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MATTHEW 1:18-25
DECEMBER 23, 2001

In the early centuries of the Church, the fate of Christianity hung on the smallest Greek
letter, an iota. The difference between the prefix homo- (same) and homoi-
(similar) determined whether generations of Christians that followed would believe that
Jesus Christ is the same substance as the Father (homoousios-of the same nature) or
only similar (homoiousios-of a similar nature). The first declares the equality of the Son
with the Father, the latter makes him part of the creation not the Creator. Everything
related to the gospel depends upon this truth.

All along the way in the early days of gospel proclamation, there were those who denied
either the deity or humanity of Jesus Christ. Paul certainly addressed such skepticism in
Colossians, as did John in his first epistle. But the controversy did not end in the first
century, and for that matter, it has not ended today. The church must be ever vigilant to
stand for "the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).

The 4th century was the high water mark for the swirling controversy concerning the
nature of Jesus Christ. A popular Alexandrian bishop named Arius (A.D. 325) taught that
Jesus Christ's nature or substance was only similar to the Father. In Arius' thought, Jesus
existed before creation and was greater than all creation, but was himself a created being
who was not equal to the Father and therefore not divine. Many embraced this teaching as
a show of intellectualism, known as Arianism, without grappling with its implications. If
Christ is not God then God alone cannot receive the glory for salvation. If Christ is not God
then there is no qualified mediator between God and men. If Christ is not God then there is
no infinite value to his sacrifice at the cross to satisfy God's righteous demand for justice. If
Christ is not God then there is no gospel of salvation.

A twenty-nine year old named Athanasius stood against this false teaching, first at the
Council of Nicea where he served as secretary to Alexander, the leading Bishop of
Alexandria, and later as the Bishop of Alexandria himself (A.D. 328). "He was hounded
through five exiles embracing seventeen years of flight and hiding," writes one historian,
but with unflagging zeal, "almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the Church from
pagan intellectualism" [S.J. Mikolaski, quoted by Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology,
245]. Later, the Athanasian Creed, though not written by him but named for him, declared,
It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation
of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the right faith is that we should believe and confess that our
Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.

He is God from the Father's substance, begotten before time; and He is man from His
mother's substance, born in time. Perfect God, perfect man composed of a human soul
and human flesh, equal to the Father in respect to His divinity, less than the Father in
respect of His humanity.
Who, although He is God and man, is nevertheless not two but one Christ. He is one,
however, not by the transformation of His divinity into flesh, but by the taking up of His
humanity into God; one certainly not by confusion of substance, but oneness of person.
For just as soul and flesh are one man, so God and man are one Christ.

So as we may take for granted the magnificent celebration of Christmas as God entering
the world to take on the nature of man that He might" save His people from their sins," the
4th century Church waged theological war to ultimately conquer on the side of Holy
Scripture. Had the side of truth fallen, we would not be celebrating Christmas today as
"Immanuel-God with us." There would be no gospel story proclaimed through the joyous
hymns and reading of the birth narratives.

Christmas celebrates the reality that God entered the human race to redeem His people
from their sins. With the angel and Joseph, we call His name Jesus, for it is He alone that
saves His people from their sins. How does the Christmas story relate the gospel story?

I. Jesus Christ: an explanation

While we have theophanies in the Old Testament, appearances or manifestations of God

as He did with Abraham and Moses, God never became a man. God did manifest himself
to these ancient brethren, but in the Incarnation, God became one of us. He entered
humanity so that forevermore, the Second Person of the Trinity is the God-Man, the divine-
human Head of the redeemed people of God.

1. Birth not beginning

The angel did not tell Joseph everything but he did tell him enough for his faith and
obedience. No finely detailed explanation of the Incarnation was given. When God speaks
He does not need to explain His actions to sinful men! Yet the shock of the divine words
began to dawn upon Joseph: "for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy
Spirit." Joseph wrestled with sending Mary away secretly (v. 19), which means that as a
couple that was engaged he would have to legally end their relationship in Jewish custom.
The news of her pregnancy stunned him, yet "being a righteous man and not wanting to
disgrace her," Joseph sought for a quiet dismissal of their betrothal. How did this
happen? "For the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit," thus the Holy
Spirit overshadowed Mary's womb so that she conceived the Child without the contribution
of man. What would happen? "She will bear a Son," and thus an actual birth would take
place so that God would enter humanity as one of the human race he came to redeem.
How was Joseph to respond? "And you shall call His name Jesus," that is, Joseph would
legally adopt Jesus by naming him, and thus identifying him with the kingly/messianic
genealogy of David (1:1-17, which is the reason for the genealogy in showing Jesus to be
a legal heir to David's throne). Joseph understood this to be a Messianic designation. Why
would this happen? "For He will save His people from their sins;" the birth of the Child
encompassed the whole redemptive plan of God for His people in every age.

The Incarnation vividly demonstrates that God initiates and carries to completion our
salvation. For the Incarnation is always set forth ultimately in light of the redemption
secured at the cross. Thus in announcing the birth of Christ, the angel declared, "For He
will save His people from their sins."

