(Preached at Mt. Home Baptist, Morganton, NC, and FBC Pauls Valley, OK, December 2014)
C.S. Lewis wrote of an interesting experience that his brother had one Christmas season. He said Warnie was riding on a big English double-decker bus one day, and they passed a church with a manger scene outside of it. Warnie overhead an English lady exclaim: “’Lor’, they’re dragging religion into everything these days: look, they’re even dragging it into Christmas now!”
Well, as you and I know, we’re not “dragging” religion into Christmas; the true meaning of Christmas is about what God did for us in Jesus Christ, that baby in the manger. What did He come to do? We get the answer to that in our passage for this morning, Matthew 1:21, where the angel told Joseph: “You shall call His name ‘Jesus’, for He will save His people from their sins.”
What is the significance of this saying? The name “Jesus” (or “Yeshua”) means “Yahweh is salvation”; so in calling the baby “Jesus” they were saying that God was saving His people through Him. But the angel specifically said that He would save His people “from their sins.” What does this mean, “He will save His people from their sins”? All of us have sinned, the Bible says (Romans 3:23). We have done things that were wrong, said things that were wrong, thought things that were wrong, and had attitudes that were wrong. Sin has numerous destructive effects in our lives. Sin makes us guilty before God for the wrongs we have committed. Sin enslaves us in its power. And sin would separate us from God and His holy heaven forever. But when Jesus came “to save His people from their sins”, these things were reversed! Let’s look at what it means that Jesus came “to save His people from their sins”:
I. He HAS saved His people from the PENALTY of their sins (The Doctrine of Justification)
The word “sins” found here in Matthew 1:21 is the Greek Bible word “hamartia.” It is the most common New Testament word for “sin”, and the basic meaning of it is “to miss the mark.” But it does NOT mean “miss the mark” in the way many of us would think of it: like an archer, who was trying to hit the right target, but just couldn’t do it. No, this word means “to miss the mark” of the standards that God set for us regarding the way that we should live:
— God commanded us to love Him with all our hearts and souls, and we haven’t; we’ve chosen to love other things in His place.
— God commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we have fallen short of that too, and have been selfish and self-centered in our decisions.
We could go down the list of all the commandments, and we have continually fallen short. Romans 3:23 summarizes it when it says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And because we have sinned, we must pay the penalty for our sins. One of the most clear, consistent messages of the Bible is that there are consequences for our sins.
— God told Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, when He prohibited them from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, “The day you eat from it, you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)
— “the wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23 says.
— Ephesians 5:6, speaking of sins, says: “because of these things, the wrath of God rightly comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
— Revelation 20 teaches us of the lake of fire, where the devil will cast, and all of those who have disobeyed God, and it says “there they will be tormented day and night, forever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10)
Because we have sinned — missed the mark — on all that God commanded us, we are guilty, and deserve God’s punishment for our sin.
But the Bible tells us here that Jesus came “to save His people from their sin”. That means first of all, to save us from the penalty of our sin. God loves us, and wants us to have fellowship with Him, and be with Him in heaven forever — this is what He designed us for. But as our sins caused a separation between us and God, and they make us deserving of God’s just punishment. So there was this dilemma, in that God loved us, because He is a loving God. But He is also a just and holy God, who cannot just let sin go by unpunished. (Exodus 34:7) So the Triune God solved the dilemma by sending God the Son to become a man, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross as the sacrifice which paid for our sins. I Peter 2:24 says “He Himself bore our sins (our “hamartia”, that same word used in Matthew 1:21 for missing the mark) in His body on the cross” so that we could be reconciled to God. Our Judge loved us, and paid the penalty for our sins.
I read recently of a judge in Great Britain, who had a homeless man come before his court with a charge of stealing two Christmas cards. The man had clearly stolen them; he was guilty. The Judge was compelled by the law to find the man guilty, and he was required to fine him, so he did. He had to be a just judge. But he also felt compassion for the homeless, penniless man. So after finding the man guilty, the judge reached into his own pocket, and took out the money that was required, and paid the man’s fine for him, which he could not have paid.
