What is the significance of “Immanuel” for Christians? We normally think of that term as the Christian alternative to “Santa Claus is coming to town.” We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Yet Immanuel is an important biblical theme that has been around long before our modern culture’s version of Christmas traditions. Consider it this way: “I am not my own.” With these words every member of Reformed churches begins their confession of faith. Our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own. The Bible doctrine surrounding the name of Jesus as Immanuel proves how the words we say can be true. We are not our own because God is with us. Since God is with us, then we are not alone!
Perhaps the reason some people—both teens and adults—refuse to really follow Jesus is because it costs too much. We have to admit that we don’t have it all together. We aren’t very good at bringing peace on earth and good will toward men. We struggle to manage conflict at work, or with our friends or family. We give in to temptations left and right. Then along comes the Reformed and Christian faith. We are told to recite, “We are not our own.” We feel we have to lose our self-respect and self-esteem. Yet, in this emptying of ourselves, we realize that it is God who truly fills us. We are not our own, yet we are not alone either. God is with us! Immanuel! When you think of it, Jesus’ name “Immanuel” means—we’re not alone.
The Ancient Truth of Immanuel
There are so many ways the Bible describes the theme of God’s presence with His people. The psalms worship God for being with us. The battles that Israel fought were won if God was with them, and lost when God was not with them. The prophets called the people to repentance so that times of refreshing would come from the Lord and His people could delight in His presence again. Of course, the covenants God made with His people at all the turning points in history also reveal that Immanuel is at the center of God’s relationship with His people.
We can only focus on a few of the Immanuel highlights in the Old Testament. Starting at the garden of Eden, we notice that Adam was created for a purpose. That purpose was bigger than naming the cats and dogs, for Adam was created to have fellowship with God. In the cool of the day, God came and walked with him. As soon as Adam sinned, the blessing of Immanuel was forfeited. Even though God came to Adam, he couldn’t handle being in God’s presence. Adam knew he was a rebel and that God was holy. God drove Adam and Eve out of Paradise because of their sin. He even set an angelic guard with a flaming sword to keep mankind out. Thus, the entrance of sin into the world fouled the fellowship of Immanuel.
We praise God that the Bible doesn’t end after Genesis 3! The very next verse of Scripture (Genesis 4:1) reveals that God gave a child to Adam and Eve. Throughout the following chapters and books of the Bible, we see at work God’s promise to send a seed to Adam and Eve that would come and crush the head of the serpent with a final victory. That seed is identified ultimately as our Lord Jesus.
Before the arrival of Jesus, God provided many other examples of the ancient truth of Immanuel. This is the way God works. He may wait over 4,000 years to completely fulfill a promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15. Yet God is not silent in the meantime. He gives us reminders of His presence and protection time and time again. For example, we read that even after humanity was plunged into sin and misery, a man like Enoch was able to “walk with God.” Noah, also, found grace in the eyes of the Lord and “walked with God.”
Centuries later, Moses was God’s chosen man to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Why? So that Israel could meet God to worship Him! That’s Immanuel. However, we know that Pharaoh chased after the Israelites with his mighty chariots. The people were terrified and wished they had never been delivered by God but had stayed slaves—at least they wouldn’t die in the wilderness, they thought. Moses, in a moment of fantastic faith in the doctrine of Immanuel, declared to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace” (Ex. 14:13–14). The Lord then proceeded to be with Israel by cutting a path through the waters of the Red Sea for His people to cross and then crashing those waters back down on the Egyptians, drowning His enemies in judgment for their ungodliness and unbelief.
Years later, when the Israelite spies went into Canaan, they reported that the people were too powerful and that Israel was like grasshoppers in the sight of the giants who lived in the land. However, the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb (who were far outnumbered by the ten faithless spies), expressed faith in Immanuel. “Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them” (Num. 14:9).
The very existence of the tabernacle, and then the temple, proves that God is interested in Immanuel. He desires to be with us. When the entire sacrificial system was created, God explained to the first high priest (Aaron) that through these sacrifices God would meet with His people and their representatives. “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God” (Ex. 29:45–46).
God living with His people is the cry of God’s heart. God living with us is also the cry of the elect. We long to return to the Paradise that was lost so we can walk with God in close fellowship again.
While God declared that He would be with His people throughout the Old Testament, and while there were moments where He did this, it is only in the New Testament where we see the fullness of how Immanuel really works.
