Since the sun, moon, and stars will cease to shine, will Israel cease to be a nation before God?

Q. God said through Jeremiah: This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night … Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.” But there are many portions of Scripture that say that the sun, moon, and stars someday will cease to shine. So, my question is, when will Israel cease from being a nation? Can you help me understand the context and time frame in which this will happen, assuming it will happen? 

Personally I would not connect what God says through Jeremiah in this passage with the larger question of how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. I believe that God is speaking here to the Israelites within the context of their own lives and experience. And within that experience, the sun, moon, and stars effectively will not cease to shine. And so God is able to appeal to their endless duration (endless from a human perspective) as a guarantee for the promises he is making.

This statement comes within a longer passage whose overall concern is the return of the Israelites from exile. It begins: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.” The concern at the time was that Israel would indeed cease to be a nation: Its exiled people would be dispersed throughout large empires, they would never return home, and their identity would be lost. God is promising that that will never happen, and to guarantee that promise, he is appealing to something else that, within the framework of the people’s experience, would never happen either. This approach is sometimes described as “divine condescension,” with the word “condescension” not used in a negative sense, but to mean that God graciously and generously relates to us within the context of our own experience.

I think there is a comparable example in Psalm 72. That psalm is a prayer for the king of Israel, perhaps meant to be offered for each new king as he takes the throne. It says, in part: “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. … May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” Clearly this reference to the sun and the moon is not meant to specify a time period of limited duration on the basis that the sun and moon will not endure forever. After all, the poetic parallel to that reference is “through all generations.” Instead, this is the equivalent of the expression we see in several other places in the Bible, “May the king live forever!” The reference is just being made within the framework of an earthly perspective.

So what God really wanted to say through Jeremiah to the Israelites was that they would not be dispersed in exile at that time and lose their identity as a nation. God was promising, in terms they could understand, that he would never let that happen. And he did not. God brought them back from exile and re-established them in the same land in which they had been living. From there, God fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah, Jesus.

As I said at the beginning, I feel it is a separate question how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, give different answers to that question, and there would not be room in this post even to give a brief sketch of the range and scope of those answers. But I think we can say with assurance both that God will fulfill all of his covenant promises to Israel and that God wants the community of the redeemed to be “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

Why did God reveal future events to Nebuchadnezzar?

Q. Why did God reveal future events to Nebuchadnezzar?

Here is what I say about that in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation. (You can read the guide online or download it for free at this link.)

– – – – –

(p. 28, about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue) Nebuchadnezzar was wondering about the future of his empire. (Daniel notes, “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come.”) The take-home message of the dream is that his empire isn’t going to last forever. In fact, in the foreseeable future it will be overrun by a rival empire. Daniel’s task, as God’s representative, is to challenge Nebuchadnezzar to accept this fact and humble himself before the “Lord of kings.”

(p. 30, about the statue that Nebuchadnezzar built) God gave Nebuchadnezzar an inspired dream about a statue made of different materials. The interpretation was that the Babylonian empire (the statue’s head of gold) wouldn’t last forever; instead, it would ultimately be replaced by a kingdom that the “God of heaven” would set up. When Nebuchadnezzar first heard Daniel interpret his dream, he was so amazed that he “fell prostrate before” him and “paid him honor.” But now he’s had a change of heart. He makes a statue entirely out of gold, to assert—in the language of the dream, and directly contradicting God’s word—that his empire will last forever. He gathers provincial officials from all over his empire and demands that they “fall down” and “worship” this statue. (These are exactly the same Aramaic words used to describe what Nebuchadnezzar did for Daniel; the king wants his empire to be on the receiving end this time!)

(pp. 31–32, same episode) Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tell the king that if their God is able to deliver them, he will, but that even if he doesn’t, they won’t serve the Babylonian gods or worship the statue. Their obedience wasn’t conditional on their deliverance. Nebuchadnezzar recognizes this and praises them for being “willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” … In Daniel’s song of praise in the previous story, he said that “wisdom and power” belonged to God. When Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the king acknowledged God as a “revealer of mysteries”—a God of wisdom. Now he acknowledges that this God has “rescued his servants” and must also be a God of power. He forbids anyone in his empire to say anything against “the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.”

– – – – –

So, to answer your question, God revealed future things to Nebuchadnezzar to get him to realize that his empire would not last forever so that he would humble himself and acknowledge God as the true ruler of the world.

Are there still prophets today, and if so, do true prophets have to be correct?

