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About the Author
He is a known community leader, serving with groups such as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross and the Metro Public Schools, and is the author of over twenty books, two of which are The Names of Jesus, and What Would Jesus Do Today? Shelly is widely published in religious journals and co-edits Wineskins magazine. He and his wonderful wife, Myra, make their home in Nashville, TN.
Read an Excerpt
The Names of Jesus
By Rubel Shelly
Howard BooksCopyright © 2003 Rubel Shelly
All right reserved.
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
How did you come to have your name? Were you named for a family member? A dear friend
of your parents? Some celebrity? If you have children, how did you choose their names?
The choice of a child's name is quite important to most parents. Some names just
won't do. Judas Jones, Jezebel Smith, Adolf Hitler Williamssurely nobody in his
right mind would attach those names to a child! It would be a cruel and irresponsible
thing to do. On the other hand, people have been known to do some pretty weird things in
selecting the names of their children.
For example, this short piece in USA Today, 8 September 1994, caught my eye when it first
appeared and hasn't left my mind since: "George and Tina Rollason say God had
nothing to do with the birth of their daughter on July 20, so they gave her a fitting
moniker: Atheist Evolution Rollason. The York, Pa., couple say her name is their answer to
other parents' use of biblical names. 'There's so many people named
Christian, or Christine,' George says. 'This is just one person named Atheist.
Whatthe heck's the difference?' The Rollasons have clashed with the school
district over angel decorations in the classroom and Bibles in the library."
In some situations, there really is "nothing in a name." But at other times,
people like the Rollasons intend a name to be a statement of conviction or perhaps a
commitment and pledge about their child's upbringing. In biblical literature, names
often have special meaning for someone's spiritual life and destiny. Adam, Abraham,
Sarah, Israelmost Bible students know the significance of these God-chosen names to
the roles played by the people bearing them.
When the time came for God to put the wheels in motion to bring his grand scheme of
redemption to fulfillment, the naming of the child born at Bethlehem was not left for
others to decide. The infant born in an animal stall was given a name from on high that
would pledge and foreshadow the work he would accomplish.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be
married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through
the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose
her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and
said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because
what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you
are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The Name Jesus
Jesus is the Greek form of the Old Testament Jewish name Yeshua. In English, most of us
know the name better in its biblical form as Joshua. This Hebrew name was translated into
Greek for the Septuagint as Iesous, from which we get our transliteration
We know the name in the Old Testament principally from Joshua son of Nun, the successor to
Moses who led the Israelites into Canaan to possess and occupy it. As Moses was about to
end his career, God himself chose his successor: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Now
the day of your death is near. Call Joshua and present yourselves at the Tent of Meeting,
where I will commission him.' So Moses and Joshua came and presented themselves at
the Tent of Meeting" (Deut. 31:14). Upon Moses' death, the people accepted him
as their new leader, and his name became established among the great personalities in
Israel's history (see Deut. 34:9; Josh. 1:1618). The name Joshua also appears
following the Exile. A high priest named Joshua is the central figure in a dramatic
parable of redemption by grace in Zechariah 3:19.
Joshua came to be a very popular and common name among Jews of the pre-Christian era.
During the period that followed Alexander the Great, the dominance of the Greek language
throughout the Mediterranean world caused the name to appear as Jesus. In the writings of
Josephus, for example, he names nineteen different men who bore the name Jesus. The name
is also found on numerous grave markers and tombs found in and around
Jerusalemsometimes in its Hebrew form Yeshua and sometimes in its Greek form
In the New Testament literature, the name appears a few times to identify persons other
than the Jesus who is central to Christian faith. Although translated as
"Joshua" in most English versions, the Greek name of an ancestor of Jesus of
Nazareth is, in the original text, Iesous at Luke 3:29. A certain "Jesus, who is
called Justus" is associated with Paul in Colossians 4:11. There is even good textual
evidence that the full name of the "notorious prisoner" released at the trial of
Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus Barabbas (Matt. 27:1617).
In its older Hebrew form, the name means "Yahweh is salvation" or "Yahweh
rescues." It testifies to the power and love of Yahweh. It points all who hear it to
look to the Lord for help and redemption. The oldest name known to us that contains the
divine name Yahweh, it affirms the uniqueness of Israel's God as the one in whom
humankind may safely trust for salvation. It declares that there is no one worthy of
comparison to Yahweh. No other name offers what his name promises.
