Benny Nalkara, CMI
It is not only a matter of literary interest alone, but also a matter of theological significance that the Gospel of Matthew begins and ends with the Immanuel Assurance. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel,” which means, God with us (Mt 1:23). This adoption and adaptation of Isaianic Immanuel prophesy (Isa 7:14) by Matthew is found in the very first chapter of the Gospel where the angel of the Lord encounters Joseph, husband of Mary. And in chapter 28, the last chapter of the Gospel, Matthew concludes with the Immanuel Assurance – “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:20).
In 734 B.C., Isaiah brings a message of hope to Ahaz (735–715 B.C.), Judean king and nation beleaguered by their enemies and fearing the worst. The southern kingdom was confronted in 734 B.C. by a combined force of Rezin (750–732 B.C.) from Syria and of Pekah (752–732 B.C.) from the northern kingdom. Both the Davidic king and, consequently, the Davidic line faced imminent death. The message of hope is composed of a single prophecy with two parts, each having its own promise and fulfilment. This prophecy like all Messianic prophecy was not given in a vacuum. It had an immediate application to its first hearers many centuries before the birth of Jesus.
The book of Isaiah was the most popular of all the prophetic books among the earliest Christians and the Gospel of Matthew in particular presents Jesus’s ministry as largely the fulfilment of prophecies from Isaiah. Matthew’s application of the Immanuel prophecy to the birth of Jesus (Mt 1:23) and his use of the fulfilment formula leave little doubt how Matthew interprets Isaiah’s words. While trying to present to the believers that Jesus of Nazareth is the same promised Saviour, the evangelist attempts to introduce him as the Immanuel- “one who is with us.” The name Immanuel is the answer to the question,“who was Jesus?” in history. Jesus is the testimony to the fact that God dwelt among us. The name Immanuel is the message of the life of Jesus. He is the God who saves human beings and dwelling with them. He is the last word about God available to the human beings.
Jesus, the Immanuel radically redefined the picture of God that was carved in the minds of the Jewish people for centuries. He presented God as the merciful and loving father who is with us through His words and deeds of mercy. By replacing the terrifying picture of a God who watches over and punishes everyone, He revealed Him as a forgiving and generous God. Jesus, in a vivid manner revealed that God is no more a celestial being. He is the one who can sympathize with us, who can rejoice with us. This God is the one who suffers with us and liberates us from our suffering through His self-emptying love. That was the essence of the Immanuel Assurance and Jesus lived out it through His life.
The Immanuel Assurance is not a one-time event in history. It is an assurance with everlasting impact.In the end of the gospel Matthew reiterates it: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:20). The apostles and the early Church experienced this Immanuel Assurance during its times of turmoil in the first centuries. They realized the fulfilment of the Immanuel Assurance by Jesus – “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 12:20) in the koinonia of the early Christian communities. The presence and the empowering of the Holy Spirit in their lives always gave them the feeling that their life was enveloped by Jesus Christ.
The disciples of Jesus are called to re-enact the Immanuel Assurance in the world today. “The God being with us” experience is to be transmitted through the self-emptying love and unfailing availability of the followers of Christ. The emancipating and empowering works of the believers must give the poor, the suffering and the oppressed the feeling that the Immanuel is with them. Jesus, when He said the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Rich man and Lazarus was revealing this truth to us – the redeeming and healing God is no more a celestial being, but He, the Immanuel is to be represented and re-presented by each one of us.