“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive a bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14—read Isaiah 7:10-20).
King Ahaz of Judah feared the alliance the kings of Israel and Syria had made against him. Ahaz did not turn to the Lord, but the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to Ahaz. God already had a plan to rescue the people of Judah and to overthrow their enemies. Ahaz clearly did not believe the prophet’s news, so Isaiah invited the king to ask for any sign, any miracle from God to show that his promise was true. Ahaz, with false modesty and phony religion, refused the offer of a sign from the Lord. He perhaps remembered that one was not to demand a sign from God (Deuteronomy 6:16). If that is the case, he failed to see the difference between demanding a sign from God and accepting God’s offer of a sign.
When the Lord makes an offer, we should never refuse it. When he offers to forgive our sins, free of charge, we should accept. When he makes an offer to claim us as his children, we should accept. When he makes an offer to defeat our enemies, pay all our debts, and grant us eternal life, we should accept. There is no power in our acceptance of God’s offer: the power is in God’s Word, given to us. At the same time, refusal of the Lord’s offer has bad consequences that are eternal.
Because Ahaz would ask for no sign, God chose the sign. “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The Hebrew word “alma” can be translated “young unmarried woman, “but young unmarried women who became pregnant were called other names—either victims or sinners. They were not called “alma.”
Who is this virgin who conceives? Matthew indicates that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary conceived and bore Jesus (Matthew 1:23). That should be enough for us. But some people point out that the conception and birth of Jesus, hundreds of years in the future, could hardly be relevant to Ahaz with his problem. They wonder if some other virgin, or at least some young woman, conceived and gave birth in the months following Isaiah’s prophecy. If so, there might be two fulfillments, one immediate and a more important one later. Others say that there can be only one fulfillment to a prophecy, and that if Matthew says Mary is the virgin, then Mary is the virgin; no more can be said.
On the other hand, it might be even more complicated than that. For the book of Revelation—surely the most complicated book of the Bible—describes a woman who is clothed in heavenly glory, is about to give birth, and is threatened by a dragon. The dragon is later identified as Satan. The woman gives birth to “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5). That can only be Jesus. After he is born, the woman is hidden and protected in the wilderness, the dragon is thrown out of heaven, and he seeks to destroy the woman. Bu the woman is preserved as the earth swallows that which comes from the mouth of the dragon. This woman is later revealed to be the Queen of Heaven.
Who is this Queen of Heaven? Not Mary the mother of Jesus, but God’s people the Bride of Jesus. In the Old Testament God’s people are called Israel. In the New Testament God’s people are called the Church. They are one and the same. Israel trusted God’s promise that a Savior would come, and the Church trusts God’s promise that a Savior has come, but they have the same promise and the same Savior. Before Christ came, Israel was a virgin bride awaiting the bridegroom; the Church is still waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Yet it was God’s people who produced the Savior, as Matthew and Luke reveal with their genealogies.
Matthew was not wrong to say that the prophecy was fulfilled in Mary. Mary was all of God’s people condensed into one historic individual. Her submission to the will of the Lord is shown in our faith. Nothing is impossible for the Lord—not the virgin birth, and not our salvation. The sign given to Ahaz is a sign for all people, past, present, and future. It is a sign of the defeat of God’s people and the victory of God’s chosen Savior.
Ahaz was worried about Israel and Syria. God answered his problem with a bigger problem: the Assyrian Empire. The Egyptian empire was like a swarm of flies, but the Assyrian empire was like a swarm of bees. They came with great power, bringing destruction in their wake. Yet they too were repulsed when they took their stand against Judah and Jerusalem, the people and the city of God. They were defeated by the Babylonians, who were defeated by the Persians, who were defeated by Alexander the Great, who died young, leaving his generals as his heirs, and the descendants of those generals were defeated by the Romans. And so it goes.
But a power stands greater than the power of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Alexander, and Rome combined. That greater power is Immanuel. God is with us. God became one of us as Jesus Christ, and he defeated greater enemies even than the Assyrians or the Romans, those who made the power of Israel and Syria seem puny by comparison. Whenever we worry about the things that seem big and fearsome to us, God responds with promises that are far bigger and grander. He responds with redemption, the grandest promise and victory of all. Thanks be to God!