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Common practice dictates that the Christian read Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction now being enacted in space and time: the point is usually taken to be the majesty of a God who is able both to control events before they happen, and to create life in any way He chooses. Jesus is then seen as God's decision to bless us in a practical manner, taking notice of human needs. This, of course, is part of what Mary affirms in Luke 1:47. A more careful look at Isaiah, however, will reveal a surprising and disturbing depth to the opening chapter of Matthew.
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Isaiah 1-6 comprise a series of legal accusations of the Lord against His people, with chapter 7 beginning a prediction of judgment to be brought against those who do not repent at the preaching of God's Word. The sign given for the certainty of this coming judgment is a pregnancy and birth taking place in Isaiah's own time. Judgment by Assyria will fall upon God's land and its inhabitants before the predicted child is old enough to know right from wrong. The very presence of this boy among the people will daily remind them of impending judgment, and when judgment falls his presence will assure them that the judgment was orchestrated by God.
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What is fulfilled in the conception and birth of Jesus is not a bare prediction: the birth of Isaiah 7:14 takes place explicitly during Isaiah's lifetime. Nor is the conception and birth of Jesus a simple repetition of the Isaiah event: the conception in Isaiah is not virginal, the miraculous feature is contained within the act of prediction. What is fulfilled is the nature of God's working among his people and within his own character. That which God did through a baby's birth in Isaiah's time is precisely the kind of thing he does through Jesus' birth nearly 800 years later: he uses the predicted birth of a baby boy to pinpoint the time of judgment on his people. Both the nature of the birth and the nature of the judgment during Isaiah's time were incomplete and inconclusive; what was done in Jesus would be final and full.
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Rather than a vague pointer to the miraculous capabilities of God in bringing about life, Matthew 1:22-23 is a rhetorical key to the entirety of this Gospel's argument. Jesus is born as a sign of judgment on the unrepentant nation of Israel. Those who do not heed the divine warning implicit in his birth will fall under the enemy's sword. When he receives the announcement, Joseph acts in honor and courage to protect Mary and the baby Jesus. Such acceptance of God's warning is expected from all who are then presented in the text.
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Throughout Matthew the reader may see the judgment coming closer, with the rejection of Jesus by the leaders, priests and crowds paralleling the accusations made by the Lord in Isaiah 1-6. Matthew 23-26 lay out the final opportunity for God's people to turn, by presenting the nation's need to accept the Son of Man. When the final rejection is made in the killing of Jesus, judgment is rendered unavoidable. Jesus rises from the dead, tells his followers to go away from Jerusalem into all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), and Matthew ends his story.
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The reader, of course, knows what happens next: judgment falls upon Israel through the Roman invasion. In literary terms, Matthew's account of the annunciation begins almost 800 years before Jesus' birth, and ends nearly 40 years after his death and resurrection. To anyone paying attention, this destruction should have been no surprise. A baby was born, and the announcement of his birth had been not a simple promise of peace, but the full warning of impending judgment on those who would not believe.
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