Once a very common name, the name Jesus had become rare as a personal name by the end of
the first century. By that time, it had come to be associated with one man to the degree
that it was deemed uniquely his. That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ,
or the Lord Jesus. The name came to be held in such deep reverence by Christians that they
reserved it for him alone. And unbelievers, whether Jew or Gentile, avoided the name
because of its unique association with the one Christians confessed as their Christ and
Lord. Following is a discussion on why that happenedand why the name Jesus came to
mean something more than its respected etymology and history.
The Name As Theological Statement
When Matthew used the name Jesus while writing of Jesus' birth, he was aware of all
the Old Testament background we have just traced. A Jew writing the most Jewish of the
four gospels, Matthew knew the significance of names given to important figures in
God's sovereign agenda in history. So he certainly did not miss the significance of
the angel's words to Joseph, when Mary's husband-to-be was told, "She will
give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his
people from their sins" (1:21).
What significance would Matthew have seen in the angel's words? What did he mean for
his readers to see in them? Most simply stated, the theological significance of Matthew
1:21 is that the angel's words "attribute to Jesus what was formerly reserved
Whereas the name Jesus had till that time meant "Yahweh saves," the birth of the
child Jesus would hereafter affirm that "Jesus saves." It was as if the angel
had said to Joseph: "Joseph, you have always believed that salvation comes from
Yahweh. Certain of your forebears have even testified to that fact by wearing a name that
says as much. But in the unique child that Mary will bear, God will be personally present
and personally active in saving people. For you and Mary, then, know the heavenly mystery
that Jesus is heaven's instrument for salvation to all who will believe in him. God
will save all who come to Jesus and receive his favor. This child Jesus will be, in his
own person and deeds, the savior to whom others have testified and for whom they have
Yahweh Come among Us
Jesus is Israel's covenant God, Yahweh, come among us. Jesus isas we will
discuss in the next chapterImmanuel, God with us (see Matt. 1:23). For Christians,
the name Jesus does not point to an invisible, enthroned deity who can saveas the
name Yahweh did. To the contrary, it names the one in whom God became visible, incarnate,
and accessible. It names the one in whom we can be rescued from sin. As Peter would later
declare to the Sanhedrin: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other
name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
This same understanding and affirmation concerning Jesus is found not only in Matthew but
in Luke. Without couching the birth narrative in the unfamiliar terms of Hebrew names and
their meanings, Lukea non-Jew writing to non-Jewsrelates the announcement of
an angel to shepherds in the field this way: "The angel said to them, 'Do not be
afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the
town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to
you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger'" (Luke
Unlike Islam's claim for Mohammed that he is God's prophet, Christianity makes
the claim for Jesus that he is himself God. He is not merely a spokesman for God or a
prophet telling about God. He is God! He is God among us. He is God demonstrating his
holiness and power in our midst. He is God saving us. So his name is understood as a
promise of everything that was fulfilled in his life and ministry and that is even now
being preached to the ends of the earth.
A Gospel Event
Although Jesus made the direct and unambiguous claim to be divine in a number of
settings, one of the most intriguing texts on this point is couched in a miracle story in
the Gospel of Mark. It is the story of a lame man who was healed dramatically. More
important for our purposes, however, it contains a bold claim from Jesus that is either
blasphemy or self-disclosure.
Jesus was in Capernaum, and quite a crowd gathered to hear him. The house in which he was
teaching a few people quickly became a house that was packed full. And that created a
problem for four men who had a friend who was paralyzed. The friendsif not the man
himselfhad heard of Jesus' miracle-working power and wanted them to meet. Their
obvious hope was that the paralyzed man would be made whole.
Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not
get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and,
after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw
their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does
this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their
hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to
say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take
your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth
to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take
your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them
all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything
like this!" (Mark 2:312)
When Jesus and the others in that hot, crowded room witnessed the curiosity of a man being
lowered through a hole in the roof, everyone's attention turned toward the paralyzed
man. Jesus also saw him, marveled at the faith of those who had gone to such trouble to
bring their friend, and said, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
This statement from Jesus has been the source of a great deal of speculation. Some have
thought that it shows Jesus attributed all sickness and disability to sin. The larger
record of his ministry clearly shows that is not so (see John 9; Luke 13:15). Others
have speculated that he started as he did in this case because he knew the paralysis of
this particular man was due to some sinful behavior. Perhaps, but even that does not
Jesus always pointed people from their immediate perceived need to their larger need for
salvation. Do you remember his conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well?