This is what the God of the Universe has done for us. He is a just Judge, who could by no means just ignore our sins, but He also loved us and wanted to forgive our sins. So He made the only payment that would suffice to atone for our sins: the payment that only He could make, by dying on the cross for our sins. And when He did, He totally paid the penalty for our sins. When Jesus died on the cross, He cried out, “It is finished”. This is the Greek word “tetelestai”, which is a commercial word which means “it is paid in full” – in other words, the penalty for our transgressions was paid in full by the death of Jesus on the cross.
Many people think of religion as doing enough good religious deeds to make yourself right with God. This is false. True religion is receiving the justification that Jesus bought FOR you on the cross. Because of what He did, if you will repent of your sins and receive Him as Savior and Lord, you can be made right with God – NOT by anything you have done, but by what HE did for you.
I was in a restaurant with Cheryl and several other people one time, and we talked for some time after the meal. When it came time to leave I looked around and didn’t see a check, so I asked the waiter for it. He said, it has already been taken care of. We asked, what do you mean? He said, someone else has already paid the bill. So we could walk out of that restaurant — fully justified in doing so – because the price had been paid for us. There was no need for me to pull out my wallet, and get some cash or a credit card, or to offer to do the dishes, or whatever. That would have been unnecessary on our part, for the price had already been paid. We were “right” in just walking out – because someone had paid the price for us.
This is how it is with us and God. You do not have to try to perform a number of religious works to pay the penalty for your transgressions and make you right with God. Jesus has already paid the price. If you will repent of your sins, and receive His sacrifice, He will “save you from your sins” and make you right with God. Romans 8:1 says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus came to totally pay the penalty for the sins of His people. If you will trust Him as your Lord & Savior, then you can say with the old hymn:
“My sin, o the bliss of this glorious thought;
my sin not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more!
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul!”
This is what Jesus came for: to set His people free from the penalty of their sins.
II. He IS saving His people from the POWER of their sins (The Doctrine of Sanctification)
We often think of the word “saved” in that past tense way I just described: that Jesus “saved” us from the sins we committed in the past, and set us free from their guilt and penalty. This is a true and blessed part of our salvation, but we also need to understand that Jesus came to do more than that. The Bible word for “save” used in this verse can mean to deliver from oppression or power of some harmful thing. So when it says He came to “save” us from our sins, it means that Jesus not only saves us from the penalty of sin, but also from the power of sin in our lives.
Peter helps us understand this in his sermon in Acts 3, where he told the people who were amazed at the healing of the lame man that “God sent (Jesus) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” He did come merely to forgive our sins, but to give us power to turn from them!
When we are saved, the Bible says the Holy Spirit of God comes into our lives and seals us as His. Galatians 5:22-23 says the fruit of Jesus’ Holy Spirit in you includes “goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” — just what we need to war against so many sins: we do not have to be evil, for the Spirit has given us a spirit and power of goodness; we do not have to be unfaithful, for the Spirit has brought the power to be faithful; we do not have to be harsh and angry with people, for the Spirit has given us the power to be gentle; we needn’t be controlled by enslaving sins, for the Holy Spirit has given us the power of self-control. His presence in our lives gives us power over sin.
Thus Jesus came not only to forgive, but also to give power over sin in the life of every person He saves. Too many Christians seem to be content being freed from the penalty of their sin, but continue dwelling in the same sins over and over. This is not God’s plan for us.
You remember in John 8:11, when Jesus was confronted with the woman who was caught in adultery, He said, “Neither do I condemn thee – go and sin no more.” Significantly, Jesus did NOT say “Neither do I condemn you; go and keep doing whatever you wish.” This is important, because that is basically what many religionists would affirm today: “Come as you are, and stay as you are; it doesn’t matter.” But that is not the message of the Bible. The scripture says here that Jesus came “to save His people from their sins” — not only forgiveness for past sin, but power to change our present sin.
