What’s God like? We think we know. God is the sovereign Creator and Lord. His ways aren’t our ways. He’s eternal, we’re in time. He’s high, we’re low. He’s powerful, we’re weak. He knows all things. We know almost nothing. “What is God?” asks the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And it answers: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
All that’s true, but it will mislead us if we miss the center. In the fullness of time, God unveiled himself and showed his character in full, in Jesus. If we want to know what it means for God to be sovereign Lord and Creator, we need to look at Jesus and to keep looking at Jesus. We need to remember God is Immanuel, God-with-us.
Immanuel is the name the angel gives to Jesus, the name of the Savior. The Savior is God himself who comes to be with us. “Immanuel” tells us God doesn’t delegate his dirty work to a subordinate, to some exalted seraph or menial angel who needs an assignment. When creation is filled with sin, violence, injustice, and cruelty, the Creator doesn’t recoil in disgust. He doesn’t flip a heavenly switch to make everything right. He doesn’t keep his holy distance. He comes into the middle of the trash-world we’ve made of his good creation to clean it all up. Immanuel enters this Godforsaken world to share our Godforsakenness and to bring us back to himself. As Paul writes, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That’s what God is like.
God is not prissy. God is not proud. “Immanuel” means God repairs the ruin of the world by humbling himself. The high One shows just how high he is by taking the lowest seat. Sometimes the Lord comes in glory—in a fiery cloud on Sinai, in a pillar of fire in the wilderness, surrounded by blazing angelic chariots and horsemen. Not when he comes as Immanuel. When he comes to be with us, he doesn’t enter the world in a blaze of light, astride a winged stallion. He comes inauspiciously, in weakness and dependence. “Immanuel” means God is with us in our very flesh. He doesn’t recoil even from becoming one of us. He doesn’t despise Mary’s uterus. He doesn’t refuse to become a man, or to live a human life, or to die a human death. Immanuel is the God who became baby and dwelt among us. He lived and suffered all we live and suffer. He knows creation, he knows humanity, from the inside. Immanuel reveals the breathtaking humility of God.
Jesus Immanuel is the eternal Word of the Father, the clearest, deepest revelation of the character of God. If you have seen me, Jesus tells Philip, you have seen the Father. Jesus shows us how God is sovereign, all-powerful Lord. He’s so utterly wise that even his foolishness confounds human wisdom. He’s so completely sovereign that he remains sovereign Lord of all even as he lies, crying for his mother’s breast, in Bethlehem’s manger. He is so powerful that his weakness is stronger than men. Tie both his arms behind his back, nail his hands and feet to a Roman cross, yet he remains all-conquering Lord. N. T. Wright puts it well: To say Jesus is God is to make a remarkable statement about Jesus. It is also to make an astounding claim about God.
“Immanuel” means God stays with us. Jesus has ascended into heaven. We can’t see or touch him anymore. But he poured out his Spirit, who lives in each of us and among us. Jesus is still with us by his Spirit, and he won’t let us go. Even in his absence, he remains present. In all times and places, the chorus of St. Patrick’s lorica is true:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
He’s with us in our sin and brokenness, in our joys and triumphs, in our failures and sorrows. Nothing we can do can make him recoil or leave. He won’t be God at all if it means being God-without-us. He’s determined to be God only as God-with-us. No matter what it takes or what it costs, he’ll stay with us. He will go to hell and back—he has gone to hell and back—to be Immanuel.
That’s what God is like.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This essay is adapted from a homily delivered at Immanuel's inaugural service.
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