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Getting a Handel on Christmas (3) - A Child is Born

Series: Christmas Series: Getting a Handel on Christmas

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 7, 2003

Isaiah 9:2

Isaiah 9:6 A Child Is Born

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Isaiah 9:6. This morning we began a series on “Getting a Handel on Christmas”–thanks to Derek Thomas for that title–by looking at a promise and prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. And we commented that this part of the Christmas story begins with an invasion, an attempt to conquer Judah, the Southern Kingdom, the kingdom ruled by David's descendants. The Northern Kingdom of Israel–Jacob, Ephraim, along with its ally, Aram–had attempted to take over Judah.

And we said that we ought to remember the next time we hear someone singing that beautiful recitative “Behold a Virgin Shall Conceive” that that prophecy originated in the midst of a national crisis, when Israel was being invaded. And in that prophecy and promise we saw God say to Judah, “I will be faithful to my promises to David to place his heir on My throne before Me forever”; or to put it this way, God says in Isaiah 7:14, “Even if I have to bring the heir of David into the world via a virgin, I’ll do it.” Jesus once said that God could make children of Abraham from stones of the ground if He desired. Well, here in Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah is saying, “God can bring the Son of David into the world via a virgin and put the Son of God, the son of David, on His throne. That's how far He's prepared to go to secure His promises to David.” To put it still another way, Isaiah in Isaiah 7:14 says, “Since the Davidic kings…since Ahaz's line will go the way of all flesh and they will not reign in Jerusalem for half a millennium, half a thousand years, I will bring the son of David, the heir of David, into this world miraculously. And He will be born of a virgin, and this will be a sign of God's faithfulness to His covenant with you.”

And thus we see that the virgin birth, far from being some sort of an extraneous, miraculous occurrence postulated by credulous early Christians under the influence of Greek mythology, was in fact a historical event–a miraculous event to be sure, but a historical event integral to Israel's expectation of the coming Messiah. It is the God appointed sign of His fulfilling His promise to David, and in fact it turns out to be that God appointed means to His fulfilling His promise to David and Isaiah 7. Isaiah consistently refers to Ahaz as the “house of David,” and he does this in order to emphasize that trusting God to protect Judah and that trusting God to protect the Davidic monarchy is just part of trusting God to be faithful to His promise to David in 2 Samuel 7.

Do you remember that promise? It was made beginning in verse 12, where God says to David, “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for My name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a Father to him and He will be a son to Me; and when He commits iniquity, I will correct Him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from Him as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever and your throne shall be established forever.”

And in that passage we see not only a promise of dynastic succession from David to Solomon and a promise of a special relationship between God and Solomon, but we see a promise that David's house, David's dynasty would be a forever dynasty, an endless dynasty, and the virgin birth is to be the sign of God's faithfulness to that problem.

Just think: for hundreds of years the children of Israel must have been asking themselves, ‘How can God's promise to David seemingly have failed? There's no king in Jerusalem. We can't remember when there was a king in Jerusalem.’ And God, through the virgin birth of Christ, shows His faithfulness to the promise. That's why God has Isaiah mention it to Ahaz here, because Ahaz doesn't believe that God can be trusted to perform His word. Ahaz thinks he needs to establish an alliance with pagan Assyria in order to secure his dynastic continuation. And Isaiah reminds Ahaz that there's something far bigger going on here than just the battle with the Northern Kingdom or with Assyria. But Ahaz is heedless. And Isaiah's message is that faith in God is what Ahaz needs. He's saying that trust in God and His promises, and not in Ahaz's designs and schemes and military alliances, is what is needed in Israel.

And consequently, as Ahaz does not heed the council of Isaiah or this promise or prophecy, Israel will wait half a millennium for the fulfillment of that promise, beyond hope. Hopelessness perhaps pervading the heart of Israel, beyond hope, in that time a king is born in the world. And Matthew records that birth in Matthew 1:18-23 and shows us the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. He says in Matthew 1:22, “All this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through His prophet, ‘Behold, the virgin will be with child and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.’”

