Let me add my welcome to you, especially if you are a visitor here tonight. We are so very glad that you are with us. And we want to be good hosts while you are here, so should you find you have some questions, perhaps you’d like to talk to someone, maybe you’d even like to pray with someone, I’ll be down front after the service; I would love to talk to you. David Felker will be through these doors at the back and he also will be delighted to meet with you if you have any questions or if there’s any way we can help you. We have found here at First Presbyterian Church that the Bible, though an ancient book, speaks with life-changing relevance and power today. And so we work hard to try and avoid our own opinions and instead to explore the message of the Scriptures together. So let me invite you, if you would please, to take a Bible in hand - you’ll find copies in the racks in the pews in front of you - and to turn with me to Matthew chapter 1. Matthew chapter 1; that’s page 807. The very first chapter of the New Testament; page 807.
You will notice Matthew 1 begins in the first seventeen verses with this long genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then if you look at the bottom of the left-hand column, you will see verse 18 where we read the account, Matthew's account of the birth of Christ. And since this is the first Sunday of Advent, we have been thinking already this morning and will be thinking together about the Christmas story. And in particular, on Sundays here at First Pres, we are thinking about the names and the titles applied to Jesus in the Bible as a way to help us reflect on who He is and on the significance of His coming. In our passage, verses 18 to 25, there are two names used for Jesus. We're going to think about the first tonight and the second, God willing, next week. Before we read, because this is God's Word, we are going to pray and ask Him to help us understand and believe it. Would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?
God our Father, we pray that You would send the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds, to give us light to understand, and more than that, to believe; to come and meet for ourselves the Lord Jesus Christ who is speaking to us in His holy Word. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Matthew chapter 1. We are going to read verses 18 through 25:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name
Immanuel' (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."
So what's in a name? A whole lot as it turns out. Names actually get me in trouble around here all the time. Let me give you an example. A few Sundays ago, I was preaching and I wanted to emphasize the fact that a previous generation here in our church has left a legacy for a new generation to follow. And so I spoke about the passing of the baton. That's how we say it where I come from. In less civilized parts of the world, you say, "baton," I think. Right? Something like that. Baton; that's how you say it - baton! And after the sermon was done, you would think I hadn't said anything else! I was inundated by the amused and the obsessed and the confused and the mocking! "What's a baton?" you said - "It's a baton!" Well, let me say how grateful I am for you fine people keeping me straight on the correct pronunciation of the Queen's English! The point is, names matter. Right? If you get them wrong, or if you pronounce them correctly, confusion reigns as many of you demonstrated so helpfully.
Quite often in the Bible, actually names, especially people’s names, they’re more like job descriptions. They tell you of the character or the mission of the person who bears them. They tell you what they’re for, this person, what they’re for; what they’re about. And that’s why thinking about the names the Bible gives to Jesus can be especially helpful because they help us get right to the heart of what Jesus is for, what He came to do, what He’s about. They help us understand what Christmas is really about. So tonight we’re going to start in the obvious place with the names the angel told Mary, and later told Joseph in our story, that their child would bear the name Jesus.
So verse 21, the angel told Joseph, "She will bear a son, you shall call his name, Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." The name Jesus - you may know this - the name Jesus is a version of an Old Testament, of a Hebrew name, Joshua. There are, in the Old Testament scriptures, there are especially two significant Joshuas that, if you read carefully in the Old Testament and you read their story, you will see that they are intended to point forward to the coming Messiah. So by calling this child, Jesus, "Joshua," a connection is being made for us with these previous Joshuas, these other Jesuses in the Old Testament narrative.
The first Joshua you may remember was Moses’ assistant and successor. Moses had led the people of Israel, they were slaves in Egypt, and he had led them out of Egypt toward the Promised Land but Moses never made it; he never entered the Promised Land. That was the task that fell to Joshua. Joshua was the one who brought God’s people home at last. And there’s another Joshua. This time, the second Joshua appears at the other end of Israel’s history. After the first Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land and they settled there, the land eventually split in two and then was conquered by the Babylonians and the Assyrians and the people were taken away captive once again. And eventually, finally, almost at the end of their story, they came back to Jerusalem, only now Jerusalem was a shattered ruin, a bare shadow of its former glory. And among them was the high priest, and his name was Joshua. And this Joshua rebuilt the temple were God’s people could worship once again.
So by naming this child, the child of Mary and of Joseph, Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, these earlier Joshuas would have immediately come to mind in Matthew's first readers and listeners, especially when you notice the genealogy of verses 1 through 17. It sort of raises our expectations. This is no ordinary child. He is, we are told in verse 1, the "son of David, the son of Abraham." God had made promises to King David that his child would reign upon his throne forever. And He's made promises to Abraham that in Abraham's child all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And also, this is a significant child that is being born; one who is bringing to fulfillment, to a climax the promises of the Old Testament scriptures. Also, notice in verse 12 one of Jesus' own ancestors was a man called Zerubbabel. And Zerubbabel was Joshua the high priest's partner in the rebuilding of the temple. So people would have had a very specific set of expectations for this new Joshua, Jesus, the son of Joseph.
