I was recently at a family gathering where two of us were named “Chad.” I’d hear my name from across the room, turn and look, only to discover they were calling for the other Chad. But it didn’t matter; I still had to look.

To know someone’s name is to have the key to their ear.

As Frederick Buechner writes, “When I tell someone my name, I have given him a hold over me that he didn’t have before. If he calls it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not” (Wishful Thinking).

There’s nothing magical about this, of course. Our names are just so bound up with our identity, with who we are, that they are mysteriously identical with our personhood. If I were George or Thomas or Ferdinand, I would feel like a completely different person.

Tomorrow will be eight days from the traditional date of Christ’s birth. Since circumcision happens on the eighth day, January 1 is when the church remembers that our Lord was circumcised and his name “officially” given. So today, December 31, some churches celebrate the Eve of the Name of Jesus.

Jesus Could Not Have Been Named Bartholomew

How was the name of the Messiah chosen? Certainly not from a book of Israel’s most popular Jewish boy names. Indeed, there was no choice in the matter at all. He could not have been named Judah, Simeon, or Bartholomew.

God made sure of it. Angelic messengers told both Joseph and Mary, on separate occasions, “You shall call his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31). And so they did: “At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).

When the angel tells Joseph what to name the child, he adds an explanation, “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). To understand that, we need to know a little Hebrew. But first, let’s cover the Greek and Latin and talk about the popularity of the name.

Hollering for the Wrong Jewish Jesus

I find it quite fascinating that Jesus received a very common Jewish name. Just like we have lots of men in our modern world named John and Steve and David, so in the first century, there were lots of fellows named Jesus.

The Epistle of Aristeas, for instance, which predates the New Testament by a couple of centuries, lists 72 translators of the Septuagint, three of whom were named “Jesus.” The first-century historian, Josephus, mentions twenty individuals with the name “Jesus,” ten of whom were contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth. And even in the New Testament itself, there are two or three others named “Jesus,” such as Paul’s helper (Col. 4:11).

So, if our Lord had been in a crowd of people and someone called out “Hey, Jesus!” there’s a chance they would have been hollering for another guy.

The Greek name of Jesus is Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous), which comes into Latin as Iesus. With biblical names, English commonly takes the “I” in Latin and makes it into a “J.” We thus go from Iēsous (Greek) to Iesus (Latin) to Jesus (English).

Yehoshua or Yeshua?

Now that may be interesting, but it’s no help in understanding why the angel said, “for he will save his people from their sins.” We need the Hebrew to answer that question.

The Messiah’s name in Greek is formed from its Hebrew counterpart. What is that Hebrew counterpart? Well, that depends on which part of the Old Testament you’re reading.

In the earlier books of the Bible, the Hebrew counterpart of “Jesus” would be יְהוֹשֻׁעַ or יְהוֹשׁוּעַ (Yehoshua), which we write as “Joshua.” But in later biblical books, such as Haggai and Zechariah, that older Hebrew name is shortened to יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua [sometimes written Y‘shua]).

This is an imperfect example, but it would be like earlier biblical books using the name “James” and later books using the name “Jim.”

If you follow the historical development of the name across the centuries, we thus get:

-early biblical Hebrew: Yehoshua
-later biblical Hebrew: Yeshua (or Y’shua)
-Greek: Iēsous
-Latin: Iesus
-English: Jesus

But what does the name mean?

Two Elements, One Name

The Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua) is a combination of two different words. The first part is what scholars call the “theophoric element,” which basically means the part of the name connected to God’s name. That would be “Yeho-,” a shortened form of the divine name, Yahweh. This “Yeho” (=Yahweh) is found at the beginning of other biblical names, such as Jehoshaphat and Jehoahaz.

What about the second part of the name? The latter half, “-shua,” is from the verb ישׁע (yasha), which means “save, deliver, rescue.”

Putting these two together, we get Yeho (=Yahweh) and Shua (=saves), that is, “the LORD saves.” That finally answers the question of why the angel added, “For he will save his people from their sins.”

Well, almost. We need to ask one more question.

That question is this: Why did he add “from their sins”? Why not just say, “Name him Jesus, for he will save his people”? Because very commonly in the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek verbs which mean “to save” have about the same meaning as when we say, “He saved that girl from drowning.” Such “saving” refers to physical rescue from threat or danger.

So the angel is specific: this child, Yehoshua or Yeshua or Jesus, will save his people from their sins. He was not born to save people from the Romans. He was not born to save people from all the various ills and sufferings of life. His specific mission is salvation from sin.

The Key to Christ’s Ear

That is very good news—indeed, the best of news—for us. We know the key to the ear of the God who came down, took on our flesh, and set about the lifelong task of saving us from our sins. He is not anonymous. We know his name.

When you call upon Jesus, when you say that name, he will hear, he will turn, he will look at you and listen. Jesus will become all ears. You have spoken his name.

We say: Jesus, forgive us.
He says: I already have. I do. I always will.

We say: Jesus, have mercy.
He says: I already have. I do. I always will.

We say: Jesus, hear our prayers for ourselves, our family, friends, and enemies.
He says: I already have. I do. I always will.

So we pray, “Lord God, heavenly Father, because you sent your only-begotten Son for our salvation and gave him the name of Jesus, grant that we may begin the New Year trusting in his saving name and live all our days in his service and praise to the glory of his holy name; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” (Lutheran Worship)