READ : Matthew 1:18-24
What does it mean that Jesus Christ is Immanuel? Today we look forward to Christmas and celebrate the fact that God came into our world. In today’s message, David Bast looks at the simple fact of Christ’s birth and the meaning of his names for us today.
For really important arrivals, the staging is carefully arranged for maximum impact. For example, when a president or a prime minister comes for a state visit, the ceremony plays out in impressive fashion. The plane lands, the door opens, the great man appears. He walks down the steps to the red carpet, as cameras roll, bands play, honor guards salute, and crowds cheer. The more important the person, the more elaborate the ceremony.
So what sort of ceremony do you think would be appropriate to mark the personal arrival of God in our world? The fact is, when the Son of God entered our world, he came into a smelly cow barn, and the only witnesses were his weary parents. When God chose to come as one of us, his birth was humble, obscure, and ordinary in every way – except one big one. Here’s what Matthew’s gospel says.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this 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).
This Is How It Was
Matthew starts in a very matter-of-fact fashion to tell about an event that is utterly astonishing. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way,” he says, and then, without any further introduction or explanation, he says that Jesus had no human father. That, incidentally, is the one really big way that Jesus’ birth wasn’t ordinary, but extraordinary; extra-ordinary.
The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is presented in Scripture as a simple fact. This is not a fairy tale. It’s just how the birth of Jesus happened.
Some people think the story of the virgin birth is a relic from more primitive times, when folks were more gullible, more inclined to believe in miraculous tales. But notice the details: though Mary and Joseph were formally engaged, Mary was discovered to be pregnant “before they came together.” At the end of the passage the point is repeated for emphasis: Joseph had no union with Mary until after she had given birth.
Notice also Joseph’s very normal and understandable reaction to the news of his fiancé’s condition (v. 19). He knew he couldn’t be the father, so he drew the only possible conclusion a man could under the circumstances.
And since he loved Mary and wasn’t vindictive, he resolved to divorce her quietly rather than push for the full penalty of the Law against adultery, which was death by stoning. Joseph and Mary, it’s abundantly clear, understood where babies come from. The virgin birth was just as great an impossibility, humanly speaking, to people in the first century as it is to people in the twenty-first.
So this story is no fanciful invention, no mythical detail inserted into the gospel to lend a supernatural aura to Jesus. No, this is how his birth actually happened. It happened at a definite time and place. It happened to particular people, people with names and families – a carpenter named Joseph, his betrothed Mary. And it happened in a specific way. The girl became a mother, yet the mother remained a virgin. That is how it was.
But the virgin birth is far more than a mere fact of history. The Qu’ran teaches that much. Did you know that every devout Muslim believes that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary? So we need to go beyond the fact that it happened in order to discern what it means.
The truth this miraculous birth points to is the incarnation. The virgin birth is a sign that testifies to Jesus Christ’s unique nature. He is God-become-Man – God incarnate – that is: enfleshed, perfect humanity and perfect deity united in one perfect Person. It’s the incarnation that is the real miracle. I like what C. S. Lewis said on this point:
If you can believe in the incarnation, that is, if you actually accept the fact that God became a man, then why quibble over the sign, which is a far less difficult thing? And if you don’t believe in the incarnation, then what you think about the virgin birth doesn’t really matter, because you’re not a Christian anyway.
But let’s reflect further on this sign and its meaning. What does the incarnation really say to us? That is spelled out for us in the prophecy of Isaiah that’s quoted in Matthew:
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.'”
Jesus is truly and fully Immanuel. That is his name. He is “God with us.”
When you know Jesus Christ as Immanuel, it will make all the difference in the world to you, even in your darkest hour. Especially in your darkest hour. Jesus is “God-with-us.” One of my favorite Christmas songs, Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” says this about the baby in Bethlehem’s manger:
Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity -“
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
Jesus Christ, Mary’s little baby no longer, but the Savior of the world and the Victor over death and hell, is our Immanuel. In Christ God has come to be with us so that whatever happens, we need not fear. We may not always have everything we want, but if we have Christ, we truly have everything we need.
Call Him “Jesus”
There is a second name given to Mary’s baby here, and it’s given by the angel. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel says to Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). So if Immanuel tells us about Christ’s unique identity, then Jesus points to his special work. That name, Jesus, is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yeshua, which means “The Lord [or Yahweh] saves.”
This name describes the function or task for which he came. Jesus, as his very name proclaims, is the Savior. That’s why he came – not just to be an example, or to teach, not merely to show God’s love in a general way, or to heal the sick or raise the dead even. No. Jesus came to save. Of course he does all those other things too, but this is his central purpose for entering the world.
And what kind of Savior is Jesus? The Jews of his own day were looking for a champion who would bring political deliverance from the domination of Rome. They wanted an earthly Messiah. But Mary’s Son is given the name Jesus because, in the words of the angel, “he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).
His kingdom is not of this world, as he would one day say to Pontius Pilate, his judge and executioner. Jesus is not just another political revolutionary who will promise what he can’t or won’t deliver. True, faith in him would have a world-transforming impact. His church would revolutionize life on earth. But Jesus’ primary mission would be to deliver people from slavery to sin, and fear, and death itself. And the Bible says Jesus is the only Savior. When the apostle Peter was hailed before the Jerusalem authorities and charged not to speak any more about Jesus, Peter boldly replied: “There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (cf. Acts 4:12).
The ancient world was filled with fear of the spirit world. Most people believed that heaven and earth were populated by a host of evil beings who barred the way to heaven. The only way to get past them was to learn their names, which was sort of like compiling a great long list of passwords, and by this secret knowledge one could gain the power to open the countless gates those spiritual forces guarded. Imagine how it must have come as good news to hear the bold announcement that there is really only one name in all of heaven it was necessary to know – the name of Jesus. That really was gospel, good news!
In our day, I think the challenge is different. It seems to me that most people today don’t believe there are many roadblocks on the way to heaven – they tend to think there aren’t any at all. The commonest belief in our society is that everybody will be saved by calling on any name they choose, or even without calling at all.
So we need to proclaim anew the truth today as never before that the world really does need a Savior, and that we know who he is. We know his name.
So look again at the old familiar story of the baby in Bethlehem. Listen to what the Bible is really saying about him. The fact that Jesus came as the Savior means that, in Paul’s wonderful words, God is for us. The truth that Jesus is “Immanuel” means that God is with us. Those two things, God for us and God with us, make up the core of the gospel. What more could we need or ask?
“Jesus, our Immanuel.” His names say it all.