Thoughts on “His people” in Matthew 1:21

The Calling of Saint Matthew

I want to first thank Caleb for asking me to be a part of this series. I think it’s important that no subject be off limits when it comes to our discussion of Scripture. I’m thankful he asked me to write about Matthew 1:21. I have been living and dining with Matthew’s gospel account for the better part of two years so I have no qualms talking about what is right now my favorite book of the Bible. So let’s get down to business…

Full disclosure: I whole-heartedly believe that the salvation that Christ purchased on the cross is an actual salvation that is not merely promised but fully applied to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that those who die in unbelief can not claim in any sense the work of redemption. To put this in plain terms, if an individual is in hell today then they can never say, whether potentially or concretely, that Christ died for them. If Christ died for all (without qualification) then their experience of God’s wrath (if an unbeliever) is questionable at best and unjust at worst. This is because those whom the Lord purchased will come to him and He will not cast them out but raise them up on the last day. Also every single one that the Lord predestines will ultimately be glorified (cf. Rom. 8:30). So obviously I believe in particular redemption or what is unfortunately titled “limited atonement.” I would also add that anyone who disavows universalism or inclusivism also affirms to some degree a limited atonement.

All that said I would still add two cautions. One, this doctrine should not be a test of fellowship among those who consider themselves evangelicals in the historic sense of the word (see Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical?). It is sad that so much Christian capital has been squandered with heated exchanges between theologs who claim to be “brothers.” I speak as one who has been on both sides of these exchanges and it pains my heart to know that some refuse to speak to each other based on particular convictions on this issue. Secondly, a person’s commitment to a theological system, no matter what it is, should not be the guiding principle in this discussion. Exegesis and exposition should light the way and theology can then come in to tie-up frayed ends. Therefore, though I hold to a “limited” view I refuse to allow this to come between myself and fellow believers who have different convictions and I also pray that I will not allow my convictions to shade the interpretation of whatever text is in front of me at the moment.

Our text: “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, NAU, emphasis mine).

The question is, who are “His people” referenced in this text? I want to approach this question from a textual vantage point that takes note of the purpose for Matthew’s writing and the progression (or development) of the Evangelist’s theology in the gospel account of Matthew.

Purpose of this text:
Matthew, a former publican, who in all likelihood was greatly despised by his fellow Jews as a traitor and Roman appeaser (cf. Matt. 9:9-13; 10:3) is the last person that any self-respecting Jew would have picked to deliver the written announcement of the Messiah to the Jewish nation. However, the grace of God is like that. The last written message to the nation though messianically positive still held out a threat of judgment (Mal. 4:6). So some four hundred years later this despised tax collector delivers good news to the nation Israel and it begins with a genealogy. He carefully documents the legal ramifications of who this Jesus is and he makes the case that this One is the long anticipated Messiah. Since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience he assumes a lot. He doesn’t give detailed explanations of Jewish culture and practices since it would be like explaining sweet tea to a Southerner. He assumes that they have a working grasp of the OT so he quotes and alludes to it liberally with sometimes very little explanation (around 60 times). In this regard it is probably not a stretch to see that Matt. 1:21 is an allusion or free quote of Psalm 130:8 which is specifically addressed to Israel (see Psalm 130:7).

Matthew’s purpose is to announce to the Jewish nation that the Messiah they have looked for has been realized in the God-man Jesus of Nazareth. This is the one who stands in perfect succession to Abraham and David. This is the one who has divine authority to teach and heal like no other. This is the one who is the Son of Man (a divine title, see Daniel 7:13) and this is the one who will do what all the Law, Prophets and Writings expounded and anticipated…He will save His people from their sins. In the context of Matthew 1 and situated within the overall purpose of the Gospel, “His people” in 1:21 is a specific reference to the nation Israel. I would agree with D. A. Carson who notes that “This verse therefore orients the reader to the fundamental purpose of Jesus’ coming and essential nature of the reign He inaugurates as King Messiah, heir of David’s throne” (EBC, 8:76). However that is not the end of the story.

Progression of this text: It would be wrong to put a glass down on the page over Matt. 1:21 like we’re trying to trap a grasshopper and ignore the rest of Matthew’s account. There is a progression in his message that unfolds over time and is solidified with the last scene of Matthew’s gospel (“The Great Commission”). Over time we come to see that “His people” are not merely from the commonwealth of Israel (cf. Matt. 8:11) but from among the nations. So the Gospel ends with the resurrected Christ instructing His Jewish disciples to go to “all the nations” and call more disciples to Christ. Again Carson correctly states, “The words ‘His people’ are therefore full of meaning that is progressively unpacked as the Gospel unfolds. They refer to ‘Messiah’s people.'”

Conclusion: Time and space do not permit us to explore all the ramifications of this reality. However, within the context of Matthew’s gospel account we can safely conclude that “His people” specifically refers to those who are regenerate disciples of Christ whether they be from the Jewish nation or from among the Nations. They are the ones whom the Lord purchased and the ones for whom He laid down His life. May Jesus Christ be praised for such a glorious work of grace and mercy!

(Picture: The Calling of Saint Matthew, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome)

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Lamey ( writes some words on “His People” from Matthew […]

  2. This passage truly supports Particular Redemption. Your description of how this includes both elect Jews and elect Gentiles was well grounded in the text of Matthew.

    Thanks for this work!


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