This is the seventh and final article in my 2017 Christmas series, ‘The Christmas Names of Jesus‘, in which I spent the last few weeks before Christmas looking at the various names for Jesus we find in the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, and the prophecies of Isaiah.
When we started this short series it only ever had one destination – Jesus. Christmas is maybe the single time of the year when Jesus’ name is used more to refer to His birth and saving work than it is an expletive. In many arenas and parts of the world the name has lost some of its lustre in recent centuries, and doesn’t necessarily spark the mind in the way it once did.
This is devastating, because even in Christian circles the name Jesus can simply refer to a person who lived a good life, or to the Son of God who came to save us. These are not as bad as using it only as a swear word, but when God named His Son He had very specific purposes in mind. And while both Matthew and Luke recount an angel speaking to Jesus’ parents and giving them His birth name, it is in Matthew 1:21 that we learn the most about our Saviour’s name.
A Purposeful Lineage
Sometimes, teachers and writers such as myself can get bogged down in technical details or historical minutia that interests nobody and instructs nothing. But there are times when the technical details and the historical minutia teaches us or reveals something important.
Such is the case with the lineage of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ earthly parents.
Joseph may have been a carpenter, but he came from a long line that could trace its way directly back to King David – to whom God promised that the Messiah would be of his descendants. But Joseph wasn’t the biological father of Jesus – which would throw a wrench in this prophecy.
God, however, knew how He would fulfill His word to King David. When the angel appeared to King David’s descendant, Joseph, he said of the child “you are to name Him Jesus”. This might sound innocuous, but as Leon Morris explains, “By giving the name Joseph officially accepted the children … this gave the child the status of a descendant of David.” Joseph may not have been Jesus’ biological father, but by naming the child he came Jesus’ legal father.
As a quick aside, the observant and detail-oriented readers will have noticed differences between the genealogies presented in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. This is not an example of contradiction (as some may suggest) but a testament to the importance of both parents. Matthew’s genealogy leads to Joseph, but Luke’s genealogy is of Mary (both diverging at King David, one line through Solomon, the other through Nathan).
A Name with History
Born through the holy line of King David, this child is to be given the name Jesus. I’ve always been particularly fond of this, because the name “is the Greek form of ‘Joshua’”. Given that we are writing and reading in the 21st Century in English, we can lose some of this in translation. The Hebrew name would have been either Yehoshua or Yeshua, which we have translated as Joshua but which the Greeks translated Jesus.
The name means, variously, Yahweh is salvation, Yahweh saves, or according to the NIV margin note, the Lord saves. The angel gives this name immediate context, but before we look at that we should remember that the name was a pretty common name for Hebrew boys.
Whether or not the name was as popular beforehand, the name ‘Joshua’ certainly received its first big heroic namesake with Moses’ successor, the son of Nun, who lead the Israelites from their desert wandering and into the Promised Land. Joshua, quite literally, represented an instance when God saved His people.
A Name with Meaning
It’s important to realise, however, that even though the name Jesus would likely have been popular at the time of Jesus’ birth, the angel said to Joseph:
“She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21
The child to be born would not just remember the fact that God saves or hope that God will save – as was the case for hundreds of years – but this child would embody the ultimate fulfilment that God saves. Further, it would not be a political salvation, or a military salvation that this child would bring – breaking with the common understanding of the Messiah – but this child would “save His people from their sins.”
More than just a new definition of the Messiah, though, the angel’s words allude to Psalm 130:8; “And He will redeem Israel from all its sins.” “Isn’t that interesting?” opines Michael Green. “God promises that he will provide a rescue from sin; and, centuries later, Jesus comes to do it. This is one of many occasions where what is predicated of God in the Old Testament is applied quite naturally and unambiguously to Jesus in the New.”
A Meaning with a Name
The Old Testament is littered with prophecies and heralds of Jesus’ coming and the role He would play in saving God’s people – all of them, not just the Israelites. The Old Testament is a veritable minefield of Messianic prophecy, so much so that those looking to avoid Jesus must tread very carefully indeed. It would be like walking through a minefield blindfolded.
God promise salvation for His people from the very moment that humanity sinned. All the way back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree – tempted to do so by a serpent used by Satan to entrap humanity into sin – God levels this doom on the serpent/Satan:
“I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.” –Genesis 3:15
The “seed” God refers to is Jesus Christ, who even though Satan struck at His heel and had him crucified upon a cross, Jesus struck a killing blow on Satan’s head when He was raised from the dead, breaking Satan’s hold on humanity once and fall.
All names have meanings, but not all meanings have names. Each time God promised humanity’s salvation the meaning of His promise grew and became more solid, gained greater form and specificity. Thousands of years after God first uttered His promise to save humanity from their sin, after the meaning of His promise had become more obvious, it finally gained a name – Jesus. Many people still misread the prophecy and God’s promise, thinking that the Messiah would come to wreak terrible vengeance on whichever world power was currently oppressing the Jews. But in the end, as had always been promised, Jesus came to “save His people from their sins.”
Jesus didn’t come to save a nation from human bondage, but to save a race from sin’s captivity.
 The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, p. 29
 For a full treatment of this, I reference ‘Man’s Ruin, Donald Grey Barnhouse, vol. 1 of Expositions of Bible Doctrines, p. 45-47’ quoted in ‘The Christ of Christmas, James Montgomery Boice, p. 64-66’
 Matthew, D.A. Carson, p. 101 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary vol. 9)
 The Message of Matthew, Michael Green, p. 60 (The Bible Speaks Today)