When people hear that a baby has been born, one of the first questions that they ask is, “What is the child to be called?” This is a matter of unfailing interest. It is one of the inevitable demands that having children of our own, makes upon us—to give the child a name.
Among us it is common to look back or look around and to call the child after somebody. It is more Eastern and particularly more biblical to look forward, and to call the child by a name which will have some significance and fulfillment in his life, as our Lord re-named Simon, and called him Peter.
Further, to the God-fearing and the spiritually minded, it was sometimes the practice to look up, and by a name given or adopted to express faith in God, and sometimes to register new and special relation to God. So, after Jacob’s encounter with the angel of God, his own name was changed to “Israel” and he called the name of the place “Peniel” (see Genesis 32:24-39). Or again, at a time of great national peril in Judah in the days of Ahaz, a mother called her child “Emmanuel”. Thereby she expressed her faith that there was hope for the future both for the child and for the nation because “God is with us”. This, said the prophet Isaiah, for those who have the faith to embrace it, is a sign from God, a sure promise that God will save his people (see Isaiah 7:1-16).
This last sign was, as we know, in the purposes of God to have a more distant and far greater fulfillment in the birth of the long-expected Messiah. Let us then consider what we are to learn from the name given to the babe of Bethlehem. Let us consider by what name Christians call him, and why. Let us then seek to discover from the Scriptures some significant truths concerning his name “Jesus”.
- i) His name was made known by revelation. Joseph and Mary did not choose it. They were guided to God to the right name. This indicates a truth which applies to us all. Left to our natural judgment, none of us would give this baby the right name. When He was born the only people who appreciated who he really was were those divinely enlightened. Similarly, if I wanted to see and know the real truth about the babe of Bethlehem, I must ask God to open my eyes.
- ii) His name was to be understood from Scripture. To those who knew the Jewish Scriptures the name “Jesus” in its Hebrew form “Joshua,” was a familiar one. It was a name of outstanding significance, specially given to its first holder (see Numbers 13:16). By adding a divine prefix to his original name, Moses suggested that Joshua was the man whom Jehovah would use to save his people. Certainly it is true that this name “Joshua” stands out in the Old Testament as the name of leaders of God’s people at the times of the two great entries of God’s people into the promised land, first in the original conquest of Canaan, and centuries later in the return of the exiles from Babylon (see Deut. 31:23; Ezra 3:1-2). The fresh naming of a child by this name suggested, therefore, that the time and the man for a new activity of divine redemption for his people had arrived.
(iii) His name explained as (a) indicating his work, and (b) disclosing his person. (a) The angel said to Joseph, “Thou shalt call his name ‘Jesus’; for he shall save his people from their sins”. His work was to save the people of God. Israel’s day of redemption was at hand. This salvation was to bring not material prosperity and earthly empire, but moral purity and peace with God. It was to be a salvation not of the earthly Jerusalem from the Roman oppressor, but of the souls of men from the bondage of sin. (b) Also, the angel did not say that his name meant that Jehovah would use Jesus to save Jehovah’s people; but that this Jesus would save his own people. There is no distinction of two persons; the human agent and the divine author of salvation, the human deliverer and the divine Lord of the people, are one and the same. To those who have eyes to see, therefore, these words mean that this Jesus is God himself come in person to save his own people. He is the true Emmanuel—God with us. So, says the evangelist, the sign, given in the days of Isaiah, with a limited temporal reference as a token of faith in God and his deliverance of his people, finds in this child its perfect and final fulfillment as the right name for God incarnate, the personal divine deliverer. This “Jesus” is our “Emmanuel” (see Matthew 1.22, 23).
(iv) His name believed in by his people. Our personal attitude to this name as his name is one of the practical tests of our membership in the company of his saved people. For those who find deliverance and life are those who “believe in his name.” His name Jesus sums up for us as nothing else can both who he is and what he has done, and, therefore, what he is to us. This name tells me that he is God, the Saviour. Rightly to call him “my Jesus” is to acknowledge him as “my God and my Saviour”. This is something each believing soul must do for himself or herself—to call his name Jesus. Have you celebrated not only his birth, but also his death and resurrection and exaltation to the throne by calling him this—your Jesus?
Finally, is it any wonder that Charles Wesley longed for a thousand tongues to sing:
“Jesus—the Name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears;
‘Tis life and health and peace.”
Or do you wonder either that he went on to pray:
“My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim
To speak through all the earth abroad
The honours of Thy Name.”
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 28 September 1961. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.