“Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23)
[December 20, 2009] Two weeks ago, we considered in John the divinity of “this One,” our Lord Jesus, as the divine Son and Word—who He in fact was before He became human. Last week we read in Luke the very earthy story of how the divine Word was born of a human mother. The “person” of God, God-face-to-face-with-God, became a Human Being: still in His personhood the divine face of God that faces God, but now embodied in the face of a Man who faces us. In His essence He is divine, but “personally” He fully participates in our human condition; He is human—the divine One becoming a human Body, a human Soul, a human Spirit. This does not mean that His divinity was reduced, but rather the created essence of humanity becomes as much the essence of the “person” of God who is face-to-face-with-God as His original divine essence.
In John’s Gospel we later will also later see that each “face” of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, dwell in the other, so that if the “person” of the Son fully participates in human nature, this becomes fully so for the other “persons” as well. For example, the Father does not die on the cross but fully participates in the Son’s death, as does the Holy Spirit.
So, theologically we distinguish between personhood and essence. God is three Persons, but as Persons They have one divine essence. The essence is undivided and indivisible; the Persons dwell in each Other as They share Their one essence. The Persons of God, about whom this is true, are free to participate fully—as Person—in our human condition of time and place, biology and soul and spirit, so that God (the face of God and not just the always and everywhere present divine nature) is fully Present within the creation. This is what happened when the Word became flesh in the womb of the very human girl Mary.
This Presence is far more real than the glory of God in the Old Testament, though the cloud of God’s presence was the proper “type” (a symbol, as yet unfulfilled) of it. This Presence is something that The Gospel according to Matthew is concerned with. In verse 23 Matthew gives the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 this meaning. God is not “with us” in merely a moral sense, as One who stands by us to help (though this is also true). God becomes “personally” Present so that in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) we “personally” (face-to-face, that is, with our own “face”) encounter God Himself/Herself (the “faces” of God are not always masculine: the gender of the Spirit in Hebrew is feminine, as is the personified Wisdom of God).
God becomes with us as “personally” Present in Jesus. Matthew brings this out in the beginning of his gospel (1:23) and at the very end he makes it clear that this personal Presence (in our human nature) continues: “And behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.” The “I am” (ego eimi in Greek) may already carry the allusion that we see those words having in The Gospel according to John. The continuing Presence of Jesus is the Presence of the One God. But it is nevertheless also the continuing Presence of this Person (this “face”) in the humanity of the Man Jesus. These two thoughts, Jesus coming into the world being Emmanuel (“God is with us”) and being “with you all the days” after the resurrection, two thoughts that are really one, frame The Gospel according to Matthew and thus become a clue to its central theme.
This constant and continuing Presence of the “I am” of God in Jesus is also brought out in 18:20, “Where there are two or three gathered into My name, there am I in their midst.” This statement is in the section of Matthew’s gospel that concerns the kingdom within the church. Jesus will build His church upon the foundation of that which Peter confesses (16:16, 18) out of the people who have come to Him, those who follow Him, who are His disciples, who are within the sphere of His Person. They are the “blessèd ones” of whom He speaks in 5:3-12. But His Presence to them is “the kingdom of God drawn near” (4:17). In that sphere of His Person they are in the kingdom of the heavens and the kingdom of the heavens bears on them, both for blessing (providence) and for judgment (accountability and discipline). The Gospel according to Matthew revolves around the theme of the kingdom, but it is the kingdom in this sense—of the Presence of Jesus among us, and in Him the Person of God confronting, encountering and being in relation to us.
The “kingdom of the heavens” is not then, first of all, a moral construct such as the way people think of justice, nor a temporal one as in the idea of the coming kingdom. First of all it is about the “personal” Presence of God in Jesus, and secondly it is about what happens when we enter into a “personal” relationship to Him, where He addresses us as Lord and causes us to we stand face-to-face with Him as “I and Thou.” This address is grace, for it brings, creates and establishes our relationship to Him. But it also goes beyond grace. It claims us within this relationship and makes us responsible.
Jesus the Son of David and the Kingdom of God (Matthew 1:20)
The coming of Jesus is the coming of the Presence of God to us. But it is also the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens. This does not take place in a vacuum, but happens within the relationship that Israel already has with God through God’s Word. The history of the Old Testament is a history created by Israel’s encounter with the Word of God that addresses and claims them, first in God’s relationship to Abraham, then in the Torah, and then in the prophets. The relationship that Israel has with God through the Word is personal. It is an “I and Thou” relationship. Yet the personal Presence of God is still only typified for them. Nevertheless it is typified, and those types anticipate and wait to be filled full. Jesus as Emmanuel is their fulfillment, transforming them to become indicators not of what the relationship anticipates but of the fulfilled reality of what had been anticipated.
