Immanuel. God with us. This is good news, right?

In actuality, we often jump to the good news of Christmas without giving proper attention to the bad news. As a result, we blunt the mercy of the gospel and the magnitude of our praise.

Consider that the coming of a holy God doesn’t mean life for impure rebels; it means death. Just ask Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10), Uzzah (2 Sam. 6), or the Israelite exiles. If our sin prevents us from dwelling on God’s holy hill (Ps. 15), how much more should “God with us” strike us with fear—fear, that is, until we know how God turned bad news into good news by sending Jesus as our Immanuel.

Immanuel as Bad News

Throughout the Old Testament, the promise of “God with us” could be deadly. When God promised a virgin would conceive and bear a son (Isa. 7:14), it was first fulfilled at a time when his presence meant judgment. Isaiah records God’s approach to his rebellious people in the northern kingdom of Israel. In Isaiah 8:5–8, the Lord warns of water sweeping over Israel, threatening the nation of Judah too. Though God’s people have “God with them” (Immanuel), their sin disqualifies them from his blessing.

Verses 9–10 only continue the theme of judgment. Turning to the nations (“Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered . . . you far countries,” v. 9), the Lord scoffs at the concerted effort to oppose him. While his people receive judgment for their sin, so will the nations.

In historical context, “God with us” was bad news as long as sin remained. Though committed to doing his chosen people good, God’s history with Israel (and the nations) demonstrates the way sin undermines his good plans and renders “God with us” bad news.

Fortunately, Isaiah’s prophecy moves from judgment to salvation, from punishment to pardon. In Isaiah 9, the son of Isaiah 7:14 is explained to be a righteous son of David who will bring light into the darkness (vv. 1–2) and peace to the earth (vv. 6–7). The rest of the Isaiah’s “gospel” then explains how this peace will be procured—through the Suffering Servant and his atoning sacrifice (Isa. 52:13–53:12). In this way, the bad news for ancient Israel becomes good news for the world (Israel and the nations) when God sends Immanuel—Jesus—into the world.

Immanuel as Good News

In Matthew’s Gospel, it is striking to see how he explains the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. “All this,” Matthew observes, “took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22). “All this” points back to the three actions of Isaiah 7:14 (conceiving, birthing, calling), which are each given a narrative explanation in Matthew 1:18–21. In verse 18, the son is conceived in Mary’s womb by the holy power of the Spirit. In verses 19–20, God’s angelic revelation to Joseph explains how this son of David would become the adoptive father of David. Joseph’s Davidic heritage is highlighted to stress the Davidic identity of Mary’s son. Then the name of the son is given: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This name is curious because it doesn’t exactly match the prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 says his name would be Immanuel, but, literally speaking, that doesn’t happen. Instead his name is Yeshua, or “Yah(weh) saves.” Why the discrepancy?

The answer is found in what we’ve already seen: “God with us” is only good news if God comes to atone for sin. Had Mary’s son been called “Immanuel,” it would have left a question mark behind “God with us.” The name Jesus puts an exclamation point. As verse 21 says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

With Us and For Us

Yes, Jesus is “God with us.” But he is more than that. He is “God for us.”

Had Jesus come and taken the name “Immanuel,” Matthew’s fulfillment formula might have been more exact, but it would have been ambiguous. Sons and daughters of Israel would have asked: Is God bringing salvation or judgment?

By taking the name “Jesus,” though, God gave the answer to his people’s prayers. What he had promised long ago was now fulfilled in the birth of a virgin’s son.

This son would bring salvation from Israel to the nations. He would grow up to be the Suffering Servant who would give his life as a ransom for many (20:28); he would shed his blood to ratify a new covenant, thus securing forgiveness for his people (26:28); and he would gather disciples from every nation on the earth (28:19), uniting them in his church (16:18) so he could dwell with us forever (28:20). In this way, God is with us (Immanuel) because he sent Jesus to give his life for us.

Therefore, as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” let us not confuse the Lord’s visitation with the arrival of Santa Claus. God does not come to dwell with us because we’ve been good, but because he is good. And in his goodness he sent Jesus to ransom us from captivity to sin and make us ready to dwell with him, both now and forever.

This is the good news of Christmas, and the reason why Jesus is the name above all names.