And you’ll notice that Matthew emphasizes two things in this passage. First, that this child-king is going to save His people from their sins. That's going to be His great mission, His great work in coming into the world. The text that Derek will explore over the next two or three messages in this series will actually enable you to see that particular point of Matthew's elaborated as we look at some of those great Isaianic passages about the work of Jesus Christ. But the second thing that Matthew emphasizes is this: that this Jesus, this King, this son of David, this Messiah, this Savior–He is divine; He's God; He's God with us; He's God incarnate; He's not merely the Messiah of God the anointed One of God, He is the divine Messiah of God; He is God anointed of God. And you see Matthew and Luke emphasize this. Matthew emphasizes it by saying, “Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” Now he's speaking to people who speak Aramaic and maybe Hebrew. He doesn't need to say “which being translated is ‘God with us,’” but he says it to drive the point home. This is “God with us”; this is God in the flesh. This Immanuel is not just somehow like God being with us. He's not a visible human manifestation of God being with us; He's God with us.

You remember in Luke 1:28, how Luke has the angel saying to Mary, “The Lord is with you”? And that statement of the angel, that salutation of the angel, is literally pregnant with meaning. The Lord is with Mary in more ways than one. And then Luke 1:35 has the angel saying to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God.”

Now ask yourself, “Does the Old Testament teach that the Messiah would be divine, God in the flesh?” The answer is an emphatic, “YES!” And we see it in tonight's passage in Isaiah 9:6, a passage which is typical of what the prophets say about the Messiah to come. Before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His blessing on the reading and hearing of His word. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for its richness. We thank You for its truth. We thank You for how it points to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and we pray tonight that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word and above all to behold the Wonderful Counselor Himself. We ask, O Lord, as we meditate upon His person and as we contemplate His work, that we would be moved to wonder, love, and praise; that we would be helped in the living of these days to live for Your glory and to live in the enjoyment of God. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Now let me just ask you first, to look at your bulletin and notice how the libretto of Handel's Messiah renders this passage. It really is almost identical except for some capitalization to the King James Version. “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 Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Now let's look in your Bibles before you at this the word of God.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

And then go on to verse 7,

“There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The promise of the coming king, the son of David, the Messianic hope, the hope of the Messiah to come–is highlighted in the passage before us, in the passage that we've already heard sung. And Isaiah in this passage draws attention especially to His name, that is, the expression of His character or of His attributes, His reputation, His personal attributes, the character of the king. And I want to look at the four-part description of the character of the king or the attributes of the king in just a moment.

But before we get there I want you to note two things, again, by way of introduction. Notice, first of all, that Isaiah emphasizes that this child, this King, this Messiah, this Lord, His work will be on our behalf. It will be vicarious work, work in our place for our benefit. Notice how he stresses this, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” In other words, the child is born “for us,” to us on our behalf. The Hebrew emphasizes the child more than it emphasizes the “to us,” but the repetition of “a child born to us,” “a son is given to us” is there to remind us that this child is not coming for his own benefit. He's coming for our benefit. We need this child. We need him to do something on our behalf and, of course, this is something that is emphasized elsewhere in Isaiah. Remember Isaiah 7:14, where we're reminded that “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel,” God with us. God is going to draw near. The people of God need God to be near them; they need God to be working on their behalf; and so this prophecy is given: Isaiah 7:14.

And then of course, Luke chapter 2, verse 11 will describe the birth of this child this way, “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And so out of the blocks, Isaiah is reminding us that we need this child. This child is here to do something for us that we cannot do ourselves, and furthermore, He's given; He's not just born. He's given of God, God almighty. God the Father gives this child into the world. “He's a child and a Son”: language that clearly indicates His rule and reign for Israel; what was needed for the dynastic succession of David's line to fulfill the stipulations of 2 Samuel 7, “a king to reign forever.” And so a male child in the line of David was needed and this was that child.

Here's the second thing: His work is kingly. And the kingly work of this child is described in that beautiful phrase that we love to hear sung, “And the government shall be upon his shoulder.” He will bear the weight of the world for His people. The government, the rule, the reign, will be on His shoulder. The government of the kingdom of God will rest on His shoulders, and so His vicarious work is indicated in this passage, and His kingly work is indicated in this passage.