Actually, the name Joshua is what scholars sometimes call a theonym; a theonym. A name that incorporates the name of God. So Joshua means, the name Joshua means “the Lord is salvation.” “The Lord is salvation.” That’s what the name means. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Jewish people were looking for a Messiah very much like these earlier Joshuas I was telling you about. He would be someone who would make a home for Israel, who would be like the first Joshua. Or someone who would restore Israel’s home after the tyranny of a foreign oppressor like the second Joshua. The Messiah, they thought, would be someone frankly who would boot the occupying Romans out of their land at last and restore their national fortunes. That’s how he would save them. They’re looking for a socio-political savior.
But the final Joshua, the one the others were pointing to, this Jesus of Nazareth, He is a Savior of a different character altogether. Look at how the angel of the Lord explains the meaning of Jesus’ name to Joseph. Verse 21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for” - here’s the explanation for giving Him that name - “for he will save his people from their sins.” And all I want to do for the remainder of our time is camp out on the explanation of Jesus’ name. It really couldn’t be more important. Every word in the explanation matters. Let’s look at it again together. First, it’s worth noting that while the English translation can’t really bring this out, the “he - he shall save,” the “he” there is emphatic. It has a great deal of emphasis in the original; “he himself” it’s saying. “He Himself will save His people. He and not another. He Himself in His own agency and by His own hand.”
The heroes of Israel's history they had been saviors of a sort - Moses had saved the people, Joshua had saved them, Gideon had saved them, King David had saved the people, Nehemiah and Ezra had saved the people. There had been lots of Saviors of one sort or another in the history of God's people over the years, but each one of them had been only an instrument in the hand of God. Actually, many of them, if you read their stories, when the Lord sent them to do His work, they were horrified and they shrank back and they didn't want to do it and they required special encouragement before venturing to step forward in obedience to God's call on their lives. But Jesus isn't like them. We're being told, "He Himself shall save."
Now, remember, His name means, "the Lord is salvation. The Lord God saves." That's what His name means. And so we might have expected the angel to explain, "The child will be called Jesus, actually Joshua. Because the Lord would save people through Him like the long line of saviors that have come before, this new Joshua will be useful in the hands of God to bring relief to a suffering people." But that's not what the angel says. No, he says, He will bear the name "the Lord saves" because "He Himself will save them." He Himself will save them. Who is this child born to the virgin Mary, laid in a manger? The perfect picture, the epitome of human frailty and vulnerability - this little baby - He is the Lord Himself come down to save His people by His own hand; come to act now as it were in the first person. The Lord Himself will save and here He is - born of the virgin and laid in a manger.
Listen, here is the unique thing about the Christian message. There’s nothing else really like this. Christianity is not a tradition; it’s not a code of ethics. It’s not a philosophy or a political system. It has something to say to all of these and more. But the molten core of Christian faith is Jesus Christ. “He Himself shall save His people from their sin.” He Himself. He is the fixed point. He is the polestar in our lives, those of us who are Christians. What we proclaim, our message, is not “Ten Things for You to do to Find Yourself or to Achieve God-consciousness.” We don’t have any counsel for self-help. There are no mantras for you to chant; no set phrases for you to repeat. We just have Jesus. God come down. He is the Lord our salvation, He Himself. I have absolutely no interest in inviting you to become just a touch more religious this Christmas, but I desperately want you to come and meet this Jesus for yourself.
And why? Why should I want you to meet Him so badly? Well if you look at the next phrase of verse 21 that will help. Verse 21 again, “He shall save.” He shall save. You could say the rest of Matthew’s gospel is written simply to explain that phrase. The whole book is an exploration of the meaning, “Jesus saves.” How does He do it, Matthew? How does Jesus save? He does it unlike any before Him. There’s no insurrection. He doesn’t infiltrate the political establishments, avert power structures, insight the people to rise up. He does not ride the crest of a wave of popularity sweeping to power on the adoration of the masses. Jesus saves, Matthew tells us, He saves by suffering. He wins by losing and He gives life by dying. He saves by suffering, He wins by losing and He gives life by dying. That’s the message of the whole of Matthew’s gospel.
Actually at the end of the gospel - here we are now at the beginning of it - at the other end of the gospel, at its climax, as Jesus is hung dying upon a Roman cross, Matthew reminds us of these words in chapter 1 verse 21 - “He shall save.” The same vocabulary reappears, only now it’s found on the lips of the mocking crowds, jeering at Him and pouring out their vitriol at Him. “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.” That’s what they said. But they don’t understand, do they? They did not understand that it was precisely here, at the cross, that the salvation Jesus came to accomplish was secured. This was the objective of His coming. This is the target of His mission. And Matthew goes on to tell us that at the moment when He breathed His last, you remember that great thick curtain that hung in the temple, that excluded everyone from the holiest place so there was a symbol, a great symbol of human exclusion from the presence of God, at the moment when Jesus breathed His last that temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom, from heaven to earth. The message isn’t difficult to understand. Is it? With the death of Jesus Christ, the way was opened for you to come in at last. It looked like defeat and people mocked Him, but in fact, it was mission accomplished. It was mission accomplished. He saves by means of the cross.
