The Names of Jesus #1 . . .

"Give Him the Name Jesus . . ."
March 8, 1998 / Matthew 1:18-21

How did you come to have your name? Were you named for a family member? A dear friend of your parents? Some celebrity? If you have children, how did you choose their names?

The choice of a child’s name is quite important to most parents. Some names just won’t do. Judas Jones, Jezebel Smith, Adolf Hitler Williams — surely nobody in his right mind would attach those names to a child! It would be a cruel and irresponsible thing to do. On the other hand, people have been known to do some pretty weird things in selecting the names of their children.

When the time came for God to put the wheels in motion to bring his grand Scheme of Redemption to fulfillment, the naming of the child born at Bethlehem was not left for others to decide. The infant born in an animal stall was given a name from on high that would pledge and foreshadow the work he would accomplish.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:18-21).

The Name "Jesus"

Jesus is the Greek form of the Old Testament Jewish name Yeshua. In English, most of us know the name better in its biblical form as Joshua. This Hebrew name was translated into Greek for the Septuagint as I_sous, from which we get our transliteration Jesus.

In its older Hebrew form, the name means "Yahweh is salvation" or "Yahweh rescues." It testifies to the power and love of Yahweh. It points all who hear it to look to the Lord for help and redemption. The oldest name known to us that contains the divine name Yahweh, it affirms the uniqueness of Israel’s God as the one in whom humankind may safely trust for salvation. It declares that there is no one worthy of comparison to Yahweh. No other name offers what his name promises.

Once a very common name, the name Jesus had become rare as a personal name by the end of the first century. By that time, it had come to be associated with one man to the degree that it was deemed uniquely his. That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, or the Lord Jesus. The name came to be held in such deep reverence by Christians that they reserved it for him alone. And unbelievers, whether Jew or Gentile, avoided the name because of its unique association with the one Christians confessed as their Christ and Lord. Here is why that happened. Here is why the name Jesus came to mean something more than its respected etymology and history.

The Name as Theological Statement

When the name Jesus was used in the context of Jesus’ birth as related by Matthew — a Jew writing the most Jewish of the four Gospels — the writer was aware of all the Old Testament background we have just traced. He knew the significance of names given to important figures in God’s sovereign agenda in history. So he certainly did not miss the significance of the angel’s words to Joseph, when Mary’s husband-to-be was told, "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

What significance would Matthew have seen in those words? What did he mean for his readers to see in them? Most simply stated, the theological significance of Matthew 1:21 is that the angel’s words "attribute to Jesus what was formerly reserved for God."

Whereas the name Jesus had heretofore meant "Yahweh saves," the birth of the child Jesus would hereafter affirm that "Jesus saves." It was as if the angel had said this to Joseph: "Joseph, you have always believed that salvation comes from Yahweh. Certain of your forebears have even testified to that fact by wearing a name that says as much. But in the unique child that Mary will bear, God will be personally present and personally active in saving people. For you and Mary, then, know the heavenly mystery that Jesus is heaven’s instrument for salvation to all who will believe in him. God will save all who come to Jesus and receive his favor. This child Jesus will be, in his own person and deeds, the savior to whom others have testified and for whom they have longed!"

Jesus is Israel’s covenant God, Yahweh, come among us. Jesus is — another name-title Scripture applies to him — Immanuel, God with us (cf. Matt. 1:23). For Christians, then, the name Jesus does not point beyond the historical person of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem to an invisible, enthroned deity who can save — as Joshua’s name did. To the contrary, it names the one in whom God became visible, incarnate, and accessible. It names the one in whom alone we can be rescued from sin. As Peter would later declare to the Sanhedrin: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

A Gospel Event

Jesus was in Capernaum, and quite a crowd gathered to hear him. The house in which he was teaching a few people quickly became a house that was packed full. And that created a problem for four men who had a friend who was paralyzed. The friends — if not the man himself — had heard of Jesus’ miracle-working power and wanted to them to meet. Their obvious hope was that the paralyzed man would be made whole.

Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"

Jesus always pointed people from their immediate perceived need to their larger need for salvation. Do you remember his conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well? (John 4:1ff). She had come to draw water from the well, and Jesus engaged her in a conversation about "living water" that led to her salvation — and the conversion of many more people from her village. As great as this man’s need for bodily healing was, Jesus knew that his — and everyone’s! — greater need was for spiritual healing. So Jesus’ first response to the great faith he had just witnessed was to invite the paralyzed man into the peace of forgiveness.

Before Jesus could go further with the man, his comment about forgiveness stirred many of his hearers to negative thoughts. "Why does this fellow talk like that?" they were saying to themselves. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Here is a case where Jesus’ critics had their premises right but their conclusion wrong. They were absolutely correct in their belief that God alone has the right to forgive sins. They had also heard and understood Jesus to have claimed the right to forgive sins himself when he addressed the paralyzed man. Only one of two conclusions was possible for them to draw: Jesus was either (1) God on earth or (2) guilty of blasphemy. They drew the second conclusion rather than the first.

Jesus asked, "Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?" In order to understand his question, emphasize the word "say" as you read it. Of course forgiving sins is a greater, harder, and far costlier thing to God than healing legs. It was going to cost Jesus his life on a Roman cross! But in terms of merely "saying" those two things in that house on that day, which was easier? As a matter of fact, saying "Your sins are forgiven" was easier than "Get up, take your mat and walk" because the latter was testable in a way the former was not. The matter of forgiveness might never get beyond Jesus saying "They are forgiven!" and his critics replying "No they aren’t!" And that could have gone on endlessly. If he told a paralyzed man to get up and walk, though, he would be revealed — either as a heaven-verified man in all he said (including forgiveness and identity) or as a fraud.

So Jesus turned to the man, told him he was healed, and sent him home. The once-paralyzed man stood up, picked up the mat on which he had been carried, and walked out through the crowd. Jesus wasn’t a fraud. He was a healer. He was a truth-teller. He was anything but a blasphemer in saying he could forgive sins. He was deity among humankind who could save people from their sins!

Another way of saying all this about him is simply to quote the angel’s words to Joseph: "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Yes, Yahweh saved. And he does so in Jesus. That is why the church in Acts and believers today preach salvation "in the name of Jesus."


The very name of Jesus proclaims his deity. It declares that God loves us — not from a great, safe distance but — up close and personally. It means that we understand much more now about God’s nature and saving work. And it means that we can know God.

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