I’m in the early chapters of Matthew for my daily quiet time, but I don’t want to give you Christmas posts during the Easter season. And so I’ll write a post today that is appropriate for Good Friday.
Actually, this post has been on my mind for the past month or so, before Good Friday even entered my radar screen. When I was reading Zechariah and Malachi, I was going to comment on the tendency of the Israelites to fall continually into sin, even after the exile. Then, I got to Matthew 1, and my study of the prophets gave me thoughts about Matthew 1:21 and Jesus’ role as Savior. And so I’ve finally gotten to this post, and it comes at the right time!
In Matthew 1:21, an angel tells Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (NRSV).
What could this have meant to Joseph when he first heard it? The Jewish religion already had means of atonement: people repented to receive forgiveness, and they offered sin offerings for unintentional sins. Every Day of Atonement, the high priest would supervise a ceremony that released the sins of Israel into the wilderness, giving the nation a fresh start. Why would Jesus need to save his people from their sins, when Israel already had ways to get God’s forgiveness?
Often, Christian sermons and Jesus movies (including the controversial Last Temptation of Christ) present the following scenario: the Jews were looking for a political Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression, but God instead gave them Jesus, who was more interested in their spiritual salvation than their liberation from Rome. So was Joseph’s reaction to the angel, “He’ll deliver us from our sin? Is that all? I’m already a pretty decent guy. I do an honest day’s work and pay my bills. What I don’t like are these oppressive rulers! What are you going to do about that?”
Actually, I think that the angel’s message would have resonated with Joseph, if not the entire nation of Israel. Why? Because sin was continually tripping them up, dragging them down, and holding them back.
This is evident in the Old Testament story of Israel. The Israelites sinned through their idolatry, oppression of the weak, dishonesty, and adultery, and so God sent them into exile. During their time in Babylon, God promised to restore them to their land. He said that he would reconstitute the Davidic monarchy and defeat Israel’s Gentile enemies.
But that didn’t exactly happen. Sure, the Jews returned to their land, but there was no restoration of the Davidic monarchy, plus Israel was still subservient to a foreign power.
And the post-exilic prophets attributed Israel’s lackluster restoration to one crucial factor: sin. Third Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all point out that Israel is holding up the show when it comes to her restoration. She is doing many of the same sins that got her into exile in the first place (e.g., oppression of the weak, Sabbath breaking, etc.), along with some new ones (e.g., offering defective animals to God). And Ezra and Nehemiah discuss such sins in their narratives on post-exilic times. The post-exilic prophet Third Isaiah sums up the situation quite well: “See, the LORD’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
Plus, even after her exile, Israel did not feel fully forgiven. Ezra prayed to God, “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt” (Ezra 9:6-7). Even after Israel had taken her punishment, she didn’t feel like she could look God in the eye.
Israel needed spiritual salvation in order to possess political salvation. And God promised to accomplish this in the prophets. God wanted Israel to dwell in the land, and yet her doing so was contingent on her obedience to him. Consequently, God vowed to spiritually regenerate the people of Israel, to program them so that they would naturally avoid sin and pursue righteousness (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-28). And God also said that he’d forgive them and cease to remember their sins (Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 7:19).
So what went through Joseph’s mind when he heard the angel’s promise? Probably that God was about to redeem Israel from her continuous cycle of sin and punishment, which continued even after the exile. A sinful human nature led to Israel’s exile and managed to follow her home, allowing the same problems to creep up even after her restoration. God would free her from the penalty of sin through the death of Jesus Christ. And, more importantly, he would deliver her from sin itself.
N.T. Wright’s ideas planted some of the seeds for this post, so I want to give him credit. Happy Good Friday!