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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:The Lord gives the Immanuel sign to confront unbelief and hypocrisy
Text:Isaiah 7:14 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:God's Covenant faithfulness
 
Preached:2019
Added:2019-12-25
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 19

Hymn 16:1-3 (after the law)

Psalm 46:1,5

Hymn 16:4,5

Psalm 98

Scripture readings:  Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7

Text: Isaiah 7:14

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Imagine someone brought up in the church.  They’ve gone to church their whole life.  Yet they’re living in sin.  In their lifestyle, it’s clear that this person isn’t a disciple of Jesus.  They don’t hate sin and fight against it, but instead embrace it and give themselves over to it.  Yet when they go to work, they tell people there to stop blaspheming.  This person isn’t living like a Christian, yet tells others to stop taking God’s name in vain.

Something like that is happening in our text for this Christmas morning.  It’s a well-known passage.  Most of the time when we think about Isaiah 7:14, we forget about the original context, or maybe we’re ignorant of the original context.   This morning, we’re going back to the text in its context.  We’re going to see what God was originally saying with this prophecy about Immanuel and then later on, how that prophecy was said to be fulfilled in the birth of our Saviour. 

So I preach to you God’s Word this morning from Isaiah 7:14 and we’ll see how the Lord gives the Immanuel sign to confront unbelief and hypocrisy

We’ll consider:

  1. The background of the sign
  2. The fulfillment(s) of the sign

We’re at about 735 years before the birth of Christ.  We’re in the time of the divided kingdom.  Under King David and King Solomon, all of Israel’s tribes were united into one kingdom.  Then, under King Rehoboam, there was a split.  There were now two kingdoms – a northern one in Israel headquartered in Samaria, and a southern one in Judah headquartered in Jerusalem.  These two kingdoms were many times at odds with one another, as well as with the surrounding nations. 

During the time of the divided kingdom, both Israel and Judah had many kings.  The majority of them were wicked men.  Most of them were not faithful, not believers.  There were some exceptions.  We think of famous kings like Josiah, Hezekiah, and Jehoshaphat.  They were godly kings.  But most of the kings were evil.  Among them was Ahaz, king of Judah.  Second Chronicles 28 says that Ahaz did not do right in the eyes of the LORD.  He was an idolater and that included burning his own sons as offerings to pagan gods.  Ahaz is described as “very unfaithful to the LORD” (2 Chron. 28:19).  Ahaz was an ungodly, wicked, unbelieving king.

It’s this wicked King Ahaz that we encounter in Isaiah 7.  He’s in a crisis.  Ahaz is faced with enemy armies getting ready to invade his kingdom.  The Syrians and the Israelites have formed a military alliance and they’re preparing to assault Jerusalem.  Verse 2 tells us that the news of this impending disaster caused the hearts of the king and his people to shake like trees before the wind.  That’s a powerful image.    

We have to think about what’s at stake here.  From the perspective of the unbelieving king, it’s his life on the line and his power.  He’s going to lose the kingdom and probably lose his life too.  From his unbelieving perspective, he just thinks in terms of earthly losses.  Ahaz isn’t a spiritual man and he doesn’t think in spiritual terms.  He can’t because his heart is cold and dead in sin.  He’s unregenerated.  The Holy Spirit hasn’t given him faith or a spiritual life.

Yet there is a key spiritual reality at stake in all this.  It’s hinted at in verse 2 when it says that the “house of David” was told about the impending disaster.  God’s covenant was with David and his royal line.  Salvation from sin was going to come to God’s people through David’s house.  But what if David’s descendants are completely wiped out?  What happens to God’s promises for salvation if that happens?  Ahaz doesn’t care about all that, but a believing Jew would.