Q. I just read an article on Politico.com about contemporary prophets who are predicting that Donald Trump will become president again by the spring of this year, 2021, several years before he could actually be re-elected. 1. I know that Paul speaks of prophecy as a gift, but I don’t understand the need for prophets since the death of Christ. Wasn’t “the Word made flesh” so that we don’t need prophets? Didn’t God reveal all that we need to know? 2. I know that Old Testament prophets sometimes made prophetic statements about rulers but I thought that, for the most part, their prophecies focused on God’s people and their relationship with Him. It seems somewhat ungodly to think that God would be prophetically involved in micro-politics in our country. 3. Are there any instances in the OT of prophets being incorrect? If not, is it possible that Scripture only records their hits and omits their strikeouts? If not, then should we conclude that any modern-day prophet who strikes out is not really a prophet? If so, is there any modern-day prophet who is batting 1.000? (Or, to continue the metaphor, do you get a couple of swings and misses – and maybe foul balls – but aren’t out until you reach a certain number of misses?)

Let me respond to your first, third, and second questions in that order.

As for your first question, I personally believe that the gift of prophecy remains active in the church today. I do not believe that any prophecies since the New Testament was completed have added anything to the revelation in Scripture, but I do believe that God still speaks through spiritually gifted and sensitive people to bring inspired messages to groups of believers that need guidance, challenge, and encouragement. So in one sense, yes, through the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus, and the completion of the written word of God in the Scriptures, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. In another sense, there is still a need for groups of believers to hear what God is saying to them about specific situations they are facing, and it is the ongoing role of prophets to speak that word.

But this immediately raises the question of how we can know whether such contemporary prophets are truly speaking from God, instead of from themselves, likely under various influences. This relates to your third question. Wouldn’t a genuine prophet get things right, at least a credible amount of the time? And prophets generally hold themselves to this standard. The article you cited quoted one person who had predicted that Donald Trump would win the 2020 presidential election as saying, on the day that Joe Biden was declared the winner, “I take full responsibility for being wrong. There was no excuse for it. I think it doesn’t make me a false prophet, but it does actually create a credibility gap.” Others quoted in the article go further. One self-described prophet said, of those who are still insisting in February 2021 that Trump will soon return as president, “This has opened the door to outright delusion. … I’ll say we’ve earned the world’s mockery for our foolishness.” So yes, we should expect that any genuine prophet would have a strong track record for accuracy and truth. The Bible itself specifies this same standard: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously.” I think we could still have much respect, however, for a prophet who got something wrong but then admitted that promptly and humbly.

Finally, to respond to your second question, I would say that the prophecies that are recorded in the Scriptures, if we may take them as a model, give just as much attention to social and political concerns as to God’s people and their relationship with Him. Prophecy is both “fore-telling” and “forth-telling.” That is, it not only announces what God is going to do, it also speaks truth to power. Some biblical scholars have estimated that there is actually much more forth-telling than fore-telling within biblical prophecy. But there needs to be a standard for that as well. If prophets are to address current social and political realities, as well as situations within the believing community, then they must do so in keeping with the principles that God reveals in the Scriptures. The truth that is spoken to power must be God’s truth. And this was perhaps an even greater concern in the article you cited than the issue of incorrect prophecies that Trump would be re-elected. The article quotes a theologian and pastor who monitors present-day self-described prophets as saying that in return for favorable prophecies about him, “They had direct access to him and ability to influence decisions Trump was making. The real story was in the power, influence and access.” The article quotes others who see the positive prophecies as having been an “attempt to curry favor with a powerful political figure and movement.” If that is actually the case, then they would not have been speaking truth to power. They would have been telling power what it wanted to hear.

Is the USA the “mystery Babylon” of the Bible?

Q. I’ve heard that there is a reference in the Bible to a sort of “second-chance glorious period of prosperity” for “mystery Babylon,” and that this may be referring to the USA. If so, where is that reference?

The reference in the Bible to “mystery Babylon” is in Chapter 17 of the book of Revelation. However, there are several problems with the interpretation that you have heard of this reference.

First, “mystery” is not part of the name of this place. The statement should be translated, “On her forehead a name was written, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and the vile things of the earth.'” Most modern Bibles translate the statement this way. It is saying that the name has a secret meaning that needs to be figured out.

Second, nothing in the depiction of this “Babylon” indicates any kind of “second chance” or “prosperity.” The book of Revelation says repeatedly that God has judged and is about the punish the entity being depicted under this symbolic name.

