Too often we seem to misunderstand the purpose of salvation. Most of my life growing up I would have argued with you that the reason we are saved is so that we can go to heaven when we die. But that is misplaced for a variety of reasons. Consider that, when Adam and Eve sinned and were punished in Genesis 3, the problem was not that they were removed from heaven—the problem was that they were removed from the presence of God. Salvation, then, is not intended to get us to heaven, it is intended to get us to God. Heaven is a benefit of the gospel, not the point of the gospel.
The Promise of Immanuel
This matters for so many reasons, but one of them has recently gripped me, and it relates to the title of Jesus as “Immanuel.” The word immanuel means “God with us”. It is a promise, more than it is a proper noun. Jesus wasn’t named Immanuel, but his presence signified the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us. Tragically the concept of Immanuel has become one primarily relegated to Christmas. I say this is tragic because I think the concept of Immanuel is the hope of the gospel, and ultimately, one of the primary focuses of the entire bible.
When Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden, they experienced separation from God. From that moment until the time that Jesus returns, the thing that the scripture affirms as our hope is the presence of God with us. At the end of time, according to Revelation 21, the hope of our ultimate eternity is that God will be with us in every possible way, and that will remain unchanged forever. Immanuel, then, is the sum and substance of the entire Christian hope.
As a pastor, I am often asked why bad things happen to good people. While we understand that there is no such thing as a good person—as the Bible reminds us, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard—I understand the point. Why does God allow difficult, painful things to happen to those who are trying to honor him, and those whom he loves? Truthfully, I don’t know. I have multiple Bible and theology degrees from multiple institutions, but I don’t know. Yet, interestingly enough, God doesn’t promise us the answer to that, even as he promises us that we can walk through those days with hope.
Consider the iconic passage found in Psalm 23:4, “Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me….” This passage reminds us that our hope in the darkest moments in life is not that God is strong, and can do anything he wants, though that is true. Our hope is not that God is wise, and he has all the answers, though that is also true. Our hope is, instead, that God is present. He is with us. In a word, he is Immanuel. This is our confidence. It is a reminder that we do not have to have the answers, or even that everything has to be fixed, for us to have confidence in God and for us to trust him.
Why do bad things happen to people who love God deeply? I don’t know. But Immanuel is a reminder that the greatest prize of the gospel is not that we get what we want, or that life is always ok. No, the greatest prize of the gospel is God himself. God is with us.