A look at what it means to experience Immanuel—and a look at the alternative.
We don’t know his name or his background. We do know he was a criminal (Lk. 23:32). But as he hung between heaven and Earth on a Roman cross, something within him changed.
At first, he had mocked the Messiah crucified between himself and another robber (Mt. 27:44). But then he repented and defended Jesus, acknowledging Jesus’ innocence and then His eminence (Lk. 23:39–42). In simple faith (Heb. 11:1), the man made a request of the dying King of the Jews: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42).
Jesus replied, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (v. 43).
What Jesus told this individual, who had known only separation from God until that moment, encapsulates the full redemptive purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. The reason Jesus became Immanuel (“God with us”) is this: God came to be with us so that we might go to be with Him.
Personal and Relational
What does Immanuel mean? “God with us” implies more than God is on our side (Ps. 56:9; Rom. 8:31). It implies His presence. In one sense, God is omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at once (Ps. 139:7). But in another sense, His presence is more specific, more personal.
God is not a detached, impersonal force that created the universe and left. On the contrary, within His very being as a triune God, He is personal and relational and always intended to dwell with human beings.
Created in God’s image, Adam and Eve initially enjoyed a personal, unbroken relationship with the Almighty in the Garden of Eden. They truly could say, “Immanuel, God is with us”—so much so that Scripture describes God’s presence with them as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8).
The concept of walking leisurely appears elsewhere in Scripture to picture the ordinary, straightforward, intimate relationship that can exist between God and individuals (5:24; 6:9). When we have this relationship, the Father’s presence means that everything He has is ours (cf. Lk. 15:31). In His presence is “fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11).
Adam and Eve experienced Immanuel—until they sinned, and everything changed.
Adam and Eve then “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8), confirming a breach in the relationship between them and their Creator. No longer did God’s presence spell joy but, rather, fear, guilt, and separation (v. 10).
Adam and Eve’s sin cost them the privileged relationship and environment of Immanuel. God cast them out of His presence (v. 24). That separation and isolation, which the Bible calls death (both physical and spiritual), became the natural condition for Adam, Eve, and all their descendants to this day (Rom. 5:12).
The Bible says of God, “You, Yourself, are to be feared; and who may stand in Your presence when once You are angry?” (Ps. 76:7). The answer is no one. Contrary to what contemporary, feel-good culture tells us, God hates our sin. Our transgressions offend Him. Our iniquities separate us from Him (Isa. 59:2).
The state of separation from God’s presence should not be taken lightly because if we die in that condition, we will be separated from Immanuel for eternity (2 Th. 1:9). Instead of enjoying God’s presence, we will suffer in punishment.
The good news is that we don’t have to stay in our sinful state. God Himself has made it possible for us to be with Him forever by taking away our sin, thus providing reconciliation. It’s important to understand that we become reconciled to God, not God to us. We are the offenders, not He.
God, in His love, always intended to provide the means whereby we could be with Him again. As foreshadowed in the Old Testament, this work was consummated through His Son, Jesus, Immanuel (Mt. 1:23). “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Not only was God in Jesus, but God also was with Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38).
Jesus Himself said, “And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him” (Jn. 8:29). Jesus, therefore, not only was God in the flesh, but He also was Man the way God intended man to be—a human being walking with Him in perfect fellowship.
Through Jesus’ substitutionary death on our behalf and His resurrection and ascension into heaven, we, too, can walk with God. For those of us who have trusted Jesus alone for our salvation, “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:3). We need not fear hardships or challenges (Ps. 23:4). God’s presence will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5)—not in this life, and not in the life to come.
In fact, as believers in Christ, we already have the down payment of that promise through the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our “guarantee” (Eph. 1:14). In addition, Jesus Himself prayed to the Father that we might be with Him: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24).
The Final Deliverance
God’s plan has always been that we might be with Him throughout eternity. God’s ultimate Immanuel purpose will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns.
After He reigns on Earth as King of kings for 1,000 years, Jesus will deliver the Kingdom to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24). Then He and the Father will again reside with God’s people: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God’” (Rev. 21:3, cf. v. 22).
Unlike today, nothing will hinder us from knowing and experiencing God in all His fullness: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
No more will sin hinder our relationship with God; and “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Because of God’s presence, everyone will be at rest (Ex. 33:14).
How will we respond to this full disclosure of Immanuel? We will have exceeding joy and gladness (Ps. 21:6; Jude 24). We will enter His presence with thanksgiving and singing (Ps. 95:2; 100:2), and we will cast our crowns at His feet, worshiping Him, “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:29; Rev. 4:10; 5:14).
As the thief on the cross hung helplessly, his legs broken to hinder his breathing and hasten his death, he probably found solace in Jesus’ words. Jesus did not merely say, “Today you will be in Paradise.” He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43, emphasis added).
Paradise was surely an added bonus. Yet what must have meant the most to the thief was that he would be with Jesus. And so it will be with everyone who receives Him as personal Savior.