The Sign of a Promise

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 7:14-16

No detail in the whole story of Jesus’ birth is more arresting than the fact that Jesus had no human father. He was “born of the Virgin Mary.” Yet this too was foretold in Old Testament prophecy, as we learn today in a program entitled, “The Sign of a Promise.”

Signs are very important in the Bible. A sign was a particular event or act, offered in confirmation of some promise made by God. A sign could be something supernatural – the miracles of Jesus are called “signs” in the Gospel of John. Or it might be some strange, inexplicable phenomenon, such as Gideon’s fleece lying soaked on dry ground. Or it could be merely an unusual sight, like a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. A sign could also be something quite ordinary, an event from everyday life, like a young woman having a baby, or a loaf of bread, broken and shared, and a cup of wine poured out and passed around a table. The main thing about a sign is that it is given to authenticate God’s Word; it is the sign of a promise.

The Old Testament Sign

The particular sign I’m considering today unfolds against the backdrop of a very complicated political scene in ancient Israel. The year is 735 B.C. King Ahaz of Judah rules in Jerusalem. Rezin was the king of Syria, with his capital in Damascus, and Pekah sat on the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. But these were all small fry. The big trouble was brewing up to the northeast, towards Ninevah, where the Assyrian Empire had emerged as the mightiest, most brutal power in the world. Assyria was like a huge hungry shark, eying its tasty neighbors to the south. And the little kingdoms there were swimming desperately around in circles. The problem was that they couldn’t agree on what to do. Rezin and Pekah wanted Ahaz to join them in a grand alliance against Assyria, but Ahaz would not cooperate. So Israel and Syria launched an expedition against Jerusalem instead. Ahaz and his people were terrified by this immediate threat. Then the prophet Isaiah appeared to talk to King Ahaz.

The message from God to the king via the prophet was heartening: “Don’t be afraid, you mustn’t panic, these two little kings who threaten you will burn out like a couple of smoldering branches. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘It will not take place, it will not happen'” (Isaiah 7:7, NIV). The Lord is sovereign – how often we need to be reminded of that! God is in control of things, not kings, politicians or generals. Such a basic truth, really, but what needless worry it would save us to always keep it in mind.

Then the Lord, through the prophet, offered a sign to confirm his promise and to strengthen the shaky confidence of King Ahaz, and what a wonderful sign it was. Here it is from Isaiah 7:14.

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.

Isaiah 7:14-16

So, what does this sign mean, exactly? It’s important to distinguish between what it meant in its immediate context – that is, what the sign’s meaning was for King Ahaz and the people of Judah in 735 B.C.; and what it means in light of the gospel story of Jesus’ birth to Mary – that is, what it means to you and me today.

From the Old Testament context it is clear that Isaiah is not speaking here first of all of a virgin birth in the distant future. The young woman – the Hebrew word Isaiah uses for her is almah, which means a girl of marriageable age, who in that culture would normally have been a virgin – this young woman will marry, conceive, and give birth to a son, all very soon. The key element of the sign given to King Ahaz is that before the child is very old, in fact, before he reaches the age when he can tell right from wrong, the threat from Ahaz’s enemies will have disappeared and Judah will enjoy abundance (vv. 15-16). But the most significant thing about the soon-to-be-born son is the name he is given here in Isaiah 7:14. He is to be called “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us” because his very existence is the most powerful indication that God has not abandoned his people.

This sign given to Ahaz king of Judah is a wonderful example of the multiple meanings of Biblical prophecy. A given sign or prediction will often have more than one meaning or fulfilment. The prophet who speaks or writes the prophecy may not even be aware of all that the Holy Spirit intends to convey through his words. In the case of Isaiah 7:14, the initial fulfilment came with the birth of a boy, born in the normal way to a young woman, whose life was a reminder of the promise of God. But the deeper meaning waited for the fulness of time, to be revealed this time not through a prophet but through an evangelist.

The New Testament Fulfilment

The Holy Spirit revealed through the gospel writer Matthew what the ultimate meaning of the sign first given to Ahaz was. “All this took place,” Matthew said of the birth of Jesus, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:22-23). Matthew does two things here to draw out the deeper meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy. First, he uses the Greek word parthenos to translate the Hebrew almah. While almah means simply “young woman,” parthenos can only mean a virgin. For the greater fulfilment the sign itself is greater – the child whose coming is the sign of God’s promise will be conceived in a supernatural way, without the aid of a human father, and will be born to a virgin mother. This special sign, this unique sign, points to the child’s unique nature. He is the God-man, God in the flesh. His birth is the great miracle of the incarnation.

The other thing Matthew does in quoting Isaiah is to draw out the meaning of the name “Immanuel.” For those of his readers who do not understand Hebrew, he translates it, “God with us.” That’s the ultimate meaning of the sign, and of the One to whom the sign points. This one word changes everything! Jesus is our Immanuel, our assurance that God really is with us. And if God is with us, can we doubt that God is for us? And if God is for us, who can be against us?

So this is God’s promise to you, the sign the Lord himself offers, so that whatever troubles threaten you, however great your worries, no matter who your enemies are, you can know for certain that he is with you. Jesus Christ is our Immanuel, the sign of the promise.