The first Biblical appearance of the name Immanuel is in the prophecy of Isaiah, who lived near the royal court in Jerusalem in the middle of the eighth century before Christ. Caught in a political tug-of-war between three powerful Middle Eastern kingdoms, King Ahaz was trying to play one against the others. Instead, Isaiah warned, he should be turning to God for help. The Prophet challenged the King to “ask a sign from the Lord your God” that God would help him. King Ahaz refused to humble himself before God. So Isaiah prophesied:
“Well, the Lord will give you a sign anyway. Look, that young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. …Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land ruled by the two kings you fear most will be deserted. The Lord will bring to your people days of fulfillment.”(Isaiah 7:10-15)
Scholars believe the “young woman” Isaiah pointed to was his wife and that the child she would soon give birth to was his own son. He was promising that by the time this boy reaches the age of accountability (Eight? Ten?), the Lord would deliver his chosen people.
Isaiah’s prophecy was read by generations of religious seekers over the next seven hundred years. During this time, a belief emerged among the Jewish people that God would some day send the “Messiah,” the Annointed One, to deliver them from despair and defeat and lead them into a glorious Kingdom Age. A stream of clues were found in the holy writings of the Law and the Prophets that became part of a vibrant “Messianic Hope” among the people.
One of these clues was seen in Isaiah’s prophesy about Immanuel. As generations of scholars analyzed his words, they began to feel that beyond the fulfillment in his lifetime, Isaiah was foreseeing a greater fulfillment when the Messiah would come. The temporary deliverance the people of Israel experienced in the collapse of the enemy threat in the eighth century BC would be dwarfed by the mighty deliverance God would bring about through the Messiah.
When Jesus emerged into his public ministry at the age of thirty, Andrew heard him speak, and immediately the light of faith flashed on within him. He ran to find his brother Peter, and excitedly blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!” (John 1:41) The disciples spent three years soaking up everything Jesus taught them. They really felt they were part of the coming of the Kingdom of God. But the crowds that followed him began to turn on him. They shouted, “Crucify him!” and the Roman executioners did.
Through the Resurrection of Jesus three days later, and through the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit a few weeks after that, the disciples came to realize that Jesus the Messiah was bringing God’s Kingdom into human experience in a different way, a more profound way, a way that rises above the ebbs and flows of earthly governments. They began the preaching and teaching and evangelizing that has resulted in the worldwide Church of our day.
Matthew, one of the disciples, got to know Jesus’ mother Mary and heard her account of his miraculous birth. In Matthew’s mind he remembered those words from Isaiah, and he wrote in his Gospel:
“All this took place to bring about what the Lord had said would happen. He had said through the prophet, ‘The virgin is going to have a baby. She will give birth to a son. And he will be called Immanuel‘ which means ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:22-23)
A few years later, another disciple, John, expressed the deeper meaning of Jesus’ birth in his own Gospel:
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Jesus…Messiah…Immanuel…God With Us
And that’s why we celebrate Christmas.
— Pastor George Van Alstine