Open Matthew 1:22-23.
How do you understand Immanuel? Matthew explains it means, God with us.
What does that mean to you? A warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re not alone? A comfort? Assurance of safety? Yes, God’s presence does make a huge difference to us individually, but there’s so much more than that going on in Matthew’s story. In fact, what Matthew has in mind is pretty close to the core of the Bible’s whole story.
In the beginning, God was among his people. They were the guardians and gardeners of his palace grounds (Genesis 2:15). They lost access to his life-giving presence when they turned traitor (Genesis 3:8, 24). From that point on, the whole narrative is focused on restoring the royal presence among his people.
In the Bible’s final book, his throne is obvious from the start (Revelation 1:4), but the one who sits on the throne doesn’t speak until near the end. When he does, it is to announce that the whole story of history has been resolved. The meaning of history has been the restoration of the royal presence among his people:
Revelation 21:3 (NIV)
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
That’s the canonical context in which God chooses the Abrahamic family to represent his kingship. He promises Isaac, I will be with you (Genesis 26:3). He opens the door of his house and declares to Jacob, I am with you … (Genesis 28:15; also 31:3, 5, 42; 35:3; 48:21). The heavenly sovereign was even in Pharaoh’s prison—with Joseph (Genesis 39:21, 23).
When Moses confronted Pharaoh, a greater ruler was with Moses (Exodus 3:12). In cloud and fire, their sovereign was with Israel, leading and protecting them (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-25). The golden calf brought the threat of God’s withdrawal, but he promised, My presence will go with you (Exodus 33:14). Their sovereign asked them to build a house where he could live among them—the tabernacle of his presence.
It’s what defined Israel: the heavenly sovereign among his people:
Leviticus 26:11–12 (ESV)
I will make my dwelling among you … I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
But Israel struggled with the ideal of a heavenly sovereign, so he conceded earthly kings to represent his presence with his people (1 Samuel 18:12-14). YHWH was with the godly kings (e.g. 2 Samuel 7:9, 17; 2 Kings 18:7; 2 Chronicles 17:3). Their safety was the divine sovereign living among his people: God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved (Psalm 46:5).
So how did Jerusalem fall? If God was among his people, how could Babylon overpower them? Ezekiel says that Jerusalem (and specifically God’s house) had become so unclean that divine sovereign had moved out (Ezekiel 10). Just like the original humans in the palace garden, God’s nation had so violated their king that he could no longer live among them. They were exiled from his presence.
But Ezekiel and the other prophets promised that the sovereign would bring them back from exile, that he would live among his people again. That’s the end goal of Ezekiel’s prophecy—YHWH among his people again: “The name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There” (Ezekiel 48:35).
Some returned from exile, and built a second temple. But unlike the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, they did not describe God moving back in. In fact, as the Old Testament closes, they are still waiting for the promised return of YHWH to live among his people again:
Malachi 3:1–2 (ESV)
1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
That’s the hope Matthew has in mind. He has explicitly referred to the Abrahamic family, the Davidic kingship, and the devastating effects of the captivity. They were waiting for Immanuel—God among his people once again. In Jesus, Matthew says, that hope has arrived. God is once again with his people.
Matthew begins by introducing Jesus, the descendant of the Abrahamic promises, the anointed son of David, the one who restores from captivity, the one restores God’s presence among his people because he is God-with-us.
Matthew concludes when Jesus has received all authority in heaven and on earth, so he can say, I am with you (Matthew 28:20).
The question for us, then, is this: What does it look like to be the people who express the divine presence?
What others are saying
R. F. Youngblood, “Immanuel” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised edited by Geoffrey W Bromiley, Vol 2 (Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 807–808:
In a sense, “God with us” is the story of Scripture in summary. The key covenant statement of relationship, “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” is sometimes called the “Immanuel theme” in covenant theology. From the fellowship with God that mankind enjoyed in Eden to “the grace of the Lord Jesus … with all” God’s people in Rev. 22:21, the concept of God’s search for His children and His dwelling with them (cf. Jn. 1:14) is prominent throughout the Bible. As “God with us” was the sign (ʾôṯ) to Ahaz and his people in Isa. 7:14, so also “I will be with you” (rather than “you will serve me on this mountain”; cf. the MT accentuation) was the sign (ʾôṯ) to God’s people at the beginning of their pilgrimage as a nation (Ex. 3:12). God’s relationship “with us” distinguishes us “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth” (Ex. 33:16). It is “with us” that God enters into covenant (Dt. 5:2f); it is “with us” that God speaks (AV Hos. 12:4 [MT 5]); it is “with us” that God walks as He gives help and guidance and protection (Jgs. 6:12–18; 1 K. 8:57; 2 Ch. 13:12; 32:7f.).
N. Walter, “Ἐμμανουήλ” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider Vol 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 443:
Emmanuel remains a “name with meaning” in Matthew as the translation in Matt 1:23 explicitly shows: Jesus the “Savior” (v. 21b) will be understood, i.e., by the Christian community, as the one in whom God has shown himself as “God with us.” This the reader should recall at the conclusion of the book (Matt 28:20b) where the resurrected Son says to the Church: “I am with you.… ” Thus the confession “he is God-with-us” and the promise “I am with you” form an inclusio (Lange) around the whole of the story and work of Jesus according to Matthew.