He Shall Save His People
THE VOICE OF ONE IMPLORING
WHEN nearly two thousand years ago, our Lord was generated in the
form of humanity in the womb of Mary, a messenger appeared to Joseph and declared:
Now she shall be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus, for
He shall be saving His people from their sins (Matt.1:20,21). Jesus came to save.
But there was no immediate deliverance of Israel from their sins. In fact Matthew chapter
2 tells of the political opposition to the little Boy as King of the Jews
(2:2). Instead of saving His people Jesus was saved from a massacre within Israel by being
taken outside the land. Joseph and Mary took the child and fled into Egypt
Meanwhile the sins
of pride and jealousy and deceit and murder continued within Israel, and the result was
lamentation and much anguish (Matt.2:18).
events cannot keep the promise of Matthew 1:21 from being fulfilled, but in making the
sins of the nation more evident with the resulting sufferings ever multiplying, they
prepare the people for the appreciation of Gods saving work. They add to the
accumulating evidence that Israel is unable to save themselves, and if they are to be
saved they must be saved by the Saviour.
THE KING OF THE JEWS
King had come, but not yet the kingdom. The Saviour had been born, but not yet the
salvation born in realization. Nevertheless, when the King reigns He will reign not only
as Ruler and Judge, but as Saviour too. God had promised this as described, for example,
by Zechariah the prophet (Zec.9:9):
Exult exceedingly, daughter of Zion!
Raise a joyful shout, daughter of
Behold, Your King shall come
Righteous and bringing salvation
is He . . . .
The saving work of
the King is in view in other prophecies as well, though not always expressed with these
exact words. In Micah 5:2,4, which is cited in Matthew 2:6, the terms are
Ruler and shepherd, but the point is the same. God intends to
deliver His people Israel by means of Jesus, the King Who will shepherd them in the
strength of Yahweh (Micah 5:4).
JOHN THE BAPTIST
years passed before John comes imploring the nations repentance, for near is
the kingdom of the heavens (Matt.3:1). This call for repentance (a change in mind)
reflects the words of Yahweh through Ezekiel: . . . turn about and
turn back from all your transgressions . . . and make yourselves a new
heart [the symbol for the mind] and a new spirit (Ezek.18:30-32); and again, I
assuredly am not delighting in the death of the wicked one, but rather that the wicked one
may turn back from his way and live (Ezek.33:11).
To be sure, the
message, both through Ezekiel and through John, seems at first glance to place the whole
responsibility for changing their mind and turning back and living righteously on the
sinners. But the place of Jesus as Saviour is not made clear by a word that centers on
what the people must do. Is Jesus to be manifested and known as Saviour from sins simply
by telling sinners to stop sinning? Is this the fulfillment of Matthew 1:21?
Indeed it is not.
The call for repentance does not bring the changes in thinking and acting that are needed,
and so the imperative must ultimately be seen as a declarative founded on the promise that
the Saviour Himself will save His people.
In accord with this,
John is presented in Matthew 3:3 as the one spoken of in Isaiah 40:3. He is preparing the
way for the Saviour, and the call to repentance is not a limiting qualification to this
presentation. The whole of Isaiah 40 defines the Saviour as the One Who actually saves His
people, not One Who merely instructs them to save themselves. Note the following
declarations from that chapter (verses 1,2,10,11,29):
Comfort, oh comfort My people!
Says your Elohim.
Speak to the heart of Jerusalem,
And proclaim to her
That her enlistment is fulfilled,
And her depravity is dealt with
That she has taken from the hand
Shelters from all her
sins . . . .
Behold, my Lord Yahweh shall come
And His arm ruling for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His wage is before him.
Like a shepherd He shall graze His
In His arms He shall gather the
And in His bosom He shall carry
them . . . .
He is giving vigor to the faint,
And to the one who is without
He is increasing
staunchness . . . .
In keeping with
Israels calling, the promise was for a sheltering from sins; justification as
presented in Pauls evangel was not yet in view. But, that salvation is Gods
provision is true of every calling. The people who are told in Ezekiel 18:31 to make
themselves a new heart and a new spirit are themselves to be made new by Yahweh,
according to Ezekiel 36:26. I will give you a new heart and a new
spirit. Because of His spirit which He grants to them they will obey1 all Yahwehs
statutes and ordinances (Ezek.36:27).
also with repentance. The people must change their minds, but ultimately it will be seen
that doing this is Gods endowment. Peter completed the message begun by John when he
declared to Israel, Now the God of our fathers rouses Jesus, on Whom you lay hands,
hanging Him on a pole. This Inaugurator and Saviour, God exalts to His right hand
to give repentance to Israel and the pardon of sins (Acts 5:30,31).
Repentance and the
producing of fruit worthy of repentance are presented by John as prerequisites of the
kingdom of the heavens. But the people are sinners. The most disciplined of them and the
most intelligent are Progeny of vipers (Matt.3:7). How can such sinners and
hypocrites produce such fruit? It will never happen by human strength in following
commands, or by fear of punishment. It can happen only by Gods own rescue through
His Son, Who will save His people from their sins.
inability must be made clear, and that is vividly being made known to us in the book of
Matthew, in the account of our Lords ministry and Israels rejection of Him.
Consequently, we find that the promise of Matthew 1:21 seems shoved to the background as
we listen, in chapter 2, to the lamentations and anguish of the Rachels of
Israel, and follow in chapter 3 the sobering warnings of John.
