Have you ever heard of something called Replacement Theology? It is the view that the Church replaces Israel in God’s eternal plan. The promises made to Israel about a people, a nation, and a land will be fulfilled indirectly by the Church. But Israel is not God’s chosen people today. Israel will not ever be the major world power.
The problem with that view is that God is faithful to all His promises. If He failed to fulfill His promises to Israel but chose instead to give those promises to others, then He could fail to fulfill His promise of everlasting life to you and me. If we, like Israel, went astray, then He could replace you and me with other people who would get those promises.
Most people think Matt 1:21 is saying essentially the same thing as Jesus Himself said in John 3:16. They think that Joseph was being told that the Child to be born to his virgin wife (fiancée in our modern terms), Mary, will give eternal salvation/forgiveness of sins to all who believe in Him.
For example, see the discussions of Matt 1:21 by Leon Morris and R. T. France in their commentaries on Matthew. Both men take this as a general reference to eternal salvation from hell.
While it is certainly true that Jesus indeed gives everlasting life to all who believe in Him, that is not the point of this Christmas text.
Guess how many times in the entire Bible the expression saved from sins occurs? The expression saved from sins occurs only in Matt 1:21 in the entire Bible!
God through an angel is telling Joseph something which is actually quite different from the message Jesus Himself would later tell in John 3:16.
If we grasp what the angel told Joseph that day, it will open our understanding to the fullness of the salvation which Jesus came to accomplish.
Let’s begin by considering what His people means.
Most wrongly assume that the expression, His people, refers to all of mankind. For example, Morris says this refers to Israel and Christians (p. 30). France says it refers immediately to Israel, but “ultimately” Matthew “expected a wider application.”
They essentially think that His people in Matthew 1:21 is a synonym for the world in John 3:16.
But the world are not His people. We all know, if we give it a moment’s thought, who His people are.
His people are Israel.
“His people” refers to Israel in the OT—often with the word “Israel” added after “His people,” “His people Israel.” There are 26 references to His people in the Psalms, 12 in Isaiah, 9 in 2 Chronicles (2:11; 7:10; 31:8, 10; 32:17; 35:3; 36:15, 16, 23), and 5 in the Minor Prophets, all referring to Israel. His people also occurs and refers to Israel twice in Exodus (18:1; 32:14); 4 times in Deuteronomy (4:20; 32:9, 36, 43); once in Judges (11:23) and Ruth (1:6); 3 times in 1 Samuel (12:22; 13:14; 15:1); once in 2 Samuel (5:12); 3 times in 1 Kings (8:56, 59, 66); 4 in 1 Chronicles (14:2; 21:3; 22:18; 23:25); and once in Ezra (1:3).
The expression “His people” occurs three times in Romans, all referring to the nation of Israel: Rom 11:1, 2 and 15:10.
There are also three uses in Luke, all referring to Jewish people (Luke 1:68, 77; 7:16).
There are only two other uses in the NT, and one of those refers to Israel (Heb 10:30) and the other to all believers on the new earth (Rev 21:3).
So, Rev 21:3 is the only use of “His people” in the Bible that refers to anything other than Israel.
Joseph would have rightly understood His people to refer to Israel.
However, Joseph would have been puzzled. Why was the angel saying that Israel was the people of the coming son of Mary? Why didn’t the angel say, “He will save God’s people from their sins?”
The answer is because this baby to be born is God. God in the flesh.
Joseph also would have been puzzled with the prophecy that this coming baby “will save” Israel from their sins. When would this future salvation occur? How could this coming baby save the nation?
Jesus came to save Israel from her sins.
But didn’t He come to save the world, not just Israel (John 3:17)?
Yes and no.
Yes, we know from John 3:16-17 that He came to save, that is, to give everlasting life, to all who believe in Him. He wishes all to be saved in the sense of having everlasting life (1 Tim 2:4). And by His death on the cross, He made that possible for all who simply believe in Him.
But this text says that He came to “save” His people, which is clearly Israel, from their sins, not to save the world from its sins.
