The names of persons in ancient times, and especially among the people of God, were significant. When given by the parents, they were expressive of what they, the parents, designed either to symbolize or to commemorate. When given by God, they were a mode of revelation. God's giving to the Son of the virgin the name Immanuel was a revelation of the fact that God was to be with us. In what sense is God said to be with his people, or with man?
Immanuel expresses the general sense of nearness. God is, of course, everywhere, but he is said to be where he especially manifests himself as present. He is not far from any one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being. This kind of nearness is common to all creatures, and especially to all rational creatures.
It expresses the general sense of favor and assistance. When we say, "The Lord be with you," we pray that he would aid and sustain those whom we address. The psalmist says of the Lord, "He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Ps. 16:8). This name of the Messiah was therefore a promise that God would be with us in the sense of showing us his favor. What the angels afterwards announced, "Peace on earth and good will to men," was foretold in this prophetic designation.
All the ways and senses in which God, for Christ's sake, is said to be with us or favorable to us, it would be impossible to state. (1) He is reconciled to us by the death of his Son. Christ has brought us to God. (2) We are not only reconciled, so far as his justice is concerned, but we are the objects of his love. (3) He is everywhere present by his Spirit to aid, counsel, and comfort. (4) His providence is ever over us and watchful. The Lord is with us, at our right hand, around about us, near as a light, as protection, as strength, as consolation, as the infinite portion of the soul.
God with us expresses that union which is effected by the Incarnation; for it was because of the miraculous birth of this infant, more fully explained by the annunciation of the angel to the Virgin Mary, that the Holy Thing that was to be born of her was the Son of God. It was because the human and the divine natures were to be united in one person in that child that he was to be called Immanuel.
This union brought God and man into the most intimate fellowship in the person of Christ. But it did not stop there. It brought God into a relation to man such as he sustains to no other creature. It is such a relation: (1) that a divine person can say, we are one, i.e., of one nature; (2) that he can call us brethren;
(3) that he can sympathize with us; (4) that what is done to us is done to him; (5) that he lifts our nature above that of angels; (6) that he forever remains in this relation, filial, fraternal, conjugal, with his people.
God with us means that he dwells with us and is in us (John 14:17). In virtue of the Incarnation as a preliminary condition, and of the indwelling of the Spirit, Christ lives in his people. That is, he is the source of their spiritual life. The thoughts, feelings, and actions which belong to that life are due to this peculiar relation between him and us. He is with us intimately, perpetually, and everlastingly. It is a union nearer, dearer, and more lasting than any other.
Our great duty therefore is: (1) to live worthily of that union ourselves; and (2) to endeavor to bring others to enjoy its blessings.
Consult the following passages and meditate upon them:
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) taught systematic theology for about half a century at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. This article (penned in 1862) comes from the volume Princeton Sermons: Outlines of Discourses Doctrinal and Practical, first published in 1879. Hodge quotes the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2003.