When we hear the word Immanuel, we probably are quick to think of two words – Jesus and Christmas. It is at Christmas time, this time of year, that we celebrate Immanuel, that is, ‘God with us’ in the incarnation of the Son of God. We turn to both Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 and find two of the most known passages in all of Scripture:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.
In Isaiah’s situation, centuries before the birth of Christ, the people of Judah found themselves in a very difficult situation. Both Israel and Syria to the north were trying to coax Judah’s king, Ahaz, to form an alliance with them against the then-world-dominating power, Assyria.
Therefore, everything was heavily pressing in on king Ahaz. For starters, he had already been defeated by those two neighbouring countries to the north (see 2 Chronicles 28:5-8). If he did not join with Syria and Israel, he was asking for trouble, for invasion and war again. Yet, if Ahaz did become part of this tri-nation alliance, he would be inviting the reaction of Assyria. So might I just emphasise that this was no small matter – we are looking at war here.
So, here is a humanly impossible situation. Choose plan A or B.
Or maybe God’s going to come in with a better plan?
Isaiah is sent to Ahaz by God. He arrives with a request from God. Yes, a request from God – ‘Ask for a sign’ (Isaiah 7:11)!
Ahaz, on his best spiritual behavior, says ‘I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD’ (7:12). I guess he had been meditating on Deuteronomy 6:16 that morning.
But this is God who just said to ask for a sign! Why not comply? I guess Ahaz was being too overly spiritual for his own sake. Sometimes we do the same, even quoting Scripture to back ourselves up.
But Isaiah basically replies, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter anyways. God is going to give you a sign. Oh, and it is going to be very big’ (7:13f). In the midst of the promise we read that a virgin will bear a son, and his name will be called Immanuel. The name, as we know, means ‘God with us.’ And right here, right now in Ahaz’s situation, we see it taking on meaning. God was declaring that He was not with them (Israel and Syria), but He was with us! Immanuel!
In Isaiah’s day, Immanuel was the name of the son most likely born in chapter 8, that is Maher-shalal-hash-baz (see Isaiah 8:1-10). And it was also the name given to the eternal Son who had come in flesh – Jesus. Neither Maher-shalal-hash-baz nor Jesus were actually called by the name Immanuel. It was a prophetic name, kind of a sign-post name, characterising the promise of God in Isaiah’s day, and much more, the promise of the Word becoming flesh centuries later.
Though the name shows up only three times in all of Scripture, twice in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament, the prophetic promise of Immanuel actually rings throughout all centuries.
Do we need a few examples?
Even after the Fall, God shows up in the garden with Adam and Eve ‘walking in the cool of the day’ (Genesis 3:8). Wait, Adam and Eve had just ruined it for all humanity! And we still walk in the effects of such a decision. Why does God still show up as Immanuel, God with us? I am not sure we would have voted for such an action. Thankfully God didn’t ask us! God still came close and even made garments to cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:21). Do you see Immanuel?
Then there is the angel of the LORD who shows up numerous times throughout the Old Testament. This angel, this messenger, comes on behalf of, speaks on behalf of, and even sometimes seems to be God Himself. Our thoughts can also be drawn to the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night which led the Israelites throughout the wilderness wanderings.
Two of the greatest ‘Immanuel’ declarations in all of the Old Testament were the tabernacle and temple, which housed the ark of the covenant on which the weight of God’s glory was to rest. Are you beginning to get a bigger glimpse into the Immanuel heart of God?
We only then turn to the New Testament and in Matthew’s first chapter we are met with the beautiful fulfilment of Immanuel found in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. We revel in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and rightly so. But to ponder the initial incarnation of the divine One is truly amazing in and of itself! God stealing away in the night of a little babe? Quite scandalous!
And let us not forget ‘God with us’ today in the Holy Spirit who both seals us for redemption and dwells within us, not to mention His role of empowering and filling God’s people that we might accomplish the purposes of God. This is the kingdom reality each and every day for the body of Christ – God with us!
We, then, finally come to Revelation 21:1-3 at the end of the redemption story, which describes Immanuel in this fascinating way:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
When one picks up the Scriptures, turns the pages, and encounters the text by the Spirit, one is only left with this conclusion – God is really with His people. And let’s not forget the life of Christ’s body through the past two millennia. I mean, if God isn’t Immanuel today (not just on December 25), then either Scripture is wrong or I’m missing something here.
Though we do specifically remember the Immanuel heart of God in Christ during the Christmas season, we must remember that our God has been such from the beginning of our story, and He will be so through all eternity in the renewed heaven and earth. And I suppose that if we were to actually record all of our testimonies about God being with us, the whole of planet earth would be filled with volumes and volumes of books (see John 21:25)!
This is Immanuel!