The Significance of Our Savior’s Name
“Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save
His people from their sins.”— Matthew 1:21
As we celebrate anew at Christmas time the birth of our precious Savior, it behooves us to “ponder in our mind God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind” (TLH 84, 5). And, while we cannot treat in this brief article the entire doctrinal subject of soteriology — the doctrine of salvation — the title-text above summarizes in few words the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world on that first Christmas night, both in the name itself, which was first mentioned by the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:31) “before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21), and in the conjunction “for,” which in the Greek (as well as in English and most other languages) expresses purpose and answers the question “Why?” The name Jesus is, in fact, only one of many names given to our Savior and recorded in the Scriptures — actually, in point of time, the last name given to Him as He made His appearance on earth to undertake and to accomplish the work which, in eternity already, His Father had given Him to do (John 17:4). Jesus said, for example, in his discourse with Nicodemus in John chapter 3: “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (v. 17). Thus, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
“Great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifest in the flesh,” writes the Apostle Paul to Timothy (I Timothy 3:16). The incarnation of the Son of God is an unfathomable “mystery,” not only that God the Father would even do such a thing as to offer up His only-begotten Son to be the “propitiation” of the world’s sins (Romans 3:25; I John 2:2), the sacrifice of sufficient value to satisfy His justice and thus to make it possible for Him to “reconcil[e] the world unto Himself” (II Corinthians 5:19), but that He would manifest Him “in the flesh” and cause Him in His state of humiliation to assume our flesh and blood in all lowliness, to place Himself “under the Law” as our Substitute, to fulfill the Law’s requirements perfectly in the stead of all mankind, and to bear the guilt and punishment of the sins of the world in His own sinless soul and body as the Redeemer and Savior of men.
In the opening verses of John’s Gospel we read concerning this amazing mystery of the incarnation of “the Word,” the eternal Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. … And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14). We briefly summarize this Christmas mystery in the words of the Nicene Creed, as we confess: “[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds: God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
Before the eternal Son of the Father, “the Word” (John 1:1), effected the personal union in the fulness of time “by taking the manhood into God” in His incarnation (Athanasian Creed) by the power of the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:35), He was manifested to men throughout the Old Testament era by several Divine Names which identified Him not only according to His person but also according to His work, of which we would mention just a few. He is frequently called “the Angel of the Lord” — particularly when divine names, attributes and worship are ascribed to this special “Messenger” [“Angel,” mah-lach in Hebrew, meaning “messenger”]. Note, for example, how “the Angel of the Lord” appeared to Hagar in Genesis 16; “and she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, ‘Thou God seest me’…” (vv. 7-13).
—“The angel of the Lord” stopped Abraham from killing his son, Isaac, saying: “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:12). Also, in verses 15 and 16, the same “Angel of the Lord” identifies Himself as “the Lord.”
—“The Angel of the Lord” appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2) and identified Himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (v. 6), the “I am” (v. 14), Jehovah.
—And one last example: In Psalm 34:7, “the Angel of the Lord” is said to deliver them that “fear Him,” such fear not to be rendered to mere created angels (Revelation 19:10) but to God only (Matthew 4:10).
— He is also called “the Messenger [or angel, mah-lach] of the Covenant” (Malachi 3:1), “the Lord” whom His people sought by faith in the Gospel-covenant promises of the Messiah to come, who would “suddenly come to His temple,” according to His prophetic office to manifest Himself as the Redeemer and Savior of the world, and according to His priestly office to make good on that covenant by doing what was necessary to be the Redeemer and Savior of the world.
