December '19 / January '20 Magazine

What's in a name?

The news of the arrival of a baby changes everything. A new life is imminent and preparations have to be made. Practically, there are decisions about cots, car seats and clothes. Emotionally, for the family, feelings will range from unconstrained joy to disconcerting fear, and these have to be negotiated.

Whilst the span of 2 millennia separates the cultural and social appearance of what parents expecting the arrival of a new baby might look like, Mary and Joseph would have found themselves facing similar decisions and challenges. Whilst you might not find a feeding trough, transportation  by donkey or swaddling bands as common choices for 21st century parents, a different set of practical choices and the range of emotions, I’m sure, were similar for the Bethlehem-bound couple.

Another challenge that many parents face is the choosing of a name for their baby. What a responsibility it is to label a new life with a name which will shape its identity forever. Is it too old-fashioned or too contemporary? Will the child have a problem spelling it at school? Does my favourite name mean the child’s initials would be totally inappropriate? And will that patriarch or matriarch of the family be upset it their name isn’t passed on in some way?

Mary and Joseph were given a helping hand with the choice of their first-born son’s name (no pressure then not to accept this divine assistance!). But have you ever noticed in the biblical narratives that the baby who would literally change everything, not just for this one family but for the whole world, including every generation through history, was given a number of names?

Jesus. Both Mary and Joseph were told on different occasions by an angel that they should call their child ‘Jesus’ (Matthew 1:21 and Luke 1:31). The name ‘Jesus’ is derived from the Hebrew word for ‘saviour’ (Yeshua) and the angel makes explicit to Joseph this is because ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21).

Immanuel. When recording the angel’s visitation to Joseph, Matthew adds that these events took place to fulfil the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 in which the baby would be called ‘Immanuel’ (Matt 1:23). It’s not that there is some confusion here in what his name was going to be. Matthew, for some reason, doesn’t translate the Hebrew word ‘Immanuel’ into Greek which makes it sound like a name. It actually means ‘God with us’, which describes Jesus, and what he came to be and to do perfectly.

Son of the Most High. When recording the angel’s visitation to Mary, Luke tells us that the angel said: ‘He will be called the Son of the Most High’ (Luke 1:32). The ‘Most High’ was a reference to God and interestingly it is this title that the man with an evil spirit uses of Jesus in Mark 5:7. The angel (and demon) knew with certainty who Jesus was and make clear that Jesus was the ‘Son’ of the Most High – God himself. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, also prophesied that his son would be a ‘prophet of the Most High’ (Luke 1:76).

Saviour – Messiah – Lord. Although the angel who announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds stops just short of giving them the baby’s name, he does say he is ‘Saviour… who is Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). As we read on in the story of Jesus, we will see that not only was Jesus God’s Messiah-King prophesied in the OT, but he was also ‘Lord’ – a title used in the Bible for God and by the Romans for the Emperor. There seems to be a hint on the lips of the angel here that Jesus, God in human form, would stand in conflict with Roman opposition as the true ‘Lord’ of the world.

Certainly Jesus’ names are full of significance. As we celebrate his birth and reflect on the meaning of his names, we are reminded that at the heart of Christmas is the message that through ‘believing in his name’ (John 1:12) we can experience new birth ourselves. That is the gift of Christmas. It is the one gift that is both yours to keep and yours to share with others.

Wishing you a very Christ-filled Christmas.

Jonathan