2. Conception by the Holy Spirit

We are left to ponder how such a thing can take place. Matthew introduces this narrative
by telling us, "When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came
together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit." The angel further explains to
Joseph, "For the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." To Mary, the
angel adds, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will
overshadow you; for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God" (Matt 1:35).

Several facts are obvious: first, an actual birth took place with Mary giving birth to a Son.
Second, for a birth to take place there had to be a conception. Third, the explanation given
for Mary's conception in her womb apart from the contribution of man points to the Holy
Spirit as the source ("by the Holy Spirit" uses the preposition ek, carrying the idea, "the
source from which something arises"). Fourth, the conception of Jesus took place without
the contribution of a man but not without a contribution-the overshadowing of the Holy
Spirit. Mary was no surrogate mother, so that the Holy Spirit merely implanted a substance
in Mary's womb foreign to her genetic makeup. She was not an incubator that waited the
removal time of the "foreign body" that had invaded the darkness of her womb. "She will
bear a Son," the angel declares, one who was of her own genetic material and who is of
the same substance as Mary.

Some in church history state that Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary but He was
not of Mary. The idea is that the Holy Spirit produced a totally separate nature for Jesus
that had nothing to do with her or the rest of humanity. He was born as a human-at least in
kind-but not in any respect of the same substance as Mary and the rest of the human race.
In this line of thinking, the infant Jesus simply passed through the body of Mary without
assuming any of her substance. His conception is considered a miracle, but Mary was only
a surrogate that incubated the child until delivery [cf. William Cunningham, Historical
Theology, vol. I, 313]. He could be called human because of his physical features, but not
part of the human race.

But the Scripture speaks otherwise: "Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all
things [lit. 'in all respects'], that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in
things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17).
Without being an actual part of the human race Jesus would be unqualified to redeem us.
The Incarnation declares God's intention to save "His people from their sins." But why was
the Incarnation necessary?
(1) Scripture affirms that "salvation is from the Lord" (Jonah 2:9). In both Testaments, God
is always seen as the initiator and provider of salvation. So God therefore must be the One
who effectively saves sinners, otherwise man could boast in his achievements (I Cor 1:26-
31). As Herman Witsius expressed it in the 17th century, "None but God can restore us to
true liberty.... None but God can give us eternal life.... None but God can give God" [The
Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, vol. 1, 198].

(2) The measure of the divine penalty against man for his sin required that someone of
infinite capability satisfy God's wrath. The penalty declared befits the crime of the Fall. So
a finite man cannot bear or satisfy an infinite demand for justice: "but now once at the
consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of
Himself" (Heb 9:24-28). The Incarnation explains the infinite capability of the God-Man as
our Substitute and Sin-bearer.

(3) The ones needing salvation are men; the penalty for sin is against men; therefore
moral justice requires that the penalty be satisfied either by all the human race or by One
who is qualified to represent men before the justice of God (Heb 2:10-11). We find this
qualification in the Incarnation, as God became a man.

(4) For a human to satisfy the penalty for sin requires that he be qualified in (a) nature and
(b) moral constitution as one who perfectly keeps the divine law. He must be one who
feels fully the effects of sin yet be without sin (Heb 2:14-18). Jesus qualified.

(5) The Redeemer must be capable of dying since the penalty for sin is death. Yet He
must be of such value as to secure by His death pardon for all whom God would redeem.
Thus Jesus, qualified in every respect, declares, "I glorified You on the earth, having
accomplished the work which You have given Me to do" (John 17:4).

3. God with us

So how does Matthew explain all this amazing story of the Incarnation? "'Behold, the virgin
shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which
translated means, 'God with us'." The obvious meaning is not that God is with us
spiritually, but that through the Incarnation, God has come in the flesh! Anything less
would be inadequate to secure the salvation of God's people through the ages. God came
in the flesh to satisfy his own just requirements to declare sinners to be righteous before

In the process of the Incarnation God did not abandon His divine nature, i.e., God did not
quit being God in order to become man. He could not do this anymore than you can quit
being a human. Nor did God fuse together the divine and human natures, thus creating a
strange hybrid that is neither fully divine nor fully human. Nor did God simply appear to be
a man, but whom was really only a divine spirit masquerading in human clothes (the error
of Docetism). Nor was there an illusion involved in which Christ was really not who He
appeared to be. Nor was the human nature absorbed into the divine nature so that its
human properties were lost to the divine and a third nature emerged (the error of
Eutychianism). Nor did He assume a human person or else there would have been two
persons (the error of Nestorianism); rather He assumed a human nature so that He might
redeem those who are partakers of this same nature.

The divine nature and the human nature of Christ remain two distinct natures in one
personality. We do not appeal to Christ as God without appealing to him as the Man Christ
Jesus (I Tim 2:5). When the disciples spoke to the Man Christ Jesus, they were speaking
with God. When the followers of Christ worshiped Him they were not committing
blasphemy by worshiping someone other than God. This is why the writer of Hebrews
declares, "Let all the angels of God worship Him" (1:6). And it is why John's vision in
Revelation 5:13 refers to the simultaneous worship of the Father and the Son, "To Him
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion
forever and ever." "God with us," provides the simplest way of explaining the wonder of the
Incarnation. Peter Lewis sums it up best, "Though He became what He was not, He did
not cease to be what He was. He who continued to fill all things and to sustain all things,
also became contained in a virgin's womb, and was sustained by a human mother; living
simultaneously the massive life of Godhead and the creaturely and painful life of humanity"
[The Glory of Christ, 133-134].

