Immanuel. This is not just a title or name for Jesus, it is the story of the entire Bible.
Encountering the word “Immanuel” (meaning “God with us”) at this time of year falls into our expected rhythms. We read Matthew 1:23 or Isaiah 7:14 during the Advent season. We sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” But the new year arrives and we typically pack away consideration of “Immanuel” like so many wreaths and candles.
But Immanuel is too important to occupy your mind for a mere four weeks of the year! In fact, if I had to summarize God’s redemptive plan in one word, I could make a good case for Immanuel.
Immanuel in Creation, Fall, and Exodus
From the very beginning of human life, God was with man. He formed man (Gen 2:7), placed man in the garden (Gen 2:15), spoke to man (Gen 2:16,17), sensed an incompleteness in man, and provided a partner for him (Gen 2:18–23). Notice the words of close proximity! This is no Greek god acting from a distant mountain.
When Adam and Eve sinned they no longer wanted to be with God (Gen 3:8–10). Because of sin, they fled from their Creator and Provider in fear. God acknowledged their treason by “dr[iving] out the man” (Gen 3:24) from the garden. Cherubim and a flaming sword ensured there would be no reentry. The rest of the Bible describes the path for man to regain that same nearness to God he knew in Eden.
Shortly after God called Abram, he appeared to him (Gen 12:7), and this began a series of awesome, divine appointments for the patriarchs. He was with them momentarily, and the patriarchs acknowledged these fleeting moments of transcendence by building altars. (See Gen 12:7, 13:18, 26:25, and 35:7, among other places.)
This is the statement of God’s covenant with his people: I will be your God and you will be my people. (See Gen 17:7, among other places.) This may sound formal, but notice how God restated this covenant later: “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God” (Ex 29:45). With God’s pledge is his presence.
When God called Moses at the beginning of Exodus, he appeared in the burning bush. This is a well-known, Sunday school-friendly spectacle, but God was with Moses. God “called to [Moses] out of the bush” (Ex 3:4). “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:6). God tells Moses that he has seen their afflictions, heard their cry, and that he has “come down to deliver them” (Ex 3:8, emphasis mine). At this encounter, God revealed his covenant name (“I AM”) to Moses. Moses stood on holy ground, because God was there.
The plagues in Egypt culminated with the Passover, where God sent no angel of destruction to do his work. These are his people! He went through the land himself, bringing death or life based upon the presence of blood. (See Ex 12:12,13 and Ex 12:29.)
In the march out of Egypt, God was with his people. He went before them in a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21,22). God “threw the Egyptians into the sea” (Ex 14:27). Israel could make no mistake—they were free from Egypt because God himself set them free.
Moses experienced the nearness of God in ways the common Israelite did not, largely because the people did not want to hear from God (Ex 20:19). So God brought Moses “near to the Lord” (Ex 24:2). “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33:11). Do you understand how shocking and gracious this verse is? As Moses stands in the place of God’s people, God is with Moses in a way not seen since the garden. This face-to-face talking with God was transformative for Moses—afterward, his face glowed (Ex 34:29).
Immanuel in Conquest, Monarchy, and Exile
When Joshua assumed leadership of Israel, God promised that he would be with Joshua as he was with Moses (Josh 3:7). God provided reassurance by sending the captain of his army (the Lord himself?) to greet Joshua before the first battle in Canaan. Now Joshua was standing on holy ground (Josh 5:15)!
Israel eventually clamored for a king and Saul was chosen and then rejected. But when it came time to choose David, we read that “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam 16:13). God was in a hurry to be with the man after his own heart.
Part of Israel’s longing for Canaan was an anticipation for God’s covenant people to receive the land as part of their promised inheritance. After settling and governing for a time, they gave themselves over to idolatry and pride, and they were sent into exile—Israel to Assyria and Judah to Babylon. This move out of the land was a move away from God—God sent them into exile in much the same way that he sent Adam and Eve out of the garden. We know this from some of the language used as God promises a return from exile.
My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (Ezek 37:24–28, ESV)
The songs of Israel also reveal the centrality of Immanuel. The Psalms include both cries of anguish at God’s absence and profound statements of the joy of God’s presence. The congregation sang both Psalm 10:1 (“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”) and Psalm 16:11 (“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”) to the Lord.
Matthew makes it clear at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus’s arrival signals the fulfillment of prophesy. In particular, the conception, birth, adoption (by Joseph), and naming of Jesus—“all this,” Matthew writes, “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)” (Matt 1:22,23). Jesus came to fulfill Immanuel. God walked, ate, sang, slept, healed, prayed, preached, loved, and wept with his people.
Peter tells us the purpose of Jesus’s work: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet 3:18, emphasis mine). We hear it from Jesus in a discussion with his disciples as well: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). John 14:6 is another well-known statement by Jesus that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” But Jesus isn’t primarily concerned with heavenly mansions—the goal is to go to the Father.
Jesus said that when he went away, it would be to the disciples’s advantage because he would send the Helper (the Holy Spirit) to be with them (John 16:7). They would not be abandoned after Jesus’s death—his presence would stay though he was absent in body.
In the new heaven and new earth, one of the most glorious truths is that “the dwelling place of God [will be] with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3, emphasis mine).
So God’s covenant promises to be with his people are fulfilled in Jesus. He came to be with us so we could enjoy being with God forever. And yet to wring out all the meaning of Immanuel we need one final consideration.
God was not always with his people. According to plan, there was one who felt the lack of God’s presence in a horrifying stab of pain and abandonment. On the cross, Jesus screamed out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) His desperate, tormented cry reveals the depth of the gospel: in order for us to be with God forever, Jesus faced a time when God was not with him. When God did not rescue him. When God would not comfort or protect him. We enjoy all of the benefits of being with God because—for a time—Jesus went without.
The entire Biblical story can be framed by this one glorious word, Immanuel. I hope that you glory in God’s love for you, his presence with you, this Advent season. But don’t let Immanuel gather dust in 2015. Hoist this truth up into the breeze and enjoy the dance. Let out the string, hold the spool as it spins like crazy, and watch it dart with the wind. Run after it on the beach and sing and laugh. God has come to be with us!