“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Matt. 1:21
Far too often, Christians fail to consider the project of the biblical writer within his context as they set out to study or understand the content of his work. One of the best questions we should be asking ourselves as we study the bible is, what was the author doing? This is always a very good question to ask of the immediate, larger, and overall context of every book we study. And here, in Matthew, just a very short way into the document, we should be asking this question of this text. Why record this incident of Joseph’s dream? What is the point? Matthew wrote his book for a very specific purpose. As he wrote it, he was attempting to do something very specific. Thinking about Matthew (and every other document that makes up Scripture) in this way will only help us better understand, not only the overall thrust of the document, but the smaller portions as well, like this one for example.
What is Matthew doing? First and foremost, one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent theological theme running through Matthew is the view that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew repeated calls on OT prophecy as proof of this fact, again and again. However, we should note that due care should be exercised as we attempt to establish the main themes in Matthew. Carson writes, Matthew’s dominant themes are several, complex, and to some extend disputed. [An Introduction to The New Testament] However, the claim that one of Matthew’s themes is to present Jesus as the promised Messiah is far less controversial than most others. Other themes that seem to surface in Matthew are: the sinful refusal of the Jewish leaders to recognize their Messiah, the promised eschatological kingdom, among others. It is telling that the announcement of the Messiah would center around the Messianic Mission itself; to save His People from their sins. The Messiah is coming to save His people from their sins.
What is in a name? The angel tells Joseph that he will call the child’s name, Jesus. Zerwick informs us that this could be a categorical imperative. In other words, it is not beyond reason to see the angel’s instruction as a command rather than as simply a prophecy. Who among us would here such a statement and ignore it? Jesus is a Greek transliteration for the name יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, or Joshua. Heb. 4:8 uses the Greek Ἰησοῦς, normally rendered Jesus, for Joshua. The name literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” It is literally the oldest known Hebrew name that contains the tetragrammaton יהוה, YHWH. Matthew, from the very start attaches the name of Jesus with YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. Immediately we are seeing that Matthew has a keen interest in depicting Jesus as divine. This was no ordinary man as far as Matthew was concerned. “More than simply explaining the etymology of Jesus’s name, the angelic announcement indicates that the salvation which Jesus will accomplish is specifically for his people. The remainder of Matthew fleshes out the identity of “his people,” often with surprising results.” [From Heaven He Came and Sought Her – Gibson & Gibson]
The Mission of Jesus, as Matthew portrays it, was to save “his people” from their sins. The Greek phrase, ton laon autou, is a possessive genitive, the people of (belonging to) him. The mission of Jesus, according to Matthew then, was very narrow. Jesus came to save his people from their sin. We see this concept emerge in Matthew in two other places, 20:28 and 26:28. In Matt. 20:28, Jesus said that the Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many. It is best to see this text in light of Isaiah 53 where the suffering servant is said to “justify the many.” He is also said to have borne the sin of many. “The many” points to a specific number whose identity is already known prior to the mission itself. Another factor, pointed out by Matthew Harmon, is the use of the word “ransom.” This indicates that a specific payment has been made and a payment is always made for something specific. Finally, the Greek preposition anti is a very telling little preposition. Louw-Nida says, (with the genitive): a marker of a participant who is benefited by an event, usually with the implication of some type of exchange or substitution involved—‘for, on behalf of. This preposition naturally came to denote three categories:
- equivalence, where one entity is set over against another as its equivalent
- exchange, where one object, opposing or distinct from another, is given or taken in return for the other
- substitution, where one object, that is distinguishable from another, is given or taken instead of the other
[Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis]
Harmon points out, “These texts emphasize Jesus dying for a particular group of people rather than for humanity in general.” The new covenant language of Jeremiah 31 requires such a state of affairs, not to mention the language in Ezekiel regarding the “heart of flesh.” As one surveys Isaiah 53, Jeremiah 31, and Ezekiel 36, it seems clear enough that a specific price was going to be paid for a specific item. And that item would be the covenant people of God who were determined by God in eternity past for lack of a better term.
Jesus did not make salvation possible for all men without exception. Jesus actually came with the intention of saving a very specific number of people. And what Jesus intends to do, He does. The idea that Jesus just unlocked the gate to salvation and now the rest is up to men and women who are willing simply does not reflect the teachings of Scripture. Jesus is not standing around literally begging and pleading with men and women to just give him a chance and let him show them what he can do. This sort of thinking reflects very poor theology top to bottom. It is a reflection of a very poor understanding of God, Christ, Sin, and Man. When Jesus died and rose again, “the many” were pardoned and justified. All that was left was for the Holy Spirit to apply that work in time to those whom God has chosen. Amen! Even so, come Lord Jesus.