The Immanent Names of the Christ Child
Remarkable attention is given to the prophetic names of the Messiah, both in Isaiah (Isa 7:14; 9:6) and in the Gospels (Matt 1:21, 23; Luke 1:32, 35). Numerous times the authors foretell what his “name” will be or what “he shall be called.” This attention to the name of Christ should not surprise us for at least two reasons.
First, in ancient times in particular names had special significance, expressing the nature of the person as well as the promised hope that the name held forth for that person’s and even his community’s future. Adam’s name means “ground,” for he was taken from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7 actually says, the Lord formed the adam from the adamah). Adam named his wife “Eve,” meaning, literally, “to cause to live,” because “she was the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20). Eve bore a son and named him “Cain,” meaning “begotten,” because, Eve said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). And so we could continue examining names throughout the Bible.
The second reason we should expect an emphasis on the “name” of the Messiah is that the Bible emphasizes the names of those who were explicitly functional in the history of our salvation. At the end of Genesis 5, Lamech names his son “Noah,” which means “Rest.” Because, he explains, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen 5:29). In other words, there was the foreshadowing of hope that through this child the curse of sin would be broken for the world. Even more momentous is when God changed a name to point dramatically to his work of redemption. Abram, “Father of Many,” was changed by God to Abraham, “Father of Multitudes,” because God would make of him “a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5–6). Jacob, “Supplanter” or “One Who Replaces” was aptly named (Gen 25:22–26); but after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord God changed his name to Israel, which means either “Contends with God” or “God contends,” or fights (for his people; Gen 32:28).
Moreover, if the name of a child especially signals his or her identity and can even foreshadow how the child will be used by God, we should give special attention when God gives explicit instructions by what name the Messiah will be called. In fact, Matthew in particular structures the angel’s prophetic message to Joseph and the explanation that follows in a way that focuses our attention almost exclusively on the names the Child will be called. Appearing in Joseph’s dream to give him the assurance he needed to take Mary to be his wife, the angel says,[Prophecy] “She will bear a son,
[The Name] and you shall call his name Jesus,
[Explanation] for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21)
Matthew then explains, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:[Prophecy] Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
[The Name] and they shall call his name Immanuel
[Explanation] (which means, God with us) (Matt 1:22–23; cf. Isa 7:14)
By organizing the account in this fashion, Matthew leaves no doubt that the coming of this Child did indeed fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.
But Matthew offers us something else, too. The two names in particular—“Jesus” and “Immanuel” point specifically to the immanence of Christ.
The Immanent Name, “Jesus”
Immanence, of course, means that which is accessible in the physical world, that which is near us. That which we can hear and see and touch. Immanence is at the heart of the meaning of Christmas. The transcendent, Creator God, who is beyond our physical senses, who could have stayed distant and aloof in the heavenly realm, made his love known to us by entering our world and becoming one of us. As John says in his letter, the one who “was from the beginning” is the one whom “we have heard … seen with our eyes … looked upon … touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).
Basically, Jesus means “Savior.” The name Jesus is actually a shortened form of the name “Jehoshua,” which means “Yahweh is salvation.” In other languages the name Jesus is pronounced “Joshua,” Yeshua, or Jesús. To be a savior is to be a person who removes someone else from danger. And now the angel’s explanation makes complete sense. He shall be called “Jesus” (Savior), for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
There is, of course, so much to be said about this name! But why is it a name that speaks in particular to the immanence of Christ? The fact that, in Christ, God came near us? Three reasons.
1. “Jesus” is not a unique name.
In the first century, “Jesus” or “Joshua” was a very common name. It was a name like Bill or Bob or Steve or Sarah or Amy or Lizzy. “Jesus” is sometimes referred to as the Lord’s “human name,” in part because it was a name like other children had that Jesus grew up playing with.
Kevin DeYoung remarked on this observation in Tabletalk Magazine in 2011. He wrote,
When Mary and Joseph called their son Jesus, there were no prayers in His name. No one used it as a swear word. No one sang songs about this name, just as there is no religion I am aware of that sings songs to Jim …. We don’t name our sons John with the expectation that eight billion people will pray in that name over the next two thousand years. We don’t croon, “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, there’s just something about that name.”
