What’s In a Name?
In Matthew 1 the angel reassures Joseph about the child Mary is carrying, although the news that the child “is from the Holy Spirit” surely raised a whole new set of questions. In verse 23 the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.”
A couple of biblical curiosities regarding the name Jesus may help us appreciate why its significance extends beyond what we usually recognize. First, let’s consider Hebrews 4:8 in the King James Version:
“For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.”
This verse seems to make no sense to a careful reader who recognizes the contrast in the passage between the rest promised to the Israelites in Canaan and the greater rest provided by Jesus. The confusion arises from the fact that the name Jesus comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua. I know of no other English translation that translates the name “Jesus” rather than “Joshua” in Hebrews 4:8.
This peculiarity of the KJV, however, reminds us that the name Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” The Old Testament use of “save/salvation” focuses on rescue or deliverance. Psalm 80 provides a good example of this broader meaning. In the midst of calls for God to save, the psalm also appeals to God to “return” to them, to “restore” them, and to “revive” them. Salvation, in other words, refers not only to a deliverance “from” something, but also “back to” something.
The second curiosity about the name Jesus comes from within Matthew 1. Just after the command to name the child Jesus, Matthew connects Jesus’ birth to Isaiah 7 and the child who is to be called Immanuel (“God With Us”). Why would Matthew tie the name Jesus to a passage referring to a child with a different name?
Jesus certainly fits the bill of “God With Us,” but Matthew also takes into account the larger context of Isaiah and the nature of the divine presence. The promised sign of Immanuel comes in the context of a faithless king, Ahaz, who turns to Assyria for help rather than to God. How does the promise of God’s presence overcome such unbelief, and what does the salvation God’s presence brings look like?
Isaiah 7 helps prepare the way for one of the most famous messianic promises in Isaiah, the “Suffering Servant” in chapters 52-53. To fully appreciate the Suffering Servant, however, we must go back to 41:8, where God speaks of Israel as his servant. God goes on to describe Israel as a blind and deaf servant, frustrated with the failure to bring God’s salvation to the earth. As the servant theme moves toward its climax in chapters 52-53, it shifts from Israel as servant to the servant who acts on behalf of Israel, and ultimately on behalf of all nations.
Notice in Matthew 1 that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” Jesus comes to Israel not just to provide forgiveness for their sins, but also to rescue them from the power of their sins that has frustrated them as servants of the Lord with a mission in the world.
The opening verse of the classic 18th century hymn, “Rock of Ages,” by Augustus Montague Toplady acknowledges this larger dimension of Jesus’ salvation:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
What a marvelous gift is the forgiveness of our sins! Yet forgiveness of sin does not exhaust the meaning of salvation from sin. To limit it to forgiveness misses a vital dimension of Jesus’ role as Savior. Not only does it reduce his work in our eyes to a self-focused “get-out-of-jail” card, but it also dangerously distracts us from sin’s power over our lives and minimizes our role as a redeemed people in God’s larger purpose.
Forgiveness of sin suggests an end in itself; salvation from sin points us to deliverance for something better. It frees us from sin’s power to drag us back down to the world’s pattern of fearing and judging and condemning and hating. It sets us free to be servants of the Lord who follow the path of Jesus in the fullest sense of that name. Sin alienates us not only from God, but also from ourselves, from one another, and from the creation. Salvation sets us on the path to restored relationships across the board.
Now that’s really good news!