Within a couple of years of my conversion in college, I had an associate pastor friend at my church loan me a copy of the classic work “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented” by David Steele and Curtis Thomas. It was a fabulous book I still recommend to this day for any person to understand the basic tenents of Calvinism.
One of the first things I got straight in my thinking is that God has an elect people for whom He sent His Son to redeem. I believe the Scriptures plainly teach this. However, in my zeal as a new Calvinist, I had the bad habit of reading my theology back into the Bible, rather than allowing the Bible, rightly exegeted, to shape my theology.
Thus, when I would read for instance John 3:16, I interpreted the word “world” as the “elect,” because only the elect would believe in order to be saved. I believe it is true that only the elect will get saved, but the word “world” in John 3:16 isn’t saying that. Other passages will say that.
The same can be said about the angel’s prophecy to Mary in Matthew 1:21. When he said that Jesus “will save His people form their sins,” did he mean “his people” is to be understood as all the elect? Or, the Jews, the people to whom Jesus was promised as a Messiah? Thomas and Steele, in their book on Calvinism that I mentioned above, write this,
There are other passages which speak of His saving work in definite terms and show that it was intended to infallibly save a particular people, namely, those given to Him by the Father.
The first verse in their list following that statement is Matthew 1:21. But honestly, is Matthew 1:21 really defining the extent of Christ’s redemptive work? We can say the passage tells us Christ’s work will definitely “save” in that it is certain salvation He grants, not that He just makes men “saveable.” Again, I believe that Christ’s saving work was definite and was intended to infallibly save a particular people given to Christ by the Father, but Matthew 1:21 has only one particular people in mind and it isn’t all the elect of all time both Jews and gentiles. It is the Jewish nation.
Why I think this is important is that there is a tendency also among Calvinist to erroneously embrace concepts of replacement theology in their zeal to establish the doctrines of Grace. Rather than allowing passages like Matthew 1:21 to speak directly to the salvation and restoration of Israel, they unwittingly transfer those passages to the “elect of God” or “the True Israel” the Church. That is eisegesis, reading into the Scripture, not exegesis, reading out of the Scripture.
Doug Kutilek, in his March 2011 edition of his monthly news letter, As I See It, addressed this very verse regarding the subject of Calvinism. When I read it, I was a bit rankled by his conclusions, because he used Matthew 1:21 to launch out with establishing unlimited atonement. I part company with him and his conclusions where he becomes imbalanced in the other direction. You can read the entire article at the link above and judge for yourself, but the section pertaining to Matthew 1:21 specifically stirred up in my mind the constant need to be faithful to what the text of Scripture is truly saying rather than reading our theology into it and what WE want it to say.
Moreover, when one reads Matthew 1:21 as it is intended to be understood, we have another clear promise of God’s intention to save the nation Israel. In other words, those promises were never only intended for some spiritual body called “the Israel of God.” It was a real physical people that was a real national entity.
The rigid Calvinism of the type embraced by Gill and others, in particular the doctrine of limited atonement (also known as particular redemption), requires that no verse be allowed to say, however clear, plain or obvious it may seem, that Christ’s death made provision for the salvation of anyone who does not actually and ultimately partake of that salvation, lest it be said that some of Christ’s sufferings were wasted and the grace of God frustrated.
By-passing the system and focusing solely on the verse in question, we enquire, “what is meant by the term ‘his people,’ those whom it says Jesus will save?”
The term “people,” modified by a possessive pronoun referring to God–that is, “my people,” “your people, “ “his people”–occurs something on the order of 326 times in the Old Testament (I do not claim infallibility in my count). The overwhelming majority of these are in reference to the entire nation of Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, along with such proselytes as have become a part of the nation. Occasionally, the reference is limited to the faithful and devoted among this political entity, this physical nation. Only once that I could discover was it used of something other than literal, physical Israel in whole or in part. That exception is Isaiah 19:25, where the nation of Egypt, in a millennial context, is described as being as much the people of God as Israel (and Assyria). Never in the OT is “my people,” etc. used as a term to describe the whole body of ”the elect,” a spiritual group.
Now, turning to the NT, it is widely recognized that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, that its writer was Jewish, and that it was written for a Jewish audience with the purpose of proving from the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah and King. On such a basis, the a priori assumption must be that Matthew (and the angel who first spoke these words) uses the term exactly the same way as the OT, namely, that the “his people” for whom Christ died (1:21) is the nation of Israel, not “the elect,” an interpretation imposed on the text in violation of the consistent usage of the OT. Matthew must be presumed to have followed the usage of the OT unless and until strong evidence to the contrary can be produced.
In the NT, usage of the term “his / your / my people”–especially in the birth narratives of Matthew 1, 2 and Luke 1, 2–clearly indicates what the angel meant in speaking to Joseph. In Matthew 2:6, the scribes quote Micah 5:2 with regard to the birth of the promised Messiah. It is said that He “shall rule my people Israel” which, beyond all question, mean the nation of the Jews, not the elect.
Similarly, in Luke 1:68ff, Zacharias’ Spirit-inspired utterance, we read, “praise the Lord, the God of Israel, “–obviously the Jewish nation–“because He has visited and provided redemption for His people,”–the aforementioned Israel–“He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David”–the king of Israel–“just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets . . .”–those were Israelite prophets–“salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us”–a clear reference to the nation’s adversaries–“He has dealt mercifully with our fathers, and remembered His holy covenant –the oath that He swore to our father Abraham”–references to Israel’s national covenants (See Romans 9:4) and Israel’s literal, physical ancestor.
Zacharias speaks further of his own son John’s mission–“You will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” In such a context, the only “His people” that can possibly be meant here is literal, physical, national Israel.
In announcing the birth of the Savior, the angel brought good tidings of great joy “that will be for all the people” (the definite article is present in Greek, and is properly represented in the HCSB translation, as earlier by Tyndale, the Geneva, and other versions). While there is no possessive pronoun referring to God here, the reference is worthy of attention. The location is in close proximity to the city of David, the Jewish king; the shepherds are Jewish shepherds; the term Christ (“the anointed one”) is a Jewish term. The people for whom the good tidings were specifically intended were the Jewish nation.
Later in Luke, when aged Simeon held the infant Jesus and uttered the famous Nunc dimittis (2:29-32), he addressed praise to God for “”Your salvation you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples”–the definite article is present in the Greek, and the noun is plural. This term “all the peoples” is further clarified by Simeon, who speaks of this salvation as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (or “nations”), “and glory to Your people Israel,” showing that “Your people” means the literal, physical nation of Israel in distinction from the Gentile nations, and cannot mean “the elect” in a soteriological sense, since the saved / elect will be drawn from both Israel and the Gentiles. And that “Your people” means literal, physical Israel is exactly what would be expected in a context involving Jewish parents, with a Jewish infant in a Jewish temple, offering a Jewish sacrifice in fulfillment of Jewish law.