And finally, there are many other Divine Names ascribed to the Son of God, the promised Savior, in the Old Testament Scriptures: The “Redeemer” (Job 19:25), the “Holy One of Israel,” “Redeemer” and “Savior” (Isaiah 41:14; 43:1-3; 11, among still other locations); the “Lamb [led] to the slaughter” and “My righteous Servant” (Isaiah 53); “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) — “God with us” (Matthew 1:23); the “Righteous Branch” out of David’s lineage and “a King” (Jeremiah 23:5); “the Lord, our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6); God’s “Anointed” [Messiah] (Psalm 45:7; cf. Acts 10:38 and Hebrews 1:9; Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18; and Acts 4:27); and all those wonderful names ascribed to Him in that beloved Christmas prophecy, Isaiah 9:6 — “Wonderful,” “Counselor,” “the mighty God,” “the everlasting Father,” and “the Prince of Peace” (cf. “Shiloh” in Genesis 49:10).
But the name given to Him by God to exalt Him for His work as the SAVIOR of the world (“Wherefore — for which reasons — God also hath highly exalted Him…”), the “name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9-10), is “Jesus,” the name announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel “before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21), the name by which she was to call Him (Luke 1:31), the name by which also Joseph was to call Him according to our title-text (Matthew 1:21), the name officially given to Him on the day of His circumcision (Luke 2:21), the name by which He was known throughout His public ministry (Luke 17:13), and the name under which He was crucified as a malefactor among malefactors (John 19:18-19). This name was commonly “given among men” (Acts 4:12) in those days — and is still commonly given to babies today, particularly among Latin American peoples. Jesus, pronounced [yay-zoos] in Greek, and [hay-zoos] in Spanish, means “rescuer,” “deliverer,” “savior.”
Jesus is the New Testament Greek equivalent of the very popular Hebrew name among the Jews then and now, Joshua (or Yeshua), meaning “Jehovah is salvation.” The reader will no doubt remember from Old Testament Bible history that “Joshua, the son of Nun” (Exodus 33:11), a faithful, Godfearing young man who served Moses in the wilderness as an assistant (Numbers 11:28), was one of the twelve spies sent by God’s command to investigate the Promised Land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1ff.). And he was one of only two spies who brought back a favorable report, who stood together confident of God’s promises, and who urged the people to go into the land and possess it. The other was “Caleb, the son of Jephunneh” (Numbers 13:6; 14:24, 30.) It was when the people rebelled against Moses and Aaron and blasphemed the Lord, accusing Him of treachery and deceit and malevolence in bringing them out into the wilderness to die, that the Lord extended the time of their wandering by forty years (Numbers chapter 14) — when they could have possessed the land immediately, had they only trusted God’s promises. As it turned out according to the Lord’s declaration, only Caleb and Joshua, of all the adults that left Egypt in the Exodus, were permitted to enter the Promised Land at the conclusion of the forty years. Even Moses and Aaron died before the conquest of Canaan.
The point of this historical digression is to show the remarkable connection not only between the names Joshua and Jesus — both meaning “Jehovah is Salvation, the Deliverer, the Savior” — but also between the calling and work of Joshua and Jesus as “deliverers” or “saviors” of God’s people. The names are virtually the same, as noted above; and this is strikingly apparent in the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 8, where the holy writer states concerning Joshua, who led God’s people into the peaceful rest of the Promised Land of Canaan: “If Jesus [i.e. Joshua, the son of Nun] had given them rest [real, lasting and permanent rest for their souls], then would he not afterward have spoken of another day,” the day of everlasting peace and rest for all true believers in the heavenly Promised Land, into which Jesus Christ (Jesus, the Messiah) has already entered as our “Forerunner” (Hebrews 6:18-20).
Joshua “saved” his people, the temporal Israel, the seed of Abraham according to the flesh (cf. Romans 9:3), “the children of the flesh” (Romans 9:8) — believers and unbelievers alike — from their trials, tribulations, and seemingly endless wanderings in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula [the Wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:1; 17:1); the Wilderness of Paran (Numbers 12:16; 13:3, 26), and the Wilderness of Zin (Numbers 13:21; 20:1; 27:14)] by “delivering” them safe and sound across the Jordan River into the Promised Land of Canaan. Joshua’s mission was primarily a temporal mission, and, at that, also a temporary mission; for the Children of Israel were not to have the Land of Canaan as their permanent possession. [Note that the expression “forever” in connection with the physical possession of Palestine by Israel as their heritage (cf. Exodus 32:13; II Chronicles 20:7) is also properly translated “for a long time.” Not only were the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom disinherited of the land in the Assyrian Captivity, so that no trace of them thenceforth was ever found, not even by the most skilled anthropologists; but the very “scepter” (the self-governance) also “depart[ed] from Judah” (Genesis 49:10) in the course of time, and Palestine became the colonial spoil of one heathen government after another; and it is still today a fractured land, much smaller than it once was and politically divided, only claimed but never wholly established as the undisputed heritage of ANY one people.
