This thought came rather forcefully upon me as my mind wandered in today’s sermon. By wander, I mean it seized upon a certain phrase, and starting spinning lots of thoughts.
I think the word Emmanuel has become all to commonplace among us. It means God with us. And if you follow my blog, you’ll probably predict I’m going to say that people nowadays are all too comfortable with an immanent God.
I wish to draw your attention to the biblical perspective on this revelation of God. The name Emmanuel is used mainly in Isaiah 7:14 and the prophecy is cited in Matthew 1:23 to show its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. So to examine the name, we can either look at the context in which it is mentioned within Isaiah, or against the idea of how Matthew is said to bridge the Old and New Testaments. I’ll quickly do both.
The God of Isaiah is first and foremost shown to be a holy God. We need only read Isaiah 6 to gain a sense of the holiness of God and the utter depravity of man. There is a description of transcendence here that ought to shake our senses. God is seen as high and exalted, not as a mere man, but one who is enthroned above the earth. We further see this with God demonstrating his utter sovereignty over kingdoms by numbering their days in Chapter 7. Here, the sign of Emmanuel is a sign of judgment against the enemies of Judah. They will be laid to waste.
However, the kingdom of Judah will equally be subjected to a more powerful kingdom. Their days of glory are numbered. Darkness will descend upon them. The Promised Land will be laid to waste. This is God’s judgment upon them for not fearing him as they ought to. They no longer trust his word. They have rejected his gentle flowing waters. He is no longer their sanctuary, their refuge in times of need. We see this in Isaiah 8.
And then in Isaiah 9, against the gloom and despair God’s judgment will bring upon them, we see that the sign of Emmanuel is more than a sign of judgment, it is a sign of hope. The child that is to be born by the virgin, the one they will call Emmanuel, will indeed be the mighty God. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
Likewise, people often say that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and capricious God, who is often harsh and judgmental. In contrast, the God of the New Testament is loving and gracious. This is a false view. The biblical view of God in the Old Testament is that he first reveals himself as a transcendent God. It is of utmost importance that we see Him in the beauty of His holiness. He is to be feared above all. Sinful men cannot stand in his presence. He is a consuming fire. With this properly in mind, I hope you can see what a joyous mystery it is that this transcendent God, who transgresses both space and time, whose glory ruins the pride of men, who sets up kingdoms and disposes of kings as he wills, constrained himself to become like one of us. The great God laid aside His heavenly glory to be with us. And we soon find in the gospels that Jesus came to die as a ransom for many.
Do you see a similar theme in either context? We have a vision of a transcendent God, who is holy and glorious beyond all comparison. He decides to step down into history, bringing light to a dark world, saving people from their sins, giving them hope and a promise of a glorious future in his everlasting kingdom. The holy God is a gracious and loving God. This is the full measure of His revelation.
It baffles me. Men like to cling to their pride and glory. But Jesus shatters our conceptions of greatness by coming as a suffering servant. In doing so – in humbling himself and becoming obedient to death – he was exalted to the highest place, and given the name that is above every other name, that at his name every knee should bow and every tongue confess him as Lord. He reveals to us that God does not measure greatness by the strength of our accomplishments, but by the object of our love. Jesus was great because only he fully satisfied the two greatest commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. He demonstrated His love for God through His perfect obedience. And He demonstrated His love for us by standing in our place and bearing the penalty of our sin.
Therefore, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – this Christmas, don’t lose sight of the greatness of God. He is a holy God. He brings men to ruin. We ought to fear Him who is enthroned over all and does all things as He pleases. But for those who have believed in Christ, our sins are forgiven and through Him, we may confidently come before God on His throne of grace, knowing that he will work all things for our good. The holy God is a gracious God. And we will only praise His grace in proportion to our comprehension of His holiness and our depravity. The measure of our joy and the firmess of our hope requires that we understand the miracle of Christmas, the Incarnation – where God came to dwell with us.