Friday, September 28, 2012

Notes on the Gospel of Matthew 1:21

When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, he reassured Joseph that he need not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Mary's Child had been conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary would give birth to a Son, and Joseph would have the task of naming Him Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

The phrase “for He will save His people from their sins” raises some questions: What does it mean to save someone? Who are His people? What is sin?

Let's look briefly at each of these, not to answer them in full (for working out their answers is the job of a lifetime) but at least to take our first steps along the journey of reflection. We'll use the Greek text as an interpretive key to help us begin to grasp the meaning of salvation, God's people, and sin and to understand exactly what Jesus has done for us.

What does it mean to save someone? The Greek word for “to save” is sōzō. It has a number of different but related meanings:
* to save
* to rescue
* to heal or restore
* to make whole or sound
* to preserve from loss, danger, or destruction
* to maintain intact what is already established (

According to the Greek, then, salvation combines elements of rescue, healing, restoration, a return to wholeness, and preservation. Jesus will do all of these for His people.

Who are His people? The Greek here is ton laon autou. Some interpreters maintain that the possessive indicates that Jesus belongs to a particular people, and therefore, this phrase refers only to the Jews. Others, however, note that the possessive could also mean that the people belong to Jesus. In this case Jesus' people would be the entire world. Everyone. For He, as the Word of God, created every single person who ever lived, who lives now, and who will ever live. The Greek word choice, laon, seems to support the latter interpretation, for usually the word used when referring to one's own people is dēmos.

The text notes that Jesus will save His people from their sins. What is sin? The Greek word for sin is harmartia. Thayer's Greek Definitions explains that harmartia is “that which is done wrong, sin, an offence, a violation of the divine law in thought or in act; miss the mark; to err, be mistaken; to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong; to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin.”

Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries agrees with Thayer's definition and notes that the noun harmartia comes from the verb hamartanō, which may originate from a combination of the negative particle with meros, meaning a division or share. In this etymology, then, a sin would be the loss of a share in something or someone.

The Bible study website Great Treasures offers an alternate etymology for harmartia. It suggests that harmartia may derive from the word amara, which is “a duct or canal by which water flows down to any place.” If this is so, harmartia would be related to the Hebrew words that mean “to speak or put forth” and “an evil influence.” Great Treasures continues, noting that the Hebrew indicates “the idea of turpidity and excitement, muddy confusion in water, acetous fermentation in wine, bitumen arising from hot natural springs, collection of mud brought down by tumultuous waters, bitter and brackish waters, etc.” If this etymology is accurate, Great Treasures concludes that hamartia, sin, “is the defiling influence and bitter principle of disturbance which has flowed down upon the creation of God.”

By basing the definition of sin on the meaning of the Greek word, we understand that sin is a missed mark, a wandering away, a loss of a share, and muddy waters. When we sin, we miss the mark of God's love. We don't make the standard. We don't hit the target. We fall short. We wander away from the Lord and His plan for us. Sin also muddies the waters of our lives. It makes things bitter, dirty, acidic, and confused. Further, when we miss the mark, wander away, and muddy the waters badly enough, we lose our share in God's divine life. We lose sanctifying grace through mortal sin. We lose God's divine indwelling and our eternal life with Him. Nothing could be worse than that.

Jesus has come to save His people from their sins. He has come to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us, to make us whole, to draw us back to Him, to give us a share in His life, to clear the waters of our lives. He has come that we may have life, real life, eternal life, life with God now and in Heaven. Nothing could be better than that. 

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