If you have been in a church around Christmas there’s a good chance you have heard the word, Immanuel. It’s a staple teaching during Christmas sermons. But I don’t think we really know what it means and the significance it holds. Especially in terms of suffering.
So let’s look at what Immanuel means and the significance it holds.
Immanuel in the Bible
The word Immanuel is a Hebrew name which means “God with us.” It appears twice in the Old Testament (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8) and once in the New Testament (Matthew 1:23). Sometimes in Matthew it is transliterated as “Emmanuel,” but the meaning is the same.
In the Old Testament, the name was given to a child as a sign that Judah would receive relief from the attacks by Israel and Syria. The name symbolized that God was still with them, that he had not forgotten them, and that God would deliver his people.
In the New Testament Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 as it expands upon the significance of this name. While the prophecy was fulfilled in the Old Testament, Jesus brings a much greater fulfillment. The implication of Immanuel is that God would dwell among his people. Up to this point the Israelites had seen a type of this dwelling, but God was “contained” to the holy of holies. The thought that God would take on human flesh was beyond their wildest dreams.
When Joseph heard this promise in his dream it changed everything for him. His perception of God was shattered. But not only for him but the entire nation of Israel. And not just for Israel, but us today as well. Immanuel, God with us, changes everything.
Let’s look at the significance Immanuel holds for us today.
God Moves Into The Neighborhood
John 1:14 encapsulates the promise of Immanuel without actually using the term. I love how Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates this verse: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” That is what Immanuel means. That even in the worst of places, God is with us. He moved into our neighborhood.
The question we should be asking is what kind of neighborhood did Jesus move into? To understand that we need to take a look at Jewish history. Nation after nation enter Israel’s promised land and conquered the nation. From the Syrians to the Persians and even Alexander the Great all had a turn in conquering and ruling over Israel. But by far the worst was Antiochus IV Epiphanies.
Antiochus wasn’t interested in just conquering Israel, he wanted to wipe out the Jewish religion. He overtook the temple and worshiped foreign Gods, forced priests, by penalty of death, to eat pork, and performed sadistic reverse circumcisions. And most notoriously he entered the Holy of Holies (which is bad enough) and sacrificed a pig on the altar.
The Jews had enough and eventually, they led a revolt that overthrew him. But their freedom was short-lived. Soon Rome marched in and squashed their rebellion and conquered Israel once more. This time Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” and he wasn’t much better. When he heard of a new king that had been born in Bethlehem he ordered all infant boys under 2 to be slaughtered.
This is the place, the neighborhood, that Jesus moved into. A place with a broken past, a grieving present, and an uncertain future. This is God with us. God showed solidarity with his people, and us, in the most intimate way possible: God’s Son, Immanuel, moved into our neighborhood.
Immanuel, The Answer to our Toughest Questions
For whatever reason, God has chosen to respond to the human predicament not by waving a magic wand to make evil and suffering disappear but by absorbing it in person. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” wrote John in the prologue to his Gospel. In the face of suffering, words do not suffice. We need something more: the Word made flesh, actual living proof that God has not abandoned us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Only a suffering God can help.” The Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey
Many have asked the question why did God “_______”? Or why didn’t God do “________”? Many people scour the Bible searching for answers to life’s toughest questions. The problem is the Bible isn’t really concerned with providing an answer, at least not the way we want it to. God’s response to those questions: I’m with you.
At first that might seem like a cop-out response. Really, what difference does the assurance of Immanuel really make? What does it matter that Jesus moved into the neighborhood? That doesn’t answer our questions. Good people still suffer while evil people seemingly prosper. But what Immanuel does do is show us that God is not a remote being that’s uninterested and unaffected by what is happening on earth. Rather he is a God that is willing to experience it himself. On this cursed, fallen planet we all suffer, even God.
That is significant. No other religion has a God that willingly suffers for his people. A God that can so deeply and compassionately identify with his creation.
Throughout Jesus’ life he encountered the kind of suffering that you and I face regularly. He never bothered to answer the question of why or get in a philosophical/theological debate. Rather he reached out with compassion, brought healing, forgave sins, and ultimately overcame death.
His response to us today is the same.
Our response to Immanuel should be both inward and outward. It should not only affect us, but also those around us.
Inwardly, we should be reminded and encouraged that God is indeed with us. Immanuel is still true for us today. God didn’t just move into the 1st-century Jewish neighborhood; he wants to move into yours too. Not only is he with us, he is healing us. That’s what faith asks us to do. Followers of Jesus must cling to the hope that one day God will redeem all the pain and suffering on this planet. And until that day comes we know that God is with us.
The second piece is in how we outwardly respond. As Jesus moved into our neighborhood and lived in our suffering we are called to do the same for others. Philip Yancey says it this way, When God seems absent, sometimes it’s up to us to show his presence. Often the world only knows the truth of Immanuel, “God with us,” because of his followers. As we hold onto the promise of Immanuel, we too must help others see the hope that is extended to them. We don’t have to have answers for their circumstances, even Jesus didn’t offer that. Rather be present. Present as God is present with us, we too are present with others.
No matter our circumstances, we have the promise of Immanuel, God with us.
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