The Gospel of Matthew is one that many of us are familiar with and have atleast heard many times before, not least because of the fact that it is the first Gospel book we encounter when we open our Bibles and head towards the New Testament. However, one can’t help but wonder, have we truly heard this Gospel or have we simply passively flipped through in our attempt to diligently ‘read our Bible’ or get through that chapter or two we said we would every day. It is striking to see some of the insights in the Scripture if we just open ourselves to it. Let us reflect here on just a few lines from the first chapter of Matthew. There is plenty to be gleaned from the genealogy itself but for those who motor past and onwards let us move ahead and consider a few passages.
Starting from verse 18 of the first chapter we encounter the events leading up to the birth of Christ once the Virgin Mary is found to be with child. St. Joseph is not privy to any details at this point, he simply knows that his betrothed is now somehow pregnant. We will have another post regarding verses 18-19 but picking up at verse 20, St. Joseph is pondering how to secretly hide his betrothed (one must recall that the law would have called for her public humiliation and stoning). While St. Joseph ponders these things, an angel appears to him and basically fills him in on who This Child is. Let us follow this striking conversation.
“But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Matthew 1:20-23.
Let us walk through this conversation slowly.
First an angel appears and confirms that this child was conceived by The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has come and accomplished this work with Joseph’s betrothed Virgin. However, the angel does not leave the conversation at this point but rather continues to fill St. Joseph in on the details. This child will be named Jesus, the name which means “God saves” or “God’s salvation”. Almost before Joseph can even ponder, “Saved from what?” The angel continues, “For He will save His people from their sins”. St. Matthew in narrating this account to us seems to be indicating to us what the source of the human problem is. The human problem is not that we need to be removed from the yoke of Caesar as the Jews of Christ’s time would say, it is not that we have offended and angered God as some of our time have said, no, it is our sin that is killing us.
Some of us may now be asking for a mechanism by which God will save the people from their sins. The angel does not offer Joseph a mechanism but he gives an indication as to how it is that God will save the people from their sins if we continue to read the next few lines. The next line begins by stating that this child of the mighty name, “God saves”, will be born in fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 which we are all likely familiar with. There is an interesting element in that the ending of the verse relates the child will be Emmanuel, translated as ‘God with us’.
If we follow the train of thought clearly we have a few points.
- The child shall be named Jesus (God saves) because He will save the people from their sin – our sin is our human problem, it is what is killing us.
- The child saving the people from their sin fulfills the prophecy which says that He will be Emmanuel (God with us).
- The prophecy in Isaiah regarding ‘God with us’ is fulfilled by God who saves the people from their sins.
- To conclude: It is our sin that is killing us and which God has come to save us from and this is accomplished because He is God with us. Our return to relationship with God is what slays our sin. This is also stated by St. Paul,
- “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-19.
God saves us from our sins by becoming ‘God with us’. St. Paul notes for us here that God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ. We who had estranged ourselves, for that is what sin is, are saved by God come to us after we had departed from the bosom of The Father.
The fathers of the Church have written at length about these matters. St. Gregory of Nyssa writing in the 4th century:
“Now sin is nothing else than alienation from God, Who is the true and only life.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book 2, Chapter 13.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century says similarly and he uses the analogy of light to explain the source of suffering in sin,
“Communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these aforementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never- ending. It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are for ever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies V, 27, 2.
Our self-chosen, self- inflicted separation from God is what the human problem is, this is what human sin consists in. What is interesting is that this theology is all present in a few verses of the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel as indicated by the very name of the Saviour, what He is saving us from and that He is God with us. God comes that He might reconcile us to Himself and by doing so He saves us from our sin.
This in fact becomes axiomatic in the controversies relating to the person of Christ and how it is that God and man united in Him. St. Gregory the Theologian would refute Apollinaris based on exactly some of the points we have highlighted above. Apollinaris wished to deny that Christ had a human soul or mind and St. Gregory the Theologian would respond:
“Anyone who has put trust in him as a man without a human mind, must be mindless himself, and quite unworthy of salvation. For what He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half of Adam had fallen then that which Christ assumes and heals might only be half as well; but if the whole of Adam’s nature fell then it must be united to the whole nature of the Begotten One, and so be saved as a whole.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter to Cledonius. Trans: McGuckin, John A. St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy. Brill, 1994. p.393.
Indeed St. Athanasius speaks in a similar vein in his work Against The Arians but this time stressing the Divine Identity of the One come to save humanity:
“And being joined to God, no longer do we abide upon earth; but, as He Himself has said, where He is, there shall we be also; and henceforward we shall fear no longer the serpent, for he was brought to nought when he was assailed by the Saviour in the flesh, and heard Him say, ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan,’ and thus he is cast out of paradise into the eternal fire… But this would not have come to pass, had the Word been a creature; for with a creature, the devil, himself a creature, would have ever continued the battle, and man, being between the two, had been ever in peril of death, having none in whom and through whom he might be joined to God and delivered from all fear. Whence the truth shows us that the Word is not of things originate, but rather Himself their Framer. For therefore did He assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true Word who had put on the body. And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to Him. For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure. Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed. But surely He took true flesh, though Valentinus rave; yea the Word was by nature Very God, though Ario-maniacs rave; and in that flesh has come to pass the beginning of our new creation, He being created man for our sake, and having made for us that new way, as has been said.” St. Athanasius, Second Discourse Against the Arians, 21, 69-70.
St. Severus also states:
“The Only Son of God became consubstantial with us by being united hypostatically to one flesh animated with a rational soul. By reason of this, the entire human ousia and the whole race became united in love to the divine nature, from which it had formerly been estranged. Hence, as it is written, we, being made worthy of the original harmony, have become partakers of the divine nature. By participation we have received divine gifts and immortality,which had been lost to us on account of the trespass of Adam.” St. Severus of Antioch, Contra Impium Grammaticum, I, p.200. As in Samuels, V. C. “The Council of Chalcedon Re-examined: A Historical and Theological Survey.” (Delhi, ISPCK.1977). p 235.
Thus, we see here in St. Matthew’s Gospel what is already a highly developed Christian theology of Salvation. This is a salvation of humanity which has departed from God and The Logos who becomes incarnate to save His people from this very separation. In our poverty we are unable to attain to life for God is Life Himself and by our sin we have chosen to leave His bosom. In saving us, He reconciles us to The Father by His taking true humanity whilst at the same time being co-essential with The Father. Let us recall the revelation given to St. John,
” As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” Revelations 3:19-21.
We are called to repent and to turn back to God because it is He Who has come to us to return us to Himself. He stands at the door and knocks and we are called to make our way to Him in love so as to open the door to Him. He has come to us but He simply waits on us to grant Him entry into our hearts and into our lives. It is to this extent that Christ has given us His Church that we might be led to Him and the Church may direct us on the path to God. He has taken the initiative and made the movement towards us, we simply have to be co-workers (synergoi) with Him.
If we are open to perceiving it, all of this is already present in the 1st chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Of course, this teaching would be elaborated with greater clarity as the Church’s beliefs came to be questioned in later centuries by numerous heretical groups. However, there is an elegant beauty to the simplicity of the Christian proclamation found in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The Scripture can often surprise us with what it is saying if we let it.