But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1:20-21 (NRSV)
Jesus – or Yeshua – was a common name among first century Jews. It is a slight variant of the word meaning “to deliver” or “to rescue.” It is also (more or less) a contraction of the name Joshua (Yehoshua), which may call to mind Joshua of the conquest of Canaan or, what may be a more intentional allusion, Joshua the High priest as we find him in Zechariah 3:
Then the angel of the Lord assured Joshua, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Now listen, Joshua, high priest, you and your colleagues who sit before you! For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.”
Zechariah 3:6-10 (NRSV)
In that passage, the ordaining and experience of Joshua is a prelude to God taking away the guilt of the land. This does not simply mean everyone’s internal spiritual guilt – it means He will remove the penalty of exile. This is why it ends with a vision of a free community. “Remove the guilt of this land in a single day” is virtually synonymous with “I will remove the consequences of the people’s sins in a single day.” According to the Old Testament, this means things like gathering the exiles together, forgiving them, and restoring them to Israel’s status as the head of a train of nations coming to YHWH. It is a renewal of Israel in every way she can be renewed.
The prophecy in Zechariah 2, right before the quoted passage, is a plea to the exiles to take hope because their deliverance is near, and the figure in the prophetic imagination that captures this concept of the man through whom God will accomplish this is Joshua the High Priest.
We have already seen how Matthew begins his story with Abraham, David, and exile to Babylon, and sets Jesus up as the next big event. An allusion to Joshua as he appears in Israel’s prophetic expectation fits right in.
This is the category that defines for us “save his people from their sins.” “His people” is Israel, and to “save his people from their sins” does not mean primarily some internal, spiritual change, but the rather the whole package Israel is waiting for – not just national repentance and re-commitment (although there is that), but forgiveness, healing, freedom from oppression in all its forms, and end to the exile, and a re-establishment of Israel at the head of leading the nations to YHVH.
The story Matthew is interested in telling is one about the promised deliverance of Israel and everything that goes along with that.
This is the beauty of simply listening to Matthew tell this story before we jump in with our own. Matthew lets us know that we are not the center of this story. He will show us that our personal, individual repentance and forgiveness are a single note in a symphony that started playing millennia ago and will keep on playing long after we are gone and forgotten.
That story is the story of a God who wanted a world filled with His image and the beauty, peace, and love of that community. It’s a story of how forces have tried to derail and destroy this dream, but He continues to find the unlikeliest of ways to pull it back on track. It’s a story of a people – His people – building the new creation wherever they go and dispensing God’s own forgiveness, healing, restoration, justice, and love.
Does that world not move you? Does a God who wants that world not move you? Do you not want to be a part of that mission – joining Him in His dream and making it a concrete reality by the power of His own Spirit?
Because He has expanded His partnership to include Gentiles and sinners. He has invited the lame, the poor, and the blind to attend His banquet. That’s you and me. It turns out that the strong, the rich, and the sighted were kind of a disappointment to Him. And where this whole crazy thing is taking us, it’s taking us together, and it’s taking us into the very renewal of mankind and the world around us.
This story is so much bigger than a story about how to avoid Hell. God is calling us higher and deeper, and Matthew is going to tell you his piece of it.
- If someone “signs up” to be a Christian, what kind of project are they signing up for?
- What does it mean to describe yourself as “saved” if you look at that term through Matthew’s eyes?