Immanuel: God With Us
The notion that God would want to appear alongside his creation to care for and instruct us is not just a comforting thought. That a Creator would not want to be close to what he created is contrary to instinct and understanding.
The theological term that designates Yeshua (Jesus) as the presence of God in our midst is incarnation. The English word incarnation” was coined in the fourteen century. It means: (1) the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form; (2) capitalized: the union of divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.1
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Creator has always desired to be physically close to his creation. Genesis 3:8 says, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” The passage describes God walking in the garden, meeting with Adam and Eve. In this pristine state the Creator could commune with those he loved. But because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cast out from the garden. The Scriptures then begin to unveil God’s plan to come and dwell among his people once again.
He would come down to the level of humanity by sending a special child. These intentions are revealed through the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The almah (young woman or virgin) will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
Isaiah addressed the entire house of David at a critical time in the history of the nation. Israel was facing the awful threat and devastating power of the Assyrian empire in the eighth century B.C. The context of Isaiah’s prophecy was to remind King Ahaz that the fate of the nation didn’t rest in the designs of opposing armies or in the temporary alliances of monarchs. Isaiah believed the destiny of the Jewish people rested securely in the hands of the God of Israel.
The Bethlehem Baby
If we fast forward about eight hundred years, Israel is faced once more with a grave threat to her destiny. She has endured the Greek conquest and is spiritually and morally ravaged by the effects of Hellenism. The Romans have engulfed the Land and the people are being snuffed out by the influence of this mighty empire.
The interest and controversy surrounding Jesus mounted in Jerusalem both before he was born and at his birth. Family members, bystanders and foreign travelers made comments on his birth. These accounts match up with the ancient declarations spoken long ago by the prophets of Israel about a child who would come and be the presence of God, Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).
Throughout the Land a quiet rumor was being whispered that a child would soon be born. This promised child would be the hope of Israel. The first recorded statement about Jesus is found in the New Testament as a dialogue between Miriam (Mary) and an angel.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:30–35)
After the birth of Jesus, he was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem according to the Law of Moses (Exodus 13:2,12 and Leviticus 12:8). According to that same narrative account, a devout man named Simeon who was present spoke of this baby:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:29–35)
Matthew, another New Testament writer, recognized Jesus as the Immanuel of Isaiah’s prophecy (Matthew 1:23). He states that Jesus was called from the beginning to be God’s presence among us. He was to be a man among men and yet he was to be the son of God.
The Messiah as Model and Example
The Incarnation provides humanity with an amazing example of God with us. We see him in relation to others including his earthly family, the religious leaders of his day, ordinary people, children and those he taught and mentored. The presence of Jesus was intended to inspire.
The example Jesus provided through his life is profound. Warren Wiersbe eloquently expresses the marvel of the Incarnation:
In sending his son to earth, God caused eternity to invade time. This was not a temporary visit; when Jesus came, he wedded dust and deity – time and eternity into one. The eternal Word was made human flesh, and that union will last forever. As the perfect man here on earth, Jesus Christ showed us what it is like to live by the eternal.2
Throughout Jesus’ life, he demonstrated a constant awareness and closeness to humankind. He experienced the struggles and strife of a world in turmoil. His words were those of comfort and compassion and his actions struck at the heart of the issues, demonstrated his understanding of people and empathy for their burdens. Jesus lived the human experience to the fullest. And in all this, he remained holy.
The Audacity of the Incarnation
Isaiah prophesied about the messiah of Israel. His words were not disputed because he spoke of those things that were distant and remote. But when Jesus spoke about himself he pushed the limits of what some might call “politically correct” behavior. When Jesus had a conversation with a woman, she said, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responded, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25–26). He also said, “I and the father are one” (John 10:30) and “Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). It’s easy to see how off-putting such claims could be. But if what Jesus said about himself is true, then there is a dilemma.
C.S. Lewis, Oxford professor, writer and philosopher presented the challenge of aligning Jesus with his statements:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.3
The love and balance presented in the challenge above speak to the nature of a heavenly father. At stake is not whether a person celebrates with tinsel and evergreen trees the birth of that promised child of whom Isaiah spoke. It has everything to do with recognizing that the God of Israel cares so much for his creation that he sent his son to be with us incarnationally – Immanuel.
- Warren Wiersbe, His Name is Wonderful (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1976), p. 74.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1952) pp. 40–41.