Matthew 1:23 - Emmanuel
What Trinitarians Say
Trinitarians often teach that this verse means that Jesus is supposed to have literally been God himself, who mystically came down to planet earth to enjoy life as a human being.
What We Say
This symbolic name may actually be rendered "God is with us," and does not intend to communicate that the bearer of this special name actually is God himself, anymore than the meaning of anyone's name literally describes what they are. Instead, this name represents the fulfillment of God's promise to be near to his people, as he certainly is through the person and work of Jesus Christ, his beloved son and perfect representative.
This refers to a special name given to Jesus at his birth: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23 KJV). It is important to note that this name can also be translated “God is with us,” as several popular translations have rendered it. This name, like many Hebrew names, is figurative. For example, Peter is given the name “rock” by Jesus in Matthew 16:18, not because Peter is a rock, but because the name is symbolic of the foundational testimony about Christ that Peter gave. This name “Emmanuel” was given to the Messiah as a sign to God’s people that he had not forgotten them or his promise to Abraham, and to describe the presence of God that would be with Israel through his Son.
The prophecy about this name is originally found in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” This prophecy was given to Israel in a time of great distress, when foreign enemies had completely surrounded her (Isaiah 7:2). In the midst of this trouble, God was sending a message to his people that he had not forgotten them.
When the Messiah was born, Israel was once again in a dark period of oppression from foreign powers, namely, the Roman occupation. In this difficult time, God provided the sign: “God is with us!” After Mary learned of the coming child to be called Emmanuel, she immediately sang a song which reflects the understanding that the name was given as symbol that God had remembered his promise to the children of Abraham: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors” (Luke 1: 54-55 NIV). After the child’s birth, he was taken to Zechariah who also recognized that it proved God had remembered to bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies” (Luke 1:71-74). Indeed, God had not forgotten them. He would now be closer to them than ever; through the word and work of his beloved Son.
The Bible says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), even his “exact representation” (Heb 1:3). Indeed, Jesus so perfectly demonstrated the character and power of God, that it could be said: “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (John 12:45 NIV). Jesus explained that he did nothing in and of himself (John 5:30), but instead “the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works” (John 14:10 KJV). Paul agrees in 2 Corinthians 5:19 “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Note that it does not say God was Christ. Instead, God was in him (John 14:10), and with him (Acts 10:38), and working through him (Acts 2:22). Jesus does not have to be God himself to manifest God among us. Through his beloved Son, his appointed representative, God came to his people to provide them with hope and salvation.