GOD WITH US
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
— Isaiah 7:14, ESV
18 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. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
— Matthew 1:18-23, ESV
It’s been told, and fairly well observed, that the difference between dogs and cats is this: your dog thinks you are god, while your cat thinks it is god.
People come into our world more like cats than dogs. We are trained, intentionally and inadvertently, to believe we are the center of the universe and everything revolves around us. We are led to believe all persons and things exist to glorify and please us.
We stare at babies, veritably worshipfully. We feed them, change them, bathe them, carry them. The Queen of Sheba has nothing on a contemporary toddler being strolled down the aisles of Target wearing sunglasses and designer tennis shoes (and I’ve got photos of my granddaughter, Evelyn, to prove it!). Then, when they get the keys to their own kingdoms at age 16, they feel they can go wherever they will, with whomever they will, and do whatever they will, which by definition are the prerogatives not of humans but of a sovereign God.
The only thing that can correct the notion that we are our own gods is salvation, regeneration, the new birth. Such spiritual conversion is necessary to convince a person that God was not invented to serve and cater to us, but rather we were created to serve and worship the true and living God. Advent helps us to understand how such a right relationship between God and us can exist.
“Mild he lays his glory by, born that men no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth” (Wesley/Whitefield). This new birth, regeneration, salvation is achieved when we accept the prophetic gospel of “Immanuel.” God is with us, if God is above us, and when God is in us.
God With Us
The original prophecy of “Immanuel” is a double entendre. The first meaning is a doozy, and proved conditional, temporal. At the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Jewish people, both the apostate northerners of Israel and the mildly faithful southerners of Judea, had reasons to worry about the encroaching superpower Assyria. “Immanuel,” “God with us,” was first God’s promise to protect the South, which He did, when the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the North.
The promised child became Isaiah’s second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, whose name means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” He is not to be confused with Isaiah’s first son with a shorter, more reasonable name, Shear-jashub (“a remnant shall return”). What’s in a name? Everything! By the time little Maher-shalal-hash-baz was grown, Damascus and Samaria would be the prey of the Assyrians, but Jerusalem and Judea would be saved to see another day. It was a short lived victory, however, as evil king Manasseh executed the prophet Isaiah, and more evil kings and apostasy followed him, and Jerusalem and Judea were eventually sacked and taken captive by the Babylonians.
So, at first glance, “God with us” was a past promise made to some of the Jewish people during a brief military threat against the southern kingdom of Judah. God was with them, but then they abandoned God. So much for the first part of the prophecy.
The second interpretation of “Immanuel,” however, makes the promise more permanent. It claims God can be with us in such a way to save us, not from some earthly army like the Assyrians, but from the evils of sin and death and Hell. This is a prophecy about salvation, regeneration, the new birth and new life with God through the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
God is with us, God is for us, God has come to save us! But, God is with us to save us only if God is put in God’s proper place. God will only be with us if we put God above us.
God Above Us
While Isaiah 7:14 finds its deeper and truer fulfillment in Matthew 1:23, there is a thread that runs through both interpretations of the promise of “God with us.” The true and living “God,” the God of the Bible, of Old Covenant Israel, of the New Covenant church, is with, and only with, “us,” meaning the people who put Him first (ref. Matthew 6:33).
In the days of Isaiah, northern Israel did not put Yahweh first, and they were destroyed and deported. For a season, southern Judah was faithful, and God was with them, until they, too, became altogether apostate, and God abandoned them to the Babylonians. The point is clear, God is with us, when God is above us. Otherwise, not so much.
The same is true of the spiritual side of the promise of “Immanuel.” God is with us, to save us, from sin and death and Hell, when God is above us as the true Lord and Savior of our lives. Otherwise, not so much.
To put God above us we must surrender to the sovereignty and salvation of God. By sovereignty, I mean it is God, not us, who can do whatever He wills, whenever He wills, to whomever He wills. By salvation, I mean it is God who saves us, not we ourselves, and He does so by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ, “Immanuel,” alone.
“Immanuel” is Savior when “Immanuel” is Lord. God is with the one in whom God is above, who rightly worship the Lord in public and private, and who freely and willingly serve the Lord by abiding by His word.
No nation can claim the permanent banner of “Immanuel.” Israel did not and the USA cannot. The permanent promise of “Immanuel” is a personal, saving relationship with Yahweh through Yeshua, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, “Immanuel.” God is with us, when God is above us, and this only happens through a miracle of grace that puts God in us.
Here is the true application of advent, salvation, regeneration, the new birth, God in us.
God in Us
Near the end of Jesus’ first Advent, at the culmination of three plus decades of life and three plus years of public ministry, Jesus gave listeners the keys to the kingdom, the secret of salvation, the red button of regeneration, the origin of the new birth. “The kingdom of God is within you” (ref. Luke 17:21).
You may live forever in the kingdom of God, but only when the King, Jesus Christ, indwells your very being as Lord and Savior. God is with us, but only if we put Him above us, and this is when He truly lives in us.
Mostly in modern Christianity we present this wrongly, or at least incompletely. We are told we need to ask Jesus into our hearts. But an emotional relationship with Jesus, which is all most American Christians have, is not sufficient to gain eternal life.
The gospel of Jesus Christ which brings God into us first enters our minds, our intellects, our understanding. When it is effectual, our minds are changed. This is called repentance, a change of mind that leads to a change of heart, and a change of will.
Yes, the heart, the seat of our emotion, does need to be engaged. The knowledge of God in the gospel first makes us feel naked and ashamed, convicted of our many sins. Then grace and mercy melts our guilt and forges freedom, forgiveness, hope, and overwhelming love.
Our wills are then freed to obey and honor God, to understand and apply the word of God, to rightly worship and serve God in His church. “Immanuel,” God is with us, when He is above us, and when by grace through repentance and faith in Christ He is in us, mind and heart and will, throughout eternity.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
— Charles Wesley