THE IMPENDING INDIGNATION
Jesus would also do after him, John the baptist speaks sternly in strong words to the
Pharisees and Sadducees. The words of rebuke are well deserved, and the prophecies of
divine indignation ahead are timely, but they must not be severed from their whole context
concerning the Saviour-King. Religious zeal, with its failures covered up by hypocrisy
(the Pharisees) and outward assurance with its inner weaknesses covered up by practiced
pretense (the Sadducees) are great offenses, and there are times throughout human history
when the indignation of God is poured out against these and all such sin. But divine
indignation is not the end of Gods dealings with sinners, nor in any way an end in
itself. The end in view is presented in passages like Matthew 1:21 and 2:6, and though
that goal is not immediately realized it will not be abandoned or even modified because of
inevitable human failure and the necessities of divine judgment.
The idea that
Gods anger is permanent and that it is to be eternally expressed against a portion
of humanity in unending torments of hell, or in the hopelessness of annihilation, is
itself an offense against God. It involves the pharisaical notion that certain human
beings are considered more important than others by their Creator. It involves as well a
sadducean indifference concerning Gods operations. It makes confusion, at best, of
the meaning of divine love, righteousness and wisdom, if not emptying these terms of all
THE AX AND THE FIRE
the kingdom had drawn near it was not only appropriate but necessary for John and the Lord
to point to the day of indignation which must precede the blessings of Christs rule.
The figure of
fire is used freely of our Lords ministry in Matthews account. John the
Baptist not only warned them that the ax was already lying at the root of the trees, and
those which did not produce fine fruit would be hewn down and cast into the fire, but he
characterized our Lords ministry as two kinds of baptism, one in holy spirit and one
winnow out the grain in the nation, yet He would also burn up the chaff with fire
unextinguished (Matt.3:10-12). So that, even in Israel itself, the kingdom judgments are
figured by fire. Our Lord repeats the Baptists warning with special reference to the
This had been made
clear by the prophets, who sometimes even used the figures of speech used here by John.
Note how Isaiah had spoken of hewing down trees, and of fire in, in describing that future
day of vengeance (10:33,34; 34:8-10):
Behold the Lord, Yahweh of hosts
Shall lop off the foliage with
And those high of stature shall be
And the haughty, they shall be
He will fell the thickets of the
wildwood with iron,
And Lebanon shall fall before the
Noble One . . . .
For Yahweh has a day of vengeance,
A year of repayment for Zions
. . . its earth will
become pitch blazing forth;
By night and by day it shall not be
For the eon its smoke shall
ascend . . . .
These things will
occur, but they cannot stop the salvation provided by the Saviour from eventually
embracing the whole of Israel and the nations round about as well, and, although it was
not specifically revealed to John, this achievement will eventually embrace all mankind
view of the significance of the Name Jesus and of His purpose in coming into this world it
is impossible that Matthew 3:12 can be speaking of an everlasting hell. Nevertheless, as
incomprehensible as it may be, this idea which erodes the very foundation of evangelical
truth has been implanted into this passage.
To translate this
passage using the term unquenchable and thus to indicate that the fires must
burn forever, is to say that even before our Lord began His ministry, it was possible that
He would not save some of His people, even many, from their sins. Indeed, if repentance
and a turning away from wickedness is seen as wholly dependent on the individual sinner,
it would already seem unlikely, if not impossible, that anyone would ever be saved from
however, is easily cleared away by recognizing that the word unquenchable is a
mistranslation. There is no contradiction between Matthew 1:21 and 3:12 because the Greek
adjective here indicates merely that the fire will not be quenched by anyone. It is not
that it is some kind of super-blaze that must burn on endlessly, but rather it will burn
without interference until it has burned up the chaff that fuels it.
The language here,
as most agree, indicates a parallel with Isaiah 66:24, which reads in the Authorized
Version: And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have
transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be
quenched . . . . Let us note this carefully. The passage says
the fire will not be quenched, but it does not say it is unquenchable. This is a
significant point, for in Isaiah 34:10, quoted earlier, and in at least two other passages
from the prophets, the same language is used of fire that clearly is not eternal. Jeremiah
speaks of the gates and citadels of Jerusalem being devoured by fire that shall not be put
out (Jer.17:27). And Ezekiel tells of the trees in the Negev being burned with a blaze
that also shall not be quenched (Ezek.20:47). In these cases the fire continues without
interruption or interference until all that it is burning is burned up.
It is puzzling that
this distinction between unquenchable and not quenched has not
been recognized. The New English Bible translation, for example, says of the fire,
in both Jeremiah 17:27 and Ezekiel 20:47, that it shall not be put out; but of
the fire in Matthew 3:12 that it can never go out. In this way, some hope is
preserved for those coming under the judgments described by the earlier prophets, for a
fire that is not put out can still burn out. But hope is, in effect, entirely cut off for
some by this translation of Johns introduction to Jesus, the Saviour!
John was no more
speaking of some kind of a miracle fire that could not possibly go out than were Isaiah,
Jeremiah and Ezekiel. By translating his words in such a way, the faithful imploring of
John is changed to a threat of unbelievable horror that effectively eclipses the evangel
concerning the Saviour.
the account of Johns ministry with his baptizing of Jesus and the words of God
out of the heavens, saying, This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I
delight (Matt.3:17). God has no delight in the death of the wicked
(Ezek.33:11), but He does delight in His Son Who is the Saviour of sinners. Uncertainty
concerning the results of Johns imploring and the certainty of stern judgment
against human sin cannot negate the expression of love and delight in this divine
announcement, paralleling in fullest harmony the announcement of Matthew 1:21, but rather
serve only to make that announcement all the more glorious.
1. The Hebrew word translated obey in Ezekiel 36:27
literally means do and is the same word translated make earlier in
this verse and in Ezekiel 18:31.
2. A. E. Knoch: Unsearchable Riches, vol.35, pp.272,273.
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