Over the past 2000 years, more people on planet earth have known the name of Jesus than any other name. Since 33 AD, over 8 billion people, by one estimate, have claimed to be followers of this Jesus—or Jésus or Isus or whatever the Christ is called in your language. Billions more have heard of his name. Presently, the name of Jesus can be found in over 6000 languages and more are being added every year.
On the one hand, it’s strange that this single name has dominated the last 2000 years of world history, especially Western history. For most of us, Jesus has a sacred ring to it; it sounds holy and divine. But this wasn’t the case when Mary and Joseph followed the angel’s instructions and gave their baby his name. Granted, it had a special meaning, but it was not an unusual name. The first century Jewish historian Josephus mentions at least twelve different people he knew with the name Jesus, including four High Priests. In Acts 9 we read of the Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus. In Colossians 4, Paul mentions one of his fellow workers, Jesus, called Justus. And some ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Matthew call the robber released by Pilate, Jesus Barabbas, which can be translated, ironically enough, “Jesus Son of the Father.”
Jesus was a common name, like Jim or John or Jerry. When Mary and Joseph called their son Jesus, there were no prayers in his name. No one used it as a swear word. No one sang songs about this name, just like there is no religion I am aware of that sings songs to Jim (except that he’s not to be messed around with). We don’t name our sons John with the expectation that over the next 2000 years 8 billion people will pray in his name. We don’t croon, “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, there’s just something about that name!”
But common as it was, Jesus was “Jesus” by design. In Greek it is Iesous, in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Yesu. Both are derived from the Hebrew, the name is Yeshua or Joshua. Joshua is made up of two parts: Ya which is short for Yahweh, and hoshea which means salvation. Hence, Mary and Joseph give their little baby the name Jesus, “Yahweh is salvation.”
Which he was. And is. Through Christ alone. Ever since the first Christmas, Jesus has been more than just a name. It’s been our only comfort in life and in death, our only hope in a hopeless world. When you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, you may life in his name (John 20:31). There is, in fact, no other name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved (Acts 4:12). So naturally, whatever we do, in word or deed, we ought to do in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). For God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11-12).
But let’s be clear: the name of Jesus is not a magic wand. Chanting it does not give one special powers. The power in the name is the person behind the name. In the Old Testament, names meant something. They were more than badges of identification. They often told others who you were and what purpose God had for your life. So Adam was the first man. Eve was the mother of all living things. Abraham was the father of many nations. Benjamin was the son of his father’s right hand. Moses was drawn out of the water. Peter was the rock. Barnabas was the son of encouragement.
And what about Jesus?
“And you shall call his name Jesus,” the angel told Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). More than a great teacher, more than an enlightened man, more than a worker of miracles, more than giving us meaning in life, more than a self-help guru, more than a self-esteem builder, more a political liberator, more than a caring friend, more than a transformer of cultures, more than a purpose for the purposeless, Jesus is a Savior of sinners.
“The name of Jesus charms our fears and bids our sorrows cease; tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life and health and peace.” That’ll sing. “All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all.” That’ll work too.
I guess there really is just something about that name.
No, not just something: make that everything.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Tabletalk.