“The Virgin Will Conceive”
December 8, 2013
The prophecies that came true are true!
I. The Historical Fulfillment
II. The Messianic Fulfillment
One of the greatest things that can happen to you as a believer is that you come to have confidence that the Bible is true. Proverbs 30:5 says “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” I love the word ‘proves’ in there. The Word of God does not just assert truth without proof, but proves itself through fulfilled promises and fulfilled prophecies. So part of coming to have confidence in God’s word happens when a promise like ‘he is a shield to those who take refuge in him’ becomes a reality in our lives. We find that in times of trouble or distress or turmoil there is something very real about placing ourselves emotionally and spiritually ‘in him’ and receiving his comfort and protection. God’s word proves true as he keeps his promises.
But God’s word also proves true as he fulfills prophecy. This more external proof can be very powerful. This is why Satan, the father of lies, goes to such great lengths to undermine the truth of fulfilled prophecy. He wants to destroy our confidence in God’s Word with lies: ‘that never really happened;’ ‘science proves that’s impossible;’ ‘that was just a coincidence;’ ‘that doesn’t mean what people say it means;’ ‘that was just a story people believed in the old days.’ All of these aim at keeping us from confidence in the Word of God.
Today I want to address those attacks on truth, especially the lie that prophecy never meant what we say it means and was never really fulfilled. We’re in Isaiah 7, the source of one of the most beloved and important Christmas prophecies: ‘a virgin will conceive and bear a son.’ Critics want to undermine the importance of this prophecy by saying that it’s impossible, that it never meant what people think it means, or that it Matthew was deceptive or deceived when he applied it to the birth of Christ. If you buy these lies, you start down a slippery slope that leads to disbelief in Scripture and loss of confidence in its truth.
Today we’ll look at Isaiah 7:10-17 with an eye to its historical fulfillment and its messianic fulfillment, to see that God’s word is true because the prophecies are true. Isaiah 7:1 sets the historical context: “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. The year is 734 B. C. Ahaz is king of Judah in Jerusalem. But he is not a king like David. Ahaz worshipped idols and even offered his son as a burnt offering.
Pekah is the king of Israel. He’s not of the royal family: he made himself king by killing the last one. Rezin is from Aram, which is Syria. For a long time Syria was one of the chief enemies of Israel. Now the new threat of Assyria is at hand, and Israel and Syria think they can strengthen their position by allying to attack Judah. They split up to defeat Judah’s army, but when Syria joins Israel before the gates of Jerusalem, “the heart of the king, and the heart of all the people trembled like the trees of the forest in the mouth of the wind.”
In that terror, Ahaz does what we all do too often: he makes his own plan. He does not trust in God to rescue him, but men. II Kings tells us Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, "I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me." How foolish is this? It’s asking a hurricane to protect you from a rain shower. But God graciously intervenes to give Ahaz a chance to repent. In verses 3-9 Isaiah confronts Ahaz and promises the two smoldering stubs of firewood, Israel and Syria will not triumph over Judah. Verse 7: “thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass’”
Then God gives Ahaz a chance to receive proof that this rescue will be accomplished. We’ll look at today’s text both in terms of the historical fulfillment, in Isaiah’s day, and the ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah. Isaiah 7:10-17 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
Isaiah says to Ahaz, ask the Lord for a sign, any sign, from a sign up in the heavens, to a sign down in the oceans. God is willing to go the extra mile to show that his hand is with Judah, and that the prophecy Isaiah has spoken will come true. But Ahaz is hardened into his own plans. He makes a pious response "I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test." Clearly this is just an excuse to continue with his own plan, to avoid needing to put faith in God’s plan. And Isaiah, speaking God’s frustration in his own voice says “Oh Ahaz, everyone around you knows you’ve invited in the hurricane; now God himself is sighing over you because you won’t even accept his help.”
So Ahaz is in the same place we sometimes live; we aren’t confident God’s word is true, so we prefer our way to God’s way. Our way seems more reasonable to us; God’s way requires faith in his supernatural care. But we fool ourselves just as Ahaz did if we think doing things our way is going to have better results than taking God at his word. So God graciously promises that he will give Ahaz a sign anyway, better than anything he could have asked for.
In fact I think God's promise of Immanuel is better than Isaiah himself expected it would be when he uttered it. How can that be? Doesn't he know what he is prophesying? Yes, but prophecy is frequently complex. I think Isaiah saw the thing fulfilled in his own day, and later, as he compiled the book that recorded his prophecies he was able to show that there was a larger fulfillment coming.
Let's look first at the prophecy itself. “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” God had already told Isaiah to give his own son the name Shear Jashub, meaning ‘a remnant will return.’ It wasn’t the child but the promise in his name that was significant. Now God will give another child, and he will be called ‘God is with us,’ Immanuel. And again, it is his name that becomes the significant prophecy. This child reveals the timing for the defeat of Judah’s enemies. Verse 16 tells us that before he’s old enough to know right from wrong, the land of the two kings who are attacking will be devastated. And that certainly happened: Damascus fell to the king of Assyria within two years. Israel was devastated and finally fell in 722 BC.
