The name “Jesus” was confirmed to Mary by the angel who visited her with the news that she would soon be with child.
The naming of a child in different cultures may follow various practices, but the significance is never in doubt. Sometimes, the name may reflect the circumstances in which the child has been born. My wife and I met a Chinese national who was named “Winter Rain” (in Chinese, of course). Her parents gave her that name because she was born in winter and on that day, it was raining.
More often, the name reflects the hopes and aspirations of the parents for the child. For example, adopting names of well-known personalities – from political leaders to geniuses to celebrities – comes with the desire that their children may turn out like these persons. Here, the expectation is not found in the meaning of the name but with whom it is associated.
Then, there are parents who embed meaning literally in the names with what they want to see their children become in future. This is especially so in names having specific meanings, like in the naming of Jesus. The uniqueness of Jesus’ case is that the parents were told what name they were to give Him.
Jesus and Immanuel
An angel told Joseph in a dream that the child was to be named “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21). Matthew elaborated in his gospel account by referring to a prophecy by Isaiah that the child conceived by a virgin would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).
The name “Jesus” was confirmed to Mary by the angel who visited her with the news that she would soon be with child. The angel elaborated what that name “Jesus” meant: He would save His people from their sins. “Jesus” or Yeshua in Hebrew is also the name Joshua (in Greek). It identifies Him as the Saviour of the world, although that mission would begin among His own people, the Jews.
“Immanuel” – God with us, in Hebrew – held a literal meaning. The birth of the child to a virgin was, in Isaiah’s prophecy, a sign that God would do what He had promised. Here, hundreds of years later, Matthew recalled this verse to declare that God, with the birth of Jesus, would once again be with His people.
In this case, the name was literal. In Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, God walked the earth and was present in their midst for a short span of time. But with the later outpouring of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, God is now always with us, His people.
Lord and King
To the shepherds out in the fields at night, they were told by the angel that the child was a “Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”. Thus, the saving mission of Jesus was again proclaimed, and in this instance, He was also identified as the Anointed One (Christos in Greek; Mashiach in Hebrew), chosen and empowered by God to free His people.
The wise men from the east, whose search led them to Jerusalem, identified Him as the King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2).
Names trigger a variety of responses. To the shepherds, hearing that name eventually led to amazement and rejoicing. To the elite class in Jerusalem and King Herod, the name aroused suspicion leading eventually to the slaughter of children.
The contrast in responses to the name of Jesus Christ carries on till today: from violence by anti-Christian fanatics, to indifference by believers and unbelievers alike, to passionate commitment by others.
Above every name
Over the centuries, Christians have discovered in the Bible many other names of Jesus: Lily of the valley, Counsellor, Prince of Peace and more. Paul sums up simply by saying that He is “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21, ESV).
To the Philippians, he wrote: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9, ESV)
Most of the names mentioned earlier in this article have a specific historical context and purpose for revealing who Jesus is in that instant in time. However, no name can confine Him or completely describe who He is. He is greater than what and who we can conceive. That reality eventually led Paul to declare that He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20, ESV).
A Christmas response
During this Christmas season, what would be your response to that name – Jesus Christ?
Would it be, for the first time in your life, to receive Him as your Saviour?
If you have been a Christian for some time, are you adding to your vocabulary of His names those that reveal the greatness of who He is to you?
“Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.”
Philippians 2:9, (ESV)
Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2012. He has been a Methodist pastor for 29 years.