I’ve always loved the Christmas season. Perhaps it is the fond memories from the childhood—the memories of family and friends, gathered around the dinning table. Of cold winter evenings, snuggled by the fire. Perhaps it’s the festive lights, or the jolly music.
It seems as though there’s something magical about Christmas. Tinsel and lights, trees and decorations, Santa and elves and reindeer and sleigh bells. What kid doesn’t look forward to Christmas morning—waking up bright and early and running downstairs to the fireplace, to see what gift Santa has brought down the chimney during the night!
And perhaps this is just the problem. Not that it’s such a fun and happy time, but this magical aspect to Christmas. Because for most of us, we come to a point in life, when we stop believing in Santa Clause. Or, maybe not, but we realize at some level that it’s a great story that we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good, and we tell our children to get them to behave better.
We go to the store, or turn on the radio, and hum along to “Here Comes Santa Clause” and “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and then the same station will play “Joy to the World” and “Away in a Manger.” And somehow, when we outgrow our belief in Santa Clause, some of us seem to outgrow our belief in the Christ-child, too.
After all, His story was so long ago, and far away. Shepherds and Wise Men and a star, shining above the stable, and a tiny baby, lying in a manger. It all seems just as mystical as reindeer pulling Santa in a sleigh past the moon, or elves making toys in a workshop at the north pole.
Now, of course, we don’t teach that in church. If we did, why would we even come to church? Except, of course, to be entertained, and made to feel good about baby Jesus, just like so many people love to sing about reindeer at Christmas and get a photo made with “Santa Clause.”
But is that all? Who was this baby, born in Bethlehem, anyway? And why do we celebrate His life, even today?
When it comes to Santa Clause, we can hardly recognize anything of the original, historical St. Nicholas in the mythical character we celebrate today. Yes, there was a 4th century bishop named Nicholas, who had a reputation for kindness and charity, but we know little about his life.
But what about baby Jesus? True, His story has also been morphed into a legend in many ways, somewhat like Santa Clause. The idea that he was born on December 25, in the middle of winter, is pretty far-fetched. The nativity scene, with shepherds and wise-men kneeling around a wooden manger in a wooden stable are surely a far cry from what Jesus’ birth actually looked like.
But the story of Christ and His birth has come to us, not just through centuries of traditions and embellishments, but through first-hand accounts written down and preserved within a few years of his life.
Not only that, but there is an even more compelling account of His birth, life, death, and resurrection, written centuries before his birth. That’s right—a prophetic account written before He ever walked the earth, that has been corroborated in every detail by the pages of history. Now if this is true—this is something even a skeptic like me could believe in.
We actually find many pieces of this prophetic narrative scattered through the pages of the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis. The well-known promise was given to Eve, right after the fall in the garden of Eden:
“I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
God renewed this promise to Abraham and again to David—that a Descendant would come Who would bring God’s blessing to every nation.
But it is through the prophet Isaiah that, unlike any prophet before or sense, the veil of the future was lifted, and the life of Jesus was predicted in astonishing detail.
But in order to see that detail, you have to know how to look for it. Much of it is hidden beneath the surface, but if we mine the word a little bit, I believe we can turn up some precious gems. These gems still shine today, and reflect the glory of the New Testament seven centuries before the events took place.
In the past century, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has confirmed, beyond any shadow of doubt, the historic authenticity of the ancient book of Isaiah. In fact, the one scroll, the Great Isaiah Scroll, contains the entire book of Isaiah, and is surprisingly similar to the text we have today.
We recently studied the entire book of Isaiah in our weekly prayer meeting, so this should certainly be familiar to some of you. Obviously we can’t read the whole book right now, but I want to highlight some of the amazing passages that point to Jesus.
When I read Isaiah, I imagine that it’s something like an intricate painting, or like a grand classical symphony. On the surface, much of Isaiah deals with the present and immediately coming judgments upon Judah, Jerusalem, and the surrounding nations. Yet nearly every message of judgment, looking past the vast dark clouds of gloom, lies a glimmer of hope. A promise of restoration, of a returning remnant, of future glory and of a Coming King.
Often these promises of future glory are spelled out in great details. Sometimes these prophecies are woven together so intricately with the circumstances of Isaiah’s life, that it’s difficult to recognize the grand theme that links the individual texts together.
The first three chapters of Isaiah speak of the wickedness of Judah and Jerusalem, and of God’s judgment in consequence. But, by chapter 4, Isaiah looks beyond the judgment to a future renewal.
Isaiah 4:2-5 “In that day the Branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious; And the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and appealing For those of Israel who have escaped.
3 And it shall come to pass that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded among the living in Jerusalem.
4 When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning,
5 then the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night.”
Who is this “Branch of the Lord”? The Hebrew term, “tsemach,” refers to a sprout or a shoot—it has the idea of something small, but growing. The Branch of the Lord brings holiness and cleansing to the remnant of Jerusalem, and provides a place refuge. He is compared to the pillar of cloud and fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness.
Isaiah 5 paints the touching picture of Israel—God’s people—as a vineyard that God has planted. Though God has done all He can to help the vineyard produce good fruit, yet it produces only wild grapes. God says in Isaiah 5:3-4:
“3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
4 What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes?”
God, through the prophet Isaiah, goes on to predict the terrible judgment that would fall on Judah and Jerusalem. But Isaiah makes it clear that the problem with Jerusalem isn’t their lack of blessings. It isn’t their weakness, or their circumstances, or their enemies—the problem is with themselves, their choice to be the perpetrators and injustice, of oppression, and of sin. Their choice not to bring forth the fruits of righteousness.