But God also used Ahaz’s plan to devastate Judah. The king of Assyria, of course, did not honor his agreement; he attacked and destroyed most of Ahaz’s realm. Isaiah predicts this, verse 17: “The Lord will bring on you, Ahaz, and your people, Judah a time unlike any since the division of the Kingdom. He will bring on you the king of Assyria.” God says that this will happen by the time the boy named ‘Immanuel’ is two or three years old – by then he will be eating curds and honey. This sounds like a good thing, but in that culture, as chapter 8 shows, this represents destruction of the crops and survival by scavenging.
Ahaz wouldn’t stand firm. He had no faith that God’s word or God’s sign would prove true. But it did. I suspect in that day there was a young woman, perhaps from the royal family, who got married and bore a son, who at God's direction through Isaiah, was named “Immanuel." And so the prophecy was fulfilled and both Ahaz’s enemies and his own country were overrun by the Assyrians.
Yet Matthew, sees this prophecy as having a larger fulfillment in Jesus, even though it had this clear immediate fulfillment. Why? Partially because Isaiah himself goes on to enlarge the concept of Immanuel until the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy is about the presence of God through a far more wonderful child.
This is a common pattern of prophecy in Scripture. Whether we are talking about Isaac, or a son greater than Isaac who will be the final sacrifice lamb, or Solomon, and someone greater than Solomon who would reign on David’s throne forever, prophecies tend to have immediate and ultimate fulfillments.
And there are indications in these chapters that Isaiah knew this. First, for the woman who would bear this child, he deliberately picks a Hebrew term that would be ambiguous about her virginity. He avoids ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ which indicate a woman no longer a virgin. He also avoids the word that would clearly indicate a woman is still a virgin. Instead he uses a term for a young woman who is a virgin until marriage. I believe he did that because the immediate fulfillment was through a virgin who married, and bore a son. But God allowed Isaiah to see a greater fulfillment through a virgin who bore a son while still a virgin.
Second, Isaiah expands on the term Immanuel two more times. In chapter 8, he says that Judah is Immanuel's land. A child can’t own the land, but ‘God-with-us’ can: it is his land. Then in chapter 10 he says to the nations “Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted. Propose your plan but it will not stand. For God is with us.” Same word, Immanuel, but now he is plainly talking about the presence of God with his people. So Isaiah takes this child's name, and deliberately fills it out. ‘Immanuel’ is not just a symbolic child; ultimately he will be God with us. Finally, in chapter 9 he talks again about the child: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I think Isaiah rejoices as he realizes that this already fulfilled prophecy would have this much greater fulfillment?
700 years later, Matthew recorded that ultimate fulfillment. Matthew had obviously read Isaiah, he knew the prophecy and its immediate fulfillment, but he also knew that Isaiah had pointed toward a greater fulfillment in the Messiah:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).”
The prophecies that came true are true, for Matthew and us. The ultimate fulfillment of this promise was not with a symbol, but with the reality of His presence. John says: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Now what should our response to all this be? Well maybe, just maybe, we can grow in our confidence that every word of the Lord proves itself true. Think about this again. What are the odds that 700 years later a virgin would conceive, and her child would be Jesus, the person who even skeptics would agree changed the world. Long odds. That’s why the virgin birth has always been one of the places skeptics love to be skeptical. They have no confidence that every word of God proves true. They say a virgin birth is impossible. And they are right: only the hand of God can make a prophecy like this be fulfilled like this.
But when they say it’s impossible, they mean it never happened: Mary was lying or Matthew was lying, or someone made up a story and Matthew bought it. We too can be tempted by these human explanations. But there are two rational reasons to dismiss them. First, this is not the only prophecy fulfilled. There was the birth in Bethlehem, the tribe of Judah, ministry in Galilee, entry on a donkey, betrayal by a friend, and the crucifixion. All prophesied. Depending on how you count them the number of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus varies from thirty to as many as three hundred. The odds depend on a lot of things but one widely accepted calculation says the odds are one in ten to the 17th.
Imagine covering the state of Texas knee deep in silver dollars, making a black dot on one of them, and stirring it in. Now send a blindfolded man and give him one chance to select the coin with the dot. What are the odds he gets it? 1 in 1017. One of the reasons we believe what came true is true is it would be really hard for these prophecies to be fulfilled by chance or by fabrication.
The second reason is because of what we lose when we jettison the supernatural fulfillment of prophecy. If this didn’t happen, we have no reason to believe that any supernatural event in Scripture is anything more than myth, legend, superstitious interpretation or fabrication. But that means no incarnation – the great miracle of God becoming man. No feeding the 5000 or walking on water and only coincidental healings. And no miracles today, so you might as well stop praying. Most of all, if what Scripture says came true isn’t true, then there is no saving death and no miraculous resurrection and we are still in our sins. It doesn’t take a Bible to tell us that people are messed up or to make us long for rescue. But it does take a true Bible to give us any hope of rescue. We have that hope only because in the resurrection, in fulfilled prophecies and in our experience, every word of the Lord proves true.