There are plenty of Bible passages that make the rounds this time of year—in Christmas cards, sermons, and even Tweets. Most of these are plucked from the Gospels, since they give us narratives of Jesus’ birth. Others are from the prophetic writings, particularly Isaiah.
I’ve recently been reading Isaiah in my own devotional time, and occasionally one of these Christmas verses will pop up. It’s been eye-opening for me to get the full picture. I can see how these prophecies of the coming Messiah fit within salvation history. It’s not always comfortable, and we tend to skip the “bad news” passages about judgment and wrath. But the bad news makes the good news of Jesus even better.
Over the next week, I’ll be posting three articles which look at parts of Isaiah that don’t make it into our Christmas cards.
One common passage is: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
But we don’t often read the chapter that comes before this during the festive season. Isaiah 6 is a well-known passage about God’s holiness:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:1–7)
It’s striking to read Isaiah 7 in context of the whole narrative. God is so holy and perfect that Isaiah could not bear to look upon him. He sends Isaiah out to preach to Judah that judgment is coming because of their great sinfulness.
God gives the glorious hope of Isaiah 7:14 to this sinful people. Judah was threatened by enemies around them, but God promised they will not prevail. And as all humanity is under the bondage of sin and doomed by the coming judgment, God promises to come and dwell among us. Matthew applies this prophecy to the birth of Jesus directly:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:22–23)
That tiny baby born in a dirty stable is the very same God whose holiness made Isaiah tremble. He becomes Immanuel, God with us. Think how astounding this is! Our mighty and holy God, who reigns on a heavenly throne, was willingly born into this broken world.
God could have left us to the devastating consequences of our sin and rebellion. He could have punished us, poured out his wrath and cleansed his creation of all evil. Instead, he dies to save his people of unclean lips. Thirty years after Mary gives birth in a stable, she will watch her son die a horrific death on a cross. He knew this would happen, and he did it to take away our guilt and atone for our sin.
As Christmas approaches, remember the enormity of what Christ has done for us. Read Isaiah 6 and ask God to help you comprehend his immense holiness. He is so far above us, and yet he came into our world to save us. It matters that he wasn’t born into a palace. It matters that he made himself so low—because it shows us how much he loves us.