What's in a Name?

What’s in a name? Shakespeare wrote:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’Twas mine; ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed. (Othello Act 3, scene 3, 155–161)

That’s true, isn’t it? Our names sometimes say so much about us. This was particularly true in previous centuries. Just ask Charles the Simple, Son of Louis the Stammerer, so called for his policy of making concessions to the Norse invaders rather than fighting. Louis the Sluggard was aptly named for his self-indulgence, when he ruled from 986 to 987 over the Franks. Or consider Ethelred the unready (968-1016) so called because of his inability to repel the Danish invasion of England. At first he paid tribute to the Danes, but their raids continued and he was forced to abandon England for Normandy in 1013. Actually his name is a pun in the old English: Nobel Council (Ethelred), no council. We might say Ethelred the ill-advised.

But even as we approach modern times, a good name is still something to be guarded. According to one source:

After the American Civil War the managers of the infamous Louisiana Lottery approached Robert E. Lee and asked if he’d let them use his name in their scheme. They promised that if he did he would become rich. Astounded, Lee straightened up, buttoned his gray coat, and shouted, “Gentlemen, I lost my home in the war. I lost my fortune in the war. I lost everything except my name. My name is not for sale, and if you fellows don’t get out of here, I’ll break this crutch over your heads!”

The association of names with character continues even to this day. During his administration, the press coined a new term for an argument that is designed to be painfully accurate while at the same time intended to mislead and hide the truth. They called it a “Clintonism.”

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, everything. In fact, Matt 1:21 tells us the meaning of his name. "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." He will save his people—this is the promise. But the question begs to be asked, save us from what? In other words, why is the appearance of a Savior such good news? 

The anthropologist S. H. Kellogg provides some insight when he states that all people are naturally religious, that is that there is no such thing as a natural atheist, and that each religion shares four common doctrines. 

  1. All assume the existence of a Higher Power or Powers.
  2. All assume that this Higher Power or Powers makes demands on their life.
  3. All assume that between the individual and this Higher Power or Powers something is wrong.
  4. All assume that there is a state of existence after death that is affected by the actions taken by a person in this life.

Kellogg asserts that defining man as a “rational animal” is not sufficiently narrow since some of the higher animals exhibit

not merely the operation of instinct, but also a process of true reasoning. But no one has ventured soberly to maintain that some animals are also religious. To speak of the religion of a monkey, a dog, or a horse, were only to excite a smile.

I maintain that Kellogg is undoubtedly right. I am convinced that each and every person alive knows that God is there. If they are honest, particularly when they are alone and quiet—as they lie on their beds at night after the party is over— all people know not only is there a God, but that he makes demands on our lives. But what I find interesting is the third principle—that all people know instinctively that something between themselves and God is not what it should be. The Bible calls this “something” sin.

This sin isn’t merely superficial wrong, but pervades every area of our life from the moment of conception to the moment of death. The psalmist says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Ps. 51:5) God says, “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:6)

I know this is true, not only by the testimony of the Bible, but by merely examining my own life. No one had to teach me to lie. I didn’t have to go to school to steal or hate. These things just sprung up in side me. In fact, Jesus states

from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:21-23)

The Old Testament agrees. The prophet Jeremiah states that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jer 17:9) Notice that Jeremiah doesn’t say anything about the life. Your life might be just fine when compared to other people. But the real issue is the heart. My heart and your heart is deceitful above everything else.  

That means that our heart lies to us on every occasion. It says that sin really isn’t that bad, that it’s okay this time, that you have rights, after all. Yet these are all lies! Our hearts are desperately wicked, not occasionally naughty, not slightly mischievous, but desperately wicked!

The prophet Isaiah continues the indictment: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 5:6) Notice that he doesn’t say that we have all become bank robbers. Nor does it mention rapists, thieves, murderers, liars, drug addicts, or prostitutes. What Isaiah says is simply that we have all turned from following God to doing our own thing. This is the real essence of sin!

And the Bible is clear this condition doesn’t merely affect some of us. We can claim no special immunity based upon our race or wealth or social status. Solomon states, "Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins." (Eccl 7:20)

The real tragedy of our desperate situation is that we cannot change. Jeremiah again describes the human condition:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can do good Who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jer 13:23)

You know this is true. If you're like most people, you’ve tried to change. You’ve made promises and resolutions, you’ve read books and gone to clinics, you’ve swore to yourself that you would change, but you can’t. The Bible says that if we could sooner change the color of our skin merely by willing it than to take away the sin that dwells inside each of us.

Knowing all this to be true, we must ask with Job, “How, then, can a man be just before God?"

The Good News is that a provision has been made, but like any gift, it must be accepted. Because Jesus died, he can offer to us forgiveness. Again, the words of Isaiah are instructive:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:6) 

That’s what is meant when the angel promised that he would save his people from their sins. Since we can’t save ourselves, God became man in the person of Jesus Christ and took the penalty that we so deserve and paid it himself when he died on the cross. God took him who had no sin of his own and placed the sin of the whole world on him. And then judged it there. Not only the burden of guilt that you carry around, but the sin of the whole world. He became the Savior for the whole world.

You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

It’s been said that if our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior. 

In the year 1809, the international scene was in turmoil. Napoleon was sweeping through Austria; blood was flowing in the streets. No one considered babies significant to the world around them. But the world was overlooking some terribly significant births. 

For example, William Gladstone was born that year. He was destined to become one of England’s finest statesman. That same year, Alfred Tennyson was born to an obscure minister and his wife. He would affect the world of literature in a profound way. On the American continent, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not far away in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe began his eventful, albeit tragic, life. 

It was also in that same year that a physician named Darwin and his wife named their child Charles Robert. And that same year produced the cries of a newborn infant in a rugged log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. The baby’s name? Abraham Lincoln. 

If there had been news broadcasts at that time, I’m certain these words would have been heard: “The destiny of the world is being shaped on an Austrian battlefield today.” But history was actually being shaped in the cradles of England and America. Similarly, when Jesus was born, everyone thought taxation was the big news. But a young Jewish woman cradled in her arms the baby that would change the world like no one else. She held a Savior.  

And so today, while the headlines tell of the latest wars, scandals, political movements, and social trends, the greatest most important news that you can hear is that there has been born a Savior.

And that's why Jesus was given his name. Not because of the wish of his earthly parents, not merely because there was once some relative that they wished to honor. No, his name was given because of his purpose—he would save people from their sins.

And not only his people, but all those who would believe. 

So what's in a name? Salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin. 

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)