By Keith Megilligan
God with us! From the time you were in Sunday School or maybe one of your first Christmas cards, this name/title of God has become very familiar to most Christians. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” Matthew 1:22, 23. As a result of this record from Matthew, we have little doubt about:
a) the prophetic implications of Jesus’ birth
b) the meaning of the title of Jesus name
c) the heavenly necessity of Joseph (and Mary) following the angel’s instructions
And since Matthew chooses to quote Isaiah to give us his record of the birth of Jesus (the Messiah), it would be good to look at that prophet’s word.
Used only twice by the prophet (Isaiah 7:14; 8:8) the Hebrew word comes to us in English as a transliteration of the Hebrew word: עִמָּ֥נוּאֵֽל (Immanuel). The context in which the word appears is fascinating if not a little troubling. The wicked king Ahaz is given an opportunity to trust/prove God by challenging God to any test he could imagine. God would, in turn, demonstrate how He would stand for Judah.
Ahaz and Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) were facing a potential onslaught from the king of Syria in collusion with the king of Israel (the northern kingdom of Israel). God wanted to assure Ahaz that He would stand with the southern kingdom against its foes. To substantiate His word, God, through the prophet, told Ahaz to ask for any sign (miracle) he could imagine and God would perform it. But in his arrogance, Ahaz feigned a piety that balked at such a test. The Lord in his reply to Ahaz and his pseudo piety told the king He would give him His own sign: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Now that’s a sign! This miracle actually has two components. The first is that of the virgin birth. Even if Ahaz would have responded to God’s challenge, he would not have, in his wildest imagination, come up with a virgin conceiving. Second, even if his imagination would have supported such a thought, the child conceived could never be God! The somewhat wooden translation of Immanuel is: with us God. The very thought of God transcending time and space to occupy a human body is beyond comprehension for humanity, especially Jewish humanity. In Judaism, God was always “other.” He did not have form – certainly not human form. The first two commandments given to Moses spoke explicitly against such a possibility. The main physical manifestation of God that was prevalent in Jewish thinking in their history was a pillar of fire/cloud by which God made his “local” presence known in the wilderness. This glorious presence was “continued” in the tabernacle and temple until the time of Ezekiel’s revelation. But God certainly was not ever manifested in human form.1 Such thinking was blasphemous.
The next reference of Immanuel is in the very next chapter (8:8). The context is still of war with the previously mentioned threat of Syria and Israel. This time, the prophet utters the term (Immanuel) almost as if it were a prayer. It is as if in the midst of this threatening conflict the prophet cries out, “O Immanuel, if you are not with us, we will perish.” Further, with a distinction that can clearly be seen in the Hebrew text a few verses later (10), the prophet exclaims, Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God (is) with us. The Hebrew phrase (Immanuel) is “broken” in the orthography (written text): עִמָּ֖נוּ אֵֽל God: with us. This phrase is presented as an interpretation of the name. The prayer (O Immanuel) is answered – God is with us.
Coming back to Matthew, we now have the history, etymology, prophecy and fulfillment with the announcement of the birth of Jesus as Immanuel. And yet, God has only begun. With the birth of Jesus comes the historical theology that is summarized in one word: INCARNATION. From the Latin, it means in the flesh. The author of Hebrews bends over backwards (theologically) to demonstrate the “Christ-ness” (Messianic status) of Jesus.
Since God did become flesh (John 1:14) in fulfillment of the Isaiah passages mentioned above (as well as Isaiah 9:6), humanity has become witness to God being physically with us (1 John 1:1-4). The material presence of one hundred percent God/man is not only a miraculous event – it becomes the cornerstone for our salvation! And even though the New Testament writers clearly demonstrated the deity of Jesus and his efficacious work on Calvary to handle our sin once and for all (1 John 1, 4, 5; Romans 5:1-11; John 20:31; 1 Peter 1), heretical teaching opposing the incarnation of Jesus continued to plague the church until the Council of Nicea (325 AD).
Thankfully, Joseph was one of the earliest believers in the incarnation! Together with Mary, this sovereignly chosen couple literally opened their arms to receive, for the first time, God with us Immanuel)!
1 What is missed by Jewish people is that God often appeared in human form in the Old Testament, Genesis 16:7-14; 18:1-15; 32:24-30; Judges 13:2-24. These are referred to as theophanies (God appearing in human form), and all theophanies were Christophanies (Jesus appearing in human form). The uniqueness of Immanual is the miracle of God taking on human form through a birth.