Immanuel, God With Us
Jonathan More, GWC Vice-Principal, Biblical Studies
B Eng (Stellenbosch University), M Eng (Stellenbosch University), LTh (GWC), BA (NWU), Hons BA (NWU), ThM (Princeton Theological Seminary), PhD (Stellenbosch University).
A few weeks ago, Ross Anderson wrote about the significance of the name “Jesus” in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. In this blog, I want to consider the other name that is associated with Jesus in this passage: “Immanuel.” Look again at what the angel tells Joseph in a dream:
‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matt 1.20-25; NIV)
The prophet to whom Matthew is referring is, of course, Isaiah. When Ahaz was king of Judah, his enemies marched against him (Isa 7.1-2). After being assured by the Lord that these enemies would not prevail, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign. The king refuses to do so. Although he makes pious excuses, the real reason for this refusal is presumably his unwillingness to follow Isaiah’s lead in these matters. Isaiah then says that the Lord will give Ahaz a sign despite the king’s defiance:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isa 7.14; NIV)
The king and those who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy would have known, as Matthew explains, that the Hebrew name “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Despite Ahaz’s lack of trust in God, God is present with his people. Isaiah prophecies that while the child is still young, the lands hostile to Judah will be laid waste. This was, no doubt, a great relief to King Ahaz. But then things take an unexpected turn. Isaiah’s prophecy of deliverance turns into an oracle of judgment. Assyria will overrun Judah like a river in flood. In Isaiah’s paradoxical word to the king, Immanuel, God with us, is both a blessing and a curse to the king and the nation.
Similarly, in Matthew, Jesus comes to bring salvation but also to warn of judgment. As mentioned above, Ross wrote in an earlier blog about the salvation that comes through the forgiveness of sins. The final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel expands the nature of this salvation. As Jesus sends his disciples out into the world, he again promises to be with them: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28.20). Although it’s only hinted at in the trinitarian name into which disciples are baptised, the rest of the New Testament makes clear that God is now with us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Although Jesus is returning to the Father, God is still with us.
But God with us is also a warning of judgment. John the Baptist understood this and warned those who were listening to him that the kingdom of heaven would come with salvation and judgment (Matt 3.1-12). Perhaps the most striking image of this judgment is the one painted by Jesus himself in Matthew 24. Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke frequently about the judgment that would come upon those who refused to recognise his role as “God with us.”
The salvation and judgment that is summarised in the name “Immanuel” is echoed in the collect for the first Sunday of Advent, and a prayer which many pray throughout Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which Your Son Jesus Christ came among us in great humility; that on the last day, when He comes again in His glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
As Christmas Day approaches, we’re reminded that those who know Immanuel in salvation need not fear the judgment, because they will be raised to immortal life when he returns.