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They Call Him Immanuel (Emmanuel)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590–1656), Adoration of the Children (1620), Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Italy. Larger image.
As he slept fitfully, and angel came to him in a dream to assure him, "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."1 He believed the angel, took Mary to be his wife, and the rest is history.
I'm sure the townspeople believed Joseph was the child's father. To discredit him, a story circulated that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.
But right after the account of Joseph's dream, the Bible narrator says a very curious thing:
"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.'"2
A prophetic sign given some 700 years before has a meaning beyond its own time.
What does Immanuel mean? First, the name or title Immanuel comes from two Hebrew words — the preposition ‘im, "with, beside, by, among" + 'el, "God." It means simply, as the narrator tells us, "God with us."3
But what is its significance? What does it tell us about Jesus' person and life mission? What does it mean to you? Two things, I believe.
God Is with Us to Help Us
Do you know what it feels like to feel utterly alone? To try to attempt to live your life with no one to fall back on, no safety net, no help? If you've been through some desperate times in your life, then you know exactly what this feels like. The wonderful promise made through the Christ-child Immanuel is that God promises to be with you in your troubles. He will not leave you to your own resources. All of his resources are now available to you.
The difference for you can be like night and day. In past times God had made this kind of promise to special people in history.
Abraham was an alien in a threatening land, but God said to him, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go."4 Moses was told to personally confront the most powerful king on the face of the earth with nothing but a staff and the promise from God, "I will be with you!"5 Moses believed him and went to Pharaoh at great risk. As a result, God delivered the people of Israel from Egypt through the Red Sea. After Moses died, his apprentice was thrust into leadership. God promised Joshua, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you."6
Powerful stuff! But what about you and me? That Jesus is Immanuel, "God with us," means that his promise is not just to the great leaders but to all. The promise is to you. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, he spoke to his disciples:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."7
That promise of Immanuel is not just to the apostles, it is to us also, for we see the same promise in the Bible to reassure all the rest of us — "I will never leave you or forsake you."8
God Himself Is with Us in Jesus
The title Immanuel tells us about the mission of Jesus, it also tells us about his nature. Remember the context? We have just been told about Mary's pregnancy, Joseph's concern, and the angel's assurance ("What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit"). At that point the narrator tells us that this fulfills Isaiah's prophecy, "'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' — which means, 'God with us.'" Matthew's account of Mary's conception tells the story from Joseph's point of view. Luke's account focuses on Mary's experience. The angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah.
"'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.'"9
In other words, Immanuel, "God with us," is to be understood literally. Jesus is physical son of Mary in his human nature, but spiritually, he is the Son of God, he has been begotten by God himself.
So when the shepherds and wise men gather and worship the Baby, they are worshipping God himself. Jesus the Son is divine to the same degree that the Father is divine.
Jesus is God!
That is the very radical meaning of Christmas. It isn't about mistletoe and music, or parties and presents, or even the spirit of giving. Christmas is a celebration of the radical fact that God took on human flesh when Jesus was born. Jesus — God Himself — is Immanuel, God With Us!
- Matthew 1:20.
- Matthew 1:22-23
- Gerard Van Groningen, TWOT #1640b, d; Joseph Jensen, "Immanuel," ABD 3:392-395.
- Genesis 28:15.
- Exodus 3:12.
- Joshua 1:5
- Matthew 20:18, 20.
- Hebrews 13:5.
- Luke 1:34-35.
In-depth Bible study books
You can purchase one of Dr. Wilson's complete Bible studies in PDF, Kindle, or paperback format.
- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