Not only does His people not mean the same things as the world in John 3:16, but in addition, the word save doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does in John 3:17 or Ephesians 2:5, 8. In John 3:17 and Eph 2:5, 8, save refers to having everlasting life as both contexts make crystal clear. Here, however, save refers to something else as we shall now see.
The Future Salvation from Sins Will Be Deliverance from Gentile Domination
The name Jesus is derived from a Hebrew verb, yeshav, which means “to save.” Hence “You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people…” is a play on words.
But what does it mean that He will “save His people from their sins”?
Those who see this verse as speaking of Jesus giving eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to Israel, or Israel and the Church, miss the point entirely.
France goes so far as to strongly deny what the text actually affirms. France writes, “Salvation from sins…here warns the reader not to expect this Messiah to conform to the more popular hope of a national liberator…” (p. 78)!
But that is precisely what the believing reader of Matthew should understand—that Jesus is the national liberator of Israel.
Compare Matthew 1:21 and the future tense “will save” with John 1:29 and the present tense “takes away.” Jesus took away the sins of the world at Calvary. But He did not save His people at that time. He will not save His people until His Second Coming.
Israel is still in her sins.
Israel had been under Gentile domination for centuries. From AD 70 until 1948, Israel was not even a nation. Since 1948, Israel has been a very small nation surrounded by many nations that work hard to destroy it.
The reason Israel was dispossessed for nearly 2,000 years and the reason that it is a minor world power today is because of her sins.
In the Book of Judges, we see cycles of sin, judgment, repentance, and deliverance. Each of the judges who delivered Israel from her sins was a type of the coming Messiah who will once and for all deliver Israel from her sins. When the Messiah saves Israel from her sins, she will never lapse back into sin and will never fall under judgment again.
Judges 6 is a good example of the salvation spoken of in Matt 1:21. Look at Judges 6:14-15. The Angel of the Lord is Jesus before His incarnation. Here the Messiah is commanding Gideon to do for Israel (temporary fix) what He Himself will one day do once and for all.
Gideon was used by God to deliver Israel from their sins. But they slipped back into rebellion, then repentance, a new judge saving them, rebellion again, new repentance, a new judge saving them, rebellion again, etc.
Jesus is Israel’s ultimate judge. He is the one who will save the nation from its sins.
Jesus offered the kingdom to that generation. If it had responded in faith and repentance, then at that time Jesus would have saved Israel from Gentile domination.
Zechariah 9:9 was fulfilled in AD 33 when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem. We call this Palm Sunday.
Zechariah 9:10 has not yet occurred. The salvation of v 9 is defined in v 10. The Lord Jesus did not save Israel on Palm Sunday. He will save Israel when He returns.
There is a big gap between vv 9 and 10.
But there didn’t have to be. If Israel had received her Messiah, then He would have died on the cross, evidently by Roman instigation this time, then Daniel’s 70th week would have occurred. Israel’s salvation would have occurred very soon after Jesus’ death with no long wait.
We find the same truth in Ezekiel 37 (the dry bones rising chapter) and in Rom 11:26. Romans 11:26, like Matt 1:21, says that Jesus will save Israel in the future.
At the end of the Tribulation all surviving Jews will be believers in fellowship with God. At that point the whole nation will be delivered from God’s wrath.
This promise to Joseph is not merely of everlasting life for Jews. It is the promise of worldwide dominion and deliverance from the terrible consequences of Israel’s sins.
How Does This Apply to Us?
First, realize that Matt 1:21 concerns the nation of Israel and that it has not yet been fulfilled. It will be fulfilled when Jesus returns. It is not a promise of spiritual victory for every Christian!
Second, long to be chosen to share in the Messiah’s rule (Luke 19:16-26; 2 Tim 2:12). Know that not all church age believers will rule with Christ. Only those believers who faithfully endure will rule (1 Cor 4:1-5).
Third, pray for the coming salvation of Israel and peace until the Tribulation begins. Remember that there is an eternal future for Israel.
Fourth, always remember that God is faithful to His promises.
I’m glad He fulfills His promise to a stiff-necked Israel. He is faithful. That means He will be faithful to you and me as well.