The Messiah Foretold
One of the most misunderstood words in our spiritual vocabulary is the word "prophecy." In the modern understanding of the word, prophecy refers solely to predicting the future and prophets are those who predict the future by some special grace of God.
Yet this understanding is not so much flawed as it is incomplete. The task of the prophet in both the Old and New Testaments was not so much concerned with predicting the future as with declaring the will of the Lord.
The Prophet Elijah serves as a good example of this. His ministry is mostly concerned with confronting the apostasy to foreign gods, the "baals" of Canaan, that the people of Israel were worshipping. The verse that perhaps best contains his preaching in capsule form is spoken on Mt. Carmel in his contest with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal: "Elijah came unto all the people, and said, 'How long will you limp between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him'" (I Kings 18:21).
Many times Biblical prophecy may be seen from two perspectives: an immediate one for the immediate situation and a complete fulfillment. Many of the prophecies that we associate with the Nativity of our Lord fall into this second category.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the prophecy given by Isaiah as recorded in Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
Isaiah originally spoke this prophecy to King Ahaz when the kingdom of Judah was under attack by a coalition of the Syrian and Ephramite invaders. As the Book of Isaiah records, "The heart of the king [Ahaz] and the heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind" (Isaiah 7:2). Instead of relying on the Lord, the wavering King Ahaz had asked the King of Assyria to destroy both of these enemies. Ahaz had stripped the Temple in Jerusalem of its gold and valuables and sent them as a gift to the Assyrian Monarch as an inducement to act.
Although King Ahaz refused to consult the Lord in this time of crisis (Isaiah 7:12), the Lord promises the sign of Immanuel to reassure him that redemption is with the God of Israel and not with any political power. The birth of "Immanuel" ("God with us") is meant to herald the destruction of Syria and Ephraim and usher in the promise of salvation for the Kingdom of Judah.
Yet the prophecy does not end there. The angel of the Lord, speaking in a dream to Joseph, announces to him the complete fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in the birth of Christ, Who is truly "Immanuel:"
But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call His name JESUS; for it is He that shall save His people from their sins. Now all this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, And they shall call His name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us (St. Matthew 2:20-23).
Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich explains the "dual nature" of this prophecy in this way:
"Thus, the All-seeing God knows how to tie in the near with the distant and that, by fulfilling one prophecy in the present, He confirms a second prophecy in the future. "Emmanuel God is with us" - He saved Jerusalem then as an invisible God. "Emmanuel God is with us" He will save mankind in similar dangers later on as the Incarnate God, as God-Man, born of the All-Pure Virgin and the Holy Spirit" (The Prologue III, pp.191-192).
Why did the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the future redemption of all humanity come at a time of crisis for Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah? Bishop Nikolai again instructs us:
"Why did the prophet, at that very moment and under such circumstances, foretell the prophecy of the birth of the Savior? Because mankind, at the time of the coming of the Savior, will be in the same kind of despair, pressured by and surrounded by the powers of the demons, as was Jerusalem at that moment. Did the prophet explicitly say Virgin and not a Woman? Naturally, he mentioned a Virgin. For if the prophesy were spoken of a woman, what kind of miracle would it be; what kind of sign? Are not all men born of women? All the weight of emphasis is on the word "Virgin'" (Ibid).
Bishop Nikolai here echoes the words of St. Justin the Martyr in his work, The Dialogue with Trypho, composed only a century or so after the Resurrection of the Saviour. St. Justin not only makes reference to the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in the birth of Christ, but proclaims that the kingdoms hostile to King Ahaz and Jerusalem some seven hundred years before Christ, were prophetic symbols of the power of idolatry and evil. These were overthrown by the birth of Christ as symbolized in the Magi who come to Bethlehem to worship "from the East:"
For that expression of Isaiah 'He shall take the power of Damascus and spoils of Samaria,' (Is.8:4) foretold that the power of the evil demon that dwelt in Damascus should be overcome by Christ as soon as He was born; and this is proved to have happened. For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive; and this [dominion] the Scripture has showed us to reside in Damascus. Moreover, that sinful and unjust power is termed well in parable, Samaria (Dialogue with Trypho, LXXVIII).
There is one other prophecy associated with the Magi that is often referenced during the Feast of the Nativity of Lord and that is Malachi 4:2: "But unto you that fear My name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings."
The Church makes reference to this prophecy in relation to the Advent of Christ in the Tropar for Christmas:
"Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone forth the light of knowledge to the world. For through it those who studied the stars; learned from a star to worship You the Sun of Righteousness and to acknowledge You rising from on High, O Lord, glory to You!"
The Magi, in their quest for knowledge, are taught by the Star of Bethlehem to no longer worship the stars of the night sky, but the true Sun of Righteousness, that is, Christ. During the Christmas Season may Christ our God, Who is "the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets," fill our hearts with joy and gladness as we bow before Him in the Incarnation.
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger