"Wondering at Immanuel"
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25
(Delivered Christmas Sunday, December 23, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
In turning our thoughts to Christmas this morning, I invite you to focus your attention on just one word.
It's an important word, because it happens to be a "name". It's one that we often hear at Christmas. We're used to hearing it sung in Christmas carols. We see it written on Christmas cards. But we rarely take the time to consider what it means--or what that meaning has to do with us in everyday life.
It's too bad that we don't give this "name" the consideration it deserves; because its meaning is great news. And this great news--truly grasped-- literally changes everything in life.
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The Bible first introduces this wonderful "name" to us in an Old Testament prophecy. It's found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. And it was introduced as a part of a promise that God made through Isaiah to the king of the southern kingdom of Judah.
King Ahaz was in a disparate situation. Two northern kingdoms were forming an alliance with the powerful and dreaded nation of Assyria. Strengthened by this alliance, these two northern kingdoms were plotting to make war against Jerusalem. The threat of this coming war was causing the king of Judah, and all his people, to tremble in fear “as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind” (Isaiah 7:1-2).
That's when the Lord God steps in to assure His people that He has not abandoned them. He sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to tell him not to be afraid of these two other kings. He assures him that their plot against God's people would not stand. God makes the promise that, within sixty-five years, the hostile northern kingdom would be broken and would cease to exist.
And to assure Ahaz of the truth of this promise, God—through Isaiah—invited the king to ask for a sign. Sadly, King Ahaz—in a display of false humility—refused the offer God made. And so, God Himself establishes a sign to the king.
It's then that we first hear this wonderful name. God says:
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Think about the mother that this promised one—Immanuel—would be born to. The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses to describe her (almâ) is the one that someone would use to describe a young girl who was about to become married.1 And as we read on in the Book of Isaiah, we find that Isaiah actually went on to take a young woman—a prophetess—as a wife; and that she, through him, bore a son (Isaiah 8:3). So; God's promise about this young woman was most likely made while she was still a “virgin”.
And then, think about the child that this young woman would give birth to. As we read on, we find that her son was given a real tongue-twister of a name: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. That name may have been hard for us to pronounce; but its meaning was very clear to the Jewish people. It means, “Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”.
This little boy with a long name—about to be born to one who was a virgin—was a living “sign”; given by God to King Ahaz. It was given to assure him that these threatening enemies in the north would indeed have their position of power taken from them in a very short amount of time. In fact, as the Lord says, they would forsake their lands before little Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was old enough to know the difference between right and wrong (perhaps within only three to five years).
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Now; that's the story of the promise of a coming child in the days of Isaiah; and the immediate, historic significance of his symbolic name "Immanuel"
But as we read on in Isaiah's prophecy, we make an even more remarkable discovery. Not only was there an immediate historic significance to that name; but there was also a significance for the future—one that extended far beyond the concerns of King Ahaz, and far beyond the little baby that was born to the virgin bride-to-be of Isaiah. The name "Immanuel" is applied through Isaiah to another Child—a promised Ruler of His people. All of the land of Judah, for example, is referred to as “Your land, O Immanuel” (8:8); and they were told that the foreign nations that threaten them will not stand, because “God is with us” (8:10).
The far-reaching significance of this is best shown to us in Isaiah 9:6-7; because there, in the context of this future promised Child, we discover His true identity. In this much-loved passage, we read these words of hope for Judah--and for the world:
Do you see it? The child that God promised to Isaiah through his bride-to-be was a real child. But he was also a “sign”—a “type”, if you will—of Another who was yet to be born. “Here am I,” Isaiah says, “and the children whom the LORD has given me! We are for signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion” (8:18). Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, nicknamed “God with us”, was but a symbolic picture of Another “Immanuel” who would come later; One who would be referred to as “Mighty God” and would rule over His people upon the throne of David forever.
We find the fulfillment of this promised birth in the very first chapter of the very first book of the New Testament—some seven centuries later.
In Matthew 1:18-25, we read these words:
This week, we will enter into a celebration of this wonderful Old Testament promise—the birth of "Immanuel". We will hear His name mentioned again and again—whether or not we personally grasp the real significance of that name.
But my hope this morning is that, by looking closer at the story of Jesus' birth, we will—together—grasp that name's significance. My hope is that the meaning of that name will make a transition from our heads to our hearts; and that it will move us with a deep sense of wonder and awe over the One to whom it points.
My prayer for us this morning is that we all take that name more seriously than we have ever taken it before. Immanuel is a wonderful Person. And I pray that we become transformed by a sense of wonder at this one called “God with us”.
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First, look with me; and wonder at . . .
1. THE MIRACULOUS CONCEPTION OF 'GOD WITH US' (vv. 18-20).
We are accustomed to saying that Jesus’ birth was miraculous. Actually, as far as we know, His literal birth was very normal. It was His conception—not His birth—that was the true miracle. Matthew begins with a heading: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows”; and he then proceeds to tell us the whole story—not only of Jesus’ birth, but of His miraculous and marvelous conception.
Matthew tells us of the time when Mary was betrothed to Joseph—at a time before they “came together”. In keeping with the custom of that time, a young woman would be “engaged” to her husband for about a year. During that time, she would remain with her own family as a virgin, and the two would live separately from one another. Nevertheless, her tie to her husband-to-be was such a strong obligation that, if she were to have relations with another man, it would be considered that she had committed adultery and was to be punished by death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Such a strong bond could not even be broken without a certificate of divorcement—even though they had not yet “come together” in actual marriage. And so, what a heart-break it must have been to Joseph when he discovered that his bride-to-be was pregnant.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was, literally, a “righteous” man—which indicates that he was a man who was concerned with doing what was in keeping with God’s law. But, the same word can be translated “just”—which suggests that Joseph was also a merciful man. And so, not wishing to subject the woman he loved to public shame, he made up his mind that he would terminate the engagement and “divorce” her privately.
Can you imagine poor Joseph—a righteous but merciful man—as he lay in bed that night, thinking about how he would have to go about this very grievous task? Can you imagine the sense of loss and grief he felt over what he thought was betrayal on the part of the young woman he so deeply loved? And can you imagine how hard it must have been to know that the Law of Moses required he not marry her? I suspect that he plotted and planned, and tried to figure out the right way to go about this difficult and painful obligation, until he eventually fell asleep from exhaustion.
But it was then that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Joseph knew this to clearly be more than just a dream; because, as Matthew tells us, he immediately got up and acted upon it as a word from the Lord Himself. The angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
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Matthew here presents us with the story from Joseph’s standpoint. But Luke, in his Gospel, tells us the story from Mary’s experience. It’s an account that is filled with mysteries that it’s not our place to delve into right now; but let me at least read it to you as Luke recorded it.
It follows after the story of Elizabeth, the relative of Mary who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Luke writes;
Mary knew all this before it happened. But all that poor Joseph knew was that his betrothed bride was pregnant. The truth of her condition had to be authoritatively revealed to him that, indeed, his young virgin bride-to-be “was found with child of the Holy Spirit” (v. 18). Jesus, though fully man through His mother Mary, was also fully God in human flesh!
Let the wonder of that sink in this Christmas. When God calls His beloved Son “Immanuel”, He meant Him to be known as “God with us” in the closest possible sense. He means for us to understand that God the Son laid aside His glory in order to be born into the human family and become one of us—ultimately, in order to die on a cross for us! “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Remember that this Christmas, and let your heart be filled with wonder: He became one of us! In that sense, He is Immanuel, “God with us”.
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We also have cause to wonder at . . .