I. He will be a wonderful counselor, or a wonder of a counselor, a miraculous supernatural counselor.
But it is especially the character of the king that Isaiah wants to draw attention to in this passage. And so let's look at it. “His name will be called Wonderful Counselor.” Now in both the hymn we sang and in the King James Version which was used for the libretto of Handel's Messiah, “Wonderful” and “Counselor” are separated. That is a perfectly legitimate translation. Why do we think it is “Wonderful Counselor” rather than “Wonderful, Counselor”? Because the other terms in this set of four descriptions are two-fold. There are two parts to them. There's a descriptor and then a main description which is being modified by the first descriptor. And so for that reason we probably should take it “Wonderful Counselor,” but it's possible that it could be taken “Wonderful, Counselor.” The point here, however, is to address the wonder of His person and the wonder of His work. This child who is born and given upon whom the government rests is ‘a wonderful counselor’ or ‘a wonder of a counselor’ or ‘a miraculous, supernatural counselor.’ The wonder of His person is being brought to our attention, and, of course, that wonder of His person is seen in the virgin birth itself.

You know, I've shared with you the story before of the atheistic colleague who came by to visit C.S. Lewis at Christmas. And Lewis’ window was slightly cracked open and there were carolers singing down below and they happened to be singing about the virgin birth, and at that point his colleague said to him, “Isn't it good that we know that virgins don't have children.” And C.S. Lewis responded by saying, “Don't you think that they knew that virgins didn't have children?” I mean that's the point, isn't it? The very supernatural-ness of the entry of this child into the world is a testimony to the wonder of his person. His person is miraculous and supernatural. And we see that. He is God in the flesh and so His person is wondrous.

We mentioned this morning that the Hebrew word which is used here, translated in our Bibles as “Wonderful” is as close as you can find in the Hebrew vocabulary for “a miracle” or something which is supernatural. And so He is called a “Wonderful Counselor.” And He's called a “Wonderful Counselor” because of the wonder of His work as well. He is seen as a divine, wise, ruler of the people of God. The government is on His shoulders and the wonder of His counsel is apparent to all. Remember Ahaz was a very energetic and, frankly, clever man. But he was not a wise man by biblical standards. And in contrast, Isaiah looks forward to the day when God will give His people a wise ruler, a ruler who has wisdom which is from above.

And think of how the New Testament and how Isaiah and how other parts of Scripture ascribe this kind of divine wondrous heavenly wisdom to Jesus Christ. God made His counsel wonderful and His wisdom great. He is called “the Wisdom from God,” in 1 Corinthians 1:30; “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” Colossians 2:3. “And by His knowledge He will justify many,” Isaiah says in Isaiah 53:11, because He knows exactly what is needed to save sinners.

To switch over to another prophet to see how uniform is this testimony to the glorious, miraculous, supernatural, wonderful, heavenly wisdom of the coming Savior, consider Jeremiah 23:5, “‘Behold the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land.’” And so here's the first attribute of the King: He is a Wonderful Counselor in contrast to the un-wisdom of earthly kings who have led God's people into peril and into destruction. He will lead them in wisdom and His wisdom is wondrous.

II. He will be God Almighty, Mighty God, God the Warrior, El Gibbor, the Almighty God in the flesh.
There's a second thing done. His name will be called, Isaiah says, “Mighty God.” ‘This child will be,’ Isaiah says, ‘God Almighty, Mighty God, God the warrior, El Gibbor, the Almighty God in the flesh.’ Here is Isaiah's testimony to a divine Messiah in full flourish. He doesn't back down. He doesn't say, ‘He’ll be like a mighty God.’ He doesn't say, ‘He’ll be a God-like hero.’ He doesn't say, ‘It's almost as if God were in our midst.’ He says, “He's mighty God!” This child is mighty God.

