Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel” (which means, “God is with us”).
If we needed a word to summarize the Christian faith, the Gospel of our salvation, we could perhaps choose Immanuel, “God with us.” In the beginning, God walked with the man He had created in the Garden. He continued to speak to Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah, despite the world’s increasing sinfulness. He made a solemn covenant to Abraham and his descendants, spending over 400 years working to give them a land, an identity, and a system of worship. He came to them in fire, in cloud, in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, and eventually in the Temple. Finally, He did the unthinkable and became Himself a human being, one of us. He lived among us, and we saw His glory. He died, rose, and ascended on behalf of us all, and poured our His Spirit to live in our hearts. The day is still coming when He will usher in the final fulfillment of His covenant with humanity—“I will be your God and you will be my people”—when God’s heaven and man’s earth will become one. Truly this is the story of God with us. This is the history of Immanuel.
If this is true, if Immanuel is really the theme of our faith, then naturally we should want to follow its logic and implications in our lives. Our theology and our practices should reflect how, in Jesus Christ, God is with us. But how that works for us isn’t always obvious. I personally believe there is a big principle of Immanuel which we don’t often reckon with. What is it?
Immanuel means love your neighbor.
How is this? What does “God with us” have to do with loving your neighbor, except maybe in the remote sense that both are taught in Scripture? Much in every way! In fact, there is perhaps no better reason to love your neighbor than the fact that in Jesus Christ, God Himself is with humankind.
See, Immanuel creates startling new ground for our relationship with other people. If people were just people, all tiny creatures sitting far beneath the creator God who holds Himself high above them, then there would be little reason to treat or see others with dignity, respect, or compassion. After all, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” Yet God does not hold Himself apart from mankind. Instead, God created a covenant with His created people so that He would be our God, not just God. Because of this we are valuable. Moreover, in due time, He climaxed that covenant by turning Immanuel into Incarnation, for it is written: “The Word was God…The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.”
This is the core of Christianity, and also the biggest reason to love our neighbor. God does not only come to us from outside of us to show us love. Instead, He became one of us. The Father sent His only Son to become a person like us. The Word of God became “like His brothers in every way,” and “since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these.” And if God Himself has become a human being, if the Father’s own beloved Son is one of us, then we know that humans seriously matter.
Remember this, for this is key. If God Himself has become one of our race, if the Father’s only Son is a human just like us, then there is no more important source of value for people. If we are going to love God, we have no choice but to love the race He became part of. If we are going to honor the Father, we must also honor His Son’s own people who share flesh and blood with Him.
Because of this, love is an inescapable imperative of Immanuel. Because God became human, we must love humans. Whoever doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Since in Christ “God with us” is fulfilled, and since Christ is a human being, how can we love Him without loving both God and people? We must obey the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in order to obey the first, “Love the Lord your God,” because with Jesus’ birth God Himself became our neighbor. And there is no greater way God could have given our neighbors worth than to become one of them.
All of this is why people matter, why we have to love them, and why not loving your neighbor is a sin against God Himself. Anything you do against people you do against the Father whose Son is one of them. Isn’t this the meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats? In fact, I think I’ll conclude by providing this parable from the Lord’s own mouth:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the 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, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger
and you took Me in;
I was naked
and you clothed Me;
I was sick
and you took care of Me;
I was in prison
and you visited Me.”
Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?”
And the King will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” Then He will also say to those on the left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!
For I was hungry
and you gave Me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me nothing to drink;
I was a stranger
and you didn’t take Me in;
I was naked
and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison
and you didn’t take care of Me.”
Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?”
Then He will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.