In the face of that crisis, God sends Isaiah the prophet to Ahaz.  Through Isaiah, God calls Ahaz to turn away from his fear and have faith.  In verse 6, God acknowledges that the plan of the Syrian-Israelite alliance is to get rid of the Davidic king, destroy the Davidic house, and set up a puppet king in its place.  God knows that’s what they want to do.  But he says in verses 7 to 9 that it’s not going to happen and Ahaz should abandon his unbelief and trust in God.  He should repent and return to God in faith.  Note the words at the end of verse 9, “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”  Those words are specifically addressed to King Ahaz and his kingdom, but they’re certainly words that apply as a universal general principle.  They’re words that apply to us as God’s people today too:  “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”  Faith, trust in God, leads to stability in the face of crisis. 

Ahaz doesn’t listen.  He refuses to heed God’s call to repent and believe in him.  Instead, Ahaz devises a plan to get help from the Assyrians.  That’s not mentioned in Isaiah 7.  We find it in 2 Kings 16.  Ahaz sends messengers to the king of Assyria and offers to be his servant.  Even worse, Ahaz takes silver and gold from the temple and sends it to the Assyrian king as a gift to sweeten the deal.  Ahaz is making a massive gamble that he can trust the Assyrians to solve his crisis.  He doesn’t trust God.  Instead, he trusts the Assyrians.  Ahaz puts his faith in man, rather than in God.

Yet God doesn’t forget about Ahaz.  In Isaiah 7:10, God comes to Ahaz again.  He’s come to again call him to faith.  In that, you see God’s patience, his long-suffering with this wicked, unbelieving king.  He comes to Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign.  God is basically saying, “Let me prove it to you.  Let me give something to you that will help you believe what I’ve promised.”  In his mercy, God says that it can be anything.  God will do something similar later with Ahaz’s son Hezekiah.  When Hezekiah is sick, God offers a sign to prove that he’ll recover.  But in that instance, God limits the options.  The sundial could go ahead ten marks or behind ten marks.  Hezekiah could choose between those two options.  But here with Ahaz, God leaves it wide open.  Ahaz can choose anything, any sign: “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  God will give the sign and prove that he is worth believing.  So he commands Ahaz to ask for the sign. 

Then notice how Ahaz reacts to God’s command.  This is in verse 12:  “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.’”  That sounds like a pious answer.  It sounds like a biblical answer.  Deuteronomy 6:16 said, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test…”  When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he quotes these same words.  The difference is that Jesus applies these words rightly.  Ahaz knows the words, but he applies them wrongly.  Remember, he’s a wicked, unbelieving king, so he doesn’t have any spiritual understanding.  God has commanded him to ask for a sign.  But meanwhile Ahaz has got it made up in his mind already what he’s going to do:  he’s going to the Assyrians.  He’ll trust them to save him.  He doesn’t need God.  So then Ahaz comes up with this pious excuse for not following what God has said:  oh, I shouldn’t test God.  But that’s not what’s in view.  God told you Ahaz to ask for a sign.  It’s not testing him if he’s told you to ask for the sign.  No, this is just hypocrisy and unbelief on the part of Ahaz.  He’s quotes the Bible here, but he abuses it.  He uses it insincerely to keep on his track of unbelief.  He wants to appear pious, but stay in his sin.  He can quote the Bible about not testing God, but meanwhile he’s testing God’s patience with his wicked unbelief.  It’s like the church member I mentioned at the beginning who can quote the Bible about not taking God’s name in vain, they can quote the Third Commandment, “You shall not take the Name of the LORD your God in vain,” and meanwhile blaspheme God’s name every day by living a wicked and immoral life of sin.  It’s hypocrisy and it’s wicked.

But Isaiah knows what’s happening here.  God gives him insight into the reality.  That’s why he challenges the unbelief of Ahaz and his whole house in verse 13.  Isaiah confronts them and says that they’re wearying God with their unbelief and hypocrisy.  God is tired of it.  God has been so patient, but he’s getting to the end.  Mercy and patience are running out.  Notice how he addresses them again as the “house of David” – that reminds us again of what’s at stake here.  This is all about salvation and God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises for a Saviour through the line of David.  If it’s going to be up to kings like Ahaz, it’s a hopeless cause.  But thankfully, God is faithful.  God acts despite the unbelief and hypocrisy of his people here.