Thus, the kingdom of David was not merely a (deeply flawed at times) historical accident, but it correctly anticipated something that would become real. It was merely indicated by the title “the Son of David.” The actual Son of David whom the title anticipated was the coming of the kingdom of the heavens. His Presence to Israel is the drawing near of this kingdom. He is the kingdom, and all those who enter His “personal” sphere enter the kingdom.
The “angel of YHWH,” who appeared over sixty times in the Old Testament, appears to Joseph and addresses him as “the son of David,” the only time in the New Testament when someone else besides Jesus is given this title. This is important because Jesus becomes the Son of David—and thus becomes connected to the history created by God’s Word in the Old Testament—by Joseph’s adopting Jesus as his own Son. Jesus is not Joseph’s biological son. But by Joseph’s marrying Mary (1:24) and naming Jesus at His bris (the brit milah, or circumcision; 1:25), he adopts Jesus as his legal heir. This attaches Jesus to the genealogy with which the chapter begins. “And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (1:16).
Though the kingdom that Matthew focuses on is “the kingdom of the heavens,” it is nevertheless the fulfillment of that which the kingdom of David was a crude but divinely originated picture. This “picture” of the kingdom of David is created more by the promises that the prophets attached to it that by its actual history. Yet it attaches to a real people—the Jews—by their real relationship to God. Jesus—the Presence of God—enters history as part of this reality.
Though the promise in the Old Testament alludes to the divinization of the whole creation, something unimaginable and which can only be described poetically, it attaches to the reality we know: concrete and particular people and places. Far from being antithetical to the concrete and particular, the glory of God can really only be touched in the concrete and particular. This is counter-intuitive. Because we think of God as perfect, God also seems utterly unworldly, and therefore as inhabiting something like a parallel universe (the supernatural) or as unreal. But in the incarnation, God becomes what we are. God enters time and place. Even though Jesus was a real human being whose body digested food and whose mind had to learn the alphabet, He was—as such—the Presence of God in our midst. He is the Son of David, attaching to the Jewish people and their history, to their constant faithfulness and their corresponding rebelliousness. It is in this particularity that Jesus meets us, not as an ideal or a mere example.
Because Jesus attaches to this particularity, He fulfills the type of Son of David and becomes the King of the Jews for the Jews. In the Gospel He steadily progresses in this role and calls Israel to account, eventually offering Himself up as the sacrifice that redeems them (“It is He who will redeem Israel from all its sins” (Psalm 130:8; see Matthew 1:21). In a way that is, I think, inexplicable to us Gentiles (we are outsiders), He has more to fulfill in His role as the King of Israel, the playing out of which awaits His second advent. But this role will be played out with these particular people—people who are in a special way His people. “The gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29; Paul with reference to his “kinsmen according to the flesh”).
Nevertheless, it is in this particularity that Jesus meets our particularity. As His “face” addressing us, encountering us, giving us a “face” with which to face Him—His being a “person” to us causes us to become “persons”—so the particularity in which He does this makes our particularity significant. What we are before God is our particularity—the particularity of our troubled lives, of our troubled emotions, of our troubled bodies. To God we are just what we are. God encounters us as we are in our own skin. There is no other “we.” Therefore any pious pretensions we adopt is actually a wall between God and us. The only relationship that we have with God is in the humble reality of what we are. Jesus became the “Son of David” to encounter us as God here and now, wherever we are, whatever we are.
The God who becomes face to face with us in all of our concreteness does so in order to love us. He does not do it to judge us but in order to love us (though judgment takes place). His love is relentless and no matter how much we fail Him, He does not let go. He does not abandon us. He will hold us in this relationship until He achieves His end for us—which is our joy. Our joy is not complete until we participate fully in all that God is.
*[The emphasis on our concrete particularity that we find in the Christian revelation may seem to contradict the emphasis in Eastern wisdom on our need to dis-identify with our sense of a separate self. In fact, there is no contradiction if both are understood. The separate self is not the “person,” nor is the separate self the reality of our particularity. It is a soulical construction. When we identify with it we do so in defiance of reality. The “person” as understood by Christianity is seen in the light of the Trinity in which God is One but not-one, Each indwelling the other in a communion of Persons who are face-to-face with the Other, the Other that is not-other. (When Christianity dogma uses the term “person” it means something entirely different than what transpersonal psychology means by the same term, which the way transpersonal psychology uses it is something more akin to the Biblical term “soul.” The way the Bible uses “soul” is in contrast to its use of “spirit”; both terms have a considerably different sense than what they usually have in our modern usage.) The light that the Christian revelation brings East is that non-dual reality is “personal” in this divine sense.]