The Names of Jesus

Matte Downey, Dec 4, 2018, 7:36 PM
Matte Downey

We find many names for Jesus in the witness of Scripture. There are names which Jesus gave himself (Son of Man, bread of life, good shepherd, the way, the truth, the life, etc.) and there are names which others bestowed on Jesus. I want to look a little closer at the latter. We find three of them in the account of his birth in Matthew 1:18-23. Here Jesus is identified as the Messiah (v. 18), Jesus (v. 20), and Immanuel (v. 23). In the Hebrew culture, names did not simply identify or distinguish a person; they expressed something about their character and nature. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Hebrew Bible contains more than sixty names for the God of Israel (Names of God).

Names also reflected the time or context into which a child was born. Though Jesus was given a rather unremarkable first-century Hebrew name, it reflected the prophetic cry of the people at the time. The Jews were longing for God to intervene, to rescue them from Roman occupation and oppressive circumstances. Jesus (Joshua, Yeshua) is a combination of Yah (YHWH) and hoshia (deliver, save, rescue, help), so Jesus's name literally meant God helps, delivers, rescues, saves.

Messiah (moshiah) means anointed one and generally referred to kings, prophets, and priests. In addition, messiah carries the sense a deliverer sent by God, a saviour. Immanuel includes roots which mean "with" (im), "us" (nu), and "God" (el). It is usually translated as "God with us."

Matthew's account also links Jesus with the prophecy found in Isaiah 9 (Matt. 4:12-17). It is important to note the context of this prophetic poem. Isaiah is writing to Israel, warning them of the coming invasion from Assyria. The northern regions would get the brunt of the assault, but the prophet offers hope: "Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles ... will be filled with glory" (Isaiah 9:1, NLT). Then Isaiah's prophecy takes the form of a poem, beginning with the words quoted in Matthew: "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine."

Both Isaiah and Matthew make the link between the northern tribes (Naphtali and Zebulun) and the region of Galilee. "Leaving Nazareth, [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali - to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah" (Matt. 4:13-14). The corresponding locations of the messianic poem and the ministry of Jesus guide us to look for more similarities. Isaiah mentions that the glory of God will come to Galilee of the Gentiles or nations (v. 1) and speaks about enlarging the nation of Israel (v. 3). The glory of God would most likely have been interpreted by the original hearers as a victory over their enemies. The promise of increase would mean that the people of God would not be wiped out, but would multiply and flourish. In the early church, when the Gentiles were fully embraced as followers of Jesus, this prophecy turned out to be broader and more inclusive than anyone had imagined.

Isaiah also speaks about breaking the yoke of slavery, lifting the heavy burden from Israel's shoulders, and breaking the oppressor's rod. The word "shoulders" highlights the contrast between the heaviness of the people's burden and the government resting on the messiah. Then Isaiah prophesies an end to war: "The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire" (v.5).

All this will be accomplished by the Messiah, and now Isaiah describes the one who will bring light, increase, rescue, and an end to war. It is quite familiar to us, in part because of its presence in Handel's majestic oratorio, Messiah: "For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulder. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). In Hebrew, the compound royal name assigned to the child is: Pele-yoes-el-gibbor-abi'ad-sar-salom. Let's take a brief look at the different components.

Pele: a wonder, a miracle of God, unusual, extraordinary, hard to understand
Yoes: to plan, to advise, to give counsel, to make happen
El-Gibbor: God (el), mighty, strong, champion, valiant warrior
Abi'ad: father (abi), perpetual, continuing, eternal
Sar-salom: peaceable ruler, person in charge of well-being in all aspects of life

The original or immediate fulfillment of this text was in the form of King Hezekiah who brought about a miraculous deliverance from the armies of Sennacherib some twenty or so years after the Assyrians defeated the northern territories. The additional or future meaning of this prophecy in Isaiah 9 is the coming Messiah who will (finally) deliver people from oppression and evil by inaugurating a righteous and peaceful rule/kingdom. And it all begins in the very place where the northern tribes were attacked: Galilee.

Hebrew scholar, Benjamin D. Sommer, notes that this compound name describes the actions of God and not necessarily that of a divine person. In the case of the original fulfillment through Hezekiah, that was certainly the case. However, in Jesus the Messiah, the person and the action of God are one. Since Sommer views this compound messianic name through the lens of action, his translation of it is noteworthy: "For a child has been born unto us, A son has been given to us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named 'The Mighty God is planning grace; the Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.'" [1]

Let me put it this way: God, the mighty warrior, is planning a wonder. God, through the Messiah, is the perpetual father and giver of life, authorized and able to bring well-being in a peaceable way. And Jesus is the wonder, born into a vulnerable family without social status. Jesus is the mighty warrior, conquering evil by dying for his enemies. Jesus is the perpetual giver of life, a life characterized by service, generosity, and fruitfulness. Jesus is peace (shalom) embodied, doing the work of reconciliation, and making a way for all to flourish through participation in the life of God. This is the Messiah, the one who saves. This is Jesus.


[1] Benjamin D. Sommer, "Isaiah," The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004;2014), 784.
Image: Nativity of Tahitian Christ (1896) by Paul Gauguin. From