When we hear the word Immanuel, we might be 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,” seen in the incarnation of the Son of God. We turn to both Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1 and find a most well-known passage in Scripture:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.
Going back to 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, all to stand against the then-world-dominating power, Assyria.
Everything was heavily pressing in on king Ahaz. For starters, he had already been defeated by those two neighboring 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. Possibly humiliating defeat once again. Yet, if Ahaz did become part of this tri-nation alliance, he would invite the reaction of Assyria.
This was no small matter – we are looking at war here.
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). Perhaps he’d been meditating on Deuteronomy 6:16 that morning.
But this is God, through the prophet, who has just said: Ask for a sign! Why not comply? But Ahaz tried to preclude the request of God with top spirituality. Sometimes we do the same, even quoting Scripture to back ourselves up.
But Isaiah replies something like this: “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!
Continuing the story of Isaiah, Immanuel was most likely the name of the son we read about in ch.8, that is Maher-shalal-hash-baz (see 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, a sign-post name, pointing to and reminding the people of God of the promise of God, both in Isaiah’s day and much more in the Word becoming flesh.
But here’s the interesting thing for me: 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 rings throughout all centuries.
A few examples would do well.
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 humanity! And we still walk in the effects of such a decision. Why does God still show up as Immanuel, God with us? God still came close and made garments to cover their nakedness. We see Immanuel
Then there’s 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. Or we might recall the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, which led the Israelites in 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 glory of God was to rest. Now we’re starting to grasp a bigger glimpse into the Immanuel heart of God?
Skipping forward, we can finally turn to the New Testament and in Matthew’s first chapter we are met with the fulfillment 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.
And let us not forget “God with us” today in the Holy Spirit, the one seals, dwells with, and empowers the people of God, the new temple.
We, then, finally come to the end of the 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, one is only left with this conclusion – God is really with his people. And let’s not forget the people of God over the past two millennia. This is not just a December 25th thing here. It’s simply reality around every corner of history.
And, so, we do rightly remember the Immanuel heart of God in Christ during the Christmas season. But let us also remember that our God has been such from the beginning of our story and will continue into the renewal of all things.
This is Immanuel.