But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. — Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV
If I were to ask you a little bit of Bible trivia, how do you think you would fare? How many of the four gospels tell us about the death of Christ? All four, right? They involve different details, but they all tell the same story and reinforce each other. How about his resurrection? All of them. How many of the gospels tell about the miracles that Jesus performed? How about his teachings? All of them.
So how many of the gospels tell us about the birth of Christ? All of them? The nativity is only taught in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Some have argued that because Mark begins with John the Baptist and John begins in eternity past that the birth of Christ wasn’t important to the early church and therefore should not be so important to us. The implication is that the virgin birth is not a hill worth dying on, and in fact, all of the miraculous things in Scripture are not hills worth dying on.
But what we have here is a completely unnecessary division between Old and New. While only two of the New Testament gospels give an account of the angel Gabriel speaking with Mary and Joseph, traveling around on donkeys, and the angels singing about Christ’s birth, the Old Testament more than makes up for the lack of nativity in Mark and John. In fact, Old Testament passages about the birth of Christ fill in so much of what Matthew and Luke do not include.
So it’s not that some of the gospels are not interested in the birth of Christ and therefore neither should we be; it’s that the gospels are interested in telling about the birth of Christ in Old Testament terms. The Christmas story is not meant to be a sentimental, romanticized oil painting but a declaration of the birth of a king who is coming with his kingdom.
The passage at hand is Isaiah 9:1-7, but before we get there I want to show how it’s quoted by the gospel of Matthew. A prophecy about the birth of Christ so familiar to Christians, especially around Christmas time, is not used to announce that Christ has been born. It’s used to announce that the King has arrived, and he’s calling for repentance.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time on Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 4:12-17 ESV).
Old Testament prophecies about the birth of Christ explain why Christ came. Matthew chose this passage to explain Christ’s ministry quite intentionally. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God on earth. There may be many governments under Christ’s rule, but none are above it.
We can’t even imagine a time of worldwide peace. A given nation may not be actively fighting a war with another, but somewhere in this world there is always a time of fighting. It may be a bloody war or it may be a virtual war. Christ even promises us that from now until his return there will be wars and rumors of wars. He’s saying that world peace is a unicorn. But there is coming a time when all of that ceases. One day, all hatred and hostility and war and famine and death and disease will themselves be destroyed. And the meaning of the birth of Christ is that that day is the only sure thing amidst a world of chaos.
Peace in this world comes under no other government than Christ’s.
There is no wrong in getting sentimental around Christmas time. It should be a time when we are reminded of the joy of Christ’s first coming and the blessed hope of his second. Christ came to save sinners, and there is endless joy in knowing that we are at peace with our Father in heaven. He accomplished that reconciliation for us by offering up himself in our place.
And in so doing, he earned all authority in heaven and on earth to set up the kingdom of heaven on the earth. Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is here, it is now, even if the fullness of it is yet to come. It’s like leaven in the dough. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of peace, precisely because all hostility between God and redeemed man has been eradicated. Peace in this world comes under no other government than Christ’s.
In Isaiah chapter 7 we’re told that the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel, or “God with us.” Starting from there, Isaiah continues to describe how God’s people will be attacked but God will be their safety and security in the attack. This same child is spoken of again in chapter 9, and to him will all governing authority over all creation be given. In addition to Immanuel, he’s given four more names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. There is no mistaking this child as God himself.
Israel had been unfaithful to God, and his promise to them was that in the event of unfaithfulness, foreign nations would take them captive for a period of 70 years. Isaiah is describing what that period of captivity or exile would be like. Up until the birth of this son, there would be gloom and anguish. At the birth of this child, there will then be light and joy.
The birth of the child himself is the announcement to the people that light has dawned. The people did not produce it themselves. They had as much to do with it as they do with making the sun rise in the morning. Light is almost always associated with God’s presence in Scripture. So the announcement of this light and the announcement of the birth of a son is the announcement of the presence of God. Not even the unfaithfulness of his people is enough to undo God’s will to be with his people.
