Today’s Gospel passage gives us a double name for the Child that is born in Bethlehem. In the first instance, it says: She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus and later, quoting the Old Testament, we read: And they shall name him Emmanuel.
How do we understand this passage? Or what is the nature of these two names? There is no problem inusing the names Jesus and Emmanuel for the same person, but we need to understand the reason.
Names held far more importance in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time than they do in ours. In that culture, a name was believed to be a descriptor of the actual character and destiny of an individual.
The name, Jesus, is not mentioned in Isaiah 7:14. The explanation for the name, Jesus, is given in the second part of the verse: “for he will save his people from their sins.” The emphasis is that Jesus is the One who will save His people. The introduction of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew’s narrative is initially as Son of David, Christ (Messiah), the One who has come to fulfill the promises of God.
The natural expectation regarding the significance of salvation, “he will save,” would be that it refers to a national-political salvation, involving deliverance from the Roman occupation. Jesus had indeed come to save His people—the very meaning of his name in Hebrew, Yeshua, a shortened form of “Joshua” (Heb: יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, Yĕhôšuaʿ) – is “Yahweh is salvation.” But here the change of meaning surprises us, since it is in the context of the salvation that the Son of David will bring, namely, that He will save His people, “from their sins.”
In this way, the name of Jesus refers to the nature of the mission of the Messiah: to save His people, both Jews and Gentiles.
On the other hand, the author uses the other name: Emmanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 8:8, 10). Indeed, this is not a personal name, but rather a name that is descriptive of the task this person will perform. Bringing the presence of God to humanity, He brings the promised salvation—which, as Matthew has already explained, is also the meaning of the name Jesus (v. 21b). “They” who will call him Emmanuel are the ones who understand and accept the work He has come to do. Matthew probably intends the words of Jesus at the end of his Gospel—“Behold I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20)—to correspond to the meaning of “Emmanuel.”
Following the sense of what was said before and, in the context of the Gospel of Matthew, it is not only the presence of God that will be until the end of the ages, but also the salvation wrought by God.
One name complements the other, the plan of salvation cannot be accomplished without the presence of God among His people. Salvation and presence, presence and salvation are related and complementary.