Shakespeare asked through Juliet’s voice, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” We take names somewhat lightly in our culture. Sometimes we apply names because they are in the family. Sometimes our names are chosen because we like the sound. My parents chose to give us five names from the Old Testament. Thus I am Joel.
I became especially interested in my name when a senior in high school. I knew that my name, Joel, meant “Yahweh is God,” a contraction of God’s Hebrew name and the generic “Elohim,” the Hebrew word for “God.” I used my first name until the end of my last high school year. It was during that year that I took an art class. I signed my first painting “Joel C.Andrews” and didn’t like how it looked. In a search for a more aesthetically pleasing signature, I played with my name and came up with J. Christian Andrews, Christian being my middle name. I liked it and decided that I would from then on use my middle name as my called name. I don’t know that it has been the best decision I’ve ever made, but it is how I’ve come to be called “Christian” instead of “Joel.”
The Hebrew culture has always been much more tuned in to the power of names. God changed Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, and Jacob to Israel because of the meaning of the names. God told Isaiah to name his children particular names that were in themselves messages from God to His people. God gave His own name to His people, confirming that Name to Moses at the burning bush when he told Moses to say, “I AM sent me.” So it was that God confirmed His name Yahweh, a derivative of the subject I and the verb am.
The man who led the Israelites into the Promised Land was named Joshua. He was a foreshadowing of another who would have the same name. It is how God tells stories. He created an historical event that would have deeper meaning as it foreshadowed a deeper reality. The crossing of the Jordan river to posses the Promised Land and the conquest of that land were real events, but they were also foreshadowing an event that would begin with a humble birth, a child born of a virgin, a child named by God both in the angel’s words to His mother Mary and in a dream to Mary’s betrothed Joseph. Were we to read His name in the Hebrew language, it would be the name we know as Joshua. As it has come to us in our tongue, is it the name Jesus.
It is not an ordinary name. The angel told Joseph to call his name Jesus “for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NASB). It is a name chosen specifically and deliberately because of it’s meaning. “Jesus” is a contraction of God’s Hebrew name and the Hebrew word for “saves.” So God, Yahweh, came to save His people from their sins.
Some thirty years after His birth, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the some one across which Joshua led God’s people into the promised land. Three years after His Jordan River water baptism, Jesus went to the cross, an event He himself called a baptism. It is the cross that then became that place where God meets us and we meet God. It is in baptism, not merely the washing in water but the washing of regeneration and the purification of the conscience, that we cross from death to life, that our old sinful nature is put to death even as Jesus died and a new nature rises to life even as Jesus was raised to life. It is our crossing the Jordan River into the promised land.
This week we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Nativity of our Lord. May we remember that is it not an ordinary birth but that it is a celebration of God becoming human flesh, a Babe born to die that we might have life, Jesus given to save His people from their sins.