“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:22-23, NIV)
When Jesus was born to the virgin Mary in Matthew 1, his birth was the fulfillment of a promise God had made centuries earlier in Isaiah 7:14—that a son would be born to a virgin and that the child would be named “Immanuel,” or “God is with us.” It’s incredible to think that this specific detail of the birth of Jesus was written down hundreds of years before it happened! Usually I don’t even know what I’m going to have for dinner each night, much less what will be happening in a week, a month, or 700 years later!
When God gave this promise in Isaiah, it has an immediate context and a Messianic context. It was a real promise given to a real person who lived during the time of Isaiah (around 700 B.C.) But in addition to being specific to their context, it was also a powerful Messianic prophecy’s predicting a key detail of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Today, most Christians associate “Immanuel” with the story of Jesus birth—the Messianic context. But reading the original story in its immediate context (the book of Isaiah) helps us understand the promise of “Immanuel” in a new light.
And to tell that story, I’d like to introduce you to an unlikely Christmas character: King Ahaz of Judah.
King Ahaz of Judah
Ahaz ascended to the throne of Judah (the southern portion of Israel) at the age of 20. Crisis soon followed, as he faced numerous threats of invasion from neighboring countries. Typically, Kings who honored God and led Israel on the right spiritual path were blessed by God with protection from their enemies. Unfortunately Ahaz wasn’t a very good king. He practiced idolatry, desecrated God’s temple, and even sacrificed his own son (see 2 Kings 16).
The promise of Isaiah came during a time of crisis. Faced with an overwhelming military invasion, Ahaz had little hope of survival. God appeared to Ahaz and encouraged him to trust God, stand strong, and not be afraid. God would protect him (despite his obvious sins) if he kept his faith. Knowing that Ahaz might not be convinced, God told Ahaz to come up with an impossible task that God would perform to prove his power.
Ahaz wasn’t willing to play along, so God told Ahaz he could come up with the sign: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). The promise of Immanuel was a promise that God would protect his people, despite their imperfections. All they had to do was trust in the Lord.
The initial attack was unsuccessful, which should have prompted Ahaz to fully trust in the Lord. Instead, Ahaz gave into his fears and turned to a foreign nation for help. To make it even worse, Ahaz plundered gold and silver out of the Temple of the Lord and used it to buy off a foreign army for protection. What a dramatic, heart-wrenching display of spiritual infidelity.
The Promise of Immanuel Today
Today, we’re a lot like Ahaz. We have all fallen short of the glory of God, and we’re faced with all kinds of trials and difficulties in our life. Even though we haven’t been perfect, God is still offering to guide us, protect us, and save us—if we trust in him.
And like Ahaz, we have to decide if we will stand strong in our faith, or give in to our fears. Trusting God to save us in times of crisis isn’t easy, but he’s given us a demonstration of his mighty power to save: Jesus Christ—Immanuel—born to the virgin Mary. Today, the promise of Immanuel is a promise that God will always be with us, no matter what storms come our way.
And his presence in our lives gives us all the confidence we need to stand strong in the face of uncertainty.
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