In the midst of the glorious 90’s, Joan Osborne released a song that asked the question:
“What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus / Trying’ to make his way home”
That song has two really bad aspects. One, the melody is super hooky and immediately gets trapped in your head. You find yourself singing it in the shower days after and it can only be removed by replacing it with something equally as earworm-y like “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Somebody That I Use to Know.” And then the cycle starts again.
Secondly, and most importantly, the whole thought that God is a slob on a train is just kind of depressing.
But, isn’t Joan Osborne simply mimicking the thrust of Matthew 1:23? That’s the verse that says:
“...and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us.’”
Is this 90’s pop record actually a backdoor Christmas song the same way that Die Hard is a backdoor Christmas movie?
Personally, I don’t think so.
Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think we need to examine the word “with” a little more closely to fully understand what God is actually trying to speak to us through Matthew 1:23. The initial read, of course, is that “with” means “physical proximity — instead of God just being in Heaven, He’s come to Earth to dwell amongst the mortals. I don’t think that’s an incorrect reading. In fact, God has promised us His constant presence multiple times through scripture. Hebrews 13:5 says:
“God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Joshua 1:5; 1 Kings 8:57, 1 Chronicles 28:20, Psalms 37:28, 94:14; and Isaiah 41:17, 42:16.
He walked with Adam in the Garden, He dwelt with the children of Israel as they travelled out of Egypt, He appeared to Moses in a burning bush. I mean, by the time we get to Matthew 1:23, God being with His children isn’t a new concept. So, why is it significant?
The word “with” in Matthew 1:23, in the Greek, is a very forcible particle that means much more than merely “in the company of.” It also adds the concept of having a “close rivet, bond, close fellowship, emotionally, spiritually and physically.” This word “with” means that we’re just not standing next to each other, but we’re actually a team, “united in purpose and commitment to one another.” God isn’t just with us, He’s with us.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diminish the wholly awesome aspect of “physical proximity.” As Joan Osborne alludes, God sending Jesus to Earth necessarily meant that would God not simply be in physical proximity to us, but in physical proximity as a mortal human being. This is wildly significant and literally awesome. In fact, Charles Spurgeon once wrote:
“God is peculiarly and closely “with us.” Now, think for a while and you will see that God has, in very deed, come near to us in very close association. He must have done so, for He has taken upon Himself our nature, literally our nature—flesh, blood, bone, everything that made a body—mind, heart, soul, memory, imagination, judgement, everything that makes a rational man. Christ Jesus was the man of men, the second Adam, the model representative man.”
Imagine Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, coming out of his luxury penthouse, strapping on pads and running out to join his team on the field and actually playing in the game. If that happened, that would no doubt be the lead story on Sportscenter and every sports blog in the country.
That’s what is interesting about Joan Osbourne’s song — God is riding a bus with us! That’s weird and cool and kind of crazy, right?
However, just because God was physically with us, we can never be found guilty of trying to pull God down to our fallen, human level. Isaiah 55:8-9 clearly tells us that God, the Most High God, is well above us in every way:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither your ways my ways.”
That didn’t stop when Jesus arrived. When Jesus came to Earth, He didn’t just fall into our fallen way of existence like He was on some cosmic Undercover Boss episode. He came as an example to show us how a physical man can, through faith and relationship with God, live the way we are called to live and accomplish what we are called to accomplish. He proved that, with the power of the Holy Spirit, the life God calls us to and promises us is actually possible and attainable. The word “gospel” means “good news.” And guess what? That’s the good news!
So, His physical manifestation on Earth and Him living victoriously in a fallen world shows us the game of life isn’t rigged against us. That, my friends, is a big deal.
Remember, though, that the word “with” goes a step further and communicates that there’s also a unification of purpose. In other words, think of it as if it says, “God is with us — and for us.” God is not just here riding a bus with us, or walking around judging us, or simply showing off how much better He is than us. No, the reason that He sent His son to be with us is that He’s actually rooting for us to win!
In Luke chapter 2, after Jesus is born, the angels announced:
“...Peace on earth and good will toward men.”
God’s willingness to physically send Jesus to us shows that there is no more enmity between God and Mankind. There is no more divide, no more anger, no more arms-length interaction. The angels could have just as easily announced, “Jesus is here! Everything is all good between God and His children.”
Again, Hebrews 13:5, says today — not 2,000 years ago — God is constantly with us. However, depending on your view of God, that may not be a good thing. If your view of God is that He is still angry at you, judging you and just waiting to slap you down with a cosmic backhand the first time you mess up, you (justifiably) probably don’t want God with you. But once you understand that God sent Jesus (and then His Holy Spirit) because He not only wanted to give us a blueprint on how to live, but also because He wants us to know what He’s constantly rooting for us, it changes your perspective on His presence.
God with us means that the Creator of the Universe is cheering us on, giving us tips and advice, consoling us when we’re sad, lifting us up when we fall, protecting us when we’re in danger and teaching us new things so that we can succeed. God with us means that He’s not hovering above us; He’s beside us, united with us in purpose and commitment. He’s on our team! When you are conscious of His presence in this light, you will experience a peace that gives you rest, joy inexpressible in your spirit and a power that nothing in this world can offer.
“God with us” doesn’t mean that “God is just like us.” It doesn’t mean that He’s a slob on a bus going home after a long day’s work. Instead it means that “God is better than us, but is here anyway, helping us and loving us and showing us how life is actually done.”
Admittedly, this doesn’t make as hooky of a song melody. But, for me, I’ll make that truth over a hook any day of the week.