And finally, there is no compelling reason to associate this “Babylon” with the USA or any contemporary nation. In the original context of the book of Revelation, as I will explain shortly, this is a symbolic reference to the Roman Empire as a persecutor of Christians. In later times, particularly as history nears its culmination, there may be a further fulfillment of this image. But we cannot say with any precision now whether history is nearing its culmination, or what that further fulfillment may be.

I will quote below from the section in my study guide to the book of Revelation that discusses this passage, after quoting from another section that explains the interpretive approach that I take to the book. (You can read the whole study guide online or download it at this link.) I hope that all of this helps to address your question.

Comments about interpreting Revelation

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways. The futurist
approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history. (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.) The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the history. The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view. The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in—western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century. This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation. If this is new for you, and you’re used to hearing the book treated differently, please keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach.

Comments about the vision of Babylon

The fall of Rome (“Babylon the Great”) has been announced; the book of Revelation now zooms in on this event to depict it in more detail. This depiction forms a distinct section within the book. It’s marked off at its beginning and end by interactions that John has with one of the angels who had the seven bowls. John says once again that he’s “in the Spirit,” meaning that he’s receiving a new vision, this time in “a wilderness.” (His long vision of heavenly worship and divine judgments will conclude after this section.)

This vision of the “fall of Babylon” makes the audacious claim that Rome, then at the height of its power, will collapse. Rome will be judged for its emperor worship, and for its persecution of God’s people, but also for its addiction to luxury and self-indulgence and how this has affected the rest of the world.

Rome is depicted as a “great prostitute.” This is a literal reference to the city’s immorality, and a figurative reference, using a common Scriptural motif, to its idolatry. The details of the portrait are intended to identify the guilty city and emperor.

Some details are transparent. John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome. The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification. Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.

The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of  the persecuting spirit of Nero that has come back to life in the person of Domitian. The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.” The “ten horns” are explained as “ten kings,” likely symbolizing all of the rulers under Rome’s authority (ten being a number of completeness). At first these rulers will be loyal to Rome, but they will then turn against the city and help destroy it, as depicted in this vision. They’ll do this under the influence of the “beast,” the spirit of empire gone bad, which to this point has been the force behind Rome and its persecuting emperor, but which will abandon the city in the end. The beast itself will be destroyed when Jesus “judges” it “with justice.”

The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that
represent “seven kings.” As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle—some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted. Unfortunately, a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified. Interpreters offer a variety of explanations. But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

In whatever way its individual details are interpreted, the vulgar image
of “Babylon,” the “great prostitute” reveals that Rome, despite its wealth, splendor, and pretensions, has been corrupting the world and is “drunk with the blood of God’s people.” It fully deserves the judgment it is about to receive.

Why haven’t I received a spiritual gift like tongues or prophecy?

Q. I have been a believer for some time, and to the best of my ability I love our Lord with all of my heart, soul, and mind. I have prayed for years that the Holy Spirit would manifest in me and I would receive the gift of speaking in tongues, prophecy, or some other sign, but to date nothing like that has happened. Should I interpret this to mean that for some reason God hasn’t found favor with me, or that the Holy Spirit isn’t living in me? Or even, heaven forbid, that I am not saved? I desire to know God to the fullest, and I desire the deepest relationship with him possible.

Actually, I’m certain that you already have received a spiritual gift that evidences God’s favor upon you, the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life, and your salvation. This gift probably just isn’t manifesting itself in a public, declaratory way like prophecy or tongues (which, as I explain in this post, is the gift of speaking a language one has not formally acquired).

The reason I’m certain about this is that Scripture tells us clearly that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Or, as another translation puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” In other words, every single believer in Jesus is given a spiritual gift that they can use to build up the community of his followers. But because the needs are so great and varied, and because people have such diverse personalities, interests, concerns, and passions, the Holy Spirit distributes a wide range of gifts throughout the community, and these gifts don’t all look alike.

The statement I just quoted is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. When he first says this, he illustrates it by listing several high-profile gifts such as you’re asking about—prophecy, tongues, miracles, healing, discernment of spirits, words of wisdom and knowledge, etc. These are most likely the kinds of gifts that the Corinthians valued and wanted to have. But Paul then proceeds to explain how the whole point of the gifts is to build up the body, and that a wide range of gifts is needed for this, so everyone shouldn’t want just this one kind of gift; they should seek to discover and welcome whatever gift God actually has given them.