So not only did Jesus become flesh and blood like us, he even took a name like ours! The transcendent Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, I AM, became, simply, “Jesus.”
And, yet, we now sing, All hail the pow’r of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall! For Jesus, though he was given a very human name, he alone among all of the other Jesuses or Joshuas of the Jewish world could actually live up to the meaning of his name in the most profound way.
In fact, the explanation, “For he will save his people from their sins,” is emphatic. The Greek text is more accurately rendered, “For he himself will save his people.” And that brings us to a second observation.
2. Jesus came to save “his people.”
Not merely “the” people. But his people. This is why the name is immanent. Jesus, Savior, came to save the people that he personally identifies with as his people.
Now, we might be tempted to think that the angel means Jesus’s own people nationally, i.e., the Jews. After all, John 1:11 says, “He came unto his own ….” But as you continue through Matthew’s gospel you soon realize that Jesus had not only a national concern, but also a global concern; from the journey of the pagan Magi to worship the Child (Matt 2:1–12) to Jesus’s charge in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).
So, “his people” may refer to anyone, Jews or non-Jews, who embrace the Messiah for salvation. He came to save us, his people. Jesus did not save us while holding us at arm’s length. He saved us by uniting with us. If you know the Savior, Jesus, you’re family. You’re “his people.” He is not ashamed to call you brother or sister (Heb 2:11).
3. Jesus saves from sin.
This observation doesn’t sound novel to anyone familiar with the claims of the NT. But if you were to ask most any Jews in Israel at that time what they needed to be saved from, they would no doubt have thought that the pressing need of the day was not to be saved from sin but from Roman oppression.
When the angel appeared to Joseph it was closing in on 60 years since the General Pompey had invaded Jerusalem to claim the city and its territories for Rome. During that political upheaval, a cunning young man named Herod had secured permission from the Roman government to act as Israel’s proconsul to keep peace in the region for Rome. And after some years securing his kingdom with the help of the Roman army who killed any opposition, he ascended his throne as Herod the Great.
What followed was a very fierce reign under a bloody king who would execute anyone who he deemed as a threat to his throne, even his own family members, including his wife and three of his sons. In fact, Caesar Augustus supposedly quipped about Herod’s reign that one would rather be Herod’s pig (ὗς, hys) than Herod’s son (υἱός, hyios)!
That is why when the Magi showed up in the capital asking, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews,” Matthew tells us, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3). In other words, the people of Jerusalem braced themselves for another panicked lashing out of the king. Who would die this time? (The sad answer to that question is found in Matt 2:16–18.)
But as terrible as it would have been to be living under the reign of Herod, salvation from Rome was not Israel’s biggest need. Their biggest need, and ours, is to be saved from our primary enemies, sin and hell and eternal death. And the only One who could have conquered those enemies for us and bring us into a right relationship with God is Jesus, our Savior. He laid aside his heavenly glory, became a human servant, and died for us, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5–8).
The Immanent Name, “Immanuel”
The name Immanuel in Hebrew literally means, “With us, God.” Im (with) anu (us) El (God). With us, among us, for us, here in our world of flesh and blood, of sight and sound and touch and taste, God himself entered. This is indeed the very essence if immanence.
I want to focus briefly on one idea here. Immanuel is not a proper name in this context. That’s why the Messiah did not go by the name Immanuel like he went by Jesus. Rather, this name does what names did at that time. The name Immanuel spoke to the significance of the person whom it described. When this child comes, God himself will be with us.
While God has always been “with” his people in the sense that he is watching over them, intervening for them, even manifesting his presence in miraculous ways, never before in human history until the birth of Christ has God himself actually been with us as one of us experientially.
John puts it this way in the magnificent words of John 1:
And the word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18, NKJV).
And because he is our Immanuel—God with us—he can do for us what no one else can. Hebrew 4:15–16, speaking of Jesus as our high priest, which he became for us through his death as a sacrifice, promises that we have a Savior who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. He urges, Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
So let us draw near to our immanent Savior this Christmas. Because his name is Jesus—our Savior. And his name is Immanuel—God with us. It is really too remarkable even to believe. And, yet, through belief we can know him as our divine rescuer and comforter. His names speak of who he is, and in those names we find all we need.