|The Names of Jesus #2
"They Will Call Him Immanuel . . ."
March 15, 1998 / Matthew 1:22-23
Is there someone you miss terribly today? Is there someone whose pending departure is already causing you sadness? I don’t bring these melancholy thoughts to your mind to make you sad. Please, to the contrary! I am only asking you to realize the impact of separation from someone you love. And the reason I want you to acknowledge the pain of separation is so you can rejoice with me today in the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is Immanuel.
Unfaithful friends abandon you, and the most faithful ones die. Someone who is physically present is sometimes emotionally and spiritually absent. And even those who care and come to you in love are limited in their ability to understand or aid you. Jesus, however, is the believer’s forever-present, always-engaged, infinite-in-understanding, limitless-in-power, boundless-in-love, and gracious-to-save God.
My goal in this sermon is to make the title Immanuel meaningful enough that you will henceforth hear it as heaven’s assurance that no one who knows and trusts Jesus will ever be left without his presence.
Background to "Immanuel"
In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Mary’s pregnancy was explained to a pained and perplexed Joseph as a miracle. Joseph was told that "the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit," not some paramour. Mary was indeed still a pure virgin. But she had been selected of God to be the mother of God Incarnate. She would give birth to a son. That holy child was to be given the name "Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
At the end of his account of Joseph’s dream-vision and before telling of the carpenter’s obedience to the angel’s instructions, Matthew inserts this explanatory note: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ — which means, ‘God with us’ " (Matt. 1:22-23).
The word Matthew interprets to mean "God with us" appears three times in two Old Testament passages (Isa. 7:13-14; 8:8, 10). Both texts are in Isaiah and are set in the context of Yahweh’s promised deliverance of the Kingdom of Judah at a time of great national peril. From this background, Matthew’s explanation becomes clear. One writer summarizes it in these words:
The name of "Immanuel," the son born of the virgin, is to be the watchword for God’s people, the word of hope, no matter how desperate conditions become among men. He is the hope because His name means that God is with us. This would indicate that the one born of the virgin is more than man. He is also God. Isaiah 9 would seems to support this, for there the child is called "Mighty God" (Isa 9:6).
That this interpretation is correct from the Biblical standpoint is made quite clear in the Matthew passage which states that the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, fulfills this prophecy from Isaiah (Matt 1:23). The meaning of Jesus’ birth, we are told, is that now God is truly with us in the person of Jesus the Christ.1
The very name Immanuel offers a fundamental assurance that believers need in every generation, in every life circumstance. No matter what is happening in this sin-filled world, God is still sovereign and will meet the needs of his people. Regardless of the plans formed against men and women of faith, the one in whom they have placed their faith is a promise-keeper who will never forsake them. Do you trust him in your experiences? When all else seems to fail, do you expect him to fail you too? When all others have deserted you, do you assume he has forsaken you along with them?
How Frightened People Become Confident
If Satan, unfaithful people, or painful life circumstances frighten you, you are not unusual. But the God-with-us promise is meant to make frightened people — as all of us are at times — into confident people. People who will not quit. People who will move forward in faith during the darkest times. People who will trust God to see us through hell’s plan to destroy us.
Moses was a man with an erratic past when the Lord confronted him at age 80 and called him to lead the Hebrew people out of their bondage in Egypt. Yahweh spoke to him from a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh, demand the freedom of Jacob’s descendants, and lead them to a homeland. Right! A murderer who left Egypt four decades ago is going back? A man who had been a privileged prince in the court of Pharaoh but is now only a shepherd of Midian is going to make a political demand of the world’s mightiest leader?
Moses asked a perfectly logical question when his commission came. "But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ " (Ex. 3:11). Here is the answer he received — with special emphasis put on the way that answer begins:
And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."
Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?"
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’ " (Ex. 3:12-14).
What a conversation! God promised Moses that he would be "with" Israel. Moses accepted the promise as Israel’s one distinguishing feature among all the nations of the earth. Yahweh would be Israel’s Always-Present-Always-Active God!
"God With Us" in Jesus
What, then, could be more natural for the pious Jewish Christian named Matthew to see in the birth, career, and actions of Jesus the full realization of everything that had ever been encapsulated in the name Immanuel?
Matthew’s personal experiences of Jesus told him that he was hearing, seeing, and experiencing God in the flesh. And can it be thought insignificant that Matthew’s Gospel closes with this distinctive version of the Great Commission: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20).
What is the Book of Acts but the story of "God with us" in the activity of the church? Some scholars, in fact, suggest calling Acts not The Acts of the Apostles but The Acts of the Holy Spirit. The active Spirit of God turned the community of faith known as the church into the spiritual body of Christ. That church not only experienced the constant presence of Jesus in its own life but had such an impact on the world of the first century that it knew God was still "with us." Today’s church must live the same reality in its experience.
God Continues to Be With His People
As Immanuel, Jesus is still in the world to save those who come to him. "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ " (Rom. 10:12-13).
One cold day a Christian was walking down the street and noticed that someone had thrown a handful of bird seed on the ground to keep feathered creatures from dying from the wintery blast. Dozens of hungry little sparrows had descended on it for an unexpected feast. As he came closer, the birds became anxious. Another step and they prepared to fly. A step or two more and they all flew away — leaving their banquet table unfinished. The man stopped, looked, and reflected. Why had the sparrows scattered on the wing, when he had no sinister intention toward them? Then it dawned on him: It was not his intention but his person that had scared them. He was so big! The only way he could have walked among those birds without scaring them would have been to become a sparrow himself, fly down among them, and share their existence.
Isn’t that the story of the Incarnation? God had spoken and acted on humanity’s behalf before. There had never been any intention but love behind his words and deeds. But the thundering, miracle-working prophets had not been able to bring the people back to the Lord. What was left to do? "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe" (Heb. 1:1-2).
God is still at work in Jesus to comfort his people. "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ " (Heb. 13:5; cf. Josh. 1:5).
And Jesus is "God with us" to challenge us to grow in faith, holiness, and service to the Lord. "If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:15-18).
The final benediction of Scripture is this: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with God’s people" (Rev. 22:21). The ultimate reality of everlasting life is this: "And so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:17). Even if there are others you are missing today because of distance, departure, or death, there is one utterly dependable person in whom you can trust. He will never leave you or forsake you. He is Immanuel, God with you always.
1 The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. 1975 ed., s.v. "Immanuel, Emmanuel," by J.B. Scott, III: 259.
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