In the wonderfully heart-warming, spirit-lifting, worship-inducing story of the birth of Jesus, as it is related to us by Matthew, there is one crucial element of the whole event that is often overlooked. That a virgin would bring forth a son is astounding; that Jesus will certainly save His people is reassuring; that God would condescend to be with us is humbling. But there is another point that Matthew purposefully interjects into the inspired account, and it is this: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 1:22).
When you think of Biblical prophecy, do you think of God describing events that will later come to pass, or of God declaring that events will later come to pass? In other words, is prophecy simply God “looking down through the tunnel of time,” seeing what is going to happen, and reporting what He sees? Or is prophecy the declaration of God, based on His almighty power and wisdom, of what He has foreordained to happen?
If we speculated that prophecy is merely a description based on foresight, then we would expect Matthew to say something like this: “and so, you see, God had spoken all these things by the prophet because they were going to happen later.” But Matthew actually says the opposite! “All this took place to fulfill…” All these things happened, Matthew says, because God said they were going to happen! We see here God’s omnipotence shaping reality with His Word.
An Unbending Word
From Matthew’s careful wording in this story, we learn that God’s word is more certain, more secure, more immovable than any event on earth. Reality itself must conform to the whole purpose and plan of God. And this choice of words by Matthew is no mistake or anomaly. Matthew uses the exact same phrase—“to fulfill”—no less than ten times throughout his gospel!
As we review just these ten instances of God’s prophetic power, you and I should be struck by both the magnitude and the minutia of what God had ordered beforehand to take place. These are the things which Matthew tells us unfolded so that God’s Word might be fulfilled:
The 42 generations of Abrahamic heritage, and the divine conception and naming that preceded Christ’s birth (Matthew 1:1-21); Herod’s persecution and Joseph’s subsequent flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15); Joseph’s family settling in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23); Jesus leaving Judea and beginning His first preaching trip through Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16); His healing the sick and exorcizing demons from multitudes (Matthew 8:16-17); Jesus healing vast multitudes, including Gentiles, while keeping Himself relatively unknown (Matthew 12:15-21); Jesus revealing pre-world secrets by means of parables (Matthew 13:34-35); His meek entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-5); the betrayal by Judas, the plotting of the Jews, and the forsaking by His disciples (Matthew 26:56); the soldiers casting lots for the garment of the crucified Jesus (Matthew 27:35).
Jesus Himself, as Matthew is faithful to record, continually emphasized the unrelenting, unbending nature of God’s word. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus stated, concerning the Law and the Prophets, that He was not come to destroy them, but to fulfill them; in fact, He said, heaven and earth would pass away before even a jot or tittle of God’s Word would remain unfulfilled.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter drew his sword against the band of soldiers, Jesus commanded him to put the sword away. He reminded Peter that He could if He so desired, call down more than twelve legions of angels. “But,” He said, “how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:54).
Clearly, what God has foretold will happen in the life, and in the death, of Jesus must happen. And, yet, Peter is told to put away his sword and not to fight against Christ’s captors. There is a balance, then, between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Jesus Himself affirms the two, in the Garden of Gethsemane, almost in the same breath.
An Unrelenting Responsibility
When we consider the countless choices of individuals that were made, which either directly caused or indirectly affected, each of these events, the scope of God’s sovereignty grows even more astounding from our finite perspective.
Was there any chance that Joseph would not name the baby Jesus? That Herod would not force Joseph to flee to Egypt? That the owner of the donkey would say “No” when asked to loan the Master his colt? That the Jews would not plot, or that Peter would accidentally thwart the crucifixion? That the soldiers would tear Jesus’ garment while fighting over it? No! And yet each of these acted out of their own desires, making conscious choices while unconsciously fulfilling the perfect, over-arching, overriding plan of God.
We see, then, from Matthew’s inspired commentary, that it is possible for God to be in complete control of world events—having even declared them in great detail hundreds of years before— while multitudes of humans continue to act of their own will and out of their own desires and choices and personal ambitions. God, acting in the full scope and power of His sovereignty, in no way removes or even lessens man’s responsibility.
It is God’s wise way to use the thoughts, actions, and motivations of men to fulfill His perfect and unalterable purposes while holding them accountable for their choices and decisions. As we are reminded numerous times in Scripture, we can never blame God for our sins, never pass the buck to Him for our mistakes, never place our guilt at His feet. He has never forced, coerced, or encouraged any man to sin. And, yet, no man’s sin has ever thwarted His perfect purposes.
An Unspeakable Comfort
Now, as we read back through Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth, what a great comfort it is to see and consider the unalterable nature of God’s Word!
Just as surely as the God-man was to be born of a virgin (and He was), and just as certainly as His name was to be called Jesus (which it was), He is going to save every one of His people from their sins (and He does)!
As Jesus Himself assures us, the whole universe will unravel before a single promise or prophecy or purpose of God is left undone, unfulfilled, or disappointed. As we look at our many sins, our countless short-comings, we are reminded that it was our guilt that nailed Jesus to the cross. And yet as we see the redemption that was purchased there for all who believe on Him, we are reassured that even our most significant missteps cannot upset the perfect purposes of God.
What an unspeakable comfort is found in the certainty of what God speaks! May we read every word of His revelation to us with this great confidence, this great assurance: it must be so, even as God has spoken, promised, prophesied in his Word!
May we also read every word of God’s revelation with this great conviction: I must submit, I must obey; I will only find real and lasting joy and salvation by means of the path that God himself prescribes in his perfect Word.
Justin Huffman is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and pastored churches in the States for over 15 years. He is currently lead pastor of Morningstar Christian Fellowship in Toronto, where he lives with his wife Chau and their four children. Justin is the author of the “Daily Devotion” app, as well as numerous books and articles, including his newest book Behold: an Invitation to Wonder. Connect with him at justinhuffman.org.