"You will call his name Jesus for he will save His people from their sins." Matthew 1:21 What does it mean to be "saved from sins"? We tend to think of sins as being the breaking of God's rules. The most basic of these rules is the Ten Commandments. Many people will also argue that Jesus didn't come to "abolish" these old rules but to establish them. Some teach that Jesus made things even harder through the sermon on the mount when he declared that adultery happens even when you are lusting after someone and not just when you have committed the act bodily. And many will say that this is the point of it all along: "the law" was given to show us how much we fall short of God's standard. "The law" was given to convince us that we are in fact sinners. I don't want to say that I am denying all of that, but I do want to say that it is a distortion and doesn't get to the heart of what Matthew understands his gospel to be about. As I have said before, to understand the Gospel as Matthew is presenting it and understanding it, we need to understand what the Jewish expectation was of the Messiah. What did the Messiah come to do? What were the promises made to Abraham? Etc. Matthew says that Jesus is the Messiah and that He came to "save us from our sins", which sounds pretty straight-forward. Only it really matters the way that you define sin. Is sin breaking arbitrary laws? The Bible, including the Old Testament, says that Abraham was a "righteous man" but he also lied about his wife, had a son with a second sudo-wife, and finally kicked her and His son out of the house when his first wife gave birth to a boy. This is not "righteous" conduct by any means. When the Bible talks about "sin" and "righteousness" it often means something subtly different than what we are used to considering. Abraham was not "righteous" in the sense of morally perfect or even pretty good. Abraham was considered "righteous" in the specific sense of being in covenant with God. God had come to Abraham and said that He wanted to do a great work in and through his family for the sake of the whole world. Abraham said "Ok! Wow! Thank you! Are you sure?! Is that even possible?! I don't see how...but okay, if you say so." (That is my paraphrase of Abraham's response. You can read his real response here.) And the scriptures say that "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." This does not mean that it was reckoned to Abraham as moral living. It meant that Abraham was in good standing in regards to this nearly all one-sided agreement with God. The only part Abraham played was saying "Ok. I won't fight it." That is what righteousness is in this scenario.
What about sin? Sin is not the breaking of arbitrary rules, sin is the breaking of the covenant with God. Yes, sin is when we act contrary to the heart and nature of God, but when it comes to God's interactions with the people of Israel, sin is particularly what happens when Israel abandons the covenant with God by worshiping foreign gods. Idolatry is the heart of "sin". It was because of idolatry and the abandonment of the covenant that Israel fell into the hands and were taken into the lands of the foreign gods that they worshiped. Foreign domination plagued the horizon of Israel ever since. And until that domination was removed, Israel considered that their sin of worshiping foreign gods had not been forgiven. So when Matthew says that the Messiah would "save his people from their sins" it meant that he would deliver Israel from her foreign oppressors and would restore proper and pure worship of the one true God in Israel again. Of course, this also includes the rescue of individuals from private sin as well. All sin is idolatry in one form or another. But for Matthew's purposes, the main thing to point out here is that God is dealing with Israel's sin of idolatry and exile so that God's plan of redemption and blessing can get back on track. God could not bless all nations through Abraham's family until Abraham's family was restored to proper worship. How will this be done? We will need the rest of Matthew's gospel to tell us that but it is enough to declare that the solution was beginning to be unveiled before our very eyes. Christmas is the beginning of the very good news of God's reign on earth as it is in Heaven. And of the faithful Israelite who made it happen on behalf of the nation.