In chapter 6, God officially calls and commissions Isaiah to bear His testimony to Israel. In the message God gives to Isaiah, He gives a message of judgment, followed by a message of hope. In verse 13, you see this picture of a mighty oak tree cut down, yet whose stump is still alive—from which a new shoot can spring up and yet fulfill the promises of God.
This is the backdrop to the story we find in Isaiah chapter 7. The wicked king Ahaz, of Judah, has already suffered terrible defeat, but Isaiah comes to him with a message of hope. Isaiah said, within two years your enemies will be defeated. But you need to have faith in God. Then, Isaiah asked king Ahaz what sign he wanted to receive from God—what sign of God’s mercy and deliverance? When Ahaz faithlessly refused to ask for a sign, God—through Isaiah—offered one:
Isaiah 7:14-16 (NASB)
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. 16 For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
It seems to be a strange sign. Not so much of a sign that Ahaz would see immediately, but a prophetic assertion, that within the time it takes for a child to be born and to grow to an age of discernment, the threat and siege would be ended. “Behold, a virgin will conceive.” It’s hard to tell how strange these words might of sounded to king Ahaz. The Hebrew term that’s translated as “virgin” can also be translated “young woman,” so the birth of a son wasn’t necessarily miraculous. And indeed, the prophecy was fulfilled just as God had spoken through Isaiah.
In Isaiah 8:3-4, we find the prophetic story again:
Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz; for before the child shall have knowledge to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother,’ the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria.”
How would you like that name—Mahershalalhashbaz? But even this name was a prophecy of the coming deliverance: “swift is booty, speedy is prey.” Whether he lived his life with this prophetic name, or not, I do not know. It’s interesting that in the song that follows, the refrain is the word “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” (see v. 8, 10)
Let me stop here and share something that troubled me for some time. Why is it that a prophecy that obviously had an immediate fulfillment, in this case the birth of Isaiah’s son, be applied to the distant birth of the Messiah some 700 years later?
We find in Matthew 1:22-23:
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
I’ve wondered about this passage for many years. Why did Matthew lift this verse, seemingly out of context, and apply it to the birth of Jesus? But there are clues even in Isaiah itself that help to answer the question.
Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
Let’s look at the clues. For instance—why is it that this was the sign chosen by God Himself? There is a theme that began in Isaiah 4, with the coming “Branch of the Lord.” Why was the child to be named “Immanuel”?
Perhaps most revealing of all is this word translated “virgin.” You see, when Isaiah wrote these words, he used a word that could mean a “young woman” or “maid.” But many years later—long after Isaiah and his wife had died, but still before the time of Jesus—the book of Isaiah was translated into Greek. The Jewish scholars who translated it chose to use the Greek word “parthenos” which does, literally, mean a virgin and only a virgin. And Matthew, quoting this Greek translation of Isaiah, makes the application of this prophecy directly to Mary, who was clearly still a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth.
But there are even more clues. Clues that even a reader in the days of Isaiah could easily find—that would help him understand that Isaiah’s prophecy was more than a prediction of the birth of his own son. Starting with the Branch of Isaiah 4, and then with the “Son” born to the woman / virgin of Isaiah 7-8, we see a pattern that God is speaking of a special Child, Whose coming would signify deliverance to Israel. But more subtle clues pale in comparison to the glorious prophecy of Isaiah 9:
Speaking of people who had forsaken God, He says in Isaiah 9:1-2
1 Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed,
As when at first He lightly esteemed
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
And afterward more heavily oppressed her,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
In Galilee of the Gentiles.
2 The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
Who is this “great light” that was to come to the land of Galilee? v. 6-7:
6 For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
We could spend the rest of this sermon just unpacking this one prophecy. A Child. A Son, who is called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father”? Who is this Child? Surely not the son of Isaiah…
No, but the coming Son of David, who would reign on the throne of David, as we find in Isaiah 11:
1 There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
This child would be none other than the Messiah Himself—coming to reign on the throne of David. Yet again, we find the challenge here that different prophecies are conflated together. Jesus came to this earth 2000 years ago as Messiah, but not yet as a ruling king. He promised His followers that He would return again, in power and majesty, and then would fulfill all the prophecies of His coming as King.
Woven throughout the book of Isaiah is prophecy after prophecy of the coming Messiah. Most speak of His coming as a King, a ruler, a judge and deliverer of Israel. Yet in each one is revealed another aspect of Jesus mission on earth.
And in chapter 53 of Isaiah, we find perhaps the most complete picture of Jesus’ first mission to earth, that we find anywhere in the Old Testament.
2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
3 He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
[j]Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
9 And they made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.
As the baby Jesus lay in Mary’s arms; as shepherds and wise men gave their praise and homage to the newborn king, how few understood His mission! As the disciples gathered around Jesus, and listened to His words, how little did they know of what was about to befall him! And yet, did they need to be so ignorant? Seven centuries before, the life of Jesus had been revealed in detail in Isaiah’s prophecies. Had they taken the time to study and learn, how much better could they have understood Him!
And so, I have to wonder about us, today. Jesus is still alive, today, in heaven. He has made many promises to us, His disciples. Many prophecies in this book are yet to be fulfilled. Do we know them? Are we studying them in order to understand them? More importantly, do we know Him—the One to Whom these prophecies point?
I want to challenge you, this Christmas season. Don’t waste time with Santa Clause and elves and make-believe Christmas. Instead, get to know the One Who came from Heaven to save you and me. Study His word, so that when He comes again, we may be ready to receive Him!