(John 4). She had come to draw water from the well, and Jesus engaged her in a
conversation about "living water" that led to her salvationand the
conversion of many more people from her village. As great as this man's need for
bodily healing was, Jesus knew that hisand everyone'sgreater need was for
spiritual healing. So Jesus' first response to the great faith he had just witnessed
was to invite the paralyzed man into the peace of forgiveness.
Before Jesus could go further with the man, his comment about forgiveness stirred many of
his hearers to negative thoughts. "Why does this fellow talk like that?" they
were saying to themselves. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
Jesus Claims Deity
Here is a case where Jesus' critics had their premises right but their conclusion
wrong. They were absolutely correct in their belief that God alone has the right to
forgive sins. They had also heard and understood Jesus to have claimed the right to
forgive sins himself when he addressed the paralyzed man. Only one of two conclusions was
possible for them to draw: Jesus was either God on earth or guilty of blasphemy. They drew
the second conclusion rather than the first.
If Jesus wasn't claiming to be deity here, he could have corrected the
"misunderstanding" of his hearers. He could have said, "Oh, please!
Don't hear me saying that I have the power to forgive sins personally. I was simply
reassuring this poor man that God loves him and wants him to be forgiven." But that
isn't what he said! Or he could have said, "Excuse me for leaving the wrong
impression, for I certainly don't want to blaspheme. Only God can forgive sins, and I
am merely a man among men." But he didn't say that either! He let it
standas spoken and as understood.
Jesus Claims the Ability to Forgive Sins
What is more, Jesus proceeded to give his bold claim credibility by asking, "Which is
easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get
up, take your mat and walk'?" In order to understand his question, emphasize the
word say as you read it. Of course, forgiving sins is a greater, harder, and far costlier
thing to God than healing legs. It was going to cost Jesus his life on a Roman cross! But
in terms of merely saying those two things in that house on that day, which was easier? As
a matter of fact, saying "Your sins are forgiven" was easier than "Get up,
take your mat and walk" because the latter was testable in a way the former was not.
The matter of forgiveness might never get beyond Jesus saying "They are
forgiven!" and his critics replying "No they aren't!" And that could
have gone on endlessly. If he told a paralyzed man to get up and walk, though, he would be
revealedeither as a heaven-verified man in all he said (including forgiveness and
identity) or as a fraud.
So Jesus turned to the man, told him he was healed, and sent him home. The once-paralyzed
man stood up, picked up the mat on which he had been carried, and walked out through the
crowd. Jesus wasn't a fraud. He was a healer. He was a truth-teller. He was anything
but a blasphemer in saying he could forgive sins. He was deity among humankind who could
save people from their sins!
Another way of saying all this about him is simply to quote the angel's words to
Joseph: "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from
their sins." Yes, Yahweh saved. And he does so in Jesus. That is why the church in
Acts and believers today preach salvation "in the name of Jesus."
The very name of Jesus proclaims his deity. It declares that God loves usnot from a
great, safe distance butup close and personal. It means that we understand much more
now about God's nature and saving work. And it means that we can know God.
John Grisham's novel The Street Lawyer tells a powerful story. Michael Brock is a
young lawyer on the fast track to partnership in an eight-hundred-member firm. But his
life gets yanked around by a dramatic hostage event in which he and some of his colleagues
are held and threatened by a homeless man. At one point, Brock thinks to himself: "A
gun in your face, the clock stops, priorities emerge at onceGod, family, friends.
Income falls to the bottom. The firm and the career vanish as each awful second ticks by
and you realize this could be the last day of your life." Michael Brock abandons his
cushy job to be a "street lawyer," an advocate for the homeless.
Like Michael Brock, God left heaven's splendor to become the "Street
Savior" of all who will come to him.
We can't climb the stairs that lead to heaven. In spite of the fact that religion has
preached self-justification (and self-righteousness!) through law and good works for
centuries, the name Jesus reminds us that God came down heaven's stairway and saved
us at the end of the street that led from Pilate's judgment hall to Golgotha.
Go to Jesus' cross. Stand with him there. And he will be your defense attorney by
whose advocacyand in whose nameyou will be declared righteous.
Excerpted from The Names of Jesus by Rubel Shelly Copyright © 2003 by Rubel Shelly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
3. The Word
4. Lamb of God
5. Triumphal Passover Lamb
6. Good Shepherd
8. The Way
9. Great High Priest
11. Messiah / Christ
12. Son of God
13. Son of Man
14. Judge of the Living and the Dead