He Shall Save His People
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 (Matt.2:13-18).
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).
Such intervening 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 God’s 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
The 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 Jerusalem!
Behold, Your King shall come to you!
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
More years passed before John comes imploring the nation’s 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 benevolently,
That she has taken from the hand of Yahweh
Shelters from all her sins . . . .
Behold, my Lord Yahweh shall come with steadfastness,
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 drove;
In His arms He shall gather the lambkins together,
And in His bosom He shall carry them . . . .
He is giving vigor to the faint,
And to the one who is without virility
He is increasing staunchness . . . .
In keeping with Israel’s calling, the promise was for a sheltering from sins; justification as presented in Paul’s evangel was not yet in view. But, that salvation is God’s 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 obey
1 all Yahweh’s statutes and ordinances (Ezek.36:27).
So also with repentance. The people must change their minds, but ultimately it will be seen that doing this is God’s 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 God’s own rescue through His Son, Who will save His people from their sins.
Nevertheless, human inability must be made clear, and that is vividly being made known to us in the book of Matthew, in the account of our Lord’s ministry and Israel’s 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
As 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s operations. It makes confusion, at best, of the meaning of divine love, righteousness and wisdom, if not emptying these terms of all meaning whatsoever.
THE AX AND THE FIRE
Because 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 Christ’s rule.
“The figure of fire is used freely of our Lord’s ministry in Matthew’s 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 Lord’s ministry as two kinds of baptism, one in holy spirit and one in fire.
“He would 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 Baptist’s warning with special reference to the false prophets.”
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 terror,
And those high of stature shall be hacked down,
And the haughty, they shall be abased.
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 Zion’s cause.
. . . its earth will become pitch blazing forth;
By night and by day it shall not be quenched;
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 (1 Tim.4:10).
In 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 their sins.
This problem, 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 John’s 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.
Matthew concludes the account of John’s 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 John’s 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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