The Power of Names and the Birth of Christ
For image bearers, names are not just blobs of letters, but a way of affirming identity, value, and history. Words mean something.
John StonestreetKasey Leander
A powerful, surprising, yet subtle theme throughout the Gospels, especially in the birth narratives, is the power of names. Over the last several decades, philosophers and social scientists have proposed that identity is fluid and words are no longer a stable way of knowing reality. Thus, in modern culture, words are thought to mask or construct reality rather than reveal it; truth is considered unknowable; and identity is reduced to a project of self-creation.
Names, then, are considered purely practical or decorative things. That’s why, although it’s difficult to track, some evidence suggests that more people are changing their names than ever before.
The power to name and be named is, in Scripture, uniquely granted to image bearers. Scripture is full of examples of naming children, family members, friends, lovers, enemies, and the self. Adam names Eve; Moses names Joshua; Nebuchadnezzar’s chief of the eunuchs names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In the depths of her grief, Naomi re-names herself “Mara.” Humans also name cities, stuff, and animals.
Today, we approach language, particularly names and pronouns, with the assumption that we, and we alone, have a right to define our own reality. This ignores how much of the world is given to us, including the relationships into which we are born and that make up much of who we will become. Identity, in other words, is not “constructed.” It is, at least to a significant degree, received. For the vast majority of people, a name is the second gift their parents will ever give them, second only to life itself.
Contemporary Rabbi Benjamin Blech describes the importance of naming this way: “The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Your name is the key to your soul.”
For image bearers, names are not just blobs of letters, but a way of affirming identity, value, and history. Words mean something. This is ultimately because God spoke creation into existence. His Words made reality happen. “Let there be …,” He said and, as Rabbi Blech points out, that first sentence ends with the first name ever given: “light.”
Matthew’s telling of the birth of Christ includes unique details about Joseph.
Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying,
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Note that the coming Messiah was announced using three names. Like His adopted father Joseph, He is a Son of David. Jesus is not an abstraction, but fully human, also connected with the good, the bad, and even the ugly aspects of Israel’s history. He is a descendant of both the prostitute Rahab and the faithful daughter-in-law Ruth, of the wicked King Ahaz and the shepherd boy after God’s own heart, David. He is the shoot that springs from the stump of Jesse, and the rightful heir to David’s throne.
He is Jesus, or in Hebrew Yeshua, which means “the Lord is salvation.” In other words, here the world first heard the name at which every knee will one day bow, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” and which every tongue will confess to the Lord. It is the name confessed by countless martyrs and the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved.
He is also revealed by the name “Immanuel,” God with us. He embodied, and will one day finally fulfill, God’s consistent, loving trajectory toward His people that is revealed throughout Holy Scripture. He is with us.
At Advent, we remember how Jesus stepped into this world and all that act implies. Though present from the foundation of the earth and having named so much of what was created, He, like us, was named. And we know so much about who He is because of the names He was given.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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