the wonder of wonders. It is the most marvelous wonder because, if you take that wonder away, you have no wonder left. All other wonders point to this one wonder; and they all follow from this wonder. There is no prophet, priest, or king possible without the incarnation. That is true in the New Testament, the incarnation is the central wonder.
But there is more. Take the incarnation away, and there is no salvation. Take the incarnation away, and the cross and the resurrection mean nothing - that is, if nineteen hundred years ago God did not come in our nature, nothing is true. The doctrine of the incarnation is even a more central doctrine than the cross and the resurrection. The doctrine of the cross and the resurrection are central; but the doctrine of the incarnation is even more central than that of the cross, and the resurrection, for both follow from the incarnation. And looking at the incarnation from the point of view of salvation you must say, the incarnation was necessary to save us. That is true. He that is to save us must be God in order to be mighty to save us; and He must be man in order to be able to suffer and die for our sins.
But there is nevertheless a viewpoint that is higher. The incarnation of the Son of God means this, that God united Himself with us. In the incarnation God united Himself with his people in the most intimate fellowship that can be conceived of. In the incarnation eternity unites itself with time, infinitude unites itself with the finite, the Lord unites himself with the servant. In the incarnation God dwells with us in the most intimate relation so that, while with Adam in paradise the covenant was external, in Christ we have God within us; so that, as in paradise God spoke from without, in Christ He speaks from within. The covenant idea, God dwelling with His people under one roof, has been realized; and that is eternal life. The incarnation is the central realization of the covenant; and that covenant fellowship shall spread until we shall enter into the perfected covenant fellowship in the new heavens and the new earth.
That is why we have the gospel in these two names, Immanuel and Jesus. Immanuel means, God with us; and Jesus means, Jehovah salvation. Neither of these two names do we find in the revelation in creation. God is not with us as we see him round about us. As God reveals himself in creation, He is against us, He is not with us. As we see God in creation, He is against us; that is what we see; that is what we feel; that is what we experience. God sends sickness, sorrow, pain, death; and nowhere in creation do we find Immanuel, Jesus. Everywhere we find the same language, God is filled with wrath against sin. We see no Immanuel; no: "God with us."
Immanuel means "God with us"; but it also means that God will help us. He must be Immanuel to be Jesus; and He must be Jesus to be Immanuel. He shall save his people from their sins. That is, He shall remove the guilt, the dominion, the effect of sin; and He shall save his people in order to lift them up into the perfected fellowship of God.
Of that fellowship Jesus speaks when He says, "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one." He will save his people. There is election in the very name Jesus. He will save his people; and his people, from God's point of view, are they whom God gave him. And from our point of view, they are those that believe the sign, that believe the gospel. Do you believe it? Do you believe the sign that a virgin conceived and brought forth a sin? And do you believe it so that you put your trust in that sign? He shall save his people.
Because that is the case, therefore the glory of the cross is this, He shall save his people. Not, He will try to save them. Not: He is willing, if you are willing. Because we do not will until the power of Immanuel has touched us, but He shall save his people because He is a complete Savior; He will save them to the very end.
This is a blessed gospel. Believe in that name, and you will never be put to shame.