Emmanuel: God’s Answer to Doubt
by Paul Goebel
And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
There is nothing more basic to the Christian experience than faith and doubt. It is a dichotomy that informs our Christian understanding and piety, and it can drive us to a deeper posture of worship or a greater sense of despair. John Calvin wrote of faith and doubt,
When we inculcate that faith ought to be certain and secure, we conceive not of a certainty attended with no doubt, or of a security interrupted by no anxiety; but we rather affirm that believers have a perpetual conflict with their own diffidence, and are far from placing their consciences in a placid calm, never disturbed by any storms. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol 1. III:II:17)
What does Calvin mean by this? Simply put, that the normal Christian life is filled with little doubts that accompany our faith. The frequent storms of this life—our circumstances, our mistakes, and our sins—give us pause. But sometimes this momentary doubt lingers beyond a simple pause. Doubt gives rise to panic; panic gives rise to bitterness; and bitterness gives rise to complete and utter faithlessness. At the center of this kind of faithlessness is the ultimate fear that God is no longer present in our lives. On this side of heaven our lives are accustomed with great tragedy. And while some tragedies affect us directly and others affect us indirectly, all tragedies affect us personally. When I learned of the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, my heart was filled with a mix of numbness, anger, sadness, and fear. And like so many people, these emotions led me to ask a question that is wrapped up in both faith and doubt: God where are you? The people of God have asked this question throughout biblical history.
Where is God? This is the question of doubt posed by the wandering people of Israel in Exodus 17:7: “Is the LORD among us or not?” Is God present? Is God still with us? In Exodus 17, the Bible records that the Israelites were camped in the middle of the wilderness with no water. They were tired. They were thirsty. They were filled with doubt. Their concern over their thirst caused them to question God’s provision and to ultimately question God’s presence. So they grumbled and they questioned God Himself. Their momentary doubts had become indefinite faithlessness. The final question posed at the end of verse 7 is the main theme of their story: “Is the LORD among us or not?” This question reveals the Israelites’ underlying doubt about the presence of God—a doubt that would eventually metastasize into the idolatry of the golden calf in Exodus 32. In this way, Exodus 17 is one passage in a grander narrative detailing a rebellion born of doubt in the face of the faithful presence of God. Moreover, Exodus 17 explains our own story of rebellion and it echoes our own questions of doubt. Is it not true that when faced with our own fears and doubts, we so often ask, “Is the Lord among us?”
This Christmas, we must remember that God has provided the answer to our questions of doubt. His answer is Jesus Christ. William Propp wrote that, “the question posed in Exodus 17:7 is answered by the Incarnation: Jesus is Emmanuel, ‘God-is-with-us’” (Exodus 1–18, p. 606). “Is the Lord among us or not?” This faithless question of the Israelites has been faithfully answered in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God incarnate. His name is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In Exodus 17:6, God commanded Moses to strike the rock with his staff and streams of water flowed in the desert. Ultimately, this is not a story about the faithlessness of God’s people, but a story about the faithfulness of God as it points to the greater Moses, Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul writes:
For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Paul identified the rock that Moses struck as Christ, and urged the Corinthians neither to grumble nor put Christ to the test as the Israelites did when they doubted God in the wilderness. Jesus Christ is the Rock from which the waters of rescue flow. This revelation that Jesus is the Rock from Exodus 17 is seen by His own words in John 7:37–38: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” In this way Jesus, who is God with us, is both our rescue and our provision. The Rock was Christ in that He was struck for our iniquities and bore the rod of judgment for our rebellion. The Rock was Christ in that He conquered death and rose again so that all who believe in Him would be given living water. In the person and work of Jesus Christ, God is for us what He was for the people in the wilderness—a faithfully present Savior for a faithless and rebellious people. He has answered our questions of doubt once and for all. Where is God? God is with us. For He sent His only Son Jesus Christ to take on flesh, to know our pain, and to die that we might live.