That’s what God does in verse 14 with the sign of Immanuel.  Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for a sign, he doesn’t want to see God’s reliability proven, but God is going to do it anyway.  He’s going to give a sign despite Ahaz’s unbelief and hypocrisy.  Look with me at verse 14, at the beginning.  Notice how it says that “the Lord himself will give you a sign.”  There are a couple of things to note there at the start. 

First of all, it says “the Lord.”  Notice how it’s not all capital letters.  So this isn’t God’s covenant name Yahweh.  Instead, the Hebrew here uses the word “Adonai.”  Instead of stressing his covenant relationship to the people, God stresses his almighty power by calling himself “Adonai,” the Lord.  The Lord is the powerful one.  He’s the one who’s going to do what he says.                

Second, when the passage says, “the Lord will give you a sign,” the “you” there is plural.  It’s not addressed only to King Ahaz.  You could translate it, “the Lord will give all of you a sign.”  “You” means all the people, the whole house of Judah.  That’s important because 2 Chronicles 28 tells us that Ahaz led the people in sin.  It wasn’t as if the people were believing and godly, and Ahaz was just an out-of-control wicked king, an anomaly in Judah.  It wasn’t as if the people as a whole were praying that they could have a godly, believing king.  Second Chronicles 28:23 says that Ahaz’s idolatry was the ruin of him “and of all Israel.”  So the people under Ahaz are addressed with him here in Isaiah 7:14.

Now what is the sign?  It involves a woman conceiving and bearing a son who shall be called Immanuel.  Now our Bible translation says that the woman is “the virgin.”  There’s a long tradition of translating the Hebrew word here as “the virgin” and it’s certainly a legitimate translation.  The word can mean that.  Certainly it was translated like that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.  From there it passed into the New Testament in Matthew 1:23 as well.  However, the Hebrew word here can also simply mean “young woman” or “young woman of marriageable age.”  It can mean “virgin,” but it doesn’t necessarily.  So, in its original context, Isaiah 7:14 isn’t necessarily speaking about a miraculous virginal conception in the days of Ahaz.  In fact, it likely isn’t.

Whatever the case may be, this young woman will give birth to a son and she will call his name Immanuel.  Immanuel means “God with us.”  “Immanu” means “with us” and “el” at the end means “God.”  “With us is God,” or “God with us.”

Now we can start to get into the fulfillment of the sign.  There was an initial fulfillment in the days of Ahaz and Isaiah.  It’s important to understand that the sign of Immanuel was revealed in a very specific context.  The sign of Immanuel was revealed to Ahaz and the people of Judah in the context of their unbelief and hypocrisy.  What that means is that it wouldn’t make any sense for this to be speaking only about an event that would take place some 735 years later.  This has to be a sign that Ahaz and his subjects would actually see.  Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. 

The sign here isn’t good news.  The boy being spoken of is going to reach the age at which he can discern good and evil.  He can be responsible for his choices.  You could say an age of accountability.  In verse 15, it says that the boy will eat curds and honey.  That’s starvation food and that means disaster is coming.  Because while the Syrian and Israelite forces will be scattered and no longer a threat, a worse enemy is coming:  the Assyrians.  Yes, the same Assyrians in whom Ahaz is placing his trust.  The same Assyrians that Ahaz has gambled will help him instead of God.  His gamble isn’t going to pay off.  The Assyrians are going to come and attack and destroy.  So when Immanuel reaches that age of maturity, that’s all going to happen.  So, this is referring to a judgment that happens within a number of years of the prophecy.  It’s not something far off in the distant future.  It’s referring to something just over the horizon. 

