Matthew’s gospel both begins and ends with a marvelous declaration: God is with His people. Today, Barry Cooper meditates on the meaning behind one of the names given to Christ, “Immanuel.”
Twenty-nineteen is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. We’d gazed up at the moon for thousands of years, even worshiped it, and then, in 1969, a man actually walked on it. And the more I think about that, the more unlikely it seems.
I helped to make a short documentary about it. We interviewed an aerospace engineer and a retired pilot. And what became very apparent was the sheer logistical improbability of the whole thing. You can understand why some conspiracy theorists think it never happened.
Think of it. You’re trying to hit a bull’s-eye on a moving target, from a moving target, and you’re doing it using a rocket which will reach a speed of twenty-five thousand miles per hour while it deliberately breaks apart into three separate pieces. Then you’re getting out and walking around on who knows what, in an environment that will immediately kill you given half a chance. Then you’re planting a flag, turning around, and you’re back home in time for tea and medals.
And by the way, you’re planning and executing all of this with computers that are much less powerful than a single iPhone. Not the cool iPhone you’ve got now, but the clunky 2007 one. It’s mind-bendingly complex, not to mention extraordinarily dangerous.
But they did it.
And yet, one of those Apollo astronauts, James Irwin, said this: “The entire space achievement is put in proper perspective when one realizes that God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”
God walking on the earth. That’s what Matthew introduces us to in chapter 1 of his gospel. As he tells us about the birth of Jesus, he quotes a seven-hundred-year-old prophecy, and he says:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
“God with us.” Or perhaps, despite the way we usually read it, there ought to be a little incredulous emphasis placed on that last word: God with . . . us?
It’s common in religious circles to ask the question: “How can I be saved? How can I be reconciled to God?”
But perhaps a better way of putting it is this: “How can God be reconciled to me? How can He live with me, be with me, comfort me, love me, remain with me? Given who I am, and who He is, how can He be with me—even for a millisecond?”
This, of course, is the question that drives the entire biblical narrative. How can an infinitely holy God dwell with His people when they’ve constantly ruined themselves by rebelling against Him? Why would He even choose to dwell with them, given He has no need to?
But He does. God dwells in the midst of His people, first in the tabernacle—a temporary structure in the wilderness—and then later, in the temple built by Solomon. But as Paul says in Acts 7, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” These places of dwelling were temporary and symbolic. They were looking forward to a time when God truly would dwell with us.
That’s why John chapter 1 is such a lightning bolt. Jesus is spoken of like this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—literally, Jesus “tabernacled” among us.
Here, finally, was God dwelling with us. Immanuel.
In that moment, God was “with us” in a way He had never before been in the entire span of human history. And though, after His death and resurrection, Jesus returned to the Father, yet He left with us His Spirit so that we ourselves are now God’s dwelling place on earth. “Do you not know,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Immanuel! God with us!
There’s a beautiful bookending that happens in Matthew’s gospel. Have you noticed it before? At the start, Matthew announces that Jesus Christ is “Immanuel . . . God with us.” Then, right at the end, Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It is as if Jesus Christ is saying to His people as He goes: “Remember My name. Immanuel. God with you. Now and always.”
A reality infinitely more staggering than man walking on the moon is God walking on the earth. Even more than that, God making His dwelling among us. And even more than that, God making His dwelling in us.