What’s in a Name?

. . .an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21)

If you’ve ever been to a carol service or nativity play, you have probably heard this passage from Mathew’s account of the Christmas story. Yet sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt”, and we can struggle to feel the impact and significance of  these truths because we’ve heard them so often. Or perhaps you’re reading this and you’re actually not that familiar with what it’s all about? You’ve heard it, but you don’t understand it.

Naming a child is a pretty important task – the name that they are given may be meaningful to the family, or it may say something about who the child might grow up to be, or it might communicate more about the parent who named them (Like the mother in Wales who was prevented from naming her child “Cyanide”!)

Joseph and Mary are instructed by God to name the baby “Jesus”, it’s not a decision that they make themselves. This name was important because it pointed to who this child would be and what he would do.

Rescue from Sin for All People

Jesus means “God saves”. But it’s more than that really, because in the Hebrew it’s not the generic word for a deity. God’s personal name “Yahweh” is used. This is a stunning act of powerful yet personal connection with human beings from the God who made the universe! But at this point its significance is still obscured. Who and what needs saving, and why? The angel says that they are to give him this name, because “he will save his people from their sins.”

Sin: An Unpopular Concept

There is a verse in the Bible which says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) I don’t have space to give a full biblical explanation of what sin is, but it combines objective moral failure with rebellion against God, whether through wilful opposition or a simple failure to acknowledge his existence or authority over us. This failure places us right in the crosshairs of God’s just judgement of all that is wrong.

Sin isn’t a popular concept in contemporary society. We don’t like the idea that we are accountable to standards outside our own choosing. And yet  we also like to think that there remains an objective standard of right and wrong in this world  by which child abusers and people traffickers will be judged. Yet the Bible presses us to acknowledge that not even “nice people” receive a passing grade! We don’t match up to God’s standards. We don’t love or worship him, and we don’t love others well.  Our good deeds are always outweighed by our sinful failures.We need the rescue that Jesus brings.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

And so the Christmas message is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. For Jesus, saving us would lead him to a cruel Roman crucifixion. His rescue of sinners would be a priceless gift, given freely and lovingly to the undeserving.

And for those who doubted that this salvation could be true, who thought that God was too distant, or this world too troubled, or their sin too bad, his name would be a constant reminder and commitment. Jesus: “The Lord Saves”. There is no greater gift than the rescue from sin that we are offered in Jesus Christ – and its attendant peace and restored relationship. Have you received it?

Wishing you a joyful Christmas