Of course, that still raises a few questions.  One of the questions is:  who is this Immanuel during the days of Ahaz and Isaiah?  There are a few ways that Bible scholars have answered that.  I’m not going to go through them all with you.  Let me just tell you what I think the best answer is.  The best answer has to take into account the context.  If we look ahead to Isaiah 8, we find the longest name in the Bible:  Maher-shalal-hash-baz.  Maher-shalal-hash-baz was a son of Isaiah.  In Isaiah 8:3, the same language is found as in Isaiah 7:14.  In Isaiah 8:18, the child is described as a sign, and 8:4 says that the child is pointing to the coming of the Assyrians.  Finally, the only other use of the name Immanuel in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 8:8 and it appears to be a reference to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.  So a good case can be made that Maher-shalal-hash-baz was the intitial fulfillment of the Immanuel sign.  This son of Isaiah would be the sign that God was with his people to judge them for their sins.

Now the other important question here is how this all relates to the New Testament and to the way Matthew quotes this prophecy in reference to Christ.  The short answer is that Maher-shalal-hash-baz was the initial fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.  He was the initial Immanuel.  But Jesus and what happened with his conception and birth was the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.  He is the ultimate Immanuel – Immanuel in the fullest sense.

The initial fulfillment was partial.  Whoever that child was, whether it was Maher-shalal-hash-baz or someone else, that child wasn’t conceived by the Holy Spirit and born sinless.  Even if it was a miraculous birth, the first Immanuel wasn’t God come in the flesh.  The first Immanuel was “God with us” only in the sense that God had come among his people with his judgment on their unbelief and hypocrisy.

But when Jesus was conceived, he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  His was a truly supernatural conception, it was a miracle.  He was God incarnate, God come in human flesh.  The divine Son of God humbled himself and took a human nature.   The exalted Son of God lowered himself.  He became one of us – so that he could then die in our place on a cross.  In that way, he is Immanuel – “God with us” in the sense that God has come to comfort us with salvation.  He came to take the judgment for all our unbelief and hypocrisy.  Immanuel is a sign that our God is with us to rescue us from what we deserve.

That’s why Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.  Jesus fills it out to the full.  The first Immanuel in the days of Ahaz could only fill it out so far.  He could only be “Immanuel” up to a limit.  But Jesus is “Immanuel” to infinite perfection.  He is “God with us” in every awesome sense of the Word.  Our Saviour Jesus filled out the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 to the max. 

God has given the Immanuel sign to us to address the problem of our unbelief, the root of all our sins.  The sign of Immanuel in Jesus Christ is there to call us to faith.  Ahaz was hypocritical, unbelieving and wicked and God judged him for that.  Even though he was a covenant member, even though he was outwardly part of God’s people, the sign didn’t do him any good.  So the question is:  how will we as God’s people respond to the sign of Immanuel given to us in Jesus Christ?  Brothers and sisters, the call is to faith.  The call is to turn away from our idolatries, our false loves, our unbelief.  All of us must turn our eyes to Christ in faith. 

He is our Immanuel.  He is the one who came to live among us as the incarnate God.  Today we celebrate that and praise God for it.  Loved ones, the good news promises that all who trust in Jesus Christ will someday experience the reality of Immanuel in the fullest way.  Revelation 21:3 promises us what we can look forward to:  “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”  AMEN.       

PRAYER

Heavenly Father,

In our passage this morning, we’re reminded of who you are.  We’re reminded of your patience and mercy to your people.  We worship you for that.  We’re reminded of your holiness and your refusal to tolerate sin.  But we’re also reminded of your faithfulness.  You kept your promise to bring a Saviour from out of David’s line.  You sent your Son to be Immanuel, the ultimate fulfillment of what we read in Isaiah 7:14.  We praise you for all that too.  We thank you that we have a Saviour who took on our human flesh, that he was both perfect man and God, so he could pay for all our sins, including our unbelief and hypocrisy.  Father, please help us all with your Holy Spirit to look to him in true faith.  Help us with your Spirit to hold on to Christ and lean on him completely for our salvation.  And please continue to bless us today as we celebrate our Saviour’s birth.  Give us a day of joy and peace.                                                      




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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