“Jesus,” said the angel to Joseph, would “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, our title-text). “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). —As noted above, the names Joshua and Yeshua (Jesus) mean “Jehovah is salvation.” Gabriel said to Mary: “That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35; cf. vv. 32-33). The angel said to the shepherds of Bethlehem: “Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ [the Messiah], the Lord [Jehovah Himself]!” (Luke 2:11). “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same, that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them [all sinful mankind] who, through fear of death [“the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23)], were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15) — bondage to sin, death, and Satan. “Jehovah,” in the person of Jesus Christ, “is salvation.” “For He shall save His people from their sins.”
Jesus’ mission, unlike that of Joshua, was a spiritual mission, and, at that, also an effective and permanent mission of delivering “His people from their sins” and from everlasting death into “everlasting (eternal) life” (John 3:16; 10:28) in the promised land of heaven. According to Scripture, however, we properly distinguish two specific uses of the word “save” with respect to Christ’s work as our “Savior.” — God, in the fulness of time, sent His Son “to redeem them that were under the Law” (Galatians 4:5), the “guilty world” of unrighteous, ungodly people (Romans 3:19) — the “all” for whom Christ “died” (II Corinthians 5:15), for whom He rendered to God His propitiatory vicarious atonement (I John 2:2; Romans 3:25) in His active (Romans 5:18-19) and passive (I Peter 2:24a; cf. Isaiah 53) obedience, “that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). Christ’s work of universal redemption was therefore the basis of God’s universal or objective justification of the world, who “in Christ” reconciled “the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). That gracious, forensic act and declaration of forgiveness and justification of “the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) by God was made possible because Christ perfectly satisfied the demands of God’s justice, fulfilling the Law as man’s substitute — both its requirement of perfect righteousness and holiness (Leviticus 19:2, etc.) and its punishment of death as “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23a). In that sense “He is the Savior of ALL men,” as St. Paul writes to Timothy (I Timothy 4:10a), even though the vast majority of mankind would not be saved but would be lost eternally (Matthew 7:13; Romans 9:27, 11:5; etc.).
Contrary to the false teaching of the Calvinists in particular, “[God] will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). That is His primary will, who “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). Therefore God manifested or made known “the truth” of His salvation to all the world (Romans 10:18) in “the Word of Reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19), in “the Gospel” (Mark 16:15; Romans 1:16; 10:16), in the “good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10).
Indeed, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching [that Gospel] to save them that believe” (I Corinthians 1:21), having ordained that His “gift” (Ephesians 2:8) of salvation, the evidence of His love for sinful man (John 3:16; I John 4:9), purchased and won for all men by Christ (II Corinthians 2:21; Romans 4:25; I Peter 1:18-19; 2:24; Hebrews 2:14-15; etc., etc.), be accepted and received by faith (Mark 1:15; 16:16; John 3:16, 18, 36; 6:40, 47; Acts 10:43; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28; 5:1; etc., etc.) — faith worked in the heart by the Holy Ghost through the power of the Gospel.
Therefore Paul, writing to Timothy, calls Jesus BOTH “the Savior of all men,” in that He redeemed all men to God as their “Propitiation” (I John 2:2) and became the efficient cause of their reconciliation and objective justification by God (II Corinthians 5:19; Romans 3:23-24), AND “specially of those that believe” (I Timothy 4:10) since only believers “receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43), “have peace with God” (Romans 5:1), are personally “justified” (Romans 3:28), are regarded as “righteous” by God (Romans 4:5), and “have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Sadly and tragically, “they have not all obeyed the Gospel” (Romans 10:16), both the Apostle Paul and Isaiah lament concerning those who have heard but have rejected the Word of the Gospel in unbelief. Therefore, despite the fact that God “gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16), “not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (v. 17); despite the fact that Christ by His vicarious atonement became the “Propitiation” not for our sins only, but “also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2), having “died for all” (II Corinthians 5:15) and having thus “bought (redeemed)” even those who “deny” Him in unbelief “and [who therefore] bring upon themselves swift destruction” (II Peter 2:1); despite the fact that, on the basis of Christ’s perfect satisfaction of divine justice as “the Savior of all men” (I Timothy 4:10), God reconciled “the world” unto Himself, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19); and despite the fact that “[God] will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge [the saving knowledge, including belief] of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4); “they have not all obeyed the Gospel” (Romans 10:16). And the Bible expressly says of them: “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (v. 18), in the name of Jesus, “the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe” (I Timothy 4:10).
Similarly, of the Children of Israel, to whom the Promised Land was given, and to whom the gift and promise were preached, many did “not enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19; 4:6). In unbelief they rejected the gift — the good and earnest, promised inheritance — and forfeited their receipt and possession of the temporal Promised Land of Canaan which God fully intended them to have, the “exceeding good land” (Numbers 14:7) into which they could have entered immediately and possessed it, had they believed the good tidings of Caleb and Joshua and trusted God’s promised protection in their conquest of it. Instead they had to wander for forty additional years in the wilderness until all, save Caleb and Joshua, had died.
The words of our title-text, “He shall save His people from their sins,” do not champion the “particular redemption” only of the elect that the Calvinists teach, nor do they deny the “universal redemption” that the Bible teaches (as set forth above). They do, however, express the final effect of Christ’s redemptive work and of the faith in that work that God Himself requires for final salvation, as Jesus told the Jews: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him, whom He hath sent” (John 6:29). “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and He that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). In that very special sense, then, Christ is “the Savior…specially of those that believe” in that He brings only believers into the mansions of heaven, only those who are “the righteous” (Matthew 25:37; 46b) “by faith” (Romans 3:22; 4:5b, 13; 9:30b; 10:6-11), only those who ”endure [in faith] unto the end” (Mark 13:13b). In that very special sense, “He shall save His people from their sins.” St. Paul reminds us in Romans chapter nine: “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (v.6); …“but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (v. 8). Only true believers are the true Israel, Christ’s true “people.” “Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved’” (Romans 9:27). “[We] are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26), St. Paul writes concerning believers and their special relationship to God; and in Psalm 95, we hear of that same relationship by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, namely, that we, who by faith “make a joyful noise unto the Rock of our salvation…with thanksgiving” (vv. 1-2; cf. I Corinthians 10:4), are “the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand” (v.7). Jesus said: “My sheep hear My voice; and I know them; and they follow Me; and I give unto them eternal life. And they shall never perish, neither shall any man [Greek: anyone] pluck them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).
Indeed, what a wonderful “Jesus” we have manifested “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed) in the Christmas “[Gospel-] tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10), namely, the “Savior, Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11), whom, in the Holy Scriptures, we “trace” as “the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss, from His poor manger to His bitter cross” (TLH 84, 5). For, by virtue of His perfect, vicarious active and passive obedience, “He is the Propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). By the operation of God’s Holy Spirit through the power of that precious Gospel, let us ever hold fast in faith to this best of all Christmas gifts even unto the end, “His unspeakable Gift” (II Corinthians 9:15), Jesus, “the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe” (I Timothy 4:10). “For there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in the believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
and drives away his fear.
Jesus, my Shepherd, Guardian, Friend,
my Prophet, Priest and King,
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
accept the praise I bring.
(TLH 364, 1 and 5)
— D. T. M.