Jesus was born during the late Second Temple Period, a period charged with messianic expectation. For hundreds of years Second Temple Jews suffered beneath the foreign rule of one pagan empire after another. This instability energized the hopes of God’s people for deliverance and vindication. “Where is Messiah?” was the cry of every good Jew. They longed for Yahweh to deliver them from Roman rule by the hand of his Messiah just as he delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression in the days long ago. They were a people marked by the expectation that their God, the one true God, would intervene into human history, defeat their enemies, and reestablish David’s throne.
Messianic expectation was expressed in the naming of baby boys with one of the more common Jewish names of the first century—Jesus. It’s the Greek form of the Old Testament name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh is salvation” (also “Savior” or “God saves”). It was a constant reminder that God would one day send a Savior to set his people free.
Imagine you’re a weary Jew in the first century. You’ve lived under the thumb of pagan rule your entire life. Your days are overshadowed by Roman oppression. You’re impoverished because of injustice. You walk through the streets of Jerusalem with the nagging sense that God has forgotten his people… he’s forgotten you. You’re losing hope with each breath. Suddenly you hear the faint call of a mother beckoning her son Jesus in for dinner. You pause, remembering afresh “Yahweh is salvation.” You close your eyes and breathe in a deep sigh of relief. One day Yahweh would indeed send his Messiah to save his people—of that you are sure.
Into this cultural context Matthew writes,
“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.
A Special Boy With A Special Mission
Jesus’ name may have been common but there was nothing common about Jesus of Nazareth. From his miraculous conception to his messianic mission, this little boy was altogether different. He was conceived from the Spirit (1:18, 20); he was born to save God’s people from their sins (1:21); he was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (1:22-23); and he was Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). He wasn’t just another Jewish boy symbolically named for God’s salvation; he was God’s salvation. This could only mean one thing—the advent of Israel’s long-awaited deliverer was upon them!
Unfortunately, the deliverance Jesus brought wasn’t the deliverance expected. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman Empire thereby rescuing Israel from external tyranny and setting them free (in the expected sense). He did come to save, but the ironical twist was that he came to save them from themselves! He came to set humanity free from the internal slavery of sin and brokenness. His messianic mission was to defeat Satan, sin, and death through his own death on the cross so that all who trust in him might be set free from sin. R.T. France further clarifies Jesus’ mission:
“His ministry will begin in the context of a call to repentance from sin (3:2, 6; 4:17)…he will also assert his ‘authority on earth to forgive sins’ (9:6). His mission will culminate in his death ‘as a ransom for many’ (20:28), ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (26:28). [The point is… t]his son of David will not conform to the priorities of popular messianic expectation.”
Many rejected Jesus (and continue to reject him today) because they failed to grasp that their deepest problem was the human heart. But the human heart has always been the problem. Israel, of all people, should have known this! They were the prototype of darkened hearts leading to personal enslavement. After being set free from slavery in Egypt, they enslaved themselves spiritually in their idolatry and worldly passions.
Biblical history testifies again and again to the fact that they didn’t need a national liberator; they needed a heart liberator. Isn’t this the need of all humanity? We need our hearts set free from sin so that we might run in the path of God’s commands (Ps. 119:32). And the only final cure for the human heart is bound up in the person and work of Christ—a special boy with a special mission.
Your Life Hinges On This Boy’s Name & Identity
Matthew writes his birth narrative in such a way as to invite thoughtful reflection on who this liberator is and what he came to do. The name Jesus reveals what he does—saves people from sin. While the title Immanuel reveals who he is—God with us. Your entire life hinges upon the implications of Jesus’ name and identity.
1. Through Jesus you experience God’s salvation
Christmas typically conjures up ideas of magical holiday moments and feel-good Hallmark movies. The season dances around the idea of salvation—someone saves Christmas, someone saves old Scrooge, someone saves the Grinch—but all too often the true salvation story is missed. The most “magical” news of all is that in Christ God has saved us from sin and death!
The gospel tells us that we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-2) and children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We didn’t do or say bad things occasionally; we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), alienated and hostile in mind (Col. 1:21). Every single one of us stood condemned under God’s righteous judgments and there was nothing we could do to work our way out of this death sentence (Rom. 3:10-20).
However, this is good news of great joy because God intervened into human history in the form of a little baby boy named Jesus and promised to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He did what you and I were impotent to do—he made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). He put forth the perfect spotless Lamb, Jesus Christ, as the propitiation for our sin so that we could be justified by faith in him (Rom. 5:1). We have complete forgiveness and cleansing of sin by the blood of Jesus!
I’ve been a believer for thirteen years now and every Advent season I’m reminded afresh that “God saves” and he has done so through the coming of his Son Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to condemn “dirty sinners”; he came to bring life to the dead, healing to the broken, and hope to the downtrodden. He came to save messed up people like you and me. If you repent of sin and place your trust in Jesus, he delights to take away your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. After all, Jesus was literally born to save people from their sins. It’s what he does!
2. Through Immanuel you experience God’s presence
The title “Immanuel” refers to Jesus’ deity (he is God) while simultaneously conveying his nearness to mankind (he is with us). The eternal Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). In Christ, God condescended to man; he came to us as one of us so that we might know him and be known by him.
The fact that Jesus is Immanuel comforts during the holidays. Since God has come to you, you know you can come to him. You can come to him in your loneliness and fear and brokenness. December can be a bitter month for many as they find themselves alone or abandoned. I’ll never forget the first Christmas after my parents split. Long December by the Counting Crows was inescapably popular and Illinois seemed particularly gray (as if it wasn’t already gray enough!). Over the holidays we were “shipped” back and forth between houses as Adam Duritz slowly cooed me into depression. Almost twenty years later I still remember the profound loneliness I felt that Christmas. I was certain I would never feel comfort or peace again.
When I met Jesus, I happened upon a most beautiful truth—through my union with him God was with me. The Spirit of Christ took up residence in my heart and sealed me with his presence; thus I was never truly alone. God was with me during seasons of isolation and loneliness; he was with me in great disappointment; he was even with me during lonely Christmases.
Take comfort in the fact that Jesus is Immanuel; he is God with you.He is with you to comfort you but also to send you out to comfort others. Notice that Matthew bookends his Gospel with the promise of God’s presence. When Jesus came to earth he came as Immanuel, the manifestation of God’s presence with the power to save. When Jesus left the earth he promised this same enduring presence to all future disciples as he gave them the Great Commission. Immanuel promises to be with his disciples in every age to encourage, equip, and empower them to make disciples of all nations.
In this way Advent is missional. It reminds us that God sought us out and came to us in the incarnation. He brought us eternal comfort in the person and work of Christ. We’ve been promised that he is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Through his indwelling Spirit we are to seek out the lost and take that same message of God’s reconciling presence through Christ to the nations.
Who has God laid on your heart this season? Who needs to be comforted with the very comfort you’ve received in Christ? Christmas provides ample opportunities for sharing the gospel with others. Be bold in your witness knowing that God’s presence will empower you as you speak life, peace, and joy to those around you.
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
This Advent season create moments to stand in awe of Jesus, the one born to set God’s people free. Rejoice in him, the one who delivered you from the suffocating grip of sin and death. Take heart, your sins have been forgiven! Could there be a greater gift?
And, in the midst of all the Christmas chaos, find rest in Immanuel. God is with you—with you to comfort you in loneliness and with you to encourage you on mission. Worship him for his first advent and look forward in anticipation to his second coming. May you see past the consumerist frenzy long enough to cry out “Come, Thou long expected Jesus!”
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
 France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007. Print.
Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.
Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.