In fact, as Paul concludes this discussion, he offers another list of gifts, and while it includes some of the ones he named earlier, such as prophecy, miracles, and healing, he now also mentions things like teaching, helping, and administration. In Romans, after explaining similarly that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us,” Paul mentions further gifts such as serving, encouraging, giving, and showing mercy. These are quiet, background gifts, but they are just as essential to bringing blessing throughout the community of Jesus’ followers and to people who are not yet part of that community.

Indeed, I once heard someone say, perfectly seriously, that the person with the gift of prophecy stands up and says, “Thus says the Lord, I have set before you an open door that will lead to a great expansion of this ministry,” and the person with the gift of administration responds, “In that case, we’d better buy another filing cabinet”—and both are just as spiritual.

So I would encourage you to consider in what ways God has already been using you to bless and help others, and to recognize what gifts God must have given you to make this possible. As you consider this, one gift may stand out, or you may discern a cluster of related gifts. In any event, I hope you will recognize that this indeed means that you are saved, the Holy Spirit is living in you, and God has shown you his favor. These are all good things, and I commend you for desiring to be reassured about them, in the context of knowing God to the fullest and having the deepest possible relationship with him, by identifying a spiritual gift you have received.

But beyond this, please recognize that the essential purpose of God giving us spiritual gifts is “for the common good” or “so we can help each other.” So with your new assurance of God’s love and favor, and your new recognition of the gifts God has given you, put those gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and spread the good news about Jesus. As another version translates Paul’s words in Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”

Are the numbers in the book of Daniel intentionally symbolic?

Q. Are the numbers in the book of Daniel intentionally symbolic?

Thank you for your question. I believe that this earlier post will help answer it:

The meaning of Daniel’s seventy weeks

This related post may also be of interest:

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Was Ezekiel angry with God or with the people of Israel?

Q. When Ezekiel was called to be a prophet and he “went in bitterness and   anger of spirit,” was he angry with God for what he had to do, or was he angry with his people for living contrary to God’s will?

It’s hard to tell the answer from the account of Ezekiel’s calling, which you’re asking about. God shows him a scroll with “words of lament and mourning and woe” written on both sides of it. God tells him to eat the scroll and “go and speak to the people of Israel.” Ezekiel says that the scroll “tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.” God promises to protect him even if the people oppose his message, and then, Ezekiel reports, “The Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me.”

We could get the impression from this that Ezekiel was angry with God for forcing him to go on a mission on which he would have much opposition and little chance of success. (One translation says, “I went bitterly and angrily. I didn’t want to go. But God had me in his grip.”) On the other hand, Ezekiel could have been angry with his fellow Israelites at the thought that they would resist God and suffer for it. Either interpretation is possible.

Fortunately, in this case we get some help from another place in the Bible that seems to allude to this episode and comment on it. This other passage gives us the impression that Ezekiel was upset because of the content of the message he had to deliver to a nation that was unlikely to listen. In Revelation, when John is halfway through his vision, he is shown a little scroll and told, “Take it and eat it. It will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” John eats the scroll and he finds that it is sweet in his mouth but bitter in his stomach. He is then told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”

Most interpreters understand this to mean that it is sweet to speak the words of God, even when they are words of judgment and warning, but that it can be a bitter experience to see people suffer consequences that they’ve received fair warning about, especially since those people could have been spared and restored if they’d listened. If that is the meaning in Revelation, then it’s also the likely meaning in the passage in Ezekiel that Revelation is alluding to. So Ezekiel was probably not angry and bitter towards God. Rather, it was the stubbornness of his own people that made him so upset.

Was Isaiah’s vision in the temple a theophany of Jesus?

Q. When Isaiah had his vision in the temple, who did he see? Was this a theophany of Jesus?

Actually, Isaiah’s vision would not be considered a theophany. That term means literally an “appearance of God” and it refers to those instances in the Old Testament when God, initially seeming to be human, appears to people and visits with them. The Bible often describes this human-like figure as the “angel of the Lord,” but sometimes the narrative shifts and it  calls the figure “the Lord” (i.e. Yahweh, God Himself).

For example, in the story where Hagar flees from Sarah’s mistreatment, the text depicts the “angel of the Lord” speaking with Hagar. But at the end of the episode, it describes Hagar giving the name El-Roeh (“the God who sees”) to “the Lord who spoke to her.” Similarly, at the start of the story of the burning bush, the “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in the flames. But the text then describes “the Lord” or “God” speaking to Moses from the bush.

