At Christmas time many of us are familiar with the name given to Jesus at his birth—Immanuel—and its meaning: “God with us” (Matt 1:23). However, we are not as familiar with the the biblical theme of “God with us,” nor why we even need God with us. To understand fully the term “Immanuel” and why we need God with us, we need to return to the beginning.
In the Garden
Before sin entered the world, God was with mankind in His beautiful creation (Gen 3:8).
In this world, God commissioned mankind to do two things: to be fruitful and multiply and to rule the world which He had created (Gen 1:28). Mankind was made in God’s image and thus reflected His glory (Gen 1:26). And so, by multiplying and ruling, and then filling the earth, they would be spreading God’s glory throughout the world. The end to which God created the world was the display of His glory. The means by which this would be accomplished, would be the twofold commission given to mankind.
However, after disobeying God, mankind was cursed, and these curses directly frustrated their ability to fulfill this commission. Being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth would now be frustrated by the curse of increased pain in childbearing. Ruling over the earth and having dominion would now be frustrated by the thorns and thistles the earth would produce (Gen 3:16–19). These frustrations for mankind to fulfill their commission also directly frustrate God’s plan to fill the earth will His glory.
Climactically, Adam and Eve were also removed from God’s presence in the garden. And so, at this moment in time, God is not with us.
Family of Abraham
The fulfillment of humanity’s commission resulting in the glory of God filling the earth is now under serious threat by the curses. Will humanity be able to overcome the curse and fulfill their commission? Will God’s glory ever fill the earth?
In grace towards humanity and fueled by a passion for His glory, God begins to step in and help, to bless in the place of cursing.
The commission given to Adam is passed onto Noah (Gen 9:7). But now, God helps Noah in his commission by putting the fear of humans into the animals who will, as a result, be easier to rule (Gen 9:2).
Abraham is simply blessed and told that God will make him into a great nation, that is, God will multiply Abraham, God will cause Abraham to fulfill the commission (Gen 12:2). Isaac, the son of Abraham, is then told: “Fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your offspring…” (Gen 26:24). Jacob, the son of Isaac, is given the same commission as Adam (Gen 35:11) but then also told: “Behold I am with you and will keep you…I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen 28:15, see also Gen 31:3) and at the end of his life, when God tells him to go to Egypt, God says “I myself will go down with you” (Gen 46:4)
What is God doing? In marvelous grace, He takes idolators and cheaters, and is with them. Note importantly, why God is with these individuals. His presence is specifically for the purpose of helping them fulfill their commission! The means by which God will fill the earth with His glory has not changed. But now, God, by His presence, is causing humanity to fulfill their commission.
The Seed (pl.) of Abraham
He does the exact same thing with Israel as a nation. In Egypt, Israel had multiplied and filled the land (Ex 1:7), but they still needed a land to rule over. Thus, God brought them out of Egypt “with his own presence” (Deut 4:37) to bring them to Canaan.
Though, as God kept stepping in to help them, Israel kept failing and so tested the Lord’s patience. Before they even got to the land they were to rule, they began worshipping a golden calf. God, in mercy, still said they people could still have the land, He just wouldn’t go with them. Moses, who understood why God with them was so important to their success said “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Ex 33:15). He knew, they needed God’s help to fulfill their commission. It was he who taught the people that “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you” (Deut 23:14). Just as God put the fear of Noah into the animals, God was putting the fear of Israel into the Canaanites to help their have dominion over them (Deut 2:25). Israel could not have dominion over Canaan if God was not with them.
However, the people lacked faith in God’s promises to help them exercise dominion over the land (Num 14:11), and so God punished the people, reducing their number rather than multiplying them (Num 14:45), and did not give them the land at that time.
Had God’s patience run out, did His mercy come to an end? No. It could not. For, after Moses intercedes and God pardoned their sin, He resolutely declares “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Num 14:21). In other words, the fulfillment of humanity’s commission is absolutely sure, because God has determined that the earth will be filled with His glory. And so, God must, in mercy and grace, continue stepping in to help, in other words, He must be with us.
The Seed (sg.) of Abraham
When the monarchy was established, the fulfillment of humanity’s commission was tied to an individual—the King—more than the people. Yet, just as with the people, God was with King David for the purpose of enabling him to exercise dominion by defeating his enemies (2 Sam 7:9). Israel enjoyed rest and filled their land, because God’s presence enabled the King to exercise dominion (1 Kgs 4:24–25). Moreover, God promised to multiply David’s offspring so that he would never lack a man to sit on his throne. And the Son of David, would build a house for God where his presence would dwell.
However, ultimately all these kings failed in their commission, and so God’s glory had not covered the earth yet. God was not finished though. He promised through the prophets that another king would come (Jer 23:5), in his day God would multiply the people (Jer 23:3)—and multiply David’s offspring (Jer 33:22)—they would have dominion again (Mic 4:8, Dan 7:14), and the house for God would be rebuilt so that God would be with his people again (Ezk 48:35). In so doing God is promising again that the earth will be filled with His glory (Hab 2:14).
Most importantly, God would eradicate sin—the root cause of humanity’s rebellion against God and their lack of desire to fulfill their commission—forever (Jer 31:34, Zech 3:9, 13:1).
While the faithful believers languish, still living with the curse and looking to God to fulfill all these promises, He reminds them—”Do not fear…for I am with you, to save” (Jer 42:11).
Then one day, after centuries of silence, in a quiet night in Bethlehem, a baby boy is born. His name: Immanuel. This child was given the throne of David (Lk 1:32–33), and will rules with dominion, destroying His enemies and giving His people peace (Lk 1:68–75) establishing the kingdom of God (Mk 1:15). He has atoned for His people’s sin once and for all (1 Pet 2:24).
He has been fruitful and multiplied Himself, building a “temple” for God, resulting in many sons and daughters (2 Cor 6:16–18, 1 Pet 2:5). God’s presence now dwells within this temple of people, and so God is with us.
God has always been with his people, graciously helping them. Climactically, God is with his people in the person of Jesus and he graciously helps them by fully being their substitute. Living the life their never could, and dying the cursed death they deserved. By doing so, we are blessed in Him.