Immanuel: Judge Among Us

In a wonderfully uplifting passage, Matthew heralds the good news of Jesus’ birth (1:18-25). He is the Son of God, born of a virgin, and conceived by the Holy Spirit.

This was an important teaching to stress in the early church. Many religious people in those days believed that God would anoint a special leader—a messiah—who would save the Jews from Roman oppression, but they missed two vital points. First, God had always intended that this leader would free them, not from political bandage to some earthly power, but from spiritual bondage to sin (Luke 24:21-27). And second, this Person would be greater than any military or political leader. He would, in fact, be fully God and fully man (John 1:14; Philippians 2:7-8).

To show his Jewish readers that this was what God had planned all along, Matthew quotes an ancient prophecy: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This name, Immanuel, means “God with us.”

How does this apply to our lives today? We might think of intimacy and closeness. There, in the land of Palestine, God walked and talked with us for the first time since He had walked and talked with Adam and Eve back in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8). We might also be comforted by the knowledge that God has lived among us and suffered with us and for us (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). Because Jesus experienced the physical pain of earthly life, and the spiritual pain of temptation, He is eminently suited to be our Intercessor—to represent us before His father in heaven (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).

There is another image that is not so comforting: this Immanuel came to judge. This Immanuel is more like the master of the house in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). As Jesus explains in this story, the master entrusts his servants with certain duties. When he returns, some have done what they were supposed to, some have not. It is the same for the Son of God. When He comes to earth in the form of man and lives among a people chosen by God, He finds that some have abandoned or corrupted the duties that God had set before them. Just as the master comes among his servants, finding some worthy and some unworthy, so Immanuel comes among his people and finds some worthy and some unworthy.

We see this theme of judgment come up time and again in the Gospel of Matthew. First, we see that God is Judge among the Jews. When the Jewish leaders came to where John was immersing people for the remission of their sins, he gave them the following warning: “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Jesus uses the same imagery in His famous Sermon on the Mount and in addressing the Pharisees directly (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33). To drive His point home, Jesus demonstrates this judgment on a real fig tree (21:18-19). Immanuel had arrived to judge those people who counted themselves as upstanding members of the Jewish religion, but who had corrupted God’s teaching and opposed His Son.

Second, God is judge among the church. Jesus is not Immanuel in flesh alone. He continues to be with us. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name,” Jesus taught, “I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). At the close of the Great Commission, in the very last verse of Matthew, Jesus promises His disciples that He would be with them “always, even to the end of the age” (28:20). If Jesus continues to be Immanuel—continues to be “God with us”—then He stands ready to judge the church. The church, as the new fig tree, has yet to face judgment, but it will be judged.

This is a sobering thought. Just as mere descent from Abraham was not enough to save a Jew, so mere birth into the Lord’s body through baptism is not enough. Each one of us must continue to bear fruit. Jesus issues the following warning to those who might count themselves as His disciples: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

In other parables taught by Jesus and recorded by Matthew we see that the Kingdom of God, which is the church, will be a mixed bag. Its citizens will consist both of…

  • useful wheat and worthless weeds (13:24-30, 36-43)
  • good fish and bad fish (13:47-50)
  • obedient servants and wicked servants (24:45-51)
  • wise, well-prepared wedding attendants and unwise, unprepared wedding attendants (25:1-13)
  • productive stewards and lazy servants (25:14-30)

Where are we in all this? Are we wheat or weeds? Are we a good catch for God, or not? Are we obedient or disobedient? Are we well-prepared for Christ, or not? Are we doing what God has instructed us to do as His servants, or not?

Finally, Jesus as Immanuel will stand as judge of all humanity. When the disciples saw Him ascend to heaven, they thought that everything had come to an end, that Jesus would be among them no more, but they were mistaken. An angel had to assure them with these words: the same Jesus “will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). When He comes again, for one last time, it will be to judge us all. Listen to the words of Jesus, again as recorded by Matthew:

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left…. Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:31-33,41)

The idea of Jesus as Immanuel can be comforting. Christ lived among us, eating our food, sleeping in whatever bed He could find, talking with us, playing with our children, healing our sick, saying “No!” to temptation. Ultimately He went to the cross for us, but even then, He came back from the grave to be with us. This is the Jesus we find so easy to love. This is the Jesus we can praise in song. This is the Jesus through Whom we pray. But the Son of God also is among us as Judge. If we are Christians loving God and doing His will (1 John 5:2), then we have every right to focus on the comforting picture of Immanuel. But whether we believe we are saved or not, if we fail to love God and keep His commandments then we must be prepared to face the terrifying specter of Jesus as Judge among us.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Upon the Rock, July/August 2005.]

© 2005 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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