Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, NJ.

The Ancient Unbelief

A rumor had come to Jerusalem. The word was out that two foes of Judah, apostate Israel and heathen Syria, had become allies in order to conquer Judah. Their ambition was directed toward the throne in Jerusalem, to overthrow Ahaz, and to set up their own king in his place, the son of Tabeal. These nations had armies which were foreboding enough by themselves, but joined together they could surely overwhelm Judah and Jerusalem.

The king, Ahaz, and the people of Judah were together overcome with dismay. All was lost. The most advisable course was immediate surrender in the face of such a foe. Resistance was futile. Help from man was surely vain. And Ahaz would look no farther than man. He neither believed in nor expected God’s help. He was a wicked king, refusing to look to Jehovah, the God of David his father.

But Isaiah will make him look. He comes with a promise that this confederacy, along with its objective, will fail. The prophecy that Israel would fall in sixty-five years was still solid as ever. Assyria would take them captive, even as Amos spoke long before the time of Ahaz and Isaiah (Amos 3:11). Isaiah now speaks, but Ahaz would not believe the word. Ahaz’s unbelief must become yet more manifest, and more inexcusable. To this end Isaiah offers (not well-meaningly to Ahaz) a sign. Ahaz may ask anything he might possibly think of, from the heavens above, even to the depths of the earth. Jehovah stands at the ready to perform it, to confirm the prophecy spoken. But Ahaz refuses, overlaying his refusal with a veneer of piety: he will not tempt God. The fact is that Ahaz’s unbelief is behind this refusal. He wants no help from Jehovah.

Such is the folly of unbelief in the wicked today. They are not crying out to every quarter for help. They will cry—but not to God. God comes to them with the gospel, but they will not believe. God comes with the proofs of the gospel, but they will not believe. Let God work signs and wonders in the heavens above, blotting out the sun, causing the stars to fall. Let God work signs in the depths, even raising a man from the dead. They still will not believe.

But God has a particular purpose with the unbelief of Ahaz. He uses the king’s wicked unbelief to give a most marvelous sign. The Lord Himself will give the sign. He will dictate its terms. A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, even a son in the line of Ahaz himself. We can be most thankful that wicked Ahaz refused to ask a sign! Since Jehovah Himself gives the sign, there is for those who fear God the additional confidence that He also will do it.

The Sign Fulfilled a Cause for Consternation

This sign must be fulfilled and is fulfilled. Its fulfillment is only in the one about whom Matthew writes this gospel account. Two verses of this passage belong together. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise….” “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.” This was done in this particular way in order that this prophecy might be fulfilled. The Messiah must be virgin born. He must be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yes, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled on this point. But even more, because the Messiah must be true God and true man, the two natures united in one person. The virgin birth is the sign that points to the Messiah. The virgin birth is also the necessary means to bring the Messiah into the world. He has God for His Father, no human man. He must be Emmanuel, God with us.

The fulfillment of this prophecy causes trouble for the espoused husband of Mary. She departed from Nazareth to live with Zacharias and Elisabeth. In her haste, we may suppose, she did not tell Joseph the reason for her departure. Joseph knew nothing about the visit of Gabriel to her. Mary was gone for three months, had now returned, and was found to be pregnant. Avoiding all manner of speculation, we can say that Joseph drew the conclusion that Mary’s condition of pregnancy was the result of fornication. He was a just man, whose justice was also merciful. He thinks and considers—no rash judgment or hasty activity here. He determines that the way to proceed is by a putting away, under a merciful privacy. He is minded to put her away privily. Yet he thinks and considers. We may be sure that he took into consideration Mary’s history. He must have known that Mary was one who feared God, was an object of His grace. Further, she was espoused to Joseph. This legal appointment must have spoken very clearly that she did belong to Joseph already, as one to be married. Why would she be unfaithful?

While Joseph was thinking upon these things, God Himself provided the answer. He sent a heavenly messenger from His glorious throne with the truth. As such, then, it will carry far more weight than anything Mary herself could say in explanation of her own condition. This angel must appear to Joseph in a dream. Here there is no possibility of questioning, but only of obedience.

We understand this vision to Joseph as gracious—far different from the word of Isaiah to Ahaz. It is gracious because it comes to Joseph as already endowed with the grace of God. There is here no strict command: Take Mary as your wife. The commandment is given in the negative: Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. The fear must be removed, and is removed by a reason. This child is not the result of fornication. Far from it! “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Good enough reason for Joseph. The dishonor must now be replaced with a sense of high honor—to be married to the mother of Christ!

