20 But as he thought about these things, behold, a messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife; for what was conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
21 And she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.
Joseph is told by the angel that the boy will be called Jesus because ‘he will save his people from their sins’. We expect the Christmas story to have universal relevance, good news for all mankind, but the message here is only that Jesus will be Israel’s saviour: he will save his people. The reference to Israel’s ‘sins’ should also be understood in a quite specific eschatological sense. These are the sins that have placed the nation under judgment, the outcome of which will be political destruction if the nation qua nation does not repent. We should hear in the background passages such as Micah 3:8-12, not least because Micah has the prophecy about a ruler who will come from Bethlehem:
But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the LORD and say, “Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Jerusalem again faces devastation because of the corruption, injustice and hypocrisy of Israel’s leaders. Jesus is portrayed as the one who will deliver God’s people from the appalling consequences of the vitiated religious and social life of the nation.