What if the weight fell to you to name the Christ child at his birth? Not only would the boy’s name precede him, and stay with him, wherever he went in life, and follow him all his days, and long after, but this child, of all children, as the angel said to Mary, would be the “Anointed One” — the Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek.
For centuries, the nation had awaited his advent, and for thousands of years to come, millions upon millions would not only speak but sing of this “name as above all names” and “the sweetest name I know.” This one name would come to surpass, throughout the world and throughout history, even the covenantal name of God revealed to Moses at the bush (Philippians 2:9–11; Hebrews 1:4).
How could any man, much less a craftsman from rural Galilee, stand beneath the weight of giving a name to this singular son?
Name Above All Names
Of course, God spared Joseph this burden. In both the announcement to Mary and in Joseph’s own dream, the angelic instructions were clear: name him Jesus.
“Salvation from sin was a bloody affair — because sin against God was no minor mistake.”
So here during the first week of Advent, which began this past weekend, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, we mark the giving of the name that is now the single most recognized name the world over and throughout time. But as we walk, in patient waiting, these three-plus weeks of Advent, and speak of this Jesus as the reason for the season and tell our children we celebrate the birth of Jesus, what is the meaning of this name Jesus?
God has not left that to our speculation. For starters, three clear truths ring out on the surface of the angelic announcements in Luke and Matthew. And Advent is perhaps the most wonderful time of the year to slow down and hear what God is saying to us in this one spectacular name Jesus we’re so prone to treat as common and take for granted.
1. Promise of Transcendent Greatness
The English Joshua and Jesus come from one Hebrew name: Yeshua. So Joshua is the name Mary would have heard when the angel first spoke it. “You shall call his name Yeshua” (Luke 1:31) — one of the great names in the history of God’s people.
The great Moses handed the reins to Joshua, of all men, and he led the people as they marched across the Jordan and around Jericho and throughout the land of milk and honey, claiming what God had promised. Joshua was uncontrovertibly great, one of the nation’s greatest figures alongside Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David.
That we are to hear greatness, in some form, in the name Jesus is confirmed immediately by the angel’s next words: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Looking back now, we see a fullness of meaning in “Son of the Most High” that Mary would not yet have seen. Yes, this child would come to show himself to be not only fully human but also fully God, not just a human “son” or a royal human son — like the nation’s great kings who ruled over God’s covenant people — but the divine Son. But that fuller meaning would become clearer over time.
So, in the name Yeshua we hear majestic significance — and not everyday greatness, but transcendent greatness. This child will not only ascend to the ranks of the esteemed in Israel, but he will rise to be “Son of the Most High” in a sense that few in the nation’s history could claim. He will indeed be great, surpassingly great.
2. Advent of the One Messiah
But not only will he be surpassingly great, but then comes the announcement that would seem even more surreal to Joseph and Mary: this child is the Messiah, the long-promised, long-anticipated “Anointed One.” He was coming to fulfill God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, concerning one who would not only sit on David’s throne but do so forever. He will not only be one of the great ones, but he will be singularly great — the one long-awaited heir to David’s throne.
The angel’s second explanation of Jesus would have been enough to send Mary to the ground with awe. “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
Not only will he be great like David, but this is the very descendant to which David himself looked (Acts 2:31). This is the Christ — not just anointed into God’s special service as the priests and kings of his people, but the Anointed One — the one anticipated by all anointing and priestly appointments and kingly coronations. The history of the very people of the very Creator of the universe was coming to its pinnacle. It was almost too good to be true: the age of Messiah was dawning, and not only would Mary live to see it, but she — of all women — would be his mother.
3. Foreshadowing of Unexpected Sacrifice
Yet the angel’s words in Joseph’s dream include this surprise: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Yeshua means Yahweh saves. That this unique child’s name would be Yahweh saves was understandable for Joseph. Of course, God’s people needed saving — from the Gentiles. From the Romans who ruled over them; from local puppets of Caesar, like Herod and Pilate.
Centuries before, the Babylonians had breached Jerusalem’s walls, destroyed the temple, and carted off the people to exile. Seventy years later, under Cyrus, waves of Jews began returning to their holy land, but the glory they had experienced under David and Solomon had not returned. In one sense, exile ended; in another, it endured. God’s people still pined for rescue. The Medes and Persians ruled over them. Then the Greeks. Now the Romans. Yet with the promise of Messiah arriving, surely political rescue would be just around the corner.
“It would be just like God to shine out with a Christmas all the clearer precisely in the darkest of Decembers.”
Then the bombshell: “he will save his people from their sins.” Not from the enemies, but from their sin. He will save them from themselves. Here at the first Christmas, we do not yet discover a full-orbed theology of Christ’s self-sacrifice and putting himself forward as the climatic offering for sin, but we might, in fact, find more than we presume at first pass. Under the terms of the first covenant, what did it take to be saved from one’s own sin? Sacrificial death. And so, the blood of lambs and bulls and goats flowed in ancient Israel.
Salvation from sin was a bloody affair — because sin against God was no minor mistake. It was high treason, the highest, against the highest. Soft as humans are prone to peddling their sin, God does not. And so, the Messiah came not simply to provide a different rescue than the nation expected, but to provide a far more important salvation. A lifetime under Roman oppression pales in comparison to an eternity on the wrong side of God’s omnipotent wrath.
Dark Days, Great Light
Of the three primary revelations we have in the name Jesus, this final one shines out the most brilliantly for us as his people. Jesus is indeed transcendently great. He is the one, singular figure long anticipated by king David and the prophets. And yet he is even more — exceedingly more — than they anticipated, more than they could ask or think.
Here, see him in a manger laid, this is Yahweh himself among us, to rescue us. This is Yahweh saving us not through sending a mere human vessel but through becoming human himself, in the person of his eternal divine Son, and going all the way to death, even death on a cross, to liberate us from exceedingly more than temporal, earthly oppression — from sin and Satan and death itself.
So this Advent, in a global pandemic — perhaps unlike any other Advent we’ve known, for those of us spared war and other tragedies — let’s ask God to renew our awe and wonder at what he was doing that first Christmas. It would be just like God to shine out with a Christmas all the clearer precisely in the darkest of Decembers.
And oh, the name of Jesus. There is so much glory to see here, in just his name, not to mention the other precious details of his birth. Perhaps God will be pleased in such dark days to make this an Advent like no other. God knows we need it.