The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 2)

(For part 1, please click here).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25, ESV emphasis added).

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We saw in the previous post how the child born to Mary in Bethlehem was given the name “Jesus” because of who He was: Yahweh, the Creator, God of Israel, coming in human flesh to save His people. This shows how Jesus fulfilled and carried on one of the great themes of the Bible: God’s desire to be known and glorified as Saviour.

But what of this other name Matthew introduces? Why Immanuel?
I can’t go much further without acknowledging that vv. 22-23 earn scorn from many unbelieving skeptics and have confused more than a few Christians. How can the apostle be serious about the birth of this child fulfilling the prophecy “they shall call his name Immanuel” when He’s explicitly given a completely different name by His parents?

It’s a valid question and by answering it we’ll not only get an insight into what Matthew intended by quoting Isaiah here, but we’ll also see how Jesus relates to one of the other great themes of the Bible – the greatest promise God gives to His people.

Jesus our Immanuel

In perhaps the most theologically rich portion of any Christmas carol, the second verse of Charles Wesley’s classic Hark the Herald Angels Sing! gives us this pure lyrical gold:

Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold Him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb

Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the Incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Wesley expresses beautifully in this hymn to Christ what Matthew was getting at when he said: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Jesus’s fulfillment of this prophecy was not a literal bearing of the name Immanuel – i.e. it wasn’t His middle name or something like that (just like “Christ” isn’t His surname!). But names are all about identity, and Jesus certainly did embody the meaning of the name in all its fullness. As the carol puts it, Jesus was the everlasting Lord, adored by all of heaven, who came “late in time” to our world, via the womb of a virgin named Mary.

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When this child was born he was not simply some distant offshoot of the ruling Jewish tribe. He was the fullness of God veiled in an authentic human nature – flesh, blood, skin and bones. He was a baby boy, 100% human and 100% divine, worthy to be worshipped – as the Magi would conclude in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Or as another famous carol describes Him: “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Jesus may never have been called Immanuel by anyone during His earthly life. But millions throughout history have recognised Him as Immanuel – the God who was pleased to dwell as a man amongst the mortal, human creatures of this world.

The Greatest Promise in the Bible

What would you say is the greatest promise God gives His children in the Scriptures? That our sins will be forgiven? That there will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow in the new creation? That we will have eternal life?

All of these are wonderful things and indeed they are each connected to what I’ve become convinced is the greatest promise of all.

Probably the earliest sign of the promise is given by Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 17:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your        
       offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting
       covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will
       give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your
       sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and
       I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7-8, ESV).

It’s even more clear though when He makes a similar promise to the people of Israel in Exodus.
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall
      know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from
      under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:7, ESV).

The promise is carried through the Old Testament by the prophets (e.g. ) and the picture of the New Jerusalem, which the New Testament ends with, is more or less defined by it.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling
      place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his
      people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
(Revelation 21:3, ESV)

Could there be anything better than owning God as our God and having Him own us as His people? That’s the promise given to those He calls and redeems in the Old Testament. God can give nothing greater than Himself and He does just that in becoming their God.

But Revelation suggests there is something even better than having God as our covenant God and belonging to Him as a people. Well sort of…
In the new creation, God will dwell in and amongst His people in a way we’ve never experienced before. He will be with us as our God and we will experience the fullness of this amazing relationship like never before.

Having God as our God will be even more amazing when there is no sin, no idols, no distractions to detract from our ability to enjoy the greatest gift we could possibly receive.

season reason[3]

I’ve seen Christian friends circulating this picture on Facebook this month and the sentiment it expresses is well rehearsed. We’re repeatedly reminded not to only focus on the cute baby in the manger, but the suffering Saviour on the Cross. The refrain could be “At Christmas, always remember Easter.”

But this mentality misses something very important. Christmas is glorious in and of itself. Because the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God is the very real beginning of what we will enjoy for all of eternity. Immanuel – the God who dwelt among men as a man Himself – is the one we will enjoy an incredible relationship with throughout eternity.

In fact, if I might be so bold as to say it, there is a sense in which Easter points to Christmas – a “second Christmas”, the new advent, the greater “feast of Christ”, where instead of a few Jewish shepherds and Eastern astrologers coming to see the newborn King, people from every nation, tribe and tongue will come to feast around the table of the King’s glorious banquet. A big reason “Yahweh saves” us as Jesus, is so we can enjoy Him forever as Immanuel, with our sin completely gone and our mortal bodies changed to experience the fullness of life.

So this Christmas, I encourage you all to ponder and rejoice in the fact that God has promised to be with us as our God and that Jesus coming as Immanuel is the absolute guarantee that this promise will be delivered.
The eternal presence of God will far outshine all the presents of men. If we have this to look forward to because of Jesus, we have something worth celebrating  next week.

[1] Alkelda, “Mini Nativity with Angel and Donkey Nov09” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda, “Wool Felt Nativity 2011″CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Source unknown, included for purposes of critique

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2 thoughts on “The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 2)

  1. It is the first step in the emptying and humbling of Philippians and ought to be celebrated in itself. God partakes of his creation that we may partake of Him (I think you put it similarly in another post). That Hymn ‘Mary did you know?’ is such a wonderful way of capturing the Lord incarnate. I want to add that while we celebrate the Lords coming to dwell with man as man, we do so in the presence of his Spirit who dwells with us now. It is by the Spirit that we can know and celebrate Gods presence with his people even now in this fallen world. And it is as well by the Spirit that we can have assurance of that future dwelling with God in fullness of life.

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    1. Good thoughts Daniel,

      Spot on regarding the indwelling of the Spirit. I had wanted to go there, but the post was getting long already 🙂 On that note I’m hoping to get a copy of JD Greer’s “Jesus Continued:Why the Spirit inside you is better than Jesus beside you” to explore that idea further.

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