I spent two days last month at a meeting of the Synod of the Trinity’s Governing Commission. To help the new members like me to get comfortable with the experienced ones, we were asked to tell the others how we got our names.
The Acting Moderator, Barbara Ann Chaapel, told how much she hated her name during the Beach Boys’ heyday – as everyone sang her name to her. Now, she thinks it’s pretty cool.
The Stated Clerk, Wayne Arthur Yost, shared how he was told as a young man that he was “doubly-blessed” – because the first three letters of his name and his initials were both W-A-Y. And they spell an interesting word.
Most of them got names that ran in the family. Others were stuck with their parents’ attempt to give them a name that was not trendy. In every case, the name was their parents’ decision.
Not so with Jesus. That name was given to Him by the command of God the Father, delivered by an angel to Mary – as we are told in Luke 1 – and to Joseph – as we find in Matthew 1.
Mary was told what to name her baby boy, but Joseph was given both the name and a reason for that name. And it came in form of a command:
“You will call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Why did Mary not get an explanation? Probably because she was a woman in a society in which a mother could name her child – but not if the child’s father had a name in mind. Joseph likely got an explanation because, as Mary’s husband-to-be, he would wonder why he didn’t get to name the child.
By explaining the name, the angel also reinforced the point that the child was not his or even another man’s, but God’s offspring.
YEA-soos is the Greek form of the Hebrew name yeh-SHOO-ah – which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” In English, the name is Joshua. You all remember him, don’t you?
Moses was the agent through whom God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, but Joshua was the one who led them through the Jordan River into the Promised Land and led them to victory over all who opposed them. But lest Joshua get too full of himself, his name was a constant reminder that God was the One who was saving His people – and Joshua was the conduit through whom God did that saving work.
God is all about saving His people. Psalm 130 tells God’s people,
“O Israel, put your hope in Yahweh, for with Yahweh is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”
The people of Judea in Jesus’ day took that Psalm to mean that the Messiah to come would deliver them from Roman occupation – but that’s not what this verse promises.
They expected a mighty military figure to vanquish the Roman army– but this verse speaks not of defeating enemies but of redeeming or ransoming God’s people. And that’s what Jesus did – He paid the price for their freedom and ours. The price was His own life.
So the name Jesus given to the son of Mary is a promise that God will do the job of saving His people Himself. He will delegate to another Moses or Joshua character – rather, He will do it Himself in His incarnation as Jesus. The name “Jesus” tells us that God’s saving work is very personal.
Our New Testament Lesson this morning must seem out of place during the Christmas season. That story from Acts 4 – of Peter and John being called to explain how they healed a man who had been crippled from birth – is usually read on the third Sunday after Easter. But it has meaning for us as we look at the name of Jesus today. Which, by the way, is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus in the Roman Catholic and several other church calendars. That is because January First is the eighth day after Christmas, and Luke 2:21 tells us that Jesus was named and circumcised on the eighth day.
But back to our story from Acts 4. After the healing, John and Peter preached about Jesus to the crowd that had gathered in amazement at the temple gate. That made the Jewish authorities uneasy, and they summoned the two men and demanded to know “By what power or what name did you do this?” That is, healed the crippled man.
Peter, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, did not flinch:
“It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
On its face, that seems like a straightforward statement that leaves no room for interpretation. But, as is usually the case with Scripture, people find ways to interpret it differently.
At one end of the spectrum are those who teach that salvation comes through believing in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, accepting it by inviting Him to be their Savior and Lord, holding to correct doctrine, and living as sinlessly as possible. To them, this is being saved through His name.
At the other end are those who teach that Jesus’ death on the cross opens the way to salvation for everyone. They may not know it or believe it, and may have no relationship with Jesus whatsoever, but they are still saved through His name.
That means we have to go to other Scriptures to find a clearer answer. Jesus Himself told Nicodemus in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in Him” shall not perish, but have everlasting life. That seems quite clear that a person must at least trust in the work of Jesus to be saved by it.
The verse from Joel 2 that Peter quoted as he preached on Pentecost – “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” – refers to the Hebrew practice of “calling on the Name of the Lord.” That was their way
of saying that they called on God to save them from their situations – which certainly would include their sin.
For example, Elijah called on the Name of the Lord to send fire to consume his sacrifice during his throwdown with the prophets of Baal.
The military leader Naaman was healed of his leprosy when he called on the Name of the Lord and then washed seven times in the Jordan.
In Zephaniah 3, God promised to restore His sinful people and purify their lips so they could call on the Name of the Lord and serve Him.
Calling on the Name of the Lord was an action that demonstrated their trust in God’s power to save His people. So again, there is an element of trusting in Jesus as God, and – as His name implies – His ability to save.
Paul got more specific in his letter to the Romans, where he wrote in chapter 10:
… if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
This involves some public declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, and a belief that He rose from the dead – which was His death for our sins.
So these verses tell us that the Name of Jesus is more than just an especially good job description for a child who was destined to redeem His people from their sins. It is through His Name – by calling on His Name –
by trusting in the work signified by His Name – that God saves us.
It’s basically the core beliefs that Christians share – and the list is not even as detailed as the Apostles’ Creed. Just to recap:
Belief in Jesus as the Son of God who saves us by His death and resurrection, calling on Him to save us, and professing that faith publicly.
And that’s why we as Presbyterians require people who are joining the church to stand in front of the congregation and answer only the following questions:
Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing His love?
I will, with God’s help.
That’s all we ask – and with good reason. Because we believe that the name of Jesus means something: it means that God does the saving work.
Our salvation does not depend upon praying just the right words, or believing the right doctrines, or even behaving exactly as God commands. Certainly, these are important – and part of my calling is to keep the sheep from wandering off. But even that shepherding work is God’s working – and He lets me help.
The name of Jesus reassures us that our salvation depends completely upon God’s gracious work in the person of His Son. Jesus – “Yahweh Saves.” Believe that – profess that – and then live in the security of knowing that you have been saved.