The God Who Walked Among Us
The word “Immanuel” only occurs once in the New Testament (and also in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, which are being referred to in Matthew). This very rare word, though, comes at one of the most crucial points in the Scripture. The gospel writer Matthew has just recorded the conversation between Joseph and the angel which instructed him to name Mary’s child “Jesus.” Then we read, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’ ” (Matt. 1:22–23).
Jesus is identified as Immanuel. He is also identified as the only way that any human can have access to God, that is “man-with-God.” Jesus is that One Mediator between God and man. He is the only way, the truth, and the life. The fullness of what it means for God to be with us is found in the God who made His home among us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus is that One Person who is fully God and fully man. In His own being, Jesus is both God-with-us, and man-with God!
Further, in Jesus, we do not only have God living among us. We have a God who came for us and for our salvation. Jesus didn’t come to town by accident, or because earth was a stopping-off place on His journeys through the universe. He came with a mission—to make a home within the elect people of God! For each of us, then, when we believe the words that this Jesus taught us in Scripture, we have Immanuel coming true in our own lives today! Jesus said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”
The God Who Still Walks in Us Today
Immanuel is significant for our personal comfort as well as our church’s comfort.
God walks in us today for our personal comfort. Immanuel is significant in all the main spiritual blessings that make up our salvation. Immanuel is the goal of our justification, sanctification, and glorification. What is justification? Our catechism explains it in Q60 as being made right with God. When you are right with God, you are not abandoned to face judgment for your sins. You can enter God’s presence as a person who is declared innocent, and able to walk with God.
In our sanctification, we are ever conscious that though God has made us new creations in Christ, we regularly fail to meet the mark of holiness. The only way we can become more and more like Christ every day is with God’s presence and power. Jesus promised exactly this presence to His disciples in the night of the Last Supper. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16–17).
Whenever we fight with sin, we are experiencing the ‘growing pains’ of sanctification—being made more like Christ and less like our old sinful nature. God’s gift of sanctification reminds us that we are not alone in our fight with sin. Immanuel! When you see that tempting website, or that anger rises up within you at another person, or your greed for more starts to consume your thoughts, say to yourself, “Immanuel!” Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16 ). So honor God with your body and spirit. For you are not your own, you belong to Jesus, the Immanuel.
In terms of our glorification, the greatest future ahead of us is that we will be with the Lord. The apostle Paul said that to depart and be with Christ is far better. Jesus assured us, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2–3).
God walks in us today for our personal comfort, but He also walks in us today for our church’s comfort. God did not come to save only one or two people. He came to build a new nation, a kingdom of people who would serve Him. That kingdom is spiritual in that it is not identified with a specific political country. It is spiritual, but just as real and visible. Wherever you see a Christian living and believing in Jesus, you see the kingdom of God. And you also see Immanuel. For how else could a totally depraved sinner actually love God and be His disciple? It is only because God first loved us, and daily keeps us in the faith through the power of His Spirit living in us.
We see that God still walks in us as we fulfill the Great Commission. Jesus told the disciples as He was ascending into heaven that He would be gone from their sight, but not out of their presence. Through His Holy Spirit, He would continue to rule and direct His church. “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). As we preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, Jesus is with us. Even in the hard work of church discipline and biblical accountability, God is with us. When the church leaders are in the process of conducting spiritual oversight of the congregation, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
We have absolute confidence to live the Christian life, and be the Christian church. It doesn’t matter if we are from a small town or a city. It doesn’t matter if the youth are moving away or the elderly are passing away. The ancient truth of Immanuel is still true today. God is with us! He will never leave us nor forsake us.
I hope you are not getting tired of me repeating that truth. Every time we turn the pages of Scripture and we see evidence of God being with us—that is Immanuel. And that very same place also proves that if God is with us, then we are not alone! We were not created to be loners. We were not created to be hermits holed up in a hillside. We are children in the house of the Father, playing on the porch and in the backyard with the other children, and sitting down with joy around the Father’s banquet table.
We normally think of Immanuel meaning “God with us.” That is the literal translation. I want us to think of the meaning of those very words. If “God is with us,” then we are not alone! That means God is not just “along for the ride” in our life. He is not one among many comforts and tools that we use to handle stress, to plan our life, to choose which movie to watch, or to decide how to raise our children. God is not with us in that sense. God is with us because we are alone and empty without Him! We are not our own. We belong to Him. And because we have Him, we have all things needed for life and godliness.
You and I may not think about the word Immanuel every day. But we live it every day. We start our profession of faith stating, “my only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but I belong to Jesus.” In other words, because I am not my own, I am not alone.
What a wonderful God we have! Immanuel!