What’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.
In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.
And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.
It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.
But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.
In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.
Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.
And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.
But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.
Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.
The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.
And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.
And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.
In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.
But what has all this to do with you?
Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the Gradual.
In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.
May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.
In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.