She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21
Joseph and Mary were commanded to give their child the name, “Jesus” as a sign and a symbol of his appointment to the role of Messiah. The Law of YHWH clearly stated that failure to remain faithful to the covenant at Sinai would result in exile and death (Deuteronomy 28) . God’s people had strayed from the covenant and had become idolaters and oppressors (Jeremiah 2). However, the promises that YHWH had made to Abraham would not fail. He would remain faithful even when his people were not (Jeremiah 31).
Our present-day understanding of the phrase, “save his people from their sins” is a little clouded with “alter call” rhetoric. We read into it a personal application that basically says, “I will get a clean record and clear conscience.” However, this would have a much larger and more powerful meaning to 1st century Jews like Joseph and Mary. Instead of thinking of metaphysical absolution that would result in an after-life paradise they would be thinking of the salvation from the oppressive rule of Rome and the false kingdom of Herod and the return of YHWH’s presence to the Temple in Jerusalem. Salvation from sins was understood to mean the end of the curses that came from the covenant unfaithfulness. So as the Savior, Jesus would save (restore the kingdom rule of YHWH) his people (Israel, the chosen instrument of YHWH’s righteousness and justice to all the earth) from their sins (their covenant unfaithfulness to fulfill God’s purposes in the earth.) You can see this understanding of salvation especially in the songs of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79).
This means a lot to me today because I’ve been struggling a lot with sin lately. Not just my own sin (that’s definitely been a struggle), but also the power of sin all around me. That power looks like the brokenness in the community, my kids’ inability to just obey, the way that sin gets woven so strongly into our hearts and lives that it seems impossible to remove it without destroying everything else. Why does sin hold such power? Why can’t we just obey? You feel the same cry when you read the prophets. A desperate longing to see people turn from their sin and repent, to return to their Father and his gracious embrace.
The name of Jesus stands as a symbol of the zeal of the Lord to accomplish his redemptive purposes with his good creation. His name means, “No, sin will not win the day. No, death will not be the victor. No, the power of Rome and all other empires that are built on injustice and exploitation will not prevail. The curse that was laid upon Israel for her unfaithfulness to the covenant would be lifted by the mighty acts of Abraham’s son. Jesus came to fulfill the fullest expression of the covenant faithfulness that would redeem his people from the power of sin.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in Thee
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth Thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart
Joy to those who long to see Thee
Dayspring from on high, appear
Come, Thou promised Rod of Jesse
Of Thy birth we long to hear
O’er the hills the angels singing
New, glad tidings of a birth
Go to Him, your praises bringing.
Christ the Lord has come to earth.
Come to earth to taste our sadness
He whose glories knew no end
By His life He brings us gladness
Our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend
Leaving riches without number
Born within a cattle stall
This the everlasting wonder
Christ was born the Lord of all.
Born Thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a king
Born to reign in us forever
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone
By Thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.