Jesus is Immanuel
- Main text: Matthew 1:18-25
- Accompanying text: Psalm 23:1-4
Who is Jesus Christ? In our text this week Matthew is not so much interested in describing Christ’s birth as he is in answering this question and in setting the framework for the rest of his Gospel account. He seeks to establish Christ’s heavenly origins and also that Christ is the Davidic Messiah about whom the prophets spoke (as we have seen the last few weeks). Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus is Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us’, who has come to save us from our sins. Matthew’s knowledge of the quite personal events surrounding Jesus’ birth could suggest that Mary is the original source for this account (it could also be Joseph, although many commentators believe Joseph’s lack of inclusion in the gospels after Jesus’ childhood suggests that he died before Jesus began his ministry).
In 1:18 we are told that Mary was pregnant with Jesus while she was pledged to be married to Joseph. Pregnant with a ‘child from the Holy Spirit’. Matthew’s description here is radically different from common tales of demi-gods in surrounding cultures, which were often full of more explicit details. Matthew is not declaring that Jesus is half man, half God, rather, he is declaring Christ’s conception as a miracle – an act of creation from the Holy Spirit. ‘In Judaism the Holy Spirit was supremely the one who revealed God’s will to the prophets: he was equally at work in the creation of the world’ . Karl Barth comments: ‘Jesus Christ’s Incarnation is an analogue of creation. Once more God acts as the Creator, but now not as the Creator out of nothing; rather, God enters the field and creates within creation a new beginning, a new beginning in history and moreover in the history of Israel’ .
We are not told how, but Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy and, assuming she had been unfaithful, sought to divorce her (betrothal at the time was considered to be a permanent commitment leading to marriage). To end a betrothal required a divorce that was approved by a Rabbi. It is at this point that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and addresses him as ‘Joseph, son of David’ – recognising his Davidic lineage (see Matthew 1:1-17) and thereby confirming that Jesus, who in this text Joseph takes as his own, is the Davidic Messiah anticipated by the prophets (e.g. 2 Sam 7:12, Isa 11:1).
The angel then reveals to Joseph that Mary had been true to him and that he should marry her and name Mary’s son Jesus, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’. Jesus name is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning ‘God saves’. In 1:21 the angel explains that he is to be called Jesus because he comes to save his people (see also Acts 5:31). ‘He will save people not merely in the physical sense (Matt 8:25; 10:22) but in the most fundamental sense because he will bring salvation from sins’ .
Matthew then writes that this had been foretold by the prophets and that Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s promise of a child called ‘Immanuel’, meaning ‘God with us’ (Isa 7:14). In doing so Matthew both begins and ends his gospel account with the idea that, in Jesus, God is with us (see Matt 28:20). ‘Matthew claims, not that God has given us a representation of himself, but that he has come in person to share our situation. What a claim, right at the outset of the Gospel! It is so ultimate, so exclusive. It does not fit with the pluralist idea that each of us is getting through to God in his or her own way. No, says Matthew. God has got through to us in his way. And Jesus is no mere teacher, no guru, no Muhammad or Gandhi. He is ‘God with us’. That is the essential claim on which Christianity is built. It is a claim that cannot be abandoned without abandoning the faith in its entirety’ .
Matthew’s proclamation that Jesus is ‘God with us’, or God in the flesh as John terms it in his gospel (John 1:14), means that God has allowed himself to be known by us. The creator has entered into creation, he has become one of us and in the words and actions of Jesus we can know God (1 Cor 2:16). Through the Holy Spirit we can have a relationship, not with an impersonal all-powerful alien entity beyond our understanding, but with Jesus Christ whom we can know just as intimately as we know our family and friends. By taking on flesh, God is not only being with us, he has also allowed us to know him and be with him – to share his life with him.
Thomas Torrance comments on the importance of God being with us by saying that in the Incarnation ‘God has forever and ever committed himself to us and will no more abandon us than he will abandon himself in Jesus Christ’ . God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is God’s commitment towards the future of humanity.
When Joseph awakes from the dream in 1:24, he takes Mary as his wife and names her child Jesus. While Matthew’s focus is very much in this passage on who Jesus is, it is also the story of Joseph’s inclusion as part of God’s salvation plan. God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ father, to be a part of the story of his grace, just as he chose Christians to be a part of his story of grace as the bearers of the good news of his Son.
- Luke 1:26-38
- Isaiah 7:14; 8:8-10
- Titus 3:4-7
- Col 2:9
Footnotes and references:
1. The ESV Gospel Transformation Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), Digital Edition.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London, UK: SCM Classics, 2012), 97.
3. Michael Green, The Bible Speak Today: the Message of Matthew, 2000 (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), Digital Edition.
5. Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: the Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 169.