“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
(This article is largely based on a ‘Christmas sermon’ on Matthew 1:22,23 by Rev R Bredenhof.) [i]
There’s such wonderful comfort in knowing that God is with us. For there’s nothing worse than being isolated from God. But to have that comfort you must believe it; you need confidence, trust in God’s promise.
That’s something the Lord’s people didn’t show when this message was given back in 734 BC. Judah was in a tight spot. Its sister-nation Israel was in cahoots with Syria and they were attacking Judah’s capital, Jerusalem, because Judah hadn’t joined their alliance against the Assyrian superpower. King Ahaz and his people were terrified. Ahaz was even thinking of forming a costly alliance with Assyria.
As Ahaz is inspecting the city’s water supply and wondering how long he can hold out against the attackers, Isaiah brings him a message from God. Even though Ahaz is a wicked king, steeped in idol worship, God would help Judah and demolish Israel and Syria. And to prove it, Ahaz is given a sign: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). Immanuel: God with us!
Yet it’s not what Ahaz wants to hear; he doesn’t want a sign. He wants to trust in political maneuverers. He’d rather take the treasures from the temple and give them to Assyria and submit to Assyria than to submit to the LORD and trust in Him.
Although Ahaz didn’t want a sign that the Lord would help, the Lord gave him one anyway. And this would be the sign: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). A child is going to be born and his name Immanuel is Hebrew for “God with us”. So whenever those in Jerusalem see this boy, Immanuel, they can be comforted that the LORD is with them.
Unlike in the New Testament, the word virgin used here in Isaiah can simply mean young married woman or of marriageable age. We don’t know who she was. Some say the wife of Ahaz; others the wife of Isaiah. [ii] But whenever people saw this child with this special name they could be assured that God would not forsake them. And He didn’t. Just twelve years later, in 722 BC, God destroyed Judah’s enemies: Israel and Syria.
But Ahaz was a wicked king and the people of Judah did not place their trust in the LORD but served idols. And so it was that Judah too eventually went into exile to Babylon. Unwilling to trust in the LORD they succumbed to fear and were deported.
If we now go forward more than 700 years, we see that Matthew quotes that text from Isaiah about Immanuel and applies it to Christ. And he doesn’t want us to make the same mistake as Judah but to really trust in Christ, no matter how great our trouble or sin. Christ is our Immanuel; in Him God is with us. In Him we may, indeed must, place our trust. His Word is the truth; His promises completely reliable.
He showed that in the past, in the days of Ahaz and throughout the Old Testament. And in the New Testament that name Immanuel has become even richer, its promise more beautiful and its glory incredibly great.
To illustrate this comforting message, I can do no better than to quote at length from the conclusion of Rev R Bredenhof’s sermon on Matthew 1:22,23:
The young woman in Matthew 1 isn’t just a young woman, but she is a virgin. Unlike in Isaiah 7, the Greek word in Matthew can be translated in no other way. It’s not ambiguous: this was a woman who had never slept with a man, and by a miracle of God’s power she was going to have a baby.
And there’s more to the name of her child Immanuel. He’s not merely the promise of God’s presence, a sign that in some sense God would accompany his people. Now the sign is much more, for the child is God himself!
The LORD Almighty was really and truly on earth, even in the flesh. His disciples could see him, hear him, touch him. God was actually living among the men and women and children of Israel. When this child was born, grew up, and walked on the earth, He was in the truest sense, “God in our midst”.
Some 30 years later, in Matthew 12, Jesus speaks about who He really is. He first compares himself to Jonah. Jesus says that like Jonah, He’ll be three days in the grave, but He’ll rise again. And if Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, so everyone should believe in Christ, “for one greater than Jonah is here” (v 41).
In the same chapter, Jesus compares himself to King Solomon, one renowned for his wisdom. People came from all over the earth to listen to him. If that’s how Gentiles responded to Solomon’s wisdom, everyone should definitely listen to the wisdom of Christ. For (again), says Jesus, “Now one greater than Solomon is here” (v 42).
Jesus is greater than all the old prophets. He is greater than all the old kings. And, says Christ in Matthew 12—here’s the clincher—Jesus is greater even than the temple (v 6). The temple was the place of God’s presence on earth, the place where God showed himself among his people. But Christ is greater. As glorious as the golden temple was, Christ was more glorious.
If you think about it, that’s a shocking claim. No wonder the Jewish leaders were enraged: “Jesus greater than the temple?!” God was in the temple. It was the home of the overwhelming presence of God’s majesty. But now Jesus dares to say about himself, “One greater than the temple is here.”
