Mary was going to “bear a son,” and Joseph was commanded to name the baby “Jesus.” In our day names are mere labels, but in biblical times they pointed to the actual character and destiny of the individual.
Some of the native tribes in Mexico have a concept of “face” and “saving face.” When a child is newly born, they say it has “no face;” i.e., the face they believe, is something that the develops out of the child’s life and experience. As a result, a native does not like to “lose face” for he has spent his entire life developing it. This is similar to the Biblical concept of a “name.” Like the concept of “face,” the “name” of many Biblical characters developed out of their experience and accomplishments.
An Ordinary Name
This is especially true of Jesus. Jesus is the Greek from of the Jewish name Joshua and is a name which underlies His real humanity. It is holy and sacred to us, but in the New Testament times it was one of the most common of names. At least five high priests had the name. In the words of Josephus there appear about twenty people with the name Jesus. So many others had the name that people frequently added descriptive phrases, such as “Jesus, from Nazareth” (Matt. 21:11). Yet in the Gospels it is the name most commonly used of our Lord, being used of Him almost six hundred times. It is the name by which He was discussed among the people, and it is the name by which they addressed Him.
An Appropriate Name
The Hebrew name Joshua was a sentence name, and in its longer form it meant “Yahweh is salvation,” and in its shorter form it means, “Yahweh saves.” It was the kind of name given to a child by devout believers in the God of Israel. But in this case the name is chosen not by the parents, but by God Himself. Every time that Mary and Joseph called Him name (“Joshua!” or “Jesus!”) the gospel was proclaimed: “Yahweh is salvation!” “Yahweh saves!”
Great stress is placed upon the name Jesus in Matthew’s account. It is a name with rich Old Testament associations. Joshua was the successor of Moses who led Israel into the Promised Land (Josh. 1-12) Another Joshua, a high priest and contemporary of Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2), reestablished the temple sacrifices in the land. So this name identifies Mary’s son as the One who brings in Yahweh’s promised eschatological salvation. The Jews of Jesus’ day waited for such a deliverer – a new “Joshua” who would redeem Israel from Roman tyranny.
The great question for Matthew is “Who will inherit the kingdom?” The genealogy in Matthew 1:1-16 with its references to Abraham and David might have suggested that Jesus was such a nationalistic, political leader. In fact, the angel’s message to Mary in Luke 1:32-33 indicates that Jesus will one day rule over Israel as their king. But the angel says nothing of that to Joseph. Instead, he anticipates the teaching of Jesus who will say in Matthew 20:28 that “He will give His life as a ransom for many.”
Before the kingdom is inaugurated in the end-time, this Joshua – Jesus, the Son of Mary – must focus on what really matters: salvation from sins. The problem of Israel was not essentially Roman domination. It was their estrangement from God by their sins. This is true in every age. The problem of America in the twenty-first century is not the racial problem, nor weak educational programs, nor dysfunctional families, nor nuclear stockpiles, nor sexual confusion – although all these are symptoms of the problem. The problem is sin, which is the basic cause of all these other calamities. The problem of mankind is that it has not bowed to the great doctrine of original sin – a doctrine slain by human contempt, but documented in every newspaper, magazine, and television news program that we see. This Joshua, this Jesus, the virgin’s son, shall confront the greatest problem of mankind: its sins.
The angel says that Jesus will save “His people from their sins.” To Joseph that would mean the people of Israel. As the Gospel of Matthew develops, however, we learn that “His people” includes not only the believing remnant of Israel but believing Gentiles as well (cf. 3:9, 8:11). The angel does not just say how Jesus will save His people, but it becomes clear later in the book. He saves them by offering Himself as “a ransom for many” (20:28). It is at His crucifixion that He shed His blood “for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28).
We should note that the angel says “He [Jesus] will save His people.” The personal pronoun “He” (autos) is emphatic. The Bible is clear that “salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9); i.e., it is God who saves. Yet here it is Jesus who saves. In the Gospel we learn that Jesus is entirely human, yet here we see that He is also “thrillingly divine.” He is a human Jew; He is also divine Lord – “Immanuel,” the “God with us” who saves.
A Meaningful Name
We would do well to reflect further on the name “Jesus.” And here I am going to follow the remarks of the great London preacher, Charles Spurgeon (1834-92).
First, let us remember that it is a name divinely given and explained. It is a superbly appropriate name, for God the Father chose it. It is true to the Lord’s person and to His office as Savior, and when we use the name in our praters to the Father we have the assurance of His attentively listening.
Second, He was called “Jesus” by men. Although appointed by God, it was accepted by men. Both Joseph and Mary united in calling the child this appointed name. And ever after those who are instructed by God the Spirit call Him Jesus, recognizing that Christ is the only source of salvation.
Third, it is the name typically worn by the Old Testament captain of the Lord’s host. Above I mentioned Joshua, the son of Nun, who led the people of Canaan, slaying Amalek, overcoming Jericho, and routing the Canaanites. It was a common name, as we noted earlier, because the Jewish people looked for saviors, but found none until Jesus came. Now the name is reserved for Him alone.
Fourth, the name Jesus identifies Him with His people. He would not be Jesus (“Yahweh is salvation”) if He had no people to save. And all of His elect people cannot get along without His salvation. The first link with Christ is not our goodness, but our sins; not our merit, but our misery; not our righteousness, but His grace.
Fifth, the name Jesus indicates His chief work. It is striking that people write of Christ who know nothing of His main work. To have known John Milton, but not as a poet, is not to have known the essence of the man. To have known Albert Einstein, but not as a scientist, is not to have known his greatest accomplishments. There are those who say they know Christ the teacher, but not as Savior. They do not know the Jesus of the Bible at all.
Sixth, the name Jesus is completely justified by the facts. The name was given to Him before He was born. Was it justified? Listen to a Christian on a deathbed sing His praises. Listen to a former drug addict, or alcoholic, or self-centered middle-class American who has been saved tell his story. Jesus saves people from their sins. As Spurgeon says, “Earth knows it, hell howls at it, and heaven chants it…. Time has seen it, and eternity shall reveal it.”
Mr. Spurgeon one day passed through a cemetery and noted a gravestone that read: “Sacred to the Memory of Methuselah Coney, Who Died Aged 6 Months.” Methuselah is the Old Testament character who lived 969 years (Gen. 5:26-27). No doubt the parents of Methuselah Coney had grand designs for their boy, but the little fellow’s life contradicted their hopes. Unlike little Methuselah Coney, Jesus’ name is completely justified by the facts.
Finally, the name Jesus is Christ’s personal name forever. It is the name His mother and father gave Him. It is the name above His cross – “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). It is the name of the resurrected one proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, “This Jesus God raised up again” (Acts 2:32). It is the evangelist’s theme – “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). At the very end of the Bible He promises, “Yes, I am coming quickly,” and the apostle answerers, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev.22:20).
This is why the name of Jesus is so important. And that is why Paul, in his great passage on the humiliation of Christ, exults, “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…” (Phil. 2:9-10). It was Bernard of Clairvaux (A.D. 1090-1153) who said that the name of Jesus was honey in the mouth, a melody in the ear, and joy in the heart. One of our great hymns puts it this way:
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.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of Journey Magazine.
Dr. David MacLeod received both a Th.M. in New Testament Literature and Exegesis and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Since 1983 he has taught Biblical Studies and Theology at Emmaus Bible College.