When the angel of the Lord first appears to the future mother of Samson, she thinks he is a “man of God” (a prophet). When he returns, her husband asks him, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?” But eventually they both realize that he’s actually the the “angel of the Lord“—when he ascends to heaven on the flames of a fire they make to offer a sacrifice! Then the husband says, “We have seen God!”

So a theophany is an appearance of God on earth in human form, interacting with people who only eventually realize that He’s really God. Many Christian interpreters believe that these are actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ, that is, of Jesus in the human form that he would eventually have when he took on human flesh by being born to a human mother.

Isaiah’s vision in the temple is different. For one thing, there’s no question, right from the beginning, that Isaiah is seeing God. He says: “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” So this is not a case in which God appears in human form. Rather, it’s a vision of the divine throne room, as Daniel would later have when he saw “thrones set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” John reports a similar vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation.

In addition, while the Lord interacts with Isaiah during the course of the vision (He asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Send me!”), this isn’t a case where God actually comes to earth to visit and speak with a particular person. Other biblical figures interact similarly with characters in their own visions, but this is not the same thing as a theophany. And so we should conclude that Isaiah saw not the pre-incarnate Jesus, but the “Ancient of Days,” identified with God the Father, on the heavenly throne.

Michelangelo’s portrait of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The book he’s holding may symbolize the other Scriptures, to which Isaiah referred frequently, or to Isaiah’s own prophecies, which he began to deliver after one of the seraphs in his temple vision touched his lips with a live coal from the altar, purifying them to speak God’s words.

Does the sign in Revelation 12 forecast doom on September 23, 2017?

A 12th-Century illustration of the vivid imagery in Revelation of the woman, child, and dragon.

Q. What is your take on Revelation 12:1-7? With all the speculation surrounding September 23, the question has become a timely one. To my mind, it was was fulfilled 2,000 years ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the nascent church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.

I agree with your interpretation of this passage. As I say in my study guide to Revelation:

John first describes how Jesus came from the nation of Israel as the Messiah, the ruler and deliverer sent by God. The imagery of the sun, moon and twelve stars identifies the woman in this vision as a symbol of Israel. This imagery is drawn from a dream that Joseph, one of the ancestors of the Israelite tribes, had. (It’s recorded in the book of Genesis.)

The woman’s son is identified as the Messiah by the quotation from Psalm 2 that says he will “rule the nations with an iron scepter.”

We’re told within the vision itself that the dragon represents the devil. The seven crowned heads (a number of completeness) symbolize the devil’s authority over every part of the world that’s in resistance to God. The ten horns (another number of completeness), an image drawn from Daniel’s first vision, depict the dragon’s great power.

The dragon attempts to devour the woman’s son: The gospels record how Jesus’ life was in danger from the moment he was born, and how his enemies ultimately killed him. But God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven (he was “snatched up to God and to his throne”). From there, ever since, he’s been leading a growing insurgency against the world’s entrenched forces of injustice and oppression.

So all of the sensationalism and publicity surrounding an end-of-the-world (or “end of life as we’ve known it”) date of Sept. 23 is really a very unfortunate misappropriation of biblical teaching. It seems to be a real discredit to our faith that unfortunately will make it harder for people to understand and consider the genuine teachings of Christ and his followers.

Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be named Emmanuel?

Q. In Isaiah, the Messiah’s name is Emmanuel. Why did Gabriel say to call the baby Jesus?

“The Annunciation” (detail), Bartolomé Murillo, 1665-1660. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announces that she’s going to give birth to the Messiah, and tells her to name the baby Jesus.

This is a bit of a puzzle, particularly since the Bible calls direct attention to the difference in names.

According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” In other words, he will be the Messiah.

According to Matthew, an “angel of the Lord” also appeared to Joseph and told him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” The angel refers to Joseph as “son of David” to show that he’s in the royal line of Judah and that as his legal (though not biological) son, Jesus will be in that line as well and so can be the Messiah.

But Matthew then adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.'” So how could the prophesy have been fulfilled that said a virgin would bear a son named Emmanuel if the Virgin Mary instead named her son Jesus?

The issue depends on what it means for a Scripture to be “fulfilled.” Let me quote here from another post on this blog that addresses that specific question:

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

So, to summarize, instead of being named Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” Jesus actually is “God with us.” That’s the deeper meaning of the earlier statement that can be recognized as God carries out the plans he announced.

And the name “Jesus” itself is not without significance. Mary and Joseph were told to choose this name precisely because of its significance. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or more specifically Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

So Jesus is “God with us,” as the prophetic name Emmanuel indicates, and he does save us from our sins, as his actual proper name describes.