Jesus, Immanuel, was indeed greater than the temple. Because if the people wanted to draw near to God, soon they wouldn’t have to go to one particular building, in one particular city. Neither would they have to make sacrifices to receive forgiveness. Soon, Jesus would make the temple and all its sacrifices obsolete. For He becomes the place God’s mercy can be found, the proof of God’s nearness! Christ is our access to God, the door that opens directly into heaven, the gateway to life.
So the name Immanuel is really a name that looks ahead to what happened on Good Friday. Then, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51). What did Immanuel do to make that happen? He went between a sinful people and the holy God, and He made them one. The chasm between God and sinners is gone, because God has removed our guilt. Jesus brings God back to his people, and He brings his people back to God. God isn’t just above you in heaven, so far away. Nor is God against you with wrath, so angry. But because of Christ, God is with you in his love and faithfulness.
This is the profound reality of Immanuel. For the sake of Jesus, God is on our side. Through Christ, God is our God. Like He was for trembling Ahaz and fearful Judah, but in a way that is far more amazing, God himself is among us, to protect, to help, to renew.
The gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus as “Immanuel”, and that’s how it also ends. For this is what Jesus promises in Matthew 28:20, “Surely I am with you always.” It’s the promise of his presence. At that moment, the apostles really craved this promise. Jesus was leaving them—and how could the disciples ever hope to preach the gospel to that big scary world, to people who would reject and kill them? Yet they went boldly, for they did not go on their own. Though He was gone, Immanuel was near: “I am with you always.”
That promise holds true. Christ is with us still. Ascending into heaven didn’t make his glorious name less real or meaningful. Our Saviour is still Immanuel. Not, “God used to be with us.” Not, “God might be with us later on.” No, “God is with us. He will be, now and always.” And his name can give us confidence.
With fears and anxieties, at times oppressed by trouble, we can feel like we’re going it alone. None to help. No one to understand us. No one to share our load. You believe in God, but how do you really know He’s there? How do you know He hasn’t gone away, and how do you know that He’ll help?
Then remember Immanuel. For the sake of Jesus, God goes with you, now and always. As it says in Romans 8, “If God is for us”—if God is with us—“who can be against us?” (v 31). If God is with us, no one can stand against us, and nothing can keep us from his love.
“He is with us always.” Christ is with us in his Word. Whenever we open the Scriptures, we get to hear Immanuel’s voice. Whenever we open the Scriptures, we hear God’s very own instructions and his precious promises. In his Word, Christ is very near—to guide us, to comfort us, to speak to us his words of encouragement.
“He is with us always.” For Christ is also with us by his Spirit. Immanuel sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts—yes, even like God dwelled in the temple and showed his presence there in grace and power. The miracle is that God’s own Spirit now fills us, bringing Christ very near in his mercy and might.
“He is with us always.” Though He’s in heaven, Christ isn’t distant. For His eyes are always on you. He knows you, and He prays for you to his Father. He sees us, He hears us, and He answers our pleas and petitions. Immanuel means we’re never alone, and never without help, for God is with us.
This name of our Saviour is so rich. It even includes a future promise. Immanuel is a promise that our separation from Christ will last only a short while. Immanuel is a pledge that our reunion with the Lord is coming. As He said in Matthew 28, He is with us, “even to the very end of the age.” For at the end of the age, Immanuel will come a second time.
And when He comes back, his bodily presence with us will continue for times without end. God will be among us, and He will live with us, just as He always intended to do. He will return and walk with us once again.
It’ll be better than the first time God walked among us, in the Garden of Eden—for that bliss was short-lived. It will also be better than the thirty-three years God walked among us, in the land of Israel—for that ended in rejection and the cross. No, God will walk among us on the heavens and earth made new: God and us together, in person, without sin, and without end.
Immanuel makes it possible. He opens the way to communion with God today, and communion with God forever. For to all who believe—for all who by faith accept the sign of Immanuel—God will show his grace. So trust in this sign. Though you stumble and fall, trust in this sign, the Son, the Saviour. When you believe in him, God will come very near.
Look back on the one who was called Immanuel. But then also look ahead, ahead to the day when this same Immanuel will come again, and restore us to God’s presence forever. Let us make it our prayer, “O Come, O Come Immanuel! Come, that we may dwell with you again! Immanuel come!”
[i] Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, Sermon on Matthew 1:22,23, delivered at the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura Christmas Day, 2020. (Available on internet: “The Seed Sermons”.)
[ii] Rev. Wes Bredenhof in a sermon on Isaiah 7:14. (Available on internet: “The Seed Sermons”.)