Immanuel – God with us

 

We want to have a short pause from our blogs on John in order to wish you all a richly blessed and joy-filled Christmas – HAPPY CHRISTMAS!
As usual at Christmas time the glorious reality of Jesus’ name Immanuel comes to us again and again in our Bible Readings, sermons, Christmas cards and letters. What a glorious truth that Almighty God has actually come down to us and made himself known to us in Jesus!
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But two rather obvious questions about the name Immanuel don’t seem ever to be mentioned. Who was Immanu-El? and likewise Who was/is ‘God’?
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Who was Immanuel?
In Isaiah 7 the name Immanuel (meaning in Hebrew ‘El/God with us’) is revealed in the context of King Ahaz refusing God’s command to him that he should ask for a sign. In reaction to Ahaz’ disobedience some seven hundred years before the coming of Jesus God declares that a virgin will give birth to a baby who shall be called Immanuel. The immediate presence of the all-holy God is a threat to those who in unbelief disobey the Lord. His presence is uncomfortable and brings condemnation and judgement to those who refuse to follow the Lord.
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But in Matthew 1 Jesus’ name Immanuel is clearly a wonderful promise. In Jesus God himself in all his glory, perfection and loving grace comes down to earth to live with those who believe in him and seek to follow him. And by his Spirit he still goes with us through all the ups and downs of life. He saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21) and never leaves us or forsakes us (Hebrews 13.5). He is always with us, Immanuel. One can only react with a loud Hallelujah, praise the Lord!
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But still we have to ask Who was El? In Old Testament times all the heathen nations around Israel believed in a distant high God called ‘El’. El does not appear in the first chapters of the Bible or in the story of creation. He only comes into the Bible in Genesis 14 when the non-Hebrew Melchizedek introduces El Most High (Genesis 14.19) as “the creator of heaven and earth”. But the heathen nations felt that El was very high, distant and far removed from them on earth. Their worship and prayer was directed therefore to the lower-level idol deities, the Baals, the Ashtoreth, Moloch etc. They were more accessible. In the Bible however, the high creator El is accepted, but his character and ways of working are adapted to fit the revelation of the Creator who was known in Hebrew as Elohim. So El was adopted as equivalent to Elohim, but also adapted in the understanding of his nature.
(For a more extended account of the biblical adoption and adaptation of such non-biblical creators see my book “What about other Faiths?”)
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Our other question is Who was/is ‘God’? When Christianity first came to Europe the still heathen tribes also believed in a distant high creator deity called ‘God’ – the French tribes called him ‘Dieu’, the Russian and Bulgarian tribes called him ‘Bog’, the Germans ‘Gott’, the Scandinavians ‘Gud’ etc. Likewise through history and into Islam the Arabs believed in the creator ‘Allah’. But, like the pagan tribes round Israel in the Old Testament, the British felt that ‘God’ was so distant and unknowable that their worship and prayer centred on lower deities like Thor, Wodun, Frei etc. Just as the Baals were utterly to be rejected in the Old Testament, so Thor and the other idol deities were not permitted in the Christian church in Britain. But the pagan ‘God’ was adopted and also adapted in the understanding of his nature.
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How wonderful now that the distant and unreachable El is actually with us. He is knowable, accessible, reachable, describable. He is with us!
In modern Britain too a majority of our population claim to believe in the existence of God. But most would also feel that he is far removed from daily life and largely therefore irrelevant. He may be a genial ‘gentleman up-top’, but he is clearly not with them in their daily life. The glorious message of Christmas is that this all-mighty El/God is no longer unreachably high. He has come to us. We can know him and relate to him. Immanu-El. God is with us.

Happy Christmas!
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