What’s in a name?

Rev. Antony W. Ball

by Rev. Antony W. Ball

O Come, Emmanuel

Before I retired from teaching, I used occasionally to come across boys who assumed that ‘Jesus’ was his Christian name and ‘Christ’ his surname – those were the days, of course, when ‘Christian name’ was still synonymous with ‘forename’, as it was taken for granted that ‘everybody’ was Christian. “Those were the days” indeed!

In Matthew’s Gospel we read of the Angel Gabriel telling Joseph…

‘…She [Mary] will bear a son; and you shall give Him the name Jesus (Saviour),
for He will save His people from their sins’
All this happened in order to fulfil what the Lord declared through the prophet [Isaiah]:
‘The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel’,
a name which means ‘God is with us’.

Mt i 21-23, NEB

So we’ve already been given two different names for the same child – Jesus and Emmanuel1 – but it becomes clearer if we note that last phrase from that Gospel text: “a name which means means. In biblical times, names were usually supposed to mean something and a father might even change his son’s name to celebrate something the son had done2. Gabriel telling Joseph to name his son ‘Jesus’ (which means ‘Saviour’) was the angel’s sign that Jesus would indeed “save His people from their sins”. Similarly, when Isaiah prophesied that ‘he shall be called Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God is with us’’, this was something else Jesus would do – God would be with us because of Him.

Both of Jesus’ names remind us of what He does for us: ‘Jesus’ (Saviour) because He saves us from the consequences of our sinfulness and ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us) because that’s who He is.


1 There’s no mention of ‘Christ’ which is strictly a title rather than a name, being the English version of the Greek ‘Christos’, which itself is a translation of the Hebrew for ‘Messiah’.

2 Gideon’s father, Joash, for example, renamed his son ‘Jerubbaal’ (meaning ‘Let Baal contend against him’) after Gideon had broken down a local altar to the pagan god Baal. (Judges vi 31,32)

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