The Name His Father Gave Him

 
David Mathis | October 13th 2020

Naming a child is a big decision. So imagine the weight that would have been on Joseph’s shoulders that first Christmas.

He and his betrothed had been told—by angels!—that this otherwise inexplicable pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Indeed, this child, at last, was the long-awaited heir to King David’s throne, the so-called “Anointed One,” the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek). And Joseph and Mary were to give this child a name? And Joseph, as “the father,” would take the lead. What an awesome and sobering task.

But the angelic announcements relieved them of at least this one burden, and ensured there would be no confusion on that score at the first Christmas. As the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus. Yeshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.”

Jesus is the name he received at that first Christmas—and it’s a name that is wonderfully familiar to us. And yet, the New Testament also speaks in at least three other places of Jesus receiving another “name.” So what is this name—and how might it breathe fresh life into our worship of Jesus this Advent season?

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Reflections for Advent that help us to adore Jesus—the one who came to save us and make our futures certain.

His Inherited Name (Hebrews 1)

Hebrews 1:4, in the last great flourish of one single magnificent sentence  (Hebrews 1:1–4), celebrates that Jesus—in dying, rising, ascending, and sitting down—has become “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” The name he has inherited. What name is it that Jesus might inherit

On a first reading, we might think it’s Son. Verse 2 announces him as the “Son, whom [God] appointed the heir of all things,” and verse 5 quotes Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, which both speak of Israel’s king as God’s “son.” And yet Son is not a name. And besides, Son is not a title one inherits. By virtue of being a son, one might inherit, from a father, a first or last name. But the title son is not what is inherited. Rather, as Richard Bauckham observes,

it is because he is Son, as the angels are not, that he inherits his Father’s name, as the angels cannot. (Jesus and the God of Israel, 239)

And what, then, is his Father’s name? Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures will make the link with the often-repeated phrase “the name.” The Name — the one revealed to Moses at the burning bush. The Name repeated again and again in Israel’s stories and poetry, in its prophecies and psalms. The Name so holy — as holy as God himself — that many ancient Israelites dared not take it on their lips for fear of misspeaking or mispronouncing and inadvertently dishonoring this holiest of designations. The Name that appears more than six thousand times in the Old Testament and was read aloud in ancient Israel as Lord (Hebrew adonai) rather than take the risk to say it. The Name is not “Son” but “the name” of God himself: YHWH.

The name Jesus inherits, the Name of God, is (with vowels) Yahweh. The immediate context of verses 2 and 5 might point readers to Son, but when we expand our vantage, beyond the verb inherit, to the whole of this opening scene, the awe-inspiring reality becomes more plain. God’s personal name, Yahweh, is now conferred on his Son as he takes his seat in heaven.

"For Jesus to inherit his Father’s name is for Jesus to be the very revelation of his Father—his perfect embodiment"

His Newly Given Name (John 17)

Jesus himself, on the night before he died, in his high priestly prayer in John 17, spoke to his Father about “your name” which he says the Father has given him. What name would this be that is both the Father’s and now also the Son’s? Neither Father nor Son are the answer. Nor is Jesus. The answer is the name of God himself.

Three times in John 17, Jesus speaks to his Father of “your name” (verses 6, 11, and 12). He says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world” (John 17:6). In other words, the Son revealed his Father. He showed his people what his Father, and theirs, is like. So he prays in verses 11-12,

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. (John 17:11-12)

His Name Above Every Name (Philippians 2)

Hebrews 1 and John 17 indicate the name without saying it, and then in Philippians 2:9-11 we come to Paul’s clearest reference to the name. Having traced Christ’s self-humbling from heaven to human to obedience to death, even death on a cross (verses 6-8), he writes, 

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

For our purposes, the key question is, Are there two names here or one? Is “the name of Jesus” now “the name above every name,” or, like Hebrews 1 and John 17, might an unspoken name—indeed, the great unspoken name—also be in view here? Paul’s every-tongue confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” makes it plain. Remember, “Lord” (Greek kurios) is the stand-in for Yahweh. A fair summary of the Old Testament might be “Yahweh is Lord.” And how remarkable, then, that the central confession in the New Testament is now “Jesus is Lord”?

The Name They Didn’t Say

Attributing “Lord” to Jesus here shows us two names are in view. First, there is the name we don’t say—“the name that is above every name,” the enigmatic, yet revealed personal name of God himself. 

Here we are at the heart of good news almost too good to be true. Not only has the one true God acted in history to save his people, but he himself came in the person of his Son. Yahweh came. As the angel told Joseph, he has, in fact, acted to save his people from their sins, and he himself came to do it. Yahweh is “the name above every name,” the name that is “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:4).

And yet, strikingly, Paul here claims this “name above all names” no longer stands alone. Now another name, “the name of Jesus” has risen and ascended, not to rival it, but to be identified with it. To profess, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” is to make the declaration.

 

 

The Name We Do Say

Now, with glorious clarity and simplicity, there is the name that we do say, “the name of Jesus.”  That name now stands with and for and in the name we do not say—indeed, now the name “Jesus” even surpasses the unspoken name.

What is the significance of Jesus being given the name of God?  The significance for us, for the world, is that Jesus is the climactic revelation of God. One’s name represents his character, his person, his very identity, and all that is true of him. 

For Jesus to inherit his Father’s name is for Jesus to be the very revelation of his Father—his perfect embodiment, his great and enduring word to the world. In the words of John 1:18, “He has made the Father known.” Period. No qualifications. No need to rush in with edits and amendments. The Son reveals his Father so centrally, so substantively, so completely, so tellingly, that John writes simply, “He has made the Father known,” with no need to nuance it.

And so rightly have Christians learned to sing of Jesus as “name above all names” and “the sweetest name I know.” And we dare not keep it from our lips for fear of misspeaking it. He has freed us from those shackles. Yahweh himself has come in the person of his Son, and the name the angel told Joseph to call him that first Christmas, has now risen with him, and reigns with him, as the greatest name we know and say.

David Mathis is the author of The Christmas We Didn't Expect. These Advent reflections help us to lift our eyes to wonder of the incarnation and worship the one who came to save us and make our futures certain.

David Mathis

David Mathis serves as executive editor at desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church, and adjunct professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He and his wife, Megan, have four children.

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