Christmas as a child is full of surprises. That’s why it’s so fun watching kids open presents. Their reactions are never fake or forced. If they love a present, genuine joy spreads across their face. Like here, when Heidi opened a Barbie car:
And if a child is disappointed by a gift, an instant scowl or look of disinterest appears.
Like the year my brother Trent opened up an expired Lunchable. He didn’t find it nearly as funny as my dad did. Nor did he laugh the next year when he opened a box of rocks. And the year he didn’t give my mom a list so she surprised him with karate lessons when he really wanted roller blades? Well let’s just say that ever since then we’ve given her very detailed Christmas lists.
I always loved being surprised on Christmas morning. It was so hard to fall asleep on Christmas Eve because just thinking about the surprise presents soon to be under the tree made me giddy with excitement.
I didn’t expect to receive the gifts on my list like I often do as an adult. As a child, I simply hoped for things and was still shocked when I got them. And then there were always other surprise gifts I didn’t even know I wanted. Like the giant chalkboard I unwrapped one year after my parents had noticed how often I played pretend teacher.
The anticipation of presents and surprises woke us up before the sun rose, and we’d race down the stairs to look in wonder at all the wrapped gifts delivered late in the night. I think it’s those surprises on Christmas morning that make the 25th so magical as a child.
We don’t get many surprises on Christmas morning any more. Sure, we’re surprised by the type of candy in our stockings and the style of pjs we open on Christmas Eve, but we usually know exactly what we’ll open Christmas morning. I had already tried on the running shoes my sister got for me this year. And I knew precisely what my parents got for me since I only had one thing on my list. And though I love my new Newton running shoes and my Vitamix, I can’t help but miss the wonder of surprise that comes with Christmas as a child.
However, this Christmas season I learned about one of the greatest surprises of all time.
I learned in my seminary class that there was never a prophecy about the Messiah coming from a virgin.
I know. I was shocked too.
In fact, I raised my hand in class and said, “Dr. Way, you’re telling me that there was never ANY prophecy about the virgin birth? It was a total surprise?”
He assured me that it was and said, “Absolutely no one expected the Messiah to come from a virgin. It was a bonus.”
My mind raced as it tried to wrap around this idea. I had always believed that Isaiah had foretold the virgin birth and the Jews had simply misunderstood Isaiah 7:14 just as they misunderstood what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. So to learn that it was actually I who had misunderstood the verse was more than a little disconcerting. However, as Dr. Way continued in his lecture, he explained how the verse should actually be read and how it actually reveals an even greater God.
Nerd alert: I’m about to throw a bunch of bible nerdiness on this post. I find this stuff uber interesting, but realize that not everyone will. Feel free to skim to the end of this rant if I start to bore you. No offense taken.
Okay, so in every Evangelical bible Isaiah 7:14 reads something like this:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
But there are several things wrong with this English translation. First, the verb tense is wrong. In Hebrew it doesn’t read “shall conceive” as in the future, but rather, it indicates that the woman had already conceived but not yet given birth. This was huge because Isaiah was referring to a woman who was already pregnant. In fact, most OT scholars believe this was a woman in the king’s harem whom the original audience would have known.
Therefore, this prophecy that we always assume is about Jesus, was actually about a child named Immanuel who had been born long before Jesus came to earth.
Next, the “sign” that Isaiah mentions was not referring to a miraculous birth. It was totally normal that a pregnant woman would give birth. But the sign would be the fact that in a few months, a child would be born and God would once again be with Israel and judge the nations; hence the meaning of his name: Immanuel= God with us.
Here’s the crazy part.
Isaiah didn’t actually use the word “virgin.” I know. For the record, I fully believe that Mary was a virgin. I’m not contesting the virgin birth.
Isaiah used the word “alma” which means young woman- some almas were virgins and others were not, just as some fiances are virgins and others are not. John H. Walton wrote THIS ARTICLE in 1987 in which he convinced most OT scholars and even the Bible translating committee that “alma” should not be translated as “virgin.” However, the publishers wouldn’t change the translation to say “young woman” because they knew the controversy it would create. Instead, they added a footnote which indicates that “virgin” can also be translated “young woman.”
If you’re a bible nerd like me, you’ll be fascinated by Walton’s article and this summary:
But even if you’re not a Bible nerd, I think you’ll appreciate the fact that Walton proves that nobody expected a virgin birth. Not even Isaiah.
When Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, he wasn’t saying that prophecy was being fulfilled through the virgin birth. Matthew often used OT scriptures to make a point, and knowing the OT scriptures much better than us, Matthew knew that this boy named “Immanuel” had already been born.
So when he writes that, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel'” (Matt 1:22), he was using a teaching strategy the Jews accepted. He was applying a prophecy that already been fulfilled to make a point that God was with them again- just as he was back in Isaiah’s time.
Mary named her son Jesus, not Immanuel, because the angel instructed her to and because Isaiah’s prophecy wasn’t about Jesus. Matthew simply points out an interesting connection to the OT passage and uses it to illustrate that when Jesus was born, God was with us again.
Bible nerd rant over.
Maybe you buy this and maybe you don’t. I realize that I’m not exactly a bible scholar. I’m a girl who reads US Weekly and almost electrocuted herself last week. But the Old Testament scholars I respect the most, the ultra bible dorks who study the bible for a living, all agree that NO ONE expected a virgin birth.
It was a total surprise.
And I think it says something awesome about our God.
He is a God of surprises.
A God who continually surpasses our expectations.
A God who fulfills His promises in ways far better than we can imagine.
So when He promised a Messiah, the Jews didn’t realize how great this Messiah would be. They didn’t realize he would come from a virgin and be God himself in human flesh.
What a crazy surprise!
And when God promises to “meet all our needs” (Phil 4:19), and give you “the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4), He often surprises us in the way He does this. I’ve certainly seen this in my own life.
Last year at this time, I thought for sure God would meet my needs and give me the desires of my heart by providing a job in Chile or Panama or Nicaragua. And if not that, then I’d stay here and God would provide a husband. Or even just a boyfriend.
But He didn’t.
Instead, I’m still in America, still living in the same house with my cat still sleeping on my chest, even though my uncle warned me that I could get a parasite that will make me suicidal if she sleeps near my face.
And you know what? Life is wonderful.
My needs are met.
I’ve been given many of the desires of my heart.
And I get to live in a place of hopeful anticipation, waiting for God to surprise me again.
Because He’s proven Himself to be a good God. A God who hears our prayers, knows our needs and desires, and chooses to surprise us with the ways He answers our prayers and meets our needs.
Instead of giving His people a mighty human king to overthrow Rome, He shocked the world and gave us His own son, born of a virgin, to overthrow death.
Instead of giving us what we think we need and desire, He continually surprises us by giving us what He knows we need and what we should desire.
So if you weren’t surprised at all this Christmas season, if like me, you got exactly what you asked for, I hope that you can rejoice in the fact that God will surprise you this year. He won’t give us exactly what we ask for because we often ask for the wrong things. But He will give us good gifts because He is a loving Father who loves to bless and surprise us.
Would you join with me in asking God to surprise you this year? Let’s raise our expectations and our hopes in this God who delivers wonderful surprises.