And look, the New Testament authors get this; it's not just that Paul gets it. It's that John gets it and the author of Hebrews gets it. It's all over the New Testament, so John can begin his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then just a few verses later he’ll tell you who is that Word. The Word is seen in Jesus the Messiah, God in the flesh. Paul can say in Romans 9:5 that “the Christ according to the flesh”… “the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever.” He can say again in Titus chapter 2 verse 13 that we are “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” And the author of Hebrews in Hebrews chapter 1 verse 8 will say this, “Of the Son,” he says…“Of the Son,” he says, “YOUR THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER, AND THE RIGHTEOUS SCEPTER IS THE SCEPTER OF HIS KINGDOM.” The point is that this Messiah is not merely a man uniquely indwelt by the Spirit of God. He is not merely a man who uniquely shares the moral qualities of God. He's not merely a man uniquely used as an instrument in the hand of the Almighty God. He is God and man, divine nature/human nature in one person, the true and living God in the flesh. He is God Almighty. And here we see Isaiah's testimony to the divinity of the Savior, the divinity of the Messiah.

III. He will be the Everlasting Father or ruler of his people, the eternal king, and the endless monarch.
But there's a third thing, and this may puzzle you. He says, ‘He's not only Wonderful Counselor; He's not only Mighty God; He's Everlasting Father; He's Eternal Father. He will be the Everlasting Father or Ruler of His people, the eternal King, the endless Monarch. Now listen closely. This passage is not confusing the Messiah, the second person of the Trinity with the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. This descriptive term “Father” attributes rule to the Messiah. In Israel, those who were rulers, those who were magistrates, those who were judges, those who were kings and princes, were referred to as “fathers.” It was a reverential title for those who had been given the role of rule. And so when the Messiah is called the “Everlasting Father,” it is not confusing the Son with the Father; it is attributing to the Son the rule of a Father, the government of a Father. This isn't some sort of an anti-Trinitarian passage which suggests that Jesus is just one mode of expression of the one God's being. No, the Son, the Messiah, rules as a father, since rulers are accounted in Scriptures as fathers and it stressed here that His reign will know no end.

And that's something you see right away in verse 7. Look at verse 7, “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” Think of how tired Israel would have been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise by the time that Jesus came, already by the time that Isaiah announced it. The Northern Kingdom had gone through how many dynastic houses? How many capitals? And the Southern Kingdom after Ahaz would never be ruled by an independent Davidic monarch. And so for 500 years the people of God would wait for a ruler, and God says, ‘When He comes, His rule is never going to end. It's going to be stable. It's going to be forever.’ So He is going to be the eternal King, the endless Monarch of His people.

IV. He will be the Prince of Peace.
And fourth and finally, He is going to be the “Prince of Peace.” Isaiah says, “His name will be called Prince of Peace.” He will be the One who brings peace, the One who accomplishes peace, the One who gives peace and reigns in peace. And think how often in both the Old Testament and the New Testament this is emphasized of the Messiah. Think of Micah 5:4-5, “He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. This One will be our peace.” What is the announcement which comes from the angels to the shepherds abiding in their fields keeping watch over their flocks by night? “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace.” Why? Because the King of Peace is coming into the world–the Prince of Peace, the prophesied Prince of Peace is coming into the world. As Jesus prepares to depart for Gethsemane and the cross beyond it, what are the words that He leaves with His disciples? “Peace, I leave with you. My peace, I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you, do not let your hearts be troubled.”

It is no wonder that Luke says in Acts 10:36, “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ. He is Lord of all.” Paul will say in Romans 5 verse 1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in 2 Corinthians 5:19, he reminds us that Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. And in Ephesians 2:14, Paul can say, “He Himself is our peace.” And in Colossians 1:20, that is, “He has come to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or in heaven.” And in Hebrews 13:20 this glorious benediction, “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead that great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus Christ our Lord.” And so He is the One who accomplishes peace, peace with God through the forgiveness of sins, through the paying of the penalty due for the violated covenant relationship, so that we are brought back into peace with God and one another.

And so, Isaiah says, ‘When this child comes, He will be the Wonderful Counselor. He will be the Mighty God. He will be the Everlasting Father, and He will be the Prince of Peace.’ He's just drawing you a picture of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Next time you sing “Crown Him Lord of All” you contemplate some of these attributes, and you remember that long before that glorious hymn was written 150 years ago, Isaiah had given you the outline 600 years before the Messiah came into this world. 2,600 years ago, Isaiah had given you the outline of the character of your King. Amen.

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