The Names Revealed

Following this revelation, now comes a most happy command. This son, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born to the virgin Mary, Joseph must call Jesus. Though there were and are many called by the name Jesus, the name belongs properly and only to this Child. This name is the only name given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved. This name is the personal name of Jesus. It is the name given to Him, by which men called upon Him. By it He was to be distinguished from other persons of other names. This is the most intimate name of our Lord. Calling upon this name, the believer may be assured that God will hear and answer and save. That name also reveals the truth about Him. He is Jehovah-salvation. In Him is revealed the salvation of Jehovah.

There is another truth that stands behind this name. This truth answers the question of how this One who bears the name Jesus bears it properly. What is it that makes Him this Savior of His people from their sins? We find the answer in the second name given: Emmanuel. This name Isaiah attributed to the virgin-born Son in his prophecy. Literally, “with us God.” In this Son, God is with His people. Really, literally present. And with them. As this Son is present among His people, God is present among them. They behold him as dwelling among them, they behold God Himself.

This is salvation! Jehovah Himself saves His people. It can be no other way. For just as certainly as Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem and Judah could not stand before the host of Israel and Syria confederate, so certainly is salvation from sin impossible. The enemy is too strong, the corruption too fierce in its grip upon men. For this enemy, too, is a confederacy. Sin holds sway in the captivity of mankind to Satan. But sin holds sway in the very heart of man. It reigns supreme in the natural man. You see that supremacy in Ahaz’s refusal to ask a sign, even masked in piety. Salvation can be found from no other quarter than Jehovah alone.

That salvation, revealed by these names, is a particular salvation. The name Jesus, as explained by the angel, bears this out. He shall save His people—and none other—from their sins. His name is Emmanuel. God with us—not with them. Not with them yesterday: Rezin, Pekah, and their armies. Not with them today: the ungodly wicked. God with His people, in order to save them from their sins. Right from the start the Messiah is directed toward His people alone, the elect given to Him by His heavenly Father. He is coming from heaven to earth, from glory to humility, to bring to them salvation. Election rules the salvation of this King.

And thus it must be, for He is Jehovah God. He is Jesus—Jehovah. He is Emmanuel—God. This Jehovah God shall undoubtedly save His people. Should the bearer of these names fail to save any one of His people, He must no longer be Jehovah God, but only an imposter and a blasphemer. Were this angel to say, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for he shall try to save all men, head for head,” we would have a contradiction. For so feeble an attempt, one is not worthy of such a name.

He shall save His people from their sins—and He does save! His work is successful in every way. Look at the cross, take note of the infinite value of that blood. It does redeem His people from the wrath of God under which they would otherwise be perishing. Take note of the application of that blood. There is a glorious church, in existence from the beginning of the world, even to its end. This is the company of the predestinated and redeemed.

Take note of how this Savior saves from sin. He does not wait for faith to rise up in the heart before He grants salvation. When this Savior saves, He works faith by His Spirit, in the heart of the sinner, when and where he is dead in unbelief. Those who were one with Ahaz in unbelief now believe. They recognize that the virgin birth is a mighty sign that God saves alone. And they humbly bow before this Jesus, confessing that He saves alone.

Questions for Further Meditation and Study

1.This passage in Matthew’s gospel is the record of Jesus’ conception and birth. How does its viewpoint differ from that of Luke or John? How is it then complementary? How do its differences relate to the context of this gospel, both the prior and the following? How does this passage fulfill the purpose of this gospel, to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah?

2.What is the particular role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ? What does this have to do with the absolute holiness of Jesus’ human nature? How does the understanding of this role preserve us from Mariolatry?

3.What part does the word of the angel to Joseph as the Son of David have in establishing Joseph as belonging to the lineage mentioned in verses 1 through 17? How does Joseph demonstrate himself to be a true son of Abraham, if not of David? What virtues does he display throughout this passage? How are godly husbands and fathers to walk in this same way?

4.Since Jesus had to be virgin-born, why did God preserve Joseph as the husband of Mary? What does this have to say about the importance of fathers in the home, aside from their role in procreation?

5.Which two names of Christ are revealed in this passage? How do they together show that salvation is of Jehovah alone? How does the virgin birth signify the Incarnation of the Son of God?