Echoes of Immanuel
“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)
Do you have certain words that resonate more deeply than others? A place name—Vancouver, London, Beijing, Sydney, even Caronport!—might be commonplace for most, but may have special significance for you that goes far beyond a geographical point on a map. It means something, we say.
What about Bethlehem? Though we may have never been there (and I envy those who have), it undoubtedly draws us to the Nativity story, the place where our Saviour Jesus first came into the world.
There is yet another word—Immanuel—which we rightly associate with the Christmas narrative. But as meaningful a word as it might be for us, for an ancient Jew familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the word would likely hold even deeper significance.
The Gospel of Matthew informs us that the Hebrew word Immanuel means “God with us.” Yet “God with us” is more than a mere translation. It’s even more than a royal title or designation. Immanuel, for Jews familiar with their Scriptures, was a word that both echoed back into their history and radiated forward with hope for the future. I wish I had a better way to put it, but Immanuel is an utterly majestic, far-reaching, gargantuan, even stunning, term for what it connotes.
“God with us,” you see, echoes back as far as the Garden of Eden. There we catch a brief glimpse of the God who was walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 3:8). It echoes back to the Mosaic covenant where God promises, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). It echoes back to the prophetic announcement of the New Covenant which God promised to make with his people—a covenant in which he says, “I will be your God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). But it also points forward to that great day when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven, and God finally declares, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3)!
In short, Immanuel is nothing short of—the Gospel, the Good News that God has not left us alone, who does not stand far off, who has not abandoned humanity in its need.
Let me put it this way:
- Immanuel is God with us. There is no God that stands behind the back of Jesus. “To see me is to see the Father,” Jesus says (John 14:9). We need, this season and next, to look no further than the Babe in the Manger, the Crucified on the Cross, or the Resurrected and Ascended One to know of the God who is with us.
- Immanuel is God with us. He is not a God who was with us once, but is no longer. He is not merely a character in a quaint story of mangers and shepherds. Nor is he a God that we can one day hope will be with us. He is a God who is with us by his Spirit.
- Immanuel is God with us. He is not a household deity, nor an individual possession that we take out or put away after the season along with the Christmas decorations. He is not a God who does my personal bidding. But he is our God, the God, the Saviour, the Head, the Redeemer, and the Sender of the Church. We are our beloved’s and our beloved is ours (Song of Songs 6:3).
And so, in this Advent season, when we sing the familiar hymn, O Come, O Come Immanuel, let us celebrate, with saints and angels alike, that not only has he come, but he has come to be with us forever. Immanuel!
David Guretzki, PhD
Dean of the Seminary
Professor of Theology, Church & Public Life