One of the great theologians of Princeton University at the beginning of the 20th century was a man called Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. And he wrote a poem that gets at all of this rather well. Early in the poem, he imagines the speaker sort of rubbing his hands together in glee, in self-righteous glee at the news that God Himself had come to the world that first Christmas. "Now at last," the speaker says, "the world is about to be judged and all those wicked people will be put in their place." Here's how Warfield puts it. "The Lord has come to the world. Ah, then He comes in might, the sword of fury in His hands with vengeance all bedight; oh wretched world, thine end draws near. Prepare to meet thy God in fear."
But then the tone suddenly changes. There's a note of surprise because the Lord who has come down has not come with might or with a sword of fury at all. "The Lord has come into this world - what? In that baby sweet, that broken man acquaint with grief, those bleeding hands and feet. He is the Lord of all the earth! How can He stoop to human birth?" How do we make sense of it? It's not at all what he was expecting. At last, he finds the answer. "The Lord has come into his world, a slaughtered lamb I see. A smoking altar on which burns a sacrifice for me. He comes, He comes, O blessed day, He comes to take my sin away." He comes to take my sin away. Jesus saves.
And if you look at the remainder of verse 21 you’ll see Warfield grasped Matthew’s point perfectly. Didn’t he? “He Himself shall save,” by His bloody sacrifice on the cross, “He shall save His people from their sins.” That is His great mission. The rescue Jesus brings is from this fundamental condition of the human heart. We’re sinners, you and me. We do what God condemns. We love what God hates. We dislike what pleases Him. We are sinners right to the core. All the way through - guilty and selfish and proud and vain and lazy and greedy and lustful and blind. That’s me! It’s you too, sad to say. And we stand before the perfect justice of God without any excuse. But Jesus, nailed to the cross, bears the guilt of it. He takes the penalty for it. He pays. Here’s the wonder of our message this Christmas. He pays so that you may get the pardon. He saves us from our sin.
Freedom from Sin
And not just from the guilt of our sin but from the power of our sin too. He breaks the stranglehold sin once had over us and He sets us free. You may have tried to change. Your conscience has been stinging and you’ve vowed to be a different man, a different woman. You’ve turned over any number of new leaves and then your heart betrays you, again, and sin ensnares you, again, and you just can’t get free. Look, you really don’t need to turn over a new leaf. That’s not where to start. It’s not a new leaf you need to turn; it’s a Savior you need, Rescuer you need. One hymn writer put it this way. He said that Jesus is “of sin the double cure to save us from its guilt and its power.” That means those of us who come to know Jesus for ourselves can sing in the words of another hymn, “My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.” Free at last. There’s a freedom Jesus brings. Do you know anything about it? Freedom from the power of the dominion of sin, the mastery of it. Sin is no longer in charge.
So Jesus came to save us from our sin, from the guilt of it, from the power of it. Even more wonderful than that, one day He will come back and save us from the presence of it. That’s what heaven is, you know. When we come face to face with Jesus at last, our pilgrimage complete, what a day that will be when sin’s every remaining vestige will be eradicated from our hearts and then on that day we will breathe His name with new wonder. “My Jesus! My Jesus! The Lord my salvation!” The work at last complete.
Well then, how do you get this salvation that Jesus came to bring? “He shall save His people from their sins.” His people. He doesn’t mean just Jewish people. He means all people; any person who comes to trust himself, herself entirely to Christ for time and eternity. In chapter 8 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks about a day when people will come from every point of the compass to eat a great banquet, a celebration in the kingdom of heaven. All kinds of people, you see, from all kinds of backgrounds are welcome. You are invited, but you must become one of His people. That is to say, you must place your faith, your trust in Jesus only. Ask Him. Stop trying to deal with your sin problem on your own. It will never work. Ask Him. He came to save His people from their sins. That’s the mission.
Long ago in Scotland there was a man called Thomas Boston who found an old book when he was out visiting one of his congregants that spoke about Jesus in a way that I think fits the Christmas season rather well. The book said that in the Christian message God has made, listen, “a deed of gift and grant of His Son to all people without exception.” Let me put it a little differently. God has made a Christmas present of Jesus Christ to you. He’s for you. Take Him. He’s yours. Take Him. What a gift is held out to you in Jesus Christ. God has made a gift of His Son to you to be your Rescuer, your Savior. Take Him. Come and belong to His people, won’t you? He saves His people from their sins. He will save you. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, how we praise You for Jesus, a perfect Savior who deals with our guilt before Your throne, who deals with sins power festering in our hearts and who will one day finish the work and deal even with its presence so that we will shine radiant with the reflection of His own character and likeness. How we long for that day, those of us who have come to know Him. And we pray for our community, our city, our friends, our family, our neighbors, perhaps even for people sitting around us here tonight who do not yet know the salvation Jesus came to provide. O Lord, bring them to Him. So now here we bow again before You confessing ourselves helpless and guilty and in need of pardon asking, “O Lord Jesus, will You please come and be our Rescuer?” For we ask it in Your name, amen.
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