Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Most people realize that Immanuel means God with us. But there’s an aspect of the meaning that is less discussed. I had my first chew of Redman tobacco when I was in third grade. Someone had brought a pouch to the school picnic. Unfortunately for me, and a few others who also partook, someone told on us. We were given in school suspension. That was bad enough. But I was nearly ill at the prospect of the reckoning I knew I faced with my Dad.
The walk from school to the shoe store my parents owned wasn’t far. But that day it seemed like it would take forever. As I opened the swinging glass door, I expected to be in immediate and serious trouble. Neither my Mom or my Dad said anything. The rest of the afternoon passed as though nothing had happened. That night after we closed the store I sat in the passenger side of our light brown Ford Pinto. As we pulled to a stop in front of our home, my Dad told me to open the glove box. When I opened it, I saw a pouch of Redman. I knew that my time of reckoning had arrived. It had.
Immanuel, God with Us
In Matthew 1:21 the angel of the Lord tells Joseph in a dream that Mary will bear a son, and that he is to be named Jesus, “For he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew then informs us in verses 22-23:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
It’s an astounding claim. In Immanuel God is with us. In Jesus Christ, God entered into human history in a new way. Already in chapter 1 Matthew lays the groundwork for us to understand Jesus’ identity. He’s of the line of David, but not of the flesh of David. The Holy Spirit conceives Him through a supernatural work. Dr. Daniel Doriani, in his commentary on Matthew, points out an important layer of meaning for Immanuel. Immanuel means that the One with whom we must deal is present with us. We must reckon with Him, whether we like it or not. There are right ways and wrong ways to reckon with Immanuel.
Immanuel, God with Us to Bless
Ahaz, whom Jesus’ genealogy mentions at the beginning of Matthew 1, is an important precursor to Jesus’ arrival. The quote in Matthew 1:23 comes in a context where Isaiah discusses Ahaz. God was with him, whether he liked it or not. Judah was under attack, and things didn’t look good. God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to fear. He called him to put His faith in the Lord. God offered to be present with him to bless. If he refused to receive God’s blessing, however, God would still be present. But at that point, He would be present to judge.
Ahaz refused God’s blessing. As Doriani puts it, “God had offered Ahaz a gentle deliverance, but Ahaz wanted a mighty warrior.” He put his trust in the superpower of his day, Assyria. God let him have what he wanted. In the short-term, his plan seemed to be working out well. He basically told the Lord, “I’d rather work with Assyria.” In turn the Lord replied, “Go ahead. But afterward Assyria will work you over.” Ahaz had deliverance for a day. Assyria drove out the minor invaders. But then the superpower remained. Judah became a vassal, and Ahaz nearly lost his life.
Immanuel, God with Us to Curse?
According to Matthew, the blessing side of the Immanuel prophecy has now arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. He fulfills it in His birth. He has come to deliver us from a far more ruthless enemy. He has come to save us from our sin. He has come to deal decisively with that which is at the root of all our pain, suffering, and misery. As before, God’s purpose is to bless through Immanuel. But God has now acted in Jesus Christ. As we learn from Ahaz, in Immanuel God is now with us. If a person rejects the blessing of Immanuel, He will still be with us. But in that case, what remains at the end is only the curse of God. Immanuel means that now is the time to trust in Jesus Christ, God with us, and to receive the blessing that He brings.