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God With Us? God forbid!

In Matthew 1.23 Matthew quotes the now notorious verse in Isaiah 7.14 saying:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel which translated means God with us.
This verse has been the subject of quite a bit of controversy. It has regularly been used as a proof-text to argue that the immaculate conception was prophesied by Isaiah of Jerusalem. Of course with the rise of more serious scholarship this view has been called into considerable question. Such an translation of that passage in Isaiah takes the verse completely out of context. Besides the Hebrew word for “virgin” that is used in Isaiah simply refers to a young woman that is old enough to marry. There is another word that literally means “virgin” in the technical sense and that word is not used. These scholars then go on to argue that Matthew misuses the Hebrew Scriptures to make the point he wants to make. So the debate rages between these and those committed to more traditional forms of Christian apologetics.
The thing is both sides miss the point. Matthew is not concerned with using this passage as a proof-text for the immaculate conception. Rather he is picking up on the Emmanuel motif as it is employed in Isaiah and applying it to Jesus' ministry. Let me explain that.
In Isaiah 7 the prophet goes to king Ahaz and warns him about trusting in the military might of the world nations for salvation instead of trusting in God.
In frustration he says that Ahaz should ask for any sign from God so that he will know that God is trust-worthy. Hiding behind false humility (which is really a cloak for his lack of trust) Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign. It is then that the prophet declares that the unknown (to the contemporary reader) woman will bear a child named “God With Us.” Yet there is a tragic irony at play here. Where before God's presence was being offered as the means of salvation (the prophet said to trust in God being with them for salvation), now God's presence has come to mean judgment. Because Ahaz rejects God the presence of God becomes a presence of harrowing judgment. God will still come but, because his people have rejected him, God's coming will be far from pleasant.
It is this motif that Matthew is appropriating. For the first half of his Gospel Jesus, as Emmanuel, is offering a way of salvation, a way of peace, to Israel. Yet they firmly reject Jesus' way and so increasingly in the second half of the Gospel, “God With Us” becomes a message of judgment. Thus, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple (that occur 40 years after Jesus' crucifixion) become inevitable. God comes, finds a rebellious people, and so his coming takes the form of judgment.
Of course this view is radically different than the traditional view announced by Christians, especially around Christmas, that celebrate the idea of Immanuel, God With Us.
I think we would do well to learn from this. Perhaps we should not be so quick to pray, “God come. God return to us.” Perhaps God is absent now because, given the current state of his people, if he were present he would only be able to be present in judgment. Maybe God's silence and absence are actually extensions of grace. Instead of praying for God to come perhaps we should be praying for repentance. We should be praying that we first return to being who we are called to be so that God's coming can be a glorious message of salvation and liberation.
After all, Jesus only comes after John the Baptizer first proclaims a message of repentance. Without John's work I doubt Jesus would have found even the few who embraced his message. So, as much as we long for Jesus to break in to the contemporary context I think we need to first heed the message of John the Baptizer.

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  1. Time for some introspection. I’ll take your words to heart.
    On another thought, do you think the destruction of Jerusalem was really tied to Jesus’ coming – a form of judgment imposed on them by God coming and not finding behaving appropriately? Or, was it a warning of things to come based on…(not sure why the temple was destroyed, don’t know the history)? The reason I ask this is b/c, is God’s judgment one of destruction? It is interesting that you present it this way considering your findings/hopes presented in your “hell” paper. Unless, it is different to talk about God’s judgment here and now vs. God’s judgment at the end of time or whatever.
    I guess I have a hard time thinking of “God with us” as the angry, destructive, judgmental God. I tend to lean toward that Jesus’ is warning people about the potential consequences of their behaviour in relation to others (or whatever happened in history to cause the destruction of the temple). It seems strange to think of that act as an act of judgment…do all acts of destruction become acts of God’s judgment then…where/how dow do you draw the line? But, you do have a much clearer understanding of the texts than me, so I’d love to hear more.
    And I thought you were going to say the irony for Ahaz lies in the fact that God’s judgment – in sweet reversal – is an act of radical love by Jesus, which vanquishes the powers of evil/humanity…
    Anyhow, just tossing out some thoughts and questions – not the throw away kind đŸ˜‰ .
    I do like the idea of repentance…it seems like that could be a real formative action, that is, it could help me develop some humility and create further wonder about God and life…I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for these thoughts.

  2. A few things:
    1- About the relation of the destruction of Jerusalem to mission of Jesus. I do think Jerusalem’s destruction is tied to judgment and here’s why. At the time that Jesus came the Jews were basically becoming increasingly attached to violent forms of nationalism. They believed that they were God’s chosen people and that if they fought against their oppressors (the Romans) God would judge in their favour, and vindicate them by overthrowing the Romans. Yet Jesus came speaking a radical message of peace and reconciliation. He claimed that his way was God’s way, and that destruction would inevitably befall those who followed the other route. Rome would crush those who rebelled. Thus, in the passages that contemporary readers totally misinterpret as addressing hell or the rapture or whatever, Jesus is actually talking about Jerusalem falling (two men walking up a hill… coming like a thief in the night… not one stone left unturned…). Indeed, when Jerusalem does fall Jesus’ person and message are vindicated. Of course, the theme of the vindication of the righteous is intimately linked to the theme of God’s judgment.
    2- This actually ties it quite well with what I said in my “hell/annihilationism/universalism” paper. I emphasised that talk of judgment in a destructive sense has to do with our contemporary reality – but maybe not with the final outworking of God’s plan. Judgment is being handed over to the consequences of the decisions we make in the here and now(ie. destructive forms of fishing and tourism deplete natural reefs and so when a tsunami strikes the destruction is that much more devastating). Ultimately I think God will free us from sin and its consequences once and for all. When that eschatological judgment takes place creation will finally be set free from all the consequences of sin and there will be no more room for destruction – as Revelation says, the final enemies destroyed are Death and Hades – but until then we live as a part of a groaning, broken world.
    3- Hopefully talking about the fall of Jerusalem in relation to the vindication of Jesus makes it clear how that was something of a unique event. All acts of destruction cannot be spoken of in the same way. All acts of destruction are acts of judgment only in the sense that destruction is a consequences of sinfulness. So rather than being providing us with a religious justification for destruction it makes it clear that we should not act destructively – for to do so is a manifestation of sinfulness.
    Make sense?

  3. It does and it doesn’t make sense. Point 2. makes a whole lot of sense. Point 1. does until you talk about the destruction of Jerusalem vindicating the person and message of Jesus…how so? Not sure what you mean? So the end of 1. is not clear to me, which means 3. is also not clear to me. Which also means your talk of “God with us” as God in judgment mode/version is still not clear to me.
    Damnit I’ve got a thick skull; speak my language baby.
    I’m failing to grasp the uniqueness of Jerusalem being destroyed. I mean Jesus did seem to warn of its coming, but it seems anyone pursuing violence against a much bigger violent power is going to be destroyed. What is more, violence seems to bring about destruction for everyone. And, is this not God’s judgment here and now! God seems to allow us to go our own ways, we choose the path of violence and destroy each other.
    Obviously I’m not grasping your main point still. Jesus as “God with us” does seem to warn about the wrath of God – the fact that God allows us to take our own destructive paths – yet Jesus does not enact or live this form of judgment. Jesus pursues a whole new road and opens up a new road for all of us. Hence I can’t see “God with us” as destructive judgment; “God with us” offers merciful, healing judgment, even here and now. I think?