The Hidden Meaning of Jesus’ Name
Posted by foryourfaith on February 1, 2010
The name Jesus was common in the first century of the Christian era, and a tag such as “of Nazareth” or “son of Joseph” served to distinguish one Jesus from another. The name of Jesus comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh is salvation.” As the angel predicted to Joseph, “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). These words confirm something highly unusual: if the name Jesus (Joshua) literally means “Yahweh is the source of salvation,” then the angel is saying that Jesus himself will assume an activity hitherto assigned to God alone. Often in the Old Testament, Yahweh is said to raise up a “savior,” a purely human agent who will save his people. And, as God selects the human savior, his unique, divine authority is preserved.
In this light, it is significant that the name Christ comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew word, mashiah (messiah) which means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, the ruling king of Israel was often called the “anointed one.” David, for example, calls Saul “the Lord’s anointed.” Moreover, in later books of the Old Testament, a messianic king, descended from the House of David, is expected to lead a rejuvenation of the Jewish people. It is not until the time of the Second Temple that the Messiah was expected to oversee the end of days. The Jews of the Roman period believed that such a charismatic leader would rise up and break the yoke of foreign rule. Jesus was in fact one of many Jews of his period who was thought to be the Messiah who would bring redemption to his people.
Long before the Christian period, Jews had banned the pronunciation of the four consonants YHWH, the most sacred name of God revealed to Moses, known as the tetragrammaton. A secret pronunciation of the name may have been imparted by Jesus to his disciples which confirmed the meaning of the divine name as “He who is” or, perhaps, “He who causes to be.” The Gospels tend to substitute the word kyrios (“Lord”) for YHWH, following the practice of the Septuagint of the third century BC.
But perhaps the most basic confession of the early Church was “Jesus is Lord.” By taking up the most sacred name of God, by pronouncing it, and by accepting it as descriptive of himself, Jesus identified himself in a most radical manner with the full mystery of god’s presence in this world. So it was that in the writings of the Apostle Paul the name of Jesus became an expression of God’s presence and power (1 Corinthians 1:2, 5:3, 6:11).
Christians traditionally believed that God was fully present in Jesus’ words and deeds and conversely, that Christ, as depicted in the New Testament, was already present in the voice and activity of God in the Old Testament. In the opening sentences of the Gospel of John, Jesus is even identified with “the Word” that was with God before the creation of the world. Jesus acknowledges to God, “I have made known to them thy name.”
New Testament writers speak of activities done “in the name of Jesus” – for example, prayer, baptism, exorcism, receiving a child (Matthew 18:5), or even giving a cup of water (Mark 9:41). What these have in common is a sense of mystical identification with the power, authority, or glory that is associated with Jesus.