PNo, I don’t mean the names of the day. I mean the names that arise out of what we celebrate at Christmas—the names of the Incarnate One.
What we call the Christmas Story introduces us to two names that are new, and meaningfully so. The first one is now so familiar to us that we’ve completely forgotten its meaning—if we ever knew it all. We meet it in Matthew’s account of the birth of the Son of God, in chapter 1—
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
The first name that comes out of the Christmas Story is “Jesus.” We all know it well today; it’s the personal name of the Son, which he took on when he became human. But most of us completely miss the whole significance of the way it was introduced in Scripture.
To start with, the name has come to us through several languages, and as anyone named Juan or Jean or Johann or Ivan knows, names change when they cross languages. Jesus is the English form of the Greek Iesous, which in turn translates the Hebrew Yeshua, or its longer form Yehoshua, or, as we would say it, Joshua. Yes, Jesus’ name was just Joshua—which explains a bit of translational confusion in the KJV of Hebrews 4.8, where they give the impression that the author is speaking of Jesus giving rest, when he’s actually speaking of the OT Joshua taking Israel into the Promised Land. (See also Ac 7.45.)
Where was I?
Have you ever wondered why the angel said to Joseph, “You must call his name Joshua, for he will save his people from their sins”? Have you ever noticed that subordinate conjunction in there, the one that identifies a causal link between the name and Jesus’ saving work?
To us English-speaking readers, that doesn’t make sense—or, more likely, we just sail on past it without even noticing that it doesn’t make sense, because the words are so familiar to us.
But that causal link is in there for a reason. It’s making an important point, one, I could argue, that is the most important point ever made by anyone.
Joseph would have gotten the point—it would have been as plain as day to him, and he would have understood its significance immediately. I suspect that’s why he unquestioningly obeyed the angel’s instructions. He adopted the child, risking—and probably ruining—his reputation in the process. If your fiancée is pregnant, and you marry her and adopt the child, everybody’s going to nod his head and smirk and wink knowingly. Uh-huh. We all know what that means, now, don’t we? And 30 years later they were still smirking when they tried to undercut Jesus’ authority by sneering, “We were not born of fornication!” (Jn 8.41).
Why did Joseph obey, unhesitatingly, when he knew what the cost of that obedience would be to his own reputation, and perhaps to his livelihood as a contractor?
Because he understood the meaning of the angel’s words. He understood the “for,” the causal link.
Because he knew what the name meant.
“Joshua,” you see, means “Yahweh saves.”
The angel said, “You must name him ‘Yahweh saves,’ ”—so far, so good—“because he will save his people from their sins!”
Do you see it?
“He”—the infant—no, the fetus—“he” is Yahweh!
The everlasting God, who makes covenants with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob—and keeps them—who sits high on the throne in Isaiah’s vision, whose train fills the temple, but who reveals himself to Israel by his first name—this God is now a fetus in the womb of a Jewish teenager.
This is much, much bigger than Joseph, or Mary, or shepherds, or wise men, or all of us put together. Nothing like this has ever happened before, or likely will ever happen again.
God has become one of us.
Next time, the second Christmas name.