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What's in a name?

So the topic of names is one that is ongoing in our house right now as my wife and I are expecting our second child.  We really believe that God is going to give us a son this time and we have a first name determined and have been praying for this child by that name. Over the last few years I have become more and more in interested in names and their meanings.  Interestingly, one of the things that I think people can miss when studying scriptures are the meanings of the names.  In many cases the meanings of the name shed light upon the event which they are associated with.  Some of the name meanings are given, such as the name Levi, the third son of Jacob:  “She conceived again and bore a son and said, "Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons. Therefore he was named Levi.” (Genesis 29:34 NASB)  This is an interesting name choice for a son and yet in the context of the narrative it tells us much about Leah’s state of mind.  We know from the story that Jacob loved Rachel far more than he did Leah.  I would suggest that in some ways Leah may have been overlooked by Jacob.  He wanted Rachel but was tricked and ended up with Leah and had to work for another 7 years to get the wife he wanted.  God was not about to leave her high and dry; he opened her womb and giving her sons; 1, 2 and then finally a 3rd which she believed would make Jacob love her.  Hence she names her 3rd son Levi in an expectant way, hoping that now because of 3 sons Jacob would love her and essentially “attach” himself to her.  What is really cool is that the tribe of Levi ultimately became “joined” to God as the tribe of the priesthood for Israel.

            In other cases there is no meaning given.  However, when the meaning of the names is understood the flavour of the text is enhanced.  Take for instance the names of Eli’s sons:  Hophni and Phinehas.  The meaning of Hophni is ‘pugilist’ or ‘swordsman’ (literally a boxer or fighter) while Phinehas means ‘oracle’ or perhaps ‘serpent’s tongue’.  Looking at text of 1 Samuel 2: 12- 17 we read that both the sons of Eli were worthless men and that they  ignore the ordinances of the Lord regarding sacrifices by forcefully taking meat intended for righteous use in sacrifices.  Hophni (the man of fists) would threaten the people.  Phinehas more than likely, used his “oracular” voice to declare that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing- claiming his authority as priest as a means of doing whatever he wanted.  Now I know that this is not perhaps a really incredible revelation- but these men acted in accordance with the names they were given.  Their names were almost prophetic.  In the case of Phinehas the name is more striking because of the contrast between him and the first Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron.  That Phinehas according to words spoken of him by God Himself was zealous for the Law of the Lord.  God promised him a perpetual priesthood, while the sinful Phinehas (son of Eli) lost his life as a result of his sinful behaviour.  It should be also noted that when his pregnant wife heard of his death, the grief of the incident induced her and she gave birth to their son whom she named ‘Ichabod’ which means ‘No Glory’.  Now the meaning of this name has a number of things associated with it.  Eli the high priest died a very ignoble death again because of his lack of guidance in dealing with his sinful sons- all his glory had departed.  The Ark of the Covenant was taken by the victorious Philistines – the glory of God had departed from amongst Israel.  Ichabod’s mother died in giving birth to him- a mother not able to experience the glory of parenting a child.  Any glory that Phinehas would have received from the Lord as a priest was gone because of his sin and his death.  All that was left was a son bearing the name and the shame of a family for whom the glory had departed.

            Now with this mind let’s look at another name that has significance for all who claim to be followers of the messiah.  In English he is named “Jesus”.  His name was actually very Hebrew- specifically Yehoshua or shortened ‘Yeshua’ (or as we say in English “Joshua”.  The Greek texts that we have today simply give us his name as “Iesous” (realize that I have simply given the English sound equivalent from the Greek to communicate pronunciation here).  There was not really a Greek equivalent for the Hebrew name of the Messiah, so the original writers attempted a transliteration.  This is the process of taking the Hebrew letter and replacing it with the equivalent Greek letter which sounded the same (much liked I just did with ‘Iesous’).  Not all the Hebrew letters making up ‘Yeshoshua’ existed in Greek, so these were dropped from the Greek version of the name and ultimately we are left with ‘Iesous’.  I explain all of this as a way of focusing us on meaning of the name of the Messiah.  John 3:18 says: "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (NASB) The significance of the meaning of the name sheds so much light on the source and means by which redemption is accomplished.  This passage in John 3 describes a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, where Jesus basically lays out these truths.  Jesus states that one who does not believe in the name of the Son of God is judged already.  How often have we heard it preached that one must believe in Jesus in order to be saved?  This is not essentially wrong, but Jesus own words give the heart of the salvation message.  In all honesty, anyone can believe in Jesus.  The Jewish historian Josephus even claims that he was the Christ, but I am not aware that he was a Christian (if anyone can tell me for sure please do).  Let’s face it- even Satan believes in Jesus and I am pretty darn sure he’s not an adopted member in the household of God.   I could say that I believe in Obama.  No offense intended to Obama- but will believing in his name ensure a better America or world?  I think the answer is a definitive NO!!!  So Jesus is saying something deeper than just believing in a name.  Here is the important distinction:  The Hebrew name of the Messiah ‘Jehoshua’ means ‘God is salvation’.  This is especially interesting when we realize that the Old Testament character of the same name was originally called Hoshea meaning ‘salvation’.  When Moses changed his name he brought into focus the nature and source of salvation.  Back to John 3:18.  I believe what Jesus essentially means here, is that salvation is firmly founded and secured on that which the very name of the Son of God communicates in its utterance:  God is the source of Salvation- past, present and future.  Outside of Him there is no hope of redemption.  Inherent also in the meaning of the name is the truth that God’s means of accomplishing the redemption of humanity is through the death and miraculous resurrection of the one bore that name.  This leads me to an interesting passage from Acts when Paul and Silas were miraculously set free from prison in Philippi.  The jailer asked what he had to do to be saved.  Paul & Silas’ response was:  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31 KJV).  I have quoted the KJV here because I much prefer its rendering of this verse.  It says to believe ‘on’ not ‘in’.  You see some people think that when “we believe in Jesus”, we are essentially believing that He existed.  There is significant proof that Jesus existed- Josephus being just one source.  To believe He is existed is not a hard thing to do when there is proof of it.  However to believe ‘on’ the name suggests that our faith is rooted on something more than the existence of a person.  It is about what that person represents and whether their name is trustworthy.  Jesus said “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9 NASB).  He also said “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5: 19 NASB)  To believe in Jesus is not just to believe in the existence of a person of that name.  It is to know that inherent in that name is the character and eternal mission of God: to save His people from their sin.  So what is in a name?  The answer is simple:  God is our salvation.


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