II. Jesus Christ: a declaration

Having seen the necessity of the Incarnation explained we must now turn our attention to
the message declared by the angel who announced the Incarnation of Christ.

1. Certain destiny

The birth of Christ and His death at the cross are inseparable. One loses meaning and
effectiveness without the other. Both the Incarnation and crucifixion took place because of
the certain destiny of mankind. It is unveiled in the words, "For it is He who will save His
people from their sins." It is apparent that Jesus Christ came to "save His people," but from
what enemy? In Jewish history we find the nation crying out to God over and over to save
them from various enemies, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. And in the first
century many Jews would have welcomed a messiah who would save them from the
Romans! But the angel's declaration points to a greater foe than all the nations and military
hardware combined: "from their sins."

We locate sin's origin into humanity at the Garden of Eden, as our representative, Adam,
fell prey to the serpent's temptation and sinned. As the father of the human race, all of us
were in Adam. His actions carried weighty results for all of his posterity. His sin separated
mankind from God the Creator. God who is altogether holy and righteous, who cannot sin
nor approve sin, justly declared the whole of humanity condemned. Such was the gravity
of Adam's sin against the infinite righteousness of God that the weight of eternal judgment
fell upon all men. And like Adam, all of us "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
(Rom 3:23).

Who can deliver us from the destiny of judgment? Who can rise to the top of the human
race and qualify to represent us, as a Mediator without being under the same
condemnation that humanity deserves? The prophecy quoted by Matthew from Isaiah 7:14
refers to a period when the ungodly King Ahaz sought deliverance for Judah against Aram
and Israel through the Assyrians and not from the Lord. So Isaiah spoke of a temporal
deliverance against the enemies of Aram and Israel, but had a greater deliverance in mind
for future generations. Indeed, in three years Judah was delivered. But it was eight more
centuries before the virgin bore a Son, Immanuel, who would deliver God's people from
the greater enemy-our sins. The sign of God's saving work for sinful men would be found
in the virgin bearing a Son: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and
they shall call His name Immanuel...God with us."

2. Christ alone

The angel makes a point in describing the reason for the Incarnation that we must not slide
over. "For it is He who will save His people from their sins." The Greek has the pronoun at
the beginning of the clause for emphasis, "He and no other will save His people from their
sins," is the message. Or in the language of the Reformation, "Christ alone." Has this truth
shaken loose every excuse and idolatrous reliance in your life? Everyday people are trying
to add something to what Christ has done for their salvation. We see this frequently at
Christmas, as men do not mind making some mention of Jesus Christ in hope of finding
temporal blessing, but they fail to trust in Christ alone as their only hope for eternity.

Jesus alone can save us from our sins. The angelic messenger points to the perfect
obedience of Christ and his atoning death at the cross on behalf of sinners so that we can
be reconciled to God. Divine justice was satisfied, not by the Incarnation nor without it, but
by the death of the Incarnate Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

3. The implications

So, what are the implications declared by the angel? First, there is salvation from the
penalty of our sins through Jesus Christ. "For it is He who will save His people from their
sins." Our sins defile the image of God, and thus the glory of God in our lives. But Christ's
death on the cross has borne the penalty due us for our sins, and begins a sanctifying
work of conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. John reminds us, "You know that He
appeared in order to take away sins" (I John 3:5). And Hebrews affirms, "But now once at
the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of
Himself" (9:26).

Second, this same statement tells us of a definite, securely accomplished work of Jesus
Christ for all of the redeemed in every age, "For it is He who will save His people from their
sins." We hear a lot of argument about Jesus Christ dying for everyone and for the whole
world, but that is really a mute argument. The bottom line is that there is no effectiveness
in the death of Christ for those who do not believe. Here we find the declaration of the
effectiveness of the death of Christ for all who will be called children of God. It tells us that
the death of Jesus Christ did not have mere potential to save, but declares the assurance
that His death will save His people-all who believe, from their sins.

Third, this statement declares that every detail of our salvation resides in one person, "He
who will save His people from their sins." We do not look to the Church to save. We do not
look to our parents or godly heritage to save. We do not look to ourselves, and the whole
measure of our good deeds. "He who will save" is Jesus Christ alone. The exalted Human
now seated on His throne, who invaded humanity in the Incarnation though existing from
all eternity, awaits the day when all whom He has saved will be gathered together as His
Bride for eternity.


There is really one final implication in this whole story: you. God became a man so
that you might be delivered from your sins, and brought into relationship to Him. It does
matter that you believe God became a man. But the message does not stop with the
manger scene. It points to a cross where Christ fulfilled the reason for his coming in the
Incarnation, and to an empty tomb that declares the effectiveness of his death on the
cross. Do you believe this?