Dale A. Van Dyke
As you undoubtedly know, pronouns are big news today. The humble pronoun has found itself dragged to the front lines of a raging contest regarding ultimate questions of identity, authority, and meaning. Few of us could have imagined the current cultural clamor over such simple words as “he” and “she.”
But here we are—and what a joy, then, to open the Scriptures and find those same simple words bursting with the glory of gospel truth!
Matthew 1:21 reads, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (emphasis added). Here we have, in one verse, four key pronouns that establish the saving purposes of God in Christ for this rebellious world. They represent all the essential participants in the story—a woman, a man, a Savior, and the sinners he came to save.
The first gospel pronoun refers to Mary, the young peasant girl from Nazareth, betrothed to a man named Joseph.
Scripture doesn’t point to any noteworthy characteristic about Mary. What stands out is how very common she seems: living an anonymous life in a nondescript little village in the back hills of Galilee. There is nothing remarkable here, except for one thing.
The angel reveals the defining feature of Mary’s life: “You have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). It’s the one distinction that makes all the difference. Out of all women, through all the ages of time, God chose this specific teenager to be the mother of the Son of God. Imagine the astounded look on her face as the angel of God told her the news:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
Mary, the unknown and unremarkable, was called by God to carry in her own body the Messiah. It was completely implausible and yet mysteriously believable. Mary’s song, recorded in Luke’s gospel, expresses her incredulous joy:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46–49)
In the mystic muddle of a pagan world, Mary sang with piercing clarity the glory of a mighty God who does great things for the humble. While the Roman Catholic Church is surely wrong to venerate her, let us be eager to delight in and with her—to embrace her joy and celebrate her indispensable part in the gospel story.
The second pronoun we find in verse 21 is you.
It is clearly referring to Joseph, the man betrothed to Mary. It is clear that he loved her, and he was undoubtedly undone by the news of her conception. His bride-to-be was with child. It was a devastating development, particularly in an honor-based society. Joseph was an honorable man, and Mary had brought shame upon him. Her pregnancy was irrefutable evidence that she had been unfaithful and immoral—and while the stigma of that is barely felt today, in those days it was a public disgrace, a moral debacle. Everyone would know what she had done, and no one would blame him if he put her to public shame, naming her in the synagogue as an adulterous woman. But, being a kind man, he “resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). This was clearly not a hasty decision, but an inescapable conclusion based on the indisputable facts of Mary’s condition.
Ah, but the whole of the story had not been told!
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 1:20)
In this cynical world, such an announcement calls for serious faith. Joseph, and everyone he knew, understood that babies aren’t born of virgins. But an angel of God had told him the miracle of Spirit-wrought conception, and Joseph believed. Surely a miracle in itself!
Even though the watching world would never understand, and even though his parents and family and friends would scoff, Joseph believed and, in humble faith, took up the role he was called to play in this great drama of redemption.
The angel didn’t simply give Joseph information; he gave him a calling. When Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, the priest would look to Joseph and say, “What is his name?” And Joseph was called to name the child Jesus. In those days, the task of naming belonged uniquely to the father, and that was Joseph’s role to play. He would provide a nurturing home for the Christ-child. What father wouldn’t be humbly overwhelmed and hugely inspired by such a magnificent calling?
The third pronoun of the gospel is he—and it will never have a greater referent than this.
I recently read an interesting article that asked this question: Why wasn’t Jesus named Immanuel? That’s what the prophets had foretold, as Matthew points out in 1:22–23:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
But the angel commanded Joseph to give the child the name Jesus. With the command, he gave him the reason: “for he will save his people from their sins.” His name reveals the essence of his mission.
The name “Jesus” is taken from the Hebrew word that means “to deliver, to rescue.” This baby boy is the most perfectly named baby in all the history of the world. Never has a child been born to address such a peril as the peril of a justly condemned race. Never has a person so gloriously fulfilled his or her name. Jesus was God made man in order to save man; he was God entering his own creation to redeem it, to defeat the power of the Devil, to remove the darkness of the curse, and to make all things new.
He “will save his people.” There is certainty in Gabriel’s voice. This Jesus was not born to attempt a rescue but to accomplish a redemption! He came to actually, truly, irrefutably, and immutably save a people from the peril of divine, eternal damnation. In a few short years, Gabriel’s prophetic promise would be answered and sealed with Christ’s own victorious verdict, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In that atoning moment and dying declaration, the salvation of all of his sinning people was sealed.
This brings us to the last pronoun of Christmas: their.
The angel’s words tell us three essential things: First, Jesus has a people, given to him by the Father before the world began. Second, they are all sinful and continually sinning people. Their is a possessive pronoun. It shows ownership. In the angel’s promise, it links the people and the perversion. The sins that have offended God are our sins. The crimes that demand retribution in blood are our crimes. We committed the offenses. We were justly under the judgment of holy wrath. Finally, Jesus came to save us from our sin. We are the direct object—the recipients of the salvation.
This is the gospel story. Jesus, born of a virgin, came to save his sinful people. We have a calling in this Christmas story.
Mary was called to bear a son;
Joseph was called to name him;
Jesus was called to save his own;
Sinners are called to claim him.
In the darkness of this present evil age the gospel still shines with all its glorious light: Jesus came for sinners. The gospel pronouns stand!
The author is pastor of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan. New Horizons, December 2019.