All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
Matthew 1:22-23 (NRSV)
Eight hundred years before Jesus was born, the kingdom of Judah (a.k.a. the Good Guys as far as the Old Testament is concerned – the remnant of faithful Israel) was in trouble.
Syria had decided to break away from the Assyrian empire, and they reached out to the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah to break away a coalition of nations that could defend themselves from Assyrian retribution. Israel agreed, Judah did not.
Syria believed, perhaps correctly, that the people of Judah would join the rebellion if not for the leadership of Judah’s king: Ahaz, so Syria and Israel plotted together to invade and remove Ahaz by force, replacing him with a king of their choosing and adding Judah’s armies to their own.
Needless to say, Ahaz was troubled by this. Not only was his own skin on the line, but Judah was about to be conquered by a superior force, and once this happened, the odds were very good the wrath of Assyria would follow. Judah was not equipped to hold off both the armies of Syria and Israel, much less Assyria when they came knocking. It seemed like this could be the end of Judah as a nation and, by extension, the faithful remnant of God’s people.
Speaking for God, Isaiah reassures Ahaz that, if he stands in faith, God will deliver him from these nations and offers a sign of Ahaz’s choosing. Ahaz refuses, not desiring to tempt God. God then specifies the following sign:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah — the king of Assyria.”
In this sign, God promises that a young woman (“virgin” in the Septuagint) will give birth to a son named Immanuel, and before this child even develops moral reasoning, God will have brought Assyria and her vassals down on the heads of Syria and Israel. The immediately following chapters of Isaiah continue to draw this theme out, including Immanuel becoming a ruler of some kind.
So, the child of the sign promised to Ahaz is named Immanuel because it means that God is with his people in this time of trouble. He will deliver them from their oppression by using another nation. This other nation, Assyria, is also an enemy of Judah, but at least for a brief period of time, they will be God’s instrument in delivering Judah from Israel. The signal flare that God is about to do this is the birth of little Immanuel.
We do not know much from history about Isaiah’s Immanuel. It very well may have been Isaiah’s own son. But we do know his arrival is the sign of God’s deliverance.
Matthew takes this interesting bit from Israel’s history and says, “You know what happened back then with Immanuel? Well, Jesus being born is that times ten. It’s an even fuller expression of that event.”
Jesus is not named Immanuel by his parents. We call him that, sometimes, because of Matthew’s quote, but that’s not Jesus’ name. He is Immanuel in the sense that Matthew sees in the birth of Jesus a fuller expression of the Immanuel story in Isaiah.
The birth of Jesus, Matthew tells us, was the sign that God was with His people and about to deliver them from their oppressors. Keep in mind that this is Matthew looking back on Jesus’ life long after the events took place, and as he thinks about what Jesus did and his role as Israel’s Messiah, he finds in Jesus a full-filling of the Old Testament hopes for deliverance.
In Matthew’s day, faithful Israel was kept under the thumb of unfaithful Israel. A power structure had grown up around the Temple in Jerusalem that collaborated with the Roman Empire so they could hold on to their power and increase their wealth. With their authority, they kept the people looking downward – focusing on their own wretched sinfulness while the “righteous” enjoyed power and privilege. The Law was a bludgeon. The Temple was an Empire funded vending machine. The very people who should have been leading Israel into repentance and calling on the Lord for deliverance were working for the exact opposite ends. They didn’t want a revolution. They didn’t want the exile to end. The exile had worked out quite well for them, thank you, and if you just got with the program, you might start to enjoy it, too.
What do you look for when your Israelite brothers and sisters have joined with your enemy? You look for the birth of a special child. When that child is born, it means God is with you. When that child is born, it means deliverance is coming swiftly.
We know from history that the Roman Empire did, in fact, sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple, shattering its power and permanently changing the face of Judaism all over the world. We also know that, in time, this same Empire who venerated Caesar as a god would bow the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ. Deliverance was coming, and the sign of its immanence was the arrival of a special baby.
Listen to Matthew tell his story. The importance of Jesus’ birth is that it was a sign for Israel that their redemption had come near. We may find other impacts in other authors, and it may mean various things to us personally, but this is what it means for Matthew.
Two thousand years later, and our situation is somewhat different. The people of God are now in every nation under all kinds of governments, some more tolerant than others. Ought the persecuted church look for a sign of their deliverance?
I hope we can agree that certainly can happen. God may, in His time, choose to deliver His people in a particular nation in a dramatic way and may offer a sign that such a deliverance is immanent. No one will do what Jesus did, but there will be other oppressors and other cries for deliverance from the oppressed. We will have to hear the stories from our brothers and sisters in these countries to see if this same story is replaying in their time, and if you keep track of such things, you’ll find amazing stories indeed.
But whatever our particular story may be, God is with His people in their suffering, and because of the outpouring of the Spirit, He is with us in a way He has never been with His people in their entire history. This is why fishermen can give lectures on the Old Testament to kings. This is why they sing in prison. This is why they look at the scourge and claim that they cannot be silent about what they have witnessed. This is why they do not fear the Beast. God is with His people and we all have seen His sign.
It is time for us in our age to be prophets and interpreters. What are our troubles, and where are our signs? Can we, like our forefathers, stare the lions of Empire in the mouth knowing that our God is with us and He will not allow the evils of this world to stand? Can we resist the devil knowing he will flee? Can we be patient, knowing our God has His own time? Can we trust when we do not see our deliverance right away?
You as an individual, your church, and the people of God worldwide labor and suffer. The present age stands against us corporately and individually in more ways than we can count. But listen – somewhere in the vast crowds, a special child is born. Somewhere in the desert, a fleece collects water. Somewhere, a fig tree wilts and dies. All these little signs whisper to us that God is with us, and deliverance is near. Listen! You have thousands of years of reasons to hope.
- In Matthew’s day, people saw virtually no difference between a concrete, historical evil (like the Roman Empire) and the spiritual forces behind them. Should this inform the way we view evil in the world and, if so, how? How does American culture tend to treat this versus other cultures?
- What kinds of things represent the oppressive evils in our day? Are there any that are very subtle? Are there any that have become a standard part of the way our world works such that we might not even realize it?
- Can you think of times in your own life that God sent a sign to let you know he was with you in your troubles? What made that sign significant to you?