The Names of Jesus: The Word

Matthew 1:21

What’s in a name? Most of the time, it’s just a way of differentiating you from me and him from her. Unless your name is Red or Tex or Lefty or Shorty, it probably doesn’t really describe you in any way. Even if they are names that originally meant something in their language of origin, most modern names have lost that connection.

Just because my name is John, I don’t think my mom was thinking of John the apostle or John the Baptist when she named me, and I doubt she was thinking that my name originally means “God is gracious”. When Dale’s mother named him, it probably wasn’t because they lived in a valley. And Greg’s mother wasn’t thinking that he looked fierce.

Most of our names meant something at one time, but we don’t generally name our children because of an attribute or an aspiration.

But when Hebrew parents named their children, they did so with a dream in their heart for who they would become.

Adam was “man of the earth”; Moses was “saved from the water”; Rebekah was “captivating”; David was “beloved”; Samuel was “heard by God.” When God gives a person a new name, it always points them in a new direction: Abraham was “Father of nations”; Israel was “God prevails”; Peter was “a rock”.

A name was once given to a baby in understanding of who he was and in anticipation of what he would do: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph 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.’” (Matt. 1:20-21)

Now, understand, Jesus was a common name in that day. You couldn’t walk down the street without running into four or five of them. In Hebrew, it was the name Joshua, a reminder of that great leader of God’s people who brought them across the Jordan into the promised land. The name Joshua meant, “God is our Savior,” and it was a name of great promise. Jesus is from the Greek equivalent, Ieasous, in which the NT is written, which is why we call him Jesus, not Joshua. But when Mary shouted out the door for him to come home for dinner, she hollered “Yoshua ben Yoseph!” And every time she did, I imagine it reminded her of that night the angel had come to visit.

The name Jesus embodied the purpose of God from the moment man sinned and was cast out of the garden. God was preparing a rescue operation. When he sent his son – as John tells us – it was “not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) Remember, God is our Savior. Jesus stated his purpose when he had lunch with Zacchaeus the tax collector: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)
When Peter stood before the Sanhedrin, he confidently stated: “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)
The Hebrews writer says, “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28)
The angel had said, “… you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In the Bible, there are literally hundreds of designations for Jesus – names that attribute some quality, some action, some characteristic that describes who he is. Even so, all of them together can’t begin to describe all that he is - as John writes of Jesus in his Gospel, “If everyone of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

But, over the next few weeks, I want us to spend some time thinking about the names of Jesus and try to come to appreciate even more the depth and the breadth of this one who came down from heaven to be clothed in flesh and walk among us as a man.

I suppose we ought to begin where the Bible begins – in the beginning. And the apostle John writes in his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-2,14)
When John wrote that description of Jesus, he wasn’t reinventing the wheel, he wasn’t plowing new ground or creating a brand new concept by which to describe Jesus. He was using a concept and a word that had a rich history in Greek philosophy, in Jewish theology, and in contemporary culture.

“In the beginning was the word”
Five centuries before John used the Greek word, “logos” to describe Jesus, Heraclitus used the word to describe how order and symmetry could be sustained in the midst of a chaotic world.

Plato, in about 350 B.C., used “logos” to describe the ideal, the perfection of things in this world. We see common things in this world, but they are only shadowy forms of the perfect that is beyond our sensing. How do you know what that ideal is? How do you attain knowledge and understanding of the perfect? By the “logos” – the word / account / description of such an ideal.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, followed his teacher’s lead and fine tuned what this “logos” was. For Aristotle, the “logos” was the final word on a subject, it was the bottom line, the definitive statement.

So, for the Greeks, the “logos” points beyond this world to ultimate reality. It steers the universe and keeps its forces in balance. It is the definition and conclusion, and summarizes all other “words” that have come before it.

Now for the Greeks, this “logos” was an impersonal force that pervades all things and gives understanding to their true nature. If you Star Wars fans think this sounds kind of familiar there is a lot in common with the “Force” that George Lucas envisioned in his saga.

The Jews, on the other hand were influenced less by philosophers than by the prophets and by scripture. But because Greek was the common language of culture – in the 3rd century BC the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (LXX) – Greek words began to take on significant meaning in the language of religion.

“Logos” became especially significant in terms of God’s self-revelation:
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…” (Gen. 15:1).
And for the God of the Jews, to speak was to act, for his word was powerful:
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6).
This word was the foundational expression of God’s covenant with his people: “Thus says the Lord…” or “The word of the Lord came to” such-and-such spokesman for God.

Philo, a Jewish writer who predated Jesus, was a bridge between the Jewish world and Greek philosophy. He used the word “logos” frequently in his writings. In Philo’s own words, “God’s shadow is His Word, which he used like an instrument, and so made the world.” By studying this “shadow,” we get a glimpse of his true form and nature. Man is able to free himself from the pull of this world by listening to the Logos, the Word of God. So, even for Hebrew speaking Jews, the Greek word “logos,” came to signify a very powerful concept.

Now, when John sets out to write an account of Jesus Christ that will communicate not just to Greeks or Romans or Jews, but to every person, he doesn’t introduce him as the Messiah, or the Savior, or even the Son of God, but the Word.

“In the beginning was the word…”
And lest you think this Word was merely a nebulous and impersonal Force, John presses this Logos into concrete form: “and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And we beheld his glory…”
Listen to what John attempts (and accomplishes):
“My Greek friends, perhaps you have heard the philosophers speculate about the Word that steers the universe and makes known realities that are larger than our mundane existence – the Word that brings all of life into balance and completes our understanding of this world.
And my Jewish brothers – you believe in the power of God’s Word, the Word that brought all of creation into existence and revealed God to us so that we may know him. Let me tell you about the Word, who has become flesh and revealed the fullness of God.”

“In the beginning was the word…”
John reveals some powerful things about Jesus when he describes him as “the Word.”

He is the ultimate self-revelation of God. He no longer uses just human words trying describe an indescribable God, this word becomes flesh, and reveals God in a way that human language never could.
John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.”
John 14:9 “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Heb. 1:1-3 “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Col. 2:9 “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

An amazing thing happens – you would think that a people who absolutely hallowed the sacred word of God would rejoice as God revealed himself ultimately and definitively through The Word. But they didn’t – “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11).

You’ve had a child ignore or disobey your words, you’ve had somebody call you a liar, you’ve had somebody criticize what you’ve said or how you said it.

That, in essence, is what happened to the Word. The Word that should have been recognized and accepted and obeyed was denied and dismissed and rejected.

The Word which came to fully and powerfully reveal God was dismissed as irrelevant and untrue.

We don’t like our words ignored and contradicted – how do you think God felt? The Word by which he created the universe, the Word by which he sustains it all – these human beings look and listen and say, “What a liar.”

Even in that response of rejection, the Word is still a redemptive Word: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

This Word become flesh had one purpose – to redeem us from sin and from Satan. Though God revealed himself through the prophets, there was one thing that could only truly be revealed in the Son – his grace and forgiveness. In the cross, Jesus revealed something about God that could be revealed in no other way. Even rejected, the power of the Word cannot be nullified, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18).

God’s longing has always been to reveal himself to us. Why? Because he has always desired to have a relationship with us. He wants us to know him. He spoke tender loving words, and we rejected them, he performed mighty, miraculous acts, and we ignored them. He sent his son and we crucified him.

Why did John call Jesus, the Word? Because in Jesus God revealed himself as fully and perfectly as he possibly could with the desire that he might draw us to himself and communicate his love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…” How could he say it any more clearly?