Of all the titles Jesus is given in Scripture, perhaps the most incredible is Immanuel (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). It is a familiar term around Christmas in North America. We see it emblazoned across greeting cards and hear it ringing in our ears through carols. And for good reason! Immanuel means "God with us," which is why we celebrate Christmas in the first place.
The Apostle John explained Immanuel like this: “In the beginning was the Word, an the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). No other religion can make such a claim.
Our God, in the second person of the Trinity, descended from heaven to earth and took on our humanity—what we call the incarnation—in order to save us. But he did not owe us this incredible visitation: it was completely an act of grace and mercy that flowed from his deep love for the world. He came to dwell with the ones he loved, and not only to dwell with us, but also to redeem us.
Unlike the founders of the world’s religions, Christ did not merely come to blaze a way to salvation or teach a way to salvation. He came to be the way (John 14:6). Immanuel gave his followers something unique—personal contact with their Creator and Redeemer. Other religions and cults, on the other hand, have no Immanuel, no “God with us.” Instead, they often settle for one of three options: (1) no God with us, (2) God is us, or (3) a God with us.
Islam: No God with Us
Islam teaches there is “no God with us.” Allah is so far removed from his creation that he would never—indeed, could never—condescend to us. Muslims believe that Allah’s oneness, his tawhid, is so absolute that the very thought of “God with us” is blasphemy.
The Qur’an is very explicit on this point, especially as it relates to Jesus Christ. The Muslim scriptures repeatedly deny that Jesus is the Son of God, which (naturally) disqualifies him from being “God with us” (Q 4:171; 5:116; 112:3-4). The Muslim is left with the vain hope that, perhaps one day, he or she may gain a little favor in Allah’s sight, but never in relationship with him.
Buddhism: God is Us
In Buddhism, everything from the smallest particle to the most powerful being is one. This idea is called monism, and it makes no distinction between the Creator and the creation. For Buddhists, God is us. There is therefore no need for him to come to us; the very idea doesn’t even make sense.
To some, the Buddhist conception of God may at first seem comforting, but it is far from it. Sure, you are God in your good times and in your joy, but what about in your bad times and sorrows? In your darkest moments, it’s just you. God cannot lift you up from your despair. Instead, you can only follow the cold, mechanical laws of the universe to help yourself.
Cults: A God with Us
Even religions that claim to be Christian but are far from the historic faith do not have a “God with us.” The Jesus of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), for example, is “a god with us,” but certainly not God himself. JWs believe that God, or Jehovah, created Jesus Christ first, then he created all other things through Christ. Therefore, JWs cannot really say that Jesus Christ is Immanuel, for he is merely a god with us. Essentially, God sent someone on his behalf, more like an emissary than a king.
Christianity is the only faith to recognize the truth that approximately two thousand years ago, God Himself, in the person of His Son, came to be with us. Christ, through whom all things were created (Col 1:16), came to undo the devastating effects of sin. He is able to empathize with us because he became like us and was tempted like us (Hebrews 4:15). Amazingly, due solely to his love and grace, he liberated us through the power of the cross and the resurrection.
As you reflect on Christ’s birth this Christmas season, give thanks for the One who secured your rebirth and pray for those who do not know “God with us.”
Kyle Beshears is a Ph.D. candidate in World Religions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama, where he lives with his wife.