What's In a Name?

Names are important. All of us like to be called by our names. It indicates recognition and even friendship. We are annoyed when someone gets our name wrong. We are embarrassed when we do not know or forget the name of someone we should know. When others make fun of our name or deliberately mispronounce it, we are insulted. In many cultures, including the biblical, names have even greater meaning than in our own. They may reflect the hopes that the parents had when the child was born, or the admiration that they had for an ancestor or relative or friend, or some personal characteristic that they perceived in the infant.

Jan. 1 is New Year’s Day. In the church calendar it is also called the Octave of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God and the World Day of Peace. One theme that runs through all the Scripture readings is the “name.”


The Old Testament reading contains the priestly blessing from Num 6:22-27. God tells Moses to tell his brother Aaron to tell his sons (the priests in ancient Israel) how they are to bless the people. This ancient prayer invokes the distinctive Israelite name for God, Yahweh in Hebrew and Lord in English, upon the people three times. It asks for divine protection, divine favor and peace. This prayer is especially appropriate for New Year’s Day and for the World Day of Peace.

Jesus seems to have had a special name for Yahweh, the God of Israel. That name was Abba, an Aramaic word meaning father. It is how young children address their fathers in the streets of Jerusalem today. Many sayings in the Gospels suggest that Jesus thought of and addressed God as Abba, and invited his followers to do likewise. In its historical context the title implies personal relationship, dependence and respect.

In writing to the Galatians, Paul took the notion of God as the Abba of Jesus, and extended it to describe the distinctive status that those who are “in Christ” have as adopted children of God. As children of God we can share in Jesus’ special relationship with God and call upon God with the name Abba.

According to Luke 2:21, Jesus was circumcised and received the name Yeshua eight days after his birth. The name is a form of Joshua (“Yehoshua”) and derives from the Hebrew verb yashah (“save”). It means “Yahweh saves.” Implicit in this name in the Old Testament context is the theological claim that the creator God, the lord and sustainer of all, has entered into human history, established a special relationship with a people and promised to save them from their enemies.

While this name was fitting for Joshua, it was especially appropriate (though not unique) to Jesus of Nazareth. As Christians we believe that through Jesus God’s saving power has extended beyond the land and people of ancient Israel to encompass all humankind in matters of the Spirit. We believe that through Jesus we have been freed from the dominion of sin, death and the Law, and freed for life in the Spirit. We believe that “God saves” us in and through Jesus. His name accurately reflects what we believe about the one who bears it.

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