Several years ago, I was attending a service in which some prison inmates had a part of the program. They had sweet spirits, but they were not the most learned men. One of them did the scripture reading from I John 2:2, where it says that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins …”. (“Propitiation” means “atoning payment.”) But instead of saying “propitiation”, he said, “He Himself is the perpetuation for our sins.” I had to smile when he said that, because “perpetuation”, of course, means that you continue to do it!
And unfortunately, that is the way too many people see “Christianity.” They think that Jesus forgives the penalty for their sins, so they can just confess them, and keep doing the same things over and over with no impunity. But Mathew 1:21 doesn’t say that Jesus came to “perpetuate” our sins, He came to “SAVE us from our sins” — to change us, and give us power to overcome sin in our lives.
A couple of years ago, one of our church members shared with me the testimony that she had been saved as an adult, and had brought many of the habits from her unsaved lifestyle into her Christian walk. She had smoked for most of her adult life, but she felt convicted that she should change, although she knew that it could be very difficult. But she said that she knelt and prayed, “Lord, give me the desires of a non-smoker, in Jesus’ name.” And miraculously, He did! Smoking became repugnant to her, distasteful, just like it is to a non-smoker. And as a result she was able to give it up. God gave her the power to stop.
This is the kind of thing that God continually desires to do in our lives: deliver us from the power of sin. It is one thing to continually say, “Lord, forgive me for my sin.” And thank God, there is forgiveness with Him, as Psalm 130:3-4 tell us. But there is also power in His salvation to change, that you should not take for granted. He will give you the power not only to be forgiven for your sin, but also to stop doing it. Jesus came not only to save you from the penalty of your sin, but also to set you free from the power of your sin.
This should happen in our lives continually. As you walk with the Lord every day, He will give you power to overcome sin. Thus your life should gradually become more and more holy. This is the process we call “sanctification” – “sanctified” means “holy.” Sanctification is the process of growing more holy. This should be the experience of every Christian. You are not to stay the same; you are to be growing in holiness. Hebrews 12:14 says “pursue sanctification …” . II Corinthians 7:1 says “let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (sanctification) in the fear of God.” These verses are describing a commitment, and a process. It is not going to happen instantaneously. It is like what God told Israel when they were going to take the Promised Land from the foreign nations: “The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you LITTLE BY LITTLE; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly … but the Lord your God will deliver them before you.” (Deuteronomy 7:22-23). God told the people of Israel: I am not going to sweep away all the nations of the land in one week. It was going to be a gradual process – they would have to continue to rely on Him to help them. This is a good picture of what happens in your Christian life. God doesn’t deliver you from every sin instantly – if He did you might forget your need to rely on Him! Instead, just like with the people of Israel, He leads us through the gradual process of “sanctification” – learning to depend more and more on His saving power over sin in your daily life.
Can I ask you something: is this the experience of your Christian life? Are you growing in sanctification? Are you experiencing the power of Jesus to save you from your sins? Are you more holy now than you were a year ago, or 5 years ago? If not, you are missing out on part of what Christ came to give you – the power over sin in your life. For many Christians, this is like an “unopened gift” that Jesus came to give us at Christmas. We have opened the “gift” of salvation from the penalty of sin, but we have neglected to open the gift of the power to conquer sin. I would encourage you today to “open this gift”: look at what you would consider to be the “biggest sin” in your life, and ask Jesus Christ today, by His power, to help you overcome that sin. He came “to save His people from their sins” – not only from the penalty, but also from the power of sin in their lives.
III. He WILL save His people from the PRESENCE of sin (The Doctrine of Glorification)
The truth is, even though you can have more and more power over sin as you grow as a believer, as long as you live, you will always struggle with the power of sin in your life. I John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That is present tense: if anyone says that they have (present tense) no sin, they are just deceiving themselves. The battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil will last all of our lives.