And not only has God proven faithful in the midst of his people’s unfaithfulness, but he will even increase the people. He will multiply the nation; he will increase the number of people who are his. In the age to come, when the government of the Son is fully established, we are told that there will be people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people present to worship the Son. “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
In captivity, the people worried they would never see their own land again. But God’s promises have come true in Christ. Not only did the people return to their land, but God multiplied the nation and increased their joy, all at the birth of this son. There would massive numbers of Gentiles brought in. So it’s not just that the people looked forward to resettling their land, because Isaiah is speaking of their final deliverance. The return of their land to them is only a sign of what’s to come.
Isaiah uses another Old Testament example to make his point. A yoke is a bridle you put on an animal like an ox to plow a field. It’s heavy and uncomfortable, but the driver has control over the animal. The yoke of the foreign nation on the people of Israel was oppressive, but God will break it himself, Isaiah says, “as on the day of Midian” (v.4). This is referring back to the story of Gideon. The people of the nation of Midian had overtaken the people of Israel. God was going to send Gideon to throw out the Midianites and restore peace to Israel. Initially, Gideon had 22,000 soldiers, then sent home all but 10,000. God told him that there were still too many, so he whittled them down to 300. God’s plan to save Israel worked perfectly, and God broke the yoke the Midianites had over Israel. In the same way, God will break the yoke of whoever stands over his people.
In peacetime, soldiers put away their weapons. In the garrison, soldiers wear their dress uniforms. When God finally breaks the yoke of oppression, God’s people will burn their combat boots and uniforms. There will be no more need for them, because God will have defeated the last enemy. Every boot for war and every garment that was stained with blood from war will be burned as fuel. That’s their only purpose after victory—to keep you warm. You burn what you will never need again. The hostility is over.
How does God put an end to war and hostility? By sending us a son. This son is royalty. He governs by himself. The government is on his shoulders. The names given to him are divine. Not only is this son from the royal line within Israel, but he will also be of the same essence of God. He will be human because he will be born, and he will be God because he will rule forever. His government will have no end.
As a wonderful counselor, he would have perfect wisdom. The sort of counsel in view here is that of planning, having a will, and being able to determine the future. This is not something that mankind can accomplish. Though he will be born, our wonderful counselor has divine wisdom and understanding. He will know the deep things of God because he is God.
As the mighty God, he has power to put an end to all evil and oppression. Not only that, but the real enemies, sin and death, are placed under his feet once and for all. Sin leads to evil and oppression, and evil and oppression lead to sin. God Almighty, however, can break that cycle of sin and put in its place a kingdom of righteousness.
As the everlasting Father, we never have to fear losing our sonship. He is the Lord of the ages, God of eternity, immortal and invisible. It does raise the question, however, if the son is Christ, how is he the everlasting Father? Jesus often not only equated himself to God but also said that he and the Father are one. He said as much in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” They have the same will and desire for his glory and our good.
As the Prince of Peace, he comes not to kill, steal, and destroy, but on the back of a donkey as a king returning from a great victory. Isaiah will later tell us in chapter 42 verse 3, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench[.]” Christ deals with his sheep gently and lovingly. He is peaceful. As the victorious king, he will reign over a peaceful kingdom.
Perhaps the greatest statement is that while the son will be all these things, he will not only increase the nation of Israel, but he will increase his government and reign over all the world—every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. And it will be unending. His throne will be established and upheld forever. This peace is not immediate, as we are all well aware. This peace is yet to come. In his first coming, he did not come to bring peace but a sword. Christ came once at the end of the ages to announce his reign and will come again to establish it with justice and righteousness.
His return is the most sure thing in the world. Isaiah says that the “zeal” or the “jealousy” of the LORD will accomplish this. Modern jealousy is self-interested and petty. Divine jealousy is a burning desire for the glory of God and worship from his people. God is passionate for his glory and the good of his people, and he will not let us perish.
So, Matthew interprets this Old Testament prophecy for us. It promises the birth of a son, and that will establish the kingdom of heaven on earth forever. The fulfillment of that promise began in the birth of Christ, and we celebrate that joyful truth every Christmas. Because of sin and death, our world and man’s understanding is darkened. But in the coming of Christ, a light has shone in that darkness. And Christ is that light who has shone in the darkness.