Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be named Emmanuel?

Q. In Isaiah, the Messiah’s name is Emmanuel. Why did Gabriel say to call the baby Jesus?

“The Annunciation” (detail), Bartolomé Murillo, 1665-1660. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announces that she’s going to give birth to the Messiah, and tells her to name the baby Jesus.

This is a bit of a puzzle, particularly since the Bible calls direct attention to the difference in names.

According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” In other words, he will be the Messiah.

According to Matthew, an “angel of the Lord” also appeared to Joseph and told him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” The angel refers to Joseph as “son of David” to show that he’s in the royal line of Judah and that as his legal (though not biological) son, Jesus will be in that line as well and so can be the Messiah.

But Matthew then adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.'” So how could the prophesy have been fulfilled that said a virgin would bear a son named Emmanuel if the Virgin Mary instead named her son Jesus?

The issue depends on what it means for a Scripture to be “fulfilled.” Let me quote here from another post on this blog that addresses that specific question:

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

So, to summarize, instead of being named Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” Jesus actually is “God with us.” That’s the deeper meaning of the earlier statement that can be recognized as God carries out the plans he announced.

And the name “Jesus” itself is not without significance. Mary and Joseph were told to choose this name precisely because of its significance. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or more specifically Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

So Jesus is “God with us,” as the prophetic name Emmanuel indicates, and he does save us from our sins, as his actual proper name describes.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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