This is true for every believer. The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Christians to walk the earth, writes in Romans 7 about his ongoing battle with sin, decrying the fact that sometimes he does the very thing that he hates, and he ends that passage by saying: “Wretched man that I am, who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25) He says, one day, Christ will save him not only from the penalty and the power, but also the very presence of sin will be eradicated from our lives. One day, that battle will be over. We will be set free from not only the guilt, and the power, but also the very presence of sin itself! When the angel said, “He will save His people from their sins” means that He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin entirely.
This is the promise of heaven – there will be no sin there. I John 3:2 says “we will be like Him, for we will see Him just as He is.” Revelation 21:27 says: “and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Everyone in heaven will be absolutely set free, not only from the penalty, and the power, but also from the presence of sin. NOTHING sinful or unclean will be in that place. It is a place of perfection beyond our imagination.
Many of you know the name of Joni Earickson Tada, who was paralyzed and made a quadraplegic in a diving accident when she was a young woman. She became a Christian, and has had a marvelous testimony for years now. Some time ago, she said:
“People say, ‘You must be looking forward to Heaven’, thinking I am looking forward to getting my new body. And after more than 25 years in a wheelchair, it’s true that I am. But more than I am looking forward to my new body [she said with her voice choking with emotion] I am looking forward to a heart without sin.” (Joni Eareckson Tada, quoted in Whitney, p. 126)
In 1971 John Lennon came out with his most “successful” song: “Imagine”. In it, Lennon said:
“Imagine there’s no countries, nothing to live and die for … imagine there’s no heaven, no hell below us, imagine all the people, living for today … imagine no possessions … no need for greed and hunger …”. He said “You may say that I’m a dreamer”, but encouraged everyone to join him, and let the world live as one.
But the problem with John Lennon’s “Imagine” is that it just that: imaginary. It is a pipe dream. Can you “imagine” what would really happen if all the world was living just for today, like he suggested – it would not be peace; it would be constant strife, warfare, greed, immorality – even more of what we have today — because of the sin that infests every man.
But the Bible says there is coming a time when we WILL be set free, not only from the penalty, and the power, but also the presence of sin. Jesus said in John 14, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places, and I go to prepare a place for you.” When Jesus comes back, and takes His people whom He has saved to heaven, we will live together in a place where there is no sin, nothing unclean, no abominations, no lying, but only perfectly saved people in the presence of perfect God in a perfect heaven.
— imagine a place where there is no selfishness
— imagine a place where there is no self-destructive behavior
— imagine a place where everyone is forgiven and free
— imagine living forever in the perfect presence of God experiencing the pleasures and joys that Psalm 16:11 tells us comes from His right hand!
THIS PLACE IS NOT IMAGINARY – it is real. Several years ago, we had a faithful deacon and church member pass away, and his wife and son told us later that right before he passed, he came out of his coma, and looked past them, to something he could see, as if it were beyond him, and smiled – a smile they said, that was bigger and wider he had ever had before. And with that, he went to be with the Lord in heaven. Karen and Troy both said it was so real, to see him go to that place, that it was hard to even cry; seeing that he was going to such an incredible place – free from every imperfection, and every hint and stain of sin – in the presence of the Lord Himself.
But our hope of heaven is not based on a man’s experience like Ronnie’s, or on the word of a 7-year-old boy, or anyone else’s — but on the fact that the word of God promises it. Jesus Himself said, “I go to prepare a place for you” — and that place is where He will save us from the very presence of sin!
THIS is what Christmas is all about. This is what Jesus came to do: He came “to save His people from their sins.” That means that Jesus saves us from the penalty, power, and the presence of sin; salvation past, present, and future: we WERE saved from the penalty of sin; we ARE BEING saved from the power of sin, and one day we WILL be totally saved from the very presence of sin. This is what it means to be “Justified, sanctified, glorified” – saved from the penalty, power, and presence of sin. The angel said, “You shall call His name ‘Jesus’, for He will save His people from their sins”!