2. THE APPOINITED MINISTRY OF 'GOD WITH US' (v. 21).
The angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as His wife. He assured Joseph that the Child in her womb is conceived in her of the Holy Spirit. And then, the angel said, “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
The name “Jesus” was a very familiar one in those days. In Hebrew, it’s the same as the name ‘Joshua’. I have met many men named Joshua. And as a matter of fact, I have met many men named “Jesus”. I suspect you have too.
But as common a name as it may be, it is also a very “uncommon” one. It's a name that means “Yahweh saves”. And in the case of our Lord, the name has particular importance, because the angel clearly identifies this Son of Mary’s as the One would “save His people from their sins.” He is being marked out as the Savior through whom Yahweh saves—and particularly, saves from sin!
In designating Mary’s Son in this way, there’s a sense of exclusivity. No other “Joshua” can claim to be “savior” in the way that his name indicates, because no one else in human history has ever had an angel of the Lord come and identify them as the one who would save people from their sins. But our beloved Jesus has! And this exclusive designation is confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus Himself dared to say to the Pharisees, “. . . If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Peter said, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
But in designating Him as “JESUS”—the One who saves His people from their sins—there’s also a sense of invitation. “For,” as the apostle John tells us, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul said, “and you will be saved . . .” (Acts 16:31). “. . . If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus,” Paul teaches, “and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Jesus is, as John the Baptist proclaimed, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29); and in heaven, those who are saved will cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10).
How good God is to us! We were lost in our sins; and apart from His grace, there would be no hope—no “way”. But God has provided “a way”; and He is THE ONLY WAY. In this sense also, Jesus Christ is “Immanuel”—“God with us”. It was He whom the angel designated as the One sent by God to save His people from their sins.
Remember . . . and wonder at Him!
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There's one more thing I'd like to point out from this divine 'birth announcement'. We should wonder at . . .
3. THE PROMISE KEPT OF 'GOD WITH US' (vv. 22-23).
Following the announcement of the angel to Joseph, Matthew adds this comment: “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.’” The “all this” that Matthew mentions was the story just told to us of Mary and Joseph. But he makes it clear that it was done for a purpose—“that it might be fulfilled which was spoken” through Isaiah
Do you remember what Jesus said to His disciples, after He appeared to them after His crucifixion, His burial, and His resurrection? He told them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). This is a major theme throughout the Gospels; that all that Jesus did—His birth and ministry, His death and resurrection—were done in fulfillment of the Scriptures. This has also always been a theme in the proclamation of the very message of gospel itself. As Paul once said,
And this is true of the testimony of Jesus' birth as well. The Scriptures tell us that the Messiah must be the woman’s Seed (Gen. 3:15); and Jesus was. It tells us He must be of the lineage of Abraham (Gen. 12:3, 7; 17:7); and Jesus was. It tells us He must come from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10); and Jesus was. It tells us He must be of the House of David (2 Sam. 7:12-13); and Jesus was. It even tells us where He must be born—in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-3); and Jesus was. And now, on top of it all, we see that He must be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14); and Jesus was born of a virgin—in fulfillment of the Scriptures!
It may be that men had forgotten the promise of God that had been given through Isaiah. After all, over seven centuries had passed. And yet, even though men may forget, God never does. He remembers and keeps every promise He makes. The promise was “spoken by the Lord through the prophet”. And just as the prophetic Scriptures promised, Jesus—“God with us”—has come into the world.
Jesus' birth, which we celebrate this week, is the keeping of a promise from long ago. God was with His people then; and now, Jesus has come as Immanuel in accordance with God's promise—“God with us”.
Wonder at Him!
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May I close with one more vision of Jesus as “God with us”? We find it at the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation. It's a description of what God intended to bring about by the coming of His Son into this world, and it's a picture that adds even more to the wonder.
Revelation 21:1-4 tells us of the vision of the apostle John:
“God Himself will be with them”! 'Immanuel' in the fullest sense! What hope we have because of the birth of Jesus!
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Let these things sink in deeply into your heart about Immanuel this week—and wonder at Him!
1Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1985), p. 258.
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