Why Did Mary and Joseph Not Call Jesus “Immanuel”?
Approximately 700 years before the birth of the promised Messiah, Isaiah prophesied about a virgin who would “conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (7:14). Years later, the apostle Matthew referred to Isaiah’s prophecy, specifying once again that, “they shall call His name Immanuel” (1:22-23). Many have wondered why, if the promised Son of Mary was supposed to be called “Immanuel,” this name is never used in the New Testament aside from Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14. Why do we never read of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptizer, Peter, Paul, or others calling the Messiah “Immanuel”?
Thankfully, as so often is the case with God’s Word, the Bible is its own (and best!) commentary. To better understand what Isaiah meant by the name Immanuel, it is helpful to consider what the prophet wrote two chapters later. In prophesying about the Messiah, Isaiah wrote: “His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). Did Isaiah mean by this that the Messiah would literally have as His given name “Wonderful,” “Counselor,” or “Everlasting Father”? Surely, to ask is to answer. These names were given to describe the nature of the Messiah, not serve as literal, given names. As commentator Albert Barnes noted:
His [the Messiah’s—EL] attributes shall be such as to make all these applications appropriate descriptions of his power and work. To be called, and to be, in the Hebrew, often mean the same thing.... Such a use of a verb is not uncommon in Isaiah. ‘One calls him,’ is, according to the usage in Isaiah, as ranch as to say [the equivalent of saying—EL], he will justly bear this name; or simply, he will be (1997).
By nature, the son of Mary was “Immanuel” (John 1:1-3; 10:30,33; 20:28), but by name, He was “Jesus.”
A similar distinction between one’s nature and name is found as early as Genesis chapter two. Following God’s creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, the first man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23, emp. added). Although Adam said, “she shall be called woman,” one chapter later Moses recorded how “Adam called his wife’s name Eve” (3:20). Obviously, Adam meant that by nature the one whom God created from his rib was a female human, “a helper comparable to him” (though with noticeable differences and roles—3:18-23), but by name, she would be known as “Eve.”
Gabriel’s conversation with Mary prior to her miraculous conception is also helpful in gaining a proper understanding of Jesus’ name and nature. Although Gabriel did not use the term “Immanuel,” notice how he distinguished between Jesus’ given name and the titles by which He would be known as a result of His divine nature:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.... The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:30-35, emp. added).
Finally, Matthew further clarifies God’s use of the “name” Immanuel in the very passage he quotes—Isaiah 7:14. Immediately before and after Matthew reminds his readers of the prophecy regarding the Messiah’s name being “Immanuel” (1:23), he noted how Joseph would call (1:21) and did call (1:25) the Messiah by “His name Jesus.” The fact that Matthew wrote of the Messiah’s “name” being “Immanuel” in verse 23, but “Jesus” in verses 21 and 25, clearly shows that Matthew understood that one name (Jesus) was a given, literal name, while the other (Immanuel), similar to Jesus’ title “Christ,” characterized His essence.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Notes on the Old and New Testaments (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
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